Undersized, outmuscled and lacking the seemingly requisite tan, Daniel Bryan, though obviously talented, didn't appear to have the skill set needed to survive in wrestling's major leagues. While his gift for constructing incredible matches in the ring guaranteed him a spot on the roster, he was relegated to the middle of the card. An immense talent—but one too flawed to make the perilous climb to the top.
But a funny thing happened on his path to being just another guy. Along the way, Bryan managed to connect with fans in a way few have in the modern history of the industry. Routinely, night after night, Bryan received the most consistently positive response, bigger, louder and more robust even than wrestlers presented as much bigger deals on television.
In time, WWE took note. At WrestleMania 30, Bryan triumphed against all odds, in both storyline and real life, to become WWE champion.
In May of 2014, however, just as his story was getting started, Bryan was forced out of action with a lingering neck injury. A surgery that was supposed to keep him on the shelf for eight weeks kept him at home for eight long months instead.
On Thursday, he makes his much anticipated return to Syfy, main eventing WWE SmackDown as the popular cable show moves to a new night. Bleacher Report caught up with him for an exclusive interview about what exactly happened and what is to come.
Bleacher Report: Wrestling fans rarely agree about anything. But I think, to a fan, everyone believes it's pretty great to have you back. Are you as excited as we are?
Daniel Bryan: I'm so excited (laughs). You know, I don't remember being this excited in a very, very long time. There's nothing I love more than getting in the ring and wrestling. And it's been a long, long eight months being out. I can't wait to come back.
B/R: I remember hearing you were going to be out for a couple of months. And then all of the sudden, a couple of months turned into eight months and even rumors you'd never return at all. It sounds like quite a journey. Can you walk me through how we ended up where we are today, with you returning to SmackDown this Thursday?
Bryan: It actually happened in the summer of 2013. I was in a match with Randy Orton and did a suicide dive out of the ring and missed. My head hit the guardrail, and I felt a shooting pain go down my arm.
But I thought, "Ah, I'm not really worried about it." Later in that match, though, I did a dropkick off the top rope, and when I landed, I literally couldn't feel my arms, and I couldn't get up. It's what's called a stinger, and after that match, they had me go and get MRIs, and I had a bulging disc in my neck.
That's not unusual for wrestlers, but what was happening is that it was closing the space around the nerves in my neck, which was sending shooting pains down my arm.
B/R: That wasn't enough to stop you. I think we all remember your path to glory at WrestleMania 30. Was there something that made you reconsider just working through it?
Bryan: Around May of 2014, after all the WrestleMania stuff, all of the sudden it went from shooting pain down my arm to weakness. When that happens, that's when you need to fix it right away, or it could be permanent.
B/R: You're a professional athlete. What constitutes weakness?
Bryan: Like, it was so weak—Brie and I don't have automatic locks. We actually have to turn the key in the car to open it. And I was so weak I couldn't even unlock the car door.
Bryan: Yeah. And that's when they said, "No, you need to go get surgery now so that this doesn't get any worse. So I went to get the surgery and they were expecting only a six- to eight-week recovery. But the strength just wasn't coming back.
The theory was the nerve had been crushed for so long it might not come back. So we were trying all these different things. There's a nerve that runs from your neck all the way down to the end of your hand. So there was talk of a second surgery on my neck, there was talk of a surgery on my arm, on my elbow.
There was just so much weakness and sometimes this shooting pain. But the doctors really couldn't agree on what to do. I was set to do the elbow surgery because we couldn't think of anything else to do.
B/R: Obviously that didn't happen. What did?
Bryan: I saw a naturopath who works with Carson Palmer, a quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals who was having a horrible shoulder problem. He could barely even pick up a football. Then, all of a sudden, he was able to play.
That's because he saw this guy in Denver who does something called "Muscle Activation Technique." And so I went and saw that guy, and for the first time in months, after just one visit, I had strength in my arm.
B/R: That was all it took?
Bryan: It only lasted about five days. But then I went and saw him a second time, and it's lasted all the way until now. It's been very interesting, very confusing, very frustrating. But the last month has been very hopeful.
I was at this point where I wondered "Man, is this ever going to get better?" I was actually facing the fact that I might not be able to come back to wrestling. And then it's almost like a miracle healing. And that's been pretty exciting to me.
B/R: What do you think it is about professional wrestling that makes guys so susceptible to injury just as they finally reach the pinnacle of success? I think of Paul Orndorff, just as he gets his big chance against Hulk Hogan in 1986. Of Stone Cold Steve Austin as he prepared for his run on top in 1997. For you it was in 2013, right in the middle of your greatest run. What is it about rising to the top that is so fraught with danger?
Bryan: You know what? I've actually never thought about it like that. But that's interesting. And I think it's because you have to work so hard to get to the top.
I trained with Shawn Michaels, and I started when I was 18 down in San Antonio, Texas. And one of the things that Shawn told me was that it's much easier once you actually get to the top than it is to get there. Because you have to work so hard to get the fans to appreciate you. To cheer you or to boo you.
In working that hard, a lot of times that's where the injuries come. When you get to the top, you still have to work hard. But you don't have to constantly prove to the fans that you can be a top star.
B/R: You went to Denver and have been given a second life in your wrestling career. But I assume you can't just waltz back into the ring and be Daniel Bryan. What have you done to prepare your body for being a professional wrestler again?
Bryan: I've been doing a lot of jiu-jitsu and kickboxing. To me, that's what transfers over best to wrestling. Because what we do is a lot of up and down, right? It's a lot of falling, it's a lot of getting up. It's a lot of jumping.
But there is a saying that goes a little something like this: "Nothing prepares you for wrestling like wrestling." If you get on a treadmill and say, "Oh, I can run 20 minutes and 10 miles per hour," that's not the same as going out and doing an eight-minute match.
B/R: Any chance you were working with another certain pro wrestler with similar interests? Or was this down in Phoenix?
Bryan: I was working at the MMA Lab out in Phoenix. And I was doing that before I was even healing. This was kind of my thought process: "Maybe even if my strength doesn't come back, maybe I can still come back and do things that don't require my right arm."
Bryan: Right? So I was working on this file of stuff I could do. Because normally, I don't pick people up anyway in my style of wrestling.
To me, wrestling is the ultimate martial art. If you focus on the art part of martial arts, it's a very artistic expression of combat. How can I express myself in this creative fashion where it's still believable, where the fans would still enjoy it, without using my right arm? It's almost like a fun problem to try to explore.
B/R: It's a fun problem you're glad you don't have to solve anymore.
Bryan: Obviously, I'm thrilled I can use my right arm again. (Laughs).
B/R: Do you think you will mitigate some of the risks now? Will you eliminate some of the daredevil things you do, like the diving headbutt or missile dropkick off the top rope? Or do you think we'll see the same Daniel Bryan?
Bryan: It's hard for me to say. It's all going to depend on how my body feels.
This has happened to me before when I was on the independents. I would go away—I wouldn't get hurt or anything—but I'd go England for six months. And in that time period, I would be changing my style.
So, I've been home for eight months, watching WWE TV and seeing what I need to do to make myself better and make myself different than anyone else.
B/R: A change was coming, regardless of physical limitations?
Bryan: My style was going to change anyway. But it's true, I'll be asking myself, "Do I need to do the top-rope dropkick and all that stuff every night?" (Laughs). Probably not. It's hard, though, because I think that's exciting.
But there are other exciting things I could do that won't put as much pressure on my neck. I've been doing exercises to strengthen my neck, but I won't really know how it's going to feel until I get in there and do it.
B/R: I would imagine you take some comfort in having a regular opponent like Kane for your first match back Thursday on SmackDown. Or is it difficult because you've had so many matches it might be hard to give people something fresh?
Bryan: I'm not worried about that. Especially now. I might worry about that in three or four months. But my brain works in wrestling. That's how my brain thinks. It's frustrating being at home, because that's how I creatively express myself.
I've been coming up with wrestling ideas my entire adult life. And I've been doing that for the last eight months, too—I just haven't been able to do any of them.
So, no. I'm not worried about running out of ideas and doing the same old stuff. Because it's not going to be the same old stuff. I'm not going to be the same old Daniel Bryan. I'm going to be a different Daniel Bryan. A Daniel Bryan better suited to what's going on in the WWE right now to make things more exciting and different.
B/R: Finally, they are building this entire campaign around you. Launching SmackDown's move to Thursday on the strength of your return. How does it feel to come back after all this time and still be right at the top? That has to be a good feeling?
Bryan: It's pretty crazy to me, this whole thing with the "Yes Movement." A lot of it is just luck. Why did the people choose me? As opposed to choosing Cesaro, or choosing Dolph [Ziggler], or any number of the great superstars we have in WWE?
For some reason, they specifically got behind me. And they've been with me for this entire time. Even during this time off.
B/R: They didn't forget about you.
Bryan: They're constantly reminded of me. That's different than when someone like Sheamus is out with an injury. When someone else is out, there's just not any mention of them.
It helps that my wife is with WWE. When Brie comes out, a lot of times she'll get "Yes" chants. And so they are reminded of me. When The Authority comes out, people are reminded about what they did to me. That's helped keeping my name out there.
A lot of that is just luck and our fans being awesome. There are a lot of guys who have been top guys and don't acknowledge the luck factor. (Laughs).
B/R: But sometimes success really is beyond your control?
Bryan: It takes a spark. It takes something that captures the fans' imaginations. And if I knew what that was, everybody would have it. But I don't know what it is! (Laughs).
I can't explain it. If I could, I would tell everybody, everybody would be super popular, and the whole thing would be through the roof. It doesn't happen like that, though. It's every bit as big a mystery to me as it is to people who look at me and wonder, "Why in the world are people supporting this guy? He looks like a goat."
I'm not big. I'm not this. I'm not that. There must be something relatable about me that the fans enjoy. That's one of the things I love about this. They have their own voice. As much as you want to tell them what to think and how to react, you can't.
I main evented WrestleMania 30, not because I was chosen to. It's because the fans would accept nothing else. And there's nowhere else, in entertainment or in sport, where the fans have that kind of voice. To me, that is very powerful.
Daniel Bryan returns to the ring Thursday against Kane on WWE SmackDown at 8 p.m. on the Syfy network.
Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer and the author of Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling. All quotes were acquired firsthand.