The Retirement Of Daniel Bryan
The news we’ve been refusing to believe for months has been finally and irrefutably confirmed. Daniel Bryan is officially retired from in ring competition. It says it on Wikipedia, so it must be true. The February 8th 2016 edition of Monday Night Raw rightfully belonged to the American Dragon, and will be remembered for his impassioned retirement speech. Looking back, I have no memory of any of the other segments, so concerned was I from the off about Bryan’s speech at the close of the show. What he delivered was the typical, humble musings of a class act.
Customarily, I’m not one to cast my opinions on such a well publicised occurrence. I tend to write trivially on topics such as the quality of beards in WWE, or how terrifying Baron Corbin’s belly button is, or the worst names in tag team history. There will be a plethora of content revolving around the Yes Man’s past and future in the coming month, from people more important and informed than I, as well as on Twitter from those with an IQ registered in minus numbers. I’m not arrogant enough to assume my opinions on the matter are of any more substance than any others, or even that many people will read them. However, I feel compelled to share my feelings like never before, both as a personal catharsis and because I have a column to write and can think of nothing else wrestling centric without Bryan’s demise immediately clouding my thoughts.
I’ve been a wrestling fan for over 20 years. Other than a constant and potentially fatal passion for cheese, there are very few interests I’ve upheld for so long. In that time there have been plenty of retirements from the squared circle, caused by age, injury and, of course, death. From Flair and Michaels, to Benoit and Guerrero, and even Edge. Some of these retirements were incredibly emotional, but none affected me in the same way as Bryan’s announcement. The body of work and therefore sense of nostalgia The Nature Boy and The Heartbreak Kid have under their belts is remarkable, and their goodbyes were indeed emotional occasions. However, they were able to have retirement matches (at least in WWE in Flair’s case) to bid farewell doing what they loved and to leave on their own terms. I felt sad for Edge when he was forced into retirement for ongoing injury issues, but I was never particularly enamoured by his singles career. Eddie Guerrero was shuffled off this mortal coil tragically early, as was Benoit, albeit in more inauspicious circumstances which have, for many, tainted the memory of his excellence in the ring. With all of these examples, as much as I respected and enjoyed much of their work, I never had the same connection with them that I’ve had with Bryan. So why? Why that connection with a Flying Goat but not with Hall of Famers and legends of the business?
Part of it stems from timing. I joined wrestling fandom with Michaels at the apex of his career, and so missed out on his rise to popularity. There’s only about 6 people on earth older than Ric Flair, so there’s not a single person alive who saw his early development AND has the ability to access the Internet. With Bryan, I was present for every second of his WWE career. His entire journey has coincided with my increased devotion to the product. From Indy darling, to big leagues rookie. His NXT journey, baffling release to surprise return. His plucky underdog status, the early title runs, the 18 second loss, the advent of the Yes Movement, Team Hell No, the B+ player issue and subsequent elevation to WWE World Heavyweight Champion in one of the strongest Wrestlemania stories in history. Every individual moment, indelibly etched in the memory.
There’s no question that in the ring, he’s one of the most accomplished of his era, and it’s certainly a key attribute when endearing yourself to a wrestling fan base. He was an excellent storyteller between the ropes, and his matches from start to finish were a joy to watch. One of my fondest wrestling memories is attending Raw in London in 2012, shortly after his infamous Wrestlemania loss to Sheamus. Bryan was still technically a heel, but the ‘Yes’ chants were beginning to manifest into the pop culture phenomenon we all know and love. I was pumped to see Bryan perform live for the first time, and along with two friends, screamed wildly when he came to the ring. We stood and chanted “Yes” for much longer than any twentysomething year old men should admit to in public, and we incensed the 8 year old who sat directly in front of us. He resolutely countered with ‘No’ chants and couldn’t fathom why we, and the majority of a typically defiant UK crowd, were cheering for him so vociferously. “He’s a bad guy”, the boy proclaimed. “You have to boo him.” And there, in that section of the O2 Arena on a mild April evening, an 8 year old child was schooled in the qualities of Daniel Bryan, both by 3 ardent fans, and by the man himself. “Look how good he is at wrestling,” we argued, and merely had to motion to the ring to be proved right. We commented on the quality of his kicks, the effortlessness of his bumping and selling, the aggression of the Yes Lock. The slow realisation that dawned on the kid’s face was hilarious. WWE had told him to hate Bryan, and he was gradually understanding that there was nothing to hate in this man as a performer. He was a superb wrestler, and he was entertaining, regardless of whether you booed or cheered. By the end of Bryan’s enjoyable match with Kofi Kingston, this child was wailing “YES!” with as much vigour as the rest of us. His beleaguered father couldn’t have cared less, but we had turned that boy into a man. You’re welcome beleaguered father.
Bryan’s early WWE career was awash with complaints about his promo work. He was clearly talented in the ring, but a lack of microphone ability was supposed to hold him back. I always found this odd. After returning from his initial release, his mic work held a level of honesty that is rare to wrestling. Later, his induction of Connor Mahualuk into the Hall Of Fame was probably the most heartfelt speech WWE have ever televised. So often, promos are forced. They sound like a second rate actor reading lines from a script, whereas there’s always been a subtle grace to Bryan’s words. As a face, his in ring persona seems to merge with who he is in his personal life. There’s a level of discomfort to him on the microphone that wreaks of sincerity. He blurs the boundary of kayfabe and reality. He’s not an actor. He is a normal guy, who happens to wrestle. It’s this honesty that ingratiated him to his audience, and to me. He’s an everyman that we can get behind. He’s human.
It must also be mentioned that this is a man who transformed the word ‘Yes’ into the biggest chant of all time. Think about that for a minute. That’s ridiculous. What began life as an annoying semi-catchphrase of a heel persona evolved into a chant of undoubtable permanency. Not only that, he got over a beard. A BEARD. He’s also small for a WWE Superstar. And he’s a vegan. Chris Jericho tells of how, after battling Bryan in his first WWE match, he headed to the back and told Vince McMahon that this kid was going places. The chairman replied disdainfully with “Who’s gunna buy somebody that doesn’t even eat meat?” Through endless adversity in the most competitive of businesses, Bryan worked his ass off to reach the top, and, more importantly, to reshape the image of what a WWE Superstar was supposed to look like and be.
I’m not usually one to overemotionalise a celebrity story. I’ve always considered it odd that a fan of any popular figure can be so overcome with genuine emotion at their hero retiring, or even passing away. Most of the time, you’ve never even met said hero, let alone had a real life personal connection with them. They only know of your existence as part of a faceless mass, so how can you be effected? It’s sad that they’ll never perform again, but their body of work lives on. Everything they’ve ever given you, you still have. The matches, the music, the touchdowns, the goals, the movies, the paintings… Whatever. It wasn’t until Monday that I understood. And it took the passion and honesty of Daniel Bryan to make me see it, for even though, thanks to the WWE Network, I can watch every match he ever had with the company, there will never be any more. No more matches. No more work. No more storylines. No more submission manoeuvres. No more suicide dives through the middle rope or kicks accompanied by 10’s of thousands of people screaming “Yes.” Here was a 34 year old man being banished from his passion by circumstance. And it was gutwrenching. The current WWE Title holder is 46. The aforementioned Flair retired from in ring competition in the WWE at 58, going on to have matches in TNA into his 60’s. Hell, AJ Styles made his WWE debut at 38. Daniel Bryan, this relative youngster with, in theory, his best years ahead of him, suddenly had zero years left. He referenced the concussion troubles WWE are so adamant to keep under wraps on camera, his wife came to the ring and he illustrated his desire for a family, he remembered his father, he thanked his trainers… His vulnerability was palpable, his humanity ingenuous. He displayed some of the very attributes that made him so popular in the first place, and at the end of it all, it was he who claimed that HE held the gratitude. Ever humble, ever respectful.
We can only hope that Bryan finds a future for himself that he enjoys, be it as a father, an NXT trainer or in any other pursuit he’s not even discovered yet. I for one, and I’m sure many would agree, would love to see him sculpt the future of wrestling at the Performance Centre. Lending his brand of sincerity and respect as well as his technical abilities to NXT would be invaluable. Would he uproot and move to Florida? Only time will tell.
Bryan Danielson has gratitude for everything he’s been able to accomplish, but as a fan I have gratitude for the fact I was able to witness those accomplishments. His expression of gratitude hints at a higher level of overall acceptance for his position… We shouldn’t cry because it’s over, we should be grateful that it happened.
Tags: #ThankYouDanielBryan, Break The Walls Down, Bryan Danielson, Daniel Bryan, NXT, Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels, VInce McMahon, WWE