It’s easy to overstate the impact of even the most accomplished athletes or entertainers upon retirement. With his emotional farewell speech still so fresh in our minds, it may seem premature or hyperbolic to make statements about the importance of Bryan “Daniel Bryan” Danielson to professional wrestling. But, as he has been for so much of his career, Danielson is an exception to the established rule.
With or without the sentimentality of his departure from the ring, it can be stated with a comfortable degree of certainty that there will never be another wrestler like him. Not just because he was an incredible performer, nor because of the degree of success he attained, nor for the barriers he broke down and the trails he blazed. But because in a business where embellishing the truth is standard practice and authenticity is a secondary consideration, he is as real as it gets.
For all that he has done — from helping build the foundation and credibility of Ring of Honor to contributing to the paradigm shift in how WWE views talents from the independent scene — one achievement in particular makes Danielson’s wrestling career inimitable: his celebration after winning the main event of Wrestlemania XXX, the defining moment of his 16-year career. While he is neither the first nor the last to reach that particular apex, his Wrestlemania moment is singular for what he had to do to get there: compel the obstinate and implacable titan of professional wrestling to change course against its own will. His time at the top may have been fleeting, but that he got there at all, despite those in power not seeing it as his place and having to be dragged kicking and screaming along, is incomparable. Not only did he manage this unprecedented feat against all odds, but he did so by virtue of being himself.
When wrestling fans gravitate toward a particular performer, they will attempt to guide the promotion to get behind them by chanting or purchasing merchandise or voicing their opinions on the Internet. But when it becomes clear that the machine does not regard those wrestlers the same way, the natural reaction is to eventually give up hope and move on to someone else. When WWE attempted to strong-arm the idea of a Wrestlemania main event not including Daniel Bryan, there was no such resignation. Instead, fans pushed back as a unified front and did not stop pushing until they got exactly what they demanded. For as ill-fitting as so much of WWE’s branding efforts are, the choice to dub the furor surrounding Bryan a movement was surprisingly apt.
It was an unparalleled display of both defiance and loyalty that seemingly only Bryan has ever been able to engender. One can speculate what could have been had it been anybody else in Bryan’s shoes, but it is quite clear that it simply never could have been anyone else. The unreal wave that he rode to that Mania main event was only a reality because of the resonance and honesty of the Daniel Bryan character. That verisimilitude was not a quality generated by slick marketing or calculated booking, but by the authenticity of Bryan Danielson, the human being. In the meticulously controlled, Truman Show-esque WWE Universe, the realness of Daniel Bryan was perhaps his most unique attribute.
The quality of authenticity extended into his ring work, and it made Danielson a commodity for wrestling fans very early in his career. I had the privilege of seeing him wrestle for Ring of Honor on numerous occasions, and it was abundantly clear even then that he was a man who valued professional wrestling as an art form. Over the course of more than a decade, from ROH to WWE and everywhere in between, he wrestled with the same ardor and urgency in seemingly every match. If it was a cage match with Homicide in front of 500 fans at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds or the main event of Wrestlemania in front of 75,000 at the Superdome, Danielson put everything he had into giving his matches an air of legitimacy. The love he felt for the art was readily apparent in the way he practiced his craft, and it ultimately helped broaden his appeal beyond hardcore wrestling fans to WWE’s diverse audience.
There is no doubt how much Danielson suffered for that art. Unsurprisingly, his autobiography is refreshingly candid and he freely discusses countless injuries and the refusal to take the proper time to heal. Prophetically, he calls concussions “the number one thing to plague me throughout my career” after suffering his first just months into his career. Later, he recalls getting one in a match with Morishima and opting to wrestle for more than twenty minutes the following night, leading to pounding headaches for several weeks thereafter. He sees both the perception and presentation of professional wrestling change in the aftermath of the Chris Benoit murders, suddenly finding the ramming headbutt spots from his match with Nigel McGuinness at Driven 2007 “stupid” and “reckless.”
Yet, despite informing himself about CTE and the ramifications of brain damage, he admits to refusing to tone down his style so as not to forego the believability that he felt made him so unique.
His commitment to honesty in the ring proved terrifying at points. Only ten months removed from undergoing a cervical foraminotomy, he took some truly horrendous bumps and was left unable to lift his right arm after a completely inconsequential Raw match with Luke Harper. Even after acknowledging the resulting problem with his arm during an interview with SF Weekly, he conceded, “[S]ometimes you know what you should and shouldn’t do, but when you love what you do it’s hard to always do what you should.”
The concussion that ostensibly led to Danielson’s retirement likely occurred in a match with Sheamus that took place on a throwaway episode of Smackdown. Despite disclosing in his book that the Benoit case led him to stop using headbutts in 2007, he was seemingly knocked out by a series of unnecessarily stiff headbutts that busted his head open hardway. Watching this match now and seeing Danielson’s body spasm on the floor, given his admission that he hid post-concussion seizures that may have been caused by a lesion on his brain, is the stuff of nightmares.
All of this evidence suggests that even with the most intimate knowledge of the fragility of the human body, Danielson ultimately could not and would not limit himself in the ring, no matter how insignificant the match or how great the risk involved. For as cynical as it may sound, the thought of the Harper match in particular, combined with his hellacious push to come back after that final concussion, reminded me of a quote made famous by the suicide letter of fellow native of Danielson’s hometown: “It is better to burn out than to fade away.”
Even in walking away, Danielson defies expectations. For as selfish as it feels to lament the loss of Bryan Danielson, the incredible professional wrestler, it is an unmitigated relief to know that the human being is stepping away before the physical cost of his greatest love burned him down to cinders.
Some of the most poignant moments of Danielson’s farewell speech were recollections about his father. On the final page of his autobiography, he writes that, “If you were to ask me today if all the rewards were worth the sacrifices, I would say no. Yet I keep on because I’m not quite sure what else to do with myself and because stopping now won’t give me any more time with my father.”
Those words, brutal in their honesty, paint Danielson as almost being lost without professional wrestling. But it seems that today, Danielson’s perspective has changed for the better. He seems ready to embrace the life that comes after the ring. If his dedication to his craft is in any way emblematic of how he will excel as a husband and father, then he has a fulfilling and purposeful life ahead of him. And if he continues to use his voice to advocate for concussion awareness, his legacy in professional wrestling is bound to extend far beyond what he did in the ring.
Even for those who only knew Bryan Danielson from his time in and around professional wrestling, there is an immense sense of comfort that comes from seeing him in such a place of acceptance. After all, the wrestler we have been cheering for 16 years is not so far removed from the man himself, and we can see this new phase of his life as being the happy ending (and fresh start) he deserves. And when he says that he is at peace with moving on to that new chapter, we can rest assured that it is the honest truth.
In 16 years, he’s never given us anything less.