It has become cliche to blast the current WWE product. While the product does have shortcomings in the booking and over-saturation, this series of articles will be used to expound upon some of the positives happening in the current WWE Universe (I cringed typing that).
On March 30, 2002, The American Dragon and Low-Ki engaged in what I still consider to be one of the best independent matches of the 2000’s. The occasion was Ring of Honor’s second show in front of a few hundred fans in the Murphy Recreation Center. This match marked a strange journey these two competitors had taken from breaking out on the US independent scene a year earlier in the finals of the Super 8 Tournament. It is extremely odd to look back on this match considering the size of crowds both competitors would go on to wrestle in front of, and remember the sense of accomplishment everyone felt at the end of the match. Those guys have “made” it was a common superlative in the weeks following the match when buzz about the match grew after the DVD was released. Influential websites like deathvalleydriver.com were heaping praise on the American Dragon and calling him one of the best wrestlers in the world. Dave Meltzer was comparing him to the greats of the past such as Chris Benoit and Dynamite Kid, (full disclosure, I think Dynamite Kid kind of sucks).
All of this praise being garnered was great, but the facts remained. Bryan Danielson was a sub six-foot, under 200-pound man. He had a geeky look and was the furthest thing removed from the WWF/E roster heading into 2002-03. This would not stop him from dominating the indy scene as the hardcore fans accepted his wrestling superiority and welcomed his quirkiness, but there was a sense, especially during the 2005-2006 ROH world title reign, that this was Danielson’s peak in the wrestling business.
Danielson continued to work on his craft and got signed by the WWE in mid-2009. This was genuinely met with a certain sense of melancholy from the people who had followed his whole career. Danielson had shown glimpses of personality but it was unlikely the WWE would carry over his, “I have to five” routine. Danielson also performed best in long matches without any restrictions. My personal best case scenario for Danielson coming into the WWE would be a Jamie Noble type peak where he could find a gimmick that worked, and still be able to have excellent, high octane TV matches with an occasional PPV showcase.
Danielson was reincarnated as Daniel Bryan and entered into WWE as part of the NXT Season One contingent. He performed well in the competition, but it was clear where the WWE viewed his potential at the time as he was far behind other competitors that included Wade Barrett, David Otunga and even Justin Gabriel. The Nexus made a splash on WWE TV with a brutal beatdown, but Bryan was a real life casualty of the brutality as he was fired because of choking Justin Roberts with a tie. His return at the end of summer represented another slow rise to the top of the ranks. Bryan was losing more than he was winning but he was gaining a reputation with the fans and slowly building momentum in the eyes of management.
This momentum culminated in him winning the MITB ladder match in July, 2011. He even announced that he would cash it in at WrestleMania 28 which caused all sorts of fervor in the internet wrestling community because it signaled that finally the promotion was behind this guy. The run from July to December was littered with many stop/starts in regards to his acceleration up the card. Bryan would get continually beat up by the Heavyweight Champion at the time, Mark Henry. His only opportunity to win the championship looked to be if Henry was completely incapacitated. Fate intervened and when the Big Show won the championship from Henry at TLC 2012, Bryan was there to cash in his chance. After a long grueling match vs. Henry, Show didn’t have much left in the tank and on December 18, 2012, Daniel Bryan was the World Champion in the WWE.
His title reign was a successful in helping Bryan build a persona. His interactions with AJ Lee and slow heel turn showed his personality could blossom on the big WWE stage. His win/loss record as a champion wasn’t as solid as I would have liked, but did feature some strong moments like defending the title at the Royal Rumble. Everything was setting up to a high profile contest of Bryan vs. Sheamus at WrestleMania. Bryan lost the belt in less than 15 seconds in the opening match. I will admit to being one of the ones that was furious at this decision. All goodwill built up with how the WWE had been handling Bryan vanished in that moment. Like many things in life, though, the biggest triumphs come as a result of the deepest moments of despair. The Miami crowd reacted in a mob mentality after the match, serenading much of the first hour of WrestleMania with YES! chants. A message was sent that Bryan was still looked upon fondly by the WWE fans.
What has followed has been an emasculating year for Bryan fans. He has not won another World Championship, but has continued to rise up the ranks, and is now established as one of the main upper mid card members of the roster. He encountered Sheamus in a WrestleMania rematch at Extreme Rules that was fabulous, challenged CM Punk for the WWE championship, and teamed up with Kane, bringing stability back to the WWE tag titles that has been vacant since the days of the Hardy Boyz. Personality has also been a strong suit, his Dr. Shelby skits with Kane have been personal favorites of many fans, and the arenas erupt with YES! chants when he emerges. Sitting in the stands at WrestleMania 29, Bryan felt like one of the 4 or 5 most over people in the whole promotion.
Smackdown on May 31st ended with Bryan holding off the Shield by himself, proving that he was not a weak link. The crowd was whipped into a frenzy chanting YES! as the show went off the air. I was amazed at what I was watching. This smallish guy with a huge beard and gnarly hair is now one of the most beloved figures in a promotion that has centered itself for the past 30 years on steroid-inflicted competitors. I deep down knew Bryan had the character and workrate to make it in the WWE from watching him in the indies. I am just stunned that the person we see in main events right now is not that far removed from the person we saw defeat Low-Ki in 2002.
Check out the Where the Big Boys Play podcast for Chad’s thoughts on NWA and WCW supercards.