Welcome back, Daniel Bryan.
He’s been back on WWE’s active roster since WrestleMania, but Daniel Bryan’s second act as a major wrestling star had largely been underwhelming until the last week. He was treated as a supporting cast member in his first match back, a long-awaited feud with The Miz kind of fizzled for no real reason after an outstanding first few weeks, and Bryan had not really had a big breakout match since his return. The good news was that this didn’t seem to have anything to do with the health issues that had previously pushed him into retirement. It was just standard-issue WWE malpractice: Bryan wasn’t getting especially good storylines and the best ones were repeatedly kneecapped. Seeing such an all-around brilliant performer—an all-time talent as in-ring wrestler and a legitimately great talker as well—stifled to such degree was increasingly frustrating. Bryan was well-known for his experimental storytelling outside of WWE, but he seemed stuck without a story to tell.
Anyway, that’s over now. Bryan is back, and it is good.
As part of a last-minute shake-up going into WWE’s 32nd annual Survivor Series event, which took place on Sunday, Bryan won the WWE Championship from A.J. Styles. That match itself was fun enough, but the one it set up for Bryan was more enticing: a champion vs. champion bout with Universal Champion Brock Lesnar. It’s a match that fans have been clamoring for going back several years, especially once it came out that they were slotted in for SummerSlam 2014 before Bryan was sidelined by a neck injury.
In retrospect, it was probably better to wait. That SummerSlam was during the middle of the Brock Lesnar rehabilitation tour, when years of bad post-comeback creative were being undone to make Brock the company’s big monster. John Cena took over Bryan’s role in that process, right down to the original plan: Getting the shit kicked out of him in dominant fashion en route to Lesnar taking his world title, which had previously been Bryan’s. Since Bryan’s return, he and Lesnar have been on the separate Raw and SmackDown rosters, which left the now-annual non-title champion vs. champion match at Survivor Series as the only neat way to make this particular dream match happen outside of an elaborate WrestleMania storyline.
There is one complicating factor here, though: most of Lesnar’s matches kind of suck these days. When he delivers, it’s either thanks to shortcuts—blood, weapons, quick matches, and so on—or being in the ring with one of the very best pro wrestling storytellers in the world. His recent-ish good matches with The Undertaker and Bill Goldberg were the former kind of successes, his Survivor Series match a year ago against Styles was the latter. Lesnar’s relative lameness didn’t matter against Bryan, though. Reinvigorated by the title win and a sudden villainous turn—as of Tuesday night’s SmackDown Live, Bryan has apparently found clarity/been driven mad thanks too much time in a hyperbaric chamber—Bryan didn’t just bring the necessary visceral excitement, although he did that. He also delivered the first true Daniel Bryan match in years.
When Bryan was making his mark as the very best wrestler in the world on the independent scene in the mid to late 2000s, under his real name of Bryan Danielson, he made a point of doing his storytelling differently from everyone else. Especially once he became Ring of Honor’s champion in 2005, his matches were just as likely to end suddenly as they were via his signature moves. One night he’d have an elaborate string of false finishes, only to catch a quick cradle on a different challenger the next, or go over with a sudden flurry of strikes the match after that. This approach recognized something elemental about wrestling as a form that nevertheless often winds up overlooked: a wrestler who can win in multiple ways also has multiple ways in which to make a match dramatic.
The best wrestlers can do this; just look at how much A.J. Styles’ WWE matches benefit from him having four distinct and established finishing moves. The best Daniel Bryan matches are like that, but because he isn’t often all that flashy, there’s more perceived danger to any new move he might break out. His 2006 ROH Title defense against KENTA (now Hideo Itami in WWE) is still one of the greatest matches I’ve ever seen live, in large part because of how its storytelling was paced. The audience loses any sense of thinking that it’s ahead of the performers. In an era of finishing move overkill, Bryan never seems like he’s just trying to top his last move with something bigger. He just seems like he’s trying to win the fight in which he’s found himself.
In WWE, one of Bryan’s very best matches came in his title win over John Cena at SummerSlam 2013. In spite of Bryan’s very different dance partners, that SummerSlam match is oddly more like his classic against KENTA than anything else Bryan did for WWE. Cena may be Cena—that is, a weirdly geeky, dad joke-loving square-jawed bodybuilder working a very entertaining but very WWE style—but somehow he fit perfectly into a match layout that Bryan had previously mastered against a Japanese junior heavyweight kicker who worked a very physical, un-WWE style. And because it’s Bryan, the finish saw him beat Cena cleanly with a new finishing move—KENTA’s old Buisaku Knee Kick, of all things—that he had literally never used before in the promotion. And because Bryan, y’know, beat John Cena with it, it instantly became one of the most over and protected moves in WWE.
But back to Bryan and Lesnar on Sunday night. The first half of the match was, inevitably, just like every Brock Lesnar match. Lesnar beat the hell out of Bryan, launching him way too high and vertical on some suplexes before toning the big bumps down, and made a point of showing the crowd that he was playing with his food. Instead of letting the referee count falls, Lesnar would pick Bryan back up and continue the beating. It’s an old trope, but it was enough to wink that this match wasn’t about to end and keep it from taking on the same tired, demoralizing aspect of a typical Lesnar squash match. When Brock finally decided to put Bryan out of his misery, he got sloppy, attempting his F5 finisher too close to the referee and knocking him down. Bryan then seized the opportunity to punt Brock in the junk. From there, the match was rolling.
Bryan stomped Lesnar. He kicked the hell out of the beast’s legs. When the bigger man would regain signs of life, Bryan would bait him into giving chase and dodge, causing him to crash and burn. Bryan was technically a villain and convincingly being a gleefully violent prick, but somehow did all of this in a way that was clearly designed to make you root for him. That’s an incredibly difficult line to straddle, and he somehow made it work. When Brock got him up for the F5 again...only to collapse into Bryan’s Yes Lock because his leg had been chewed up, it worked. It flipped Lesnar’s usual implacable inevitability into something wilder and more surprising—you immediately believed that somehow, DANIEL BRYAN could get BROCK LESNAR to tap out.
(It’s also, to be completely fair, a testament to Lesnar’s brilliant ability to make his opponents look good, which is borderline genius when he decides to do it.)
Unlike most Lesnar matches, though, when Brock powered out again and finally hit the F5 for the win, it didn’t feel like anticlimactic bullshit. It felt entirely earned. Both wrestlers did their jobs brilliantly. Each elevated the other.
There are a lot of great pro wrestlers these days. A lot of them are really clever, and many are better athletes than the beat-up, two-decade pro that shared the ring with Brock Lesnar on Sunday. But match for match and moment for moment, there is still only one Bryan Danielson, and he is the absolute, undisputed pro wrestling genius of his generation. After these last five years, which saw him become the unexpected biggest star in wrestling only to have his life’s pursuit ripped away from him in brutal, depressing fashion, Bryan deserves every bit of recognition he can get. He’s back, and we should treasure him for as long as we have him.
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.