The Daniel Bryan comeback story is one which will go down as one of the all-time great comebacks. When fans discuss great pro-wrestling comebacks, there is no doubt that Bryan’s will be discussed among the likes of Edge and Shawn Michaels‘. Part one of the series focused on the first half of Bryan’s return; culminating in the heel turn against AJ Styles in November 2018. That is where part two shall commence. So grab your quinoa, your bottle of water and homemade sweaters, because things are about to get green.
Introducing the “New” Daniel Bryan
Before winning the WWE Championship on the November 13th 2018 episode of SmackDown Live, Bryan was set to feature in the yearly inter-brand Survivor Series match. Fans had been looking forward to a rematch of the 2017 Survivor Series main event, when AJ Styles faced Brock Lesnar in a champion versus champion match. However, in losing the WWE title just two days before this match was to take place, Bryan claimed that spot. There was much discussion in the few days prior to the match. What was heel Daniel Bryan going to be like? Although Bryan had clearly turned heel, it wasn’t clear what direction the character was heading. Indeed, fans had become so used to the “Leader of the Yes! Movement” persona that fans had forgotten a time Bryan could ever be perceived a heel. This was about to change.
Match with Brock Lesnar
Bryan’s heel persona didn’t kick-in immediately. After defeating AJ Styles for the WWE Championship in controversial fashion, Bryan merely smirked maniacally. When SmackDown Exclusive caught up with him after the show went off the air, he did the same. Gone was the cheerful, humorous Bryan who had graced our screens for the last decade. In his place was a man on a mission: the “New” Daniel Bryan. This is the version of Bryan who squared off with Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series that Sunday. Instead of the previous version of Bryan, who would have attacked Lesnar from the off, we got a Bryan who wanted to be punished. Bryan allowed Brock to pummel him for fifteen straight minutes. Only near the end, would something resembling the Bryan of old fight back. He very nearly pulled off an upset.
Of course, it was not to be and Brock Lesnar pinned Daniel Bryan. What became clear from this match, however, was that an exciting new dynamic was to be explored with the Daniel Bryan character. Long-term fans were clamoring for a heel Bryan Danielson-like character to return. Newer fans were calling for something resembling the heel Daniel Bryan of 2012 to return. What we got instead was something of a mix of the two. The preaching, vegan environmentalist of 2012 Bryan mixed with the aggressive, wrestling machine Danielson of the mid-2000s. Two nights removed from Survivor Series, on SmackDown Live, the “New” Daniel Bryan was christened and we – the audience – would be given answers.
Daniel Bryan Versus AJ Styles and New WWE Championship
AJ Styles would receive his rematch with Bryan at the yearly Tables, Ladders & Chairs pay-per-view. Bryan would win the match, before securing a hattrick of victories over the “Phenomenal One” at the 2019 Royal Rumble. It was at the Royal Rumble pay-per-view where Bryan would link up with his newest ally: Rowan. Rowan – formerly Erick Rowan of Wyatt Family fame – would serve as Bryan’s new heater for the majority of his “New” heel persona. This was something new for Rowan, who had been floundering in obscurity since the injury of fellow Bludgeon Brother, Harper. Two days after the Royal Rumble, Bryan – accompanied by Rowan – would introduce the new WWE Championship. Made from “entirely renewable” materials, the “New” Daniel Bryan was clearly taking on an eco-warrior persona.
A little known fact about Daniel Bryan is that – though a vegan – he didn’t become so for ethical reasons. When Bryan became World Heavyweight Champion back in 2011, he was somewhat harassed by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). They believed that since Bryan was a vegan, he should be opposed to holding a clearly leather championship. Maybe that altercation served as inspiration for the “New” Daniel Bryan. Regardless, the old Daniel Bryan was gone. The “Yes! Movement” was gone. In many ways, Bryan had switched roles. Whereas once he was called a “B+ Player” by Triple H and The Authority, he was now in that role. He would call another man a “B+ Player”. Kofi Kingston, riding a wave of momentum, was that man.
Battle of the B+ Players
Both Kofi Kingston and Daniel Bryan are not B+ players. Kofi Kingston is a workaholic who through loyalty and perseverance, has achieved a solid career. Both as a solo performer and as a member of The New Day, Kofi is a shoe-in for a future Hall of Fame spot. Daniel Bryan is one of the greatest of all time. Bryan’s status as one of the greats is what made this feud work. Just like Triple H did years before, Bryan managed to play to the crowd wanting to see the babyface succeed. Kofi was a perennial underachiever. Though he came close during a feud with Randy Orton in 2009, he had since failed to make it to the peak of the mountain. So when he finally managed to win WWE Championship gold at WrestleMania XXXV, the moment was a truly feel-good moment. Though Kofi was gaining momentum prior to entering the feud with Bryan, Bryan’s excellent heel work must be cited as part of the reason for the moment feeling as good as it did.
Tag Team With Rowan
After failing to win his rematch with Kofi on the May 6th 2019 edition of RAW, Bryan stepped away from the world title scene. The following night, on SmackDown Live, Bryan and Rowan would pin The Usos for the SmackDown Tag Team Titles. Heavy Machinery – consisting of Otis and Tucker – would be the first team to earn a PPV match with Bryan and Rowan. Bryan and Rowan would retain after an entertaining match. However, shortly after at the Extreme Rules PPV, Xavier Woods and Big E – much like their comrade, Kofi – would take another title away from the “New” Daniel Bryan. The New Day would take away Bryan’s Championship aspirations, as Bryan and Rowan became embroiled in controversy. Who kept attacking Roman Reigns?
YES: The Return of the “Old” Daniel Bryan
It turned out to be none other than Bryan’s now long-time partner, Rowan, who attacked Roman Reigns. With the great reveal came the great betrayal; Rowan, with the returning Harper, beat down Bryan and Reigns. Bryan, who had long been in denial with regards to the “YES! Movement” had no choice. The people, who had been so desperate to embrace Bryan once more, had their leader back. With resounding “YES!” chants echoing through the arena, Bryan declared the “New” Daniel Bryan to be dead. At Hell in a Cell, with the help of one-night partner, Roman Reigns, Bryan would defeat the Bludgeon Brothers. Next up was Bryan’s toughest challenge yet: “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt.
Bryan Versus The Fiend
Almost as much as Triple H, Bray Wyatt played a part in elevating Bryan to WrestleMania super-stardom in 2014. The short feud with Wyatt – culminating in one of the all-time great visuals, with Bryan sitting at the top of the steel cage, chanting “YES!” in unison with a near-20,000 fans – truly assisted Bryan in his quest for gold at WrestleMania XXX. That feud would serve as the backdrop to the new feud. The story being that Wyatt – channeling the power of The Fiend – was seeking revenge. At the 2019 Survivor Series, Wyatt would achieve that – defeating Bryan. The following SmackDown, after Bryan declaring the “YES!” Movement back in full-swing, Fiend would attack Bryan. He would drag Bryan underneath the ring by his hair, which would be thrown back up through the hole. Not long after, he would sign their Royal Rumble contract in blood.
At the 2020 Royal Rumble, Bryan – sporting a more clean shaven look – would again fall victim to The Fiend. This would knock Bryan out of the title picture, possibly for the last time. Though Bryan has since feuded with and linked up with Drew Gulak, it is not known how long Bryan has left – at least as a part-time. Appearing on the Bellas Podcast – co-hosted by wife, Brie Bella – Bryan revealed he will be retiring from full-time competition “sooner rather than later”.
And Now the End is Near?
If the end is truly near for Bryan’s full-time career, what a career he has had. His impact has been felt on the industry. Alongside the CM Punk, Bryan has made it possible for smaller guys to have successful careers within the WWE. No longer is it impossible for “indie darlings” to succeed. That will be his legacy: he has helped an entire generation of wrestlers to achieve their dreams. Additionally, he has had an incredibly successful career himself. Five-time World Champion within the WWE; a former Ring of Honor World Champion; PWI‘s Wrestler of the Year for 2013 and dozens more accolades to his name, across almost as many promotions. Daniel Bryan is truly a pro-wrestling legend; a certified future Hall of Famer. This two-year return has been excellent. If this is the end, then thank you, Daniel Bryan.
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