Our friend, Daniel Bryan

 

When the lure of baby-oiled torsos and borderline Shakespearian tragedies first gripped me in the late 90s, we didn’t really know much about the private lives or genuine character traits of the men and women on Monday Night RAW. The internet was in its infancy and tales of real-life relationships, family mishaps or what went on behind a performer’s ring name took some time to surface; particularly in the UK, where gossip and out-of-ring news seemed to arrive via a combination of Transatlantic whispers and carrier pigeon.

The rise of celebrity culture, WWE’s albeit tardy discovery of the internet as a useful marketing tool, and the immense growth and insatiable nature of social media has meant that the people behind our favourite well-known wrestlers have become highly accessible. It’s now not enough for the engagement to end when the credits roll. We need to know who they are when they pull their coat on and drive home at the end of the night, almost as much as we need to love or hate them in the ring. Those we identify with when they’re in their real lives have a direct impact on how we feel about what or who they portray on stepping out from behind the curtain. And that’s pretty new. 

Nobody has been more intriguing in the gradual WWE merging of real-life and character than Daniel Bryan. And the most interesting thing about it is how little there now seems to be between the man and the character, and what that means in relation to how much we both adore him and feel comfortable with how deserving he is of his current extraordinary success. 

Bryan Danielson was one of the first picks when WWE started shifting recruitment attention from second and third generation kids to skimming off the cream of the American indie crop. His earned reputation as one of the best wrestlers in the world, an exemplary work ethic and known salt-of-the earth personality carried with him a loyal and passionate fan base. 

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That army of followers was outraged that the big machine had dared to change his name to the simpler and more marketable Daniel Bryan. When Bryan was forced to spend several weeks taking part in silly parlour games in the jolly but rigged gameshow that was the first incarnation of NXT, the cries from those who had long charted his independent career were of exasperation and embarrassment on his behalf. Even the implication that he was a rookie grated. 

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Bryan, however, took the entire assimilation period in his stride and with his now trademark good grace. Even those in WWE who wrote him off as an internet darling who didn’t fit the Connecticut mould didn’t seem to dull the smile. He never once looked like a guy who didn’t love getting up for work every morning. Unusually, even when he slipped into the mid-card after the excitement of the NXT invasion died down, Bryan never really fell out of favour. Regardless of what his character was doing, those who knew what he was capable of stuck with him. 

The long and pleasingly written Yes Movement storyline, which had Bryan spend months playing underdog and oppressed worker to the modernised McMahon-Helmsleys and that culminated at Wrestlemania XXX a few weeks ago, sealed the deal. The support for Bryan throughout the Yes Movement was unprecedented. There cannot be anyone who didn’t muse over whether there had ever been a single roster member quite so over with such a wide cross-section of fans. Maybe it was the 3:55am time check, but as Bryan lifted the title belts and got showered with ticker tape, I shed a few proper tears for his achievement. 

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The joy was twofold. We celebrated the fact that, against the odds, Daniel Bryan had beaten his horrible bosses and had the world’s eyes on him during the most coveted few moments in any given wrestling year. But we also felt that our old friend Bryan Danielson had won, too. There is great power and satisfaction in watching someone you’ve seen toil their entire career make it to the highest point possible, without ever complaining or making demands that plaudits are automatically owed to them. We were as much in raptures for the man as we were the character. He was a double hero. 

The almost universal support for Bryan Danielson transferred to Daniel Bryan. And to spread the Bryan love to mainstream media, his real-life relationship with Brie Bella has featured regularly in the Total Divas reality series; always showing him to be the grounded, dependable, nature-loving, good guy we strongly expect he might be when the cameras aren’t pointing at him. 

Total Divas is, of course, largely manufactured. Any representations of real people away from their characters are still carefully created in the company’s eye. But there was genuine affection when the week after Wrestlemania Bryan and Brie got married. The photos released by WWE will no doubt be the wedding ceremony shown as part of Total Divas. But just as we expressed our happiness that both Daniel Bryan and Bryan Danielson won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestlemania, there was also affection for the very sincere union of Bryan Danielson and Brianna Garcia-Colace. The nice guy won again. Twice. 

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Life can be almost unbearably cruel at times, and following two of the happiest moments of Bryan’s life, we heard this week that his father had suddenly passed away. He could easily have disappeared from screen for a few weeks without any repercussions or complaint from fans. Instead, he and Brie went to work to make the transition of their time off-screen a little easier on the writers. It was an admirable yet unsurprising move given what we know of Bryan’s dedication to his work. But the tears he failed to choke back as he joined his new wife in the ring at the opening of this week’s RAW were very real. Brie too struggled to keep her composure when faced with her tearful husband. It was hard to watch.

This was not like watching a character in pain. It wasn’t even like watching someone we vaguely know grieving. People pass away every day and even when it’s an acquaintance’s grief we tilt our heads, offer our condolences and move on with our day. We have so much affection for Bryan Danielson and we know so much about his true character that it was genuinely heartbreaking to see him hurting so badly. Bizarrely, it was like watching a good friend in the worst pain of his life. And the thing about friendship is that while you celebrate your successes together, you also share each other’s hurt. 

Social media and living your life in public are not without their pitfalls; not just for celebrities and not only in the wrestling game but for pretty much anyone with a job, or friends, or access to a keyboard. Grave errors of judgement and oversharing are made on Twitter and Facebook every day, sometimes with significant consequences. Accessibility and being generous on your way up, however, often reaps rewards. 

Our experience of Daniel Bryan has been significantly improved upon because of Bryan Danielson’s character, dedication and generosity with his time. Just as we felt he deserved to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship because we knew the personal journey that had led him there, our familiarity with him will be rewarded with all the time and space he needs during the saddest of times. Back in January I said, “…those deserving always get rewarded in the end. Daniel Bryan is proof positive that the nice guy doesn’t always finish first, but he definitely finishes best.” With that now fulfilled, Bryan is also the perfect example of why modern wrestling’s shift toward breaking kayfabe may kill some of the mystery, but what it gives us instead is a different and arguably more human experience. 

I wish Bryan and his family the absolute best during their very sad time.  

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RAW: Damage Limitation

Alright. Let’s stop dancing around the inevitable. Punk is gone. He hasn’t been officially future endeavoured and there is a part of me holding on to the fact that this might be the most ballsy, elaborate work in history. But as he’s been pulled from pre-paid AXXESS meet & greets and assessing the bizarre atmosphere on RAW this week, we can assume that at the very least he’s having an extended holiday.

There was a definite air of damage limitation on this week’s RAW. Fan-made signs enquiring as to Punk’s whereabouts were confiscated by security. In the same way that Rey Mysterio was booed at the Royal Rumble simply for not being Daniel Bryan, Randy Orton’s words made no impact on the crowd, who were otherwise engaged in repeatedly chanting for CM Punk. Being a bit of a tough-nut, their disinterest in his moaning about his lack of…(umm, what was it again?) made no impression on him either.

Needing to pacify an already volatile crowd Steph and HHH appeared on the ramp to instruct Randy to stop whining. To curry favour with the audience even further, they warned him that they had the power to strip him of his ‘face of the company’ moniker. If he didn’t cool his boots they might be forced to make someone else their favourite. Daniel Bryan, maybe. HHH even joined the Yes Movement. Turncoat!

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Daniel Bryan, who in the space of a week has gone from their whipping boy to potential poster boy. You can’t help but feel that even what would have been Bryan’s eventual triumph over ‘the man’ has been ditched in favour of keeping people from turning off.

The Shield won a three-man tag against Big E. Langston, Kofi and Rey Mysterio, but the crucial part of the story came when Dean Ambrose (unf) and Roman Reigns squabbled over who should have taken the pin. Poor Seth Rollins. As if his comedic tumbling the previous week hadn’t been upsetting enough. Now mummy and daddy are fighting again. I wonder which of them plays mum and which takes on the role of dad. Let’s think about that for a moment. Anyway, the bickering soon ended and their broken pieces were glued back together when the Wyatts appeared on screen hoping to capitalise on their moment of collective weakness. They didn’t.

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It also seems there’s dissent at Camp Real Americans. After losing a place in the Elimination Chamber to Christian on SmackDown, Jack Swagger was given a rematch, only to lose a second time. You can always tell when Swagger’s in a panic. His bottom lip bursts open, like that kid in school who always got stress-related nosebleeds on class trips.  Zeb Colter made his disgruntlement known in no uncertain terms and even Antonio Cesaro dropped and shook his head in shame. Time to disband these guys and start hyping Cesaro, lest he go the same way as Hero. At least, let’s not allow that to happen before I can successfully attend any British shows he might be booked on. Selfish? Me? Absolutely. It already sticks in my craw that I don’t get to clap eyes on Chris Hero’s colour-of-a-cornfield mane when he’s in the UK at the end of this month.

In further attempts to placate the ready-to-riot crowd, the New Age Outlaws were forced to put the tag titles on the line against Goldust and Cody Rhodes. Oh and they were forced to do it *MOVIE TRAILER VOICE* inside a steel caaaaage. New Age Outlaws retained in a match that went on for far too long, never really got going and made little-to-no use of the cage. Hey, Hunter? Where’s Punk?

Thankfully this was followed by Batista’s arrival. Now, hold on. I know this doesn’t sound all that exciting. But the small detail I deliberately omitted in the name of building tension is that our Dave’s back in the double denim. Yes!

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And not just top and bottom denim, but a matching burnout tee. Cor! But beyond my predictable giddiness at Dave-denim, the real star of this segment was Alberto Del Rio. Dressed in less impressive single denim, the promo he ripped on Dave was so convincingly impassioned you might believe there was some truth behind it. I mean, why would the guy who’s been consistently great but never truly trusted to carry the company along with the big boys feel cheesed off that Dave’s waltzed back in to steal a Wrestlemania headline slot? It was the first time in many months I’ve really sat up and taken notice of Del Rio. Their scrap was fierce and Del Rio was so pumped he returned to the ring to retrieve his rather fetching black blazer, before catching glimpse of Dave’s face and thinking better of it.

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Speaking of those flying uncomfortably under the radar, Dolph Ziggler was teamed up with R-Truth and Xavier Woods to go up against the Wyatts. The match had all the bumps and jumps you’d expect, with Bray Wyatt pinning Dolph for the win. To match their video interruption earlier in the evening, The Shield made their own video based gift, with Dean Ambrose (unf) mocking the Wyatts’ scare tactics and his fellow warriors warning of retribution. This was met with the usual psychotic laughter in the ring. Standard but still pleasing fare.

This took us to a long main event between Randy Orton and Daniel Bryan, the winner of which would become the McMahon-Helmsley’s favourite boy. It was a long and involved match where both gave a lot, but it was flat. It was missing something. Despite some interference from Kane, Bryan still won the match, but it didn’t have the shine it should have. It’s not enough just to give us what we want. We need the backstory to make it mean something. That’s where promoters get wrestling fans all wrong. It’s about the journey. I wonder if that’s the line they’d be following if Punk was still around. And the fact that Orton and Kane continued to pummel Bryan after the bell means it’ll all probably flip-flop back the other way quicker than a Westminster sex scandal come next week. It just didn’t make sense. Unless Kane interfered to make sure Bryan didn’t win, what was the point?

Can you say ‘state of flux’?

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N.B. This week, in an attempt to skip what I thought were just the ads, I watched RAW via the Sky Sports On Demand service. Unfortunately, I only realised after writing this that they’d cut out several mid-card matches, linking segments etc. I’ll have seen all the missing pieces before next week, but just a warning to those in the UK. It gives a skewed view of the show and I’m going to be complaining to Sky about it.   

RAW: Something’s Amiss

I feel there’s something else I should be musing over today. But I can’t quite put my finger on what it might be. Hmm. Maybe it’ll come to me as we go along.

The Royal Rumble officially kicks off the Road to Wrestlemania. We should be frothing at the mere thought that the biggest party of the year is on its way. And yet…

Grinning like the cats who got the cream, Stephanie and HHH over-egged their excitement at great mate Dave Batista winning the Rumble to such an extent you have to wonder if they realised soon after that they were lactose intolerant and vomited up what turned out to be a flop after all.

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The patronising tone they cloaked their jubilation in served only to rile the crowd further and… do you ever get the feeling you’ve been sneakily trolled? Baited into reacting by someone who knows how to push your buttons? Do you wonder if this is exactly what they wanted? To leave Daniel Bryan out so that we’d riot for the international press?

In sharp contrast to the acute hatred spat at the McMahon-Helmsleys, Daniel Bryan’s arrival mustered something akin to the second coming of Christ.

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It’s rare that I lash out at these two, but their incessant giggling and claim that Bryan’s match of the night against Bray Wyatt “was a good little effort” had me wanting to sock them both in the chops. Stephanie’s now modelled so much in her father’s image I’m convinced that any second she’s going to peel off her face to reveal she was Vince all along. There are no lengths my imagination won’t run to in the name of believing Steph’s a good lass.

Bryan’s impassioned demands that he be compensated for his lack of Rumble action with an automatic Elimination Chamber slot were met with a nose in the face and the arrival of The Shield, with Seth Rollins’ serendipitous tumble over the barrier cutting through the hostility in the crowd for a few seconds. The boy is the epitome of “If you stumble, make it part of the dance.” What a pro!

The Shield proceeded to maul Bryan but, as you might expect, a few mates came in his hour of need. Sheamus (yes, he’s back) and John Cena ran to the rescue before chasing the nasty bad guys away. There’s still something comforting about the fact that after all these years Michael Cole has never understood the difference between ‘cavalry’ and ‘Calvary’.

There was something else I needed to talk about. What was it? Maybe I was supposed to talk about how much I want to have Dean Ambrose bend my…mind. No, that’s not it. I already talk about that enough. It can’t have been the match between The Real Americans and Rey Mysterio & Sin Cara. That was as expected. Could it be Wade Barrett? Barrett, who now appears to spend his time being thrust toward the rafters on a mechanical penis while telling us that everything’s shit. I had a dream like that once except the cherrypicker penis belonged to….never mind. He’s like Eva Peron, but from Preston, and peddling terrible wisecracks. “Don’t cry for me, WWE Universe.” I do, Wade. I really do.

What was it, guys? Obviously not Fandango vs R-Truth. I definitely wouldn’t have been rushing to talk about Brock Lesnar interrupting Randy Orton and Brad Maddox’s discussion with a docker just off the night shift.

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I cannot recall a wrestler I’ve wanted to boot in their big, slimy, maroon face more than Lesnar. Loathing is too mild a word. I’d like to take some clippers to his stupid haircut that’s too small for his puffed up head and…yeah, it’s not him.

It couldn’t have been The Battle of Cleveland match between Miz and Dolph. Unless we’re talking hockey my knowledge of American sports is currently on hiatus. Maybe it was how depressing, if amusing, it was that the crowd were chanting for each individual member of the windbag commentary team during  Kofi and Del Rio’s match. We really should talk about the New Age Outlaw shaped pin that burst the tag-team bubble. Champions? Really? *cough* Nepotism *cough*. And a Selina Gomez quote? Okay, Dad. Why don’t you just get Snapchat and tell us how you can send your rude bits to your main squeeze like all the kids do. Ach, who am I to judge?  I’m the old lady who just typed ‘main squeeze’ and who’s already lost the Snapchat novelty.

There’s something bigger though. Something shocking. Something that might make me cry. The Divas getting better with their ring work but needing some stories is less red hot news and more a gospel chanted since the dawn of time. It does make me want to cry though. Jake Roberts being inducted into the Hall of Fame would not leave me dying to discuss it.

We’re back where we started now, with Daniel Bryan, Sheamus and John Cena trying to beat up on The Shield. Whichever team won would get the first three spots in the Elimination Chamber. It was a pretty good match, as it goes. Even better when The Wyatts turned up to interfere with The Shield’s game plan, costing them the match and setting up more scrapping between them going forward. If Randy Orton has to defend in the EC, that leaves just two spots left to fight over. Could this be what instigates the Shield break-up they’ve been teasing? All good fun, but not the ‘big thing’ of the week. Hmm.

Wait! Hold the phone. Why wasn’t Punk on Raw this week?!