The hero had survived the gauntlet.
There would be no parade that night in Pittsburgh, though. There would be no victory song, no united celebration. Much of the audience inside the Consol Energy Center booed.
The sound thundered through the building, a low-toned, booming ballad playing for a man supposed to be the protagonist in WWE's work of theater.
The moment did not go as planned for WWE. Imagine a crowd in a movie theater booing after Luke Skywalker laid waste to the Death Star. Imagine readers throwing their books to the ground in anger after realizing Frodo Baggins destroyed The Ring. Something was amiss.
Anyone not named Daniel Bryan would have suffered the same pushback that January night.
The crowd wanted the bearded, gutsy underdog to stand in the spot Batista occupied. WWE didn't realize it at the time, but it was Bryan or bust.
Alberto Del Rio (aka Alberto El Patron), who had feuded with Batista before and after the Royal Rumble match, understood the nature of this rejection.
"They didn't like what they were doing with the great performers, the battle horses," Del Rio told Bleacher Report. "They were mad at the company because they felt like they were disrespecting the guys who were busting their traseros every single night."
Before that anger surfaced, WWE had plans to move toward WrestleMania with the recently returned Batista on the marquee while Bryan stood somewhere with a dimmer spotlight. But that was far from what many fans were hoping for.
Before the Storm
Ahead of the Royal Rumble pay-per-view, Pittsburgh was alive with excitement.
Pittsburgh Tribune wrestling columnist Justin LaBar saw that firsthand. It was evident at the Ring of Honor show on the eve of the Rumble, at the kickoff party featuring WWE Hall of Famer Kevin Nash and when the writer and Matt Hardy hosted a radio show in a packed bar across the street from the arena.
"There was huge energy," LaBar said. "It was a hot weekend for all things wrestling. Fans were out all weekend. So, it had that 'Big 4' pay-per-view feel for taking over the city."
And Bryan was a common topic throughout.
Was this when WWE would finally fully get behind the chest-kicking everyman? Was there a chance Bryan would win the Royal Rumble match and earn his spot in the WrestleMania main event? Those questions hung in the crisp Pittsburgh air.
"He was lava hot," LaBar recalled. "Everybody just wanted to believe this feel-good story would happen. That was certainly the big thing."
Bryan wasn't even officially in the 30-man Battle Royal, though. He was set for singles action against Bray Wyatt at the PPV. That didn't matter. For many, the dream still lived.
The realists picked The Animal to be the last man standing. On his blog, Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross named Batista as his favorite to win. Ric Flair, who was part of the PPV panel, predicted a Batista win, too. Pittsburgh fans fired back at Flair with boos.
"Learn to love it," he told them.
They didn't. They shouted Bryan's name throughout the show. They roared for him when he outlasted Wyatt and chanted his "Yes!" in his honor for much of the night.
Bryan was unsure how the audience would take it when they realized he wasn't a part of the Battle Royal.
In his autobiography, Yes! My Improbable Journey to the Main Event of WrestleMania, he wrote: "I sat in the back in Pittsburgh during the main event Royal Rumble match, watching and wondering if there would be any discernible negativity toward me not being in the Rumble."
A focus on Bryan's quest for gold made it easy to miss some of the Royal Rumble's opening chapters and subplots.
Reigns had a historically dominant night, eliminating 12 men from the match. CM Punk was the bout's Iron Man, entering at No. 1 and fighting off defeat for over 49 minutes.
Cody Rhodes battled on for an impressive stretch, too. He entered fourth and didn't suffer elimination until 21 minutes later.
"I had some great Rumbles," Rhodes said. "My stats are pretty stupid for a guy who was never close to winning it."
The Battle Royal also provided a noteworthy moment between Rhodes and his brother, Goldust.
Earlier in the show, they lost the Tag Team Championship to The New Age Outlaws. In the big bout itself, Goldust tossed out Rhodes, brother pouncing on brother.
The 2014 Royal Rumble also turned out to be Punk's last pro wrestling match.
The method of his elimination set up a chapter of a story that ended midway. Corporate Kane slipped back into the fray after his own exit and pulled Punk down to the floor.
LaBar saw the tense precursor to that moment from the front row.
"Kane came in and stayed low," he explained. The big man crouched near the ring, waiting for his cue. But when the time came, he and Punk argued instead. "I could see him go back and forth with Punk. Punk was like, 'No, no, no.'"
They eventually did the spot. The rebel's battle with The Authority was set to roll on. But Punk and WWE suffered a nasty divorce in the days following the PPV.
For Del Rio, the Rumble played off an earlier exchange. When Batista returned to the company after his 2010 departure, WWE chose Del Rio as his first adversary. Mexico's Greatest Export confronted the larger man, antagonizing him on Raw.
Of course, they would cross paths at the Royal Rumble. Del Rio entered 27th; Batista entered 28th.
The fans' response went in an unexpected direction. "That night I was like a babyface," Del Rio said. "The crowd was reacting to everything. Even though I was a heel, they were cheering for everything for me."
When one spot remained in the Royal Rumble, there was still hope. Bryan could storm in as the 30th and final entrant, tear through the opposition and stand on his own, triumphant.
But when the countdown clock hit zero, Rey Mysterio ran out, not Bryan.
The beloved luchador has been a babyface his entire WWE career. Kids wear his masks. Fans have long rooted for him. That night, though, the Pittsburgh crowd welcomed him as they would a hated villain.
Backstage, Bryan empathized. "I instantly felt bad for Rey," he wrote in his autobiography. "He's the last person to deserve that kind of reaction, and I've looked up to him ever since high school."
Del Rio said the reaction upset his good friend, Mysterio. But he understood the high-flyer was simply a scapegoat.
"They were booing the company, not so much Rey," he said.
The mood changed upon Mysterio's arrival. WWE's plans were now clear. "As soon as Rey hit the ring, the air was just let out of the room," LaBar recalled.
It was time now to pick a new man to pull for. It could be Del Rio, it could be Punk. It just couldn't be Batista, the Hollywood star returning to the ring, the part-timer.
"Once they saw everybody who was left in the ring, at that point Roman Reigns was the crowd favorite," LaBar said. "It got to be an anybody-but-Batista type of feeling."
So, when Batista outlasted everyone and rolled The Big Dog out on to the floor, the fans let him have it. His moment, supposed to be a celebratory one, was stained with rejection en masse.
That didn't sit well with some of Batista's peers.
"The bootista stuff bothered me," Rhodes said. "But I think it was less about not liking Dave and more about loving Dan [Bryan].
"I wish Guardians [of the Galaxy] had come out prior, though, because Dave is awesome and a model for getting your brand over by yourself and he didn't get enough credit. I look up to Dave."
Del Rio had good things to say about The Animal, too. When he first began his WWE run, when he was still working as Dos Caras Jr. and wrestling in dark matches, Batista looked out for him.
"He was always nice to me," Del Rio explained. "He's a really good dude in and out of the ring."
Those qualities didn't save Batista from jeers, though. He was a target for fans' frustration, the symbol of a company misreading its audience's love for Bryan.
After the pyrotechincs all fizzled out and Batista's entrance music ended, a somber feeling hung in the building.
Many lamented Bryan's absence on center stage. It was the heart of many a post-Rumble discussion. "As we filed out of the arena and went out afterward for a nightcap, that certainly was the talk," LaBar explained.
There was disbelief, disapproval, disappointment.
LaBar remembers a loud, visceral reaction when Vince McMahon and Steve Austin shockingly joined forces at WrestleMania X-Seven. But that was different. "That was good boos," LaBar said. "That was storyline. That's what you wanted the crowd to feel."
That was far from the case here. Fans were clearly unhappy with how WrestleMania was shaping up, with how the company handled the champion of the people. The backlash forced rewrites.
"I think Vince was still hoping that Punk would come back or that Batista would win back the crowd. Neither of those things happened, but then WWE came up with a solution to both of those problems: me," Bryan recalled in his book.
Batista had to shift into a smug heel role. Bryan became the flag-bearer for a revolt of sorts, a pushback against the WWE machine.
WWE eventually altered its plans, writing in the bearded babyface into the central WrestleMania angle. He would face Triple H at the PPV with a spot in the WWE title match with Randy Orton and Batista on the line.
WWE's plan B turned out to be one of the most moving narratives to play out in its rings. Bryan's rise was a work of art, his WrestleMania XXX victory simply special.
"I think that whole situation played beautifully. It mobilized the fans," Rhodes said of the 2014 Royal Rumble.
There was something universally appealing about Bryan's success. He was relatable, a well-traveled hard worker, a long shot. Seeing him succeed resonated with many.
"We all know how much Daniel Bryan struggled at the beginning of his career and all the things he had to do to get to the place where he is right now," Del Rio said.
And Bryan may never have reached the point had the 2014 Royal Rumble gone differently, had audiences not crowed so loudly, had the spectators not shaped the story as they did.
Alberto El Patron competes for Impact Wrestling where he is a former GFW global champion. He was the winner of the 2011 Royal Rumble and twice held the WWE Championship.
Cody Rhodes is a New Japan Pro-Wrestling star, a former WWE intercontinental champion and Ring of Honor world titleholder.
Justin LaBar is a pro wrestling analyst for the Pittsburgh Tribune and co-host of Chair Shot Reality.
Ryan Dilbert is the lead WWE writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.