Daniel Bryan's Unlikely Rise from Indie Star to WWE Champion at WrestleMania

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Daniel Bryan's Unlikely Rise from Indie Star to WWE Champion at WrestleMania
Credit: WWE.com
Daniel Bryan: Superstar.

I never expected this.  I mean, how could you?

Go back about 10 years.  If you watched promotions like Ring of Honor, IWA Mid-South, New Japan Pro Wrestling's short-lived Los Angeles Dojo, etc., then you had a rough idea where the top talent of the time would go in the future.  

CM Punk and Colt Cabana were the guys with the size, speaking ability, charisma and sense of humor to make it in WWE.  Samoa Joe would succeed anywhere that booked him as unstoppable but had the most appropriate dance partners in TNA.  Chris Hero had size, athleticism and a brilliant mind for wrestling, but his look and tendency to overthink his matches was hurting his upward mobility.

"American Dragon" Bryan Danielson was the best of the lot, but he was also the smallest and would probably find success in New Japan Pro Wrestling.  If he ended up in WWE at some point, it would be in the mix as an undercard cruiserweight like Jamie Noble.  

Maybe he'd get the occasional Rey Mysterio feud with a token SmackDown main event in San Diego, but even his biggest fans knew that the chance of him really succeeding in WWE long-term was pretty much nil.  How could he?  He was a short, technical cruiserweight without a tan who had just started to come out of his shell as an in-ring personality a few months earlier.

I was a huge fan, but I had to be realistic...right?

When Shawn Michaels started a wrestling school and independent promotion (Texas Wrestling Academy and Association, respectively) in San Antonio in 1999, not long after his initial retirement, his local TV show quickly became a hot commodity among tape traders online.  There was definitely an eagerness to see his students wrestle, and they showed a lot of promise for guys in their first matches, especially Spanky (Brian Kendrick) and Bryan Danielson as a masked man named American Dragon.  Sure, they were green, but they were a lot better than the vast majority of rookies roaming the indie scene at the time.

Back then, the WWE developmental system was in its infancy.  It was not uncommon for them to sign wrestlers on little more than a recommendation, and that's what they did with Michaels' four best students: Spanky, Dragon, Shooter Schultz, and the late Lance Cade.  They reported to Memphis, Tennessee, where two of the most important moments of Bryan Danielson's career took place:

  1. He unmasked, more or less for good.
  2. He met William Regal.

Regal was in Memphis to get back into ring shape after getting sober and help train the developmental talent.  Training under Regal completely changed Danielson's style.  Before, he was more or less a generic junior heavyweight high flyer.  After, he became much more of a matwork-based technical wrestler who also used a lot of stiff strikes.  Even the hardest of hardcore indie fans weren't really aware of this, though, as very few watched Memphis tapes.  That changed with the 2001 edition of the ECWA's Super 8 tournament.

A Delaware independent promotion run by Jim Kettner, the ECWA maintained a good relationship with WWE.  Christian won their heavyweight championship while under a developmental contract, only one match in the 1999 Super 8 tournament didn't include WWE contracted talent, there were WWE names all over their biggest show in ECWA history, etc.  For the 2001 Super 8, WWE send Spanky and American Dragon.  Fans who had last seen him as a high flying rookie in a goofy mask were in for a shock.

Spanky and Dragon faced off in the first round, wowing the fans with the fast-paced, technical style that they learned from Regal and Robbie Brookside, with Dragon winning.

In the semifinals, he defeated longtime indie star Reckless Youth in one of the best matches of the year, and he had a match of similar quality in the finals, where he lost to Low-Ki.  Now semi-retired, Low-Ki was the perfect opponent for American Dragon: He was about the same size, had a similar style with realistic matwork and stiff kicks, etc.  This show put them both on the map.

That was good for Dragon, because WWE cut him a few weeks later.  With the acquisition of WCW's assets, WWE hired a lot of new wrestlers, and almost everyone in the Memphis-based developmental territory was fired.  

The last episodes of the Memphis TV show featured out-of-character interviews with Dragon, Spanky and others talking about their plans going forward, with Dragon saying he was moving back in with his parents in Washington and going to college.

It's kind of forgotten now that Bryan Danielson did stop wrestling anything close to full time when he got cut.  He'd do some shots for ECWA, or local promotions back home in the northwest like Extreme Canadian Championship Wrestling, but he was concentrating on going back to school.  That didn't last long, as his career quickly fell into place.

In December, All Pro Wrestling in northern California ran their second annual King of the Indies tournament.  In addition to APW's local stars like Donovan Morgan, promoter Roland Alexander brought in the established new breed of indie stars like Dragon, Spanky, Christopher Daniels and Low-Ki, Samoa Joe and Super Dragon from Southern California, and AJ Styles from NWA Wildside in Georgia.  Dragon and Spanky got to do their thing in the first round again, with history repeating itself, as Dragon advanced.

As noted at the time in Figure Four Weekly (F4WOnline.com paywall link), the two-night tournament was re-booked on the fly.  Donovan Morgan was the original planned winner, but he lost to Danielson in the semifinals.  

Dragon beat Low-Ki in the finals to take the tournament, going up 2-1 in their series, as he won their ECWA rematch.  The APW originals like Morgan left after the weekend, so Dragon was also hired to run APW's wrestling school.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the company that produced ECW's "fan cam" videos needed a new flagship product with ECW gone.  They had been shooting some indie shows in the northeast, including ECWA, but none had caught on.

With some of the best talent spread out, they decided to form their own promotion designed to be the one place where you could see the best indie wrestlers in the United States.  That promotion was named Ring of Honor.

The top two matches for the debut show in February 2002 were Eddy Guerrero vs. Super Crazy and American Dragon vs. Low-Ki vs. Christopher Daniels.  To make a statement about what the future held, the three-way match went on last as the main event.  Independent wrestling would never be the same.

Over the next few years, "American Dragon" Bryan Danielson (he started using his real name in late 2003) was a consistent presence in the main event scene on ROH shows.  He was a little more of a special attraction than most of the wrestlers, though, as he'd often leave for months at a time to go on extended tours of Europe and Japan.  Not only did he stay fresh in a company that could get fairly homogeneous, but he was usually a better wrestler when he came back.

Wrestling in Japan against his heroes in front of big crowds instilled a visible confidence in Danielson's work that he didn't have before.  He was clearly the most talented wrestler in the business, and he didn't wrestle in a vacuum like some dry technical wrestlers are accused of doing, but there was something missing.  

In England, he would spend much of his time not only learning more about the old-school British style, but he got a very different type of experience.  At the "holiday camps" like Butlins, he'd work several times each week in front of halls full of little kids and their parents, which dramatically improved the personality aspects of his work, especially working a crowd.

Starting with his match with AJ Styles in ROH in November of 2003, which came after one of his sabbaticals to travel the world, it was crystal clear that Bryan Danielson was the best wrestler on the American indie scene.  He was just too good, too smooth, too well-rounded.  While you'd find wrestlers better at certain aspects of his game (Chris Hero was better at theatrical selling, for example), he was far and away the best all-around package.

He'd reinvent his image from time to time.  He first grew a ridiculous beard 10 years ago in 2004 during a period in which he'd also wear a hooded cape in the ring.  He added some shtick as a heel, like screaming "BEST IN THE WORLD!" (yes, he did that first, too) and "I'VE GOT 'TIL FIVE, REFEREE!" when breaking in the corner.  Generally, though, he was the same wrestler, just getting better and better, but moving around and knowing when to take breaks if he got stale.

In 2009, he had done everything he could in the business without going to WWE, and he made an effort to get signed.  After a frustrating series of medical tests that's chronicled in the first Wrestling Road Diaries documentary, he did indeed sign with WWE, starting his current run in the company as Daniel Bryan (while he was briefly fired in 2010, he was rehired before the 90 day non-compete period ended, so he was never actually out of WWE).

The crazy thing about Bryan making it as far as he has is that even his biggest fans never expected him to get as far as he did.  Sure, everyone knew he'd make it to WWE and do well there, but CM Punk was the great talker of the golden age of indie wrestling, so nobody expected Bryan to be a WrestleMania main-eventer, much less the figure the show is built around.

Still, it was his connection with those fans that got him where he is now.  Once they got a taste of him as a main-event-level star in early 2012, they wanted more.  When he was squashed by Sheamus, they revolted at the idea of him being treated unfairly, and that got the ball rolling on what happened two years later.

When I was at the WrestleMania press conference in New York last week, Bryan was asked about the fans getting him where he is now.  I'll let his answer speak for itself:

The connection between [me and] the fans...you can't create it.  I can't go out there and do something, and tell you "this is how you create this connection."  You can't do that.  It just happens organically.  It's not anything that I did, it's just something that happened.

If you've ever read Stephen King, his novels, I've never read any of his novels but I've read his book about writing, and he talks about the process of writing.  He essentially lets his brain take him where the story wants to go.  It's interesting because that's just a muse.  He worked hard at writing, but a lot of writers work hard at writing, and for some reason they don't come up with the ideas that Stephen King does.  It's not anything that he has actively done other than keep writing.

Same thing with me and wrestling, it's not anything that I've actively done, it just happened.  There are a million guys who have worked just as hard as I have, who are very good in the ring, who are way better than me at talking, and stuff like [doing media appearances], where there wasn't that connection, and you can't explain it.  It's mystical, it's like the muse for writers.

"Mystical" is a pretty great way to describe his connection with the fans last night at WrestleMania 30.  Nobody else doing anything else could have woken the fans up after they were stunned into silence by the end of The Undertaker's streak.  Only Daniel Bryan overcoming adversity, taking out The Authority and cleanly winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship could have done it.

Well done, sir.

All quotes were obtained firsthand.  David Bixenspan is the lead writer of Figure Four Weekly. Some of his work can be seen in Fighting Spirit Magazine.

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