Earlier in his career, Daniel Bryan spent time developing impressive submission maneuvers such as the Cattle Mutilation. And although everyone knew how well Bryan could wrestle, some wondered if he had any personality to make a splash in the WWE. After the way he’s treated former girlfriend AJ, his run with the world title and the new phenomenon of “YES”, no one is wondering anymore.
When the smallish, soft-spoken, admittedly bland former “indy darling” first signed with the WWE in 2009, many considered him a long-shot to survive, much less thrive. Because his body of work on the independent scene was the sole means by which fans could assess his probability of success in the WWE, it was no wonder few predicted a championship run for him. To put it bluntly, many felt Bryan simply lacked the personality to become a prototypical “WWE Superstar”.
However, according to those who’ve known him from his earliest days in the business, the unassuming ring technician that dazzled us for more than a decade was not an accurate reflection of the real Daniel Bryan at all, but rather a carefully crafted version of the wrestler that he wanted us to see.
“I helped train Daniel,” said WWE Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels, “and believe me, he was never short on personality. Daniel didn’t let his personality shine through because he didn’t want it to take attention away from his wrestling ability. Outstanding wrestler – that’s the image he wanted to cultivate, the brand he wanted to build, and it has certainly worked for him.”
Indeed it has. It was no accident that as “American Dragon” Bryan Danielson, he earned the unofficial “Best In The World” moniker in Ring of Honor and other independent promotions long before CM Punk and Chris Jericho laid claim to it in the WWE. But as he headed to the WWE, where personality and character are emphasized just as much – if not more than pure wrestling ability, even Bryan’s most committed fans had to question whether or not he would be able to keep pace with Punk’s incendiary promos or Santino Marella‘s goofy antics. Unfortunately, it would take some time before Bryan was able to show that there was more to him than technical brilliance, as WWE’s earliest attempts at finding a niche for him were somewhat haphazard.
Released from the WWE for his actions in the June 7th Nexus RAW invasion, during which he choked announcer Justin Roberts with a necktie and spat in John Cena‘s face, it seemed WWE initially sought to brand him as some kind of loose cannon. But shortly after the WWE rehired him a few weeks later, Daniels was positioned as a ladies man in a storyline with The Bella Twins and Gail Kim. It was an interesting and entertaining concept, but not the right fit for Bryan, who after a stint as an NXT “pro”, a US championship run, and a Money In The Bank victory, evolved into a lovable underdog many fans perceived him to be all along.
After winning the World title from The Big Show, though, the embraceable scrapper image gave way to that of a chest-thumping, womanizing coward who will use any means necessary to retain his championship. It’s a personality that may not win him any popularity contests among fans, but it nevertheless allays any doubt about his ability to fit in with the world’s foremost sport-entertainment company.
Then again, for some, there never has been any doubt. Even before Bryan began asserting his character so forcefully, evidence of his personality – or at lest his sense of humor – was apparent to those who cared enough to notice. For example, during his two-week hiatus from the WWE in 2009, while wrestling on the independent circuit, Bryan introduced a funny and wildly popular t-shirt that depicted his visage with the word “VIOLENT” written underneath. Done in Barack Obama’s ubiquitous 2008 “HOPE” presidential campaign poster, it was Bryan’s subtle way of satirizing WWE’s decision to fire him for being “too violent” for its TV-PG approach.
Punk, who has faced Bryan several times in Ring of Honor and WWE, says the “VIOLENT” t-shirt was just one vestige of the personality Bryan has always possessed.
“Obviously, Daniels’ biggest strength is on the mat,” Punk explains. “But just listen to some of the trash he’s been talking. He’s very effective on the mike, always has been. Daniel never really was a one-dimensional guy, so I’m not surprised at all to see the showman in him blossom the way it has. Believe it or not, he didn’t discover his personality in the WWE.”
Whether Bryan deliberately squelched his personality all these years to showcase his mat work or if he simply realized that wrestlers lacking a strong personality rarely last in the WWE, the fact is, it wasn’t until he arrived in the WWE that he finally showed some initiative in boosting his Q rating. WWE, for its part, has supported the mission by marketing a Bryan T-shirt that reads, “Sooner Or Later, They All Tap!”
Now that the showman in Bryan has finally emerged, gone are any perceived limitations on his potential in the WWE. It could even be reasonably argued that though he was once considered a longshot to stick with WWE, he has since become one of the company’s most valuable performers. And make no mistake, while Bryan’s persona continues to evolve, his world-class wrestling ability shows no signs of atrophy. He has mastered both elements needed for a long and successful WWE career, The venom he elicits from WWE audiences around the globe as well as the list of top-tier WWE wrestlers that continues to fall to his LeBell Lock, proves it.
Perhaps most important of all, the word “but” needn’t follow the phrase, “Daniel Bryan is an excellent wrestler…” any longer.
FRANK KREWDA is the Editor-In-Chief at Pro Wrestling Illustrated, and he also instructs aspiring ringside photographers on building a photography website, many of which are later promoted to the main features in the publication.