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Daniel Bryan and the Uncertain Future
It was not even two years ago that Daniel Bryan found himself on top of the wrestling world. Against all odd, both kayfabe and real, the young man from Kurt Cobain's hometown stood tall at the end of Wrestlemania clutching a world title in each hand while the Superdome exploded like Agent Smith at the end of The Matrix. For many, it's a moment that will be remembered forever, the perfect ending for a real life underdog that came up through the indies and overcame firings, political maneuvering and countless other situations to get the gold and the girl at the top of the mountain. At the same time, it was also supposed to be the beginning. Maybe Daniel Bryan would never be the true "face of WWE" like the Hogan's, Rock's, Austin's and Cena's beforehand, but surely his Wrestlemania moment would solidify him as a consistent presence at the top of WWE's hierarchy for many years to come.
Instead, Bryan's "I'm the King of the World!" moment turned out to be the beginning of the end. Not even three months after the greatest moment of his professional career (and following a slew of personal highs and lows), Bryan had vacated the WWE World Heavyweight Championship due to a nerve injury in his elbow. The injury would keep him out for the rest of 2014. and though Bryan returned in 2015 to the same delirious fan reaction he'd been receiving prior to his injury, he was quickly (and, depending on your point of view, justly or unjustly) moved aside in favor of WWE's seemingly never ending quest to turn Roman Reigns into the greatest thing since pizza Pringles. After three months, an amazing match with Reigns at WWE Fast Lane (for my money the best match WWE's done all year), and a brief Intercontinental Championship reign, Bryan was gone again, this time with a concussion. He has yet to return since, with WWE's doctor refusing to clear him, despite Bryan supposedly having been cleared by his own doctor. As more time goes by, it seems more and more likely that Bryan will never be seen in a WWE ring again. Yesterday, he explicitly hinted at the fact, saying in a statement with a Singapore newspaper that he "believes his WWE career could be over".
Now by this point, I'm sure you're wondering why I'm writing about a WWE guy, seeing as the affairs of that company largely don't concern me. What does concern me however is the rest of what Bryan said, which is that while he thinks is WWE career may be done, his wrestling career isn't. Yes, despite all the talk of him being done in a WWE ring, Bryan has consistently maintained during this period that he is not done wrestling (as long as he's cleared by his own doctor). Thus, the end of Bryan's WWE career would open the doors for him to return to the open market, which would mean he could wind up anywhere. Yes, anywhere, which includes a certain place out in LA where dragons, aliens and Jack Evans (who Bryan has teamed with on the indies) roam. Yes, for those rolling their eyes (and I know exactly who is rolling their eyes), I'm well aware that not everyone can end up in Lucha Underground and that me wishing so annoys the hell out of you. Guess what? Just like it's perfectly okay for those rolling their eyes to want someone to come work for WWE, it's perfectly acceptable for me to want a really good wrestler to come work for my favorite promotion. And with the rumors of Bryan's time with WWE coming to an end picking up steam and the possibility of him hitting the open market becoming more feasible, Bryan coming to the LU becomes a semi-realistic possibility/hope. Not a great one (I would think he'd choose Ring of Honor, PWG or New Japan before looking lucha libre), but still something none the less!
Of course, before we get into the ins and outs of where Daniel Bryan may be going, the question that needs to be asked is if he's going anywhere at all. Is the WWE actually planning on never letting Bryan wrestle for them again? Do they still have no definitive answer, and Bryan is simply using these interviews to try and force WWE into making one? And as per usual with wrestling, we must wonder whether or not Bryan and WWE are working us, making everyone believe he's done only to pull the rug out and bring him back in even more surprising fashion. All these scenarios are likely, and one of them is likely to be the answer to the question on Bryan's uncertain future, possibly very soon.
So what do I think the answer is? Truthfully, I think the WWE and Bryan are on the verge of a divorce; an amicable divorce, but a divorce none the less. It's easy for me to say that because a) I do want it to happen and b) that's where the wind is blowing after Bryan's statement yesterday. The truth is, neither of those things are a factor, at least not compared to what I think is the most telling sign. Regardless of how you feel about the WWE's "rating crisis" or below average critical reception, I think most wrestling fans can agree that the mother ship could use a bit of a jolt to excite fans (especially in the wake of what seems like a never ending string of injuries to top stars). What jolt works better than Daniel Bryan? If WWE brought him back today, he would without question still be the most popular star and someone who could get the RAW crowd fired up like T-Bird's crew on Devils Night. So why haven't they brought him back? You could say it was his health reasons, but the WWE had no problem bringing back Tommy Dreamer (a guy who's suffered even more concussions than Bryan and has admitted to having memory loss issues) for a boost just a few weeks ago. If they're that desperate to get him, why not bring Bryan back? The only logical conclusion (or at least the most logical conclusion to me) is that the WWE legit has no plans to use him. And if they have no plans to use him, Bryan's time in a WWE ring is even more over than he is.
If that's the case (which I believe it is), it opens the door for Bryan to go elsewhere. Sure, he could retire and remain a WWE ambassador of sorts, and when it comes to concussions, I'm not so sure that wouldn't be the best course of action for him. While all of that makes sense in theory however, what can't be accounted for is what Daniel Bryan wants to do. Judging by what he says, Bryan clearly still wants to wrestle regardless of the risks, and while that may not be smart, it's his right and his decision to make. Thus, I believe Bryan will want to continue his wrestling career even if he's forced to retire from WWE. So what then? Where does he go? Where is he allowed to go? What place makes the most sense? Let's start with the last with the last question first; every place makes sense.
Let's be real here; whether he has one match, a year's worth of matches or five years left in him, Daniel Bryan on the open market is going to draw more interest than Katy Perry in a sports press box. He's one of the best wrestlers in the world (even at less than full speed, he proved that against Reigns earlier this year), he's a proven past commodity both in and outside of WWE and you can make the argument that he is the most popular wrestler in the world right now. You put Daniel Bryan anywhere, and the promoter will be jumping into one of those Scrooge McDuck piles of money a few weeks later. There's literally no scenario that wouldn't work. Bryan vs. Jay Lethal in ROH? Money. Bryan and a group of guys (or gals) against the Mt. Rushmore of Wrestling in PWG? Money. Bryan vs. Atlantis in CMLL with Bryan's hair and Atlantis' mask on the line? Peso after peso. Bryan vs. Son of Havoc in a beard vs. beard match? Serious money. I don't even need to ask you whether Bryan vs. Shinsuke Nakamura in Japan would draw, seeing as you just threw all your money at your computer screen just at the mere mention of it. It doesn't matter where Aberdeen's second favorite son goes; it would make sense, it would gain a lot of interest and it would more than likely be of Fury Road esq quality.
Thus, the tough question is where would he go? And that's where a few points must be made.
1) Unless WWE forces Bryan to sit out the rest of his contract, it won't be in the United States. Vince McMahon, despite sometimes appearing to be one, isn't an idiot; he knows that Bryan in Ring of Honor or Lucha Underground is a potentially dangerous situation (which begs the question why they wouldn't try to have Bryan wrestle one last run, but what do I know?). So if WWE determines Bryan can't wrestle and Bryan requests his release, the WWE would either choose to sit him for the rest of his contract (another few years from what I understand) or grant him his release while adding a clause that restricts him from working certain US based promotions. As Bryan (likely) isn't going to want to wait a few years to wrestle, my guess is he'd take that release, which means...
2) New Japan, CMLL and PWG are his most likely destinations. Unlike LU or ROH, PWG is a small enough indie fed that I don't see WWE having too much of a problem with Bryan working there. For bigger stages however, New Japan and CMLL make the most sense. Both promotions would gladly use him (although I have heard some CMLL officials don't even know who Bryan is. Come on guys) and the working agreement between New Japan and CMLL would allow Bryan to have that huge Nakamura match and that hair vs. mask match he claims to want to have (again, Bryan vs. Atlantis. It's serious money!). It's literally a win-win-win.
Of course, the only thing that's sure about Daniel Bryan's situation is nothing's for sure. I'm frankly still not even sure how we got here. If you had told me the day after Wrestlemania 30 that Daniel Bryan could be on the verge of leaving WWE within two years, at the same time I'd be covering lucha libre and Mad Max: Fury Road would be a serious Oscar contender, I'd have assumed the world fell apart or I'd be on the run after doing something stupid while celebrating a Cubs World Series title. The fact that all three of those things ended up happening proves that anything is possible now. For all I know, Daniel Bryan's scenario plays out exactly how I mapped it above. Then again, maybe it doesn't. Maybe WWE is feeling generous and does allow him to go wherever he wants, thus opening the door for him in the LU and me partying like Mazza after Arsene Wenger's inevitable firing. Maybe WWE does decide to give him one more run after all. Hell, maybe Bryan does decide it's time to hang up the boots and start the next chapter of his life. Truly, Daniel Bryan finds himself caught in one of science fiction's famous tropes; the uncertain future.
Where that uncertain future takes him, I don't know. The jealous fan side of me hopes it does take him to Lucha Underground. But even more than that, I hope it takes him to a place where he can be at peace with himself. Daniel Bryan deserves that. After all he's given to wrestling and to us fans, I can't think of anyone who deserves that more.
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