Thank You Dragon
When I first heard of “The American Dragon” Bryan Danielson, the first thing that jumped out at me wasn’t his reputation as a wrestler but where he was from; Aberdeen, Washington. For those who don’t know, Aberdeen is the birthplace of Kurt Cobain; you know, only one of the most famous musicians of all time behind one of the greatest bands of all time. Cobain and Nirvana (the name of the band for those who have never experienced life) have had a profound effect on my life, to the point where my writing this column for you here wouldn’t be happening if not for that band. The fact that Danielson, then the hottest indie wrestler around, was from the same place as Cobain instantly made me want to learn more about him. A weird detail to latch onto? Probably. But when it comes to a talent such as Bryan Danielson, I don’t think it matters how you discover him, only that you do.
I’ve had so much to say about Bryan Danielson the wrestler over the years. When he came to WWE, changed his name to Daniel Bryan and was released following a controversial angle on Monday Night RAW back in 2010, I wrote a column defending his actions (despite being a semi-lapsed fan at the time). When he fought Mark Henry in a cage match for the World Heavyweight Championship back in 2011, I produced another column called “Dragon Days” on Bryan’s amazing journey to becoming a top star. As Wrestlemania 30 got closer and closer, I poured my heart out about Bryan’s odyssey (among other things) to glory and how badly I couldn’t wait to see it happen. I wrote a book review on Bryan’s awesome autobiography a few months ago and tried to have it published on a website (to no avail). Even after I stopped watching WWE last year, I produced a column about Bryan this past fall on his uncertain future following several issues with concussions. Whenever it seemed like I had run out of ways to talk about Daniel Bryan/Bryan Danielson, he always found a way for me to come up with more words.
Except now I can’t. It’s been two hours since Bryan Danielson announced that Daniel Bryan the wrestler is dead, and I don’t know what to say. I’ve sat here for about an hour typing paragraph after paragraph, only to hit the backspace button. I’ve played back the entire segment in my head, every emotional statement, every tear, everything and yet nothing coherent can form. There are some brief flashes of course; there’s the ever loving sadness in me that Bryan will never be able to wrestle for Lucha Underground, the promotion that’s become so dear to me. There’s the relief that Bryan will be able to live a normal life for the rest of his days and have a family with his wife. And then there’s the dawning, the awful realization that wrestling is now without Daniel Bryan and CM Punk, two of the greatest performers in the history of the business and two men who should absolutely 100% still be wrestling today if things break a certain way.
Man, that last thought might be the most tragic of all this. I said a few days ago when writing about El Santo that while it’s difficult to be great, it’s another thing to be transcendent. Whether Daniel Bryan/Bryan Danielson is ultimately transcendent is something we’ll find out down the road. But in the moment, it sure feels like it, which makes it so tragic that this evening was the end. There’s so many different ways to talk about how great Bryan was. As an in ring worker, he was a jack of all trades capable of technical wizardry, breathtaking aerial assaults and the most fierce striking attack I’ve ever seen in the wrestling ring. As an onscreen presence, he was a man of quiet charisma who was able to take two every day phrases (“yes” and “no”) and turn them into a chant that has bled over into popular culture. All of us wrestling fans loved him for those reasons. But as I sit here, slowly finding my voice, I can’t escape this one thought on just how Bryan managed to go from indie legend to WWE legend. And that thought is that through every match he had to wrestle, every “yes” he had to chant, every curious booking decision he had to overcome, Daniel Bryan never stopped being Bryan Danielson.
They often say that wrestlers get over when they act like themselves with the volume turned up. Dare I say that Bryan Danielson was the first wrestler to ever get over as himself with the volume set to normal? Whether he was wrestling in front of 75,000 people or a group of nomads in a gas station parking lot, The American Dragon was always the same; a down to earth, laid back sort of dude who when pushed could be as lethal a Jean Claude Van Damme character. The proof is in the pudding; Danielson was the man who could go from being the all world ass kicker to the dude singing his theme song (Europe’s “The Final Countdown”) with the fans in a matter of minutes. Combined with his everyman look, Danielson was every wrestling fan’s dream; he gave us hope that we could accomplish similar feats while also looking like someone who’d have no problem coming over to play Jet Set Radio with you. That never changed with him regardless of where he went, and I can’t help but feel it’s what made him so special to so many. Truly, Bryan Danielson was the 21st century everyman, the Dusty Rhodes of the video game generation.
And truthfully, the best memories I have of Bryan Danielson are as such. When I think of him, I don’t think of the Wrestlemania main events or even some of those other “classic” wrestling moments. No, I think about "Occupy RAW", the segment where Bryan led the geekiest hostile takeover in the history of the western hemisphere (and it worked!). I think of the night he stood up for himself against Bray Wyatt in Providence, Rhode Island, where he turned into the ultimate bad ass and got the loudest pop of his career. I think about his return to WWE at Summerslam 2010, where he had a Sting Clash of the Champions 1988 performance in one of the most underrated multi-man matches of all time. I think about his Ring of Honor farewell, where he had to get back into the ring several times just to thank the fans and once more sang that Europe song with them. I think of his lone appearance in AAA where he teamed with Jack Evans and Teddy Hart while inexplicably being called “Teddy Jack” by the announcers. And I’ll remember my favorite Bryan Danielson moment ever, a promo from Pro Wrestling Guerilla featuring him and Paul London talking about hybrid dolphins and dangerous bees all while trying not to crack up.
At the end of it all, all of those moments tell the story of Bryan Danielson/Daniel Bryan. He was a wrestler, he was a nerd, he was an everyman, he was a dude who loved every moment whether it was fighting in the ring or talking about danger bees and he was the same young man who grew up in the town where Kurt Cobain was born. And all those things are the reason there is a giant hole in wrestling that shall never be filled. Thank you Dragon. Thank you.
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