Despite having just undergone neck surgery, Daniel Bryan is still battling to keep the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
WWE is inserting a surprising amount of suspense in what could have just been a simple transaction. Rather than just strip the injured champion, the company has instead decided to turn this moment into an extension of The Authority storyline and another chance to showcase Bryan's defiance.
As Bryan announced to fans on May 12, neck surgery would interrupt his world title reign.
Many assumed WWE would simply take the belt from him. Instead, it has taken a wait-and-see approach to this situation, seemingly stretching out the process in order to allow Bryan a shot to rehab fast enough to avoid losing the title.
Stephanie McMahon said on last week's Raw that she was considering stripping Bryan of the championship. She wanted to wait until she could do it face to face, though.
That moment came on Monday's Raw in Knoxville, Tennessee.
McMahon urged Bryan to do the right thing—willingly relinquish the title. She explained that stripping him of it would simply make him a martyr and get him further support from the crowd.
Bryan refused to hand over the gold. He barked at McMahon, claiming that doing so would negate everything he accomplished to get it. It was, of course, McMahon and Triple H who were Bryan's biggest obstacles to becoming champion.
He wasn't about to let them win.
The bearded warrior gave a strong performance, venting and pouring much himself out in front of the audience. Wrestling media folks took notice.
McMahon has the power to make the title vacant, to hand it to Randy Orton or suspend Bryan for his insubordination. Those options, though, don't have the inherent drama that the performance from Bryan showcased. WWE went this route to add uncertainty and excitement around the situation.
It's the same reason movie villains decide to leave the hero tied to a bomb and leave rather than just kill them and be done with it.
She gave Bryan a choice. At Payback, he can either give up the title, or his wife, Brie Bella, will be fired from WWE.
Suddenly, an event that wasn't supposed to feature Bryan or the world championship gets both. He is now faced with what is so often at the heart of great stories—an impossible choice.
He can remain champ or keep his wife employed. He can't do both. He is forced to lose something dear to him either way.
Imagine instead that Bryan had come out back on May 12 and simply given a heartfelt speech and put his championship on the mat. Bryan wouldn't still be standing in the spotlight as he is now. There would have been far less intrigue surrounding that narrative, and Payback would be minus what promises to be a dramatic bonus moment.
@WWECreative_ish joked about the addition of a non-match to the pay-per-view.
Bryan's unenviable choice isn't headlining Payback, though. The Shield vs. Evolution and John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt are the marquee bouts. The midcard features some promising contests as well including Cesaro vs. Sheamus. The world title decision is an unexpected extra.
WWE rushing into a world title match just to have one at Payback would have been a mistake.
Better to further highlight Bryan and create a cliff-hanger heading into the event rather than throw someone like Big Show or Alberto Del Rio into a fight for the vacant belt. WWE is looking for ways to keep Bryan champion. With as passionate as fans are for him, that's the right move.
Keep him on center stage, neck brace and all.