A neck injury has become the surprise threat to Daniel Bryan's hold on the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
Rather than panic, WWE is smartly playing the wait-and-see approach. Not vacating the title just yet is a sign of confidence in the star and that the company is in tune with the audience in this case. Fans want Bryan to be WWE's kingpin, even if they have to wait for him.
Bryan announced on Monday's Raw that he will need neck surgery and will be out indefinitely.
Officials are reportedly leaning toward keeping the WWE title around Bryan's waist if all goes well with the procedure.
F4WOnline, via Marc Middleton of Wrestling Inc, reports the following:
There was talk backstage at last night's RAW that WWE World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan won't be out of action but for 1 or 2 months. The feeling was that WWE likely won't strip him of the title if he's out just 1 or 2 months.
Middleton later added the following word from PWInsider, via Wrestling Inc:
Bryan has a broken neck. It was described as a minor break. Bryan will be undergoing a simple procedure this Thursday, not something complex like neck fusion surgery.
The belief is that he will be out of action for 6-8 weeks.
The situation will remain uncertain until after Bryan visits the operating table and the surgeons have a good look at the injury. If Bryan is indeed out less than two months, it's the right move to have him keep the title.
After over half a year of fighting off The Authority and trudging through doubts about whether he was big enough to be a marquee player, Bryan's first sustained reign as WWE champ began after WrestleMania 30's main event. The Bryan era has featured a defense against Kane at Extreme Rules and is now already in jeopardy.
There is no other Superstar with Bryan's momentum right now. Replacing him would be backtracking.
John Cena didn't spend the last eight months gathering steam by way of a story about a likable rebel. Randy Orton isn't getting the type of thunderous reactions that Bryan routinely does. Bryan has been the central figure in an angle designed to build him up to this point.
Now that he's arrived on the mountaintop, pressing "pause" on his story is a far better option than replacing him.
If Bryan will be out until after SummerSlam, the situation changes, but missing Payback and Money in the Bank isn't that big of an issue. Payback already features two headlining matches in Evolution vs. The Shield and Bray Wyatt vs. John Cena. Money in the Bank has the titular Ladder match as a possible main event.
A few less bouts with Kane is no big loss, but giving up on Bryan would be.
WWE found itself in a similar situation not long ago. Near the end of 2012, CM Punk's title reign was interrupted by injury. Punk was supposed to take on Ryback at TLC but underwent knee surgery instead.
WWE kept the title on Punk, preserving a title bout between him and The Rock at 2013's Royal Rumble and yielding the spotlight to The Shield.
That's the smart route this time around as well. Punk was hot at the time, stretching his time with the belt into historic territory. Stripping him would have been a letdown, just as it would be with Bryan.
The better story is for Bryan to hold onto the WWE title for a sustained amount of time. Should Brock Lesnar, Cena or some emerging star defeat him, fine, that's plenty entertaining as well. Having him vacate the championship, though, is an underwhelming way to end his quest for WWE supremacy.
Until WWE is forced to take that road, it's best to pay more attention to Wyatt vs. Cena and The Shield vs. Evolution for now.
The company has a rare talent with a deep connection to the crowd in a position his fanbase has been demanding he get. It's best to keep him there, even if it keeps WWE's top prize inactive for a short period.
Here's hoping for a speedy recovery for Bryan—and not just so he can start kicking folks in the chest again.