On Monday night, lines blurred as storyline and truth came face-to-face in a dangerous dance. Daniel Bryan stood in the middle of the WWE ring and told John Cena, the promotion's standard bearer for the better part of a decade, that he wasn't a real wrestler. That Cena, despite 11 WWE Championship reigns, was no Daniel Bryan—and never would be.
At SummerSlam on Sunday, the two will meet in the main event in a match bigger than either man. They will stand in opposite corners representing two distinct visions of professional wrestling.
Cena is the modern Hulk Hogan, a better version of Bryan's favorite wrestler growing up, the infamous Ultimate Warrior. He's the spitting image of what WWE promoter Vince McMahon has spent decades telling fans a wrestler is supposed to look like.
Muscle bound, handsome and charismatic as a television evangelist, Cena is the prototype of what a WWE Superstar should be. He's the business's top performer, the headliner who draws huge crowds all over the world.
And Daniel Bryan?
All of 5'8" and 185 pounds, he's the best wrestler in the world. Nothing more and nothing less.
He spent eight years proving it night after night in high school gyms, warehouses and National Guard armories all over the country. And, finally given the chance in WWE, he intends to prove it all over again in the promotion that matters most.
"I'm really looking forward to this match," he told Bleacher Report. "I was very fulfilled with the matches I had with CM Punk last year. It was a chance to do what I love on a much grander scale.
"It was interesting because people had always said of the stuff I did on the independents—'It's great, it's great wrestling, but it will never connect with a large audience. It's too abstract.' It was interesting to be able to go out there and prove people wrong. That's never been a motivation for me, but I love the idea that the wrestling I love, the mass audience loves, too. They just hadn't gotten a chance to see a lot of that kind of stuff."
By "that kind of stuff," Bryan means the sort of wrestling match that transcends the cheap pratfalls and angry arm-waving interviews most critics associate with a form of entertainment best suited for children. It's the kind of intricate and detailed physical theater that places Bryan squarely among America's very best artists. Like all great artists, he didn't emerge fully formed. His journey to greatness started, in many ways, in front of just a few dozen fans—and the best wrestlers of his generation.
October 27, 2001: Vallejo, California
Old wrestlers aren't inclined to praise the generations that followed them into the business. Each new generation, it seems, is softer than the one that preceded it. They know less than these elder statesmen and even the biggest stars would have been lucky just to have had a job in the good old days when men were men and Lou Thesz carried the World Championship with dignity and pride.
Only, suddenly, Red Bastien wasn't so sure of any of that. Not anymore. Not after Daniel Bryan. At the King of the Indies, an all-star tournament of the very best independent talent in the country promoted by Roland Alexander, Bastien, considered by his peers one of the most entertaining wrestlers of the 1970s, saw a match between Bryan (then wrestling under his real name of Bryan Danielson) and Brian "Spanky" Kendrick that blew him away.
"Red Bastien said the older guys wouldn't want to admit this, but Danielson was better than they were in their primes," Wrestling Observer editor Dave Meltzer said. "[Former AWA champion] Nick Bockwinkle went up to him and said, 'I would have been proud to have been on any card you were on.' They saw him as main event-caliber talent."
Meltzer, one of the most influential players behind the scenes in wrestling, was also impressed with what he saw.
"I called Jimmy Hart, who was starting up a new promotion with Hulk Hogan, the next day and said, 'Look, these guys are really good.' But the mentality was 'I've never heard of them.' They were looking to rehash guys from the '80s and '90s. But he was ready and that was 12 years ago. He was already great in 2001."
Hart may have been the only one not impressed by the talent on display that weekend. The tournament included future stars like Samoa Joe, Christopher Daniels and A.J. Styles. And though Alexander says he lost money, the idea of combining these stars from around the country had wings. It was a launching pad toward stardom.
"That King of Indies tournament opened the door. At the time it was a big deal," Kendrick remembered. "That was probably the 500th time I wrestled Bryan. We broke in together, got shipped to Memphis together. We'd wrestled each other so many freaking times, but that one was special."
For Danielson, "the American Dragon," it was one of the first signs that a childhood dream might actually come true. As a kid, wrestling was everything. He and his friends had their own promotion and a suspicious Bryan Danielson-sized hole appeared in his family's living room wall one day after a particularly rambunctious match. Despite standardized test scores that could have earned him an academic scholarship, Danielson left home immediately after high school to attend wrestling school with WWE star Shawn Michaels.
"I never really thought of doing anything else," Danielson said.
Soon after the King of the Indies, his first big break, he moved in to Alexander's house to train students at the All Pro Wrestling school. His passion and focus, even then, especially then, were scarily single-minded.
"His bedroom had no furniture except for a mattress to sleep on," Alexander said. "He had a nice 27-inch TV and wrestling video tapes all over the room. They were stacked waist high everywhere. My guess is he had 300 to 500 tapes and he almost never left his bedroom. He was the deepest student of the game I've ever met."
His diverse knowledge of craft would pay off. The King of Indies soon spawned Ring of Honor (ROH), an indy all-star promotion that catered to a knowledgeable niche audience of hardcore wrestling fans. Danielson was in the main event of the promotion's first show and became an integral part of the brand, which made its money selling DVDs of events to wrestling fans craving the kind of in-ring excitement they weren't getting from WWE at the time.
Gabe Sapolsky, then ROH's booker, was responsible for the creative direction of the company. Danielson, he says, could be counted on to come up with 30 minutes every night that were guaranteed to be special.
"When I booked Bryan, he had almost complete freedom," Sapolsky, who now runs Dragon Gate USA, said. "I really wouldn't question him, even on finishes of matches. Bryan made my life easier. Bryan is like that ace in baseball, a pitcher like Justin Verlander. When you're bullpen is tired and you're on a losing streak, you know you can put him out there and have a chance at a complete-game shutout. I wouldn't be where I am today without him."
Danielson was a maverick. He lived in a dojo in Japan and spent months in England in a quest to expand his repertoire of moves. The Japanese style was his favorite, but he soon fell in love with the intricate British mat work as well. Soon he was studying catch wrestling and incorporating legitimate holds into his matches.
"He could drop out of a plane anywhere in the world that has wrestling," Kendrick said. "And he'd figure out what works real quick."
While others were content to develop a style that worked for them and keep with it as long as it lasted, wrestling the same match over and over again for years, Danielson's game was in a constant state of flux. It served him well, not just in ROH, but in Japan and for other independents across the country where he was in high demand.
"He lived wresting and would always come up with new ways to reinvent himself," Sapolsky said. "He would take off two or three months and come back with something new. He was always making subtle changes, not just to his wrestling but to his appearance. He'd add a beard or shave it off. Suddenly, he'd come out in a robe. Bryan always had evolution in mind. He'd take old moves and stop doing them, even if they were popular. He wanted to be sure he never felt stale. That's part of being a student of the game."
When high-flying and spectacular dives were en vogue, the typical American Dragon match was more subdued. Alexander says that's the product of an early string of concussions that curbed some of Danielson's daredevil tendencies. Whatever the reason, the result was a subtle and nuanced series of matches that helped him stand out in a sea of wrestlers doing similar stunts and spots.
"On the independents, it was very important to me to go out there and have the best match possible," Danielson said. "It's about not being satisfied with your previous performances. When you're in the same scenario the next week, ask, 'How can I do that better?' It's all been an evolution of style, really."
The result of that dedication, according to wrestler Sal Rinaur, who traveled from city to city with Danielson, was a wrestler without a peer, even in a locker room full of super talent like current WWE stars CM Punk and Seth Rollins.
"Bryan wasn't a big fish in a small pond," Rinaur said. "He was a shark. Everyone in the independents wanted to be Bryan Danielson. And if Bryan Danielson was on your show, you wanted to be wrestling Bryan Danielson."
The difference between Danielson and other top workers, Rinaur said, is his attention to detail and his feel for the crowd. At his best, a Danielson match would play off of everything that had come before. Danielson, Rinaur said, paid close attention to when the DVDs came out and rewarded fans who watched his matches carefully. There was a progression of moves and countermoves, thoughtful callbacks to the action that preceded the current match. A Danielson match was complicated. It wasn't enough to tell one story. His entire career was an on-going narrative—the development of a wrestler.
"I've always compared him to [Harry Potter author] J.K. Rowling. Story is everything. He's not just doing wrestling holds. Everything he does in the ring tells a story," Rinaur said. "He understands a wrestling audience and knows exactly what to do to make them boo or cheer. It's a fascinating thing to study.
"He would take something he had done in Buffalo, some move, and six weeks later in Chicago, he would counter that. Everybody in the audience knew what he was doing. He was able to place it in the match where it made a lot of sense...He doesn't do anything extraordinary. None of his moves are big, flashy 450 splashes or a powerbomb off the top rope. He does kicks and he does submission holds. They're simple, but they're brilliant. Bryan understands a pro wrestling audience better than any person I've ever seen. He can anticipate what they want and when they will want it."
Meltzer, who has seen every big match from across the globe for 30 years, concurs.
"He's kind of a wrestling genius, the way he lays out his matches. His understanding of how to put together a match is not something that WWE taught him. He had that in Ring of Honor. He put so much thought into his matches and was working with people who were really good. He was top tier. If he wasn't the best in the world, he was in the conversation."
February 11, 2010: Melbourne, Florida
For years that was the joke name Rinaur and Danielson speculated he'd be saddled with when he inevitably made his WWE run. It sounded bad, but history has shown anything is possible. Wrestlers have been saddled with worse after a meeting with Vince McMahon. He was a promotional genius—but he did once decide to dress the great Hector Guerrero as a chicken and call him the Gobbledy Gooker. No indignity was off the table.
With expectations so low, "Daniel Bryan" was likely a pleasant surprise. Danielson knew that one day he would take his shot at the WWE. It was the last major promotion left, the one realm he had not yet conquered. But experience had taught him that high expectations were the ticket to major disappointment.
"If you've been an independent wrestler, and you've been wrestling for years, you don't expect good things to happen," Danielson said. "I've seen, for example, my friend Brian Kendrick, who is insanely talented, get very frustrated here. So I came here with the idea that I was going to work as hard as I possibly can."
Kendrick admitted that his WWE run was a huge disappointment. But Danielson, he believed, was in a much better position to make the best of it. Kendrick had made the television roster at the tender age of 23 when he was just developing his style as a wrestler. Danielson, by contrast, was nearly 30 before taking the plunge, better suited emotionally and skill-wise to make the most of any opportunity that might come his way.
"He has more perspective," Kendrick said. "He got the wiggles out. Bryan was able to do everything he wanted in wrestling. And get hurt from it. And tired. He's going at the right age with the right amount of experience. He's had all the classic matches in the indies. Now it's time to cash in on all that hard work."
For Bryan, it was a new challenge, one that demanded a drastic change in his style of wrestling.
"In the WWE, a lot of time you're out there for four minutes. It's important to, one, captivate the audience and, two, make it seem like you're trying to win," Danielson said, explaining his decision to remove some of the holds and moves fans were accustomed to seeing in his indy days. "To me it doesn't feel like you're really trying to win when you have four minutes and you're sitting back in an armbar. The whole idea of wearing people down doesn't resonate with today's fanbase. So, to me, it's important to get across that sense of urgency. Any time you can get on offense, you're trying to win or trying to damage the other person. That's kind of what I go for, at least with the shorter matches."
He quickly mastered the style. Fans were impressed. Converting the locker room, however, wasn't going to be so easy.
"He was Captain Independent. He represented all the indy guys," Rinaur said, not necessarily a good position to hold down in a WWE locker room that often looks down its nose at anyone who hasn't made it in the big time yet. But Danielson did have his supporters. Michaels, still an influential force in the company, had trained him, and former WWE Superstar William Regal, his mentor while he was training in the developmental system, offered some sound advice that stuck.
"He told me, 'No matter what you're doing, whether you like it or you don't like it, you go out there and try to make it as good as you possibly can.' If I'm out there, and I'm losing a two-minute match, I'm going to go out there and lose as well as I possibly can," Danielson said. "If all I have is an entrance and 90 seconds a match, I'm going to go out there and do the very best that I can. Sometimes people get demoralized by that kind of stuff. It's a mindset. It's about doing your best.
"I lost I don't know how many matches when I first got into WWE before I ever won one. Until the last few months, I've probably lost 70 percent of the time I'm on TV. But I went out there and gave the best performance possible. And constantly tried to improve. If you do that, people are going to catch on to your passion. And people will catch on to the fact that what you're doing is good. Even if this guy loses, every time he's out there, they can be entertained by what he does."
Bryan, despite his otherworldly skill, was floundering when a life boat appeared from nowhere. CM Punk, Bryan's peer on the independent scene, managed to build himself into a legitimate star. Suddenly, the idea of Bryan making it big didn't seem quite as impossible.
"Punk showed him the door," Rinaur said. "Bryan kicked his way through."
Bryan was given a chance in 2011, working with a pair of physical monsters, The Big Show and Mark Henry. Although not presented on equal footing with the established stars, Bryan did win the World Championship and had the opportunity to wrestle a series of matches that were quite different than the back-and-forth contests his fans were used to.
"I've loved wrestling Big Show and I've loved wrestling Mark Henry and I've loved wrestling Ryback. I like to approach those matches almost like you would approach a fight. The same way Antonio Inoki approached Muhammad Ali. I have to stay away from Big Show punching me in the face," Bryan said with a laugh. " These are huge men. If I were legitimately fighting these men, how would I approach it. You'd have to stick and move. For me, that's very fun.
"Like, Show, he's got boxing training. So at the live events, the closing the distance is fun for me. It's his boxing training versus my MMA training and I'm legitimately trying to kick him and then move as fast as I can one way for another. And he's legitimately trying to catch me.
"It's happened between me and Ryback, who is really athletic, in television matches. Wrestling is entertainment, but some of those low kicks are in there. When you're in the moment and you're legitimately trying to get away, those low kicks are in there. He has a hard time walking after the match and it's like, 'Well, sorry buddy.' It's part of the game. Sometimes a fight would just be easier. There you can just get knocked out and it's over."
His title reign ended with a fizzle at WrestleMania 28 in just 18 seconds, victim of Sheamus and the WWE's plan to elevate the Irishman to a top position in the company. After being emasculated by AJ Lee, Bryan was sentenced to what Meltzer called "tag team purgatory" with veteran Kane. But instead of being a one-way ticket down the card, Bryan shined in his new role. His personality emerged and it became clear he was more than a wrestler—the king of the indys was a sports entertainer as well.
"The Daniel Bryan on TV with Kane is more like the Bryan Danielson I know," Rinauro said. "He's a really funny guy and it shows."
He cleverly incorporated the crowd's propensity to chant "Yes" into his own routine, making it his catchphrase rather than reflex. The audience interaction was the final piece to the puzzle. Bryan, against all odds, looked like the total package.
"Guys with Bryan's reputation as technical wrestlers sometimes have a hard time convincing the WWE they can entertain people, too," Meltzer said. "But Bryan and Kane excelled. And he was really the life of it. Whenever they gave him a chance, he tore the house down. And suddenly, he's one of the most over guys they have. It's Cena, Punk, Randy Orton and him. Of course they're going with him. It's gotten so big they'd be fools not to."
July 22, 2013: Austin, Texas
Finally. Bryan has made it. The week prior, Cena announced that Daniel was his hand-selected opponent for SummerSlam. After more than a decade in the business, Bryan will star in his first pay-per-view main event.
This edition of Raw was devoted to getting him over even stronger. It had to be. After all, as he pointed out, he hasn't always been the most carefully protected star on the roster. Once again, it's another challenge for Bryan to do something slightly different in the ring.
"It's interesting because the goal for every single match might be different," Danielson said. "For example, because WWE is entertainment based and storytelling, it's not always about having the best match possible. Because I've lost so much in the WWE, it was important to build me up as a credible challenger for John Cena at SummerSlam. So going back and forth with every opponent, trading a million different moves, wasn't necessarily what we were going for. The idea is for me to look tough and to look like I have a chance against the guy who's been on top of the mountain for the last 10 years."
What happens Sunday is anyone's guess. The match has been drawn into the never-ending McMahon family saga, perhaps just a jumping-off point for the latest drama between Vince, his daughter Stephanie and guest referee Triple H. But whatever is to come, Bryan is prepared to make the best of it.
"Not only is this the biggest match of my career, this is an opportunity for the paradigm to shift," Danielson said at the SummerSlam press conference.
"John Cena is a certain type of performer. He's very good at what he does. He's been on top for over 10 years, wrestling over 200 shows a year, and that is just a testament to how hard that man works, and his fans love him for it.
"But I am a very different type of performer. The type that the WWE needs right now to change. So I invite everybody to watch SummerSlam to see the direction change. To see the paradigm shift. To see it switch from being Superstars and entertainers to wrestlers."
Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer and the author of Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling. All quotes were gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted.