Wrestling fans rejoiced on Tuesday when WWE announced that after two years in retirement, Bryan “Daniel Bryan” Danielson had been medically cleared to return to action. Hours later, he bookended this week’s edition of SmackDown Live, opening the show with his return speech and closing it by shooting the angle for his return match at WrestleMania. In a weird way, seeing him take a powerbomb on the ring apron, the part of the ring with the least give and where moves have to be done extra carefully, was everyone’s way of telling us that everything was back to normal for Bryan. The guy who spent three years on the shelf (and almost a full year just before that with neck injuries and related nerve damage) was not just back, but back with no official restrictions on what he could do in the ring.
The entire saga had been, on a day-to-day basis, quite possibly the most talked-about pro wrestling story in recent memory. When he first went out of action, that was because the injury went unnamed for a long time. With WWE having been sued over its handling of concussions the previous year and Bryan’s concussion history, it wasn’t exactly difficult to discern what was going on, though. Eventually, during his book tour a few months later, Bryan went public about his mystery injury being his latest concussion. “I suffered a concussion in April, and I’m trying to get cleared back from that,” he told Sports Illustrated. “It was during a six-man tag match, and I don’t remember if it happened during a particular move, but it was during the trip to Europe.”
It later came out—surprisingly, in a WWE-produced documentary—that the initial concussion actually took place right before the European tour and he continued to wrestle for the first few shows on the tour. Reports at the time from fans at the show were that he had a limited physical role in those matches, and in his last bout, a short TV match during the tour, he was very noticeably avoiding taking bumps. With Bryan famously being the most honest man in wrestling and the lawsuits looming, it’s especially curious that he publicly chalked up his injury to the wrong match.
In the WWE Network documentary released after his retirement, Bryan and his wife Brianna (former WWE wrestler Brie Bella) discussed that they had made a pact at some point before this specific injury: The next time he got a concussion, he would tell WWE about his entire concussion history. The issue was not just the number of concussions, but also that early in Bryan and Brie’s relationship she had witnessed him having a post-concussion seizure.
It’s not as if the number wasn’t an issue, though: Going by publicly reported concussions, he had three in his rookie year and at least six in a nine-year span. All of this led to WWE Medical Director Dr. Joseph Maroon electing to permanently (well, until now) sideline Bryan.
It was obvious to wrestling fans that, at the very least, Bryan needed to at least consider retirement. It was perfectly reasonable to think that he had more concussions than publicly known—in the new Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Dave Meltzer pegs the number as at least 20 in a story that contains details of Bryan’s conversions with Maroon. You need only look at his in-ring style, and what has happened to his peers. In 2006, during his stint as Ring of Honor’s champion, Bryan had a series of brutal matches with Nigel McGuinness (now a WWE announcer) that featured dueling headbutts where they ran at each other head-first like rams. McGuinness ended up failing physicals for both WWE (which declined to hire him) and Impact Wrestling, and retired prematurely. While he said that he tested positive for Hepatitis B in Impact and that WWE flagged him for damage from bicep tears, he also admitted around the same time that he had little memory of his ROH run, which lasted six years. McGuinness did risk his head more than Bryan, electing to go head-first, full force into the ring post until he bled in one of their matches (among other things), but it’s not like Bryan was completely safe with his brain, either. After one match in December 2007 where, in separate matches, both suffered concussions, Bryan elected to wrestle the next night instead of taking time off like Nigel did. “My head wouldn’t stop pounding for the next several weeks,” he wrote.
In his memoir, completed at least several months before the 2015 injury, Bryan describes getting Chris Nowinski’s Head Games book about concussions and how “reading it scared the shit out of me and Nigel.”
In 2016, per Meltzer’s reporting, Bryan heard about a story about Evoke Neuroscience’s “eVox” device, which, combined with neurocognitive testing, purportedly finds brain issues that conventional imaging doesn’t. (Evoke claims it’s just aggregating established, FDA-approved EEG testing.) He went to New York City, took the test, and it revealed a lesion in the temporoparietal area of his brain, which can cause seizures. He reported back to WWE, and with the next Monday Night Raw set for Seattle, the closest major market to his hometown of Aberdeen, Vince McMahon urged him to do a retirement speech then and there. Bryan talked it over with Brie and decided to go along with it.
Bryan gave an incredible, heartfelt speech that was among the most memorable moments in the national television era of pro wrestling and showed exactly why, against all odds, he had become one of the biggest stars in the business. Sure, he was the best in-ring wrestler of his generation but he was also a small, physically unimpressive-looking guy who wasn’t much of an interview, either. WWE clearly wanted him on the roster, but didn’t much potential. He was even booked him in a storyline early on where the Bella Twins (now his wife and sister-in-law), having misheard someone say that Bryan was a vegan, thought he was a virgin and went on a quest to deflower him. Slowly but surely, between his in-ring ability, his genuine likability and his eventual ability to get that across in promos, he became the hottest star in the business. That night, the wrestling world reflected on that journey, sad, but also kind of happy that Bryan was being taken care of.
That would change. Depression struck, as documented on the Total Bellas reality show, causing Bryan to miss not just a planned retirement tour, but even his mother-in-law’s wedding to WWE producer John Laurinaitis. He came back briefly as an announcer before showing up as SmackDown’s on-screen general manager when WWE split its roster in half for the second time. This meant a couple things: Not only was he doing more media, but his contract, the expiration of which was frozen by his injury per Meltzer, started to tick down again. At times, he openly teased a return to the ring outside of the company in both interviews and on WWE programming, and in the middle of this, he began to explain why he felt the retirement was a mistake.
Appearing on the podcast of former WWE stars Edge and Christian—both of whom were forcibly retired by the WWE medical team—he explained that one of the independent concussion experts he had seen (who, like most, he says, cleared him to return) called him to ask why he had retired. After explaining what happened, Bryan says that the doctor told him that a lesion on the brain, in medical terms, is not akin to a lesion on the skin like Bryan thought it was. It just meant there was “something” there. So he went back to trying to get cleared.
Per Meltzer in this week’s Observer, Bryan eventually pitched Maroon on selecting a team of doctors to send him to as a last ditch effort, and those doctors (all formerly associated with the NFL or college football) clearing him is what convinced Maroon. In the same report, Meltzer adds that Bryan had to agree to taking Maroon’s ImPACT neurocognitive test after every match.
While ImPACT has its critics, Bryan Danielson is about to become quite possibly the most monitored active athlete in the world when it comes to signs of brain injury. Keeping a closer eye on contact sports athletes is certainly something worth considering on a larger scale; at least in WWE, it could prevent something like Bryan continuing to wrestle after the 2016 concussion. What that also means is that he could be done again at any sign of an issue.
Throughout his absence, Bryan spoke of developing a lower-impact style, though he certainly didn’t show it during Tuesday’s return angle with Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. It looks like there’s no middle ground as to Bryan’s future, though: Either he’s going to be careful and have a nice long second career, or he’s going to be the guy who went right back to getting dropped on his head after neck surgery.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix