There was no wrestler this decade hotter than Daniel Bryan from 2013 to 2014. No wrestler more universally beloved and supported than Daniel Bryan from 2013 to 2014. No wrestler that harnessed that crowd’s support and turned it into a movement better than Daniel Bryan from 2013 to 2014. However despite all its success there are very few stories more unlikely than the story of Daniel Bryan from 2013 to 2014.
It is a story that only three years before you would have been laughed at for predicting. It shined a spotlight on so much of the creative tension that had been building up between the WWE and its fan base for years and acts as a landmark in the change of the company from its internally developed talent systems of the 2000s to the more broad, indy centric approach that we have seen deployed in the later years of the decade.
At the center of it sits Daniel Bryan, a wrestler who in so many ways stood as the absolute opposite of what Vince McMahon and the WWE looked for in a top guy in the mid 00s. Brian Danielson built his name as the indy wrestler’s indy wrestler throughout the 00s. He wrestled everywhere from the US to Europe to Japan, reigned as Ring of Honor champion and took out so many Wrestling Observer end of year awards they named the technical wrestling one after him.
You would think this experience would make him a fantastic candidate to become a pro wrestler on the biggest stage on offer? Well not according to WWE logic at that time. Throughout the 00s the WWE would take in experienced wrestlers to act as guiding hands but their primary focus would be developing their own stars by investing in bodybuilders, athletes and reality TV stars recruited from gyms the world over. In Vince McMahon’s eyes, looking the part was as important as competently being able to play the part and in comparison to the Adonises the WWE pushed as top guys: John Cena, Batista, Triple H, Randy Orton or even the Chris Masters like wrestlers they tried to get to that point, you might charitably call the 5’10 Daniel Bryan’s look functional rather than flattering.
Given all of this it was certainly interesting when news broke that Brian Danielson had signed a contract with the WWE and would be debuting in 2010. Fans of the man renamed Daniel Bryan crossed their fingers but hardly held their breath as he entered the debut season of NXT, promptly got fired as the fall guy for the NXT invasion and returned to slowly work his way up the WWE midcard.
If you had to pinpoint exactly when The Yes Movement started it would have to be the night after Bryan’s greatest humiliation, an eighteen second loss to Sheamus to kick off Wrestlemania 28. On the post-Mania Raw fans dismayed at the way their hero had been treated the night before rebelled by adopting the “YES!” chants Bryan had been doing to the ring as a way of hijacking the show and cheering the man who was meant to be a bad guy. Hot on the heels of CM Punk’s pipebomb it felt like the newly empowered die hard fans were drawing a line in the sand saying, ‘we’ve seen you screw wrestlers over before but we won’t let you get away with it with this one’.
Beyond his in ring skill there is just something incredibly likeable and relatable about Daniel Bryan. His passion and drive was infectious and despite him occupying rarefied air in terms of his pure wrestling ability he still felt like the kind of guy who could be your next door neighbour, the kind of guy you might walk your dog with. He also led the crowd in something that felt very positive and was so easy to get swept up in, as a fan you just wanted this guy to succeed.
The genius of the Yes Movement was that while the WWE could see that the crowd wanted Bryan, they made him fight for every inch and constantly put him against wrestlers that would draw out the greatest ire of the crowd. By the time he got to Summer Slam 2013, a full sixteen months on from Wrestlemania 28 and John Cena named him as challenger for the WWE Championship, Bryan’s fans were red hot with anticipation.
It is a strange irony that while the story became about the fans versus the on screen representation of the WWE, backstage the WWE actually got so many things right in building it up.
Putting him against Cena was another masterstroke. In the early 2010s it is no exaggeration to say the WWE was John Cena. Cena was a completely company made man who had become the ever present entity at the top of the card and the most pure representation of the WWE status quo Bryan so obviously could never meet.
In the leadup to their match Vince McMahon himself would appear and tell Bryan that if he wanted to take Cena’s place as ‘the face of the WWE’ he would need to change: replacing Bryan shirt with a suit and forcing him to dress and act in a corporate manner. Bryan reluctantly played along but when Wade Barrett was assigned to shave off Bryan’s trademark beard it was a bridge too far, Bryan rebelled, shaving Barrett’s beard and refusing to change for an irate McMahon.
This was peak reality era booking, playing out in the ring the perceived backstage politics. Everything about Bryan made him the absolute perfect under dog for the crowd to cheer against the perceived ‘company man’, Cena.
The match would play into the assigned roles too with Bryan acting as the pure wrestler using his skill and technique to methodically take down the more flashy and powerful Cena. As the match progresses Bryan answers more an more of Cena’s moveset with counters until in the end he has countered every move in the champ’s arsenal and to the delight of a red hot crowd pulled out a new move of his own, the flying knee, giving him a win over the biggest name in the company at the company’s second biggest show of the year. Even if everything ended there it would have been a great story but the magic was just getting started.
Summer Slam 2013 wouldn’t have a happy ending. Daniel Bryan’s celebration would be cut short by Triple H attacking him from behind and Randy Orton cashing in his Money In The Bank contract to walk away with the WWE Championship Bryan had just emptied himself to win.
If Bryan was the perfect face for the early 10s, The Authority were perhaps the most perfect heel faction the WWE could have ever Frankenstein together for the Reality Era. Led by Triple H who still sported a well earned reputation from the early 00s of burying wrestlers who didn’t match up to his standards and by his side Stephanie McMahon, the equally disliked daughter of Vince who by then had received a wrap in the dirt sheets for promoting the company line at all costs. The power couple wielded their authority with reckless abandon up and down the card and brandished the brilliant slogan “best for business” like it was a religious mantra.
What they deemed best for business was to quash the dreams of the crowd, reinforcing every dirt sheet ever published about Vince McMahon’s thoughts on wrestling. They labelled Daniel Bryan a B+ Player who had plenty of attitude but didn’t have the look or pedigree to be the true face of a company like WWE. In Bryan’s place would stand Randy Orton, a wrestler who, much like Cena, was a company man through and through. Unlike Cena Orton never felt like he earnt the limelight he was afforded, Triple H handpicked him early in his career and he had been allowed to coast his way to the pinnacle of the industry. In the ring Orton was incredibly talented but he was liable to take it as easy as he could get away with, he certainly wasn’t the kind of guy who would ever put on a show for 20 poor souls in a bingo hall. Backstage, where other wrestlers would have been sacked for things Orton did, the golden child got off with a slap on the wrist. No one on the roster could have so completely represented the perceived privilege of being one of the company’s chosen few . The contrast with the rag-tag indy darling could not have been more stark.
For three PPVs straight The Authority used every trick in the book to deny Daniel Bryan and his legion of fans: dodgy refs, cheap shots, hiring The Shield as bodyguards, forcing other wrestlers to do their bidding. In the end they even had Bryan’s first ever wrestling coach Shawn Michaels turn on him to deny him his rightful position at the top of the company.
After all that treatment the crowd was ready to see Bryan eventually get his comeuppance.
The problem was that despite writing the perfect underdog tale that the crowd had bought into wholeheartedly, after only a few months the WWE seemed to turn their back on it. Instead of giving Bryan his win and allowing him to reign as champion, Randy Orton got the decisive win in the feud. Orton progressed onto another main event series while Bryan was moved back to the midcard to feud with the recently debuted Bray Wyatt.
It was at this point that the crowd went from boistrious to rabid.
A microcosm of it all came on the night Bryan’s fans completely ruined a title unification ceremony on Raw. In a segment the WWE had surely scripted to be a dignified moment fitting the historic unification of The World Heavyweight Championship and The WWE Championship, the crowd simply refused to play along, chanting for Bryan over the top of anyone trying to get a word in and ignoring numerous attempts from the normally beloved names of Shawn Michaels and Mark Henry to bring attention back where it was supposed to be. It took John Cena going completely off script and offering Bryan first shot at the title to regain some semblance of control over the crowd the WWE had incited.
This simply wasn’t the story these fans wanted to see, they didn’t want John Cena to conquer the Authority, they wanted it to be Bryan. They were sick of going along with the story when it wasn’t what they wanted and chose to ruin anything the WWE served up that wasn’t Daniel Bryan getting his payback. It sounds now like a petulant child chucking a tantrum but in a world where for years it had been said by the WWE itself in countless backstage documentaries, in ring promos and in official media releases that the guy who gets cheered is meant to get the push, Daniel Bryan was getting the most universal love anyone had og tin years and it truly looked like the WWE were trying to screw him out of what he had rightfully earned.
To the WWE’s shame that is exactly what they were doing. Despite writing the perfect underdog story, they did everything they could to pivot away from Daniel Bryan. We now know that the WWE had originally planned to put Bryan against Sheamus in a midcard match at Wrestlemania 30 so when it looked like in leadup to Wresltmania season the WWE were trying to cool Bryan down it only made his fans chant and cheer louder… and of course booo everyone else louder as well.
This battle hit fever pitch at the 2014 Royal Rumble where the crowd once again ensured their voice was heard. To those following the story it felt the perfect time for Bryan to re-enter the main event scene but the match was won by the returning Dave Batista. Of course, Vince McMahon chose Batista to be the challenger to Randy Orton at Wrestlemania 30. You only need to look at Daniel Bryan and Batista for ten seconds to know which one Vince McMahon would pick. Hot on the heels of the success of The Rock v John Cena, it made perfect business sense to set up a match between a returning wrestler turned Hollywood star against one of the company’s golden children in Randy Orton.
Only this year the crowd was not having it. They weren’t interested in what Vince McMahon thought was best for business, in their mind they paid for their ticket so they were the WWE’s business and they declared that Bryan was the only man they wanted to see. Such was the vitriol from the crowd at the looming result that the thirtieth entrant to the Rumble Rey Mysterio, one of the most beloved wrestlers in WWE history, got booed out of the building simply for not being Daniel Bryan when he was the last man to enter the match.
The crowd had made their decision and would eventually force the WWE to agree.
While the WWE may have been slow to come around when they decided to go all in with Daniel Bryan for Wrestlemania 30 boy did they make it special. Not only did they end up putting Bryan in the championship match at Wrestlemania 30 they built the entire PPV around him.
In a now legendary Raw segment Bryan invaded the ring with his fans, all of them sporting Bryan’s shirt and refused to leave until Bryan got what he deserved. Promos like that one are what make live wrestling so magical. Bryan would lead a raucous crowd in demanding the WWE finally listen to them, saying that contrary to Stephanie & Triple H’s assertion the crowd was what made the WWE what it was. In a fantastically melodramatic performance by Triple H & Stephanie they would give Bryan not only a match with Triple H at Wrestlemania but also the chance at being inserted in the WWE World Heavyweight Championship match if he won.
From that night on the result at Wresltmania was locked in but it didn’t make the journey any less sweet.
On the night of Wrestlemania 30 Bryan proved exactly why he deserved to be the centre of the wrestling world. He kicked off the night against Triple H in one of the greatest ever Wrestlemania openers and backed it up in the main event opposite Batista and Randy Orton. In both he took a crowd that so desperately wanted him to win on a journey into despair and ultimately jubilant triumph as he ascended to the pinnacle of wrestling and finished a chapter of wrestling history that will forever live in wrestling fan’s hearts.
However there is a kicker to this tale, because in the middle of this incredible and memorable wrestling story the WWE may have set themselves up for something they have never quite recovered from.
There is no denying that wrestling is at its best when the promoter listens to the crowd, however there is such a thing as giving the audience too much power. Sometimes it is best to be able to push through with something that might not be initially palatable. To take an example from another medium, when word first got out that Heath Ledger would be playing The Joker in The Dark Knight it was met with derision from the hardcore Batman fanbase. The vision of Christopher Nollan was ultimately proved to be right though and the initial angry reactions have long since been forgotten, however it was only able to come to fruition because Nolan was able to execute his creative vision despite the initial misgivings of his audience.
In the Yes Movement the WWE set itself up against its own fans, they made themselves the villains in their own story and also set a precedent that if the crowd cheer, chant and boo loud enough they can get anything they want.
This antagonistic relationship has never quite disappeared and if anything as the decade has gone on fans have only become more vocal in their demands. This two headed monster has often left the WWE flailing wildly between trying to execute long term creative plans and trying to appease a crowd that will seldom be happy with what is put in front of them.
None of this is Daniel Bryan’s fault though, it isn’t even entirely the result of The Yes Movement, however there is no doubt that as we move through this decade it is a theme that will become more and more prominent.
Daniel Bryan’s story would go on after The Yes Movement, as a man he would end up suffering the crushing low of having to retire early from the sport he most loved and in 2018 would improbably return and even reach similar creative highs to 2013-14.
However, when looking back at the decade it is undeniable that there are very few moments where everything seemed to click into gear quite like they did for Daniel Bryan and The Yes Movement. It will forever stand as an example of just how amazing wrestling can be when a perfect story and wrestler combine on wrestling’s biggest stage.
Thanks for joining me for this week’s edition of Stories That Defined A Decade, make sure you check back over the coming weeks as I explore more stories that shaped pro wrestling this decade. I’d love to hear what you thought of Daniel Bryan and The Yes Movement in the comments below or on Twitter@Sir_Samuel.You can also find links to the other pieces I’ve written in the series below.
Stories That Defined A Decade