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Posted in: Column of the Month
December 2013 COTM - Requesting Flyby #56: Has WWE Been Behind Daniel Bryan From Day One?
By maverick
Feb 23, 2014 - 2:50:25 PM

#56: Has WWE Been Behind Bryan From Day One?

The early 2000s saw an explosion in the indy wrestling scene fuelled by Vince McMahon putting his major competition out of business. Ironically, given the fact that it was Vince that drove regional promoters out of business during the early eighties in the first place, the ultimate victory of the then-WWF in the Monday Night Wars led to smaller federations flourishing and, in time, providing excellent talent to the major leagues, just as Vince had once cherry picked the likes of Bret Hart, Curt Hennig and Rick Rude from smaller organisations at the outset of the Rock and Wrestling era. The highest profile indy entrant to the wacky world of World Wrestling Entertainment was the “king of the indies” CM Punk, but Brian Danielson was not far behind in terms of IWC allegiance. However, where most observers expected Punk to flourish in the mic heavy, entertainment focused WWE, even Danielson’s biggest fans were known to profess worry as to how he would be used and how he would adapt to a very different stage. I think it’s fair to say that the wrestler now known as Daniel Bryan has proved far more adaptable, charismatic and suited to the world of “sports entertainment” than anybody imagined. Although the debates over to what extent he is seen as one of the top stars in the business by his own company continue to rage, I have been wondering, in concert with some of my fellow Brits from The Right Side of the Pond, whether Bryan has actually had major backing from the moment he stepped into the company. And if that is the case- and I think there’s decent evidence to suggest so- why would we not be optimistic about his future, at Wrestlemania and beyond? Hear me out, at any rate.

When Bryan was announced for the debut season of NXT, there was a mixture of optimism and trepidation running through the IWC. While many saw his pairing with The Miz to be an insult, historical perspective actually allows us to see this decision differently. If the 2010 version of Bryan had a weakness, it was probably his character work and mic skills, and when it came to that side of the wrestling game, there were few hotter than Mike Mizanin at that point in time. Unlike the other rookies, Bryan was given a storyline from the word go; he did not respect his pro, and vice versa. Their friction became an integral part of the show, and gave the former American Dragon an antagonist to place himself against. Meanwhile, Bryan was constantly belittled on commentary by the heel iteration of Michael Cole. All of those comments about high school gyms and sleeping in cars actually established the Daniel Bryan character for the WWE Universe who hadn’t been aware of whom this pint sized pit-bull had been before his call up to the big leagues. The angle where Bryan beat Miz and threw him into Cole was electric and showed that he was due to be a feature player for the company moving forward. We should also not forget the terrific, competitive matches he had with both Batista and Chris Jericho, in which Bryan was shown as game and competitive against multi-time world champions. There’s little doubt in my mind that whoever was booking and writing for Bryan knew exactly what they were doing.

Following NXT and all its shenanigans, I dare say that I have no need to remind anybody of what happened on the 06/07/10 episode of Monday Night Raw; it remains one of the most thrillingly visceral closing segments in the history of America’s longest running episodic television programme. Bryan’s part in the invasion of the Nexus has become infamous. As well as spitting in John Cena’s face and yelling that he wasn’t better than him, the NXT rookie also assaulted ring announcer Justin Roberts, choking him with his own tie. Following this, the future Yes Man was mysteriously released from his contract amidst rumours that he had violated WWE’s commitment to PG-13 programming with such a nakedly violent act. At the time, I clearly remember thinking to myself that the whole thing smelt a bit fishy. The fact that the “release” was given a TV explanation by Wade Barrett, who stated that Bryan had felt remorse for the actions of the Nexus and had therefore been excommunicated from them seemed to point towards a work. Now, we can’t be sure, but the fact that he was gone for a mere matter of weeks, returning as a mystery member of Team WWE at Summerslam to steal the show with his new Le Bell Lock submission, has always pointed towards the whole thing being a planned angle to me.

Following Summerslam, Bryan’s momentum gathered pace. I don’t know about you, but I enjoyed the hell out of Daniel Bryan’s run in the Raw midcard through the autumn of 2010 into the spring of 2011. Not only did his high profile feud with the main event bound Miz really catch fire, once he had taken the Awesome One’s US Title, he defended it with aplomb in a series of eye-catching matches. The submissions count anywhere bout with Morrison and Miz was a highly underrated thriller, while the champion vs. champion contest with Dolph Ziggler at Bragging Rights remains one of the best midcard matches seen anywhere in the past decade. Bryan’s eye catching title run ultimately came to an end at the hands of Sheamus in a hot TV match that concluded a losing streak storyline for the Irishman, but DB’s future as a feature attraction certainly seemed assured, even though he and the Celtic Warrior were denied their Wrestlemania moment because of the gross egotism of Dwayne Johnson.

That summer, our man Bryan won the blue brand Money in the Bank briefcase in a move that surprised many. Even if the World Heavyweight Championship had slipped in status over the two years preceding D-Bry’s win, the idea of the 5’8” Washingtonian running in that scene seemed too good to be true, particularly after he declared that he would not cash it in until Wrestlemania. The doomseers seemed to be right when the American Dragon spent a period of time jobbing on television, but suddenly, at just the right time, Bryan was parachuted into the Henry/Big Show programme, with a threatened cash in on Henry on the 11/4/11 Smackdown and an actual cash in waved off by Teddy Long on the 11/25/11 Smackdown. Both of these abortive attempts were initiated by Big Show knock out punches, so it was an exquisite irony that D-Bry ultimately won his first world title by pinning a prone Big Show after the World’s Strongest Man had planted the World’s Largest Athlete on a steel chair. This distinctly heelish piece of opportunism- just as with Punk on Hardy in 2009- started a tweener run that soon became full blown heel. And Daniel Bryan began to show a range nobody knew he had.

Bryan’s heel turn was brilliantly turned. He had done all he could as an underdog babyface, it was time for him to play the antagonist, which he did marvellously, escaping the clutches of the two giants he had provoked with his title win, all while developing a Randy Savage/Miss Elizabeth tribute act alongside AJ Lee, who was coming into her own as a character also. Perhaps most importantly, the American Bandwagon started to celebrate wildly at the end of even the most tainted or petty win by thrusting his hands in the air while yelling “YES!” In future years, that may become as important to wrestling history as “Stone Cold 3:16 says I just whupped your ass.” As crowds started to pick up on the chant, Bryan was booked in a Wrestlemania rematch of sorts with Sheamus, but with the heel/face poles reversed. Many have stated that the 18 second “match” that followed was a burial and spat in the face of fans who had come to see Bryan put on a clinic. I think the opposite. I think the 18 second loss was the most important step in the Aberdeen native’s journey to superstardom.

Think about it this way. WWE knew that Bryan was hugely over in April 2012. There was no way they could’ve failed to notice. They also knew that a smark heavy Miami crowd would react strongly to Bryan losing in quick and humiliating fashion. We all know what happened the night after Wrestlemania XXVIII. The fans chanted “YES” and they chanted it all night. They chanted it during The Rock’s promo, they chanted it at John Cena, they chanted it whenever and however they could. Daniel Bryan was made by that evening, and something has always told me that WWE knew that they would get that outcome. Far from burying Bryan, the 18 second loss assured his future success. Look what happened next; he and Sheamus finally got to put on that clinic in a thrilling two out three falls bout at Extreme Rules. Following that event, the submission specialist put on three legitimate match of the year contenders with CM Punk (one of which also featured Kane) for the WWE title, and then he and Kane were sent to Anger Management…

I’ve read certain people expressing the opinion that the comedy skits that followed were supposed to bury Bryan. What utter hogwash. Everyone knows Daniel Bryan can wrestle, but giving him a chance to develop his character to levels even Mick Foley would be proud of more or less assured him a lasting role at the top of the card. Guys who can wrestle and master their acting chops have it made in the house that Vince built. That is a fact. Anger Management and a spell propping up the tag division with Team Hell No did that for D-Bry. I’ve read other writers express disappointment that Bryan was in a seven minute midcard tag match at Wrestlemania XXIX. Again, I despair at such a blinkered opinion. That contest was not only a great deal of fun, it gave Hell No a well-deserved ‘Mania spotlight in a type of traditional midcard match that is too often absent from the Show of Shows in the modern day. I grew up with bouts like that at Wrestlemanias VI, VII and VIII and it saddens me to think that younger fans don’t value them for what they are. It did Bryan no harm at all to get yet another uber-stadium full of people chanting “YES”, put it that way.

As 2013 sped into the summer, it became very clear that D-Bry was due a main event push. When he was hand-picked by Cena to face him in the main event of Summerslam, the entire IWC held its collective breath for weeks on end as the programme gradually heated up. By the time Bryan got serious and called his future brother-in-law a “parody of a professional wrestler” the stage was set for something special and that was just what we got. The puroresu slap fest, the upside down in the corner Hulking Up, the coup-de-grace running knee strike…what a match it was, and at the end of it, the company poster boy lay in the middle of the ring and had his shoulders pinned to the mat for the count of three. None of this Hogan/Warrior “mistimed kick out” nonsense. No referee controversy. No cheap roll up. Bryan debuted a new finisher and beat Cena as clean as anyone ever has. I think people tend to forget this fact because of what happened afterwards. But bear this in mind; nobody is ever booked to beat the Franchise Player clean unless the top brass have something special in mind for them.

Can I also say that Orton’s Triple H sponsored cash in at the end of Summerslam was in no way a burial? It precipitated a main event programme that spanned three pay-per-views and had Orton constantly have to rely on Authority screwjobs to deny Bryan the title. I’ve argued back and forth with so many people about this for so long that I feel tired and ill even going back to it, but I’ll put this as concisely as I can. Like Mick Foley under his Mankind gimmick, the more Goat Face is held back, the more his ultimate victory means. Since the Rumble, many have smugly declared that they were right and that WWE have no intention of giving D-Bry his moment. Certainly, on the night, the lack of the American Dragon in the Rumble match seemed a peculiar decision, but like the 18 second loss to Sheamus, what if WWE planned the backlash? Now, this is certainly a risky strategy if it is, indeed, a planned path, but since the Royal Rumble, Bryan has been as prominent as ever on Raw and Smackdown; he’s confronted Triple H about his being kept out of the reverse battle royal, beat Orton clean, been given a #YesMovement hash tag and is clearly positioned as a major threat in the Elimination Chamber. To me, it all still points towards WWE deliberately keeping fans on the cusp of the Bryan break out to maximise the impact of his ascension to top dog status.

However, this is D-Bry we’re talking about, and the problem is now that whatever WWE do, a lot of fans will decide to be unhappy even in the best case scenario. I’ve read people say that “even if” Bryan gets a WWE title win at Wrestlemania or Extreme Rules that it “won’t be a long one”. I’ve read commentators claiming that the American Bandwagon will be overshadowed by the likes of Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt. I’ve even come across the absurdly outmoded idea that Bryan “won’t be taken seriously” by the company because of his height! This is a wrestler who has been in the main event portion of the card on a permanent basis since the summer and on a part time basis for the year before that. He has already made it; the “big moment” is just the icing on the cake, and it will come. And when it’s over, Bryan will be back in more main events after that. This is not a Benoit situation.

Time and again, people have compared the rise of Daniel Bryan to the rise of Stone Cold Steve Austin, while ironically ignoring the important part of the parallel; the Rattlesnake was ready for the main event in November 1996, when he faced Bret Hart for the first time. He was ready when he “won” the 1997 Royal Rumble after he was eliminated behind the officials’ backs. He was ready when he went back to the midcard to face Owen Hart for the Intercontinental Title at Summerslam ’97. What happened in the end? The gruff Texan won the belt from Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania XIV with Mike Tyson counting the three, ushering in a whole era in which Austin was the lynchpin. From King of the Ring ’96 to Wrestlemania XIV there were almost two years. Does anybody seriously think that Austin was buried by not winning the WWF Title sooner? Just like Steve Austin wasn’t buried, neither is Daniel Bryan being buried now…or in the future.

I don’t know what the American Dragon will be doing at Wrestlemania. I don’t know what will happen at Elimination Chamber. Professional wrestling is nothing if not inscrutable. But the experience of watching Bryan in WWE these past four years has led me to believe that the company are fully behind him and that we have a seriously thrilling Road to Wrestlemania still to navigate. Many say they are fed up of being patient. I say, calm down, and BE PATIENT.

This is Maverick, requesting flyby.

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