This Tuesday, at the SummerSlam press conference, WWE Championship challenger Daniel Bryan took to the podium to express his discomfort with, well, being at the SummerSlam press conference. "To be honest, I'm a little bit uncomfortable, because this is the very first time WWE has ever even invited me to a press conference … I'm kinda not what they look for in a WWE superstar," Bryan said. "I feel very uncomfortable in this suit. I feel very uncomfortable in front of this podium. I would much rather be in my spandex in a ring doing what I do." He wasn't lying about the suit. He visibly struggled against it like a kid in church clothes. After the press conference ended and he posed for pictures with his opponent, WWE champ John Cena, and Triple H, the WWE exec and special referee of Sunday's match, Triple H had to tell Bryan to unbutton his jacket so it wouldn't look silly when they raised their arms.
Suffice it to say that Bryan is not exactly a suit-and-tie guy. The question leading into his career-defining moment1 at SummerSlam on Sunday in Los Angeles isn't whether he's a suit-and-tie guy, or even a WWE guy — it's whether he can stomach being a star. It's going to be on Bryan not just to beat John Cena; he has to become John Cena, to make himself into a WWE superstar, whether he likes it or not.
Prior to Monday, Bryan's feud seemed mostly to be with the McMahons, or, more broadly, with that nefarious villain known as Conventional Wisdom. Cena was the champ, and he magnanimously picked Bryan as his opponent because the fans wanted him, but he hardly factored into the story — Bryan's real opponent was Bryan himself — and the stakes were whether or not he was championship material. It was an interesting question. If wrestling were "real," then the answer would come with the ending of the match, but if we take wrestling to be entirely scripted, then the answer is self-evidently "yes"; otherwise this wouldn't be the story line in the first place. But in the odd netherworld of modern-day WWE, where Vince McMahon teases fans with insinuations of their own caricatures of him, the WWE can pioneer a surreal middle ground where viability is dictated capriciously from the top, and where fans get their way only when Cena forces the issue. In a sense, the reality is somewhere between those two poles, too: It's a story, sure, but one gets the feeling that Bryan actually has to prove something at SummerSlam. He has made it to the championship match, but only time will tell if a 5-foot-8, shaggy grappling purist can make it as a bona fide WWE icon.
The other day, I asked Bryan if it was at all awkward that the entire story line is built around his perceived inadequacy. He said no. "It's not only WWE who thinks that," Bryan said. "Even in Ring of Honor,2 if you were to talk to the booker at the time, Gabe Sapolsky, he would tell you that he never thought I would be the top guy. He saw it in CM Punk, he saw it in Samoa Joe, but he didn't see it in me, because I'm just not a natural leader in the sense that either of those guys are. If you talk to CM Punk, CM Punk wants to be a leader, Samoa Joe wants to be a leader, John Cena wants to be a leader. But I'm content to just be a dude, you know?"
On some level, I hear him saying this, and I know I'm being worked. You talk to a WWE wrestler on the record, and they're in character on some level, even if that character isn't far from their true personality. But Bryan's easygoing nature wasn't part of a story line, or at least it wasn't a couple days later, when things took a turn for the angsty on Monday night. Face-to-face in the ring with Cena, Bryan finally stopped feuding with vague perceptions and found some heat with his in-ring opponent. He pointed at his T-shirt, an ironic rip-off of Cena's current best seller.
"This shirt is a parody of you," he said, "because I think you are a parody of wrestling. And guess what? I don't want to be a parody … I want to be WWE Champion for one reason and one reason and one reason only — and it's not for the fame and not for the glory. It's so everybody knows … that when I step foot in the ring, there is nobody better than Daniel Bryan."
That was a new attitude even for the onscreen Bryan, but it's even further from the real-life one. "I'm not the least bit competitive," he told me. "I don't have a lot of drive to prove anything to anybody. I'm competitive with myself. I have my own aspirations, but it's more like an artist's aspirations than a sportsman's aspirations. I want to produce the best thing I can produce, as opposed to 'I want to be the top guy, I want to be the main merchandise seller.' And I do, I would like to be all of those things, but I'm not the super-competitive guy who has to edge everybody else out for those things."
Part of Bryan's appeal is this reluctance to be a star. It's what sets him apart from guys like Punk and Cena, and it's a big part of why he's so relatable. There was a great post on Angry Wrestling Guy that talked about how Bryan is the natural star to follow the hip-hop jingoism of Cena that coincided with our post-9/11 national anxiety, a reflection of our modern ironic malaise:
There is a conflicting sense that something must be done, but that "something" is nebulous … Perhaps the most signature aspect of this new paradigm is that we, collectively, have not only become aware of the absurdity in our lives, but have met it with good humor. Our reaction is sometimes to lament our state of affairs, but more often than not, it's to simply laugh and resign ourselves to our fate — like an episode of the Daily Show that points out government corruption without even a hint [of] sanctimonious outrage, but by turning it into one big joke. In the face of our powerlessness, we sometimes just have to laugh. We try to enjoy the ride, even if it is a downward spiral.
One sees the shrug and the grin in almost everything Bryan does onscreen and in the ring. It's all based in a sort of beautiful hippie stoicism he has about the sport. Despite his professed desire for superiority, off camera, Bryan was laid-back. I wondered if, in real life, wrestlers care about being the best, the way, say, Kobe Bryant does. "I know a lot of people do it, a lot of people are like, 'Oh, I'm better than this guy, I should be in this spot.' But realistically, wrestling doesn't owe us anything.
"One of my mentors was this guy named Robbie Brookside, who is just a fantastic wrestler. He would say 'We are very, very fortunate just to be able to do this and make a living.' People would ask him, 'Are you bummed out that you never made it?' and he would say 'What are you talking about? I'm 45 years old and I've never had to have a real job.' My dad can work up to 60 hours a week out in the rain scaling logs. He's had to do that kind of work essentially since he was in his early twenties. Even if I were to have never main-evented SummerSlam or never been involved in a WrestleMania or anything like that, just to be able to make a living wrestling the last 14 years — wrestling itself doesn't owe me anything. And a lot of people don't take that perspective."
On Monday's Raw, Bryan sounded less like himself and more like Cena's last countercultural adversary, CM Punk.3 You could hear the echoes in the argument: Cena might be the top star, but that doesn't mean he's the best in any real sense of the word. Maybe the WWE brain trust realized they were being too coy with the Bryan story line and decided to ramp up the antagonism. Sure, plugged-in fans know that WWE has traditionally had a preference for giant-size mahogany behemoths, but what of the average fan? "Sometimes I don't know if the fans understand that," Bryan told me. "I think the hard-core fans have a general understanding of what the WWE is looking for, but, for example, a 9-year-old kid doesn't sit there and think Daniel Bryan's not what the WWE wants. I think it's hard for them to conceptualize something like that."
Little wonder they went the more obvious route Monday night and Tuesday at the press conference, where Bryan said he represented "an opportunity for the paradigm to shift." It's time, he said, for the WWE's heroes to change "from being superstars and entertainers to wrestlers." If he was going to fight against the public perception of himself, he would have to rage against the machine. The WWE is casting him in the mold of Punk for the sake of simplicity. But despite all that Punk and Bryan have in common, that shorthand misses the point entirely. Punk was presented as a legitimate wrestler who hated the status quo, a guy fighting against conformity. Bryan is presented as an oddity, a guy fighting against reality, tilting at steroidal windmills. To the mainstream wrestling world of recent years, Punk is antiestablishment; Bryan is antimatter.
Before he was signed by WWE, the book on Bryan is that he would never make it in the majors. But over the past couple of years, he's doubled down on his unmarketability. Instead of just being the undersize wrestler, now he's the small, shaggy, wild-bearded wrestler. He has embraced being called "goat-faced" and a "weak link"4 as part of his character's evolution. Rather than become a flashier, more WWE-appropriate in-ring performer, he's brought in submission moves that risked boring some of WWE's more philistine fan base, and has used the "small package" pin as a finisher, an almost ironic move. It's an upheaval of modern wrestling conventions, a callback to meaningless matches of eras past, and an acknowledgment that he's just not the kind of guy who deals in spectacularity. And, since he famously used that finisher back in his indie days, it says he's the kind of guy who's not eager to change.
This, I think, gets to the core of the Bryan conundrum. He isn't just fighting against the perception of himself — he's fighting against himself as he evolves into a superstar. When he said at Tuesday's press conference that he'd rather be in spandex in the ring, you got the impression that he'd rather be anywhere but right there. The anti-Cena thing is shtick, sure, but it's closer to reality than he probably realizes. Doing press conferences, wearing suits — hell, doing phone interviews with the likes of me — none of that is Daniel Bryan. But it's all part of being WWE champion.
On the phone, I asked him about the Monday-night Raw after last year's WrestleMania, when the crowd revolted over his 18-second loss the night before and relentlessly chanted Bryan's catchphrase — "Yes! Yes! Yes!" — and his name over the entire show. Did he know then that he had arrived? "I honestly thought it was a one-night thing, just with that audience," he said.
Even in the thrall of mass acceptance, he couldn't quite believe that it was really happening. On Sunday, it'll be impossible to ignore. That's why the biggest fight at SummerSlam isn't Bryan versus Cena, or even Bryan versus Conventional Wisdom. It's Bryan versus himself. Win or lose, when he's basking in the crazy cheers of the Staples Center crowd, he'll be trying to figure out what the hell he's gotten himself into. He'll probably just shrug, grin, laugh in the face of his powerlessness. That's what got him this far.
I asked Bryan if, when he was wrestling in armories and bingo halls for all those years and dreaming of being a WWE star, he ever dreamed of sitting on the phone for three hours doing a string of interviews. He laughed. "They never really tell you about that part, do they?"