Just Say ‘Yes!’: The unlikely rise of WWE’s Daniel BryanWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Many of the greatest things that ever happened in the colorful history of professional wrestling were things that weren’t necessarily supposed to happen.
Oh, they were “worked,” predetermined, planned, etc. With very few exceptions, they were scripted to happen. But many events that helped shape what wrestling is today arose out adaptation — the creators of the product recognizing that the current long-term battle plan wasn’t working, or that a better plan was staring them right in the face.
Originally, Hunter Hearst-Helmsley (now known as Triple H) was supposed to win the WWF’s King of the Ring title in 1996. But when he had to be disciplined, they changed gears and had another guy named Steve Austin win instead. He gave his famous speech about “Austin 3:16″ and a legend was born.
A kid named “Rocky Maivia” was supposed to be the WWF’s next big thing as a smiling, happy good guy. Fans hated him. A lot. So he morphed into a brash, cocky baddie who resented those same fans. He became a BIT more successful under that name: The Rock.
Then there was another young talent who was getting nowhere as a bland good guy with no personality. The talk was he was very, very close to being cut when he appeared on a Halloween episode dressed as Vanilla Ice. That caused his character to be modified into a rapper, and the pieces fell in place for John Cena to become the biggest star of his era.
Indeed, though wrestling is just storytelling in a physical format, many of its greatest moments came about as an audible, showing a willingness to admit something wasn’t working and deciding to change course. This is part of the reason why it was so frustrating to fans and observers that WWE seemed to be stubbornly refusing to adapt when it came to the rise of wrestler Daniel Bryan.
The popularity of Bryan — real name Bryan Danielson — was one of those magical things that seemed to come about organically over time, and without any real intent on the part of his employers. One of the most respected and popular figures on the independent scene, Danielson finally signed with WWE in 2009 after years of being considered one of the best wrestlers in the world.
From the beginning of Bryan’s WWE career, though, it often seemed like he was never getting the opportunities to succeed that one would think a talent of his pedigree would. Upon debuting on the company’s new “NXT” show, he was portrayed as a loser who couldn’t win a match. He was the second talent “cut” from the show.
When the “NXT” rookies took in part in a major story where they “invaded” the company’s flagship show, “Raw,” it looked like Bryan’s star was rising. Then he was legitimately released from WWE for pretending to choke someone with a tie during the show — apparently a step too far for the now-PG company.
He returned to the company a few months later, being consistently used in prominent positions, but with the added oddity of having the company’s primary commentator, Michael Cole, single him out for near-constant ridicule. This continued for over a year, as he continued to impress observers with his in-ring abilities, up through Bryan’s first major title win and subsequent change into a villain. Then, at WrestleMania 28, Bryan was written to suffer a humiliating defeat for his title in 18 seconds. Few wrestlers who had taken such a loss came out with any career momentum intact.
But a funny thing happened. That night, and in the days following, the fans who watched the show became outraged at what they saw as misuse and disrespect of an incredibly talented guy whose work they liked. They began chanting in support of him, even though he was portrayed as a villain. His pre-match ritual of galloping to the ring and chanting “Yes!” while thrusting his arms in the air became a rallying cry. A cult hero was born.
His popularity continued to grow over the next year or so until WWE decided to give Bryan a try as a main-event-level player. He was written to defeat top dog John Cena to win the company’s major title. But then, the company immediately had Bryan lose the belt to Randy Orton, undercutting the biggest moment of his WWE career mere minutes after it happened.
For the next few months, Bryan was consistently in the main event of shows, but also consistently minimized by the bad guys, who played off fan emotions by proclaiming Bryan unworthy of being champion. The problem was, Bryan was never given a chance to prove them wrong, almost always being written to lose or be humiliated in the end. When the numbers for Bryan’s first pay-per-views as the main draw disappointed, it was apparently seen as proof that Bryan simply wasn’t meant to be a top guy — instead of being seen, perhaps, as a reflection of fans’ distaste for how his story was progressing.
Any plans to use Bryan as a major hero were dropped, and indeed he was suddenly made into a villain again, which no fan wanted to see — perhaps in an effort to silence the audience who were still loudly protesting for him. Any chance that Bryan’s story would have a happy ending seemed gone.
But again, a few more funny things happened. A spontaneous “Yes!” chant broke out at a Michigan State basketball game, giving WWE a surprise burst of mainstream publicity — which they couldn’t take advantage of, given how Bryan was now supposed to be a villain shunning the catchphrase. The embarrassed company made him a hero again the very next week.
Then, WWE reintroduced former star (Dave) Batista, who won the annual Royal Rumble event, on a clear path to win the company’s top title at WrestleMania 30. But again, the fans wouldn’t stand for it. They booed the supposedly-heroic Batista out of every building he appeared in. It became apparent that if the planned main event would happen, it would be a catastrophe. The fans knew what they wanted, and they signaled it with chants at every chance possible.
“YES! YES! YES!”
Finally, finally, WWE had no choice but to listen.
At WrestleMania, Bryan defeated the company’s storyline figurehead, Triple H, to earn a place in the show’s main event. Then, in front of 75,000 deliriously happy fans, Bryan was awarded the company’s top championship. And even though the crowd had been deflated by some of the show’s prior events, the Superdome still erupted into frenzied cheers when Bryan was declared the winner.
It wasn’t supposed to happen. But it did. The 5’8″ grappler with the scraggly beard and wacky catchphrase somehow stood as the biggest star on the industry’s biggest night.
It’s not smooth sailing from here. There’s no guarantee that Bryan’s run as a true top talent will succeed. But he’ll at least be given the chance, and that’s what every fan — the ones who chanted his name, who shouted his catchphrase, who wrote of their disapproval online, who voiced their support — that’s all they wanted. And Bryan, who through it all has been nothing less than the pinnacle of class and professionalism, finally gets to reap the rewards his talent should earn him.
WWE, as it has so many times before, finally adapted its battle plan. Kicking and screaming, perhaps, but it did. And this time — with the undying support of the fans — when the question was asked whether or not Bryan deserved a moment in the sun, the answer was clear.