Yes, he is the best wrestler in WWE, a title you can easily give him every single year he was active this decade. Yes, his 2014 conquest of Evolution at WrestleMania XXX may be the single best moment WWE ever produced. Yes, his return, despite being tied, three-legged race style, to another McMahons vs. Labor storyline, made me cry. And yes, it is incredible that, despite all of that, he managed to effectively turn heel. We’ll circle back to all of that, I promise.
Daniel Bryan is the wrestler of the decade because he loves wrestling. Not the genre, but the act. The doing. The making. The craft. Go back to the piece where I declared Katsuyori Shibata the wrestler of the decade, it was in large part due to the fact that he wrestled like he’d rather be dead than doing anything else. Daniel Bryan is the wrestler of the decade for the same reason, only, unlike Shibata, he came back from the abyss, and had to fight against the whims of his employer to do so.
Somehow, it feels like this is buried deep in Daniel Bryan’s story, like the miracle of turning him heel by virtue of his recycling and not eating meat or the Yes Movement or his feud with the Miz or getting fired the night he debuted on Raw with the rest of the Nexus (remember that? remember how those hideous yellow and black shirts that dominated wrestling crowds like the disowned son of the new World order/absent father of the Bullet Club?) are all somehow more important, more integral to Daniel Bryan’s decade than his injuries and retirement. But that requires you to buy into the WWE mythmaking that Daniel Bryan wasn’t supposed to be a star, and it requires you to forget that, while they’re certainly glad to have him now, WWE would have liked him to stay retired.
More than anything else, WWE’s decade has been defined by the conflict between employee and employer. That’s true in a storyline sense, as the McMahons are still central to much of the company’s storytelling techniques, but more important is the divide between the company and its talent. From CM Punk and Jon Moxley to Pac and Luke Harper, WWE wrestlers have not been shy about their frustration with the company. While Daniel Bryan was largely quiet, he’s one of a very small number of wrestlers under contract who beat the WWE without sitting out a contract.
So, let’s go back: In 2015, Bryan returned from neck and elbow injuries and was put in a ladder match for the Intercontinental Championship a year after his triumph at WrestleMania XXX. In the interest of being polite, I’ll say this about the decision to have him in an utterly meaningless, excessively dangerous match: it was fucking stupid, unnecessarily dangerous, and it really missed what made Daniel Bryan click with the fans.
Beyond injury, the major narrative of his WWE career has been just that— fans love Daniel Bryan because they love wrestling, and they love him because he loves wrestling. This was true in 2009, when the inaugural season of NXT paired him with The Miz instead of William Regal. This was true in 2010, when the mere notion of seeing him live in a flea market got me into indie wrestling, forever ruining my life. It was true when he returned to WWE. It was true when he won the World Heavyweight Championship in 2011 and lost it in 18 seconds to Sheamus at WrestleMania XXVIII. It was true when he tagged with Kane. It was true when he feuded with Kane. It was true when Batista returned to WWE, obviously with an eye on main eventing WrestleMania XXX.
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The one time WWE got Daniel Bryan unequivocally right was that tiny stretch from the Royal Rumble to WrestleMania, where the “Yes Movement” got started and made it impossible to ignore the level to which the WWE’s audience connected with him. There will never be anybody on the level of Hulk Hogan or Steve Austin or John Cena or the Rock in the future—WWE’s booking model works in such a way that the WWE brand is the draw and not its performers—but for a brief moment Daniel Bryan was on that level. Then he got injured. He came back, was fed to Roman Reigns (in one of the better WWE matches of the decade), and wrestled in that stupid ladder match. Then he sustained a concussion, and the whole world around him fell apart.
I’ve watched and re-watched a lot of wrestling for this series, and the only two things I did not watch are as follows: Katsuyori Shibata saying “I am alive, that is all,” and Daniel Bryan’s retirement speech. I remember seeing both of them happen live, both wrestlers somewhat haunted by their inability to continue doing the thing that defined them. In some ways, Bryan’s retirement cut deeper because, unlike Shibata, Bryan promised that he would wrestle again. He went to great lengths to wrestle again. From April to February, he appeared sporadically on WWE television to remind us that he was still there, waiting for a green light. He sought outside medical professionals, passed concussion tests with doctors at UCLA and for the Arizona Cardinals. They said he was ready, but WWE’s medical officials disagreed.
This was 2016, the year that the increased proliferation of wrestling streaming services meant WWE faced an array of global challengers, most of whom would have gladly signed Bryan. The company asked him to resign under a different role. He said he’d have to think about it. The clock to his eventual departure began ticking the longer he remained in the role of SmackDown’s general manager. Then, at last, WWE’s doctor cleared him. He was back.
The means of Bryan’s return will always strike me as awful. Fighting against the whims of the McMahons for years, in and out of the ring, he teamed with Shane McMahon against Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn in a nothing match with no stakes beyond Owens and Zayn’s pretty legitimate complaints about McMahon’s abuse of labor. Despite having years to prepare for the possibility that he’d return, he was put in programs with Big Cass and Kane. Then he won the WWE Championship and did the unthinkable: He turned heel.
I could write a book about the cognitive dissonance required to boo a guy who is concerned with the survival of the planet and the treatment of animals, but Daniel Bryan really leaned into the “New” Daniel Bryan character, wrestling with the kind of anger he cultivated on the indies, creating an eco-friendly version of the WWE Championship, and utilizing Erik Rowan as a heavy. If Daniel Bryan wasn’t already a wrestler of the decade candidate before this, let’s condense the timeline: He wins the title in a miracle of a night in 2014, spends two years in the wilderness just trying to get back in the ring, does so, turns heel, and creates one of the decade’s best characters in the process. The crowd’s willingness to go with this speaks to Bryan’s power as a storyteller, which is finally beginning to mesh with the rest of what SmackDown has to offer.
Daniel Bryan is the wrestler of the decade because I don’t think anybody else could have done what he did. I mean him winning the championship at WrestleMania XXX. I mean his fighting for and winning the right to practice his craft. I mean taking the amount of goodwill and genuine love for him in-ring and in real life and turning that into a compelling heel character. I mean refusing to wrestle in Saudi Arabia. And, most of all, I mean maintaining a consistent level of excellence that brought out the best in everybody he wrestled, from Sheamus and the Miz to Roman Reigns and John Cena. He is the best wrestler of this decade. He may very well be the best wrestler of all time. I can’t wait to see what he makes of the future, regardless of how long or how short that future may be.