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 little regulation. I suppose it was a step up from decades prior when morbidly obese gentlemen could make a great living in the wrestling world with little movement. Haystacks Calhoun comes to mind. But the steroid abuse made the ideal wrestler body more attainable and more exaggerated.
Believability was everything. How could a small guy beat up the big guy twice his size with a Schwarzenegger physique? Simply, he couldn’t. A modern day wrestling fan would almost think that a guy like Hulk Hogan was an unlikely favorite. These days, the fans want to get behind an underdog.
Maybe we can thank the Rocky series for that shift in mentality. But in the world of professional wrestling, at least on the U.S. scale, big guys ruled. Goliath usually beat 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 so captivating, that fans couldn’t help but feed into them. Wrestlemania III may have been the first major instance of a technically sound athletic competition, maybe not overshadowing, but at least competing, with a highly promoted main event. Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat is one of the greatest matches in history and planted a seed in the mind of the wrestling fan. Hogan vs. Andre was a pivotal main event in a symbolic passing of the “face of the company” torch, but Savage/Steamboat was symbolic in another way. The match was important. The moves were important. The pacing was important. Wrestling fans didn’t know such stimulating action and acrobatics were possible.
Years later, we’d see another shift from the Hogan era, or what Bret Hart would refer to as a Jurassic period in wrestling. No longer would big, lumbering dinosaurs roam the ring. What had 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 in the family, so I had to be scrappy. One would have to grab a leg or an arm and apply a strategic submission 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 may have 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 to shine. The mark of a main event performer was tilting away from size and closer to skill. Of course, 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 the sharpshooter submission. And rival wrestling companies took notice.
In the mid-90s, ECW would begin to showcase hardcore wrestling, utilizing weapons to make a more stimulating product. But they would also introduce talent from Mexico, Japan, and Canada who were previously unknown to American wrestling fans. These wrestlers would bring high flying and technical wrestling skill to a new level and would be a big springboard plancha forward for great in-ring athletes like Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, 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 new and 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 looking for people with “the look.” That is, the bodybuilder type. So, it would take a while for WWE to truly gravitate toward the idea of a top card little guy, and would only bring much of that talent to their brand when WCW began to fall apart.
For the following decade, WWE was the only game in town. They would utilize smaller wrestlers much more than they did in the past, but the vast majority of the roster and the main event 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 own right, but the door would always be open a little wider for people who looked more like The Rock, Triple H, and Batista.
There were other wrestling organizations around to farm new talent from, but WWE liked to make their own stars. And they liked their stars to be loyal. So, they would have a fun, reality showstyle competition to find a new, exciting WWE Superstar called NXT. They would be successful in this endeavor, producing such current talents as Curtis Axel, Darren Young, Heath Slater, Wade Barrett, Titus O’Neil, Ryback, Bray Wyatt, and 10-year wrestling veteran Daniel Bryan.
Having wrestled everywhere around the world except for WWE, many fans of Bryan Danielson were confused as to why they would sign someone with so much experience and exposure as an NXT rookie. This would appear to be a deliberate jab at indie wrestling fans, as they would place him with The Miz as his mentor in the series. To jaded wrestling fans like myself, this was a smart jab, as it set up a logical conflict for Bryan to inevitably feud with his less 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, but nothing that would truly propel him into the limelight. Sometimes it takes a little more than consistent, quality matches to get over with the audience. He would eventually partner up with another greatly experienced wrestler who also had some trouble maintaining momentum in his career, Kane, forming Team Hell No. The two would be featured in a series of vignettes and promos where an anger management specialist would help them get along. The progression was legitimately funny and provided a creative way to push both superstars. They would argue with each other throughout matches and somehow pull out the win. But what really got the team over 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, Bryan could unleash his uniquely crazed fury of high flying and technical maneuvers that audiences were 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 any match on Raw. It was an onslaught and an attitude that dispersed a spore of passion throughout the arena.
Fans would begin chanting “Yes! Yes! Yes!”, the simplest of catch phrases that Bryan had implanted into the WWE Universe forever. “Yes!” has become as frequently used as Stone Cold’s “What?” in recent years, and it seems to be rooting itself into the essence of the pro wrestling audience as well as infiltrating other sports audiences. But Bryan’s rebellious popularity represented another movement that transcended WWE as it also seemed to represent 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 best wrestler in the WWE, and the “Yes Movement” was born. As Triple H and The Authority would attempt to squash the dreams of the people to have Daniel Bryan as their champion, the louder the fans chanted: “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
When Batista won the Royal Rumble, the fans protested. They had decided who they wanted their champion to be. The people wouldn’t be silenced, and at Wrestlemania 30, Bryan would compete in two matches, first defeating Triple H, then Batista and Randy Orton to become the WWE Champion.
However, sprinting off the ropes and diving to the outside multiple times in a row was a cursed style that would take a toll on Bryan’s body. It’s a style that’s as entertaining as it is temporary. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of wrestling that the WWE shies away from because of the dangers of it. Although the WWE seemed to truly hold Bryan back, it’s very possible that they 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 give up the title he had rightfully earned. Upon his eventual return to the following year’s Royal Rumble, he would be the fan favorite 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 popular Daniel Bryan was, for a point in time at least.
Bryan would go on to win the Intercontinental Title, which he would also be forced to vacate. The reckless style of the flying goat had caught up to Daniel Bryan. He wouldn’t be cleared to wrestle for nearly a year until finally, on this past Monday Night Raw, he announced his official retirement.
It was a tear jerker of a retirement speech. Much like Edge, he was forced to end his career far too early. The way he spoke passionately about getting that reaction from the audience, and how (Keyword) grateful he was for everything he had accomplished and for the love of the fans had struck a chord with me. As a comedian, I know that getting a reaction from any audience is one of the most surreal feelings in the world, and the fact that Daniel Bryan can’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’s best interest to not take chances with head trauma, especially with a fellow high impact, flying headbutting small guy.
There is a bright side though. Even though Daniel Bryan wasn’t on top for very long, he will be leaving a historic legacy. It’s no coincidence that WWE is finally reaching out to indie talent and world class performers after the success of Bryan. It’s an enormous milestone in WWE. Wrestlers are now flocking to NXT because they know that a guy who doesn’t have the traditional WWE “look” can make it. Daniel Bryan did that. He proved it could be done. There is no more standard. He proved that an internet/indie darling can hack it in the WWE, and may have even destroyed that longstanding bias.
Some of the most memorable wrestlers of all time were not originally with WWF. They were from other territories. And WWE, in their cutthroat wisdom, brought them in, and made them 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 influential than he realizes. Now, WWE fans will have to pay attention to outside companies, which will help the growth of the business as a whole. It will give hope and motivation to performers across the globe no matter their size. Given the influence and contributions of Daniel Bryan, David was finally able to conquer Goliath, and for that, the wrestling world is eternally grateful.