It was a year ago this week that Daniel Bryan announced his triumphant return to the ring. A few weeks later, he was kicking heads off in the same building he won the WWE championship in, to the sound of raucous applause.
And a year later, he holds the WWE title as the top heel on Smackdown. How did one of the most beloved WWE superstars since early John Cena become more hated than his arch-rival The Miz?
We’ll get to that, as today’s article will be a retrospect and review of Bryan’s return to the squared circle.
Fight for Your Dreams…
Bryan started off his return in grand fashion, teaming with Shane McMahon at WrestleMania 34, fighting Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. Bryan took a beating but rallied and made Zayn tap out to the “Yes Lock” in front of 78,000 fans.
This was a great way for Bryan to make his in-ring comeback, serenaded by “Yes” chants in the Superdome.
He then followed this up by lasting one hour and 16 minutes in the Greatest Royal Rumble event in April. It was a hell of a performance and one of the few bright spots from that show.
However, his summer was a bit shakey. Bryan’s next feud was with the recently returning Big Cass. The whole feud boiled down to Cass saying “I’m tall, and you’re tiny and shouldn’t be here.”
Not necessarily the position a conquering hero should be put in on his big return.
Bryan faced Cass at Backlash and Money in the Bank, winning by submission both times. While the matches weren’t offensively bad, no one (me included) cared about Cass enough to be invested in the matches.
Following this, we got a Team Hell No reunion at Extreme Rules, where Bryan and Kane joined forces to face the Bludgeon Brothers for the Smackdown Tag Titles.
I was looking forward to this match, but Kane got hurt right before it, and Bryan had to fight alone, with Kane making a run in at the end. It was a disappointing end to what could’ve been a classic match.
Miztakes Were Made
At this point, just before Summerslam, Bryan was cooling off. He was still getting cheers and investment in his matches and promos, but it felt hollow.
Meandering in the midcard, facing a man with the charisma of a wooden plank (Big Cass) and losing gauntlet matches and tag matches instead of fighting the likes of AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura or Samoa Joe in the main event scene all played a part in the fans not giving unanimous love to Bryan.
Then, as JR would say, business picked up. Bryan faced his greatest rival, The Miz, (don’t @ me) at Summerslam, picking up their feud that started when Bryan was a rookie in the game show version of NXT and ramped up when Miz cut a scathing promo on a retired Bryan on Talking Smack.
It was a rock solid affair, with Miz eeking out a dirty victory in the end. I feel that Bryan should’ve won, but the feud continued.
The two men’s wives were brought into the fold, and Bryan and Brie Bella faced Miz and Maryse at Hell in a Cell in a decent mixed tag team match. Once again, Maryse held Bella’s tights to get a tainted victory.
The rivalry then ended at Super Show Down, where Bryan beat Miz with a small package out of nowhere in a really short match.
What started out as a red-hot feud ended with a whimper, as Bryan was made a fool throughout most of it and won only one of the matches in weak fashion.
Yes is Dead
However, November would prove a drastic change in course in Bryan’s career. His victory over Miz earned him a shot at AJ Styles’ WWE championship. He used his first shot in October, and lost in a great back and forth match on Smackdown.
Then, on the Smackdown before Survivor Series, Styles put his gold on the line in an impromptu match against Bryan.
Much like their first bout, it was a tremendous back and forth affair, with Bryan emerging victorious after doing the unthinkable; he kicked Styles in the groin, hit the running knee and got the pin.
Only five days later, he main evented Survivor Series, facing Brock Lesnar in a dream match.
Bryan was decimated during the early going and earned an advantage following a groin shot and running knee. From there, the two had a great match while keeping the strange heel dynamic of Bryan intact.
From then on, Bryan held court as the top heel of Smackdown. He embraced himself as an eco-terrorist, accusing the fans of not standing behind him when he was “fighting for his dreams.” He continued to profess that the “Yes Movement” was dead, and christened himself the “New” Daniel Bryan.
He fought against new superstars like Mufasta Ali and had one final barn burner against Styles at the TLC pay-per-view. It was the best match of the trilogy and a match of the year in 2018 in my mind.
He continued his assault on consumerism, viciously talking down to Vince McMahon and the general attitude of baby boomers before the Royal Rumble.
At the Rumble, his gimmick became complete when former Wyatt Bludgeoner Erick Rowan interfered on his behalf.
The two became a unit, and Bryan later dumped the WWE championship in the trash and unveiled his own personal championship, made out of hemp and wood from naturally fallen trees. It could’ve been seen as goofy, but Bryan committed so well to it that it is almost as iconic to me as the WWE spinner championship or Edge’s custom title he had in 2006ish.
February served Bryan well, as he defended his title against five of Smackdown’s best inside the Elimination Chamber in a fantastic match. Kofi Kingston had a gutsy performance that has led to the current feud Bryan is embroiled in.
After defending against a returning Kevin Owens and Ali in a triple threat match at Fastlane, Bryan is primed to face Kingston at WrestleMania 35 in a potentially show-stealing affair.
Was it Worth it?
So what is the verdict? Did Bryan have a great year that made us happy to see him return from injury after three long years?
Honestly, the answer is yes. Bryan could’ve wrestled a best of seven series with Baron Corbin and it would’ve been worth it. He could’ve competed on the pre-show of every pay-per-view and I would watch.
Bryan is one of my favorite wrestlers and seeing him back in any capacity makes me happy, especially since the man is so passionate about wrestling.
But even though his year was really just ok until November, he bounced back and totally changed his character.
He has already had several match of the year candidates against Brock Lesnar, AJ Styles and the aforementioned Elimination Chamber and Fastlane pay-per-view matches.
The “New” Daniel Bryan character is a joy to watch and actually draws real boos from the fans. I can’t stress how strange it is to see Bryan as the top heel, insulting the fans and ending the “Yes” chants.
The same fans that stood in the ring and at ringside until Bryan got a match at WrestleMania 30, cheered him on as he beat 3/4 of Evolution that night and cried when he announced his retirement in his home town, are now booing him during the longest reign he’s had with the WWE championship.
For that alone, it’s been a worthwhile year. I do hope that he can keep his health up and continue to wrestle for a few more years.
So what’s next for the Dazzler? Will he wrestle a bear in the ring? Will he fight a newly babyface Miz? How about he and Rey Mysterio wrestle a 20-minute match? Will Luke Harper join him and create The Wyatt Family 2.0? Will John Cena come in and end his reign of eco-terror?
No matter what the future holds, the legend of Daniel Bryan will hopefully continue and solidify him as one of the all-time greats, and I can’t wait to watch it.
Keep it here at the Clarion for more wrestling coverage as we get ever closer to WrestleMania 35.