The Daniel Bryan Comeback Story: Two Years Later (1/2)

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Daniel Bryan has been one of the biggest names in professional wrestling for a decade now.  From his re-joining WWE in 2009 – he was with them twice prior, released in 2001 and then again in 2003 – till now, Bryan has further established himself as what can only be described as a pro-wrestling legend.

Photo: WWE

Daniel Bryan’s Retirement (2016-2018)

In a world where the term “GOAT” is thrown so loosely around, Bryan is a genuine contender.  In 2016, Bryan’s career was brought to a premature end.  Years of wear and tear meant that Bryan – a self-described pro-wrestling “addict” – would have to leave the sport he had given his life to.  He would hang up his boots – trading them in for sweaters and suits.  Instead of warring against the WWE establishment, he would temporarily become the SmackDown Live General Manager.  Two years of injuries – which began almost immediately after his iconic victory over The Authority at WrestleMania XXX – brought a cruel end to a career which had reached its zenith.  Daniel Bryan, beloved by so many, was to never wrestle again.

Bryan’s retirement would not keep him off our screens, however.  As mentioned, he became the SmackDown General Manager.  Along with a freshly returned Shane McMahon, the GM/Commissioner duo would make SmackDown Live cool for a time.  The two possessed a clear, warming natural chemistry and their bond was a change of pace from the traditional WWE archetype of evil authority figure.  After years – which felt more like an eternity – of The Authority ruling both brands with a despotic iron fist, the babyface duo were exactly what was needed to shake things up heading into the “New Era”.

Bryan, despite transitioning to a less featured role, still remained remarkably popular.  Choruses of “YES!” chants still rained down upon him every time he entered the ring.  With the help of cult favorite WWE Network show, Talking Smack, Bryan continued to keep the WWE audience entertained and yearning for a possible in-ring return.  No matter how much we all wanted it, there was a growing feeling – as the months turned to years – that we would never see Bryan lace up his boots again.

He feuded with The Miz after his memorable, heated Talking Smack promo on Bryan.  Miz would continue the feud by adopting his own version of the “YES! kick”, a signature Bryan maneuver.  He would continuously poke jabs at Bryan.  This feud made even the most ardent comeback deniers feel this must be leading somewhere.  A rare long-term WWE rivalry spanning almost a decade, from Daniel Bryan’s time as Miz’s “rookie” in the old version of NXT, it looked like we would finally be getting a pay off at WrestleMania XXXIV.

This never happened.  The Miz would ditch the feud to film The Marine 6: Close Quarters – a feud which was already finished off after Miz’s draft to RAW midway through 2017.  The long-awaited return of Daniel Bryan now seemed like a far away dream.  Bryan’s time was instead taken by the SmackDown heel duo of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn.  Both Shane McMahon and Bryan would begin feuding with the Canadian team, a feud which began in November 2017.  The rivalry – which grew very heated, including Owens giving Vince McMahon a nasty beating – looked like it was leading somewhere.  For the first time since his feud with The Miz, it looked like something was about to happen with Daniel Bryan.  That something was, of course, his long-awaited return.

The Return of Daniel Bryan

After over two years of seeking medical advice from various neurologists on whether he could compete again, it was announced on March 20th, 2018, that Daniel Bryan would wrestle again.  This now confirmed what we had been suspecting for weeks.  It was to be Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan versus Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn at WrestleMania XXXIV.  Today is March 22nd, 2020 and we have had two years to assess the return of Daniel Bryan.  Has it lived up to the heightened fanfare surrounding the return of one of wrestling’s most beloved superstars? Yes!  Since returning to the ring in 2018, Bryan has gifted us with numerous good-to-great matches and feuds.

After his triumphant return at WrestleMania XXXIV, Bryan then entered a feud with Big Cass.  This feud was clearly designed as a means to get Cassidy over as a legit heel.  Unfortunately, the character resorted to schoolyard bully tactics, mocking Bryan for his shorter stature.  Unfortunately, the feud would only serve to cool off much of the Bryan return hype.

The feud was not helped by WWE management souring on Big Cass during the feud.  There were reports of behavior issues, public intoxication and a single, on-screen issue surrounding Big Cass’ unprofessional treatment of a little person hired to impersonate Bryan.  Bryan would defeat Cass at back-to-back pay-per-views – Backlash and Money in the Bank.  This would signal the end of the feud and Big Cass was gone from the company shortly afterwards.  Bryan, despite being victorious, gained nothing from the feud and the excitement surrounding his return had dwindled ever so slightly.

Bryan then entered a short-lived feud with The Bludgeon Brothers (Harper and Rowan), which involved a Team Hell No reunion with long-time ally/foe, Kane.  Team Hell No were still a popular tag team and as there was clearly an effort by management to get The Bludgeon Brothers over as a dominant monster tag team, it was only fitting that Team Hell No put them over.  Perhaps to protect Bryan, the eventual PPV match between the teams at Extreme Rules became a handicap match, after Kane never got to compete (he was attacked prior to the match taking place).  The sheer strength and numbers advantage meant a first big defeat for Bryan.

After the Bludgeon Brothers feud, it finally happened.  Bryan would turn his attention to the one man who – more than anyone – antagonized him during his absence from the ring.  The man who openly mocked his retirement and medical condition on Talking Smack.  Yes, Bryan would return to the almost ten year old rivalry with The Miz.  The feud would have some questionable, weird spots – such as Miz throwing a slew of fake babies at Bryan – but would mostly retain the heated essence which had emanated within the rivalry over the years.

It has been said many a time, but Miz and Bryan are the perfect rivalry.  Bryan is the beloved, natural babyface.  The humble pro-wrestler who began his career wrestling in front of a mere dozen or so fans.  A man who rose through the independent circuit to the pinnacle of the WWE, defying the odds and the fate usually given to WWE performers of his size.  Bryan’s ambition was once professionally assessed and his score came back so remarkably low his success even more so impressive.

“WWE did this personality test with some of their more successful wrestlers to see, like, ‘are there some common traits among these people that makes them successful, so when we are recruiting people we can look for these traits to make them more successful… and so, they ask you all these questions, yada, yada, yada. I got my test results back and the lady was just baffled. She was like, ‘you have the lowest ambition score I have ever seen!”

It is safe to declare, therefore, that it is something resembling a miracle that Bryan is the superstar he is today.  However, there is no denying his in-ring talent and natural charisma which has to be singled out as the reason for Bryan resonating so well with the WWE Universe, in spite of his lack of ambition.  If you compare Bryan with Miz, you notice some differences.  Miz was a reality TV star, on MTV’s The Real World.

Though a passionate wrestling fan in his youth, Miz wasn’t someone with the natural athleticism or in-ring prowess to have conquered the indies prior to his WWE career in the way Bryan did.  Miz could act and he could certainly talk with the confidence one would expect a WWE promo specialist to possess.  Therefore, after impressing on the 2004 edition of Tough Enough, Miz skipped the indies and headed straight to the WWE.

The difference in pro-wrestling journeys is the clear reason for fans naturally warming to Bryan and not taking so kindly to Miz.  It took Miz years to win over the fans as a solid, committed professional wrestler.  Upon his return to the company in 2009 and his re-debut in 2010, Bryan was an instant hit.  So going into their 2018 feud, there was a feeling that this was the true end to a near-decade long feud.  A feud of two men with clearly different views on what it means to be a pro-wrestler.  The Miz would win the feud, cheating to victory with brass knuckles at SummerSlam.  The follow-up match was a mixed tag match at Hell in a Cell, with Brie Bella and Maryse accompanying their husbands.  Maryse would score the pinfall for Team Mizanin, ending the feud.

In 2014, whilst Daniel Bryan was at the pinnacle of the wrestling world, there was another man making waves elsewhere.  For years, there were two men who would most commonly appear in fan shouts for “best in the world”.  Daniel Bryan was one, AJ Styles was the other.  Whilst Daniel Bryan was headlining WrestleMania XXX, AJ Styles was in the midst of a highly popular return to the independent circuit.  The same independent circuit conquered by Bryan Danielson years earlier.

The Heel Turn

Whereas their paths had crossed in the past, never had they done so on a bigger stage than WWE.  Now, they would meet again. This time with Bryan as the WWE veteran and Styles as the current “Face That Runs the Place”.  It was only fitting, therefore, that Bryan was to be the antagonist.  Bryan, the beloved natural babyface, would turn heel; low-blowing his way to the WWE Championship on the November 13th, 2018 edition of SmackDown Live.  This would mark Bryan’s fourth run with the title and his first major change in character for half a decade.

This brings to part 1 of this series to a close.  The second part, coming next week, will look more at Daniel Bryan’s return post-heel turn.  Delving into his feuds with Brock Lesnar and Kofi Kingston, his tag team with Rowan and his eventual return to being a babyface.

Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world. WWE fan? Check out the WWE Network to fulfill all of your WWE needs!