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WWE Talk: On Daniel Bryan, Indy wrestling, NXT

Daniel Bryan retired on RAW last Monday.Getty Images

It’s not easy making it as a small guy in professional wrestling. In this case, “small” would

be fairly average. There was a standard set early on in the sport’s history for what a pro wrestler

was supposed to look like. The bigger, the better. Steroids were starting to be abused more and more in the 1980s; not just in wrestling, but in all sports, and there was very littleregulation. I suppose it was a step up from decades prior when morbidly obese gentlemen couldmake a great living in the wrestling world with little movement. Haystacks Calhoun comes tomind. But the steroid abuse made the ideal wrestler body more attainable and moreexaggerated.

Believability was everything. How could a small guy beat up the big guy twice his sizewith a Schwarzenegger physique? Simply, he couldn’t. A modern day wrestling fan wouldalmost think that a guy like Hulk Hogan was an unlikely favorite. These days, the fans want toget behind an underdog.

Maybe we can thank the Rocky series for that shift in mentality. But inthe world of professional wrestling, at least on the U.S. scale, big guys ruled. Goliath usuallybeat David, and we were fine with that. It made sense.

Once in a blue moon, you’d have a smaller wrestler who was so dynamic and socaptivating, that fans couldn’t help but feed into them. WrestlemaniaIIImay have been the firstmajor instance of a technically sound athletic competition, maybe not overshadowing, but atleast competing, with a highly promoted main event. Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat is oneof the greatest matches in history and planted a seed in the mind of the wrestling fan. Hoganvs. Andre was a pivotal main event in a symbolic passing of the “face of the company” torch, butSavage/Steamboat was symbolic in another way. The match was important. The moves wereimportant. The pacing was important. Wrestling fans didn’t know such stimulating action andacrobatics were possible.

Years later, we’d see another shift from the Hogan era, or what Bret Hart would refer toas a Jurassic period in wrestling. No longer would big, lumbering dinosaurs roam the ring. Whathad previously been the heel psychology of using wit and technical skill to beat your opponent(because intelligence was evil in the 80s) was becoming the moveset of a babyface.

Personally, I think this related more to kids. As a little brother, I didn’t have the power inthe family, so I had to be scrappy. One would have to grab a leg or an arm and apply a strategicsubmission maneuver (i.e. twisting a limb as hard as you can until they stop punching you).

But one could also look at this sub­cultural shift another way. A maturing fanbase mayhave started to want more than just over­the­top punches and stationary big boots. So,fascinating technical wizards like Bret Hart and thrilling high flyers like Shawn Michaels began toshine. The mark of a main event performer was tilting away from size and closer to skill. Ofcourse, they could also sell a match. No one ever gets over without being able to talk people into the building, and fans wanted to see the cocky Heartbreak Kid suffering from thesharpshooter submission. And rival wrestling companies took notice.

In the mid­-90s, ECW would begin to showcase hardcore wrestling, utilizing weapons tomake a more stimulating product. But they would also introduce talent from Mexico, Japan, andCanada who were previously unknown to American wrestling fans. These wrestlers would bringhigh flying and technical wrestling skill to a new level and would be a big springboard planchaforward for great in-­ring athletes like Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, ChrisBenoit, and many more. Many of these wrestlers would be scooped up by WWF’s major rival,WCW, wisely placing them at the very start of Monday Nitro to grab fans with something newand different that you couldn’t see anywhere else on TV.

And they were right. ECW didn’t have a network deal and WWF was mostly still lookingfor people with “the look.” That is, the bodybuilder type. So, it would take a while for WWE totruly gravitate toward the idea of a top card little guy, and would only bring much of that talent totheir brand when WCW began to fall apart.

For the following decade, WWE was the only game in town. They would utilize smallerwrestlers much more than they did in the past, but the vast majority of the roster and the mainevent would be inhabited by men who had that coveted personal trainer appearance. Jericho,Benoit, and Guerrero would have their time in the spotlight, and made great strides in their ownright, but the door would always be open a little wider for people who looked more like TheRock, Triple H, and Batista.

There were other wrestling organizations around to farm new talent from, but WWE likedto make their own stars. And they liked their stars to be loyal. So, they would have a fun, realityshow­style competition to find a new, exciting WWE Superstar called NXT. They would besuccessful in this endeavor, producing such current talents as Curtis Axel,Darren Young, Heath Slater, Wade Barrett, Titus O’Neil, Ryback, Bray Wyatt, and 10­-yearwrestling veteran Daniel Bryan.

Having wrestled everywhere around the world except for WWE, many fans of BryanDanielson were confused as to why they would sign someone with so much experience andexposure as an NXT rookie. This would appear to be a deliberate jab at indie wrestling fans, asthey would place him with The Miz as his mentor in the series. To jaded wrestling fans likemyself, this was a smart jab, as it set up a logical conflict for Bryan to inevitably feud with hisless experienced “mentor.”

After the NXT rookies became The Nexus, and the Nexus storyline came and went,Bryan was left with few options. He would have some successful feuds here and there, butnothing that would truly propel him into the limelight. Sometimes it takes a little more thanconsistent, quality matches to get over with the audience. He would eventually partner up withanother greatly experienced wrestler who also had some trouble maintaining momentum in hiscareer, Kane, forming Team Hell No. The two would be featured in a series of vignettes andpromos where an anger management specialist would help them get along. The progressionwas legitimately funny and provided a creative way to push both superstars. They would arguewith each other throughout matches and somehow pull out the win. But what really got the teamover was Bryan’s insanely relentless hot tags.

Daniel Bryan was in a great spot on the card, being involved in a love triangle(sometimes square) storyline with AJ Lee, CM Punk, and Kane. Throughout this time, Bryancould unleash his uniquely crazed fury of high flying and technical maneuvers that audienceswere beginning to pop for. When Bryan would tag in or just rally a comeback in a singles match,he would showcase an explosion of offense which proved to be the most exciting part of anymatch on Raw. It was an onslaught and an attitude that dispersed a spore of passion throughoutthe arena.

Fans would begin chanting “Yes! Yes! Yes!”, the simplest of catch phrases that Bryanhad implanted into the WWE Universe forever. “Yes!” has become as frequently used as StoneCold’s “What?” in recent years, and it seems to be rooting itself into the essence of the prowrestling audience as well as infiltrating other sports audiences. But Bryan’s rebelliouspopularity represented another movement that transcended WWE as it also seemed torepresent and mimic the “Occupy” movement that had occurred two years prior.

He was challenging The Authority. He was overcoming the obstacles he was born into.The people were fed up with the business politics holding down who they deemed to be the bestwrestler in the WWE, and the “Yes Movement” was born. As Triple H and The Authority wouldattempt to squash the dreams of the people to have Daniel Bryan as their champion, the louderthe fans chanted: “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

When Batista won the Royal Rumble, the fans protested. They had decided who theywanted their champion to be. The people wouldn’t be silenced, and at Wrestlemania 30, Bryanwould compete in two matches, first defeating Triple H, then Batista and Randy Orton tobecome the WWE Champion.

However, sprinting off the ropes and diving to the outside multiple times in a row was acursed style that would take a toll on Bryan’s body. It’s a style that’s as entertaining as it istemporary. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of wrestling that the WWE shies away from because ofthe dangers of it. Although the WWE seemed to truly hold Bryan back, it’s very possible thatthey were merely trying to protect their talent, and their investment. But it was too late for Bryan.

The damage had been done. This time he would need neck surgery and would be forced to giveup the title he had rightfully earned.Upon his eventual return to the following year’s Royal Rumble, he would be the fanfavorite once again. The WWE Universe needed him to win; so much so, that Roman Reigns’victory and subsequent fanbase took a major hit for Bryan NOT winning. That’s how popularDaniel Bryan was, for a point in time at least.

Bryan would go on to win the Intercontinental Title, which he would also be forced tovacate. The reckless style of the flying goat had caught up to Daniel Bryan. He wouldn’t becleared to wrestle for nearly a year until finally, on this past Monday Night Raw, he announcedhis official retirement.

It was a tear jerker of a retirement speech. Much like Edge, he was forced to end hiscareer far too early. The way he spoke passionately about getting that reaction from theaudience, and how (Keyword) grateful he was for everything he had accomplished and for thelove of the fans had struck a chord with me. As a comedian, I know that getting a reaction fromany audience is one of the most surreal feelings in the world, and the fact that Daniel Bryancan’t practice his passion in life anymore or feel that sensation again hit hard.

It’s a harsh reality of the sport. Ever since the Chris Benoit incident, it’s in everyone’sbest interest to not take chances with head trauma, especially with a fellow high impact, flyingheadbutting small guy.

There is a bright side though. Even though Daniel Bryan wasn’t on top for very long, hewill be leaving a historic legacy. It’s no coincidence that WWE is finally reaching out to indietalent and world class performers after the success of Bryan. It’s an enormous milestone inWWE. Wrestlers are now flocking to NXT because they know that a guy who doesn’t have thetraditional WWE “look” can make it. Daniel Bryan did that. He proved it could be done. There isno more standard. He proved that an internet/indie darling can hack it in the WWE, and mayhave even destroyed that longstanding bias.

Some of the most memorable wrestlers of all time were not originally with WWF. Theywere from other territories. And WWE, in their cutthroat wisdom, brought them in, and madethem into national icons. Now they have a chance to do the same thing with indies. Daniel Bryan’s Yes Movement was more than just a storyline, and it may have been more influentialthan he realizes. Now, WWE fans will have to pay attention to outside companies, which willhelp the growth of the business as a whole. It will give hope and motivation to performers acrossthe globe no matter their size. Given the influence and contributions of Daniel Bryan, David wasfinally able to conquer Goliath, and for that, the wrestling world is eternally grateful.

 

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