The story line1 that took Daniel Bryan from hapless NXT competitor to the winner of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship was a thing of beauty. It was a relentless uphill struggle from the unlikeliest minor league existence to the top of the heap. It kept fans not just guessing but actively railing in support of their hero, and it kept them in adamant disbelief that he would ever reach his goal. It was a story line that would have seemed feasible in the ’70s or ’80s, when simplistic morality plays were accepted as gospel, but not today, not in this modern era when fans know (or believe they know) a great deal about backstage happenings, and when they rate the product based on what could have happened rather than on what did.
If taken as a pre-planned work of fiction, which it almost certainly wasn’t, but bear with me.
The case of Daniel Bryan seemed to be evidence of both a new mode of crowd interaction and a new era for wrestling storytelling. Either through diabolical scheming or just blind luck, WWE told a story over the past seven months — or two years, or more, depending on how far back you want to reach — that transformed Bryan into the industry’s standard-bearer in the most compelling way possible. It blew people’s minds because so many assumed Bryan would never get there, and because everything fans knew about the WWE enterprise gave them reason to think that Bryan was doomed.
At WrestleMania 30 in New Orleans, the show ended with Daniel Bryan standing alone in the ring amid a downpour of falling confetti, a championship belt in each hand,2 leading the 75,000 fans gathered there in an exuberant “Yes!” chant. Throughout the crowd were T-shirts that said “YES” in giant letters, and branded foam fingers helped lead the cheers. There were faux-beards and real beards and homemade signs galore, all extolling their presumptively ill-fated hero. Bryan’s “Yes!” chant, which started when he was a (likable) villain, one man’s petulant cry against the boos of that same crowd that now formally adored him, had metastasized into a movement wholly embraced by the fans and co-opted by the corporate parent. And it all seemed to happen via the force of Bryan’s will. It’s like that apocryphal Leonardo da Vinci quote: “People of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” If there had been merchandise tables in 15th-century Italy, that would have been on a shirt.
WWE unified its top two titles last year, but it hasn’t yet combined them into a single belt.
And sure, those who arrived at WrestleMania to lend Bryan their support weren’t just blind idealists: They knew it was likely that he would emerge as champion that night. He was scheduled to wrestle WWE executive Triple H to get into the title match, which was a telltale sign that the main event would be part of the larger Bryan story line. But despite the telegraphed signals that this would be Bryan’s night, the fans couldn’t completely believe it until it happened.
That night, I was there in the seventh row, jumping out of my seat and screaming in disapproval every time one of Bryan’s opponents, Batista and Randy Orton, came close to winning. I reacted this way even though — as every wrestling fan knows — such false finishes are part of the dance, the same coy winks night after night. But every time I was prepared for the worst. No matter how much reason told me that Bryan should win, it never really felt possible. I kept waiting for defeat to somehow be snatched from the jaws of victory. Bryan’s title reign could never be inevitable, because inevitability was set precisely opposite him. Everything about him — his size, his appearance, his vegan diet, his rise through the ranks — was unlikely.
When Bryan won, he won despite all odds — that night, in story line terms, because he survived a grueling first match and then defeated two fresh opponents, both bigger men and former champions. On top of all that, he also had to overcome the interference of Triple H in the main event. But by then, story line and reality had become indistinguishable. Bryan bested the corporate figurehead and two of the biggest stars of the preceding generation, and in doing so he signaled the beginning of a new one. We didn’t believe it because we were marks, because we wanted so badly to believe the story was true. The truth at the end of the night was that Daniel Bryan was champion.
Bryan’s struggle enveloped every wrestling archetype of mythical struggle, but his journey was something greater still — the triumph of free will over determinism. In the world of pro wrestling, everything is predetermined — the matches, the outcomes, nearly every word — but what fans have glommed on to in the past decade is the broader force of determinism. Who gets selected for stardom in the first place? Fans rallied behind Bryan because they thought he would never be allowed to succeed, just like they rallied behind underdogs like Ricky Morton and Ricky Steamboat because they seemed outgunned against more powerful foes. In an age when the idea of a moral wrestling fan is basically a punch line, it’s a credit to Bryan and WWE that they’ve been able to revive the ethical corner of their fans’ souls.
Once reanimated, the fans literally cheered Bryan into the WrestleMania main event, and changed the course of scripted history — even if you believe that that was WWE’s plan all along, it remains true that Bryan’s success hinged on fans’ reaction to him. If he hadn’t exploded, he would have been discarded. But respond they did, to nearly unheard-of levels, and Bryan was the biggest star of the biggest WWE show of the year — or, if round numbers mean anything, of the decade.
When I walked out of the Superdome that night, “Yes!” chants rang through the air the whole walk back to the French Quarter, and I felt like anything was possible. I remember thinking, Imagine where we could go from here! A few weeks later, fans are throwing their hands up while watching Raw and crying, “Where the hell do we go from here?”
If the month since ’Mania has taught us anything, it’s that free will has its limits in a fictional universe. The notion of endless possibilities is a quandary for wrestling, a form of entertainment that is accustomed to predetermined outcomes and steeped in the past. If Sunday’s Extreme Rules pay-per-view is any indication, WWE seemed happy to revisit the past rather than ring in a new era. The card itself was a walk through wrestling history. Let’s go match by match.
- The show started with the first-ever “WeeLC” match, a play on the “TLC” Tables, Ladders, and Chairs concept. It was called “Wee” because it featured WWE’s two diminutive stars, El Torito and Hornswoggle (as well as a special little person announce team, ring announcer, and referee), squaring off in an absolutely brilliant exhibition that made you realize why people packed arenas in the ’60s and ’70s whenever the offensively termed “midget wrestling” was on the card. Back then, legends like Lord Littlebrook and Sky Low Low reshaped carnival sideshow fodder into something that approached high art.
- The three-way dance between Jack Swagger, Rob Van Dam, and Cesaro ended in a win for Cesaro. It was a continuation of his recent rise and a triumph of the classical wrestler archetype, since Cesaro is the modern-day embodiment of the Lou Thesz–Karl Gotch style of wrestling. Since his arrival in WWE, one of the knocks on Cesaro has been whether he had the charisma to become a star in the modern era. With the help of a charismatic move set and mouthy manager Paul Heyman, Cesaro has reframed the question, turning his outmoded style into an asset.
- Next, Rusev (formerly “Alexander Rusev”; as did Cesaro and Big E before him, he appears to have transitioned to a mononym) demolished R-Truth and Xavier Woods in true ’80s heel squash match fashion; if he took a little longer than did King Kong Bundy with S.D. Jones at WrestleMania 1, it can hardly be held against him. There is also the ongoing allusion to the U.S.-Russian geopolitical conflict of the ’80s as epitomized in WWF stalwarts like Nikolai Volkoff. As tensions between the countries have reignited of late, Rusev’s Bulgarian heritage has gone the way of Kofi Kingston’s Jamaicanness in favor of a more tried-and-true villainy.3
Just to underscore the point, Brandon Stroud has a delicious conspiracy theory on how today’s greatest villain, Donald Sterling, is wrapped up in all of this.
- Bad News Barrett beat Big E to claim the Intercontinental championship, which felt like a throwback to when the secondary title was a holding spot for irrepressible second-tier heels like Rick Rude and Mr. Perfect, or even Randy Savage and Don Muraco. (And no slight to Big E, but the way he’s been booked of late feels like WWE thinks it’s back in that same era for babyfaces, when coming out through the curtain pumping your fist and smiling was all a hero needed to do to get the crowd going.)
- The three-on-three match between the Shield and Evolution was a reference to both the Von Erichs–Freebirds feuds of the ’80s4 and the much-romanticized WarGames bouts from the old NWA and WCW heyday. It hardly mattered who won those fights — you got points just for surviving them.
- Bray Wyatt beat John Cena in a cage match, and the moment when the kid from the Cam Newton commercial creepily sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and magically caused Cena to lose felt like a reference to the shocking and silly antics of Kane and the Undertaker during the Attitude Era. Back then, the towering, supernatural brothers would do things like set Jim Ross on fire, lynch Big Boss Man at Hell in a Cell, and summon lightning from the rafters and fire from ring posts. It didn’t matter that those acts were inane so long as they served their Fangoria-style characters.
Michael “P.S.” Hayes of the Freebirds, a backstage employee of WWE, helped stage the match.
- Paige defended her Divas title against Tamina, and the WWE’s women’s division suddenly seems poised to recapture some of the glory of the Trish Stratus–Lita heyday of those Attitude days — especially if AJ Lee gets back into the title picture.
- And Bryan versus Kane, well, it had bits of the Rock-Mankind empty arena Super Bowl halftime show match, and pieces of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s vehicular ring entrances, and a healthy does of Kane torturing Zack Ryder during their misbegotten feud.
The timeline doesn’t end there. Immediately following Extreme Rules, WWE ventured into a new platform for postmodern wrestling storytelling, as the WWE Network broadcast a postgame press conference. There was Daniel Bryan, sweaty and shirtless, sitting behind the table and microphone and looking both overwhelmed by his surroundings and halfway miscast in the role of an angry professional brawler. He stoically recited lines about how Kane had attacked his family, and how he wasn’t sure — even after a victory — that he was done with Kane yet. Monday’s Raw tipped WWE’s hand that it’s not merely happy to relive the past in current story lines. It’s more than that — by the looks of things, WWE will be revisiting those same feuds and playing those familiar strings for the next month and into the foreseeable future. Fans rolled their eyes as Bryan and his wife, Brie Bella, were ominously threatened by the surprise appearance of Kane masks. More eye-rolling followed as Bryan and Bella were tormented by Kane’s entrance music, and the eyes kept rolling when Kane finally assaulted them as they tried to escape the arena in a rental car. You could suspend disbelief and relish in the inanity of it all, sure. But the story line felt like something out of a bygone era of wrestling silliness, and the irony of seeing Bryan cast this way was particularly bitter, because Bryan was supposed to signal a way forward for the genre.
The match the two had on Sunday was really good, but the story has been lacking specifically because it has strayed so far from any semblance of reality, any real stakes. Dragging a shrieking Brie into the mess only makes it worse, because we’ve seen her on Total Divas, and she plays the straight woman. The sad thing is that the solution doesn’t even seem that difficult. Putting Kane — who had until recently been a clean-cut corporate shill — back into his Mitchell & Ness throwback gimp outfit is all well and good, except that the “demon” persona stopped being scary the first time WWE acknowledged its ridiculousness, and Corporate Kane wrestling in slacks, with his crooked smile and muscles on full display, was a hundred times scarier than this cartoon we have now. A regular guy with a disregard for the well-being of others is scarier than a Friday the 13th attack scene in a well-lit room. And let’s not forget that Kane and Bryan have a long history. They were tag-team champions together not long ago. Since then, Bryan earned his way into the championship match, while Kane sold his soul to the McMahon family to get there. That’s the story line. Kane isn’t a monster — he’s a sellout, and that’s way, way worse.
One would hope this would be self-evident after the real life of Daniel Bryan vaulted the onscreen persona to headliner status. But it’s hard to escape from absurdity, even for the first postmodern superstar. Bryan is the first superstar wrestler drawn in full color, as opposed to the traditional black-and-white and the proverbial red-and-green. The Attitude Era introduced some shades of gray, but Bryan has fleshed out his character to a degree never before seen in WWE. He’s the first star for whom reality is not a crutch but a defining characteristic. His rise from ignominy to superstardom was, in retrospect, such a seamless upward-trending line, such a beautifully writ epic journey, that we might need to consider it a miracle. And we also might be stuck wondering what comes next, now that he has reached the top. There’s a reason why Dusty Rhodes never vanquished Ric Flair.
Inevitably, the future will hold more for Daniel Bryan than Kane’s zombie sit-ups. If we acknowledge that we’re treading on new ground, it makes sense that WWE might choose to take baby steps at the start. The fear among Daniel Bryan diehards is not that his reign will continue to be silly or ineffectual. The fear is that “they” — Triple H, Vince McMahon, the powers that be — were right all along. That Daniel Bryan is a flash in the pan, that the “Yes!” chant is more popular than Bryan himself, and that he’s not cut out to be the face of the WWE. Maybe it’s that now we can suddenly imagine a day when Bryan’s charms would wear off, when we wouldn’t be chanting “Yes!” with such enthusiasm. Or we might not care to chant it at all. It’s a scary thought. The scariest thought is that Bryan’s quest and his triumph might have all been for naught. There’s another da Vinci line: “Art is never completed, only abandoned.” If the journey to WrestleMania was the work of art, Bryan’s future might be downhill from here on out. Determinism’s a bitch.
In the meantime, we can shake our fists in protest or we can sit back and enjoy the ride, whether it takes us spiraling back through the Attitude Era or whether it forges a new path forward. We can keep chanting “Yes!” when Bryan walks to the ring. We can rest assured that we helped propel Bryan to the top of the card, and that he’ll be insinuated there now, whether or not he’s the defining force of a generation.
Or we can hope for the best. But why would a wrestling fan ever do that? Doubting is what made all of this possible in the first place.