Late in Yes!, the new memoir from the great pro wrestler Daniel Bryan, there’s a moment where Bryan comes to an epiphany about what he’s doing in the WWE—the place where he’s been employed since 2009: “I came to the realization that what we were doing in WWE was no longer pro wrestling,” he writes. “Instead, what most of WWE had become was actually a parody of wrestling.” At that moment in the book, Bryan was gearing up for what was then the biggest match of his life, taking on John Cena for the WWE Championship at SummerSlam. And the “parody of wrestling” line was one he used when cutting promos and building anticipation for the match. (He won that match, too, earning his first WWE Championship, though WWE plot mechanics took the belt away mere minutes later.) But when he’s writing the book, Bryan’s not writing in character; that’s how he really feels. And given that Bryan is one of the most popular wrestlers in that vast and dictatorial company, it’s a striking admission.
That line, about WWE as a parody of wrestling, appears in print in a book that WWE’s press wing published. WWE owns the copyright on the book, not Bryan. Bryan wrote the book with Craig Tello, one of the people who runs WWE’s website. There are all these breathlessly written between-chapters interludes about Bryan’s weekend just before heading into the main event at last year’s WrestleMania, the crowning moment of his career, and it’s clear that Bryan had no stake in writing those at all. Yes! is written in the sort of puffy, easy-to-read prose of so many assembly-line sports autobiographies. There are a ton of weird omissions; for instance, Bryan writes a lot about training with an old friend, the future WWE prospect Lance Cade, but he never mentions how Cade died of a heart attack at age 29. The book is very much a product of WWE’s propaganda arm. And yet there’s this fascinating tension at its heart, since the guy who ostensibly wrote the book is the wrestler who has succeeded in defiance of WWE’s idea of how a wrestler should look and talk and act.
Over the decades, WWE has become the worldwide leader in pro wrestling thanks largely to the efforts of a few ultra-jacked, fiercely charismatic star figures, the recently-disgraced Hulk Hogan probably the most important among them. Bryan isn’t like those guys. He’s maybe 5’8”, definitely under 200 pounds. He has the permanently bemused air of the stoner kid who lived down the hall from you in college. He rocks a huge, mangy beard. For a long time, he was vegan, and he speaks as passionately about ecological causes as he does about wrestling. He opens the book by writing about taking a WWE personality test and learning that he scored in the bottom one percentile for “ambition”; the lady who administered the test thought that score couldn’t possibly be right. He is nobody’s idea of a star, and yet he’s become one in WWE because fans know that he can wrestle as well as anyone else on this planet.
Before coming to WWE, Bryan spent a solid decade on the independent-wrestling circuit, plying his trade in armories and rec centers and Japanese stadiums. (There, he wrestled under his real name, Bryan Danielson.) Back in 2002, he wrestled in the main event of the very first show from Ring of Honor, the biggest and most important independent promotion in the U.S. In Ring of Honor and elsewhere, he honed his wrestling style, a ferociously physical form of wrestling that leans heavily on hard and audible strikes, MMA-style submissions, and scientifically sound grappling. He wrestled brutal, long, athletically demanding matches against future stars like CM Punk and Samoa Joe. When he came to WWE, Bryan already had a significant fanbase online, but the company treated him like a cannon-fodder joke, with commentators constantly putting him down as a nerd while he lost matches to far less-talented wrestlers.
That sort of thing went on for years, with Bryan being one ground-down cog in this vast entertainment machine. But he was good enough at his job, and he carried enough mystique from his years on the indies, that fans started to notice. Even when he was part of a comedy tag team with monster wrestler Kane—maybe even especially when he was part of a comedy tag team with monster wrestler Kane—Bryan threw himself completely into his matches, bouncing around rings like a superball and directing every last iota of energy into his few minutes in the ring every Monday night. Once he got himself a catchphrase—jabbing his index fingers in the air and yelling “Yes!”—it was absolutely fucking done.
Bryan has been arguably the most popular wrestler in WWE for years, and it took a long time for the company’s powers that be to take him as seriously as the fans did. In fact, WWE’s fans have often been working in direct rebellion to the ways that the writers want them to act, and Bryan has often been a figurehead in this weird little civil war. At last year’s Royal Rumble, Bryan wasn’t one of the 30 wrestlers in the running to main event that year’s WrestleMania, and fans booed the end of the show mercilessly. This year, Bryan was in the Rumble, but he was eliminated early, and fans again booed the end of the show mercilessly. When Bryan did main-event the show in 2014, a ton of things had to fall into place: Bryan’s rival and contemporary CM Punk had to suddenly leave the company on bad terms, and the fans had to actively reject the returning proscribed hero Batista. Bryan was the company’s absolute last resort, and yet the sight of him ending the show by hoisting two huge title belts while confetti fell was pure magic.
That’s all there in the book: The fans’ disgust with the company, the company’s grudging acceptance of what the fans wanted, those years on the indie circuit before WWE came calling, the years of toil in WWE’s lower ranks. Through most of it, Bryan seems something like a passive agent; these things, the rejection from the office and the groundswell of fan support—seem to be happening to him, rather than being any kind of result of his work. Maybe that’s that lack of ambition. The book might be written a bit clumsily, but there are some fascinating and strange anecdotes in there, like the bit about what it’s like to propose to your female-wrestler girlfriend while cameras from her reality show whirr behind you. It’s a fascinating story, and Yes! tells it well enough.
In the past year and a half, though, Bryan’s life has taken on the scope of a Greek tragedy. A few days after he won the WWE Championship at WrestleMania last year, Bryan married Brie Bella, the aforementioned female wrestler. A few days after that, Bryan’s father died. Not long after that, Bryan suffered a neck injury that forced him to stop wrestling for the better part of a year and to surrender his Championship. He came back in time to win the less-important Intercontinental Championship in a ladder match during this year’s WrestleMania, but then he got injured again, almost immediately afterward, and he’s been on the shelf for months. People are hopeful that Bryan will return to wrestling before the year is over, and he says he’s ready now, but it’s certainly possible that he’ll never wrestle again. All that work getting to the top, and he only got the briefest of instants to enjoy it. All that isn’t in the book; it ends, poignantly, with his father’s death. But we’re seeing the beginnings of a whole other life story for Daniel Bryan. Hopefully this one ends better.
Art by Sam Woolley