On Monday, February 8, 2016, almost nine months after his last match, Bryan Danielson announced his retirement. With twenty-one words, including a hashtag, the much speculated future of the former WWE champion was revealed: it’s all over.
“Due to medical reasons, effective immediately, I am announcing my retirement. Tonight on Raw, I’ll have a chance to elaborate. #gratitude”
In hindsight, for the last two years, the career of Daniel Bryan was on borrowed time, no matter whether fans wished as hard for him to get back into the ring as they did when they were willing him on to become champion.
As 2013 ended with Bryan having had two one-day runs as WWE champion, he’d been removed from the main events, and placed into an admittedly entertaining run in a tag team with Kane. By that point, after what felt like an eternity of John Cena vs. Randy Orton in the main event, fans were more than ready to see Bryan pushed into the main events. When they were instead with a short-term repackaging as Daniel Wyatt after being fed up of being “beaten down by the machine”, things weren’t looking too good, particularly when the resulting Bryan vs. Wyatt feud saw Bryan lose at 2014’s Royal Rumble, and not even take part in the eponymous match.
Fast forward to WrestleMania, and the backlash from the fans had propelled Bryan into a position where he could conceivably have left New Orleans as WWE champion. All he had to do was beat Triple H in the opening match of the night, and he’d get into the main event. Having watch the years previous, where Bryan had been humiliated at prior WrestleManias in short order, and then moved into storyline after storyline whilst flat-out telling the fans that he was never a top-line superstar, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that WWE would pull the ultimate bait-and-switch, and keep Bryan as far away from the big prize as possible.
Of course, Bryan did it, beating the odds by winning a triple threat against Randy Orton and Batista – the man who had come back to WWE and was supposedly favourite to win before the “Yes Revolution” had their way. Bryan ended the night covered in confetti, holding both WWE title belts aloft as the 75,000+ fans inside the Superdome went wild. Much like Bret Hart at WrestleMania 10, and Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit at WrestleMania 20, the 30th WrestleMania ended with a feelgood moment for the fans.
Barely a month after the biggest night of his WWE career, things came to an earth-shattering halt, as Bryan was forced to undergo neck surgery after he lost strength in his right arm. Hoping that the surgery would be a miracle quick fix, WWE kept the title on him for as long as they could, including using a title vacation as a hook for their Payback pay-per-view, before he ultimately was forced to drop the belt on June 9. As time passed, Bryan’s arm was still reportedly weak, but instead of going under the knife for a second time, he underwent a physiotherapy program, which succeeded sufficiently for him to make a return to TV by the end of the year.
After a few matches on TV, Bryan’s big return came at the 2015 Royal Rumble, where the crowd’s willing for him to win resulted in… him being eliminated by Bray Wyatt. The Philadelphia crowd were incensed by this, and turned on remainder of the Rumble match, and gave Roman Reigns an uphill battle as WWE looked to push him to the top of the pile, particularly as Reigns beat Bryan at the following month’s Fast Lane show in order to retain his WrestleMania main event spot.
Bryan did appear at WrestleMania, and had a celebration of his own, winning the Intercontinental title in a seven-man ladder match. In hindsight, having Bryan wrestle in a ladder match, on the biggest show of the year, just four months after his return from injury wasn’t such a smart idea. Although he escaped without any major injuries, the curse struck again, as Bryan was sent home from the post-WrestleMania tour of Europe as a “precautionary measure”. On May 11, following an inconclusive MRI, Bryan vacated the Intercontinental title, following a 43-day run with the title.
In the months that followed, speculation grew as to the reasons behind Bryan’s latest injury. Despite it originally being spoken of as a shoulder injury, Bryan confirmed in July that his time out was concussion-related, which meant that his time serving as a judge on the latest season of Tough Enough saw him limited to promoting his new book, rather than a return to the ring. Throughout the winter, rumours continued to swirl as to Bryan’s status, with talk of WWE insisting that no matter how many doctors would clear him, if WWE’s appointed physicians refused, he would not be wrestling in a WWE ring again.
And then, with the most recent rumours suggesting that Bryan had attempted to request a release and be denied, Monday afternoon’s tweet sealed the deal.
Keeping things simple wasn’t exactly the template to Bryan Danielson’s wrestling career. Originally starting out as a trainee at Shawn Michaels’ Texas Wrestling Academy, Danielson worked some dark matches in WWE in 2000, before being signed a developmental deal. He would wrestle in Memphis whilst under that deal, but despite being under consideration for a main roster spot following the acquisition of WCW in March 2001, he would leave the company the following July. Ironically, the altered landscape following the closure of WCW would have a big part to play in Danielson’s career.
Formed in 2002 by the owner of a tape trading company, Ring of Honor would become Danielson’s home “base” as he honed his craft. Gaining plaudits but not titles, Danielson would put together a body of work that included a stellar feud with Homicide, and a two-out-of-three falls match against Austin Aries in August 2004, that would last an incredible eighty minutes. Growing increasingly disillusioned with the business, Danielson took some time away from ROH in 2005, exploring opportunities elsewhere, before returning to unseat James Gibson (aka Jamie Noble) and win his first ROH World title in September 2005.
Danielson would remain with ROH until the end of 2006, as he continued to expand his resume with classics against Nigel McGuinness, KENTA (now Hideo Itami), Samoa Joe and Homicide, the latter of whom would end Danielson’s fifteen-month long reign with the ROH title, as he took time off to recover from a shoulder injury. The feud with McGuinness in particular was extremely hard hitting, with a match at ROH’s “Unified” event in Liverpool seeing both men bloodied and concussed by the end of it.
Making another return in May 2007, Danielson would straight into a storyline with then-champion Takeshi Morishima, but would be ultimately unsuccessful in regaining the ROH World title. Danielson would hold gold again though, as he won Pro Wrestling NOAH’s GHC Junior Heavyweight title from Yoshinobu Kanemaru on one of ROH’s shows in Japan. That run would only last for a month though, losing the title to the future Hideo Itami. By the time Danielson got to 2009, ROH was priming it’s next generation of stars, having already lost a crop of wrestlers to the likes of TNA. In September, Danielson joined the exodus, signing with WWE, but was able to get a victory over a TNA-bound Nigel McGuinness in both men’s last night with the company.
Danielson made his WWE debut under his real name in January 2010, beating Chavo Guerrero in a dark match before the first Raw of the year, as he would ultimately be sent to Florida Championship Wrestling for another run in WWE developmental. Renamed as Daniel Bryan, he would quickly resurface on TV, appearing in the debut season of a show that was created to replace the failing ECW revival. Bryan’s appearance on the new NXT show would raise the ire of the same crowd that had passionately followed him on the independent scene, as Bryan would be portrayed as a rookie, mentored by The Miz.
In spite of that, Bryan would make the best of things, having a brief feud with the Miz before being becoming a part of one of the bigger storylines in recent years – the Nexus. Comprised of the entire cast of rookies from the first season of NXT, the upstarts crashed onto Raw on June 7, raising hell by beating down John Cena, ripping apart the ringside area, and attacking anything that moved. That included an infamous moment where Bryan attacked ring announcer Justin Roberts, choking him with his own tie. In the PG-era of WWE, that was decidedly not family friendly, and resulted in the company promptly releasing Bryan back into the independent scene. It’d be fair to say that Bryan wasn’t exactly short of offers, and he made the most of his time “unchained”, as Bryan played a role in the creation of the EVOLVE promotion, in between dates for the likes of Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, CHIKARA and WXW.
It wouldn’t be long before WWE brought Danielson back, and he returned at 2010’s SummerSlam as the seventh member of the WWE team, usurping the Miz, as the WWE overcame the Nexus. In the months that followed, the re-renamed Bryan would win his first gold in the company, beating Miz for the United States title. That title run would end in early 2011 at the hands of Sheamus, a man whom would be at the other end of some unfortunate history, as their scheduled rematch at WrestleMania 26 was moved to the pre-show at short notice. By the end of the year, Bryan had won the Money in the Bank ladder match, cashing it in at the TLC pay-per-view over a knocked-out Big Show, giving Bryan his first World Heavyweight Championship in the promotion.
WrestleMania 27 saw a repeat of the year before, as Bryan would find himself move from the dark match to the opening match of the year’s biggest show… only to lose the title to Sheamus in just eighteen seconds. The fan’s response from that night would provide the backdrop to the remainder of Bryan’s WWE career, up until the outpouring of emotion we saw on Raw as Bryan confirmed his retirement.
Following a career that spanned sixteen years, and dozens of promotions, the American Dragon has breathed his last breath. In its wake, the much storied career of a man who for years, shied away from publicity, avoided self-promotion to the point where he would fight the tide when it came to releasing merchandise… and the story of a man whose idea of livening up a character would be to wear a huge robe and grow out a beard. And the weird thing was, that worked!
The words written here are just a sample of his storied career – in the weeks to come, I’ll be looking at a variety of Danielson’s matches from a variety of promotions from across his career in a special series of Random Reviews.
Ultimately, we can be thankful that not only were we as wrestling fans lucky enough to have been able to witness such a talent as Danielson, but that the man himself, in spite of the injuries received in the name of entertaining us, has been able to get out of the business before the business ruined him completely.