A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to former WCW wrestler and booker Kevin Sullivan. Ricky Steamboat was the topic of conversation, and he had mentioned that he felt Steamboat was one of the three greatest babyfaces in the history of professional wrestling.
When I put him on the spot about the other two, I was surprised by the answers: Mike Graham and Brad Armstrong. Then Kevin mentioned that one of today's top stars is right up there.
"There are guys today I watch, and I'll give you an example: That Daniel Bryan. I watched Daniel Bryan a couple of years ago [the first time] he made Kane tap out. I'm sure Bryan isn't any bigger than I was in my day, you know what I mean? [Still,] I thought 'That's kind of hard to take.' Then I saw the go-home show [for WrestleMania 30]. ... [After he clears the ring of Batista, Randy Orton and Triple H,] all you see is Bryan on the top of the ropes going 'YES! YES! YES!' with the whole crowd behind him. That kid has intensity that you can't teach. That kid could draw money in any day, any era."
Sullivan agreed with what many have noticed as of late watching Bryan, especially in non-wrestling environments such as Total Divas, the WrestleMania 30 press conference and the Journey to WrestleMania documentary: Daniel Bryan (or maybe, in this context, I should say Bryan Danielson) comes off as the most genuine personality in WWE.
"Bryan has this thing that he can connect with a kid that wrestles in high school or the guy that sites around drinking beer, you know what I mean? He has this thing where I'm sure the kid's no dummy, he could talk to you about the rivers and the whole ecosystem out here [in Washington state]. This kid fits in everywhere!"
Being that, as he put it, "Bookers never die, they just write their own ending," he explained his own long-term ideas for Bryan to me. One of the keys is that Bryan has to get clear, convincing wins. "To go with Bryan, he's going to have to be a knight. He's going to have to slay a dragon; he can't slay lizards, he can't escape the dragon's den too many times with the dragon still alive, because he needs to save the village."
Later, he explained what he felt would really put Bryan over the top, both in terms of his overall presentation and the merchandise WWE could design for him.
"Every time he goes to wrestle, he's hurt some ribs, or liver, or spleen, or a hangnail or a hemorrhoid or something," Kevin explained to me. "He's gotta f---in' fight from the bottom! He'd become a great champion. The 'Yes! Yes!' T-shirts sold, the "No! No!" T-shirts sold...what about 'No Excuses?' When someone says to him 'Oh, you don't have to wrestle tonight, you're not gonna pass the physical,' and he says 'No excuses.' I think that would be a huge way to do it."
Between hearing him casually book months of compelling storylines for the WWE main event scene as easily as he would order lunch among other bits of wisdom he dropped throughout our conversation, I was in awe. I've interviewed plenty of wrestlers, but until that day, I had never talked to someone who would so casually drop pro wrestling genius on me.
As much fun as I had at the Legends' House media lunch the week prior, I was disappointed that Pat Patterson wasn't there, as I had been eagerly anticipating picking his brain. Talking to Sullivan helped make up for that.
The day after I talked to Kevin Sullivan, WWE.com announced that Bryan's father, Donald "Buddy" Danielson, had passed away suddenly at the aged of 57. At least in part to allow Bryan and his wife Brie to fly to Washington to be with his family after the first segment, the show opened with Kane attacking Bryan and injuring him with three tombstone piledrivers.
Last week on the "go-home" episode of Raw, Bryan returned in a neck brace and made it clear that he's still wrestling Kane at Extreme Rules. Even when Kane attacked again and reaggravated the injury, he was refusing to let the doctor examine him and promising he'd be at Extreme Rules to defend his title and get revenge.
It took a few minutes after Bryan's last segment on Raw this past week for it to sink in. It wasn't exactly the same, but for Bryan's first program after winning the title, WWE was more or less following the same template as Sullivan laid out.
His first opponent is a dragon, and if he doesn't slay the dragon, it will weaken him in the eyes of the fans. He's going into their match injured and is fighting any attempts to postpone it while also refusing to use the injury as an excuse.
This is exactly what needs to be done. Daniel Bryan not a plucky underdog anymore. He's a tough guy, tougher than anyone else in WWE, and he's showing it by refusing to back down while being badly injured. Sunday night, at Extreme Rules, he's going to put on his suit of armor, and he's going to slay that dragon, because we can't have it any other way.