By Jake Barnett
Remembering the career of Daniel Bryan can lead one down a maudlin path. It would be easy to succumb to the sadness of watching an unlikely hero being forced to medically retire before getting the chance to leave his art behind on his own terms. I’m not going down that road, though, because above all else I think Daniel Bryan’s career is worth lionizing and celebrating. He did something that few thought possible when he entered WWE, and he did it his way.
I was among many who thought Daniel Bryan was on the short list for being considered the best wrestler in the world when he entered WWE in 2009. His work on the independent wrestling scene was superb, and by all accounts he was well regarded by the wrestling community writ large. It wasn’t an uncommon opinion at the time, however, that he wasn’t cut out for WWE because his size and personality aren’t things that WWE generally promotes. Bryan is well under six feet tall. He’s not even two hundred pounds. He’s into nature conservation and environmental sustainability. He was, for an extended period, a Vegan. You’d have a hard time engineering a human in a lab that would be more at odds with what Vince McMahon typically envisions as a champion and brand ambassador.
Yet, here we are six years and some change later and Daniel Bryan gets 20-plus minutes to close out an episode of Monday Night Raw to give his retirement speech while Vince McMahon looks on adoringly, welling up with tears. If you would have said that to me in 2009, I still would have been sad that his career ended this way, but I would have sneered at you for suggesting that such a sequence of events was a possibility.
Along the way, Bryan made a believer out of me, just like he did everyone else. His infectious smile and his goofy sense of humor were unflinchingly genuine. He brought levity and honesty to poorly written WWE Comedy segments. He brought a warrior’s spirit and an artisan’s touch to his work in the ring. His energy and passion bled over into crowds, and forged a connection with fans that would complicate WWE’s plans for several years. He was a beacon of sincerity in a company that seemed like it was putting on a brave face while struggling to build new stars, consistently bringing in talents from yesteryear to boost star power.
Bryan didn’t obtain this bond with fans by being the greatest wrestler in the world. He didn’t inspire people to hijack the ceremony where WWE was set to unify its most prestigious Championships by using impassioned oratory, and he didn’t convince anyone to boo Batista out of Pittsburgh at the Royal Rumble with his electrifying charisma. They did it because Daniel Bryan was the one guy on WWE television that felt human.
Bryan is passionate about his art and intellectual pursuits, and embraces emotion and sentimentality. He’s eminently self-aware and self-deprecating. He isn’t afraid to be himself even when it might not be advantageous to do so. He has a tendency to smile when he should be serious. In other words, he’s relatable to the WWE audience in ways that other characters just aren’t. The average WWE fan see’s Bryan as “one of us”, while they identify guys like Roman Reigns and John Cena as the products of a promotional machine. That may be unfair to them as people, because by all accounts they are both fine human beings, but their characters have a robotically assembled quality to them that will never wash off. Bryan’s humanity felt like it went all the way to the bone, and the results speak for themselves.
The best news out of all of this for fans is that Bryan’s entire career is encapsulated in a time where nearly everything he ever did was recorded for posterity. Fans that grew to love him through WWE career can discover his independent career starting from practically the beginning through various outposts on the internet, and his legacy in WWE will be on demand on the WWE network. The troubling news is that Bryan’s retirement speech demonstrated once again to all of us the emotional power of his authenticity, and how much WWE has lacked it in his absence. Capturing that feeling of passion, humility, and integrity is no easy task for anyone, simply because being a good person is a struggle even for the best of us. It takes an extremely special person to capture the essence of a good person, and have it come through in bold strokes through your art, as Daniel Bryan has done.
Thanks Bryan, for all the memories. Thank you for offering up a piece of yourself every time you walked through that curtain, and thank you for bearing your soul through your art like all the great ones do. You will be missed.