By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
Is it just me, or has Daniel Bryan been awfully loud lately? It feels like every third day, there’s another story from another interview that provides a forest of tea leaves through which all us wrestling fans try to read. It’s happened so much, in fact, that the whole ordeal is becoming a bit grating.
By now, you’ve heard that Bryan lost to WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns on Friday’s Smackdown, and that loss has (cue the dramatic, deep, actor voice) banished him from the show. Since then, as wrestling fans continue to be some of the most aggressive sleuths in the world, a group of astute observers noticed over the weekend that Bryan was moved to the alumni section of the WWE website.
Does that matter? No. As wrestling has evolved through the decades, so has its fans, and as a result, more often than not, we see AEW and WWE do all they can to outsmart its most loyal followers at every turn. So, moving someone’s status on a website is about as irrelevant as whatever that WWE Main Event show has become. If Bryan pops up on Raw tonight, nobody will bat an eye.
Even so, Daniel Bryan’s future might be one of the most intriguing developments wrestling has on its immediate horizon. But before you look forward, it’s imperative to look back.
Of all the professional wrestling careers that blossomed over the last 20 years, Daniel Bryan’s has been the most curious. I don’t say that in a bad way, of course; the reality is that it’s been so singular. He landed in WWE early in his career, was let go not too far after that, went to Japan for a few years, came back to WWE for a cup of coffee and was then forced to move on yet again.
This time, he showed up at Ring of Honor, became the company’s champion, worked a ton of indie spots and went back to WWE for a third time. Then the Justin Roberts thing happened and he was let go, so back to the indies, Bryan went. A couple years later, he returned to WWE, started the Yes! Movement, provided a buzz in the wrestling world and right when things got good, he had to retire due to medical issues.
But wait! That’s not all! Thanks to advancements in medicine, Bryan was able to come back and wrestle for WWE for a fifth run, turned heel, became a champion, lost the championship and turned back to a babyface. That pretty much gets us to where we are today, where Bryan continues to have a voice unlike any other in the professional wrestling stratosphere. The only logical comparison would be CM Punk, who gained all the credibility in the world with every blend of wrestling fan and then walked away.
Much like Punk, Bryan, too, has all the credibility in the world with every blend of wrestling fan, which makes his potential second retirement all the more dramatic. Also much like Punk, Bryan, too, doesn’t have an issue speaking his mind and being a smiling rebel, the guy who knows what buttons to press when it comes to fans, bosses, the media and everything in between. Drew McIntyre wouldn’t go on a podcast and gush about how great Kenny Omega is before then suggesting how WWE should allow its wrestlers to wrestle in other companies, now would he?
Speaking of that …
NOT GOING ANYWHERE
There’s a fine line between being coy and obnoxious, and I’m not so sure which side of that line Daniel Bryan is on some days. Again, that’s not meant to be insulting; instead, it’s to illustrate how deeply aware he is of everything around him in the wrestling world. Does that translate into a deep affection for the wrestling world? Maybe. Only Bryan, himself, could answer that. What it does do, however, is all but promise that he’s actually not going anywhere anytime soon.
“Anywhere,” meaning “anywhere outside the wrestling world,” of course. Going somewhere outside of WWE? Perhaps, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, for anyone keeping track of the Daniel Bryan sweepstakes/saga, the notion that he’s ready to walk away from professional wrestling is absurd. Why would he be out here, granting all these interviews, making all these suggestive, thoughtful statements about everything from other companies’ wrestlers to his desire to mentor younger talent if he was actually ready to leave the business?
That, in turn, makes the move to the WWE alumni section on the company’s website that much more laughable. If nothing else, Bryan is a student of the genre, and to think that his last-ever match in WWE would be on a barely-watched Smackdown with only a week of build to the battle is nonsense. For God’s sake, the guy gave one of the most heart-wrenching retirement speeches in the history of a business that has a very contentious relationship with retirement. He understands the moment, he lives for the moment.
And him always knowing what the moment is suggests one thing to me …
Those comments about how disconnected he was in the WrestleMania main event against Reigns and Edge are suspect at best, and perhaps a work at worst. You can’t be disconnected if you are connected enough to claim you are disconnected. You’re either connected or you aren’t, and if he was aware that something felt different during the match or while walking down the ramp, that’s precisely what it was: something different. Something different doesn’t mean disconnected. Apathy does. Being so tuned into whatever those feelings were — and then being so vocal about it — actually makes an argument for how connected he was to something.
Now, maybe that something meant the connection was different this time from what it was before. And maybe that something meant the connection was startling and uncomfortable. But different isn’t always bad. If anything, different is a sign of growth, evolution and in some cases, excitement. So, it doesn’t quite add up to think that those ‘Mania comments reflect something dire in Bryan and his desire to be involved with wrestling.
Don’t agree with that? Look at all the external factors surrounding this year’s WrestleMania. For the previous 13 months, everyone was wrestling in a small room with a gigantic fan or in front of 5 billion video screens. Having fans back might be inspiring for some, but it also might be jarring for others. Also, don’t forget that by all accounts, that main event wasn’t even made until a month or two before the show, with Bryan being a late addition to a match most thought would be Edge and Reigns. For a guy who’s been vocal about wanting to help get younger wrestlers over, he could be forgiven if he felt shoehorned into a match about which he may have had mixed feelings in the first place.
My point is that I don’t think his comments about WrestleMania is a signal to Bryan or any of his fans that he’s packing his bags and going home sometime soon. Or, well, if he does, he’ll be back in short order. Which is, of course, where the fun begins.
Because where does he go? Half of me thinks Bryan is having fun knowing that speculation about his future is a topic of conversation among the Internet Wrestling World. While most people have assumed his WWE contract was up in September, he’s been quick to argue that it’s actually not up in September … but he’s not telling anybody when it is up. Taking that whole “I know something you don’t know” approach, presumably with that forgiving smile of his, suggests that he’s quite aware that if people aren’t hanging on every word he says, they are at least hanging on the majority of his sentences.
Is WWE an option? There’s no reason for any of us to believe it isn’t. He’s the one who reportedly said he made headway while having talks with people in the company regarding working with other promotions. He also said he thinks WWE talent should be allowed to do it, and considering the wrestling world that surrounds him, now would be the time for it to happen if it was going to happen.
That, then, inspires this question: Will he only work somewhere if he knows he won’t be tied to wherever that somewhere is? If so, that pretty much puts everybody other than WWE in play. AEW, Impact, NJPW, Ring Of Honor — the list goes on and on — they all place nice with each other (so much so that, as I mentioned some weeks ago on this site that I’m not so sure that “too much of a good thing” doesn’t apply to that, but I digress).
Does he want to return to the independent scene one more time? If so, it’d only make sense to do it when there are fans around. Why show up on an empty, silent Ring Of Honor stage if you’re Daniel Bryan and you can call whatever shot you want to call? That’s no fun. Even with limited capacity events, like AEW has been running in Jacksonville — why waste a pop like that on 1,000 fans? If you had 15,000 in the house, it’d be electric.
Make no mistake about it: There are dream matches to be had. Can you imagine Daniel Bryan and Jungle Boy going 18 minutes? How about Bryan matching up with Will Ospreay and they go an hour broadway at the Tokyo Dome? If one of Bryan’s primary career goals these days is to make younger talent, he’s going to have to leave WWE, if only because of WWE’s track record when it comes to finding reasons to give up on promising young talent.
Naturally, then, that brings us to NXT. While it would be fun to see Bryan there, NXT already has a Daniel Bryan-like figure in Finn Balor, a veteran superstar who instantly brings star power to anything he does and anybody he does it with in NXT. Would there be room enough for two of those types of cool, older, more accomplished, more established wrestlers in NXT? I’m not so sure. Balor’s run in NXT has been a mixed bag in my eyes, and while he’s great in the ring, and he’s great on the mic, and he’s pretty much great all around, it’s hard not to view him as though he may be punching down, even if his persona in NXT is far more preferable to the grinning Balor that we got in the mid card of Raw.
The only real thing that would intrigue me would be if Bryan and Balor form some type of faction that runs over everyone in NXT before ultimately laying down for whomever is supposed to be the next group of stars. That way, you make your stable-mates, you make your opponents and you get to do it without having to deal with all the stumbling blocks Raw and Smackdown reportedly bring. And stumbling blocks, at this point …
COULD HIS LEGACY BE TARNISHED?
… well, all signs point to Daniel Bryan being done with stumbling blocks in the wrestling world. So, maybe he just goes home, settles into dad life and calls it a day in the squared circle. Nobody could blame him for doing that, of course. He’s earned every bit of it and I’d find it awfully hard to believe that anyone could claim he didn’t give the wrestling business all of himself for at least two decades. If he actually is having an existential crisis about wrestling, then maybe it is time to hang the boots up.
My only worry? He becomes Brett Favre. Or Ben Roethlisberger. A premier athlete who starts grumbling in the media for years about how the next season (or in Bryan’s case, match) might be the last of his career, and after the fifth or sixth public flirtation with it, everyone tunes them out. Then, before long, you become a journeyman, throwing interceptions while playing for the New York Jets, or you just become a shell of who you were, unable to throw the ball longer than 30 yards down the field.
Bryan deserves better than that. He can have a voice in the larger wrestling landscape conversation — that’s undeniable. But he doesn’t have to do it at the expense of his future’s credibility. He’s beloved by everybody and he’s got to know that by now. The desire to float out these mild “are they or aren’t they” hints at what’s next for him straddles that line between coy and obnoxious, if only because they keep trickling out once a week or so.
That said, none of this matters. We, as fans, aren’t entitled to information on his personal life or any personal decisions he might want to make as he grows older. If he’s having fun with this stuff, then who are we to argue? Celebrity might have a price, and the type of speculation I’ve outlined this week could just be part of that price, but at the end of the day, he’s going to do what makes him happiest and only he knows what makes him happiest.
So, in short, would I prefer he go out like this, if this is how he’s going out? No. But will I be paying close attention to what comes next for one of the most beloved wrestling superstars the last 20 years has given us?
Yes! Yes! And Yes!