He was never supposed to make it. He was never going to be ‘the guy.’ Sure, he was a good hand. He was a solid worker. He was, if you’ll forgive us the phrase, ‘a B+ player.’ But he was never supposed to be a WWE Champion.
The company never planned on it. They never banked on him, never believed in him. But the fans believed in him because he made us believe. He made us take notice. Most importantly, he made us feel.
That’s not something every wrestler can do. Some wrestlers can perform incredible moves. Others can make us laugh. But there aren’t very many professional wrestlers who can take us on a journey and that is exactly what Bryan Danielson has done.
That journey, for him and for us, started back in 1999.
The day after he graduated high school, Danielson packed up everything he owned and moved to San Antonio Texas, to train under Rudy Gonzalez and Shawn Michaels.
“I went to training the first day and you think, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s Shawn Michaels,’” Danielson said on a WWE produced documentary profiling his career. “You just look at him as somebody who’s just larger than life and there he is. But if there’s a person who can teach me the right way to be a pro wrestler, it’s Shawn Michaels.”
That’s exactly what Michaels (and Gonzalez) did. Danielson began training at the Texas Wrestling Academy and had his first match in December of 1999. He was, as they say, a natural.
Danielson, due to his relationship with Michaels, would sign a developmental contract with WWE and, while signed, he would wrestle for Memphis Championship Wrestling. While there, he was trained by William Regal (pay attention – this will be important later).
Eventually, Danielson would be released from his developmental contract; this would be the first time that WWE missed the boat on Danielson. But it was one of the best things that could have happened to him.
Danielson then worked for New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he honed his craft and, not even a couple years into his career, he became known for his technical wrestling proficiency. He would end up wrestling two matches for WWE in 2002 and 2003. One of those matches was against future foe, John Cena.
Nothing ever came from those matches (which were televised on the WWE’s ‘B’ shows) and Danielson would eventually sign with the newly-created Ring of Honor in 2002. Danielson wrestled on the company’s debut event, taking on Christopher Daniels and Low Ki. He didn’t win, but he etched his legacy in stone.
For the next 7 years, Danielson would become synonymous with Ring of Honor, putting on classic matches with the likes of Austin Aries, James Gibson, Chris Hero, Homicide, Nigel McGuinness, Samoa Joe, CM Punk, Tyler Black, and many, many more. Clad in his William Regal-inspired Maroon trunks and simple boots, Bryan Danielson was the face of ROH for years. He was the epitome of the ‘Indy Wrestler,’ for better or worse. He wasn’t 7 feet tall. He didn’t have abs that you could wash a white t-shirt on. He didn’t turn your head, but he could break your neck.
In a world without a WCW, and with a WWE that was waning in popularity, fans wanted something else. They wanted something different. They got that with Ring of Honor. Much like Danielson himself, there was very little pomp and circumstance with that company. The matches told the stories.
And oh, what stories were told. The best of which was written by the American Dragon.
Danielson stayed with ROH until 2009 but then, once again, WWE came calling.
Danielson pledged to himself that he wouldn’t sign with the company if they only offered him another developmental contract. He had developed, at least to that point, enough. He was The American Dragon. He had ‘til 5. He would make sure that his opponents knew they were gonna get their f*ckin’ heads kicked in. Danielson was this generation’s Dynamite Kid, or Bret Hart, or Chris Benoit. He didn’t need a gimmick. He just needed the canvas to paint his pictures.
In short, he knew his worth.
Luckily, for him and for WWE, they didn’t offer him a developmental contract. He would not be reporting for duty at Florida Championship Wrestling. He would be sent straight to the main roster. Well, sort of.
It’s funny looking back – Bryan Danielson (now christened ‘Daniel Bryan’) was one of the first participants in NXT, back before it was Triple H’s baby. In 2009, it was a competition show that served absolutely no purpose, other than humiliating all those who participated in it. This goes especially for Danielson. The point of the game, presumably, was to pair “rookies” with “pros,” and if you guessed that Danielson would be the pro in that arrangement, you’d be wrong. He was the rookie. And the pro he was paired with? None other than The Miz.
We’re just gonna let that sink in for a while.
To be fair, Danielson hated the pairing a lot less than most fans did and maybe The Miz did help Danielson come out of his shell a little bit.
For weeks, Danielson, under the, ahem, tutelage of The Miz, would compete with other NXT wrestlers for that coveted WWE contract. It seemed as though it was Danielson’s to win.
Which is why it was so surprising that he was the first competitor eliminated.
After his surprise elimination, Danielson was interviewed by the insufferable Matt Striker. And the first real glimpse of the American Dragon burned through the television screen.
“I never make excuses,” he said. “Ever. And if the pros think that I’m one of the worst guys on the show and they think I should be eliminated, then eliminate me. I’ll find a way to make it somehow.”
Striker probably could have just let it lie, but he decided to prod Danielson a little more, asking if he regretted leaving the independent scene where he was “a big fish in a little pond.”
“Well that’s funny,” Danielson responded. “Daniel Bryan never wrestled on the independent scene. If you go and YouTube Daniel Bryan, all you ever see is Daniel Bryan in the WWE. But there was this guy, man. He was out there, he was kicking peoples’ heads in. People called him the best wrestler in the world. The best technical wrestler in the world. He was a champion in Japan and Mexico and Europe. Daniel Bryan might be done. But Bryan Danielson? God knows what’s gonna happen with him.”
Danielson legitimately thought that his career in WWE was over, so he wanted to make sure he left with a little bit of notoriety.
Luckily, that wasn’t the case. At the end of NXT Season 1, all of the ‘Rookies’ invaded Raw and absolutely destroyed John Cena, CM Punk, Luke Gallows, Michael Cole, Justin Roberts, the ring, everything! It was one of the most impressive visuals and coolest stories in modern wrestling (so, of course, they killed it a couple months later).
Danielson was a part of the group, but not for long. During the melee, Danielson “attacked” Justin Roberts (a friend of his) and used Roberts’ own tie to choke him out. This happened just a couple years after the Chris Benoit tragedy, so it wasn’t a good look, in the company’s mind.
They fired Danielson for a second time.
It was only for a couple months, though.
He would go on a brief tour of the independent wrestling scene, wrestling for CHIKARA, the IWA, Evolve, Dragon Gate USA, and more.
He would return to WWE at Summerslam 2010, as a mystery partner of John Cena, Edge, Chris Jericho, Bret Hart, R-Truth, and John Morrison as they took on the newly-dubbed Nexus (the former NXT rookies).
Following that, Danielson continued his feud with The Miz, eventually defeating him for the United States Championship.
Danielson kind of floundered for the next year. He was featured fairly prominently, but never in anything super meaningful. He defeated Dolph Ziggler in a Champion vs Champion match in one of the best matches of the year at Bragging Rights.
He was scheduled to have a match against Sheamus at WrestleMania 27, but it got moved to the pre-show and eventually turned into a battle royal, for some reason.
But that’s okay because later that year, Bryan Danielson would become the World Heavyweight Champion. Did he win the belt after a hard-fought, hour-long battle with a sworn enemy? Did he make a superstar tap out, proving that even though he is small, he is but mighty?
He cashed in the Money in the Bank briefcase and pinned Mark Henry after The Big Show DDT’d him onto a chair.
Still though. Bryan Danielson was the World Heavyweight Champion. He was holding the belt that Ric Flair, Sting, Hulk Hogan, Goldberg, and Vince Russo held. He was, for all intents and purposes, one of the two most important champions in the company.
Except, not really. Much like CM Punk, Danielson was given the belt as sort of a “make-good” to the ‘IWC’ (Internet Wrestling Community). Yeah, he had the belt. But he wasn’t exactly pushed like a superstar. He also turned heel in the process, going from a no-nonsense combat sport artist to a whiny, sniveling, coward (also like CM Punk did). He had the belt, but he didn’t have the respect. And even though he held onto the championship for quite some time, it never felt like Danielson was the guy.
Never was this more evident than at WrestleMania 28, when Danielson lost the World Heavyweight Championship to Sheamus. In 18 seconds. After one move.
That moment, those 18 seconds, showed the world exactly how Vince McMahon viewed Bryan Danielson. That match was supposed to be the undoing of Bryan Danielson. Instead, it began the story of a lifetime, one that would culminate, truly, on September 21, 2022.
Fans were, rightfully, annoyed that one of their favorites (despite his heelish tendencies) was demolished by one of “Vince’s guys,” so they rebelled. Oh, how they rebelled.
It started the night after WrestleMania 28. There was something in the air that night in Florida. While The Rock talked about beating John Cena, fans chanted for Daniel Bryan. While John Cena about losing to The Rock, fans chanted for Daniel Bryan. These fans had decided who they wanted to get behind, and they would stay that way for the next two years, until they got what they wanted.
Throughout the next year, Danielson really came into his own, character-wise. His ‘Yes’ chant became the new ‘What’ chant. It was everywhere. And though, technically, Danielson remained a heel, it was obvious that the fans wanted to cheer on their guy. Danielson formed a tag team with Kane, called Team Hell No (it should’ve been called Team Friendship, and that’s something we will never truly get over) and that partnership served to make the fans love Danielson even more. The chemistry that he and Kane had was truly one-of-a-kind. In the ring, the two were unstoppable. Danielson was the plucky underdog who got the hot tag and Kane was the powerhouse monster. They would eventually win the Tag Team Championship and feud with the likes of The Shield, Cody Rhodes and Goldust, and more. That was in the ring. Outside of the ring, however…that’s where the real magic happened. Whether it was an anger management class, a very sexual-innuendo’d conversation in a diner, or something else entirely, Team Hell No was the highlight of every show of which they were a part.
But then, it was time to get back to business. And that’s exactly what he did at SummerSlam 2013, when he took on John Cena for the WWE Championship.
For wrestling fans, it was the showdown of a lifetime. It was ‘Our Guy’ vs ‘Their Guy.’ It was the ‘Pro Wrestler’ vs the ‘Sports Entertainer.’ It was us against Vince McMahon.
And we won. At least for a minute.
In one of the best SummerSlam main events of all time, Bryan Danielson defeated John Cena to win the WWE Championship. It was his crowning moment. It was finally the feather in the cap he’d been wearing for 14 years. It was the recognition he deserved, the championship he earned, the respect he demanded.
And then Triple H and Randy Orton took it all away. Randy Orton cashed in his own Money in the Bank briefcase after Triple H pedigreed Danielson, and he pinned the American Dragon to win the WWE Championship for himself.
For fans, this wasn’t just a sad ending to a wrestling show. This felt personal. This felt like Vince McMahon was toying with the fans. He knew fans wanted Danielson to be champion. Didn’t he hear the chants in every arena the company went to? He knew that, much like he did with Steve Austin in 1996, or CM Punk in 2011, he had struck gold in a performer that absolutely resonated with fans. He could have strapped the rocket to Danielson’s back and maybe, just maybe, turned a new corner in the pantheons of World Wrestling Entertainment.
Instead, he just gave the championship to Randy Orton for the 10th time.
Fans were not happy, and they let Vince McMahon know that at every turn. For the next four months, fans clamored for Danielson to win the championship back. He feuded with Randy Orton in a convoluted mess that included Triple H, Shawn Michaels, The Big Show (?), Dusty Rhodes, and more and he never got the championship back.
One night in December of 2013, as Vince McMahon and his children were to dedicate the show to the new ‘Undisputed Champion,’ fans let him know who they really wanted. The ring was full of former champions, from Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, to Rey Mysterio and Triple H. But the fans only wanted one man.
“Daniel Bryan!” they chanted. And they kept chanting. And they never relented.
Vince, Stephanie, and Triple H didn’t know what to do. Fans were hijacking the show. Would they finally listen? Would they pivot from their original plan and actually give the fans what they wanted?
The Royal Rumble was coming up, and that would have been the perfect time to give fans what they wanted. And all they wanted, was Bryan Danielson.
Danielson was put into a weird story with the Wyatt family (presumably because he had a beard) that culminated in a match at the Rumble against Bray Wyatt. The match was excellent, and Wyatt won. But that’s okay, because surely Danielson would win the Rumble and end the note on a high note, right?
Have you even been paying attention, Hyptothetical Reader?
The bad news is, Danielson didn’t win the 2014 Royal Rumble. The worse news is, he wasn’t even in it.
Fans waited the whole match for Danielson to enter the ring, eliminate the competitors, and finally, finally take his rightful place at the top of the company. But that didn’t happen. Not on that night.
Fans, as has become a theme, were infuriated. How could Vince McMahon be this out of touch? Fans did not want to see Randy Orton vs Batista (the actual Royal Rumble winner) at WrestleMania. They wanted Bryan Danielson. And they would not stop chanting his name until they got it.
Finally, Vince McMahon got it.
In what was absolutely a pivot from the original plan of Orton vs Batista, it was finally decided to give fans what they have wanted for years.
In a memorable episode of Raw, Danielson and his fans “hijacked” the show and Danielson demanded he be put into the WrestleMania main event. Triple H, the on-screen “boss” at the time agreed, if he could beat ‘The Game’ in the show’s opening match.
And that’s exactly what Danielson did. In the best WrestleMania opening match of all time (sorry, Bret and Owen) Bryan Danielson defeated Triple H. Some might say this win was even more cathartic than what would happen later in the night. For the past 6 months, Triple H was the Avatar for the company’s real-life beliefs, constantly undermining Danielson’s popularity and refusing to let him take his rightful place at the throne. Triple H, storyline-wise, was guarding that throne and if Danielson wanted it, he had to get through him.
So, he did. He kicked Triple H in the f*cking head, kneed him in the face, and moved on to the main event.
And then, it happened. He defeated both Randy Orton and Batista in an incredible match and, after 5 years with the company, and 15 years in the industry, Bryan Danielson became the official, undisputed, WWE World Heavyweight Champion. With his family in attendance, Danielson held up both World Championship belts as streamers fell down around him and an entire arena chanted ‘Yes.’
Yes – The American Dragon finally slayed.
Yes – The plucky underdog finally won the big one.
Yes – The professional wrestler finally won the championship.
Yes- The dream had come true.
Yes- Bryan Danielson was the World Heavyweight Champion, the best in the world.
If life were a movie, this is when we’d fade to black and the credits would start rolling.
But, life isn’t a movie and sometimes we have to find out what happens after the happy ending.
In this story, Bryan Danielson got hurt. First, it was his neck. Then, it was his brain.
After 64 days as champion, Danielson had to relinquish the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, in order to undergo neck surgery.
Eventually, he would return, just in time for the 2015 Royal Rumble. He was eliminated very quickly by Bray Wyatt. He would challenge the Rumble winner, Roman Reigns, for his Number One Contender spot at Fastlane, but would lose the match.
At WrestleMania 31, Danielson would compete in a multi-man ladder match for the Intercontinental Championship. He would win that match and was determined to make the IC Title mean something again.
But then, tragedy struck again.
After years of taking brutal shots to the head, Danielson had a multitude of concussion-related issues. He relinquished the Intercontinental Championship and, a few months later on February 8, 2016, in Seattle Washington, Bryan Danielson officially retired from professional wrestling.
It was, arguably, the most emotional moment in the history of WWE. This isn’t how the story was supposed to go. Bryan Danielson was supposed to wrestle until he decided he wanted to be done. This wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. It was, in every sense of the word, tragic.
Outwardly, Danielson tried to be positive. During his retirement speech, he said that he was ‘grateful.’ He was grateful for the moments, grateful for the memories, grateful that his dad got to see how much fans loved him. He was grateful for the opportunities he was given, and he was grateful for the chances he took. He bet on himself and, more often than not, he won. And he wouldn’t let one loss define the rest of his career.
Still, it was a blow – to the company and to Danielson himself. He would stick around for a while, serving as the General Manager of Smackdown and commentating the Cruiserweight Classic Tournament. But that’s not what he wanted to do. It’s not what he was born to do. It was antithetical to everything Bryan Danielson was about. He wasn’t there to talk, he was there to wrestle. And he just couldn’t wrestle anymore.
Until he got a second opinion. And then a third opinion. And a fourth. And a fifth. Bryan Danielson decided that no, this was not how his story was going to end. This was not going to beat him. All Bryan Danielson ever wanted to do was wrestle and goddamnit, he wasn’t going to stop fighting.
Danielson did the work. He saw doctor after doctor, specialist after specialist. He was cleared by all of them. Now, he just needed the WWE doctors to clear him. That was the hard part because if something went wrong, if something happened to him on Vince McMahon’s watch, it would look terrible on the company. But to Danielson, it didn’t matter. All he wanted was to wrestle. It was his dream. And he never stopped fighting for his dream.
Finally, his dream came true…again.
On March 20, 2018 Bryan Danielson announced that he had been cleared. He would wrestle again.
As he entered the ring to the crowd chanting ‘Yes!’ the smile on his face could not be contained. The joy was radiating out of him. It was such a different scene than the one from a couple years earlier and, while he was still grateful, he was also hungry.
“Fight for your dream,” he told the crowd. “Fight for your dream. Fight for your dream. Fight for your dream because if you fight for your dream your dream will fight for you.”
Bryan Danielson’s dream fought for him. And they won.
He would return to the ring at WrestleMania 34, teaming with Shane McMahon (because nothing can ever be perfect with Bryan Danielson) to take on Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. The match was fine, but the important thing was that Danielson was back. Four years after winning the WWE Championship in New Orleans at WrestleMania 30, he was back in the same arena, reclaiming his career.
And, if life were a movie, this is when we would fade to black and the credits would start rolling.
Again, that’s not how real life works. Danielson would finally get his hands on The Miz. But he would lose to him. Twice. Once at SummerSlam, and once at Hell in a Cell, teaming with his wife, Brie Bella against Miz and Maryse. He would finally defeat his arch nemesis at Super Show-Down, putting to bed this years-long feud. He would even reteam with Kane for a time or two.
Then, something happened. Bryan Danielson grew tired of the cheers, of the praise, of the ‘Yes!’ chants. He turned heel and became ‘The New Daniel Bryan.’ In doing so, he kicked AJ Styles in the balls and won the WWE Championship one more time. Throughout the following months, Danielson called himself ‘The Planet’s Champion,’ even going so far as to debut a new title, made of entirely sustainable material. He was a bad guy but, just like before, the people loved him still.
He would feud with AJ Styles, competing in a series of dream matches with the Phenomenal One. Speaking of dream matches, Bryan Danielson fought Brock Lesnar in the dream match at Survivor Series. He lost the match but, once again, gave Brock Lesnar one of the best matches of his career.
Eventually, at WrestleMania 35, one year after his grand return to professional wrestling, he did the job for Kofi Kingston, giving Kingston his own championship dream, his own WrestleMania moment, and his own happy ending to a story that will never actually end. Daniel Bryan lost the WWE Championship to Kofi Kingston and gave Kingston the moment that he, himself, has desperately fought for.
Following that, he would jump from feud to feud, taking on the likes of The Fiend, Drew Gulack, and more. But as he was doing that, another company was being created. And Danielson took notice.
Danielson would feud with Roman Reigns for the Universal Championship, taking him on at Fastlane and losing. But then, in a move similar to the one that occurred in 2014, Danielson was added to the penciled in main event of Roman Reigns vs Edge at WrestleMania 37. It was now a triple threat match. Could Bryan Danielson repeat history and force himself into being champion one more time?
He could not. He lost the match after Reigns pinned both him and Edge at the same time. He would battle Reigns one more time on an episode of Smackdown, in which his career was on the line. He lost that match, and it was the last time (more or less) that fans would see Danielson inside of a WWE ring.
But that doesn’t mean that he retired from professional wrestling as a whole. All his life, Danielson wanted to be a professional wrestler. It was never his dream to be a WWE Superstar – he just wanted to be a professional wrestler. And this new company, All Elite Wrestling, seemed to be the place that Danielson could once again be fully, wholly, completely himself.
On September 5, 2021 Bryan Danielson debuted in AEW in one of the most incredible endings to a wrestling pay-per-view in recent memory. His debut followed that of Adam Cole, in a one-two punch that left wrestling fans speechless.
Wasting no time, Danielson went about competing in as many dream matches as he could. A year ago, at Dynamite: Grand Slam, Danielson took on Kenny Omega in a 30-minute time limit draw. There was no winner, which means, eventually, the match will have to happen again. He then took on new champion ‘Hangman’ Adam Page in a series of matches. The first match ended in a 60-minute time limit draw. The second time they met, Page defeated Danielson, earning his respect in the process. Following that, Danielson took on Jon Moxley at AEW: Revolution. The two battled feverishly until both men’s mentor, William Regal, broke the fight up and forced the two to shake hands. Following that, the men formed the Blackpool Combat Club, consisting of Danielson, Moxley, Wheeler Yuta, and Claudio Castagnoli, with Regal serving as the group’s mouthpiece.
Now, just a year and a few days after his debut, Bryan Danielson is gearing up to take on his BCC Brother one more time for the AEW Championship. At this year’s Dynamite: Grand Slam, it’s Danielson vs Jon Moxley for the AEW Championship. Danielson may win. Many people believe he will. But maybe he’ll lose. Or maybe, in a move similar to Summerslam 2013, he’ll win the title and then immediately lose it to MJF. None of that matters. The title, really, doesn’t matter to Bryan Danielson or his fans anymore.
For years, all fans wanted was for Bryan Danielson to be the World Heavyweight Champion. He earned it, he deserved it, he fought for it. And then, he finally won it. And fans rejoiced. But then, Danielson got hurt. And he had to go away for a while and none of us thought that we would ever see him wrestle again. That’s when we realized what the important things were. And the important things were that Bryan Danielson was healthy and happy. The important thing was that he was there for his wife Brie, and his two children, Buddy (named after his dad) and Birdie. The important thing, is that Bryan Danielson is at peace – with himself and with the world around him.
He finally is. He knows what his legacy in the world of professional wrestling is. He knows that he has crafted a career that has served as an inspiration to countless other wrestlers and fans. He knows, because we showed him, how much he means to his fans. While he fought for his dreams, we fought for them too, right alongside him. Danielson has gone on record saying that he would not have had the career that he had if it weren’t for his fans, and maybe that’s true or maybe it isn’t. But what is true, what is absolutely undeniable, is the fact that Bryan Danielson sparked something inside all of us.
Maybe he wasn’t 6’9 and 300 lbs. Maybe he didn’t have movie star good looks or charisma off the charts. But that’s okay, because most of us don’t. And that’s what we saw in Bryan Danielson. We saw somebody who looked like us, who talked like us, who fought like us. Who believed like us. And that’s why fans got behind him the way they did. It’s the kind of story that can only be told in professional wrestling; one with tremendous highs and devastating lows. It’s the ballad of Bryan Danielson and it’s one of the most incredible stories that professional wrestling has ever told. We believed in Bryan Danielson because he made us believe in ourselves. Bryan Danielson fought for his dreams and he told us to fight for our own. And now, the best way we can support him, the best way we can honor him is to never stop fighting for our dreams. If he can achieve them, anyone can. And if you had to ask Bryan Danielson, this ultimate underdog, if he ever thought he’d be where he is today, or that he’d have the career that he had, he’d probably say no. He’s kind of a humble guy.
But, if you had to ask him if he believed other people could achieve their dreams just like he did?
He’d smile at you. And he would say, well…
Fade to black. Roll Credits.
Follow Nick at @WesternRebel
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