Undefeated in singles competition since arriving at AEW in September, Bryan Danielson has reaffirmed his standing as his generation’s most gifted in-ring performer by putting on a series of engrossing clinics. Though presented as a babyface from the moment he debuted, the “American Dragon” had been exhibiting a slightly menacing edge during his bouts, wrestling with a cocky self-assuredness while almost relishing the agony his opponents endured in defeat.
With a shot at “Hangman” Adam Page’s AEW World Championship on the horizon, Danielson finally veered towards the dark side during their first encounter to kickstart their feud. He played the smug jerk to perfection, targeting the anxious millennial cowboy’s insecurities by claiming that he wasn’t on Omega’s level before goading him into a pull-apart brawl. He would then cap off his effortless heel turn by decimating each member of Hangman’s close friends, the Dark Order, in their respective hometowns en route to his eventual title match. Danielson’s no stranger to being the bad guy, having heeled it up in various promotions throughout his illustrious career. However, his confrontation with Page showed a side we haven’t seen since his magnum opus in the WWE, where he immersed himself into a truly unique gimmick that got us booing someone for rallying behind causes worth believing in.
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Let’s take it back to 2018, when it was clear that the WWE’s handling of Danielson’s comeback was poorly executed. Watching the then-Daniel Bryan get cleared to compete again after his forced retirement two years prior, only to be put in underwhelming programs with Kane and the Miz, was like seeing your favourite band meander through their greatest hits catalog at an overpriced nostalgia gig. Fan interest in the Daniel Bryan Comeback Tour was dwindling fast, evidenced by the lowering volume of the “Yes!” chants that once rocked arenas across the world. Bryan was still the crowd’s sweetheart, but the “Yes Movement” wasn’t as enamoured anymore. For someone of his stature, something had to change.
A New Daniel Bryan
On November 13th, 2018, Bryan kicked AJ Styles in the balls before pinning him to win his fourth WWE Championship. When rewatching the aftermath, it was obvious that a WWE audience who grew accustomed to rooting for their beloved initially didn’t know how to react. He had just recaptured the title he was forced to relinquish years prior, yet he blatantly cheated in order to regain it. Confusion quickly turned into anger once Bryan’s devilish grin was plastered all over the Titantron and our TV screens. Instead of celebrating, he held a fallen Styles’ arms up then repeatedly stomped down on his defenceless face as Smackdown went off the air to a chorus of jeers. With Survivor Series looming, fans still salivated at the prospect of supporting him in a dream match against Brock Lesnar, as Bryan’s moral alignment would never be a factor against the “Beast Incarnate”. Even after Brock got booted in the nuts, Bryan was heavily cheered in a losing effort.
Any lingering questions about the legitimacy of his heel turn, his first since he portrayed AJ Lee’s manipulative boyfriend in early 2012, were swept away on the following SmackDown. Sporting muted colours, an ornery attitude, and a chip on his shoulder, he masterfully flipped his comeback mantra of “fighting for your dreams” around as justification for turning his back on the people. It was his dreams that told him to become WWE Champion again by any means necessary. It was his dreams that allowed Brock Lesnar to beat the weakness out of him during their Survivor Series clash. It was his dreams that convinced him to renounce the goodwill generated pre-and-post-retirement in order to get back to where he belonged. He rose from the hyperbaric chamber that aided his recovery and was reborn as the “New” Daniel Bryan, effectively killing off the Yes Movement by proclaiming that the plucky hero who everyone knew and loved was “dead”.
The months that followed his shocking WWE Championship victory saw him transition into a militant environmentalist hell-bent on using his platform for drastic change. Dubbing himself the “Planet’s Champion”, he would lambast audiences who once adored him for drinking from plastic materials and eating factory-farmed meats. He chastised them for their indulgent spending habits, even refusing to wear his own merch. He quoted Alexander Hamilton and William Gaddis at them in supercilious tones. He repeatedly called them “fickle” and implored them to “count the sins” they committed for consuming and polluting on the daily.
The Planet’s Champion
As wrestling fans, we’ve been conditioned to believe that the best gimmicks are the performers’ real personalities ramped up to eleven. Even better if their reasons for breaking bad stem from pretty reasonable logic, a category that the vegan Bryan firmly belongs in. It’s no secret that Bryan is a keen conservationist who propagates and adheres to a minimalist lifestyle. His wrestling persona was that of an insufferable prick who needed a good beating, but you also couldn’t help agreeing with his incessant tirades against our inherent consumerism and proclivity for processed foods.
Bryan’s holier-than-thou eco-preaching wasn’t just limited to the fans either. He assaulted Mustafa Ali for the heinous crime of owning an SUV. Backstage interviewers were berated for promoting social media takes and Christmas sweaters made from inorganic cotton in lieu of advocating “deep thinking”. In a memorable in-ring segment with Styles and Vince McMahon, he unloaded on the WWE chairman and his fellow baby boomers, labelling them as “the great parasites of this world who take, and take, and take, but give nothing back.” As millennials cursed with a dying planet and multiple recessions inherited from an indulgent generation who revelled in the excesses of the ‘80s, Bryan’s antagonism came across as speaking harsh truths to those who didn’t think of future consequences. He weaponized his ideals and used them to target WWE’s prioritizing of profit over everything and everyone, forcing us to question whether the company’s presentation of him made them look outdated given the public’s increasing concerns about climate change.
After another successful defence of his title against Styles at the 2019 Royal Rumble, Bryan would enforce his green ideology into the WWE’s parochial world in an act of kayfabe sacrilege. Standing alongside his new bodyguard and “intellectual peer” Erick Rowan, who returned at the Rumble to help him retain the belt, Bryan admitted his own hypocrisy in carrying around a belt crafted from leather and diamonds. By his own admission, the WWE Championship isn’t just a symbol of excellence but also of excess, made from the skin of a cow he named Daisy whose life was cruelly taken from her. Deeming the belt as “trash”, he dumps it in a bin amid chants of “Goodbye Daisy!”, then unveils a new WWE Championship made from oak and hemp. He recognizes that in order to change the world, symbols need to be changed too, and his sustainable belt is a new symbol of excellence free from the vices of cheap labor and animal slaughter. In so many ways, Bryan’s new belt really was the best version of the WWE’s oldest and biggest prize since the Attitude Era’s iconic Big Eagle.
You Are What You Hate
Bryan’s heel work also unveiled a more methodical style of his that WWE’s more myopic fanbase was previously unfamiliar with. Gone were the missile dropkicks, kip-ups, and suicide dives that galvanized fans into egging him on, replaced by an intense desire to inflict as much pain as possible via stiff strikes and submission holds. His heel hook, in particular, was a devastating new addition to his arsenal that proved almost impossible to escape from. Day one Danielson fans weren’t alien to this shift, having witnessed his dominance over 2000s indie wrestling as a Ring of Honor cornerstone, but that was the closest a mass audience got to seeing the American Dragon until now.
It was a cerebral mix of William Regal’s strong style and 1997 Bret Hart’s malevolence, manifesting into a malicious wrestling machine whose sole purpose was to torture his opponents by kicking their fucking heads in before tapping them out. Bryan’s technical skills and in-ring versatility were never in doubt, but those same day ones would tell you that he was being shackled by the WWE’s stifling match structures. As the dastardly Planet’s Champion though, he was given some leeway to be a more expansive ring general than the resilient underdog of 2013-2014, using his savvy to tell stories, mesh styles, and elevate himself and his opponents in the process.
Nowhere was that more apparent than his battles against Kofi Kingston in the months leading up to WrestleMania 35. In a brilliant re-telling of his war against the Authority, Bryan took on the role of the arrogant champion with gusto. He dismissed the perennial midcarder as a “B+ player” throughout, continuing the theme of his road-to-Mania feuds by targeting talented wrestlers who didn’t fit the statuesque mold fetishized by the WWE. His disdain for Ali’s height and his derision of Kevin Owens’ everyman look echoed the condescension he once faced from higher-ups.
He wasn’t the underdog battling the status quo anymore, instead becoming who he once hated by projecting the ghosts of his past onto those who were just as un-WWE as he was. This funhouse mirror take on his most triumphant moment in the company five years prior added another layer to his nefarious character, driven on belittling others for the flaws he was repeatedly told were his to notice the irony bursting from his own dismissive rhetoric. It was wrestling drama at its finest, culminating in a WWE Championship epic that ranks among the greatest ever contested at the PPV. Pitting the high-flying, merch-moving Kofi against the meticulous, anti-consumerist Bryan was a masterstroke. The experienced main eventer went out of his way to ensure that Kofi’s star shined brighter with each series of contests they had, making magic with a gripping angle that got us all rooting for the eventual winner in the New Day founding father.
Following his huge loss, Bryan was briefly sidelined due to an undisclosed injury. He would later return and win the SmackDown Tag Team titles with Rowan, tearing through the division for a couple of months before losing them to Big E and Xavier Woods. It marked yet another high-profile defeat to members of the New Day, a poetic role-reversal from when he single-handedly conquered Evolution at WrestleMania 30. It wouldn’t be long until Bryan reverted back to being a face, a booking decision doubtless influenced by Fox execs desperate for those thunderous “Yes!” chants after agreeing to air SmackDown from late 2019, thus signaling the end of a run that cemented Bryan as wrestling’s top villain for nearly an entire year.
Not since Chris Jericho channelled No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurgh in 2008 has a WWE heel captivated audiences with as much conviction as the Planet’s Champion. The New Daniel Bryan’s villainy, mere months after an emotional return to in-ring action and a yearning audience’s adulation, was the character revamp we didn’t know we needed until it happened. It not only gave us the most compelling WWE Championship reign in decades, but also left me wondering whether someone who wore t-shirts bearing anti-bigotry slogans and a cute sloth with Wolverine clawsshould ever have been vilified in the first place.