You might not believe this based on the below photo, but here, at the very moment this event occurred yesterday, is the happiest man alive.
Tuesday afternoon, WWE dropped the bombshell some have been expecting for weeks, but anticipating with crossed fingers for far longer:
Daniel Bryan is back.
“Following more than two years of extensive evaluations, four-time World Champion Daniel Bryan has been medically cleared to return to in-ring competition by leading neurosurgeons, neurologists and concussion experts, including Dr. Robert Cantu, Dr. Javier Cárdenas and Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher.
“Bryan underwent a full review of his medical history and received comprehensive neurological and physical evaluations independent of WWE. He was cleared by each doctor as well as WWE’s Medical Director, Dr. Joseph Maroon.”
On February 8, 2016, after a long and confusing hiatus, Bryan Danielson stepped into a WWE ring in Seattle to deliver words he never wanted to utter. He picked up the microphone and delivered a heartbreaking, but inspirational retirement speech that centered on gratitude for the time he had as an active wrestler. At that time, it still felt much more a parting salvo from performing in WWE than the business as a whole, because there was no dispute as to whether he wanted to continue wrestling. It’s what he loves. It’s what he knows. He fell into depression without it, but luckily he had a beautiful, loving new wife and a new child to help him through it. But, he had to step away from WWE entirely, because being around the product or even watching it was incredibly discouraging.
Last night in Dallas, Bryan stepped into a WWE ring to grasp that very same microphone, but this time for a much different reason. As he spoke of the doctors he’s seen and the work he’s put in, he heard the same three words over the past few months: “You are cleared.” Not only was he cleared, he was told his brain activity is above average for his age group, especially with the extra considerations. And on night one, he made sure to let every fan know he was fully back as he first fought like a wild man, utilizing his trademark corner dropkicks (that require flips and place his head awfully close to the canvas). Bryan then took a hellacious beating, including a vicious apron powerbomb from Kevin Owens, to end a powerful, memorable SmackDown Live episode.
According to Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, by far the most trusted and well-read source in the industry for decades, Daniel Bryan (Bryan Danielson) had gone to WWE’s medical director, Joseph Maroon (who you may also know from his work with the Pittsburgh Steelers and his unpflattering portrayal as a pro-NFL villain in League of Denial and Concussion), and asked him who he needed to see in order to get cleared to return to in-ring action. Maroon gave him a few doctors he trusted in the field, and he went to them.
Over the past 12 months, Bryan has been medically cleared by every doctor he’s seen, including specialists at the University of Michigan. He’s done everything possible to make this happen, including experimental treatments involving hyperbaric chambers and oxygen. And guess what, something, we’re not quite sure what, but SOMETHING worked.
Concussions can be an aggregate problem, although much information remains unknown and it’s clear they attack different people in different ways. Bryan had worked such a physically demanding, often unsafe style for so long that it wasn’t a gigantic surprise when it caught up to him. In addition to concussions, he revealed he had been dealing with seizures from a sub-acute lesion in his temporoparietal region. From his time on the Independent wrestling scene, through his long run with Ring of Honor and his work in other glamour Indies, and finally all the way to WWE, he only knew one speed.
He was banged up in 2014 after finally winning the WWE Championship at WrestleMania, eventually having to relinquish the title to take time off. He lost all feeling and strength in his right arm due to a compressed nerve and underwent neck surgery. One year later, health issues would strike again. WWE had no choice – although some speculated Maroon was more hesitant to clear Bryan because of the controversy surrounding concussions in the NFL and how he was portrayed in Concussion – because there was nothing concrete whatsoever to back up the idea that Bryan could safely perform in the ring going forward.
The larger concern was why it was JUST Daniel Bryan, when it’s fairly well-known that many WWE Superstars through the years have been in similar, if not worse shape, and at the time he retired, there were likely others in the WWE locker room that had no business wrestling from a medical standpoint. That’s always been true. It will always be true. It’s a dangerous business and injuries are just part of the deal.
Now, less than three weeks before WrestleMania 34, he’s back. So what does it mean?
A lot of things, potentially.
Consider the ramifications for athletes in other sports, who haven’t been medically cleared to return to action or are dealing with similar issues. Wouldn’t a plethora of them immediately want to know exactly what Danielson has done over the past few years to get to this point? How about the various players we’ve seen retire from football at a young age out of fear for concussions and various other head trauma? What could it lead to for these people? No one knows, but it’s something to keep an eye on, because you’d better believe the sports world is going to be watching Bryan’s future closely.
We’re not going to know much about the long term effects inside and outside of wrestling until we see whether or not it’s a success in the short term. If Daniel Bryan, who is 36 years old, performs and doesn’t have any further problems, or even if he’s safe for a few years, that’s enormous. However, if he gets his bell rung in New Orleans in three weeks or at some point over his very limited in-ring schedule, that could be an enormous setback. Everything is speculative until it’s not, but it’s going to take some time to figure this out.
Now for WWE, it means Vince McMahon just recovered his most universally popular babyface Superstar of the past decade. While John Cena for example, drew far more money, he still deals with hatred from hardcore fans that love to think they know more than they actually do about pro wrestling. Daniel Bryan was, and is beloved by virtually everybody, from the casual fan to the most diehard or well-informed. The only prerequisite to liking Daniel Bryan is knowing who he is. He’s that much of a fan favorite. And at a time where Vince has struggled to create lucrative stars, with just a handful that could at all move the needle, there’s no understating how big the Bryan return is.
Since Bryan’s retirement in 2016, WWE has brought in several nationally and internationally renowned workers that fans have quickly gravitated toward. That list would include current WWE Champion, AJ Styles, as well as his WrestleMania opponent, Shinsuke Nakamura. We’ve seen the promotion of Samoa Joe, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, and Finn Balor from NXT to the main roster, and we’ve seen the emergence of Braun Strowman. Currently in NXT, guys like Johnny Gargano (maybe the only guy comparable to Bryan in pure likability, not to mention another terrific wrestler), Adam Cole, Velveteen Dream, Ricochet, Andrade Cien Almas, and others are making names for themselves amongst those who didn’t know them before Paul Levesque or Vince McMahon chose to bring them on board.
As for Nakamura, HE knows. Dude is pretty smart.
This is great news. No one needs to wish anymore. They can see it with their eyes. #NakamuravsBryan
— Shinsuke Nakamura (@ShinsukeN) March 20, 2018
We’ve also seen the advancement of Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, Cesaro, Rusev, just to name a few. All of these names could stand opposite Daniel Bryan in a WWE ring and excite the fan base beyond belief. In particular, bouts with Nakamura and Styles would cause many viewers to lose their proverbial minds. These are “dream match” scenarios for this generation. The only return that could approach Bryan’s is CM Punk’s, which I predict WILL happen someday on a part time basis, because there’s too much money to be made, and in the end, Punk wants to main event a WrestleMania event.
One other thing needs to be addressed, and that’s the very predictable opinion that WWE cleared Bryan for the sake of WrestleMania and for the sake of business. While there’s surface logic behind it, I find this impossible to believe, because the risk is far too great. Why would the company wait for years, only to then be worried about business when all financial indicators are positive, at least in the short term? Vince has Ronda Rousey on this show. It’s WrestleMania, which also means more than anything it sells itself. Usually, people don’t buy Mania for a specific match anymore, but because it’s freaking WrestleMania.
If WWE were to cheat to clear Bryan and that information either leaked or he was injured and subsequent testing proved negligence, the hit to the company would be far worse than any benefit gained by adding Bryan to any show. That’s without even mentioning the potential lawsuits that could stem from such an ill-advised decision. Plus, he was still in an on camera role as SmackDown Live Commissioner and would have been in New Orleans anyway, possibly as a guest referee or some kind of enforcer in the saga involving Shane McMahon, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, and potentially Vince McMahon himself.
There are certainly unknowns to Danielson’s return, but if we’re being intellectually honest, there are unknowns to every athlete or every performer that engages in physical activity. He’s medically cleared, so at this point, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the ride. Perhaps he could have a similar second act to Shawn Michaels, who improbably returned from debilitating back problems to have an even more successful run. He also was partially responsible for Bryan’s original training to become a professional wrestler.
Sometimes in pro wrestling or in entertainment, stories trump all. We all love a redemption story, and certain individuals move the needle. We’re seeing it play out right now with Tiger Woods and how so many of us are invested in him winning a tournament and challenging for another Green Jacket at Augusta National next month. Here, we have a universally loved professional wrestler that everybody adores, that is known to be one of the more humble and respectful performers in an industry filled with ego, that has a chance to continue along the path he chose long ago.
In a world that often loves to tell stories of falls from grace or the worst of us, whether through news coverage or social media, there’s nothing negative to be found here. This is one we can all smile about, and those of us in or near the pro wrestling industry get the opportunity to watch one of the all-time greats lace his boots up again and get to live out that fantasy again.
One of Bryan’s best qualities is his ultimate relatability. He can speak TO us, not AT us, which is a skill many other pro wrestlers lack. Measured tones, but with real emotion, usually work better than screaming and spitting all over the place. So, just as he did with his retirement speech, last night he spoke from the heart, and in the process delivered the best promo of the year…easily…because it wasn’t a promo at all. It was Bryan Danielson telling us the good news. He gave much credit to his wife, Brie Bella, for supporting him and telling him not to give up. To fight for his dream.
Last night, she was able to send this out to the world, and to her husband.
Bryan said it better than I could during his speech to open Tuesday’s show. “Fight for your dreams, and your dreams will fight for you.”
Not sure anything else needs to be said.
Congratulations and welcome back, American Dragon. We’ve missed the heck out of you. God is good.
Yes! Yes! Yes!