Thursday, February 11, 2016

Top Ten Thursday: Daniel Bryan Moments

Obviously, the biggest news this week is that Daniel Bryan unfortunately announced his retirement from professional wrestling due to a history of concussions. I've now had to watch two of my all time favorites, Edge and Bryan, hang it up earlier than they were supposed to. The first Ring of Honor show I ever attended live was Final Battle 2006. Bryan Danielson was the ROH World Champion and main evented against Homicide. He lost the title but I was hooked and he instantly became one of my all-time favorite wrestlers. I cheered for him louder than anyone at the ROH shows I attended. I watched him go to war with Austin Aries, Takeshi Morishima and many others. His final ROH match, against Nigel McGuinness, was in New York and I am grateful that I got to see it live. Watching him make it to the top of the WWE was one of the greatest feelings in the world. A guy that I picked and was drawn to from the first time I saw him made it. He made it when many people said he couldn't. Daniel Bryan embodies the notion that anything is possible. Daniel Bryan was and is everything that I love about pro wrestling. To honor him, I'm going to look back at my personal top ten moments from his WWE career.

10. The AJ Lee Pairing 

Starting us off isn’t something that isn’t relegated to one specific moment. For a lot of Daniel Bryan’s early WWE run, he was kind of just there. Yea, he had the United States Title at one point but he just wasn’t clicking the way he should have, even after winning Money in the Bank. From out of nowhere though, he was paired up with AJ Lee and things just starting falling into place. In the early stages, they were just the adorably nerdy couple and it was pretty cute. Once Bryan won the World Title and started showing heel tendencies, this really took off. Bryan became a controlling douchebag who ordered around the sweet, innocent AJ Lee. It really helped get the crowd to boo Bryan, while also managing to do something else. It gave him personality. Even if it was as an asshole boyfriend, it gave us something to care about when it came to Bryan besides his talents inside the squared circle. He was now entertaining in a way that many didn’t think he could pull off. To be fair, both he and AJ deserve a ton of credit for playing their roles so well. It was because of this pairing that both AJ and Bryan had their careers launched to another level. They were involved in a high profile wedding at Raw 1000 and, by 2013, both had won the top titles of their genders.

9. Intercontinental Championship Victory

I’d consider the Intercontinental Title to be a bit above the United States Title in terms of prestige and importance. However, when it comes to the case of Daniel Bryan, the IC Title win meant a bit less. After suffering a heartbreaking injury and forfeiting the WWE World Heavyweight Title, Bryan was forced to miss several months of action and his career was in doubt. He returned in time for the Royal Rumble, ultimately getting eliminated like he was just some random mid-carder. At WrestleMania 31, Bryan would not be in the WWE Title picture, he’d instead be thrown into a randomly thrown together Intercontinental Title match. A lot of people saw it as a major demotion and that’s understandable. It’s hard to disagree since it wasn’t even a well thought out program for the belt. It was seven dudes stealing the title from each other leading up to the biggest show of the year. None of it really made any sense. Still, when it came time for the match, it proved to be a really fun encounter that Bryan won. Not only did it give him his first Intercontinental Title but it completed the Grand Slam for him, putting him in elite company. It also marked the fifth straight Mania that Bryan competed for his fifth different championship.

8. Winning the United States Championship

After getting eliminated first from the first season of NXT, Daniel Bryan’s career was in question. He was constantly berated by his pro, the Miz, and went 0-10. He even cut a promo saying that Daniel Bryan was done, but maybe Bryan Danielson wasn’t. He would resurface during the Nexus debut but get fired for choking Justin Roberts. Fast forward to SummerSlam, where Bryan returned, teaming with many future Hall of Famers against his former stable, the Nexus. He did well in the match, getting the crowd even more behind him, until the Miz cost him and caused him to get eliminated. That set up the NXT pro against the former NXT rookie for Miz’s United States Title at Night of Champions. They went out and had the best match in Miz’s career. Miz looked awesome, pun intended, throughout the entire match, even in defeat. Miz was one of the better US Champions in recent years and held the Money in the Bank briefcase at the time, so Bryan beating him was a pretty big deal. It was also historic since it was the first title win for Bryan in the WWE. Too bad the US Title run itself was largely forgettable outside of two standout matches.

7. Mr. Money in the Bank 

In Daniel Bryan’s “Journey to WrestleMania XXX” documentary on the WWE Network, he calls 2011 the lowest point of his career. That certainly has some merit considering he lost the United States Title, got bumped to the Pre-Show (before it was on the WWE Network) of WrestleMania XXVII and got stuck in a lengthy losing streak. Things started to turn around by the time Money in the Bank happened. Bryan participated in the Smackdown Money in the Bank match against the likes of Wade Barrett, Cody Rhodes, Sheamus, Kane and others. Most people, myself included, pegged either Rhodes or Barrett to win it but Bryan shocked the world by retrieving the briefcase in front of a rabid Chicago crowd. Up to that point, everybody that won the briefcase had successfully cashed in. Despite his struggles, this win kind of said that the WWE had at least some faith in him. The question now was whether he’d become a Jack Swagger or a CM Punk. Bryan started to get more shine as the year came to a close, culminating in one special moment.

6. Winning his first World Title 

That one special moment came at the Tables, Ladders and Chairs Pay-Per-View in December of 2011. Mark Henry was at the tail end of his surprisingly great “Hall of Pain” run. He defended the World Heavyweight Championship against the Big Show and lost it to him. Big Show’s celebration would be short lived however, as Henry attacked him and laid him out. Considering the size of Henry and Show, one wouldn’t expect Daniel Bryan to cash in at this moment, but that’s exactly what he did. Bryan rushed out and pinned the Big Show, ending his World Title reign in just about a few minutes. Bryan had gone on record saying he would cash in and give notice ahead of time. This was clearly him doing just the opposite. People popped for it anyway because it was such a cool moment but it kick started the heel turn that would change Bryan’s career for the better. This win was extremely significant because, no matter what else happened in his career, Bryan would have the “former World Champion” tag. It may not mean as much now as it did years ago, but it’s a level many people didn’t think Bryan would ever attain.

5. Turning on the Wyatt Family

While CM Punk infamously got the Summer of Punk in 2011, 2013 kind of gave us the Sumer of Bryan. After a red hot run with Kane as part of Team Hell No, Bryan was determined to prove that he wasn’t the weak link. This run led to Bryan winning the WWE Title (more on that later) and a feud with Randy Orton. He didn’t win out in that feud and, by the end of year, was sidetracked in an angle with Bray Wyatt and the Wyatt Family. Bray targeted Bryan, wanting to recruit him. Partially because of their similar beards, but more so because he believed they were cut from the same cloth. It led to an angle where Bryan was beaten down and chose to join the Wyatt Family on the final Raw of 2013. Bryan would emerge in 2014 in full Wyatt Family attire, be involved in the stable’s promos and even team up with them. The man that the crowd so desperately loved, was now part of a faction they despised. He seemingly gave up. Then, one fateful night in January, Bryan teamed with Bray to take on the Usos inside of a Steel Cage. The Usos would win the match but Bryan found himself locked in a cage with Bray. He ripped off the Wyatt suit and showed that it was all a ploy to get back at them. Bryan attacked Bray in the most satisfying way as the crowd chanted “Yes” in unison, giving us one of the very best moments in recent Raw history.

4. 18 Seconds

At first glance, including a moment where someone loses in 18 seconds on the grandest stage of them all in a top ten moments of their career list is strange. This is a special case though. Daniel Bryan was reigning as the World Heavyweight Champion with a defense against Royal Rumble winner Sheamus scheduled for WrestleMania. Bryan’s “Yes” taunt was just starting to get over, but it reached a new high at WrestleMania. They opened the show and, despite being the heel, the crowd loved Bryan. There were tons of “Yes” signs and chants, something not many people expected. With the fans firmly behind him, Bryan got a good luck kiss from AJ, then proceeded to turn around right into a Brogue Kick, dropping the title in less than twenty seconds. This kind of embarrassing moment should not have worked the way it did but life is funny sometimes. This loss, coupled with the chants, worked as a rallying cry. Bryan became the ultimate underdog. He became the guy that the fans clung to because they chose him and it seemed like the WWE had no faith in him. The following night on Raw, Bryan wasn’t even on the show but the crowd chanted “Yes” and “Daniel Bryan” throughout the entire night. Without the 18 second loss, Daniel Bryan may never have found the success that he ended up reaching.

3. Team Hell No

Never in my wildest dreams, could I have seen this working as well as it did. Shortly after Daniel Bryan publicly dumped AJ Lee, she started to lose her mind. Bryan got engaged in a rivalry with CM Punk that also ended up including Kane. AJ, like she did with almost every male on the roster in 2012, flirted and made out with both Punk and Kane. Once Bryan failed at dethroning Punk and AJ became the General Manager of Raw, he was forced to take anger management classes with Kane. Those segments were some of the best things ever done during the era of three hour Raws. It brought Kane and Bryan together in an uneasy alliance, which then turned into a tag team. They would win the Tag Team Titles shortly after and follow up with almost a year of classic segments and moments. Their graduation ceremony, the actual match where they were forced to hug, both men screaming “I AM THE TAG TEAM CHAMPIONS” and even partnering up with the Undertaker to take on the Shield. All of that, and everything else they did, was golden. It’s the most I’ve enjoyed Kane since his early days. I’d consider Team Hell No to be the best oddball pairing the WWE has ever put together.

2. SummerSlam 2013

As noted earlier, after ten or so months as part of Team Hell No, Daniel Bryan was out to prove that he wasn’t the weak link. They had teamed with Randy Orton a few times and Bryan wanted to show him that he was nowhere near the weak link. They went on to have a series of matches, including a class Street Fight that Bryan would win. With Bryan at his hottest, then WWE Champion John Cena was given the rare opportunity to handpick his next challenger for the gold at SummerSlam. Listening to the crowd’s response, Cena selected Bryan. It set up a similar situation to when CM Punk and Cena had their classics. The indy guy that “didn’t belong” going up against the top dog of the company. The company fed into that by having Vince McMahon try to change Bryan because he didn’t have the look. Bryan was determined to win the WWE Title to prove that he was truly the best. The showdown finally happened, to close out one of the best SummerSlam events ever, and it was spectacular. After a long, hard fought clash, Bryan hit the running knee and pinned Cena cleanly to become the champion. That put Bryan in elite company, joining Shawn Michaels, Triple H, the Great Khali and maybe some others I’m forgetting, as the only me to accomplish that. It was a crowning moment for someone that was never supposed to make it. Granted, he had Money in the Bank cashed in on him right after, but this still was a huge moment.

1. YEStleMania 

WrestleMania XXX should forever be known as YEStleMania and for good reason. Originally, despite him being the most over guy in the company, the WWE planned on putting Daniel Bryan in a throwaway midcard match with Sheamus, which would be their third Mania match in four years. They honestly felt that Randy Orton vs. Batista was somehow the best option for the main event. Plans for CM Punk vs. Triple H had to be scrapped when Punk infamously walked out. The WWE was forced to call an audible and, thanks to the reactions of the WWE Universe forcing their hands, we got the very best possible outcome. Bryan would not only get his hands on Triple H, the man behind him getting held back on screen, but if he could beat him, he’d find himself added to the title picture in the main event. Given the biggest chance of his career, Bryan absolutely delivered. He opened WrestleMania XXX by defeating Triple H in an absolute classic that was among the best openers in Pay-Per-View history. Then, he made a heroic comeback during a great main event, to topple Batista and Randy Orton and become the WWE World Heavyweight Champion. The historic 30th WrestleMania was all about Daniel Bryan and he put on the best performance in Mania history. Even though his title reign and career were both cut way too short by injuries, if nothing else, we’ll always have WrestleMania XXX.