Daniel Bryan. Bryan Danielson. The American Dragon. Traitorous slimeball. Whatever you want to call him, he’s one of the greatest ever to set foot in a wrestling ring. He gave us memorable moments everywhere he’s been, from his battles in Ring of Honor and around the world to the heights of his career at WrestleMania 30 and his most recent WWE title run.
For the sake of ease we’re just going to call him “Bryan.” For the majority of the last decade and a bit, Bryan has been a staple figure on WWE programming. In that time he’s built upon the legacy he began outside the promotion where he went to battle against the likes of Samoa Joe, AJ Styles, CM Punk, Naomichi Marufuji, Nigel McGuinness, Chris Hero and KENTA, among so many others before ever stepping foot in the WWE landscape full time (he was in the developmental system and in dark segments prior).
Much like Punk, who has been the centre of his own set of rumours in the last several days as it pertains to an imminent AEW signing/debut, Bryan built a following for himself on the independent scene and in ROH in which he cemented himself as one of the best wrestlers on the planet; and it wasn’t before long despite the joke that was the original NXT that WWE fans joined in on the bigger secret that was his value as a wrestler. He became highly valued, albeit sometimes under-appreciated in the company’s bigger picture despite two great world title runs and one of the most memorable WrestleMania moments ever when he became the WWE champion for a third time. Fans gravitated to him — before, during and after his WWE stints — because of what he could do, who he was, and above all what he made people feel during his matches whether you loved him or hated him when he pushed that part of his character. The Yes! movement is very real, very organic. It’s no stretch to call him beloved in wrestling circles.
Yet, as rumours (which in my opinion don’t mean anything until he’s on any screen) percolated, segments of WWE fans became very vocal about the potentiality of Bryan signing with the rival promotion and “betraying” fans and the company that gave him so much — a platform, a family, a place to grow and become that beloved character we’re all so passionate about. Yet that doesn’t equate to ownership of his life, his decisions, much less the absurd notion he owes us as fans anything; much less the ludicrous notion he can only ever work for World Wrestling Entertainment. He’s given us his health as it is, he owes us nothing.
Let’s be clear, without us there’s less weight behind his ascension to the highest of perceptions in the pro wrestling space, but all the same even without a larger contingent of fans behind him afforded to him and his work by the WWE platform, “Bryan Danielson” was the “most professional wrestler” and the American Dragon years before Bryan Myers pseudo-conjured the notion in Impact. He travelled the world and won titles most places he went; some even forget he was part of an NWA worlds title tournament that also involved Prince Devitt, now Finn Balor. His name already carried weight amongst many fans before he stepped foot onto the NXT series because of the years of equity his work accumulated. The name “Bryan Danielson” is the well-laid foundation behind the Daniel Bryan character most have come to know. And the point of laying this all out is to crystallize or focus that he does not belong just to WWE and much less the WWE Universe as a focused entity, even though I’d wager a very large portion of WWE viewers also watch other wrestling promotions and naturally so as we’re all fans of wrestling as a piece of content.
Then why the backlash toward him? That’s a fair question, but at its heart is perhaps off-the-wall selfishness and a belief perhaps evolving from years of WWE dominance in the wrestling/sports entertainment space that Vince McMahon made him when that couldn’t be further from the overall truth of his career. He was already highly regarded before WWE put him in positions somewhat removed from how he was presented elsewhere to the extent his early moments are riddled with NXT-related, Survivor-esque creative gaffe-like goofs. To be followed by less than serious early feuds with Miz, a WrestleMania blowout to end a months-long world title reign followed by consecutive world title teases preceding his crowning WrestleMania moment. And even then, he feuded with Kane who although legendary is also not a consistent, serious main event title threat in the way that picking up wins over someone like Randy Orton would have been at the time. We know his injury plagued story from there, up and through to his recent comeback and title reigns.
My point is Bryan succeeded in WWE in spite of how the company functions and that’s a testament to his work ethic and his value as a performer within a company that didn’t always treat him well booking-wise. He succeeded in spite of it frankly and while much of the character we’ve rallied around for years that injected life into the American Dragon’s core was developed on the WWE stage, much like any one of us who works a job and develops skills under someone else’s tutelage; we don’t owe the company itself anything when at a moment’s notice you will be laid off if deemed redundant or if there’s no place for you. He owes nothing to us, he owes nothing to WWE other than being grateful for the life he built. But more importantly beyond this wrestling sphere we orbit, as much as one could argue he owes the McMahon’s everything, I’d counter the point and argue he owes more to himself, Brie and his kids to work within his best interests and put their interest and concerns especially over his long term health ahead of WWE, Vince McMahon and above all us.
These fans who criticized the potential decision to move on and seemingly to AEW are not the universal, but as is always the case their voice rings loudly and oft paints an awful picture of the wrestling fan base as a whole that labels them as entitled, spoiled children.
If you’re a fan of the man behind the character, it shouldn’t matter where he works. It’s no different than when a favourite athlete moves on from one team to another; If you were a Bulls fan in the ’90s, did you hate Michael Jordan when he came back to play for the Wizards? (I wish he never tried that dunk from the free throw line, but that’s another story for another day.) How many people followed LeBron James as a fan as he moved from the Cavs to the Heat, back to the Cavs and on to the Lakers?
As a Toronto Raptors fan do I cast hate toward Kawhi Leonard for leaving to the Clippers? Do I disrespect Kyle Lowry when he leaves the team this off-season? The answers are no because that degree of tribalism is an absurdity when it’s wholly unwarranted, because as much as I was a Bulls fan then or a Raptors fan now, I’m also a fan of the players and who they are. It’s no different with Bryan who worked his ass off before stepping in front of WWE fans for the first time, and continued to work his ass off while he worked inside the company for over a decade.
Bryan Danielson is real, as was “Daniel Bryan.” And if you’re a fan of one, it stands to reason you should be a fan of the other with or without WWE behind him no matter where he lands. He’s earned that.