Legend of The American Dragon: How Daniel Bryan fought his way to the top of WWE

Legend of The American Dragon: How Daniel Bryan fought his way to the top of WWE

Perhaps it’s fitting that Daniel Bryan went out the way he came in: Kind of quietly.

That’s not to say he didn’t talk; his retirement speech was long and lovely and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house — including Bryan’s — when The Beard bid his farewell. But it was just that: a speech. There was no spewing of catchphrases, no leaving of the boots in the middle of the ring, no final “Yes!” Lock on some enemy who had escaped his grasp. The noise there came from the WWE Universe, whose screams of “Yes!” and “Dan-iel Bryyy-an” and “That’s what she said” (long story) seemed to punctuate every pause Bryan took. It was, more or less, a confession, a conversation, and a concession that his fight against glass ceilings, oversized opponents and his own body had finally come to an end.

I always want to do better. I never [felt] like, "OK, I made it."

- Daniel Bryan

As had become habit over the past few years, the WWE Universe refused to allow Daniel Bryan to play to a silent house, even in his moment of retirement. So when the former WWE World Heavyweight Champion finally said, in a quiet voice, that he was “grateful” for the support, it was easy to see why; they were cheering him even as he left. He asked for one more “Yes!” chant, was obliged, and that was it. No pageant wave; no pose atop the ramp; no tip of the hat from The Undertaker. He was gone.

Legend of The American Dragon: How Daniel Bryan fought his way to the top of WWE

Much like his goodbye, Bryan’s path to WWE Superstardom was as unconventional as it got; more than most, he followed a trajectory that was even more unlikely than he seemed to give it credit for — one that might have forced a less tenacious athlete to give up long before his body made the decision for him.

One of the saddest things about Bryan admitting he couldn’t fight anymore was that fighting seemed to be all he ever did. If you saw him work in the ring, you quickly realized that Bryan’s what-me-worry personality was a convincing façade, an unassuming mask that belied a killer instinct and the work ethic of a Clydesdale. Fire him from WWE, and he’d show up in an armory the next day selling his own merch. Injure his shoulder and he’d just have to tap you out with one hand. Steal the WWE World Heavyweight Title from him, and he’d come back faster and harder to get it back.

“I always feel like I have to do better, and that’s one of the things that drives me forward and has made me the wrestler I am, because I [never felt] like, ‘OK, now I made it,’” Daniel Bryan told WWE.com in 2013.

If anyone ever made it, it was Daniel Bryan: His was a career full of hirings, firings, three-letter words, 18-second humiliations with a payday of riches, 10-minute draws that netted him $50 on a good day, codes of honor, goat faces, Big Red Monsters and, at one point, an honest-to-goodness eye patch, all leading up to an emotional retirement on the Feb. 8, 2015, edition of Monday Night Raw. That’s hardly the route The Rock took, but it’s one that made Daniel Bryan a champion all the same. And it’s a story that went largely untold within WWE until relatively recently.

A 5-foot-8 sparkplug from Washington state who was inspired to pursue professional wrestling by WCW’s famed Cruiserweight division, Daniel Bryan first tasted the mat under the tutelage of Shawn Michaels in what has become a small piece of both their legends. Even then, at the dawn of his career, there were traces of the champion Daniel Bryan would one day become. In what would develop into a trend, Bryan distinguished himself from his fellow would-be wrestlers in his very first session under Michaels, a cardio crash course consisting of endless rolls around the mat.

“Everybody in our class threw up except me and Lance Cade,” Bryan said.

Michaels’ seal of approval would prove an early leg up in one of the most viciously competitive businesses in the world. In fact, the first time Daniel Bryan found himself in the employ of Mr. McMahon in 2000, it was directly owed to the The Showstopper's co-sign.

“Shawn got us a tryout match with WWE in Austin, Texas. It was me and a guy named Shooter Schultz against Brian Kendrick & Lance Cade in a tag team match,” said Bryan. “They gave us 10 minutes, we got to go out there and do everything we could possibly do, and then they signed all four of us to developmental deals.”

While training in WWE’s Memphis, Tenn., developmental promotion, Bryan met and was mentored by William Regal, and he received a unique opportunity for a WWE prospect: He was also allowed to wrestle elsewhere, most notably in a “Super 8 tournament.” His participation was a rare exception for a competitor training under WWE’s umbrella, and — in what would develop into another trend — the young grappler made the most of the opportunity. Over the course of the 2001 event run by the East Coast Wrestling Association, he made it past Kendrick — “Spanky,” as Bryan calls him — and Reckless Youth before falling to Low Ki in the final. Despite the loss, the exposure proved invaluable.

“That really put my name out there,” Bryan said. “I was very fortunate.”

Somewhat less fortunate was the way in which Bryan’s first period in WWE came to a close. Ironically, it was the acquisition of Eric Bischoff’s famous cruiserweights — the same ones that inspired Bryan to lace ’em up in the first place — that forced The Beard out the door.

“They had a million guys like us who had more experience and had already been on TV,” he said. “So that’s when I started working the indies.”

Much has been made of Bryan’s years in bingo halls and armories in the abstract, but the truth is you’d have to travel far and wide to find a competitor so beloved by a core audience.

Michaels’ influence and those side-project trips — stints in Japan, the Super 8 tournament and a “King of the Indies” bracket in 2001 that Bryan won — helped him get his name out before WWE bid him farewell. But the myth of Daniel Bryan mainly originated from his time in the independent promotion Ring of Honor, where he's acknowledged as a “Founding Father” of the company and helped, in large part, to build a grassroots fan base for what was, then, a word-of-mouth-dependent promotion.

“We had 2,000 people in New York City coming to something because they’ve heard how good it is, or they’ve seen it live and loved it so much that they’re gonna keep coming,” Bryan said.

Those willing to do some digging can find the fruits of those efforts, wherein Bryan — sometimes bearded, sometimes bald — does battle in situations nearly unfathomable in a post–Attitude Era world. In 2006 alone, he rumbled with a pre-WWE Cesaro in an inter-promotional “Cage of Death” Match; fought with a bad shoulder against the Japanese wrestler KENTA (now Hideo Itami in WWE NXT); and brawled in England against hometown hero Nigel McGuinness to unify ROH’s World Heavyweight and Pure Wrestling Championships — a bout Bryan won by knockout and considers one of his best ever.

We had 2,000 people in New York City coming to something because they've heard how good it is.

- Daniel Bryan

The efficient, unpredictable style with which he competed and the various championships he won soon earned him the reputation of “the best wrestler in the world.” It also made it a no-brainer for Bryan’s bosses to appoint him as one of the company’s featured performers.

“When you come up in the WWE developmental system, you’re so assimilated you don’t know it could be different,” Bryan said. “For example, in Ring of Honor … never once did I have to say, ‘Hey I deserve this match or this opportunity.’ They never looked at me and said, ‘Hey, you’re not marketable’ or anything like that.”

For close to 10 years, Bryan competed in Ring of Honor and — taking advantage of the indies’ freedom — several other promotions. He even flirted with a WWE return briefly, wrestling a tryout match on Velocity in 2003 against John Cena that has since become a cult classic among fans.

At only one point did Bryan ever contemplate throwing in the towel: after a particularly brutish match where the Japanese wrestler Takeshi Morishima rained a hailstorm of fists on Bryan’s face that detached his retina. Bryan’s mother drove him to the ophthalmologist. His sister begged him to quit. And for the only time until he actually did hang up his boots in 2016, as he remembered it, Daniel Bryan thought, “OK, this might not be good.”

“My dad was the one who said, ‘Listen, I work at a paper mill 60 hours a week. You get to go out there, live your dream and do what you want to do,’ ” Bryan said. “[He said] ‘Don’t pass that up. You can come back here and do this with me any time you want.’ ”

Long story short: He threw on an eye patch and did just that. In fact, Bryan wrestled Morishima again, a year later, in a lawless “Fight Without Honor” that unspooled in New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom at the Manhattan Center (across the street from Madison Square Garden), as perfect a wrestling mecca as has ever existed.

My dad was the one who said ... live your dream and do what you want to do.

- Daniel Bryan

No good thing lasts forever, though, and despite a few nibbles from WWE, notably another tryout match in 2008 against Lance Cade, the big dance had so far eluded the best wrestler in the world. In 2009, when Bryan’s Ring of Honor contract was up, mounting injuries and that unfinished degree were hanging over the head of “The American Dragon,” and he seriously contemplated — in his words — “focusing on becoming an adult.”

Wrestling, he reasoned, could be just a weekend occupation while he prepared to begin the rest of his life. All things considered, he could hang up the boots and call it a good career.

Right on cue, Spanky came a-callin’ with a summons to Oakland, Calif., where the twosome cut a few backstage segments to potentially bring them together as a WWE tag team that would have seen Bryan become “The” partner to “The” Brian Kendrick. Reaction to the duo’s backstage work from WWE officials was positive, but once again, an unexpected firing seemed to derail Daniel Bryan’s path to the big leagues.

“They said they kind of liked it, and then Brian Kendrick got let go,” Bryan said. “I thought, ‘Oh, for sure nothing’s happening.’ So I was preparing for what I needed to do and then, literally, two or three weeks after Brian got let go, John Laurinaitis called me up and offered me the deal.”

And so it was, for the second time, Daniel Bryan found himself in the employ of Mr. McMahon … as a rookie?

“[NXT] was very interesting and wild to be part of,” Bryan said of the famously unorthodox game show where he debuted alongside fellow future stalwarts like King Barrett, Darren Young and Ryback in what was a noble experiment to potentially change the way WWE introduced new talent to its viewers. Bryan was given perhaps the strangest introduction of the bunch, marketed as the talented-yet-unassuming rookie of The Miz.

“Right away, people who were fans of me were mad that they were putting me as a Rookie with The Miz as my Pro,” Bryan said. “[And] most of the audience that had never seen me before started to feel bad for me. I got that role of the underdog.”

Given Bryan’s world-renowned reputation at that point, it was an odd development to say the least, but he didn’t gripe over a perceived lack of respect. Instead, he immediately set about figuring a way to make NXT work to his advantage.

“I had this idea of what I wanted NXT to be for me. I came out in very basic gear — I had better gear — with the idea thinking, ‘If I have a mentor, obviously Miz is going to have a very hard time teaching me how to wrestle,’ ” Bryan explained. “So I came in as pale as I possibly could, in basic gear because I thought he might try to jazz me up and make me an entertainer.”

Alas, Daniel Bryan as “Miz Jr.” never came to pass. But he struck a chord with the crowd all the same and quickly found himself in marquee matches, like a five-minute rumble with then–World Heavyweight Champion Chris Jericho. Slowly but surely, what started as sympathy turned into full-blown support from the WWE Universe.

Sympathy didn’t stick with Bryan for long. When he and the other NXT Rookies came to the WWE roster as The Nexus, Bryan became an unexpected casualty of their history-making attack on the WWE locker room. Days later, Daniel Bryan was released from WWE for the second time.

“Mr. McMahon has called me twice in my life,” Bryan said back in 2013. “Once was [to offer me] that tryout match in 2008. And the second time he called me was on the Friday after [The Nexus’ debut]. Mr. McMahon called to personally release me, himself.”

The WWE Chairman was apologetic in future-endeavoring one of his newest charges, but Bryan told him not to worry. After that fateful phone call with Mr. McMahon, Bryan made one other call — this time to Gabe Sapolsky, a former executive at Ring of Honor. Just days after being dismissed by the most powerful sports-entertainment company on the face of the Earth, Daniel Bryan wrestled at a convention hall in Detroit, against a competitor named Eddie Kingston.

The crowd was small potatoes by most standards. More people tend to mill around the loading dock at Raw when WWE Superstars make their entrances. Yet, based on the reaction, Bryan may as well have been Triple H at Madison Square Garden, returning after the quadriceps surgery that saved his career.

As another controversial star once said, the cream rises to the top. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that, for all the good vibes it garnered among his grassroots fan base, Bryan’s stint in WWE exile didn’t last long. Just a few months after his release, “The American Dragon” returned to the promised land once more and found himself — for the third time — under the employ of WWE. This time he stayed there, and he threw himself into his work like he never had before, applying his nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic from the independent circuit to everything he did in order to elevate the WWE experience to new heights.

“The success that I felt with 2,500 people from that Morishima match, I want that success here, but it’s got to be infinitely expanded because our audience is infinitely expanded,” Bryan said. “I want it to be like with ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and The Rock where, everywhere we go, it’s 18,000 people in the arena."

He certainly did his part to put butts in the seats, taking them on a rollercoaster of a journey over a whirlwind four years’ time that included the highest of highs (a beloved tag-team with Kane and the invention of the “Yes!” chant) and lowest of lows (an 18-second loss at WrestleMania XXVIII). The wave crested, initially, at SummerSlam 2013, when Bryan captured his first WWE Championship by defeating none other than Cena himself, 10 years after their first match on Velocity. To finish Cena off for good, Bryan used a running Busaiku Knee to the head, a favorite of his old rival KENTA.

John Cena vs. Daniel Bryan - WWE Championship Match: SummerSlam 2013

Daniel Bryan challenges John Cena for the WWE Championship in the main event of SummerSlam.

I realized early on that you can get where you want to be just based on being good.

- Daniel Bryan

Bryan’s win was a big one. For him, yes, but also for the type of competitor he represented, and for the fans — both WWE Universe members and the nameless legions that crammed into armories to watch him — who stuck it out with him along the way. But what happened next was the true sign of how many lives he'd touched: After a few months of trading title wins with Randy Orton, Bryan still hadn't had a proper stint at the top, and the WWE Universe refused to allow him to be shuffled back down the card.

Bryan’s fans — the “Yes!” Movement, as they’d come to be known — rose up in droves, overwhelming almost every match or interview that didn't involve him until Bryan found himself in the main event of WrestleMania 30, where he beat both Orton and a returning Batista to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. The next night, the WWE Universe showered him with bellows of "Yes!" and "Dan-iel Bryyy-an" like they always had. However, they supplemented those chestnuts with a chant that hadn't been heard much up to that point: "You deserve it."

Daniel Bryan celebrates his WWE World Heavyweight Championship victory at WrestleMania 30: Raw, April 7, 2014

The New WWE World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan addresses the proud members of The "Yes!" Movement.

Bryan, given his personality, demurred. But that reception was a validation nonetheless, of both his scraping and clawing, and the philosophy in which that, and that alone, would be enough in the long run.

“I realized early on that you can get where you want to be just based on being good," Bryan said. "You don’t have to politic, you don’t have to be anybody’s buddy, you don’t have to do any of that kind of stuff. You can get there through hard work.”

Unfortunately, his body wouldn’t allow him to stay there.

The most disheartening part of Bryan's legend, of course, is its conclusion: Injuries felled him in consecutive years, forcing him to vacate the WWE World Heavyweight Title in 2014 after only one (albeit very entertaining) title defense, and then the Intercontinental Championship in 2015 following a brief comeback that saw him return in triumph to WrestleMania 31. In Feb. 2016, Bryan finally retired, citing the combined effects of several concussions as the motivation behind his exit.

As for what Daniel Bryan does next, even he doesn’t seem to know. Yet, the idea of uncertainty doesn’t seem all that bad to him. Hardship has clearly fueled him. And if the WWE Universe is left to understand one thing as Daniel Bryan departs WWE, it’s that he, more than most, lived for the fight. True, he’s not all that assuming. He’s the undersized guy with the gimpy shoulder and caveman beard; the guy who didn’t pass gym and tops out at 5-foot-8, 200 pounds. But don’t underestimate him. Whatever you do, don’t count him out. Because he never stopped fighting back until the day he couldn’t do it anymore, and all there was left for him to say was “Thank you” – when the truth of the matter is, we were lucky to ever have him at all. 

Legend of The American Dragon: How Daniel Bryan fought his way to the top of WWE

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