As a wrestling fan, I often find myself trying to come up with things to compare to wrestling in order to make non fans understand why I would like something that most sum up as “fake”. Obviously nothing fits perfectly, and everyone has their own way of putting it, but generally, the common summation is something akin to “a soap opera for men”. I’ve always found this definition a little problematic. Sure, soap operas go on forever, and they have untold twists and turns, and they appeal to us from a very base level, but that misses a large chunk of what truly makes wrestling special and great. That’s why in recent years, when people raise their eyebrows when they hear I like “rasslin”, the touchstone I use is jazz music. A cooperative, largely improvised art form with agreed upon beginnings and ends that is meant to evoke an emotion is how I sum it up. Instead of instruments, wrestlers simply play their bodies. The stories and narratives told with notes played on a saxophone or piano or trumpet are rang out across another mans face, across his chest, across his back.
What I don’t mention is that wrestling is jazz music that slowly kills whomever plays it. It’s something we all struggle with, and it’s something we all have to come to terms with on some level as fans, but the art form that we love indisputably leaves its artists worse off for participating. There are countless men (and women) that have been broken emotionally by wrestling, and even more that have been destroyed physically. I’m sure many people reading this are like me in that they grew up watching wrestling, and at some point viewed the wrestlers we watched as conquering heroes who righted wrongs and avenged evil and rode off into the sunset only to show back up exactly when they were needed to do it all over again the next week. If that is the case, I empathize with you, because at least once in your life, you have seen a hero grow old, and grow feeble, and break before your eyes, and some part of you always knew that it happened because of all those times they did something that made you cheer and leap to your feet and chant their name.
As I’m sure everyone knows, Daniel Bryan announced his retirement from professional wrestling on Monday night. If you haven’t seen his announcement, I encourage you to watch it, but at its heart, he stated that recent tests with various doctors have led him to believe that continuing to wrestle would be at best unwise and at worst horrifically detrimental to his long term mental and physical health. While some part of me cannot help but feel selfishly sad knowing that I will never see another new Daniel Bryan match, another part of me is relieved and proud to see a man in the prime of his life decide to do what is best for his future health, a decision from pro wrestlers that is seemingly all too rare.
As a big ROH fan for the entirety of his time there, Bryan always seemed sort of otherworldly to me. When I watched wrestlers like Samoa Joe or CM Punk or Low Ki, there was something human about them. They were great performers who were figuring it out in front of our eyes, but the way they acted in the ring let us in on who they were as people outside of it in some small way. Dragon was always more inscrutable. He did everything with such a workmanlike precision. He was like a wrestling savant, but he was also someone who clearly worshipped at the altar of pro wrestling. In ROH, the wrestlers were tasked with pushing their own boundaries, and finding where they stopped as performers. When Danielson wrestled, I always felt like he wasn’t doing things to learn about his limits. Instead, he was looking outward and trying to learn about the limits of the men who came before him and the limits of the craft he would help push forward.
For ROH fans from the same time period as me, Danielson will always be linked to Takeshi Morishima. They wrestled each other four times and it immediately became one of those rivalries in which each interaction between the two was appointment viewing. I can remember where I was and how I reacted each and every time. There are always rivalries in wrestling that stay with you as a viewer. There are always rivalries that will be forever tied to the participants. I would say that it is rare for those rivalries to gain as much traction as Danielson/Morishima did without the benefit of any sort of major long term storytelling. The first time they wrestled is probably the greatest singles match in ROH history, and Bryan got hurt and cut a promo after where I honestly though he was retiring on the spot. They wrestled again, and Morshima exploited that very same injury. The third and fourth times were just violent battles between two men in their prime who were both unstoppable. In April of 2015, with years of his career derailed by injuries, Morishima’s last attempt at a comeback was halted by a doctor who discovered he had diabetes. Less than a year later, his greatest foe would meet almost exactly the same fate. It is terrifying and sad that two men will never again do what they love, but I can’t help but look at it the symmetry of some great poetic force balancing out the universe.
I’m sure there will be others who will give a more complete summation of his career; how he stacks up compared to other great wrestlers, and it’s impact on the industry as a whole. Already I’ve read a bunch on how without Daniel Bryan’s run in the WWE, we would not have things like Kevin Owens on the main roster, or Sami Zayn, or even NXT as we know it. That’s probably all true. What I haven’t seen, however, is that Bryan has been equally influential for wrestlers just being themselves. Bryan was an incredible technical wrestler with an otherworldly sense of timing, but what often gets lost is his pure, unwavering honesty as a performer at all times. People talk about his connection to the crowd, and how that happened because he was an everyman, but that’s not really true. His connection happened because not only was he an everyman, but because when he went to the ring, no matter where that ring was or how many fans surrounded it, he simply shrugged and said “this is me. Take it or leave it”. In a world where everything is cranked up to eleven, Daniel Bryan made people follow along with his every move simply because the people who were watching could tell that it was real. I think that might be Bryan’s true legacy when we look back years from now. Bryan has allowed an entire generation of wrestlers to know that it’s okay to acknowledge your fans, and it’s okay to be a weirdo. If you trust the fans with who you are, they will hold you up when you need it.
So thank you, Daniel Bryan. Thank you, Bryan Danielson. Thank you for literally thousands of hours of entertainment. Thank you for pushing the boundaries of your art. Thank you for the music you pushed your body to play in front of a hundred people in Joliet. Thank you for the music you let tens of thousands of people sing along to at WrestleMania. Thank you leaving wrestling in a better, more honest place for those that have the unenviable task of standing in your substantial shadow. In your speech last night, you spoke of gratitude towards wrestling. You were grateful for what wrestling has given to you. Please know that I can honestly speak for everyone when I say that we are just as grateful for what you have given us. Thank you. Yes. And again.