In a world of scripted finishes and even a little kayfabe, Daniel Bryan was as real and genuine as they come.
Breaking news of his retirement today is not only a blow to the business and its fans, who have been robbed of countless years of his brilliant in-ring work, but it puts an end to a realness that is rare in professional wrestling.
Not the realness that is what those talented men and women do near daily when they step inside the ring and put their lives on the line in the name of sports entertainment. Make no mistake, what they do is very, very real.
As are the injuries. Just ask Bryan, who at just 34 years of age, has been forced to give up his dream, the result of serious head and neck injuries suffered while competing in a business that ignorant like to call fake.
No, not even the realness of those injuries.
You see, Daniel Bryan’s realness transcended a generation.
At just five-foot-eight, and barely tipping the scales over the 200-pound mark, Bryan wasn’t your typical pro wrestler. Nope. Far from it, in fact.
In an industry dominated by men who stand in excess of six feet tall, most of whom are lean and mean, Bryan was at a huge disadvantage.
But what he lacked in size and stature, he more than made up for in heart, will, determination and sheer desire to succeed.
His realness was felt every single time he stepped inside the ring. Fans, even non-fans, could relate to this guy. While physically he was practically a boy in a man’s world, emotionally, he made us believe. He made us love him.
When Sheamus nearly kicked his head off, mere seconds into their WrestleMania 28, we hurt with him. We felt his pain, emotionally at least.
But Bryan picked himself up, set out to prove the “experts” wrong and his realness continued to grow.
Realness isn’t something you can learn. You have it or you don’t.
In an interview in 2013, Bryan talked about the first time he was ever bitten by the pro wrestling bug, explaining that a childhood friend showed him some wrestling magazines, books that would light a fire inside him that would burn brightly for more than 20 years, and a fire that no doubt still burns.
What would prove to be the final couple of years of Bryan’s incredible career perhaps epitomized his realness. In that time, he gave berth to the “Yes” craze that transcended all of the sports world, he did the unthinkable by forcing the WWE to put its most coveted prize, the WWE World Heavyweight championship, around his waist, and he made us all cry along with him when he became a friend to the late young Connor Michalek, whose death from cancer at just eight years old spurred Connor’s Cure, a non-profit charitable organization for pediatric cancer research.
Bryan discussed the Yes! movement in that 2013 interview, saying it was never meant to be what it became.
“It’s literally incredible,” he said during an interview with The Kingston Whig-Standard. “It was never supposed to be this. Nobody told me do it, I just started doing it. And I started doing it without any intention of people doing it with me — the Yes! thing. It was just a way to celebrate that I was the world heavyweight champion. And then gradually people started doing it and then WrestleMania last year, it just exploded. Then everybody was doing it.”
In an interview in 2015, Bryan reflected on that World Heavyweight Championship match win at WrestleMania.
“I don’t know if I’m the first person that this has happened to, but literally, the WWE fans put me into the main event at WrestleMania,” Bryan said that day. “Without them being so vocally supportive of me at every show, the WWE wouldn’t have given me that opportunity.”
It takes a special kind of realness to force the hands of the powers that be within WWE. Daniel Bryan certainly had that.
The initial injury that led to Bryan’s premature retirement actually came before he got his WrestleMania moment, which ended with him hoisting two belts above his head, the world celebrating with him, ending with him embracing the ailing Michalek at ringside, an image that is no doubt burned into the minds of millions around the world.
The wrestling gods smiled upon Daniel Bryan that night, giving him something that no one can take away, and something that now can never be topped.
It’s bittersweet in many ways.
The wrestling world will never know what the future held for a healthy Daniel Bryan. The sky really was the limit.
Conversely, we can hang onto that memory of Bryan, belts in hand, defying every odd thrown at him, and then some, celebrating not only his victory, his time to shine, but celebrating the realness within wrestling.
It’s rare. But it’s real.
Daniel Bryan showed the world.