A title didn’t change hands.
A pinfall wasn’t recorded.
But the greatest moment in the history of Daniel Bryan’s “Yes!” era occurred on the Jan. 13, 2014 edition of Raw, which took place in front of a scorching hot crowd in Providence.
Previously tormented by Bray Wyatt and his Wyatt Family, Bryan capitalized upon a one-on-one setting inside a locked steel cage to issue a well-deserved receipt to Wyatt. With Erick Rowan and Luke Harper unable to enter the cage, Bryan laid out Wyatt, shedding his cult-like clothing and reclaiming his spot as the company’s top babyface. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand—or, more accurately, the tip of his index fingers—as the building shook and reverberated with deafening chants of “Yes!”
It was easy to reminisce about that moment two weeks ago on SmackDown, as Bryan defeated Jey Uso to earn his spot in a Fastlane title match against universal champion Roman Reigns. After winning the bout, Bryan straddled the top of the cage, chanting “Yes!”, this time with a virtual audience.
There were many differences between the two moments, primarily the difference of a live crowd. Without live events, WWE has pivoted into a state-of-the-art studio show. If not for that crowd, it is hard to gauge exactly where on the card Bryan would have wrestled seven years ago at WrestleMania 30, but it would not have been for the world title.
Asked if he enjoyed recreating such a special moment in his career, Bryan noted that the experience was entirely new to him. Due to a concussion, he has very limited memory of the original moment from 2014 in Providence.
“Mostly what I remember about that night is not being able to remember that night,” Bryan sys. “That was one of the last concussions I had before I had to retire. I don’t remember any of that.”
In a cruel twist of fate, Bryan worked relentlessly throughout his career to create this iconic moment, yet the concussion prevented him from relishing the moment.
“It’s really interesting, I was talking to Becky Lynch about this,” Bryan says. “She had that amazing moment where her face got busted open and she’s bleeding, she’s in the crowd, and it’s this magic moment that makes Becky, but she barely remembers it because she got smashed in the face. It’s one of those things where I watch it on YouTube, and it’s cool, but I really don’t have any real recollection of it.”
Bryan has a stronger memory from after the show. Despite the injury, the staunch environmentalist remained planet-conscious, desperately seeking his reusable water bottle so he could avoid drinking out of a plastic one.
“I hate plastic water bottles,” Bryan says. “I have this great filtered water bottle, but I swear, I lose it every three or four weeks. I could not remember where my water bottle was. I wandered around the building looking for it, and all I remember is Brodie [Lee] following me around the rest of the night, making sure I was OK.”
Brodie Lee is the late Jon Huber, who wrestled with WWE as Luke Harper at the time. He died unexpectedly in December, turning Bryan’s memory of a wonderful friend into a reminder of a heartbreaking loss.
“Brodie and Cesaro didn’t care how late it got, they followed me around and made sure to watch out for me,” Bryan says. “I think they needed to make a drive to another town, but they didn’t care. They stayed with me.
“That’s the cool thing about wrestling: the lifelong friends you make. When you look at Cesaro, I’m so proud of him. We met in our 20s and we’ve become men together. Sami Zayn, we felt like young kids when we met, and now we’re both fathers, and the same with Seth Rollins. When I think of that specific incident, I don’t think about the performance. I think of these friends who loved me enough to follow me around for the rest of the night.”
Bryan never found his filtered water bottle, but he came away with a lasting memory. And his verbose description of that moment provides a dynamic snapshot of Bryan (39-year-old Aberdeen, Wash., native Bryan Danielson).
In another example that time stands still for no one, Bryan has been with WWE for over a decade. Before that, he helped provide a heartbeat across the independent wrestling scene. His work still resonates in the indies—IWTV independent wrestling champion Lee Moriarty recently told Sports Illustrated about his desire to meet the lofty standards that Bryan once set in the indies—and Bryan was humbled to be reminded of the sheer fact that there are still wrestlers drawing inspiration from his work.
“I always think back to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which is a such a great book,” Bryan says, referencing the 1946 book that detailed the harrowing experience of living in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. “And it makes me think of David Brooks’s The Second Mountain. My ‘first mountain’ would be WrestleMania 30, achieving this outward success. But you realize the outward success isn’t the true success. Usually what you want is some sort of purpose or meaning, so I find it extremely gratifying to hear stories like that from the indies. If people are inspired by my work, at all, it’s amazing.
“I look at the people who inspired me as heroes. I spent so many hours watching Justin Liger tapes, to the point where you can’t even imagine how much I spent watching Liger, [Mitsuharu] Misawa and Tiger Mask before I’d met any of them. The idea that someone would do the same for me is very, very humbling. I love showing people you can do things way beyond what you ever thought. If I can help inspire anyone in any way, that’s one of the foundational meanings of my professional life.”
Despite reaching enormous heights, Bryan refuses to forget his roots. Not many C-Squad (that is, below varsity and JV) high school basketball players move on to headline a WrestleMania, but that is exactly what Bryan is seeking to do for a second time.
Bryan wrestles Roman Reigns this Sunday at Fastlane for the universal championship. There is hardly a speck of a chance that Reigns drops the belt a month before WrestleMania, but Bryan has infused a shot of adrenaline into the Reigns-Edge program that had lacked the vibrancy needed to close out WWE’s biggest show of the year. Is it possible, like seven years ago, Bryan could insert himself into the main event and make the marquee of WrestleMania 37 a triple threat?
“The hard thing about the idea of a triple threat is that Edge was forced to retire almost 10 years ago, and him coming back is a really powerful story,” Bryan says. “What I think the story needed more than anything else was to make the WrestleMania match between Roman and Edge not a sure thing. We’ve cast doubt on that. The idea of me versus Edge at WrestleMania is pretty cool. Two guys forced to retire, and now we’re both back.
“All that’s to say, I don’t think Edge and Roman need Daniel Bryan involved in the story. What I do think is exciting for the fans is that now there is a lot of doubt about the match you’re going to see at WrestleMania, and I think that’s really fun. Will it be me and Edge? Or me in a triple-threat? Or Edge and Roman? The more passion you drum up for this, the better it is for everybody.”
Plans often change in professional wrestling, and even more frequently under Vince McMahon’s frenetic touch. And while, on paper, the Edge-Reigns story should be more than enough to carry WrestleMania, there has been a spark missing from the program that, coincidentally, Bryan provides. Further complicating the matter is the possibility that this could be the final WrestleMania for the soon-to-be 40-year-old.
“Realistically, it could be,” Bryan says. “But there is a difference between saying this could be my last WrestleMania compared to this being my last match. After being forced to retire, I never want to retire again. It will be interesting to see what happens with my career. I don’t know if I can do the full-time WWE schedule anymore.”
Bryan has had a number of physical ailments stand in his way, particularly in WWE, yet notes he is healthy and his body is in great shape, meaning there is a different reason he can no longer commit to the full-time grind of being a WWE superstar.
“I’m not talking physically; I’m talking emotionally,” Bryan says. “I love being a dad. There isn’t much that could keep me away from being a full-time wrestler. My favorite thing in wrestling is live events. I love that. The only thing that can stop me from doing that is how much I love my kids and how much I love being with them at home.
“When my daughter says to me, ‘Daddy, please don’t go,’ it’s so hard. My wife is incredible, and she can do everything, but there is just something special when Mommy and Daddy are both home. And I love being a parent. But we’re struggling with that because I also want to show them what it’s like to love what you do. I love this work that I do. So it’s about finding a balance between loving what you do and being there for your kids when you need them. It will probably be a work in progress until my contract is up in a couple years.”
Even as the twilight of his career approaches, Bryan still has the present. He plans on making his Fastlane match against Reigns a candidate for match of the year.
“Roman is working at a whole other level,” Bryan says. “What’s interesting, and I’ve thought this since the beginning of the pandemic, is that you have a different opportunity without crowds. Some people think, ‘No crowds? That’s lame!’ But Roman has done better than anyone accentuating the positive of it. Some of the interviews he’s done are ones you couldn’t do in front of a live crowd without getting ‘What!’-ed to death. He’s been so incredible in this run.
“I’ve always thought he was special, and we’re seeing just how special he is right now. He possibly could be the best in the world right now, and this could be my last full-time run, so I’m going to make sure this match is a banger. I don’t want to live with the regret of having my last full-time run be me just doing what’s best for everyone else. Yes, I love doing what’s best for the industry, but at some point, I also need to do what’s best for me. I’m going full blast on Sunday.”
It isn’t lost on Bryan that this is his first main event since Elimination Chamber in 2019, a stretch of time that may as well be an eternity in pro wrestling.
“I haven’t been in the main event of a pay-per-view for over two years,” Bryan says. “I’m going to go out there and do what I know I can do and do what I love doing.
“I don’t know if WWE likes this term, but it’s going to be a violent professional wrestling match. This is two guys that think they’re the best, competing for the top championship in the entire world of professional wrestling, putting it all on the line to see who truly is the best.”