On April 6, 2014, Bryan Danielson, better known by his stage name Daniel Bryan, won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship by forcing Dave Batista to submit to his signature YES! Lock at Wrestlemania XXX. To some readers this might seem like a petty accomplishment; after all, professional wrestling is now well-known to be a scripted event, more like a performance than a legitimate athletic contest. And yet, as Bryan sat crying in the ring, showered with adoration from the assembled packed into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it wasn’t because of a performance well-acted (though it was certainly that, too); it was a victory for all of us, the fans. Our guy, the guy who should have slipped through the cracks, made it to the top of the mountain. His victory, which we helped facilitate, belonged to all of us.
Daniel Bryan never should have been champion. He is maybe five-foot-eight and slightly pudgy, and in the world of pro wrestling, packed as it is with six-foot-ten Adonises, this is the kiss of death. Though we’re no longer in the steroid grip of the ‘80s, the WWE is in the business of selling a spectacle, and said spectacle revolves around larger-than-life walking gods. And yet, this very physical dissonance played a role in Bryan’s ascension in the hearts of fans. This was no musclebound ape in the style of John Cena or Brock Lesnar. Instead, Bryan channeled the common man out of his element, and the common man triumphing over adversity is a salient storyline that sells tickets.
Another tool in Bryan’s arsenal is his implacable, overpowering charisma. The curious reader would do well to find a video online of Bryan’s entrance down the ramp to the ring for nearly any of his matches, and it would be a legitimate surprise if you don’t come away from it without some appreciation of the man. Daniel Bryan, a short, bearded, average-looking man, somehow packs within himself the ability to win an audience to his side without saying a word. It happened to me the very first time I saw him standing on the entrance ramp, as Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ blasted through the PA system and the crowd chanted his simple, catchy, and exciting catchphrase, “YES…YES…YES!” On one hand, it’s all so hokey and stupid, it shouldn’t work at all, and yet, it all fits together perfectly that the air becomes electric and you can’t help but get swept up in the ritual and chant along with everyone else. Bryan isn’t a particularly good talker, really, but his nonverbal skills are astounding, not just in the world of wrestling, but in entertainment at large. Daniel Bryan is bottled excitement.
Bryan’s relatability and his charisma alone would have made him a moneymaker regardless of what else happened, and we were all watching for him to get his time in the sun, to conquer his naysayers and allow the viewer to live vicariously through his victory. And yet he didn’t, not at first anyway. Daniel Bryan lost, and lost, and lost again. It’s never a sure thing to take anything at face value is pro wrestling; the difference between a ‘work’ (that is to say, a storyline) and a ‘shoot’ (that is to say, real life divorced from storytelling) can sometimes be surprisingly subtle. When The Undertaker is trapped in a coffin and ascends to heaven, the viewer can probably be sure that a man hasn’t really died live on TV. But when the storytellers conspire to keep down a beloved performer for two agonizing years, are we looking at a masterclass of storytelling and audience manipulation, or are we looking at writers so set in their ways that they can’t recognize the sure-fire hit they have on their hands because he doesn’t fit into their typical model? In the end, there’s no real way for us to know for sure, only the boys in the back know, and it’s doubtful they’d admit they misread the situation even if they had. The only thing we can know is that, starting at Wrestlemania XXVIII in 2012, Daniel Bryan was made to be humiliated or marginalized time and time again, while audience support built up to the boiling point.
At ‘Mania XXVIII, Bryan lost his match in 18 seconds. The people still cheered for him. He was then turned heel (that is to say, made a villain) so people would stop cheering and instead boo. The people still cheered for him. He was teamed up with another wrestler in an odd couple tag team, to take him out of singles matches. The people still cheered for him. He was given a concession and briefly won a championship belt, only to lose it literally minutes later against another opponent. The people still cheered for him. He was turned heel again, and placed into a group where he was told to do little but stand in the back and not do anything remotely charismatic. The people still cheered for him. The crowd lusted for Daniel Bryan to come out on top, to beat these clearly insurmountable odds, and it seemed like everyone knew it but the ones writing the storylines. All of this lead up to the Royal Rumble in January 2014, a multi-man match where the last wrestler standing got a shot for the World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestlemania XXX. There was no question that this was Bryan’s moment; he would outlast everyone and go on to finally claim the prize that he had worked so hard for.
Daniel Bryan wasn’t even in the Royal Rumble.
Instead, the powers that be had Bryan lose handily in a preliminary match about two hours before the Rumble itself. The audience, both watching on TV and in person at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, had finally had enough. Boos and chants of ‘Daniel Bryan’ rained down from the stands throughout the Rumble match, especially when it became clear that the fans last hope, that maybe Bryan would be a surprise entrant at the last minute, wasn’t going to happen. The audience hatred intensified when it became clear that the winner was almost certainly going to be Dave Batista, a wrestler-turned-actor who was brought in on a big money contract just six days before the Rumble as some celebrity star power (and who has subsequently become a big-name actor thanks to his performance in Guardians of the Galaxy). Fans proceeded to hijack WWE events, chanting unceasingly for Bryan and showering Batista with hatred whenever he dared show his face. WWE had its back against the wall; there had never been a rejection of a storyline so complete and total. With Wrestlemania XXX just a few months away, there was nothing the writers could do to placate the fans.
On March 10, less than a month before Wrestlemania XXX, Daniel Bryan and several actors dressed as fans hijacked WWE’s flagship TV show Raw. The group channeled actual fan dissatisfaction over how their guy was being used, and the real fans in the seats chanted along with Bryan and the actors in the ring. After every other possibility failed, and unwilling to risk a total fan rejection of the product, the writers backstage cast themselves as the villains in the story. Those in the ring modeled themselves after the Occupy Wall Street protesters (perhaps a year or two behind the time), and refused to leave the ring until Bryan was inserted into the championship match. Both in storyline and in real life, the writers had been beaten by fan outcry, so after a month and a half of very real near-revolt, Daniel Bryan was added to the main event of Wrestlemania XXX. There, on the biggest stage of the sport, he was able to make the hated Batista tap out and finally give a happy ending to this twisting, turning, heart-stopping story. Bryan’s celebration, on his knees with his new championship while confetti fell through the Superdome and fans were beside themselves with cheers and adulation, went on uninterrupted for 5 minutes and 36 seconds, and this writer was at home right there with them.
Among the cheering fans was 8 year old Connor Michalek, a boy who considered Bryan his personal hero. At the time, Michalek was 22 days away from his death, caused by brain and spine cancer. After winning the championship, Michalek was the first person Bryan hugged. Michalek’s story brings so many conflicting emotions into my body all at once, but mainly I think of how cruel life can be, and how it is up to us to prop each other up when we are able, and to really work as hard as we can to make not only our own lives, but the lives of others as pleasant as can be. The world isn’t fair, no story that ends in the death of a young boy could ever be fair. But through Bryan, Connor and his story was able to touch me, and touch anyone else watching, and hopefully anyone reading this essay. Connor’s life was cut too short, pointlessly so, a pointlessness I still can’t understand and never will. But at that moment, his hero had achieved everything he had set out to. It was perfection, and if nothing else, at least Connor was there front row to experience it. Daniel Bryan’s victory was more than just the hero in a scripted story finally overcoming adversity. It was all of us: me, you, Connor, Daniel, and everyone else, achieving against odds that are rarely fair or make sense. It didn’t matter where Daniel and his championship went after this. Even if it was just for now, we had made it.
Almost lost in the shuffle of the title change and the happiness it afforded fans were two snapshots of pure, salient beauty. First was the moment itself, where Batista tapped to the YES! Lock. There’s an impossibly brief, infinitesimal moment between Batista tapping and the victory bell ringing, where the audience realizes what’s just happened and what it means: for Bryan, for the storyline, and for their own hopes and dreams. The swell of cheers that arises in that fraction of a second before the bell, the music, and the pageantry is probably the most singular, unique, utterly real moment in the long, storied history of pro wrestling. And second, the opening to the episode of Raw the day after Wrestlemania. In an industry that prides itself on bombast, on spectacle, on being larger than life, like Bryan himself, the moment is amazingly understated and direct. No announcers, no music, no anything except the cameras moving over the sold-out crowd chanting in unison, as one mind, a purely positive emotion made flesh:
“YES! YES! YES!”