A year ago, as dozens of WWE superstars prepared for the “Royal Rumble” pay-per-view, one of the company’s biggest of the year, Daniel Bryan was still in the process of making one of the unlikeliest of comebacks in professional wrestling.
Bryan, who was forced to retire in 2016 after suffering multiple concussions, had fought for nearly two years to be cleared to return to the ring, serving as the general manager of “Smackdown Live” for much of that time.
Throughout his in-ring hiatus, Bryan had remained one of the most popular figures on WWE programming, and when it was announced that he would return to action last March, the news spread like wildfire through the wrestling world, filling fans with anticipation and excitement.
For Bryan, it was the end of a long, arduous journey, and a return to one of the things he is most passionate about in life.
“Announcing I was coming back really felt special to me because I was working so hard to come back and worked so hard to change people’s minds to allow them to let me come back,” Bryan told Yahoo Sports. “When I went out and did an interview saying I was back and then got attacked by Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens, there’s never been a happier man to get punched in the face than I was that night.”
Bryan’s rise to the top of WWE had almost been as unlikely as his return. At his peak, Bryan was as popular as some of the all-time greats. Fans cheered him the same way they did “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock, and Hulk Hogan in their heydays. After years without seeing Bryan perform in a ring, fans were hungry and eager to root for their beloved star.
With the drastic change in landscape in WWE, Bryan’s return provided him the opportunity to wrestle opponents for the first time on WWE programming, resume his ongoing feud with The Miz, and even team up with his wife, Brie Bella, for a match at “Hell in a Cell” last September.
For anyone else, it would have been easy just to continue to ride the wave of the “Yes Movement.” Bryan could have continued his career as a “face” and remained one of the top drawing stars in WWE, but he didn’t.
In one swift moment last November, Bryan turned “heel” and threw away all of the clout he had with the crowd, cheating to beat A.J. Styles and become WWE champion.
“One of the things that I really felt was that after I came back, as a character, I was very stagnant,” Bryan said. “I felt like it was the same Daniel Bryan that wrestled in 2014 and I wrestled the same way because people had certain expectations as to what they wanted Daniel Bryan to be, both fans and inside the company.
“It felt very stagnant and I was very excited to do something new and try some new things. The whole changing character allowed me to be whatever I want to be. It’s like a reset button. That’s a lot of fun.”
Introducing the “New” Daniel Bryan
The shocking turn has allowed the wrestling world to see exactly how good Bryan’s psychologically is. Since the change, Bryan has totally morphed as a character. Formerly a beloved underdog, the “New” Daniel Bryan totally flipped the script and is nearly universally booed when he appears on television and at live events.
“As soon as the decision was made I said to myself, I don’t want anyone to like me,” Bryan said. Miz and I see things differently on a lot of different levels, but one of the things I respect about him is that when he’s a bad guy, he doesn’t try to get cheered. I really felt like if I embraced that kind of attitude [it would work]. I’m not going to be the “cool” bad guy, there’s nothing cool about me, I couldn’t be cool if I wanted to. Some people do that but then you’re not a bad guy, you’re just cool. That was my mindset.”
In the weeks that followed, Bryan’s character evolved further, becoming radicalized and descending into lunacy, using his real-life convictions about climate change and passion for the environment to lash out at fans, other stars and, most recently, at WWE chairman Vince McMahon.
“I think it’s all in the way that you present something,” Bryan said. “Nobody likes the be told what to do and nobody likes to be told that they’re the problem, so I think that’s where it stems from. You tell people that they’re the problem. Everybody that I’m looking at, we’re all the problem. When you tell people that, they don’t like it and they don’t like it because it’s true.”
When you take a step back and consider just how quickly Bryan has alienated a fanbase that once showered him with affection, it is easy to see that he is putting on a master class in entertainment. Often considered among the best in the world as an in-ring performer, Bryan’s skills away from the mat are just as captivating.
“I always have confidence in my ability to get booed and I always have confidence in my ability — if needed — to get cheered,” Bryan said. “One of the instances of that was wrestling Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series. Managing the expectations of needing to get people to cheer me when I’m beating up Brock Lesnar, but at the end of it I need people to boo me and that happened. I’ve always had that confidence when it comes to wrestling but a lot of that comes from experience.”
Daniel Bryan is selfish, not selfless
One of the benefits of his heel turn has been Bryan’s ability to wrestle up-and-coming stars like Mustafa Ali. Bryan’s new persona has clashed well with Ali and allowed the “205 Live” star to become a more well-known name to casual wrestling fans. While it appears as if Bryan is helping to put young talent over, it’s not actually his intention.
“It’s not this selfless thing, it’s actually a selfish thing,” Bryan said. “I want to wrestle the best guys on the planet. Some of those best guys are on ‘205 Live.’ We have Gran Metalik here and he’s one of the best luchadors in the world and he’s on that show. Man, would I love to wrestle that guy in a mask vs. hair match. That’s sometimes where my passion gets ahead of me.”
On Sunday at the “Royal Rumble,” Bryan will defend his WWE championship against Styles, in what should be one of the highlights of the night. It’ll be the second straight pay-per-view event where the two stars face one another and it’s a match that may not have happened — certainly not with as much on the line — in a different time due to their smaller stature.
While Bryan helped change that perception over the past decade and Styles has cemented it since coming to WWE in 2016, it’s a movement the star refuses to take credit for.
“Some things were gonna happen naturally. Realistically, Rey Mysterio was doing this in 1996. Rey, Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, they were changing perceptions of size back then. For a while, that whole movement took a step backwards before moving forward again like it is now, but it was going to happen anyway.
“We have five hours of live television every week and who are the best people to fill that time? It’s going to be the people who can wrestle in the best and most entertaining ways. We live in a society where people don’t pay attention to something for long if it doesn’t interest them. Smaller guys are generally more exciting.”
A year ago it was difficult to imagine Daniel Bryan wrestling in a WWE ring, let alone being champion.
Thanks to his display of excellence both in the ring and on the microphone over the past several months, it’s hard to imagine WWE without the “New” Daniel Bryan.
“Royal Rumble” airs this Sunday on the WWE Network.
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