Confetti flew and fireworks roared inside the Superdome in New Orleans at the close of WrestleMania 30 in April. More than 75,000 people, at least one from each of the 50 states and thousands more from 37 countries around the world, chanted in unison with the unlikely center of attention, Daniel Bryan, inexplicably, almost unbelievably, the new champion of the world.
"A miracle on Bourbon Street," announcer Michael Cole screeched, voice cracking, all sense of objectivity gone in what was essentially an extended morality play. "The impossible dream has become reality."
Spanning more than eight months, Daniel Bryan's struggle to the top and ultimate triumph is one of the greatest storylines in WWE history. And it was one that almost didn't happen, rescued from the abyss by chance, circumstance and, most of all, the fans.
WWE granted Bleacher Report unprecedented access into its normally closed world, detailing how a story like this makes it from the writer's room to the board room and finally into the ring.
For much of wrestling history, the action in the ring was called on the fly, with talent deciding how the match would proceed based on the crowd response and their own sixth sense about what would be effective. Interviews were done in a similar style.
Today, WWE is a completely different beast. Much of a televised wrestling match is designed with the help of agents backstage, former wrestlers with a knack for in-ring storytelling. Likewise, the interviews, once off-the-cuff diatribes, are carefully scripted by a team on the fourth floor of WWE's Stamford, Connecticut, headquarters.
"We have a whole department, a creative writing department. We have more than 20 writers at this particular time," said WWE Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative Paul Levesque (aka legendary WWE superstar "Triple H"). "They come from everywhere. From soap operas to late-night television to movies to theater to former wrestlers. Storytelling is storytelling. Some of them are fans and have a wrestling background. Others don't. They might be really good at the relationship part and somebody else has to help them bring it back to the ring. ... It's a staggering job. The thing is it's never-ending. It's not just they write Monday Night Raw. They write about 10-15 hours on any given week of original content."
It's a job that requires both copious creativity and a nimble willingness to meet change head-on. A new week begins Wednesday, after Raw ends Monday night and SmackDown tapes on Tuesday night, with several meetings to flesh out ideas for the next week. Eventually, the rough ideas end up being presented to the lead writing team and senior brass, including WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon, in a giant conference room with a long sturdy table.
On Monday, after days of development, the script hits the hands of the talent and the road team of agents and experts. For main event angles, top talent like Daniel Bryan get a chance to add their voices to the mix. While he'd normally share his thoughts with a road agent assigned to his matches, working with heavyweights like Triple H eliminates a step in the process.
"When I'm working with Triple H, it's easy," Bryan said. "I just tell Triple H what I think. He's very smart as far as what works. If he's bringing you something, it's usually a pretty good idea.
"He's got years of experience working with these top-level, high-level storylines. My brain doesn't work like that. I was on the independent scene so long, I think in terms of matches. 'Oh, this would be a great concept for a match or this would be a great story within the context of a match.' ... And sometimes we might not necessarily agree, and we'd go and talk to Vince."
Once talent has had its cut, the entire creative team gets a final chance to perfect the finished product. Even then, it's not considered truly complete until it hits the air on the USA Network in front of an average audience of between four and five million viewers a week.
"We're tweaking that thing until it's out the door," Triple H said. "It's not done until it's live. And even then, it's living and changing. [John] Cena can go out for segment one, come back and say, 'I'm not feeling this for later.' And he's right.
"The hardcore fans cringe when we say this. But the reality of it is, the story is the magic...and the truth is, though all of our storylines have to end up back in the ring and the wrestling part has to deliver to the point fans say, 'That was awesome, what a payoff,' we're not boxing. ... It's about characters and their relationship. That's a storyline. We are more like the Rocky movie than we are like a sport. The storylines are what's important."
In the end, every pitch, every discussion between creative equals, every argument, ends up adjudicated by a single decision-maker.
"The final call is Vince," Triple H said. "He gets all these suggestions and ideas, and he weighs in on them. It's a collaborative effort, but there's one general. And that guy makes the final call. There's never an open-ended debate between four people about what should happen on the shows. ... At some point it gets to Vince, and Vince goes, 'Here's what we're going to do.' And that's what we go do."
Listed at a generous 5'10" and an even more generous 210 pounds, and sporting a beard that would make a Brooklyn hipster proud, Daniel Bryan doesn't resemble the wrestlers of our childhood. His muscles, though sturdy, would never be described as bulging. His interviews, likewise, are toned down from the screaming fits that characterized wrestling in the 1980s. His is a different kind of sports entertainment: fast-paced, hard-hitting and realistic.
Many of WWE's most ardent fans believe that cult sensations like Bryan, and their burgeoning popularity, fly under the company's radar—that crowd favorites are somehow invisible to those in authority, or worse, politically unpopular, unable to overcome perceived resistance from decision-makers at the top level. But in our exclusive interviews, a different picture emerged. Contrary to fan complaints, WWE was watching Bryan's ascent closely and waiting for its time to strike.
"Our fans do have a powerful voice. They do influence our decision-making and our storytelling," Vince's daughter and WWE Chief Brand Officer, Stephanie McMahon, said. "When our fans got behind Daniel Bryan in the beginning...that absolutely was a key indicator to us that Daniel Bryan was an A-plus player, not just in our minds, but in our fans' minds.
"He was absolutely a talented in-ring performer. That anyone could see. The fact that our fans were connecting with him on an even more emotional level—and then when we started telling the story the way they got behind him, we just knew that he was the right guy."
In Daniel Bryan, eternal underdog, Triple H knew he had a great good guy. What he needed was a villain worthy of him.
In the end, only one choice made sense—the McMahon family themselves.
Vince, now 69, was no longer a regular television character and couldn't resume that role opposite Bryan full time. Instead, Triple H and Stephanie decided they would step into his shoes, returning from time off-screen to take a lead role on television in much the same way they had behind the scenes. Neither, of course, was any stranger to the ring. Triple H was an icon in his own right, a performer who remained relevant across the eras and over the years.
Stephanie, too, had spent years on camera as part of WWE storylines, later graduating to take over the company's creative department, preparing to one day step forward as the face of what is now a corporate behemoth. But this would be a creative role unlike any she had ever played.
The two saw a pair of distinct but related missions as they decided to go forward with this story. The first was well under way—making fans fall in love with the unlikely Bryan. The harder job, they thought, would be making Stephanie one of the most believable, gleefully evil characters in WWE history, a match for her father in every way. Because while Triple H would be there, his legend and physical presence lending strength and credibility, the true villain was Stephanie.
"It's important to understand I have an advantage over most," Stephanie said. "I literally grew up with my father, who is not just the chairman and CEO, but ultimately the head writer. I had the unique opportunity to really grow and learn from him directly. To hear his feedback on other characters and performers. To ask questions, to not only him but to my husband, who is really an expert psychologist. To learn the whys of what we do. Then you can focus on the how."
Years in the creative department had honed Stephanie McMahon's ability to deliver exactly the kind of character the script called for, shifting effortlessly from noxious charm to sneering superiority with the flip of a mental switch.
"It's really just the experience I've gained while I was off the air," Stephanie said. "I became a mother three times over. I grew as an executive in my corporate role. The boardroom can actually be just as intense as WWE's ring. I think I just really broadened my perspective. I'm able to bring a lot of that experience and a lot of that learning back into my character."
After conceiving the plan, the company put Bryan through a series of challenges that made him a legitimate contender. No longer the unsung hero, he was right in the middle of the top storylines. Vince McMahon himself made a rare return, questioning Bryan's fitness to represent his company and forcing him to prove himself by running a gauntlet of top stars to earn his place in a match against WWE's top star John Cena at SummerSlam 2013.
In storyline, Cena had chosen Bryan as his top contender. In reality, he was taking some time off to deal with a torn tricep. This wasn't just any match—it was the main event. This was the top of the top, a huge leap for both Bryan the character and Bryan the performer.
"To me, the hallmark of a great performer, either in the ring or in an interview segment, is your ability to bring up the people you're working with. I was very lucky, because my natural promo ability is not that great. I'm not overly talkative, and in person, I'm kind of quiet,'" Bryan said.
"Working with John really helped me. He gave me a lot of advice as far as, 'Hey, if it's not you out there, if it's somebody trying to put words in your mouth, it won't sound natural to you. And it won't sound natural to the audience."
Bryan beat Cena cleanly in the center of the ring, something that almost never happens in WWE. It was a career-defining moment—or so it seemed. But just seconds after winning the biggest match of his career, Triple H, the guest referee, kicked Bryan in the gut and slammed him face-first to the mat.
Randy Orton—who had previously won the Money in the Bank event, allowing him to challenge the champion at a time and place of his choosing—then cashed in his guaranteed shot at the title, effortlessly taking the championship from Bryan's hands. Thanks to Triple H's assault, Bryan's new title was ripe for the picking.
He had been champion for less than a minute.
The next night on Monday Night Raw, Stephanie returned with a purpose, establishing herself as Bryan's main opposition. Standing a few inches taller than him in enormous heels, she calmly explained that making Orton the face of the company was simply "what's best for business."
It was a sneering tour de force of condescension, one meant to appeal to anyone who's worked for even a second in today's corporate America. And it was brilliant.
"Stephanie is so good with facial expressions and looking so bratty, it's easy to play off of," Bryan said.
What followed were weeks of televised torture, with McMahon, Triple H and their minions doing everything in their considerable power to break Bryan—and the fans. Stephanie was particularly brutal, attacking his height, looks and capability to headline WWE cards.
"What we do is a form of method acting. We try to make the situations as real as possible," she said. "I know when I'm performing I absolutely try to become my character.''
Her interactions with Bryan felt so personal, so real, that some were afraid she was doing too good a job convincing fans he wasn't worthy of their affections.
"The whole idea is for people to feel bad for him because of what we said. To have sympathy for him and want to see him shut us up," Triple H said. "When we can do something that makes people forget that someone wrote this, that's the art form of what we do.''
In seven shows in a row between August and September of 2013, Bryan was abused in the ring. While some in the wrestling media thought he needed to be thrown a bone now and then and that his push was being mismanaged by WWE writers, it was Bryan himself who insisted on being beaten down again and again.
"I thought, 'If I'm going to be beat up, I need to be really, really beat up.'" Bryan said. "I thought it was important to get what we call heavy heat on me in all of those segments. To get that sympathetic response."
In a strange collision of the real world and the WWE Universe, Bryan's story came to a screeching halt in October 2013. Just weeks after he had failed once again to secure the WWE Championship from Orton, Bryan ran into an even fiercer opponent—the stock market.
The preliminary numbers for SummerSlam were in—and they weren't pretty.
"They didn't buy the attraction," Vince McMahon told WWE investors during a conference call. "And these PPVs are attraction based...SummerSlam was not the right attraction. That was a swing and a miss."
WWE fans, the ones who were invested in the product financially and emotionally, were left unsatiated. Economics, combined with the early return of Cena from a tricep tear, spelled the end of Bryan's run as the top good guy.
There was no feel-good moment. After three months of being stymied at every turn, Bryan never triumphed. Rather than culminate, it was a story that just seemed to fizzle out. On WWE Raw, the attention shifted to Big Show, billed as the world's largest athlete and a company mainstay, who was suddenly the show's protagonist.
The Bryan Movement Lives
The fans, however, weren't willing to let go quite so easily. On the December 9, 2013 edition of Monday Night Raw, in Bryan's home stomping grounds of Seattle, chants for the new superstar were so deafening that he actually broke character and broke out into a laugh as Triple H attempted to speak over the din.
By the Royal Rumble in January, fans had had enough. When Bryan wasn't a surprise entrant in the Rumble, the winner of which goes on to WrestleMania to challenge for the WWE title, the crowd at Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center was livid. They booed Batista's win with a derision that was hard to miss.
"I think the moment that really changed the tide for me was something I actually had nothing to do with. And that was the Royal Rumble match. It was not being in it, and the fans being really upset that I wasn't in it, that changed the course of my trajectory for WrestleMania," Bryan said. "To me, that was the moment. It's funny, and maybe fitting with my personality, that in my big moment I wasn't even there."
It suddenly seemed like it was time to bring Bryan back into the fast lane, to reward him, and his fans, with a high-profile match for WrestleMania, WWE's Super Bowl. There was only one problem: CM Punk.
"Triple H was trying to make it me and him at WrestleMania," Bryan said. "It was originally on the schedule as him versus CM Punk, but Triple H thought that after the story we had over the summer, it would make so much more sense for us to continue that story."
The internal debate ended abruptly with Punk's departure from WWE just 30 minutes before the start of Monday Night Raw on January 27, 2014. Now, there was nothing standing in the way of Bryan's return to the top of the card.
When the company prepared to renew Bryan's push behind the scenes, his Rumble snub became part of the storyline, with Bryan encouraging the fans to continue their vocal support. Dissent from Bryan's aborted run on top and Punk's departure was brewing among WWE fans. Again, Triple H and Stephanie say they saw it as an opportunity in disguise, a chance to make Bryan the face of a fan movement.
"We had the evil corporate guys, and we had the little underdog," Bryan agreed. "I'm quirky and independent, like all the little mom-and-pop shops fighting against the big box stores. It just resonated with people. It's something we're going through as a society."
That anti-authority sentiment among fans led to a mass social media movement that peaked at Monday Night Raw on March 10, 2014 in Memphis, Tennessee. "There were even threats to riot if they didn't get what they wanted,'' Triple H said of the "Hijack Raw" movement fueled by the fans. "We said 'Alright, let's do it. Let's base it around Daniel and go down that road.'"
WWE's challenge was taking that kind of organic energy, even negative energy, and molding it, using it in their storytelling in a way that doesn't diminish its power or feel fake.
"We actually used it as an opportunity to help Daniel Bryan's character," Stephanie said. "When he went out on TV that night, he talked about 'Hijack Raw.' And he encouraged our fans to take control. His character believed there was strength in numbers and that the people could eventually overcome any abusive authority figures. We used that Hijack Raw campaign to bring what appeared to be a horde of fans into the WWE rings and the surrounding areas and holding almost like a sit-in."
Bryan, who kept his hand on the pulse of the audience throughout the storyline, was afraid it might be overkill, believing the angle's success or failure would depend entirely on the mood of the crowd that night. If they weren't willing to play along, well, he was going to look awfully foolish.
"But then, when the people in the ring were so enthusiastic and the people in the building were so enthusiastic, halfway through I thought, 'This is going really well,'" Bryan said.
While the gathering wasn't a truly independent gaggle of fans, consisting in large part of dozens of the 130 WWE employees who staff Raw every week, there were real fans involved. And with non-participants came an element of danger.
"There was a whole unpredictable feel to it because you didn't know what was going to happen,'' Bryan said. "In wrestling, I'm confident I can go out there and put on a match that people will enjoy. But when it comes to some of these story elements, I'm not as confident. Instead of 'Yes,' I'm thinking 'I hope, I hope, I hope, I hope, I hope that these people will like this.'"
After weeks of begging for a match at WrestleMania 30 with Triple H, and being told over and over again that he wasn't worthy of that kind of honor, Bryan's storyline sit-in changed the equation. Finally, after months of nothing but setbacks, Triple H knew the time was right for Bryan to finally get a win under his belt.
Bryan got the match he wanted—then pushed for something better. Instead of an opportunity at revenge, Bryan secured a promise that the winner of the match would be inserted into the night's final match, a bout for WWE's newly unified championship.
There was now the small matter of execution. This was where Bryan felt most comfortable. The pressure now, assuredly, was on the broad shoulders of Triple H.
The two men had never met in the ring. And while that's not always a problem for two seasoned professionals, they come at a match from very different mindsets. Bryan is all action, move after move, an assault on the senses that never seems to cease.
Triple H, at this point in his career, is a minimalist. He can work long and often elaborate matches while often using just a handful of moves. It was an experiment that was bound to be interesting if nothing else.
For Triple H, not doing too much served two purposes. While protecting Bryan for a second match was important, he also wanted to make a point that sometimes, cliche or not, less is really more. That was his imprint on the match, making everything that happened in the course of 25 minutes matter.
The two reached a middle ground that ended in a classic match, the two styles melding perfectly in a match that somehow represented the respective ethos of both men.
It ended, as it had to, with Bryan's hand held high. But just as it had been throughout the storyline, his moment of glory was fleeting. Stephanie slapped Bryan—and slapped him hard.
Though it must have stung, it was just a distraction for what was to come. Triple H pounded Bryan's already injured shoulder with a steel chair. A limp, quivering mass on the ground, Bryan would, as he had throughout, enter the main event as a decided underdog.
Crowning the Champion
After eight months, the story culminated with good triumphing over evil. Could it have ended any other way?
In the end, Bryan made Batista tap out. This time there were no buts, no evil management team just waiting to take it all away. This time it was for real.
"It was all very crafted, and it was an incredible story that took us on quite a ride," Stephanie said. "We're really proud of Daniel, and we're proud of the story we were able to tell."
In some ways, it felt like an ending instead of a beginning. The Daniel Bryan era, even then, seemed unlikely. Every metric, in fact, still pointed to Cena as the true face of WWE, no matter how mixed his response from fans at live events.
But that was boardroom thinking. That was a concern for tomorrow. In the moment, as the fireworks blasted and the confetti fell, it felt like something special. Because it was.
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.