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.
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.
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.
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.
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.