David James Young writes…

What David did, what David's done and what David is going to do.

Exit the Dragon: On Daniel Bryan and Believing in Wrestling Again

Daniel-Bryan-11[1]

I had never cried watching wrestling before Daniel Bryan.

I’d laughed, I’d smiled, I’d become irate, I’d felt pure unadulterated happiness… wrestling provoked a lot of extreme reactions on the emotional spectrum. It always has, ever since I first was exposed to it thanks to my cousin back in the late 90s. He was babysitting us, and allowed me to stay up past my bedtime to watch a bit of wrestling with him. “Isn’t it M15+?” I asked, ever the weary good little boy. “That’s only a recommendation,” replied my cousin; who I’m pretty sure wasn’t even 15 himself at the time. I was all of seven years old, and I can remember watching Cactus Jack take on Triple H in one of the most iconic matches in the history of Monday Night RAW. I was caught up in the adrenalin of it all – the heroes, the villains, the soap-opera twists, the larger-than-life characters. That was that. I have seen a lot of wrestlers come and go in my time – the same with anyone who’s been watching since childhood, one would suppose – but there is always something about the art of wrestling itself that has kept me watching.

Still, I had never cried watching wrestling before Daniel Bryan.

Outside of music and comedy, I’d say wrestling is one of my main interests. Yes, even after all this time. Probably even moreso now. Finding others drawn to it for the same reasons within my immediate age group – especially those not watching on a purely retrospective or ironic basis – almost feels like completing a secret handshake. Being a wrestling fan in your adulthood is to be self-aware of its shortcomings, its melodrama and the usual cynicism – “Y’know it’s fake, right?,” they ask as they watch their entirely-fictional movies and play their entirely-fictional video games. With that said, being a wrestling fan in your adulthood is to love it in spite of these things. Besides, from a bigger picture, you know it’s about the spectacle. The moments. The story arc coming to a close as the heroes and villains ride off into their respective sunsets.

Still, I had never cried watching wrestling before Daniel Bryan.

For those of you that never watched Daniel Bryan – AKA Bryan Danielson, AKA the American Dragon – step inside the ring and wrestle, here’s what you need to know: He was – and still is – the truest underdog story in the history of the WWE. He was the working class hero. The no-gimmick fighter that couldn’t size up to the heavyweight giants but wasn’t a high-flying luchadore, either. Throughout his career – which began when he was all of 18 years old – Daniel Bryan was stuck in the middle. He fought tooth and nail to work his way up the ranks through the independent wrestling circuit, particularly in a company called Ring of Honor and in companies throughout Japan. Despite never being an obvious superstar, the crowds made him feel like one. He had the heart and the passion for the craft of wrestling that was near-unrivalled. He had all the charisma, energy and skill of a main-eventer – and yet, when he arrived in the WWE in 2009, they had no idea what to make of him. He worked his way up through the ranks, despite countless setbacks, and those that had found a voice through him on the indie circuit were about to do the exact same thing on the biggest platform a professional wrestler can possibly have.

I had never cried watching wrestling before Daniel Bryan.

He finally became world champion in 2011, although it was seen as a fluke run – he had pinned an unsuspecting Big Show for it, and lost it infamously in 18 seconds during the opening match of WrestleMania 28. He had a successful odd-couple tag-team with my favourite wrestler of all time, Kane, with a tag title reign lasting 245 days. Even then, Bryan was seen as the comic relief. He and Kane could have had all the top-tier matches you could ask for – and, indeed, they did – and yet he still wouldn’t get his dues paid. When Bryan re-entered the title picture a year later, he was screwed out of winning the title – twice – mere moments after claiming victory. This would set off a revolution of sorts within the WWE, as the support behind Bryan became known as the “Yes Movement.” No matter how strong the company – and, by extension, its heel authority-figure characters – wanted others to look, the audience would call, chant and cheer for Daniel Bryan. Randy Orton? No. Daniel Bryan. Batista? No. Daniel Bryan. Daniel Bryan? YES. YES. YES.

I had never cried watching wrestling before Daniel Bryan.

Before I tell you about the moment that changed the above sentence for me, there’s another key thing you need to know about for context. As one of the many philanthropic things Bryan did for the company, one of them was granting a wish for a kid named Connor Michalek. He was an eight-year-old boy with terminal cancer that found a hero in Daniel Bryan – just like him, an underweight fighter who was not meant to last. Connor – or, as he came to be known, “Connor the Crusher” – won Bryan’s heart, as well as every other wrestler and WWE worker he would come to meet. He was bluntly honest, and rather than be intimidated by people like Kane or Triple H, he stared them down and continued his line of questioning. It’s the usual schmaltz, sure, but there was something about Connor’s story that connected with me. Perhaps I saw the joy and the wonder that I got out of wrestling as a kid still very much alive within him. Whatever the case, I was emotionally invested now and there was no turning back.

I had never cried watching wrestling before Daniel Bryan.

By the time WrestleMania 30 rolled around, Daniel Bryan had been screwed over more times than you could count. Every title match, every title opportunity, every bout to validate him as a contender… it was exhausting, it was frustrating and it was infuriating for every fan that had gotten behind Bryan as a part of the “Yes Movement.” The obstacles were finally laid out – if Bryan could defeat Triple H (the chief operating officer of the company, as well as a wrestling veteran and future hall-of-famer) in the opening match of the night, then and only then would he be inserted into the title match between champion Randy Orton (who had pinned Bryan initially to become champion) and the Royal Rumble winner, Batista. Sure enough, he took down Triple H – against every odd placed against him – and then proceeded to run riot in the main event. Under triple-threat rules – and despite several run-ins – Bryan scored the pin and became the champion.

The cheers were deafening. The “YES!” chants could have gone on all night – around the world, they probably did. At long last,after tirelessly battling for his place at the table, Daniel Bryan was the most popular and important wrestler in the world. Think of it like a band that you used to see down at the local pub playing to 30 people now selling out a show at Madison Square Garden. Or someone in drama classes in high-school scoring the lead role in the hottest blockbuster of the summer. That’s what this felt like. It felt like a full-circle takeover that started with the elevation of CM Punk to main-event status. Those who weren’t meant to fit in or were constantly told that they didn’t belong now had a hero to prove that there was hope for all of us. It’s moments like this that make wrestling feel like the realest thing in the world.

It emotionally charged me, and I couldn’t have felt more excited and overjoyed for Daniel Bryan. But it wasn’t this moment alone that made me cry.

Minutes after winning, Bryan left the ring and approached the front row. It was then that I realised that none other than Connor The Crusher, his father and his younger brother were all sitting ringside. They got to see the entire thing. Connor got to see his hero become the biggest wrestler in the world. Connor’s scrawny underdog hero was now a giant, draped in 30 pounds worth of gold. And there he was, embracing Connor before anyone else – as if to say, “It was you that got me here.” I knew that Connor didn’t have a lot of time left – his condition was getting worse by the day – but he had managed to fight it long enough to see this happen.

And that’s what did it. I cried. I cried for a good five minutes. Not just a solemn, single tear running down the cheek. It was an ugly cry. I hadn’t had one of those since personal tragedy hit my own life maybe a year beforehand. This time, it was tears of pure joy. Wrestling had finally unlocked that complete emotional spectrum in me. For something that’s so often criticised for being fake, nothing felt more real than that to me.

This week, Daniel Bryan announced his retirement due to a string of injuries that, if worsened, would have lead to permanent and irreparable damage to his brain and body. I have witnessed many retirements in my time, including some of my favourite wrestlers of all time like Ric Flair and Edge. That didn’t get to me the way this did, however. You best believe I cried again. I cried for a long time. Again. After a journey that had made me laugh, smile, become irate and feel pure unadulterated happiness, it was all over.

It’s here that I want to share a key moment from Bryan’s retirement speech. You can watch the whole thing at the bottom, and I implore you to do as such. For now, however, I leave you with this. It’s what set off my tears yet again. I know for a fact Bryan will never read this, but I have no doubt in my mind he has felt nothing but the love and support from countless nerds around the world like myself who found a hero in him. To the man that made us believe in wrestling again… we thank you.

I have gotten to meet the most amazing people on this planet, such as somebody who looks like a monster but is the smartest man I know, like Kane. I have gotten to meet a man who has been my mentor and my friend for over 16 years in William Regal. I have gotten to meet children that are stronger than I ever thought anybody could be, like Connor.

Grateful.

I am very grateful, and I’m grateful because wrestling doesn’t owe me or anybody back there, it doesn’t owe us anything. WWE doesn’t owe us anything. Nobody owes, 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, in a way that fans shouldn’t necessarily get behind a guy who’s 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds. You guys got behind me in a way that made me feel that I was more than just me, and for that, I’m grateful.

I am grateful because a little over 2 years ago, in this very arena, you guys hijacked Raw. And they were trying to do a big championship coronation between Randy Orton and John Cena. They were combining… they were combining the WWE Championship with the World Heavyweight Championship, and they had all the former champions out here, and this was going to be the most important match in WWE history, and you guys just wouldn’t stop chanting “Daniel Bryan.”

But that’s not why I’m grateful. My dad was sitting right over there – where the guy with the goat mask, with the Daniel Bryan sign is standing right now, and my dad got to see that. His son getting that kind of reaction from all of you people… and that was the last time my dad ever got to see me wrestle, and you guys made it special, for him and for me, and for my entire family.

I am grateful.

I am grateful, because of wrestling, I got to meet the most wonderful woman in the world, who’s beautiful. She’s smart, and she completes me in a way that I didn’t even think was possible, and that’s because of wrestling.

I am grateful.

I am grateful because I get to come out here, in front of what I feel are my hometown fans. I get to announce my retirement in front of a bunch of people who love me, right? That special moment that I had with my dad, I get to share this moment with my mom, with my sister, with my family, with my friends. I get to share it with them, I get to share it with you, I get to share it with my wife in the back, I get to share it with all these wonderful human beings that I have spent the last 15 years of my life with.

I am grateful.

So are we.

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