Daniel Bryan, holding two heavy championship belts, thrust his arms up over and over again celebrating the biggest win of his career. Fans, less encumbered, followed suit, a single word roaring from tens of thousands of mouths, its message one of clarity, encouragement and victory.
"Yes! Yes! Yes!"
For Bryan, it was the culmination of a journey that had taken his entire adult life. Winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 30 was his literal dream, something he'd played out over and over again as a kid, he and his friends creating their own wrestling promotion and leaving suspicious Daniel Bryan-sized holes in his bedroom drywall after a particularly out-of-control match.
But this was not the time for quiet contemplation.
"I was thinking it was finally time to soak it in. 'Now is the time for me to just kind of enjoy it.' But one of the cameramen was right there and yelling, 'Keep yessing. Keep yessing!' So I go, 'Oh, OK,' and keep yessing," Bryan told Bleacher Report months later from his home. "After a little bit I think, 'OK, that's probably enough yessing.' So I'm enjoying the moment and another camera guy goes, 'No, no. Keep yessing.' 'Keep yessing, still?' My shoulder already wasn't working real well because of my neck issues, so it became a real struggle to try to 'Yes!' as many times as they wanted me to 'Yes!'"
Backstage, WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon and her husband, WWE Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative Paul Levesque (a.k.a. Triple H), watched with pride.
Though Batista and Randy Orton had been in the ring with Bryan to close WrestleMania, it was McMahon and Triple H, known as The Authority, who were the true villains of the story. The two wrestlers were proxies, representing the ruling clan's preferred style and brand of wrestling. Their loss was The Authority's loss, too.
And while it's easy to pinpoint this moment as the story's culmination, in the ring at WrestleMania 30, yellow and white confetti choking the air, Bryan's arms exhausted from a forced celebration, its origin isn't quite so clear. In a very real sense, it's a story that began all the way back in 2011, when a wrestler named CM Punk, with one six-minute diatribe, changed the status quo in ways that are still being felt today.
The Rise of the Independents
CM Punk, despite being cast so often as part of a new wave of American wrestling artist, is more appropriately labelled a nostalgist. Instead of the first of his kind, he's arguably the last surviving link to the gone-but-not-forgotten ECW, a legendary independent promotion from the 1990s that pushed the boundaries between fantasy and reality, to the point it was often hard to tell one from the other.
Punk was a WWE talent, in some ways, because of necessity, not choice. In the old days, he would have had a hard time making the roster. He was too skinny, too difficult and too different to earn a spot in a world so often populated by interchangeable talent, each indistinguishable from the next—muscular, tall and pretty.
Punk didn't fit that bill. Veteran Kevin Nash, in an on-screen interview that hit close to home, putting voice to thoughts that had echoed in the heads of many older wrestlers, said Punk resembled "a short-order cook in a Pikeville Waffle House."
"Take a shower, hit the weights and get a clue."
To Punk, this often unspoken train of thought had kept his WWE career from really taking off. He felt that he had the ability to succeed. That the crowd wanted it. And that he could carry his end in both the ring and on the microphone. Instead of being fun, his WWE career was one frustration after another. On June 27, 2011, that frustration exploded on a live episode of Monday Night Raw.
In a legendary interview now known simply as "the Pipe Bomb," Punk broke the fourth wall and addressed his very real concerns with how the WWE operated behind the scenes. Sitting cross-legged on the stage in Las Vegas, Punk rolled the dice that a brutal verbal attack on sacred cows like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Triple H and Vince McMahon himself would vault him to the top and not be the final nail in a coffin of his own making.
At the heart of his complaint was the glass ceiling that he couldn't, no matter how good his performances, manage to break through. It was, he said, his unwillingness to kiss the ring that held him back:
The only thing that's real is me, and the fact that day in and day out, for almost six years, I have proved to everybody in the world that I am the best on this microphone, in that ring, even in commentary! Nobody can touch me!
And yet, no matter how many times I prove it, I'm not on your lovely little collector cups. I'm not on the cover of the program. I'm barely promoted. I don't get to be in movies. I'm certainly not on any crappy show on the USA Network. I'm not on the poster of WrestleMania. I'm not on the signature that's produced at the start of the show. I'm not on Conan O'Brien. I'm not on Jimmy Fallon. But the fact of the matter is, I should be.
Ironically, expressing these deep-seated frustrations propelled Punk into the mainstream, earning him an appearance on Bill Simmons' industry-leading podcast and on Jimmy Kimmel. It was a brilliant piece of wrestling theater, delving inside the business far enough to feel titillating, but not so far that more casual fans would be confused by what he was saying.
That had been the issue for similar wrestling stories attempting to blur the lines between fantasy and reality. One of the early pioneers of that kind of storytelling was Brian Pillman, a high-flying wrestler with a glint of insanity in his eyes. When he unexpectedly told his opponent Kevin Sullivan, "I respect you, booker man," before walking off set, it was designed to be the Pipe Bomb of its time.
For a number of reasons, unfortunately, it was a bomb that failed to detonate.
Yes, Pillman revealed on live television that Sullivan was WCW's booker, the wrestling equivalent of a television drama's showrunner. But he did so in a language few watching understood, leaving fans more confused than enthralled. Hardcore wrestling fans hear and repeat backstage gossip and believe they understand exactly what is happening behind the scenes. And for years, wrestling promoters have tried to use that to their advantage, turning real-life strife into wrestling storylines.
Mostly, it's a strategy that has failed over and over again. They go a bit too far inside, leaving most fans confused about exactly what is going on.
"How many people watching knew what they were talking about? Two percent?" Triple H asked, explaining that 1996 was a different world with different rules for promotion. "You got your insider information off a sheet of paper that was circulated through the mail or off calling Gene Okerland's 900-line for 99 cents a minute. 'Kids, get your parents' permission to call.' They were going places, but no one had any idea what they were talking about.
"We only do that when it makes sense to the Universe and the masses. When we did The Authority angle with Daniel Bryan or even the CM Punk stuff, things going on in the real world were boiling over into the consciousness of the WWE Universe. Our world. Our on-TV world that Raw exists in and Smackdown exists in and all these characters live in. That's when we have to include it in our storylines. When it becomes that much a part of the fabric of the WWE Universe and that fanbase, then, yeah, you can use it for storyline. If not, it just doesn't resonate with them."
For Punk and WWE fans, the Pipe Bomb resonated, a rocket that launched him through the glass ceiling and into rarefied air with the company's top stars. His subsequent WWE title reign from November 2011 to January 2013 lasted 434 days, the longest reign since the days of the immortal Hulk Hogan. For a time, he even challenged WWE Superstar John Cena in merchandise sales, the ultimate standard of success in a business driven by the bottom line.
"When CM Punk cut that promo, it changed people's opinions about a lot of things," Bryan said. "It changed people's opinions about CM Punk. After that promo, he was no longer in the position he was in before that. He cut that promo, and all of the sudden, he was a main event guy. He was never going back. He was a main event guy until the day he left."
It was a paradigm shift that affected Bryan most of all. Although as different as you could imagine backstage—Bryan's smile and easygoing nature the antithesis of Punk's ever-present scowl and aggressive behavior—the two men were contemporaries, survivors of the independent scene. Both were wrestling auteurs, undersized performers who expressed themselves in the ring with an easy grace, fluent in the physical language of their craft.
"CM Punk being a main event guy changed everything," Bryan continued. "Before, the main eventers were guys who were already established. Or they were big guys—muscular guys. They weren't your typical independent wrestler like CM Punk and I are. Him doing that, and forcing acceptance, not from just the fans but also within the company, was huge. If somebody like CM Punk could be a main eventer, fans knew it wasn't a hopeless pursuit to cheer for somebody like him. Fans knew 'If we cheer for him, he can get to the main event.' That really helped me. Without that kind of progression, I couldn't have done it."
Like Punk, Bryan came up on wrestling's independent circuit just as the business changed beyond all recognition. The nationwide system of territories, a dozen or so regional promotions that ruled the industry with an iron grip, was put out of business by McMahon in the 1980s, leaving only the WWE and archrival WCW, a Ted Turner-owned company powered by his television enterprise into a national behemoth in its own right.
When McMahon finally, gleefully, ended WCW's run, he also eliminated the last place for performers to gain experience and notoriety before making their WWE debuts. In short, there was no place for wrestlers to learn their craft—except a handful of independent promotions with a very different vision of what wrestling might be.
"On the independents, it was very important to me to go out there and have the best match possible," Bryan said. "It's about not being satisfied with your previous performances. When you're in the same scenario the next week, ask, 'How can I do that better?' It's all been an evolution of style, really."
Eschewing interviews and bombast almost entirely, Bryan spent eight years on the independent scene telling his stories almost exclusively in the ring. It worked well at places such as Ring of Honor, where fans embraced his cutting-edge ring style, a combination of British, Japanese and American techniques that was truly breathtaking.
But unlike Punk, whose charisma and alpha-male personality seemed custom built for the dog-eat-dog WWE environment, Bryan was deemed unlikely to make the transition smoothly. At just 5'8" and 185 pounds, he was dwarfed by almost everyone he'd stand across the ring from. His style was built for nuance, requiring time to truly tell a complete story.
And, perhaps worst of all, he didn't have the tools to deliver the kind of interviews the WWE required from its top stars. While he seemed to find a home in the promotion, a march to the top seemed unlikely. At WrestleMania 28, he lost to Sheamus in just 18 seconds. His position on the midcard, a life as a supporting act for more appropriate talent, seemed assured.
Demoted but undaunted, Bryan made the most of his new role. It was in WWE's midcard morass, teaming with veteran Kane, that Bryan suddenly found his voice. One of the world's most serious wrestlers discovered he could tickle a crowd's funny bone as well as thrill fans in the ring.
Sure, the jokes were mostly at his own expense; the suggestion that this little guy actually believed he could beat the WWE behemoths was meant to be hilarious. But it worked. While a demotion to the middle of the card could and does hurt many wrestlers, serving as a signal to fans that cheering them was a waste of effort and time, Bryan only solidified his position in the fans' hearts.
"I went out there and gave the best performance possible," Bryan said. "And constantly tried to improve. If you do that, people are going to catch on to your passion. And people will catch on to the fact that what you're doing is good. Even if this guy loses, every time he's out there, they can be entertained by what he does."
Bryan was in a position many had been in before and many will be going forward. The tools were there. The good will of the fans was there. But the WWE roster is filled with talented performers with the potential for success. Bryan may have been at the head of the pack, but he was still very clearly in the pack. He needed that little something to separate him from the rest—and found it when his petulant chant of "No! No! No!" was turned into "Yes! Yes! Yes!"
Soon, like with the "What?" chant that fans borrowed from "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and continue to use more than a decade later, "Yes!" became part of the show. Originally a take on MMA fighter Diego Sanchez's obnoxious ring walk, the chant turned from mocking to supportive when Bryan himself turned from heel to babyface. Unprompted, Bryan started pointing both fingers to the sky in time with the crowds' chants. The fans embraced it and, by extension, so did Bryan, with a passion that never seemed to wane.
The fans have a very powerful voice in the WWE Universe. Their support can make or break a wrestler or a show. And they certainly have their own ideas about which performers deserve the top positions in the company. They speak truth to power, quite literally, every Monday night on WWE Raw. And they were fixated on Daniel Bryan.
Everything he did seemed to work. His carefully cropped beard became a shaggy, unkempt mop of chin hair. Fans loved it. Bryan could do no wrong. Far from giving up on him after the Sheamus debacle, the crowd was determined to embrace him.
"I consider myself very fortunate," Bryan said. "There's nobody on this planet skilled enough to warrant that kind of response. It was a natural and organic response from the fans. The fans really like me. How do you explain that? I don't know...my connection with the crowd and the way the crowd got so behind me and into this whole thing made it seem much bigger than me. I was just this conduit for the fans to be able to get out all these emotions."
Although it sometimes takes a corporate behemoth time to turn the ship around, contrary to fan complaints, the WWE was watching Bryan's ascent closely. He had always been an intriguing performer; now, he was a popular one as well. After 2013's WrestleMania 29, the company turned the power of its storytelling apparatus toward Bryan with one goal—making the most of his great potential.
Bryan's rise to the top of the WWE is well-documented, his battles with The Authority an immediate classic of wrestling storytelling. But ultimately, a wrestling story ends in the ring. For Bryan, that meant not just the WrestleMania 30 main event. It meant Triple H.
Triple H, though he came to stardom in the crash-bang Attitude Era of the late 1990s, found his creative influences in the very different style of previous decades, emulating ring generals like Buddy Rogers and Harley Race. His was a slower, more meticulous style than his running buddy, "The Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels, who tended to grab the crowd by the throat with high-flying action.
If modern wrestling was an action movie, Triple H was a slow-developing drama. It took awhile to build—but the payoff tended to be worth it.
Despite their disparate approaches, moving the story to the ring was comforting for Bryan. He felt at home there. But for Triple H, several years removed from his time as one of the sport's top performers, the pressure was enormous.
"I don't care who you are or how good your are—and I've had this conversation with everybody from the Undertaker to Shawn Michaels—when you've been gone and you come back and step in that ring, the pressure is unbelievable," Triple H said. "Add in a 24/7 job as an executive here, on top of playing a character on the show, on top of training to get ready for the match...a guy like Daniel Bryan, or like me when I was doing it, is wrestling a couple of hundred times a year. You're just in a zone, physically and mentally. Wrestling a guy like that at WrestleMania, I've got to prepare for that like I was [Floyd] Mayweather getting ready to fight [Manny] Pacquiao.
"It's full on, twice a day. I've got to get in shape because I know Daniel Bryan is one of the best guys in the world. And I've got to hang with him. I've got to be in there and do my part. We've told this massive story, and it all hinges on delivering. So I've got to go out there in that first match at WrestleMania and I've got to kill it and put him on that platform."
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. A decade separated their respective primes as professionals. And in a business that is constantly evolving, that can sometimes be insurmountable.
"Triple H and I have very different styles. The fans would not be happy if I did a Triple H match. And likewise, they would not have been happy with Hunter doing a Daniel Bryan match. Especially when it comes to WrestleMania," Bryan said. "And that's where it really gets interesting. To me, the funnest part of wrestling is creatively putting together a match. Especially when you have two guys that have so many different ideas. We had so many ideas to choose from, and we just had to decide, 'What story do we want to tell the crowd?'
"We also knew that I was going on to wrestle a second match. So it couldn't be the kind of match where I'd be nearly dead, because then the next match wouldn't be realistic. But there still had to be some steam there in the first match. It was Hunter bringing all of his great ideas and me bringing all of my great ideas and us saying, 'Let's make this something special.'"
For Triple H, now an old hand, a young wrestler's rush to get in a lot of moves is actually counterproductive to good storytelling. A minimalist, his intent is to make everything he does matter.
"The funny thing about our industry, it's weird, the bigger you get, the less they want to see you do," Triple H explained. "When I was in WCW in the 90s, I used to sit back and watch 'Stunning' Steve Austin work with Ricky Steamboat and do these 30-minute technical extravaganzas every night in front of 30 people. I would flip out. The wrestling nerd in me, as you call it, thought it was awesome. But nobody cared.
"Steve ended up coming here and becomes 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin. Flip forward a little bit, and we're both on top of our games, and I was working with Steve every night. We'd be going 40 minutes at a live event somewhere, but Steve had a famous quote: 'Kid, I've got three moves. Where you put them is your business, but when I've done them, I'm done.' Because he realized it isn't about all those other things. It's about the character and the persona."
Bryan and Triple H reached a middle ground that ended in what Dave Meltzer, wrestling's foremost critic, called a "classic match."
"The way we started the match, with a handshake and me kicking away his hand, and then he goes to the floor—that's not something I would usually start with," Bryan said. "That's more of a Triple H-type thing, something of an older style of starting a match. But it worked great. It's part of incorporating all these little things to tell the story we want to tell."
The two styles melded perfectly. The highlight, for many, was Triple H's Tiger Suplex, a move straight out of the Japanese wrestling tradition Bryan adored. Instead of his usual panoply of knees or his patented sledgehammer blows, he went into his opponent's wheelhouse to devastating effect.
"I can chain wrestle. I can do all that other stuff. I just don't do it," Triple H said. "It's about doing them at the right moment, safely, with a guy you can do them with. And Daniel's a guy you can do just about anything with. He's a little bit like Shawn in that you can do anything with him. So pulling that out of the bag was something I could do."
It was a thoughtful spot, one that played on both Bryan's history and the moment to tell a surprisingly complicated story. Starting with a crossface chicken wing, the two matched movements and wits before Triple H delivered a momentary coup de grace.
"I don't remember Hunter using the crossface chicken wing before, but I think it's a great way to attack the shoulder. It's something I used to use as a finish in Ring of Honor and actually won the Ring of Honor Championship with the crossface chicken wing," Bryan said. "I love it as a way you can use it to attack the shoulder and the way you can fight it off. It wasn't the move of the Tiger Suplex to me that was special. It was the story of him attacking the shoulder and I'm trying to fend off the arm that's attacking my face. And his response to that is dumping me on my head with a Tiger Suplex.
"To me, I'm always looking at all these details and nuances. To me, it's super important to find an awesome way to tell this story. Whether fans pick up on that, I'm not really sure. When we're doing it, though, it makes it something different and something special."
Helmsley, a veteran of dozens of critical matches on the grandest stage, was particularly proud of this one, even before it ever started.
"During his entrance—when the whole crowd was doing the 'Yes' chant—that was the blowaway moment for me," Triple H said. "I can't express to you, for me, as a performer and as a guy who helped craft that story, what it meant. I remember after my entrance and waiting for him the ring with Steph seeing 80,000 people doing the 'Yes' chant and thinking, 'Dude, did this work or what?'
"I lean over to Steph, and I said, 'Look at that.' What a story. And even just thinking about it now, I get chillbumps. To be able to take that 10-month arc of a story and have it pay off for Daniel Bryan—who on every level is just the nicest guy and a guy you just want to help succeed—for every reason you just want him to be big, and then here it is. And man, it's huge. And you're just like, 'Yeah!'"
While the Triple H match was an artistic triumph, there was still one match to go. The Bryan saga ended, finally, with Batista tapping out. The ultimate underdog was now king of WWE.
"I was over-the-moon happy, like, 'Oh my God, what an experience.' I've had some matches in front of big crowds, but they've never been those kind of matches. I was just thrilled by the whole experience," Bryan said. "For me, I don't always think about, 'How was that perceived?' I'll think about that the next day. For me, in the moment, I think about, 'How fun was this?' Right? How much fun did I have while I was out there?
"And it's kind of plagued me a little in my career. Because I care more about how much I'm enjoying it than how much the crowd is sometimes. That's kind of what makes me, me, though. I love to wrestle, and I think people can kind of pick up on that. Being out there and feeling the reactions of those 70,000 people—it was so much fun."
After celebrating in the ring with his sister and niece, after the torture of performing his signature chant with two heavy title belts for nearly 10 minutes, Bryan stepped out of the ring to spend a moment with Connor Michalek, a sick child whose Make-A-Wish dream was to see WrestleMania in person. And then it was finally time to soak it all in.
"The most special part was getting to the back and seeing Brie (his then-fiancee, now-wife) and being able to hug her and share this special moment with her. And then seeing William Regal, who's been my mentor since I was 19 years old. He's seen me through a lot of ups and downs," Bryan said. "I'm 33 now. To see people like that and to see all my friends, to see how happy everybody was, it was just a truly incredible experience.
"It's funny because I brought my sister and my little niece Hayden into the ring. Nobody knew I was going to do that. I didn't know. I thought, 'Hey, this is going to be awesome.' The very next day, as they were getting ready to fly back home, Hayden found one of the pieces of confetti that had fallen down in her bag and says, 'Mommy, this was from Uncle Bryan's little party with his friends.' She just thought, 'Oh that was just Uncle Bryan and his friends having a little party.' I found it very humbling. The main event of WrestleMania is just like a little party."
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.