Monday night in Miami, the biggest star at WWE's Raw wasn't John Cena or The Rock or CM Punk. It was a 5-foot-8 vegan who had been told for years that he didn't have the look (read: size) or charisma to make it in the big leagues.
Despite being trained by WWE icon Shawn Michaels, despite earning the moniker of "best wrestler in the world" when he worked in Japan and the UK and in Ring of Honor1 and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla,2 despite the fact his matches were must-view online videos for the pro wrestling smart set, despite accumulating just about every accolade available on the independent wrestling scene, Bryan Danielson was never supposed to be a WWE superstar.
Soon after he started wrestling professionally, Danielson received a WWE developmental contract, but not long after that the two sides cut ties. Throughout his ROH run there were rumors that either WWE or TNA Wrestling were interested in signing him, but nothing came of it. By 2009 it seemed like he was destined to be an indie icon who never made it to the major leagues. This became the nature of his appeal: That he was so great but deemed insufficient by wrestling's powers that be, that he was too pure to be compromised by the mainstream.3 His size (or lack thereof) made him a walking metaphor for WWE's arrogance and ignorance; the widespread perception was that they wouldn't sign him because he was too small, regardless of how foolish ignoring Danielson made them look.
But then, shockingly, he was signed by WWE and sent (at his own request) to their developmental territory — presumably to become acclimated to the WWE style of match building and its rings, which are much larger than those in ROH and just about everywhere else. And, despite the affirmation that one assumes came with that job offer, Danielson's fans expected him to be released again. Like before, the die-hards assumed, WWE wouldn't know what to do with him. Thus begins the Bryan Danielson conundrum: Even hardcore wrestling fans know he's an odd fit for WWE, and so although we like seeing him there, we never allow ourselves to believe he'll succeed for fear of being even more disappointed when he fails. Or, rather, when WWE allows him to fail.
In 2010, as part of a new pseudo-reality show called WWE NXT that featured up-and-coming wrestlers competing for a WWE roster spot,4 the world was introduced to Daniel Bryan. WWE has a long tradition of changing wrestlers' names for copyright purposes. Sometimes the changes are drastic — The Giant became The Big Show, Jean-Paul Levesque became Hunter Hearst Helmsley — and sometimes they are subtle, as in when Taz became Tazz and Rhino became Rhyno.5 "Daniel Bryan" was a case closer to the latter than the former; by switching his first and last names, WWE could nod to his indie career without fully acknowledging it.
The timing couldn't have been better. Had Bryan survived his first WWE contract, or had he been called up in the intervening years, he probably would have been saddled with a stupid gimmick, and even if he hadn't, he wouldn't have lasted long. In 2009, the Internet wrestling world had functionally swallowed the wrestling fanbase; wrestling sites catered to the intense "smark" fans (a combination of "smart" and "mark," sort of the happy medium between backstage insiders and oblivious fans of yore), and so every fan dealt in insidery trade secrets.6 So: (1) WWE couldn't pretend that Bryan Danielson never existed, and (2) most fans knew that this Daniel Bryan was somebody they were supposed to like, even if they'd never seen a single YouTube video of his work. Bryan, for his part, didn't rest on his laurels; he was smart and likable, appealing in a surprisingly disarming way, and clearly superior to most of his NXT competition.
He came in second Bryan didn't win the competition; that honor went to a tall, charismatic Brit named Wade Barrett,7 which was fitting, since the fans who knew Bryan Danielson loved him precisely because he was an underdog.
When NXT proved successful, it segued straight from sidebar to storyline, as the whole cast invaded Raw and demanded respect. They interceded during a John Cena–CM Punk match to wreak havoc, and Bryan attacked ring announcer Justin Roberts (which was part of the script) and choked him with his necktie (which was, presumably, improvised). An odd hubbub ensued, purportedly because Mattel, maker of WWE action figures and ergo the source of a significant chunk of WWE income, complained that the act was too violent for their younger audience, and Bryan was unceremoniously fired. For many fans, this was proof of their longstanding fears: That anything Bryan did, even off-the-cuff, would earn him the ire of WWE management.
If fans saw him as the underdog in WWE, Bryan returned to the indies as a conquering champion. His inability to fit into the WWE mainstream was a badge of honor. He was too raw for Raw. Internet fans inundated WWE with insults. The Bryan affair validated their feelings that WWE didn't know what their fans wanted or, frankly, what they themselves wanted. Two months later, however, WWE proved those voices wrong: Bryan was re-signed, and at SummerSlam, Bryan returned to action, now as a good guy. The crowd, of course, went wild.
Bryan went on to a fairly successful career on WWE's Friday-night show, Smackdown. He held the U.S. Championship — Smackdown's secondary title — but even so, his old fans couldn't enjoy it. They were sure WWE would screw it up or humiliate Bryan or both. And yet: He moved up to the main event scene, winning the Money in the Bank match and thus becoming a contender for the World Championship. He won the title by cashing in his title shot against erstwhile buddy Big Show moments after Show had won the belt from Mark Henry. If his underdog persona needed any more reinforcement, setting him up against the gargantuan Big Show provided all the visual symbolism in the world. Although his cheap win signaled a new underhandedness in Bryan's previously pristine character, when he won, the crowd went wild. Of course.
As he feuded with Big Show and began an on-screen relationship with the similarly diminutive Diva AJ Lee, Bryan started to flash signs of heelishness. He won matches by technicality and rejoiced as if he'd won a gold medal: Fists raised, he'd jump up and down and scream like an indoor kid beating The Legend of Zelda. The fans booed him out of one side of their mouths and smirked with the other; we booed him because we loved him, and because we were supposed to boo him, and because we were happy that Bryan had channeled a sort of nerdy charisma that translated onto the big stage. We loved him so much that we would happily play along. That's the unspoken agreement between pro wrestling promoters and fans: You keep us happy and we'll play the patsy.
But if you make us upset — well, more on that later.
A brief aside about the independent wrestling world where Bryan made his name: All of the significant feds that have sprung up in the last 15 or so years — ROH, PWG, CHIKARA, CZW, Dragon Gate, Full Impact Pro, even Juggalo Championship Wrestling — are in some sense heirs of ECW. Since WWF set out to become a national promotion in 1980, regional wrestling operations saw a corresponding decline. Some held on, but the old business model was wrecked. When Paul Heyman took over East Coast Wrestling and rebranded it Extreme Championship Wrestling, he staked out a place for modern indie promotions in a world dominated by WWF and WCW. ECW was not, in the end, financially viable, but they were influential, and they showed that an independent promotion could at least exist — and perhaps even prosper — alongside the big boys. The regional wrestling scene had been depleted to the point that there was room for new indie companies with targeted audiences and good bookkeeping.
ECW's attitude inspired its most enduring legacy. If the WWF changed the way pro-wrestling business worked, it's because they blazed a trail to reach as many fans as possible. ECW changed the business by engaging with fans as intimately as possible. The audience was an equal partner in their productions, chanting in unison (their synchronicity could be unsettling at times), responding to every turn in a wrestling card. The loudest and most memorable chants weren't wrestler-specific; they were expressions of appreciation, of solidarity, of communal fandom. "Ho-ly shit! Ho-ly shit!" when a big, dangerous-looking move went off. "You're hard-core! You're hard-core!" when a wrestler put himself on the line. "You fucked up! You fucked up!" when a move was botched. And of course, the promotion's de facto refrain: "E-C-Dub! E-C-Dub!" And so on and so forth. You couldn't go to an independent wrestling show since ECW closed its doors without hearing some variation on that theme — call it Fall and Response.
WWE is not immune to the charms of such audience participation. "Ho-ly shit!" at hard-core high points, "Thank you [insert wrestler's name]" upon retirements and career-defining moments. John Cena's arc over the past year was swallowed whole by this trend — competing chants of, "Let's go, Cena," and, "Cena sucks," ring out through every WWE show. The Rock, upon his return, was serenaded with his traditional "Rocky! Rocky!" chants, as well as, "You still got it!," during his return match at Survivor Series.
The most impressive thing about such chants is the organization of the crowd. In the small arenas that ECW worked, one person's scream could be heard by everyone else. But in an NBA arena? The space is so large, the assembly so diffuse. When the fan chants started occupying WWE events, it signaled two things: That the fans were suddenly amalgamated into a single unit, and, moreover, that everything was suddenly indie.
When I arrived at the Ring of Honor show in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, last Friday night, the indie world and the mainstream were indistinguishable — it was a crowd who came to town for WrestleMania playing the role of indie wrestling fans without a hitch. The event had just started. From the parking lot, I could hear the crowd chanting: "Yes! Yes! Yes!" I found my seat and asked the guy next to me if Daniel Bryan was there — WWE was a short drive away in Miami, after all. No, he said, they were just doing the Daniel Bryan chant because he used to wrestle for ROH and, well, because it was a good chant. I shrugged my shoulders and sat back to enjoy the action and its companion chants: "Ho-ly shit!" "Please don't die!"8 "This is wrest-ling!" And during down moments, the refrain would reemerge: "Yes! Yes! Yes!"
After the show I was sitting at a bar on South Beach, and again, from the street, I heard, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" My eyebrows raised.
In the first match at WrestleMania, Daniel Bryan lost the World Championship to his rival Sheamus in 18 seconds. Bryan was absorbed in a good-luck kiss with AJ when the bell rang, and when he turned around, Sheamus kicked him in the face and pinned him. The crowd went nuts in disapproval. The sort of fan who spends money to travel to WrestleMania is apt to be the sort of fan who loves Bryan, and moreover, these two had been scheduled to fight at last year's Mania, but the match got unceremoniously bumped to the preshow. The fans' lingering unhappiness over that perceived slight was amplified by the brevity of this match.9
The next night at Raw — an event populated by the ardent WWE fans who traveled to Miami for Mania and stuck around for the Monday aftershow — organizers kept the doors locked until 30 minutes before showtime. When I walked up at 8:15, 20,000 fans were clustered in a good-spirited mob outside the arena, chanting together to pass the time: "Yes! Yes! Yes! [pause] Yes! Yes! Yes!" Just as the tics of the ECW fanbase inflitrated the broader wrestling audience, the Raw crowd that night felt like a mass of ROH fanboys. It was irresistible; my hands were in the air almost immediately.
"Yes! Yes! Yes!"
When everyone got to their seats and the announcer told us that we were going live in 90 seconds: "Yes! Yes! Yes!" When The Rock came out to start the show and said he had a vision of being champion someday: "Yes! Yes! Yes!" When Alberto Del Rio came out to challenge Sheamus: "Si! Si! Si!" Every time CM Punk hit Mark Henry: "Yes!" Every time Henry hit Punk: "No!"
When Cena came out to close the show, the crowd was at a boil, their own animation propelling itself and growing louder and louder. Cena, who has long been the victim of the smark crowd's disapproval — he is in almost every way the anti-Bryan, the symbol of what WWE wants despite the disapproval of its fans — took it on the chin worse than ever before. "Ce-na sucks!" begat "You're a loser!" begat "Fuck you, Cena!" — this after he had been attacked by a returning Brock Lesnar and lay motionless in a heap in the ring. As harsh as those were, the Cena hate isn't focused on Cena himself; it's an expression of disapproval at the WWE's state of affairs. Booing Vince McMahon when he occasionally appears, or booing real-life WWE execs John Laurinaitis or Triple H wouldn't have the same effect; those guys are playing characters when they're onscreen, frequently bad-guy characters, and to boo them would only affirm their persona. But to boo Cena, their prized creation, in defiance of WWE's expectations that fans will adore him? That's a challenge to the wink-wink rules that undergird the entire enterprise. That's an act of pro wrestling civil disobedience, pure and simple.
Cheering for the bad-guy Bryan is a similar act. After Lesnar downed Cena, the two paths met in an orgy of anti-WWE fervor: "Yes! Yes! Yes!" They were simultaneously protesting the treatment of Daniel Bryan, promoting Cena's demise, and cheering for Lesnar's return. (That last one is significant for two reasons: Because everybody knew it was coming from the Internet rumor mill, and because anything remotely "unexpected" is lauded as a break from the monotony of the status quo. The crowd wasn't surprised, per se — they had been chanting his name all night — but they were appreciative of what he symbolized.)
After the show, the audience was treated to a non-televised match pitting Randy Orton, Sheamus, and Big Show against Kane, Cody Rhodes, and Daniel Bryan. If you were judging solely from their entrances, you'd guess that Sheamus was WWE's biggest villain and that Bryan was its biggest hero. Throughout the match, whenever Bryan was in the ring the crowd chanted "Yes!" almost without stopping; when he tagged out of the match, the crowd chanted "We want Bryan!" By the end, Bryan stood on the apron, grinning. He lost the match, by way of another big boot from Sheamus, and, for a moment, it felt like the chanting was all for naught, that WWE sent those two out there just to get our hopes up and shatter them again. But then, after everybody else left ringside (save AJ), Bryan rolled back into the ring and addressed the crowd, telling everyone that, at a minimum, they'd probably convinced WWE to make a new Daniel Bryan T-shirt.
It was probably true, but it was droll commentary nonetheless. Bryan's career won't be dictated by how loud the crowd chants or how small the bookers think he looks. It'll be defined by how much money WWE can make off him. Funny thing: Despite Mattel's objections to Bryan's choking incident back in 2010, they sell a Daniel Bryan action figure as part of a new line of miniatures, each about half the size of traditional WWE figurines. "The mightiest WWE superstars may have gone mini," the description goes, "but they're ready for some big brawling action!"
If that mantra seeps into the WWE at-large, Daniel Bryan just might have a shot.