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Daniel Bryan is a WWE Superstar. But he is also not a WWE Superstar. He is – in his words – a wrestler. He’s a vegan. He’s a stout 5-foot-8 rather than a hulking 6-foot-3. He is, potentially, the only multi-time World Champion in history to have not passed gym class, as he’s five PE credits short of a General Studies degree at Grace Harbor Community College. It has been roughly two-years since his face was clean-shaven; throw him in a suit and you don’t get Tom Brady so much as the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.

 

His is a career full of hirings, firings, three-letter words, 18-second humiliations with a payday of riches, 10-minute draws that netted him fifty bucks on a good day, codes of honor, goat faces, Big Red Monsters and, at one point, an honest-to-goodness eye patch. That’s hardly the route Hulk Hogan took, but it’s one that has made Daniel Bryan a champion all the same. And it’s a story that has largely gone untold within WWE until very recently.

 

Ver a carreira de Daniel Bryan em fotos!


More than most, Bryan’s path to WWE Superstardom is a career trajectory that’s even more unlikely than he seems to give it credit for, one that might force a less tenacious athlete to simply call it quits. But Bryan is a competitor whose what-me-worry personality belies a killer instinct. Fire him from WWE, and he’ll show up in an armory the next day selling his own merch. Injure his shoulder and he’ll just have to tap you out with one hand. Steal the WWE Title from him, and he’ll come back faster and harder to get it back. Strike Daniel Bryan down and he becomes more powerful than you can possibly imagine.


"The little guy"


The date is October 4, 1999. The place is Far West Rodeo in San Antonio, Texas, and the future WWE Champion is wrestling a 10-minute, time limit draw for a king’s ransom of … $25 to $50, depending on how many tickets were sold. Believe it or not, it wasn’t the worst position a guy like Daniel Bryan could be in at the time. 

 

“I never once did a show and didn’t get paid for it,” he said, “which makes me very fortunate among the independent wrestlers.

 

”A 5-foot-8 sparkplug from Washington State who was inspired to pursue professional wrestling by WCW’s famed Cruiserweight division, Daniel Bryan first tasted the mat under the tutelage of Shawn Michaels in what has become a small piece of both their legends. Michaels’ first lesson? Cardio, cardio, cardio.

 

“We got in the ring and we did rolls, just rolls,” said Bryan of his first class. “Roll back and forth 10 times in 100-degree heat, and it becomes very tiring very quickly.”

 

The Showstopper’s seal of approval would prove an early leg up in one of the most viciously competitive businesses in the world. Even then, at the dawn of his career, there were traces of the champion Daniel Bryan would one day become. In what would develop into a trend, Bryan distinguished himself from his fellow would-be wrestlers in his very first session under Michaels, during all those rolls.

 

“I think everybody in our class threw up except me and Lance Cade.”

 

"Developmental"

 

The first time Daniel Bryan found himself in the employ of Mr. McMahon in 2000, it was – like that first $25 to $50 payday – owed to the influence of Shawn Michaels.

 

“Shawn got us a tryout match with WWE in Austin, Texas. It was me and a guy named Shooter Schultz against Brian Kendrick & Lance Cade in a Tag Team Match,” said Bryan. “They gave us 10 minutes, we got to go out there and do everything we could possibly do, and then they signed all four of us to developmental deals.”

 

While training in WWE’s Memphis developmental promotion, Bryan met and was mentored by William Regal, and he received a unique opportunity for a WWE prospect: He was also allowed to wrestle elsewhere.

 

“[WWE] let me go do a Super 8 tournament,” said Bryan. His participation was a rare exception for a competitor training under WWE’s umbrella, and – in what would develop into another trend – the young grappler made the most of the opportunity. Over the course of the competition (a 2001 event run by the East Coast Wrestling Association), he made it past Kendrick – “Spanky,” as Bryan calls him – and Reckless Youth before falling to Low Ki in the finals. Despite the loss, the exposure proved invaluable. “That really put my name out there,” Bryan recalled. “I was very fortunate.”

 

Somewhat less fortunate was the way in which Bryan’s first period in WWE came to a close. Ironically, it was the acquisition of Eric Bischoff’s famous cruiserweights – the same ones that inspired Bryan to lace ’em up in the first place – that forced Daniel Bryan out the door. “They had a million guys like us who had more experience and had already been on TV,” he conceded. “So that’s when I started working the indies.”


"The American Dragon Rises"


Much has been made of Bryan’s years in bingo halls and armories in the abstract, but the truth is that you’d have to travel far and wide to find a competitor so beloved by a core audience. Michaels’ influence and those side-project trips – stints in Japan, the Super 8 tournament and a “King of the Indies” bracket in 2001 that Bryan won – helped him get his name out before WWE bid him farewell. But the myth of Daniel Bryan mainly originates from his time in the independent promotion Ring of Honor, which he helped build to prominence.

 

The promotion didn’t live and die on the back of Bryan’s efforts. During his time there, the submission master ran afoul of CM Punk, Seth Rollins (pictured above) and others who played equal roles in its success – but he’s acknowledged as a “Founding Father” of the company, and clearly ranked among its biggest, most transcendent stars.

 

Bryan competed for close to 10 years in Ring of Honor and – taking advantage of the indies’ freedom – several other promotions. He even flirted with a WWE return briefly, wrestling a tryout match on Velocity in 2003 against some guy named John Cena that has since become a cult classic among wrestling fans.

 

But for those who are truly willing to look, they can find Bryan – sometimes bearded, sometimes bald – in situations nearly unfathomable in a post-Attitude Era world. 2006 was his banner year, rumbling with a pre-WWE Antonio Cesaro in an inter-promotional “Cage of Death” match; fighting with a bad shoulder vs. the Japanese wrestler KENTA in another tilt that brought his sister to tears at ringside; and brawling in England against hometown hero Nigel McGuinness to unify ROH’s World Heavyweight and Pure Wrestling Championships – a bout Bryan won by knockout and considers one of his best ever. The efficient, unpredictable style with which he competed and the various championships he earned soon earned him the reputation of “the best wrestler in the world” and the fearsome nickname of “The American Dragon.”


"This might not be good"


At only one point did Bryan ever contemplate throwing in the towel: After a particularly brutish match where the Japanese wrestler Takeshi Morishima rained a hailstorm of fists on Bryan’s face that detached his retina. Bryan’s mother drove him to the ophthalmologist. His sister begged him to quit. And for the first, last and only time, as he remembers it, Daniel Bryan thought, “Okay, this might not be good.”

 

“My dad was the one who said, ‘Listen, I work at a paper mill 60 hours a week. You get to go out there, live your dream and do what you want to do,” Bryan explained. “[He said] ‘Don’t pass that up. You can come back here and do this with me any time you want.’”

 

Long story short: He threw on an eye patch and did just that. In fact, Bryan wrestled Morishima again, a year later, in a lawless “Fight Without Honor” that unspooled in New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom at the Manhattan Center (across the street from Madison Square Garden), as perfect a wrestling mecca as has ever existed.

 

Somewhat unsurprisingly, he counts the Morishima matches among his personal favorites.

 

“We had 2,000 people in New York City coming to something because they’ve heard how good it is, or they’ve seen it live and loved it so much that they’re gonna keep coming,” said Bryan.


"Getting the call...again"


No good thing lasts forever, though, and despite a few nibbles from WWE – notably another tryout match in 2008 against Lance Cade – the big dance had so far eluded the best wrestler in the world. In 2009, when Bryan’s Ring of Honor contract was up, he seriously contemplated – in his words – “focusing on becoming an adult.”

 

Mounting injuries and that unfinished degree hung over the head of "The American Dragon." Wrestling could be just a weekend occupation while he prepared to begin the rest of his life. All things considered, he could hang up the boots and call it a good career.

 

Right on cue, Spanky came a-callin’.

 

The summons from Kendrick (then “The” Brian Kendrick in WWE) sent Bryan to Oakland, where he cut a few backstage segments with his old buddy to potentially bring them together as a WWE tag team that would have seen Bryan become “The” partner to “The” Brian Kendrick. Reaction to the duo’s backstage work from WWE officials was positive, but once again, an unexpected firing seemed to derail Daniel Bryan’s path to the big leagues.

 

“They said they kind of liked it, and then Brian Kendrick got let go,” said Bryan. “I thought, ‘Oh, for sure nothing’s happening.’ So I was preparing for what I needed to do and then, literally, two or three weeks after Brian got let go, John Laurinaitis called me up and offered me the deal.”

 

And so it was, for the second time, Daniel Bryan found himself in the employ of Mr. McMahon.

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