The professional wrestling industry has been maligned at various points throughout its century’s long history, as seedy, underhanded, low-brow, and scruple-less. From the exploitation of the Von Erich deaths, to the steroid, sex, and drug scandals of 1980s/1990s WWF, and the most recent exploitation of the death of Reid Flair, and references to hurtful racial stereotypes. Wrestling, particularly in the United States, at times struggled to come to terms with its identity within sports, entertainment, and society as a whole.
And yet, despite the ugly veil of negativity that befalls major players in the business on occasion, and by proxy the industry as a whole, there always exists moments of jubilation and artistic success, along with transcendent performers – performers of major importance not only to the bottom line, but to the rapidly fluctuating societal and personal perceptions of wrestling and its fans. There have been the consummate moral “good guys” of the business, people overwhelmingly respected like Bruno Sammartino. There are those with a relatable personal conviction – the likes of Bret Hart or CM Punk. There are the elite performers who extend the boundaries of what can be expected from two people fake fighting in spandex – the Kenta Kobashi’s, Mitsuharu Misawa’s, Sayama’s , Austin’s, and Funk’s. And there are the near universally beloved – the Mick Foley’s, Undertaker’s, and Eddie Guerrero’s.
Performers belonging to these classes act to circumvent negativity brought forth by narrow-minded and tasteless decisions, insensitivity, and social unawareness. They moved wrestling as a medium forward not only on technical fronts, but social ones too. This week the industry bid farewell to a distinguished member of every one of these classes, an elite performer and near universally beloved personality, Daniel Bryan – Bryan Danielson – The American Dragon.
Danielson didn’t see the grand departure of a Ric Flair or Shawn Michaels, nor did he have the luck of an Edge in getting to work his final televised match at WrestleMania. Instead, the story of Bryan’s retirement ceremony was one befitting of his WWE career narrative – an understated, honest, spontaneous, and humble send-off, one which connected as a television segment at an emotional level attained by few others in company history. Much like the crowd reactions that led to his career defining WrestleMania 30 victory, the out-pouring of empathy and support for Bryan spawned from well known fact, one mentioned explicitly in Bryan’s speech – he is a man who loves “wrestling”, loves it more than anything else.
But, in the saddest of truths, it was Bryan’s artistic desire and creative influences that led him to early retirement. 2000s independent talent were heavily influenced by the tape trading scene of the 1990s and NOAH’s white hot streak of the first half of the decade. A variant of the Kings Road style, which physically decimated Kobashi, and tragically killed Misawa, became the predominant influence on the in-ring work of major indies such as ROH. The new style brought its own casualties – McGuinness and Danielson in particular. The stiff strikes, head drops, and dramatic nearfalls of AJPW and NOAH, coupled with risky dives, apron, and floor bumps, gave way to injury, especially of the head and shoulders.
At the same time, it was that Ring of Honor style, which bred an entire generation of indie wrestling fans, whether through DVD, VHS, torrents, long defunct ROH Brazil YouTube channel, HD Net, well distributed compilations like ‘Best in the World’, or years later, internet pay-per-view through the likes of Go Fight Live. In fact, much in the same way that Misawa and Tsuruta introduced me to Japanese pro-wrestling, it was Danielson that hooked me on the independents, as one of the single greatest wrestlers that I had ever seen.
What made Danielson special as a performer was not his ability to exceed in any one style or environment, but his proficiency in every facet of what makes for a traditionally great in-ring performer. His ability stretched further still, as Bryan could not only work with the very best in any given style, but also had the talking ability, presence, and charisma to get over outside of the ring. He exuded a good natured and a personable aura like no one else I have ever seen in wrestling, with the possible exception of 2000s Eddie Guerrero. And it was this innate ability that not only brought Bryan to the fore as a talent, despite so much working against him, but also had him project as one of wrestling’s most genuinely likable human beings.
Bryan’s fifteen year match catalogue is one that arguably superseded those of his mentors, Shawn Michaels and William Regal. Furthermore, for as low a score as Danielson apparently received on a WWE “ambition test”, his true goal – beyond money, fame, or television exposure – was to be one of the very best wrestlers in the world – a goal that many would agree has been met many times over. But, beyond his working legacy, numerous changes within WWE and the business at large, both present and future, owe their existence to Bryan. It was CM Punk’s original success that opened the door for him, but Danielson with his winning personality, work ethic, real life underdog story, and working ability aided in a further widening of the corridor between the independents and WWE. Further still, his retirement itself is the first in a possible series of reforms, which could alter the way in which American wrestling is presented, worked, and evaluated.
The fact that one of the greatest performers in company history was forced into retirement, unable to deny worrying neurological evidence, despite his will to carry on, will change the way that concussions are handled in professional wrestling. The previous epoch began with the introduction of the modern wellness policy following the deaths of Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero, the second will begin shortly. The next won’t be brought forth entirely by Bryan’s health record, but will certainly emerge far sooner as a result.
Spinal stenosis, the narrowing of the spinal canal which forced not only the retirements of Edge and Steve Austin, but also perhaps the in-ring death of Mitsuharu Misawa, is without question a serious ailment, and future cases should be handled in much same way as Edge in 2011 – significant symptoms lead to direct retirement from in-ring performance. However, repeated concussions, especially with an ever-growing pool of research on the subject, are a scarier matter – injuries fully capable of altering personalities, decreasing cognitive function, and increasing the chances of dementia. “Getting hit in the head is bad” is a thought that has been with humanity for all time, and one that has become increasingly difficult to deny, as was done to a large extent in the 1990s.
Changes in the realms of management, work, and fan perception will have to take place, and have already begun. The WWE outlawed unprotected chair shots to the head several years ago, and consequently major indies, ROH, and big Japanese promotions have cut down. The WWE banned blading, and the frequency and volume of blood seen in other promotions dropped substantially. What counter measures the company will take to prevent future Daniel Bryan situations is unclear, but their refusal to let Bryan wrestle was certainly a step towards more stringent testing, judging the mental performance of wrestlers not by some arbitrary benchmark, but by their pre-concussion mental ability, and disallowing wrestlers with a history of severe concussions to compete. This will ultimately be the first step in avoiding some of the neurological issues that will unfortunately await many a 1990s and 2000s performer.
The indies are already migrating towards mat-based wrestling for reasons of performances. The work of Timothy Thatcher, Zack Sabre Jr., and Drew Gulak and company, is some of the best that we have seen since the decline of 2000s Ring of Honor – work that will take far less of a toll than any major style in the United States, Canada, or Japan.
If Bryan was most any other performer, I would expect him to show up on the indies within the next few years, for a one off showcase against a Thatcher or Sabre type, in a place like EVOLVE – a house that he helped in laying the foundations for. But, as every major moment in his career can attest, Daniel Bryan is a unique wrestling personality, and his tag with Cena against Kidd & Cesaro from the April 16th edition of SmackDown in London may very well be remembered as his final match.
As agonizing as it may be to state for someone who has never witnessed any of his top 10 wrestlers live – Mitsuharu Misawa, Eddie Guerrero, Kenta Kobashi, Toshiaki Kawada, Volk Han, El Generico, CM Punk, and now Bryan Danielson – Bryan’s retirement is best for his health and quality of life, and the well-being and longevity of future talent.
I hope that the generation who has grown up on Bryan, following him from his legendary ROH title run to the WWE, not only learn from what he did right in-ring, but also the consequences his working style had on his health. Because, ultimately, Bryan Danielson didn’t just deliver a great speech on Monday, he forged a tangible manifestation of his career story. And similarly, in the end, Danielson wasn’t simply a great wrestler, he was the elite of the elite, ranking amongst Kobashi and Misawa, not just a superb wrestler, but a true artist pushing the boundaries of his medium. Bryan was a wrestling genius, a grand master, one who deserves good health and happiness in his post-wrestling life, content that he exceeded his ambition and was without a doubt, one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time.