Daniel Bryan is in a match at WrestleMania 34. Yes, you read that right. After more than two years out of the ring, Bryan is a candidate to earn the biggest pop of the night when he and partner Shane McMahon take on Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens.
But casual fans might find themselves asking several about Bryan, chiefly: why was he forced to retire and why was he so popular in the first place?
Let’s tackle that second question first. The version is that Bryan was a legitimate underdog who rose to the very top of the company. He’s an undersized, wild looking guy—hardly the template for a WWE megastar—but the fans connected with him in a way you rarely see in WWE. The promotion’s repeated refusal to give him major opportunities only made the fans clamor for more Bryan.
Eventually, WWE could no longer ignore Bryan’s popularity. At WrestleMania 30, Bryan had his biggest moment yet, defeating Triple H in the first match of the main card and winning the World Heavyweight Championship in the main-event Triple Threat match against Batista and Randy Orton.
But Bryan’s downfall began shortly thereafter. Six weeks after winning the belt, Bryan had surgery on his neck to fix a nerve issue that caused him to lose feeling in his right arm. He was out of the ring for eight months. Bryan returned in January 2015 and was just as popular as ever but the comeback didn’t last long.
In April, right after he won the Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania 31, Bryan suffered a concussion. It was the latest in a long series of concussions for Bryan, who had been wrestling for 16 years at that point. WWE pulled him from competition and a series of medical tests later showed that he had a lesion on his brain that could cause seizures.
Bryan spent months trying to get cleared to wrestle. When it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, Bryan gave an emotional farewell on Raw in February 2016.
It appeared that Bryan’s WWE career was over for good, but he never gave up hope. For two years, Bryan sought additional medical opinions and was finally cleared by WWE to return in March after three years out of the ring.