Daniel Bryan is huge. So huge, he eclipses nearly everyone else on the card when he strides down the ramp and climbs into a World Wrestling Entertainment ring.
But wait – the professional wrestler, a 16-year veteran of the business, stands at just 1.78m and tips the scales at around 95kg. He is usually dwarfed by the larger athletes in WWE. Well, by “huge”, we refer of course to his immense popularity among the fans.
Their cheers drown out everything else that’s going on, which can be particularly frustrating for his opponents and detractors whenever they’re trying to trash-talk him.
Regular WWE viewers would be familiar by now with the “Yes!” Movement – that wave of energy that sweeps through an arena whenever Bryan’s entrance music, Flight Of The Valkyries (a rockin’ version of Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries), plays and gets audiences to their feet, chanting “Yes! Yes! Yes!” nonstop and pumping both arms in the air, index fingers pointing upward.
The atmosphere is electrifying. Aside from The Rock, Steve Austin or Hulk Hogan in their respective heyday, it’s hard to think of anyone else who could get entire stadiums charged up like that.
What’s his secret to forging such a rapport?
“I wish I could tell you,” he says in an interview as part of his recent regional publicity tour to promote the WWE Network, a 24-hour wrestling channel available via subscription on Astro. “I wish there was like a secret or a formula, then I could go out and tell the other wrestlers and more of us could have it ... well, a lot of it was just timing and luck.
“It’s what the audience needs as much as what I’m providing, what they’re tired of, and what they really want. Something that really appealed to them was the idea that I was this underdog who was never going to be given much of a chance, and then they saw how hard I worked for it.
“But they also had a way to vocalise it,” he adds, referring to the “Yes!” Movement which really took off when he stood up to WWE’s powers-that-be, The Authority, following the SummerSlam 2013 pay-per-view.
“You can see it with (fellow WWE wrestler) Cesaro now, they get behind him but there’s no way to vocalise it other than cheering. But whenever they wanted to cheer for me, they could do this (mimes the “Yes!” move) and you’d know immediately that was for me. But how that connection happened – I don’t know, it’s like magic, right? I mean, when a writer writes a novel and you ask them how they came up with this idea, they just say ... they don’t know.”
For a four-time WWE world champion, and with this insane level of fan support, Bryan comes across as a humble and laid-back sort, good-humoured and quick to talk about his coaches (who include William Regal and Shawn Michaels) and even his opponents. It’s a mark of appreciation for the mentorship and teamwork integral to the sports entertainment business.
Fanning the flames
As a little boy in the 1980s, Bryan – who hails from Aberdeen, Washington – was struck by how the wrestlers in the magazines his friend would bring over looked so much larger than life: “They were these huge, heavily muscled guys, and looked like comic-book heroes! The older I got, my interest in it just grew. I started liking the really technical wrestlers – like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Dean Malenko ... and it just evolved from there.”
After his parents took him to a live wrestling show, he was totally hooked and decided to pursue a career in the business after graduating from high school. Over the next 10 years he made a name on the independent circuit, notably the Ring Of Honor promotion where he is acknowledged as one of its founding fathers. The decade included stints with WWE – or more specifically, its developmental territories/programmes like Memphis Championship Wrestling and NXT.
He was part of NXT’s Nexus faction that invaded WWE flagship show RAW one fateful night in 2010, assaulting the “face” of the company, John Cena. Bryan was fired for apparently being overly aggressive during that segment, but re-hired later.
He defeated many big names in his rise to the top, overcoming them with a style combining rapid strikes with technical proficiency and submission holds – Dolph Ziggler, Big Show, Kane, Randy Orton, CM Punk and Cena among them. He suffered just as many ignominious defeats (including an 18-second title loss to Sheamus at WrestleMania XXVIII), bouncing back from each one to solidify his image as a tenacious underdog.
His mat skills and connection with the audience have had a noticeable influence on the company, too. “I think there’s been an evolution of style in WWE since I’ve been there and I don’t know that it can be attributed to me, but I think I’ve definitely played a part in that – in the same way that CM Punk kind of did the same thing, and like bringing in The Shield also did.
“The style has changed. And also the fans realising the power that they have.”
Along the way, the “Yes!” Movement proved to empower fans in a way that they soon used to their advantage, using it to influence not only the way WWE interacts with them but also, to a degree, letting the company know when they were unhappy with certain developments (as anyone who noticed the resounding jeers received by Dave Bautista and Roman Reigns after their 2014 and 2015 Royal Rumble victories, when the fans clearly wanted Bryan in the title race, will recall).
“Now you see the fans have taken some sort of power,” Bryan says, “as opposed to just cheering or booing like they used to. Now they make their own decisions about the kind of stuff they like. I mean, they used to do it before, but not as much as they do now.”
While Bryan earned a huge WrestleMania moment in 2014 (see story on P11), the following months saw a spell of mixed fortune. A neck injury sidelined him for most of the year, and his comeback this year was cut short when he sustained a concussion in May. As of this moment, he’s “on the shelf”, so to speak, but at age 34 feels he still has many fighting years ahead of him and is just raring to go.
“Every test they’ve done on me, I’ve passed them all with flying colours. So it’s just a matter of whether the WWE medical staff will clear me or not, so now I’m just kind of waiting,” he responds to the inevitable question of his ring return.
“I still want to wrestle and all the outside doctors have said I’m fine to wrestle, so if WWE doesn’t feel comfortable with me wrestling then I’d probably try to wrestle somewhere else.”
He has reportedly been training in jiu-jitsu, fuelling speculation that he might try out for mixed martial arts if a WWE return is not possible.
Many wrestlers have back-up plans or talents that involve performing of some kind, but Bryan’s contingency plan might surprise some: “If I can’t wrestle at all, I’d like to start my own organic farm!
“We have a really small yard back home (in Phoenix, Arizona), like a quarter of an acre, but last year I planted 30 fruit trees on my property (laughs) ... so, yeah, I like growing stuff!”
Who would be his ideal opponent for a comeback? “There’s so many guys who are so good but I’ve really enjoyed wrestling Sheamus.
“I think I’ve wrestled Sheamus more than anybody else in WWE. He hits HARD. I like that style. So it would be fun, and especially now that he’s (WWE World Heavyweight) champion.
“But something I’d really like to do is fight Brock Lesnar. I think that would be the coolest thing, because we can do a match that people in WWE have never seen before. And it’s also got this David and Goliath aspect to it – but I don’t know if WWE would ever do it because they’d think that he might kill me (laughs). But that’s the match I really want.”
What approach would he take to fighting Lesnar the Beast, who ended The Undertaker’s 21-year unbeaten streak at WrestleMania XXX?
“I’d really like to put in more stuff like leg kicks, submission stuff. With Brock you really have to avoid takedown moves. If you saw his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut fight with Frank Mir ... he essentially beat the crap out of (Mir) but then he got caught in a leg lock and didn’t realise it and the fight ended (in a submission). And Mir was still on the ground. He had won, but he had been beat up so bad. And Brock was like, ‘Ah man, I can’t believe he caught me in that thing, whatever.’ ”
Evolution has no resolution
His eagerness to return to action is unsurprising considering his passion for the business – and his quest to simply be the best wrestler he can be. His arsenal includes strikes, grapples and submission holds, but he adds variety by not confining the latter to his signature “Yes!” Lock.
“Something I’ve been trying to do is get away from using just one kind of hold. I mean, I’ve beaten Luke Harper with a heel hook (a fearsome-looking leg lock that places stress on multiple joints) on Smackdown!, and it got a really good reaction even though the fans had never seen me beat anyone with it before. It’s great when a submission (hold) gets a good reaction from the crowd even though they’re not familiar with it,” he elaborates.
And how far along is he on his quest? “There is no end game, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s the same thing as martial arts ... you can always get better.
“That was something Shawn Michaels said: there’s no such thing as a perfect match. The fans might think it was perfect – like Shawn had those amazing matches with The Undertaker near the end of his career, and they were awesome but he would never consider them perfect.
“He’d always see these little things and think he could have done better. If he came back today I bet he would wrestle slightly different than he did before. And it’s that constant evolution of style; in any art form, you’re always going to pursue something better. If there’s a spectrum from 0 to 100, even if I got to a hundred, I’d still want to go for 150.”
Do we all want to see that evolution of Bryan the charismatic underdog warrior continue? There is no other answer but the obvious (c’mon, get those arms pumping): Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! YES!