February 8, 2016, was a dark day for wrestling fans when Daniel Bryan announced his abrupt retirement from the ring on Twitter. He then gave an emotional farewell speech on WWE Raw in his home state of Washington later that night.
This sad turn of events came after Bryan was sidelined with a concussion in the spring of 2015, shortly removed from his Intercontinental Championship victory at WrestleMania 31.
It had been rumored that retirement could have been in the cards for him, but it never seemed like a legitimate possibility until it actually happened.
Gratitude was the theme of Bryan's tear-jerking promo, as he expressed how happy wrestling had made him for so long only for the business to break his heart upon finding out from WWE's doctors that his career was over, effective immediately.
Bryan's retirement sent shockwaves throughout the WWE Universe in the days and weeks that followed. Although it was a major blow to the company's active roster, they eventually bounced back by bringing up a wealth of new talent from NXT and reinstating the Brand Extension that summer.
Speaking of which, Bryan returned to WWE TV in a regular role that July to serve as the SmackDown Live general manager. It was apparent his retirement from the ring was still fresh in his mind, but he was the perfect fit for that position at the time.
The former multi-time WWE world champion continued to tease on Twitter that he felt fully healthy and wanted nothing more than to step back inside the squared circle, even indicating that he was willing to leave WWE when his contract expired in mid-2018 if it meant he could compete again.
Thankfully, it never came to that.
In a similar fashion to how he broke the news regarding his retirement two years earlier, Bryan took to Twitter on March 20, 2018, to announce that he had been cleared to compete by WWE's doctors.
The timing couldn't have been better with WrestleMania 34 right around the corner, and sure enough, he wrestled his first bout back on the grandest stage of them all, teaming with Shane McMahon to defeat the duo of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn.
The Washington native was showered with deafening "Yes!" chants on the unforgettable night he talked about how fighting for his dreams got him back in the ring, and again at WrestleMania.
Bryan's journey coming full circle was truly something to behold, yet WWE still managed to find a way to hinder his momentum by placing him in a program with Big Cass.
To his credit, Bryan did what he could to help elevate Big Cass and bring the best out of him, but ultimately to no avail. Their matches were mostly mediocre, and Bryan felt like less of a hot commodity as a result of their rivalry.
Worse yet, Bryan failed to evolve as a character following his highly anticipated comeback and instead rested on his laurels as a babyface. It was evident he needed some sort of a shakeup, and his heel turn in November proved to be exactly that.
Mere days ahead of Survivor Series, Bryan ended AJ Styles' record-setting reign as WWE champion on an episode of SmackDown and went rogue in the process. The low blow heard around the world was the catalyst of a career resurgence for Bryan, leading to him becoming WWE's top heel almost overnight.
Bryan previously portrayed a heel during his first run as world champion in early 2012, but the latest incarnation of his character has been different than anything else we have seen from him before. He explained his actions on the subsequent SmackDown, citing WWE fans' fickleness for his change in attitude.
He quickly came into his own as a villain, largely because everything he was saying in his promo were things he truly believed in (such as saving the environment, protecting the planet, etc). He also incorporated more aggression and intensity into his matches, making every encounter he had against Styles more entertaining than the last.
Having fantastic foils to work with in Styles and Mustafa Ali in recent months and Bryan's dedication to the character have helped cement him as the strongest heel performer in all of WWE today.
Bryan took his heel persona to the next level on the January 29 edition of SmackDown when he introduced the all-new hemp WWE Championship belt. It's an excellent addition to this act, and needless to say, it will be a big moment when someone beats him for it down the road.
At Elimination Chamber, the self-proclaimed Planet's Champion will defend his precious prize against five of the blue brand's most elite athletes inside Satan's Prison. Granted, the odds won't be in his favor, but WWE would be foolish to not have Bryan retain his title and walk into WrestleMania as champion considering the roll he has been on as of late.
From announcing his in-ring retirement to possibly headlining WrestleMania again as WWE champion, three years can make all the difference, and there's no telling how much more Daniel Bryan will accomplish in the next three years and beyond.
Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, is an Endicott College alumnus and aspiring journalist. Visit his website, Next Era Wrestling, and "like" his official Facebook page to continue the conversation on all things wrestling.