Best Landing Spot for Daniel Bryan After WWE Contract Reportedly Expired
Daniel Bryan is a free agent for the first time in over a decade, and his future with WWE is entirely up in the air, per Sean Ross Sapp of Fightful Select (h/t Marc Middleton of Wrestling Inc),
Although it's likely he'll return to the company he's called home since 2010, nothing is set in stone. He told BT Sport in December that he was interested in transitioning into a part-time role that would allow him to be home with his family more often than he currently is but still compete on occasion.
As history has shown us, WWE will go above and beyond to lock him down to whatever type of deal he wants to ensure he stays put. However, if he's also looking to test the waters elsewhere and reignite his love for wrestling by mixing it up with fresh competition all over the world, then free agency might be his best bet.
Looking at the landscape of the wrestling world, there are a handful of exciting possibilities for the former American Dragon to explore. All Elite Wrestling is an obvious option, but promotions such as New Japan Pro-Wrestling, Ring of Honor and even Impact are thriving at the moment and would benefit hugely from having a household name on their rosters.
As seen in his Universal Championship clash with Roman Reigns on the April 30 episode of SmackDown, Bryan, who turns 40 on May 22, still has a lot left in the tank and is as hot of a commodity as ever.
While he contemplates the next chapter of his career, let's look at the best potential landing spots for the former WWE champion.
Bryan re-signing with WWE only to report to Raw would be considered a major disappointment by many fans, but it shouldn't be ruled out as a possibility.
With how dull the flagship show has been lately, Raw is in need of new blood now more than ever before. Bringing back Eva Marie and calling up Mansoor won't be the answers to its woes, but Bryan inserting himself into the WWE Championship picture could be a difference-maker.
The title scene currently consists of Bobby Lashley, Drew McIntyre and Braun Strowman, and after their Triple Threat match at WrestleMania Backlash on May 16, every combination of the three will have been exhausted. Regardless of who wins, Bryan would be a compelling challenger for any of them.
If Bryan heads to the midcard division instead, he'll likely have to rekindle his rivalry with Sheamus eventually and that's far from fresh. Other than a one-off outing with Gran Metalik, someone Bryan has been dying to face for years, there isn't much for him to gain from going to Monday nights.
Even if he was on Raw as a part-timer and returned in time for the Big Four pay-per-views, he's better off on almost any other WWE brand or out of the company completely.
All Elite Wrestling
Since news broke of Bryan potentially being free of his WWE contract, fans have been fantasizing about a run for him in AEW and rightfully so. He'd be as perfect of a fit for that promotion as anyone.
Had he opted to leave WWE when his contract originally expired in 2018—before the company cleared him for competition—there's a good chance he would have wound up in AEW eventually. He was widely considered to be the king of the independent scene from 2000 through 2009, and no promotion embodies that same indie spirit better than AEW.
For years, Kenny Omega's work preceded him, and he's now at the top of his game with AEW. He's currently in possession of the AEW World Championship, the Impact World Championship, and the AAA Mega Championship and has challengers coming from all angles.
It wouldn't be too far fetched to think Bryan would want his hands on one of those pieces of gold, especially since all of them have alluded him over the course of his career.
AEW has typically been the place where ex-WWE talent has gone to get the creative freedom they always desired. Jon Moxley and Chris Jericho have been centerpieces of the promotion, while others such as FTR, Matt Hardy and Cody Rhodes have also found success.
Bryan mixing it up with anyone from Omega and "Hangman" Adam Page to Darby Allin and Jungle Boy would be must-see. It's the biggest platform he could perform on next to WWE, and he'd no doubt be allowed to end his career on a high note.
While not nearly as prominent as it once was, Impact Wrestling has proved to be a perfectly solid landing spot for several former WWE Superstars over the years as well as a launching pad for up-and-comers who went on to achieve great success elsewhere.
Most notably, Impact hosted the illustrious likes of Drew McIntyre, Bobby Lashley, The Hardy Boyz and John Morrison at various points over the last decade. All of them won gold there before returning to WWE, with some becoming bigger stars than they were previously.
If Bryan didn't want to work with AEW right away, its partnership with Impact would ease him into the fold eventually. Instead of eyeing Kenny Omega's AEW World Championship, he could set his sights on his Impact title and serve as the face of the promotion for a time.
Despite not having a ton of buzz at the moment, Impact boasts an incredibly talented roster. Moose, Eddie Edwards and Rich Swann are all workhorses for the promotion, while the X-Division is loaded with future breakout stars such as Ace Austin, Josh Alexander and Chris Bey.
The company currently tapes its shows around once or twice a month, so if Bryan isn't looking for a big-money deal but rather a lighter, more flexible schedule as well as a fresh batch of names to work with, Impact might be of interest.
Bryan's banishment from SmackDown doesn't necessarily mean it would be all downhill for him if he stayed with WWE. A run on Raw wouldn't be ideal, but nothing is stopping him from becoming a member of the NXT roster—if only on a part-time basis.
The best part is that NXT is where it all started for The Yes! Man in WWE. Following a brief stint in the company's developmental system, FCW, in late 2009, he reported to NXT when it was still a competition show and was paired off with The Miz as his "pro."
That spawned a near-decade-long rivalry between the two and got Bryan off to a strong start in the company.
His time on NXT was relatively brief, but the black-and-gold brand has evolved so much in his absence. There are exceptional athletes up and down the roster, and he could make magic with every one of them if given the chance.
Although he fell short of becoming NXT champion against Adam Cole on that unforgettable episode of SmackDown in November 2019, he could return looking to avenge that loss and claim one of the few titles in WWE he's never held.
As cool of a career moment as it would be for Bryan, it would be an even bigger deal for NXT itself. The show could use a household name on its roster to draw more casual viewers in. And considering how well Finn Balor has done back in the black-and-gold brand, Bryan also wouldn't have a problem fitting right in.
New Japan Pro-Wrestling
Bryan's lengthy run on the independent scene from 2000 to 2009 saw him compete all over in the world, including in Japan for NJPW. Despite doing battle with the likes of Hiroshi Tanahashi, Minoru Suzuki and Jushin "Thunder" Liger, he left in 2004 and barely scratched the surface of what he could do there.
Needless to say, New Japan is a completely different landscape in 2021, and the amount of amazing matches Bryan could have with the current crop of competitors there is endless.
Jon Moxley was a prime example of someone who left a comfortable, high-paying position at WWE to reignite his passion for pro wrestling in Japan. The COVID-19 pandemic has prevented him from appearing more frequently, but his defenses of the IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship have been must-see TV.
Bryan could have similar success overseas if he chose NJPW as his next destination. Being at home with his family is of utmost importance to him right now, but he could still make the trip to Japan for the company's biggest events throughout the year.
Again, this could also be the gateway to getting him into AEW, as the company has proved a working relationship between the two sides isn't too far off based on what we've seen.
Ring of Honor
Of the many companies The American Dragon cut his teeth with prior to joining WWE, Ring of Honor was more synonymous with Bryan's career than anywhere else.
In fact, many of WWE's top talents today came from ROH: Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens and Adam Cole to name just a few. Bryan was the first among them to win the ROH World Championship before going on to not only win world titles in WWE but also headline WrestleMania on several occasions.
Essentially, Bryan making a quick comeback to the company that helped make him would only be fitting. ROH has always played to the strengths to the star and currently has a Pure Rules division he would excel in.
The only issue with him returning to Ring of Honor is that it's a significantly smaller platform than it was a decade ago when he left with a lot less buzz, not to mention that there aren't any fans at its shows right now. Therefore, the former ROH champion making his grand entrance to "The Final Countdown" by Europe wouldn't be nearly as epic as it should be.
That said, ROH could be more of a pit stop for Bryan than anything where he crosses a few matches off his bucket list with Jonathan Gresham, Tracy Williams, Jay Lethal and Rush before inking a deal with a more prominent promotion.
The easy answer to where Bryan will wrestle in the coming months and years could honestly be: all of the above.
As unlikely as that sounds, he pleaded his case to Robbie Fox on the My Mom's Basement podcast on April 29 saying that he was trying to work out a deal with WWE where he could stay put but also simultaneously compete for different companies, citing New Japan Pro-Wrestling as an example.
Stranger things have happened in wrestling, and WWE would be foolish to let Bryan walk without at least thinking his idea through first. As long as he didn't wrestle for a direct competitor that has a major TV presence like AEW, he should be allowed to show up in other promotions such as NJPW, Ring of Honor, MLW and the independent scene as a whole.
AEW and Impact work closer together than AEW does with New Japan at this point, which is why there's a better shot of NJPW being included in whatever deal the former WWE champion is trying to put together. Nonetheless, Bryan not being limited to just one brand in WWE—let alone the company itself—would be unique, unprecedented and a ton of fun for fans to follow.
Whatever brings him and his family the most amount of happiness should be considered the top priority. Regardless of where he winds up, it's a blessing he can continue to compete at the highest level and still has the passion to perform against the best in the world.
This next stage of Daniel Bryan's career is bound to be the most unpredictable and exciting yet.
Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, has specialized in sports and entertainment writing since 2010. Visit his website, WrestleRant, and subscribe to his YouTube channel for more wrestling-related content.