As "WWE Raw" went off the air Monday night, the crowd was chanting "Yes! Yes! Yes!" But it wasn't to celebrate the return of Daniel Bryan, leader of the "Yes Movement" and arguably the most popular pro wrestler of the last half-decade.
It was to toast his premature retirement. Bryan, 34, had just reached the pinnacle of sports entertainment two years ago. Judging by the stars that have come before him, he could have wrestled for another five or 10 years if his body had held up. But just like in football, the health of today's wrestlers is judged against a different metric than their forebears.
In the end, Bryan was forced out of the ring by a concussion issue that no amount of training or storytelling could overcome. As Bryan walked out of the arena and into a new reality, he embraced the head storyteller and decision-maker in WWE -- the chairman, Vince McMahon. Nobody has been as simultaneously responsible for and reportedly uncomfortable with Bryan's success than McMahon, and so it was a poignant but deeply odd moment -- a fatherly embrace of pride from the father of modern pro wrestling to the superstar he never wanted, on the event of the latter's premature retirement from the sport.
McMahon's smile was so wide, so unguarded, that it felt like we were for once seeing the real McMahon and not the campy, combative self-parody he trots out for the TV cameras. (There's a slightly different but similarly artificial put-on Vince that does "out of character" interviews and stockholder meetings, but that's another story.)
It made sense: Bryan helped usher in a new generation of WWE, and his retirement was in many ways an altruistic gesture, a refusal to put himself before the business. And above all else, it was one of the most affecting, compelling segments in WWE history. Vince had every reason to be proud. But then again, maybe this was just another manifestation of the McMahon façade, a role he was playing to glean the audience's good will. It doesn't matter, really, but it underlined the oddity of the night, of a real retirement announcement superseding the scripted spectacle of a pro wrestling show. For once, the viewer knew what was in the ring was real, and it was almost impossible to wrap one's head around.
The saga of Daniel Bryan in WWE is truly one of the most amazing stories in wrestling history. Bryan was a diminutive standout on the global independent (read: non-WWE) wrestling scene, a walking metaphor for the WWE's partiality for muscle-bound stiffs over talented grapplers. When Bryan actually got signed by WWE in 2009, everybody assumed he wouldn't make it to the top. And that might have been the case if it weren't for the fans, who embraced Bryan.
Despite a decade of working in relative anonymity, Bryan, whose real name is Bryan Danielson, came to WWE at exactly the right time -- in the post-Pipebomb era, after CM Punk had propelled himself to the top of WWE with the power of indie cred and reality-based promos. Bryan was the chief beneficiary of the Reality Era's new rules, just as he was the beneficiary of technological shifts in the broader world. Suddenly, fans could deep-dive a new wrestler's career on YouTube, and so Bryan's pre-WWE legacy -- where he was earnestly known as the best wrestler in the world -- was available to even casual fans. Just as YouTube introduced basketball fans to random high school players' highlight reels, so too wrestling fans could download a career in a night's rabbit hole.
The fans took quickly to that legacy, as well as his in-ring electricity and enthusiasm. In a world of muscly metaphors, Bryan's was the most compelling by far. He may have been signed by WWE, but he would never be given the chance to succeed by management -- I mean, just look at him.
But starting in 2012, the weird energy that powers pro wrestling gave WWE a star they weren't expecting. Pro wresting's scripted morality plays have taught us to root for underdogs for the better part of a century. It didn't matter what storyline WWE was feeding us at the moment, the real storyline of Bryan being the upstart took precedence and propelled Bryan to the top. The fans formally rejected their roles as complacent cheerleaders and began chanting for Bryan at every opportunity, hijacking shows to voice their support for the underdog of the decade.
WWE acquiesced and immediately co-opted the underdog storyline for its own purposes: At SummerSlam in 2013, Bryan defeated John Cena for the WWE Championship, and in his moment of triumph, nefarious COO Triple H attacked Bryan, allowing the company-endorsed Randy Orton to cash in his Money In The Bank title shot and win the title.
The establishment was still keeping Bryan down, only now it was part of the show.
For the next six months, Bryan fought against the WWE front office, both on screen and off. He feuded with Orton and Triple H in the ring, but when WrestleMania season approached, Bryan was left off the booking sheet. Rather than fulfill his storyline destiny, the rumors were that he would take on Kane in a non-title match, while Batista, a tall and musclebound ex-wrestler who recently returned from a go in Hollywood, took his spot in the main event.
But once again, fans wouldn't let Bryan be denied. They constantly interrupted the show with "Yes!" chants -- Bryan's staple -- in straightforward rejection of the headline feuds WWE was promoting. Finally -- again -- WWE absorbed the fan resentment into the story, staging a takeover of Raw in which fans forced Triple H to accept a WrestleMania match against Bryan -- a match that, if Bryan won, would earn him a spot in the main event.
Needless to say, Bryan won. It was one of the most rapturous experiences in most fans' recent memory, and it was a victory not just for Bryan -- who deserved it -- but also for the fans, who got what they wanted. It's one of the anomalies of modern wrestling that fans acknowledge the product is scripted but reject the script. Bryan's storyline was as poignant as it was because it was real, despite its place within a fictional landscape.
Reality, sadly, would be the guiding force in the Daniel Bryan saga that followed. After one big title defense against Kane, Bryan lost strength in his right arm and was forced into surgery. When the problem persisted, WWE eventually stripped him of the title -- on screen, naturally, at the hands of the diabolical execs. He finally returned in late 2014 to announce that he was coming back for the 2015 Royal Rumble.
At WrestleMania 31, he won the InterContinental title in a 7-man ladder match. The plan was for Bryan to bring esteem back to the belt that had previously been held by some of wrestling's greatest in-ring workers. But a couple of weeks after WrestleMania, he was pulled off the road as a precautionary measure, which was later revealed to be concussion related. He relinquished the Intercontinental belt and awaited medical clearance to return. That clearance never came.
When I spoke to Bryan last year, he claimed he had been cleared by numerous doctors but not by Dr. Josef Maroon, WWE's lead doctor. He wanted to keep going, even if it wasn't going to be in WWE. Sometime in the past days, he was brought back down to reality.
On Monday, Daniel Bryan announced his official retirement. He came to the ring at the end of "WWE Raw" -- the main event slot -- and gave the best promo of his career. He explained how he came to his difficult decision:
"I've been wrestling since I was 18 years old. And within the first five months of my wrestling career, I'd already had three concussions. And for years after that, I would get a concussion here and there, and it gets to the point that when you've been wrestling for 16 years, that adds up to a lot of concussions," Bryan said. "And it gets to a point where they tell you that you can't wrestle anymore. And for a long time I fought that because I had gotten EEGs and brain MRIs and neuropsychological evaluations and all of them said this: That I was fine and that I could come back and I could wrestle."
"I trained like I could come back and I could wrestle," Bryan continued. "I was ready at a moment's notice if WWE needed me, I wanted to come back and wrestle because I have loved this in a way I have never loved anything else. But a week and a half ago, I took a test that said that maybe my brain isn't as OK as I thought it was."
Chants of "Thank you, Bryan" rang through the arena. Bryan turned it around on the crowd.
"I am grateful because wrestling doesn't owe me or anybody back there, it doesn't owe us anything," Bryan said. "WWE doesn't owe us anything. You guys don't owe us anything. We do this because we love to do this. And then, it was strange, because I did this because I love to do this; and then all of a sudden, you guys just got behind me in a way that I never thought was possible."
He talked about his dad getting to see him win the title before he died, and about meeting his wife, the wrestler Brie Bella. He led the fans in one last "Yes!" chant. And then he hugged his family and some fans and walked up the ramp, where Vince and the whole roster was waiting for him. And then it was all over.
In all, it was an uplifting moment, a chance to send off one of our idols in the best way possible. The wrestling world is too full of tragic deaths and diminished capacity dotages; and even those that live full lives rarely get to walk away wrapped in glory. And yet it was at the same time the most heartbreaking moment in ages. It's a terrible loss for fans and the business and for Bryan himself that he's done in the ring. He's a treasure, and WWE is worse off without him. But it was really unsettling because of the odd nature of pro wrestling itself.
One of the weird but great things about pro wrestling is that, despite it being a "scripted" product, the stories never really end. There's a new Raw the day after every WrestleMania, and the story continues 52 weeks a year. There's no offseason and a startling few retakes. From a storytelling perspective, though, that's a strangely uncomfortable thing for us to process, because we're trained to want closure in narrative. On those rare occasions where we get real closure in wrestling -- the honest-to-god retirement matches, the injuries that are folded into the stories -- it can be devastating. The announcers tout enormously significant, earth-shattering matches every week, and we cheer or we boo accordingly. But anytime you get a real ending in an unreal, never-ending world, it is earth-shattering.
I wrote in my book "The Squared Circle: Life, Death and Professional Wrestling" that part of the reason it hits us so hard when a wrestler dies is because you never expect the story to end. Bizarrely, Bryan's injury had become his storyline: Because his reality was always a part of his storyline; and because he was inherently the underdog; and because his medical issues were inseparable from his long fight to the top. Even the purported villains were the same -- the WWE brass were denying him reentry onto the active roster because of his medical diagnosis, sure, but you had to ask if they would be as protective if the patient were Cena or Orton. You had to ask, because that was the storyline.
As of Monday night, the storyline is over. The sneaking feeling of confused emptiness that every wrestling fan was feeling was more than just sadness over Bryan's retirement: It was the realization that we had to stop fantasy booking his return.
We've invested so much in that narrative, from his rise to the top to the WrestleMania main event and through his past two years of abortive comeback attempts. It was almost impossible to fathom, to the point that many wrestling fans saw Bryan's Twitter announcement and assumed it was "a work" -- that he would reverse course and end up wrestling at WrestleMania in a few weeks. But it was real. If anyone had any doubts, they were put to rest by Bryan's tears, the embrace he shared with wife, Brie, and -- yes -- the embrace he shared with Vince.
There was one other cue that should have been obvious from the start: his hair and beard, which had been shorn from his wild-maned peak to a more proletarian 'do. It's hard to read the haircut as anything else but symbolic. No, Bryan wasn't Samson -- but he wasn't a Bible fan doing Samson cosplay, either. The hair wasn't the source of his strength, but it was an allegory for the power of his stardom.
On an episode of the WWE Network show "Table for 3," there's a conversation where Dean Ambrose talks about his early days in the business, when he grew his hair long because he thought that's what a wrestler was supposed to look like. It was funny, but he was right. Bryan was a clean-cut grappler who transformed himself into a WWE main eventer by sheer force of will. He embraced the WWE and its fans embraced him, and he grew out his hair and beard and somehow imagined himself into the main event of WrestleMania.
In real time, in pro wrestling, we can never see how a storyline is going to end. Even when it reaches a climax -- like Bryan winning the title at WrestleMania -- we immediately have to wonder what comes next.
If there's one positive thing about Bryan retiring, about us having to give up on imagining him into future storylines, it's that we can look back at his career arc with clear eyes. Look back at WrestleMania 30 and imagine that's not just the climax -- that it's the end.
In some sense, it was the perfect end to the Daniel Bryan story. A guy like him was never supposed to get that far, and yet somehow he did. He achieved more than his frame could carry, he overcame all odds, and then his body gave out.
He was the John Henry of the squared circle. He went head to head with the WWE machine and won. The end.