WWE Character Psychology 201 Case Study: Daniel Bryan, Turning Luck into Proof

Marc MattalianoCorrespondent IIINovember 8, 2011

WWE Character Psychology 201 Case Study: Daniel Bryan, Turning Luck into Proof

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    During last class period, we discussed John Cena, and how his past fury and initiative have, in recent years, turned drastically downward into a severe lack of drive.

    The take-charge attitude he once perpetuated to make things happen for himself had whisked away and he transformed into a sedate, nonviolent, nice guy that drapes himself in mountains of his own merchandise.  The only remnants of his "former life" as the Doctor of Thuganomics have been his jean shorts and sneakers, and even those are now fading, as he's retired the jorts in favor of camo shorts.

    Clearly, vast changes to his character have been made.  The goals or intentions of which we may never know for sure, but one thing is clear: John's not the same guy that most of us rooted for once Rock and Austin had faded from our screens.

    In a similar manner, I'd like to examine the case of Daniel Bryan, which in recent weeks has become a hot topic of contention.

    I want to briefly point out that most of this speculation is rooted mainly in Bryan's time in WWE, whether in NXT or on SmackDown, so while John Cena's a much easier case to investigate, as he's coming up on the 10-year anniversary of his debut match on SmackDown, Bryan has far less to examine.

    He may be a year on WWE programming, but he's still somewhat new to the main roster.

Sudden Change Tends to Suggest Mental Instability

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    Lately, many have attempted to find out what goes on inside Bryan's mind, if for no other reason than his lack of promos on TV hasn't given us too many moments to read between the lines.  I do still remember when he told Cody that his jock strap belonged in his pants and not on his face, though.  People say Bryan isn't talented on the mic, but that moment will stick with me as a classic for him.

    However, as with many superstars who don't get much time on the microphone as of late, one only has to go as far as WWE.com to get better source material.

    Up now on the website (and shown here from YouTube) is a video of Bryan being interviewed about the fallout of the World Heavyweight Championship match at Vengeance between Mark Henry and Big Show.  The interviewer then asks Bryan, as he did once before, why he didn't take the opportunity to cash in the briefcase on a prone and nearly unconscious Henry.

    Bryan responds by reiterating his claim that he will be cashing in for a match at WrestleMania , and while he has some respect for guys like CM Punk who have done things like that before, he did point out that if he were to take advantage of such a moment, it make him a "hollow champion."

    Also addressed at the end of the interview was the rumor that he would not be shaving his beard until he cashes in his briefcase contract, which spawned a very interesting rant out of nowhere that you have to see to believe.

    One thing I feel the need to stress here is how one communicates their desires.  In wrestling, the best ways to express what one wants is to either beat some up, march into the boss' office or grab a microphone and hold the ring hostage.

    Aside from scant moments, Daniel Bryan hasn't done any of these at any length.

    I can't remember any time he's barged into anyone's office, he's never held the ring hostage because he's had something he desperately needed to get off his chest, and if he's beaten anyone up out of nowhere, it doesn't seem to have made a lasting impression.

    Let's take a look back at Bryan's history in WWE, and see if by examining where he's been, we can learn where he might go.

Learning from the Past, Pt. 1: Maivia-Esque to One-Night Heel

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    In season 1 of NXT, Bryan was one of the smaller more timid competitors, and with Michael Cole and the Miz constantly berating him, he was seen as an underdog right away.  His poor ability to rack up wins held him back, even though much attention had been paid to his long wrestling background, and he was eliminated fairly quickly which, no disrespect to him as a competitor, wasn't a big surprise.

    The next time we saw him, Nexus first appeared on Raw and destroyed everything in their path.  Seeing as Bryan had been abused by his NXT Pro, much like Darren Young, Skip Sheffield and even Wade Barrett to an extent, the angst on the part of the rookies made a lot of sense to me.

    They wanted respect, and not only did they have to put up with being on a "reality style game show" just so ONE of them could win a contract by beating out the others, but even if they got a contract, they'd have to contend with the invincible wall known as John Cena if they wanted to really make it to the top.

    Bryan was released shortly after Nexus' attack.  Wade Barrett's kayfabe version of the story is that Bryan showed remorse for what he had done, and Nexus didn't tolerate remorse.  However, the unofficial story says that he allegedly broke PG television policy by choking announcer Justin Roberts with his tie in the infamous "tiegate" (seen at around 3:29 on the video here) and that's why he was released.

    Regardless of the hows and whys, that night he played a vicious heel, just like the rest of the Nexus members.  Despite any previous notion of what kinds of characters they could be during NXT Season 1, each one effectively turned heel that night, including Bryan who was seen as something of a generic, good-natured rookie when he debuted on the show.

    Much like another blue-clad superstar we know from the past, who fans chanted they wanted dead.

Learning from the Past, Pt. 2: Face Return at Summerslam and How Sheamus Relates

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    His absence left something to be desired, but when he returned at Summerslam 2010 as the final member of John Cena's team, he arrived to positive critical acclaim.  Many were happy to see him back, as well as in place of the United States Champion at the time, The Miz.  Bryan put up a decent showing, but was eliminated from the team fairly quickly.

    In proceeding weeks, The Miz was quickly inspired to stick his former NXT rookie and attack him from behind whenever he could.  Once Bryan was able to fight back, he challenged Miz for his United States title and took it successfully.

    Just looking at what had occurred for Bryan up to this point, you ask most expert wrestling analysts and they'd say, "so far, so good!"  Made a few waves, got people talking with the inclusion in a sizeable story angle, and proceeded up to the next rung by capturing a secondary title.  Off to a decent start, in a logical yet slow progression toward the main event.

    I mean, compare that to where Sheamus was, and you get a very different booking picture.

    Sheamus made waves in ECW, he arrived on Raw and beat Cena in a Tables match, couldn't hold onto the belt, got it back, held it a little longer, dropped it to Orton at Night of Champions and never got it back after that.  Up until then, Sheamus could be seen as something of a fluke, a paper champion without any ability to win crucial matches clean and was just used for his unique look to garner easy heat from fans.

    It's taken a King of the Ring win, a short stint as United States Champion (winning it from Bryan, oddly enough), a draft to SmackDown, a brief interjection into the World Title picture, and a face-turning challenge against the World's Strongest Man to finally get people back into the idea that Sheamus is really a force to be reckoned with.

    Meanwhile, Bryan showed promise in NXT despite his losses and proved his worth by cleanly taking Miz's US Belt.

    However losing the belt to Sheamus shortly after, the botched WrestleMania 27 dark match battle royal where he could potentially regain it, and subsequent decisive loss in his rematch for the US Title on free TV made people doubt Bryan's worth once again.

Learning from the Past, Pt. 3: Mr. Money in the Bank Takes a Nose Dive in Wins

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    As luck would have it, opportunity would again knock for Bryan.

    He was a surprise winner of SmackDown's blue Money in the Bank briefcase, leading many to believe that Bryan's short time meddling in the mid-card may come to an abrupt end as no holder of a briefcase has ever officially failed in a cash-in attempt.  They've been stopped before officially cashing in, but any time they've cashed in for an impromptu match that saw a bell ring, everyone's won the sought after title.

    Sadly, and to the confusion of many, his Money in the Bank win would lead to a losing streak over the course of many months.

    We can sit here for hours debating the motivation behind "Creative" and "Management" booking him to lose so frequently, especially after his threat to cash in his contract in advance for a World Title match at WrestleMania 28.

    Ultimately, such debate will lead nowhere without accepting that Bryan's booking is 100% human.

    Like many in his position, a star in other promotions that arrives to the big game, it can be understood that Bryan's ability simply went to his head and he's gotten sloppy.  After months of struggle, winning Money in the Bank was enough validation for him to sag and not pay attention.

    It's a completely human reaction to pressure, expectation and overconfidence.

    Yes, outcomes are fabricated and matches are usually scripted down to the move.  But if we put aside all our knowledge that WWE writes the matches out and plans every event and outcome, we see a sad story of a humble guy with a silent arrogance.

    He won Money in the Bank!  He achieved what very few had done!  He was on top of the world!  He can't be touched!

    Clearly, some of those things have been wrong, and he's quickly learning the value of letting his guard down when achieving big things.

Diagnosis: Bryan's Overconfidence Is Showing Him the Meaning of Consequence

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    In my previous Character Psychology article, John Cena's diagnosis came out the exact opposite.  His meteoric rise to superstardom and nearly untouchable success in WWE led to the stagnation of his character and the loss of interest of many critical fans by virtue of the fact that he'd become an entirely different person.

    Nay, not only a different person, but an often hypocritical ideal that can only be found in politics and the Bible.

    Here, a great success has led to a wave of loss, and in the ashes, we're seeing the birth of real character.  Daniel Bryan started much the same way Rocky Maivia did.  A smiling good guy, eager to get over with fans, a guy excited to be part of the most profitable wrestling promotion in the world.

    And as odd as it feels to make such wild comparisons to The Rock of all people, Bryan's problem has been simply similar to the future Hall of Famer's beginnings.

    Since arriving, Bryan hasn't had much to immediately make him stand out.  It was hard to look away from characters like The Rock and Stone Cold, and many of us feel bad ignoring Bryan, due to his exceptional wrestling ability, but until he really wows us, there hasn't been much to look at.

    At least, in the past, there hasn't been much to focus on.  Nowadays, there's lots.

    Before, I made the mistake of comparing Bryan to guys like Chris Benoit, solely because they had very no-nonsense demeanors in the ring, however Benoit kept that demeanor even when not between bell rings.  Bryan usually came to the ring all smiles, and became all business once the bell rang.

    Now, I don't feel so bad making that comparison.  Bryan is one case where losing for such a long time and being called on it so often has really caused him to take his matches seriously and not screw around.

    Just look at how Bryan's entrance has changed in this video.  He used to smile when strolling down the ramp.  Nowadays, he strides to the ring with a stern look on his face, ready to tackle the challenge ahead.  He's focused and ready to kill, and that makes Bryan really dangerous.

    He defeated Heath Slater on NXT, and Tyson Kidd on SmackDown, and both of those victories may seem like small potatoes, but they're a start to bigger things.  He still carries the blue briefcase, and in an interesting turn, we're starting to see issues arise that will take that briefcase directly into account.

The More Factors at Play, the More We See in Bryan That Rises to the Surface

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    This past Friday's SmackDown broadcast fueled the coming 3rd match between Big Show and Mark Henry at Survivor Series, and their second battle for the World Heavyweight Championship.

    During an interview, Mark Henry suddenly and dramatically diverted his attention onto Daniel Bryan and after accusing the much smaller Bryan of eyeballing him, Henry said the two of them would have a match later on.

    Even while sustaining crushing and decisive losses, Bryan did not back away from the challenge.  He is continuing to keep his faith strong, even in the face of such unbreakable adversity as Mark Henry and his allegedly crowded "Hall of Pain."

    The match was scheduled for the main event of the night, a pretty big accolade to accomplish.  If it was really intended to be nothing more than a squash, they could've held the match after the commercial break.  They didn't go that way.  They made people wait for it and really process the possibilities.

    Later, Big Show met with Bryan in the locker room and offered to watch Bryan's briefcase for him while in his corner.  Bryan thanked him, but claimed he had the situation under control.

    As the match itself saw Bryan getting pummeled harder and harder by the World's Strongest Man, Big Show interjected and threw a Knockout Punch, catching Henry in the jaw and drawing a DQ.

    In a strange turn, Big Show then encouraged Bryan to cash in the briefcase!  At first, it was surprising, but it makes complete sense.

    Henry and Show don't like each other, first of all, and Show has been extremely comical and friendly since coming back to WWE.  Not to mention he's far more experienced with WWE proceedings than Bryan, so for him to offer sympathy and advice was "big" of him.

    Just when it looked like Bryan might hand the briefcase to the ref to signal the start of his surprise world title opportunity on cable TV, Bryan snatched it back and attempted to smash Henry in the face, but failed.

    And after a World's Strongest Slam on Henry's Survivor Series opponent and a blow to Bryan, Mark walked away tall and relatively unscathed, putting to bed the idea that Mark Henry is being booked to look weak.

Remember...Bryan Is Human, He's Not a Winning Machine. Pressure Matters!

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    Big Show's sudden interest in either the World Title situation or supporting Bryan aside, Bryan is showing incredible integrity in sticking to his word.  He said he wants to cash in for a shot at WrestleMania, and so far, he's making good on that promise.

    Heels in WWE have never been good at keeping promises, this is a well-known fact.  But even faces like Christian have made promises they've been unable to keep.

    All of us were excited for Christian when he won the World Heavyweight Championship by taking Edge's place in the ladder match at Extreme Rules, and many of us were infuriated that Randy Orton could just stroll in and Teddy Long would poll the "Universe" to justify handing Orton an immediate title shot.

    Truth is, for Christian to lose that night was entirely human, too.  We shouldn't have gotten so angry over it.  Then again, instead of working harder to ultimately keep his promise that he would regain the title, Christian simply became bitter, frustrated and pissed off, took the easy route with a bunch of lawyers and turned into a heel.

    And what did it gain him?  A short second run with the World Heavyweight Title (albeit longer than the first run), and some notoriety as a co-instigator of the no-confidence vote against Triple H, but aside from that, nothing of note.

    My sessions in examining this case suggest to me that neither Bryan nor WWE would stand to gain much from Bryan going back on his word and turning bad.  With all the talk he's put out there about waiting until WrestleMania, if he were to not only cash in after a match, but do it before WrestleMania, that's exactly what would happen.

    Even if it didn't happen right in the moment, the next time we saw Bryan, he'd be a heel by default.

    WWE has nice idealistic guys like Cena, this is true, but at least Bryan has shown some emotion with plenty of motivation to do so.

    Cena is a pure ideal on the outside, but on the inside, has very little wiggle room for emotion to sneak in.  Lately, his feuds with CM Punk, The Rock and Awesome Truth seem to have brought out a more passionate side to him, but all in all, Cena doesn't have much to be mad at himself for.

    He constantly wins, he always looks strong.  He may even be involved in the conspiracy.  But if the John Cena we see on TV were a real human being that any of us could work with, there would be very few times when he would have reason to look at himself in the mirror and say, "so where are my areas to improve?"

    Recently, I had to fill out an annual self-assessment/review at my office job.  Had Cena been told by his superiors that he needed to fill out a similar form, what would he cite as his areas of improvement?

    On the other hand, Bryan has shown plenty of flaw, but most of that flaw can be captured in his lack of focus as a result of winning Money in the Bank.  Seems like a cop-out, but I guarantee there are countless examples in sports like baseball and basketball where a huge championship victory has led to a team going down the tubes the following season.

    Only a handful of people in WWE have been able to accomplish such a task as winning a briefcase, so for Bryan's head to grow over such an accomplishment is entirely understandable.  For us to look at Bryan's progress this year and merely see it from a booking perspective completely eliminates the human aspect that I've been trying to drive home for so long.

    Many of these competitors are being booked lately from very human states of mind.

    When people like Bryan, Morrison, Rhodes and the Divas of Doom go on losing streaks or sustain crucial losses, said losses are usually accompanied by either an article or an interview video on WWE.com to get more insight into why it's happening, and what the character is thinking in regard to what has happened to their vigor.

    Most of the time, the interview videos come off naturally delivered and although they keep the characters in-character, they still seem more real than most promos cut on the shows.  Meaning, even if some of these "impromptu" interviews backstage for the website display a microscopic bit of shooting, it's still helping to keep these characters' senses of urgency at the forefront.

    And in order to keep them looking like real people, this is incredibly important.

    When CM Punk cut his infamous promo over the summer, people were ready to dub this the "Reality Era."  Due to the subtle nuances in various characters' moods and attitudes, I'm still extremely willing to wave the flag of the Reality Era.

    After all, one reason the Attitude Era was so popular is that it had the most points of proof that people could show others and say "look, see? Wrestling IS real!"  Since those days, stories of blading, overproducing and overscripting have all come out, along with countless FOX specials on the secrets of professional wrestling to completely discredit the sport.

    TNA has even tried to capture the "realness" of shoot promos to only limited appeal.  WWE takes advantage of it, even in small doses on their website, it can make all the difference.

    But in making these guys look more "real," we need to accept that the days when a guy could debut in the company and be an unbelievably invincible wrecking machine, a la Goldberg and Lesnar, are over and done with.

Prognosis: Bryan Takes a More Active Role in Improving Before WrestleMania

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    In coming weeks, I anticipate Bryan will be performing much better.  Maybe he won't go on a win streak, and maybe he won't turn into the Untouchable Man, but he'll still at least score some slow wins, he'll make some distinct progress and people will regain some firm support in Bryan.

    Keep in mind, WWE puts on two weekly cable shows a week and we have months till WrestleMania.  His improvement may be excrutiatingly slow.  He may only be on TV for a few minutes PER WEEK, and he may even lose a few more before winning more.

    But there will be improvement.

    After all, there have been plenty of times his wrestling ability has garnered chants of his name from the crowd.  By showing fans that, indeed, he can win and he can do it well, fans will get behind him once again.  Maybe he won't be a massive merch seller like Punk, Cena, Orton or Mysterio, but with a new shirt debuting this past Friday and an impressive, yet short, showing against Mark Henry before Big Show intervened, we could be seeing Bryan in a very new light very soon.

Package Insert for Bryan's Prescription of Focus and Meditation

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    Let's keep a few other points in mind:

    Timing:  Bryan's additionally lucky, as if he had won the one Money in the Bank ladder match years ago at WrestleMania, in order to come through on the same promise he made this year, he would literally have to wait a full year to cash in.

    By winning the blue briefcase at the Money in the Bank PPV, he still has to wait a long time, but about two months short of a full year, he'll be able to make good on his promise and cash in.

    In essence, it will feel like a year, when in actuality, it will be a little sooner.

    Fresh Victory:  Furthermore, Bryan would've already succeeded in a massive win at WrestleMania, so it would take away from how special his first big WrestleMania Moment could be.

    He wins a hugely chaotic match at one WrestleMania, dominates the entire year (because apparently people think that's how human pushes start), then wins big at a second WrestleMania.  Yes, it would make him more established, but where's the journey?  Where's the struggle?  Where's the passion that Bryan would have had to build in himself in order to win the big one?

    He just arrived last year!  I've heard countless people complain that superstars get pushed way too fast.  Bryan captured a US Title and a Money in the Bank briefcase within his first year, not to mention he was distantly related to one of the biggest angles of last year, the Nexus, so that's not terrible.

    By shortening that trip, even by just a couple months, it's much easier to make winning Money in the Bank and cashing in at WrestleMania, a tangible goal for more people to take advantage of.

    First Person to Go There:  When I first heard about the concept of Money in the Bank years ago, and the commentators made mention of the fact that a winner could theoretically hold the case till the following WrestleMania, my very first thought was, "who will be the first to have the patience to wait that long?"

    I quickly realized...yeah, no one's going to do that.  Sure enough, they haven't.

    But once Cena and Rock announced their match for WrestleMania 28 a mere night after WrestleMania 27 came and went, I began thinking to myself how a huge draw like that can't possibly be a tease.  I had my doubts like many that such a match would happen, but here we are, months away from the true start of the Road to Wrestlemania 28...

    Rock vs. Cena is still on and drawing more attention than ever.

    Of course, WWE does have a reputation built of giving up on possible storylines when they show even the slightest cracks.

    New potential stars have been buried, and even stars that are guaranteed to be over with fans have been eliminated when they fail to bring in the estimated returns.  An angle is set in motion and gets incredible attention, and months later it's on the verge of collapse.

    I think at this point, to say that Bryan making a claim that he's going to hold his case till WrestleMania 28 is going to fall through shows too little faith.  His brief "heel turn" as a member of Nexus for one night could have gone fine, and may have even given him more character had they ran with it, but where he is right now stands to do the most for him.

The New Cinderella Story...?

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    Answers.com defines Cinderella Story this way:

    "One that unexpectedly achieves recognition or success after a period of obscurity and neglect."

    I'd say this defines Bryan perfectly.  He's been a middle of the road character at best whether in Nexus or challenging for the United States Title.  Winning Money in the Bank gave him a great shot to some major spotlight and his losses, although understandable from a human perspective, has kept him far under most radars.

    While being under the radar may mean the spotlight isn't on him, true fans will keep watch of everyone.  People step up and beat Bryan, they pad their own win columns on the way to making them bigger stars.

    Wasn't it only a while ago that people were wondering what had happened to Wade Barrett?  After a few victories over Bryan, suddenly people are wondering if Barrett's time has finally come.  All because Bryan took a few on the chin and let others get some spotlight first.

    Meanwhile, Bryan still has the case after Friday's ruckus, and I'd say he's not likely to cash in on Mark Henry at Survivor Series, though I would love to see him tease it at the PPV to get everyone's talking really heating up.

    Last year, after Miz had won the red Money in the Bank briefcase, he cut a promo on Sheamus on Raw that I'll never forget, claiming he'd be Sheamus' "celebrity stalker."

    I easily thought this would be the beginning of a face turn for Miz, however he ended up cashing in on Randy Orton months later after Randy's match with Wade Barrett at last year's Survivor Series, solidifying him as a heel for the foreseeable future.

    Maybe teasing us with cash ins would be a bit too arrogant of Bryan to do.  If we justify his losing streak as a very understanable level of human overconfidence, then maybe we need to see the possibility of Bryan teasing that he's going to cash in his briefcase early as a level of cockiness that waters down his new no-nonsense attitude.

    But it would certainly put the spotlight back on him every single time he shows up on that stage with his blue briefcase.

    Will he or won't he?  That's been the question for months, and after Friday's broadcast, it's a bigger question than ever.  But with that question comes another...

    When was the last time you can remember that an underdog went to WrestleMania and won a belt from a huge powerhouse (whether in phyisique or reputation)?

    Eddie Guerrero?  Chris Benoit?  Rey Mysterio?  Randy Orton?  Hell, even John Cena?  Shawn Michaels' boyhood dream always comes to my mind when contemplating that concept.

    Overcoming an incredible human struggle to achieve greatness is a story we haven't had in a long time.  Granted, we haven't had much time to get as attached to Bryan as we have time to get attached to Guerrero, Michaels, Benoit, Mysterio, etc., but if Bryan does indeed go to WrestleMania , I guarantee we'll be seeing introspectives, interviews, specials, and vignettes about Bryan's wrestling past.

    We'll get all manner of catch-up to show that while Bryan may have been a champion elsewhere, he hasn't won anything this big yet.  And if he can grab this brass ring, then he will truly have made it.  What's even better about the title he's going after, it's not even the biggest prize in the company.

    He wins the World Heavyweight Championship, he still has the WWE Championship to win sometime down the road.

    He wins at WrestleMania 28, he will have crossed a massive hurdle, and still have hurdles to go before he can look at the entire roster and say, "I'm better than all of you.  This belt proves it."

    He struggles and journeys and claws his way to the top, wins the World Heavyweight Championship, and he'll have to defend that title in the most impressive ways possible.  He keeps the belt for a long time, and he still has the WWE Championship to go after next.

    The future looks bright for Bryan.  If he can get his head screwed on straight, he will be alive and kicking to accept that bright future.

    And we may very well see another WrestleMania moment similar to this one in the video, complete with tears, emotion and true passion.

    Some people wonder why the WWE Championship doesn't mean anything anymore.  Others just complain that its value has been watered down by bad booking, shoddy creative decisions, and passing it around like a pack of girls trading berettes.

    I'll tell you why it doesn't mean as much as it used to.  Because winning it doesn't make Superstars cry anymore.