Shortly after he won the ROH World Champion from James Gibson in 2005, Bryan Danielson cut a promo and called the championship “wrestling freedom”.
Earlier this afternoon on Twitter, Danielson announced what many fans had long feared, he is retiring tonight on RAW:
Due to medical reasons, effective immediately, I am announcing my retirement. Tonight on Raw, I'll have a chance to elaborate. #gratitude
— Daniel Bryan (@WWEDanielBryan) February 8, 2016
The correlation between these two events is not obvious and to find it is a long, twisting journey; much like that of the man known as the “American Dragon”.
Danielson’s title victory in Ring of Honor always seemed like it would be the apex of his career and there would’ve been nothing wrong with that. On the indies, Danielson always looked he was having the time of his life. He was a man who left everything in the ring every time he stepped into it and he did it his way.
Danielson never needed a colorful gimmick or legendary promos to get over with the crowd. He connected with fans through hard work and just being himself. More importantly, he looked like he was living his dream.
The thought of him going to the WWE and succeeding was never an afterthought, it just felt odd. There was no doubt that Danielson would be one of the best in-ring talents the company had the moment he signed. The real fear that many fans had was that Titan Towers wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do with him.
And then, one day, Danielson signed with the WWE. He reached heights not even the most ardent of his supporters would have thought possible, and even when he was among the most popular stars in the company, WWE management still had no idea what to do with him.
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Vince McMahon and company’s repeated bungling of smaller stars is infamous. A glaring example being that of Rey Mysterio.
The acclaimed high flyer signed with WWE in 2003 and instantly became a hit on SmackDown. Sure he was popular and moved merchandise, but Rey was never going to get a prolonged run at the top of the card. Then Eddie Guerrero died and Mysterio’s close friendship with the deceased brought him in line for the best and worst push of his career.
Mysterio won the 2006 Royal Rumble and went on to become World Heavyweight Champion at WrestleMania 22. That was the good and it was scant in comparison to the bad. Mysterio’s run to the main event saw him become a defacto worshiper of Guerrero’s ghost and on top of that he lost his title match to Randy Orton only to get it back because Theodore Long felt sorry for him.
Of course, when Mysterio did win the title it was in a match that was criminally short and quickly pushed aside. His reign as champion was comically booked and is universally considered one of the worst of all time by wrestling critics.
The WWE’s abysmal treatment of Mysterio went beyond the ring. After a decade of being a work horse and shredding his knees to the point where his surgeries were an annual event, Mysterio was fed up with the company and wanted to return to Mexico. The company refused to grant him his release and had the gall to renew his contract without the intent of bringing him back to wrestle.
The script of Bryan Danielson, now known as Daniel Bryan, reads much the same.
The prevailing view backstage was that Danielson was a workhorse, not a star. He’d go out and be in physically grueling matches without the benefit of being treated as a top star. When he finally did get his chance at the top of the card it was through circumstance. While Danielson’s WrestleMania 30 title win was a feel good moment, his portrayal as champion was a constant reminder that the WWE was doing him and his fans a favor, and that he was not a long term investment despite the pleas of the crowd.
Just like Mysterio, years of wrestling at a breakneck pace caught up with Danielson’s body and as a result he’s been on the shelf for the better part of the last two years. Rumors swirled on if the WWE would ever allow Danielson to compete in the ring again. All the while, the beloved, bearded star sat at home. At some point, according to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Danielson gave his notice to the company that he was quitting. The WWE flat out refused and told him he did not have the right to do so.
That brings us back to today.
Danielson is set to receive his “wrestling freedom” from WWE. Whether this over Danielson wanting to continue his career elsewhere or simply walking away from the company isn’t presently known. What is known is that this retirement does not feel like a celebration of an extraordinary career. It’s an insincere parting to a performer that deserved better in the ring and out of it. It’s also a reminder to other indie talents to savor their own freedom to thrive and revel in the joy of their craft outside of corporate wrestling. If they do ever sign with the WWE there is a good chance that the next time they are back in the glorious openness of wrestling’s frontier that freedom will taste like poison instead of sweet air.