The big news shaking the wrestling world this week is Daniel Bryan’s heart-wrenching decision to formally retire from wrestling—after months of desperate hopeful speculation that he might be making a recovery that would allow him to joust with the newcomers to WWE, and to have a place in our hearts and TV screens for just a few more precious years. Bryan is one of those wrestlers who seems to have touched a massively diverse demographic of people: who almost everyone found something to love about—whether it was his in-ring prowess, his charming laid-back manner, or his aggressively bushy facial hair. When reflecting on Bryan’s career—his 38 title defences in his epic championship reign at Ring of Honor; his endearing comedy moments in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla with the Hybrid Dolphins; his adventures in Japan and elsewhere, it’s undeniable that the real memorable highs of his career happened right here on SmackDown*.
As a homage to the wrestler who changed lives, warmed hearts, and made WWE really damn worth watching, I’ll be presenting some of the best D-Bry SmackDown flashback moments. Don the burgundy, make yourself a vegan snack, and settle in!
Daniel Bryan cashes in Money in the Bank on Mark Henry, Nov 25, 2011
Is there a clip that sums up Daniel Bryan’s WWE career more than this one? That foreshadows a career trajectory full of truncated championship reigns and thwarted dreams? Bryan has always had brief moments where it looked like things were turning around for him, only for there to be a technicality that left everything razed to the ground. The infamous 18 second WrestleMania match; the SummerSlam 2013 victory against Cena that resulted in an immediate Randy Orton cash-in; being stripped of the title the evening after Night of Champions later that year. In a real world sense too, Bryan’s never been on top for long: having to vacate his WWEWHC due to ill health after the crowning victory of his wrestling career; vacating the Intercontinental title a year later for the same reason.
Here, Mark Henry and Big Show have a verbal showdown featuring some high-quality WWE quips such as “world’s biggest loser”, before Show knocks out Mark Henry, leaving him vulnerable to a cash-in from Bryan—who at the time is being presented as more of a scrappy opportunist than the technical, tenacious veteran that we know he is. The celebration is over before the paint’s dry on your “Congratulations Daniel Bryan” banner, though, as the decision is reversed due to Henry not being fit to compete in a match—and Bryan’s briefcase is returned.
“This kid’s dream just went up in smoke” snarks Cole gleefully.
“Miz TV” with special guests Team Hell No: SmackDown, Dec. 14, 2012
Throughout the entire time they were together—first as uneasy partners, but later as genuine comrades—almost every Team Hell No interaction was a precious treasure. Bryan never did anything half-heartedly, and here, his affection for his partner and determination to succeed are evident and touching.
Team Hell No present a united front to announce their decision to wrestle the Shield in their debut match at TLC. The Shield are all squeaky clean and brand new, with freshly laundered SWAT gear, and their familiar old motion-sickness-inducing handheld camera. This was an exciting winter for WWE as their television product was about to burst into one of their strongest years ever.
Daniel Bryan vs. Seth Rollins: WWE SmackDown, Sept. 6, 2013
While the teasing, tormenting “who is the best member of the Shield?” plotline nagged for months, and its most notable electric confrontation might have been this exchange with CM Punk on New Year’s Raw, the seeds of discontent and ego in the faction started far earlier than that. Bryan is allowed to choose a member of the Shield to main event SmackDown against, and for all intents and purposes it looks like he’s about to pick Roman, but a sneak chair shot (foreshadowing!) from Rollins cements that it’s going to be the Architect who faces Daniel instead.
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The two locked horns several times in ROH, and their chemistry and history is always palpable. Rollins manages to make Bryan’s hard kicks to the chest look upsettingly brutal even with a vest blocking the brunt of the impact. When it looks like the match is going to be marred by the stalking hounds at ringside, Bryan dispatches them neatly with casual dives, apron arm-drags, and uppercuts. He finishes Rollins off with a particularly delicious running knee.
CM Punk vs Daniel Bryan – Champion vs Champion: SmackDown, Feb. 21, 2012
This is a much longer set of events—it’s hard to exactly call it a “match”—than the WWE YouTube clip implies, and it’s from an episode of Super SmackDown Live. Hunt it down on the Network!
Every engagement between these two throughout this year, particularly their Over The Limit match, was a pleasure to watch. It felt like they were two men who really got each other; who were doing this for the same reason; who had more in common than they didn’t. As always, the fiercest rivalries are born from the closest friends. Here is no exception, with the early portion of this match involving awesome sequences where both men show they’re adept at outwitting each other—until Bryan’s steadfast working of Punk’s arm gives him an advantage. Just as it looks like Bryan’s going to tap him out—Sheamus appears and drops a Brogue to our bearded hero’s cranium, which lets Punk get the pin.
Unhappy with this conclusion, the ubiquitous John Laurinaitis emerges to restart the match.
A refreshed, fun, back-and-forth follows, and then eventually an exotic roll up with rope leverage claims the victory for Bryan.
Teddy Long doesn’t approve, now, so he orders the match to continue.
The next sequence is even more intense. They trade suplexes, over the ropes, on to the apron. Punk goes for a dive and overshoots, hitting his head hard on the barricade. Punk’s still selling his sore arm from the slew of submissions from the first phase of this match, but he manages to manoeuvre Bryan for a superplex, and throw them both down into a toppling mess of a pin where both men’s shoulders are arguably down to different extents.
The official result is a no contest.
Long and Laurinaitis war over this finale, and this main event distinigrates into both men tussling and throwing their blazers at each other in the ring, stomping and steaming mad. Bryan and Punk look exhausted, defeated, hollow. They exchange surreptitious glances at each other from opposing turnbuckles as the men continue to splutter and argue, and the show fades out.
Once again, this is a match that reflects a macrocosm of WWE booking in general– the trope of authority figures overbearing, interfering, and micromanaging wrestling matches is taken to an absolutely absurd degree. While this sort of nonsense is by no means a satisfying ending to a wrestling show, it is refreshing how we get to see a structurally very different sort of match that Punk and Bryan really rise to– essentially a wrestling match in rounds, or waves. Each phase has a distinct feel to it, and the whole encounter hammers home the message that the men are equals.
Daniel Bryan vs. Cesaro: SmackDown, Feb. 21, 2014
What happens when two of the hardest working—and hardest hitting—wrestlers outside of Japan are on the same roster at the same time? Not enough! These two in the ring together is an uncomplicated pleasure. This is one of the seemingly endless slew of matches during the period prior to his massive WrestleMania win where Bryan wrestled taped up and nursing an ambiguously authentic shoulder injury. While this match ends sadly with interference from Kane, this is a good confrontation with a ghost of being great: everything about the way Bryan and Cesaro interact is marvelous, but I’m a particular fan of how unreasonably high Cesaro throws the failing, distressed body of Bryan up into the air to catch him with an uppercut. Later that spring, Cesaro would claim the dubious honour of being the inaugural winner of the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal—and Bryan would beat his way through three men to win the WWEWH Championship.
Daniel Bryan’s last match in WWE: John Cena & Daniel Bryan vs. Cesaro & Tyson Kidd: SmackDown, April 16, 2015
This match heavily contributed to my decision to want to review SmackDown for Voices of Wrestling: four skilled athletes—champions—in a main event; a clean finish; a satisfying tag match on my home shores. It captured my imagination and really made me believe SmackDown was going great places in 2015. Daniel Bryan was shaping up to be the informal face of the blue brand: smiling broadly as he rambled through RAW recaps at the start of the show, booking matches with generous amicability, and then kicking people’s heads off in the main event.
I started writing for VOW two weeks after this. It was my first time doing a piece of wrestling writing. SmackDown was main evented by a contract signing. I felt like if I had Daniel Bryan on team, everything would be okay, though.
Sadly, Bryan never wrestled again after this.
It’s a golden age of wrestling we’re living in right now, with more opportunities to find engaging characters we identify with than ever, and more ways to find products that appeal to us. Regardless, there’s a massive Daniel Bryan-shaped hole left in wrestling, and to all the myriad people he touched, I’m not sure there’s ever going to be anyone quite like him ever again.