Daniel Bryan entered the WWE with plenty of hype surrounding him due to his years of success in ROH and on the independent scene as a whole. He didn't get much of a reaction to start, though, and he was even fired at one point. Since turning heel after winning the World Heavyweight Championship, however, Bryan has truly blossomed.
It may not have seemed possible as recently as a year ago, but Bryan is now the company's top heel, and it can't really even be argued against. With that said, not everyone is sold on Bryan yet, and he still has a long way to go before he establishes himself as a cornerstone player in the WWE. If he continues to progress, though, it is only a matter of time before that happens.
Keep reading for the latest installment of my 25-superstar countdown in which I break down the upside, direction and long-term potential of the biggest WWE stars. Today's article will focus on Bryan and whether he has what it takes to eventually join the WWE's figurative Mt. Rushmore of main-eventers.
Bryan has only been in the WWE for two years, but he was already a veteran in the business when he joined the company. Bryan began wrestling in 1999 and was eventually signed to a developmental deal by WWE in 2000. He competed in Memphis Championship Wrestling for a year, winning the MCW Light Heavyweight Championship and MCW Tag Team Championships before the WWE dropped MCW as a developmental territory. Bryan would go on to have some matches for WWE on secondary programming, however.
Nothing materialized, though, so Bryan moved on to New Japan Pro Wrestling. After a stint there, Bryan became a founding father of ROH. He was one of these wrestlers who truly buoyed the company when it was in its infancy, and it helped him become a cult star. Bryan wrestled for ROH on and off until 2009, and many consider him to be the best wrestler in ROH history despite the fact that he won the ROH Heavyweight Championship just once.
When Bryan's ROH contract expired, he wrestled for Chikara and Dragon Gate USA before signing with WWE once again. Bryan competed in Florida Championship Wrestling briefly before being named a contestant on the inaugural season of NXT. Bryan was part of the initial Nexus invasion, but was fired from the company because his act of choking announcer Justin Roberts with a tie went against WWE's PG programming. Bryan was brought back, however, and has developed into a star.
Bryan has been one of the WWE's focal points ever since WrestleMania when he dropped the World Heavyweight Championship to Sheamus in 18 seconds. Bryan has been chasing each of the world titles ever since and is currently feuding with CM Punk over the WWE Championship. WrestleMania caused Bryan to go from a guy who was over with the Internet fans to a guy who is now over with the majority of the crowd, thanks mostly to his "Yes" catchphrase.
For the past couple months, Bryan has been caught up in a bizarre situation with Punk, Kane and AJ. Bryan dumped AJ after he accused her of costing him the title at WrestleMania, but she continued to try to win back his affections thereafter. It didn't work, and AJ eventually moved on to Punk. She has led on Punk, Kane and Bryan recently, though, and it is unclear exactly who she is aligning herself with at this point.
On Tuesday, AJ kissed both Bryan and Punk and continued her psychotic persona. AJ will be the special guest referee for the Bryan vs. Punk match at Money in the Bank, and it seems like literally anything can happen at this point. Although AJ has become the focal point of the feud, Bryan and Punk have had some excellent matches, just like they did during their days in ROH. Punk and Bryan have gotten the most out of each other, and it is clear that Bryan has what it takes to be a permanent main-eventer from a wrestling perspective.
Bryan has several good qualities, but there is no denying that his in-ring work trumps everything else. There are probably three wrestlers in the company currently who set themselves apart from everyone else in terms of pure wrestling, and Bryan is one of them along with Punk and Dolph Ziggler. He was allowed to have a more diverse moveset in ROH and other independent promotions since there was more time given to the wrestling aspect of the business, but even though Bryan's arsenal is essentially cut in half, he is still spectacular.
He can truly do it all, as he is unquestionably the best technical wrestler in the company, but is also capable of high flying and brawling with a dizzying array of kicks. One of the main qualities that a top guy in the company should have is the ability to put on a great match with anyone. Only a handful of current superstars possess that skill, and Bryan clearly does. That isn't the be-all, end-all in wrestling nowadays, but it counts for a lot.
There are differing opinions on Bryan's mic skills, but I consider them to be very solid. Perhaps he can stand to get a bit more animated and exciting when he speaks, but he can hold his own. There are a lot of guys in the WWE who are embarrassing in that department, but that isn't the case with D-Bry. He is a fairly smooth talker, he very rarely flubs a line and he is also pretty believable on the stick, so while some improvements can be made, he's in good shape.
If there is one thing that Bryan could do better, it would have to be becoming an all-around more exciting performer. He is impressive and technically sound in everything he does in the ring and outside it, but there is a thought that he doesn't have the "it" factor needed to become a star. I'm not sure if anyone aside from Punk and John Cena possesses the mystical "it" factor in the company currently, and I don't know if it is something that can be acquired over time.
Some might say that Punk didn't have the "it" factor until his initial pipe-bomb promo a year ago, so perhaps Bryan just lacks a signature moment. It's possible that he will get it during his current feud with Punk, and while nobody knows for sure what it will be, I'm sure it will be obvious when or if it happens. I am already entertained by Bryan, but even I can admit that he needs to kick things up a notch in order to remain in the main-event scene for good.
Also, while Bryan has done a lot over the past few months to become more of a mainstream guy, I feel like he still has the independent stigma attached to him. The core WWE fans seem to be buying into him as a heel, but he still gets most of his support from the more sophisticated fans. Punk is the perfect example of a guy who went from being a favorite of indy fans to a favorite of everyone. Bryan has to emulate that path and embrace it moving forward.
Many of Bryan's truly classic matches were wrestled in ROH, but since he has been in WWE for a good amount of time, I decided to go with a more recent bout. Bryan has had quite a few barn burners already, but my favorite was his battle against Punk at Over the Limit. That essentially started their feud, and it is their best WWE match together thus far. It lasted for nearly a half hour, which rarely happens in the WWE today, and it featured two of the best wrestlers, not only in the WWE, but in the world right now.
Both men got plenty of offense in, and while Bryan lost the match, you might even say that he came away looking like the better man. Punk had to roll Bryan into a pinning combination in order to pick up the victory, but Bryan had him in the Yes Lock for a couple minutes. Punk looked strong because of his initial refusal to tap out, but once he picked up the pinfall he did tap out, so Bryan looked like a legitimate tough guy as well.
Since WrestleMania, Bryan has actually been booked well, even in losing efforts. He pushed Sheamus to the brink at Extreme Rules, he performed well against Punk at Over the Limit and he wasn't pinned in the triple threat along with Punk and Kane at No Way Out. Bryan also pinned Punk in a triple-threat rematch to become sole No. 1 contender for the title. The creative team is often maligned for its handling of top-level talent, but Bryan is one guy who has been booked correctly and has thrived because of it.
Bryan is already a former World Heavyweight Champion, and if he continues on his upward trend, then I can see him winning several more world titles before his career is over. There aren't any guarantees in the WWE, but Bryan won a world title after being in the company for less than two years, and now that he is absolutely on fire, I doubt that the WWE brass will let his momentum go by the wayside. It has happened with others before, though, so you never know.
One thing that Bryan has in his favor is that even though he has been in the business for what seems like an eternity, he is only 31 years old. Most wrestlers compete well past the age of 40, so as long as Bryan continues to perform at this level and improve steadily as well, he promises to be a fixture for a long time to come. Bryan appears to be one of the hardest workers in the business and seems to love wrestling more than anything, so I don't anticipate that being an issue.
Wrestling ability alone is going to take Bryan a long way, but now that he is adding a bit more flair and character to the overall package, he is truly coming into his own. Even if Bryan is a guy who shuttles between the main event and the mid-card a la Christian, he is bound to get a few more chances with the world title. I feel like Bryan will eventually become a go-to superstar and he will be able to excel as a heel or a face.
How He Gets There
I'm a bit of an old-school guy in terms of wrestling, so I enjoy a good, long title reign. Because of that, I have been very supportive of Punk holding the belt since Survivor Series. With that said, Bryan is on a real hot streak, and the time is now for him to become WWE Champion. The preferable way for it to happen would be for him to beat Punk cleanly at Money in the Bank, but heels are rarely given clean wins. Because of that, AJ has to play a big role, as she will be the special guest referee for the match.
AJ has been tabbed as a psycho for the past couple months, but I would like to see her screw over Punk at Money in the Bank and help Bryan win the strap. AJ's actions could then be explained as her pretending to be crazy in order to lull Punk into a false sense of security. It could be revealed that she was with Bryan the entire time, but was simply pretending not to be in order to help him win the WWE Championship.
That would give Bryan the title and a ton of heel heat to go with it. In fact, a heel team of Bryan and AJ would probably be the best such combo since Edge and Lita. If Bryan is given a significant reign after beating Punk and is given some convincing wins along the way, then I believe that he can cement himself as the top heel in the company for the long haul. Whether the WWE is willing to put the title on him is a totally different story, though.
Check back daily for new entries in this WWE 25-superstar countdown. Here are the five most recent editions for your viewing pleasure:
10. Wade Barrett
8. The Miz
7. Cody Rhodes