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In Part One of WWE.com's exclusive interview with Daniel Bryan, he had earned a contract with WWE after close to a decade of toiling on the independent scene. With an international reputation under his belt and an opportunity with WWE at his hands, Bryan seemed primed for an explosive debut in the McMahon empire. It didn’t quite start out that way …


"The rookie"


Having clawed his way through blood, dirt and Texas rodeos to reach the big time, how did Daniel Bryan mark his debut in WWE? As a contender to the WWE Title many felt he deserved? In a rivalry with fellow self-proclaimed “Best in the World” Chris Jericho or CM Punk? Perhaps in pursuit of the Intercontinental Championship, long considered to be the title of the most gifted competitors in “the business”?

 

Nope. Instead, Bryan took stage on the rookie competition show, WWE NXT, and his first moments on WWE programming ended with The Miz slapping him square across the face.

 

“[NXT] was very interesting and wild to be a part of,” said Bryan of the famously unorthodox show, “but I had this idea of what I wanted NXT to be for me. I came out in very basic gear – I had better gear – with the idea thinking, ‘If I have a mentor, obviously Miz is going to have a very hard time teaching me how to wrestle.’ So I came in as pale as I possibly could, in basic gear because I thought he might try to jazz me up and make me an entertainer.”

 

Alas, Daniel Bryan as “Miz Jr.” never came to pass. But he struck an odd chord with the crowd all the same. Once again, slowly but surely, what started as sympathy turned into support from the WWE Universe.

 

“Right away, people who were fans of me were mad that they were putting me as a Rookie with The Miz as my Pro,” said Bryan. “Most of the audience that had never seen me before started to feel bad for me. I got that role of the underdog.”


"One door closes..."


Sympathy didn’t stick with Bryan for long. When he and the other NXT Rookies came to the main WWE roster as The Nexus, Bryan became an unexpected casualty of their history-making attack on the WWE locker room. Days later, Daniel Bryan was released from WWE for the second time.

 

“Mr. McMahon has called me twice in my life,” said Bryan. “Once was [to offer me] that tryout match in 2008. And the second time he called me was on the Friday after [The Nexus’ debut]. Mr. McMahon called me to personally release me, himself.”

 

The WWE Chairman was apologetic in future-endeavoring one of his newest charges, but Bryan told him not to worry. After that fateful phone call with Mr. McMahon, Bryan made one other call – to Gabe Sapolsky, a former executive at Ring of Honor. Just days after being dismissed by the most powerful sports-entertainment company on the face of the Earth, Daniel Bryan wrestled at a convention hall in Detroit against a competitor named Eddie Kingston (no relation). The crowd was small potatoes by most standards. More people tend to mill around the loading dock at Raw when WWE Superstars make their entrances. Yet, based on the reaction, he may as well have been Triple H at the Garden, returning after the quadriceps surgery that saved his career.


"Third time's the charm"


As another controversial star once said, the cream rises to the top. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that, for all the good vibes it garnered among his grassroots fan base, Bryan’s stint in WWE exile didn’t last long. Just a few months after his release, “The American Dragon” returned to the promised land once more and found himself – for the third time – under the employ of WWE.

 

Bryan’s grand return was as part of Team WWE at SummerSlam 2010 in a match against his old cohorts in The Nexus, as John Cena’s handpicked final member of the heroic all-star squadron. He followed that up by submitting his former sensei to win the U.S. Title at Night of Champions 2010 (he even broke out an old indie hold for the title defense), eventually captured a Money in the Bank contract and World Heavyweight Championship (no need to go into how he lost it), anchored a beloved WWE Tag Team Title run with Kane, and inspired one of the greatest chants of all time.

 

At SummerSlam 2013, Bryan captured his first WWE Championship by defeating none other than Cena himself, 10 years after their first match on Velocity. To finish Cena off for good, Bryan used another indie move: A running Busaiku Knee to the head, a favorite of his old rival KENTA – the same guy who brought his sister to tears.


"Is being good enough"


Bryan’s win was also a victory for the type of competitor he represented, and for the fans – both WWE Universe members and the nameless legions that crammed into armories to watch him – who stuck it out with him along the way. And then, of course, Triple H snatched Bryan’s triumph from him, helping Randy Orton to use his Money in the Bank contract to defeat Bryan for the title and installing The Apex Predator as The King of Kings’ handpicked champion. The message Triple H has conveyed in weeks since? Daniel Bryan – though talented – is still a small-time competitor who is not good enough to represent WWE’s brand. The subtext, of course, is that he didn’t play the game to The Game’s satisfaction. A second WWE Title win, over Orton at Night of Champions 2013. ended in similarly ignominious fashion, when Triple H accused Bryan and referee Scott Armstrong of a conspiracy to dethrone The Viper, and stripped Bryan of the title after less than 24 hours.

 

“When you come up in the WWE developmental system, you’re so assimilated you don’t know it could be different,” said Bryan. “For example, in Ring of Honor … never once did I have to say, ‘Hey I deserve this match or this opportunity.’ They never looked at me and said, ‘Hey, you’re not marketable’ or anything like that.

 

“I realized early on that you can get where you want to be just based on being good. You don’t have to politic, you don’t have to be anybody’s buddy, you don’t have to do any of that kind of stuff. You can get there through hard work. If I hadn’t gone through all that, [Triple H’s agenda] might be easier to swallow.”


"I have to do better"


Regardless of The Game’s vendetta, with John Cena injured for the foreseeable future, the WWE Universe has undoubtedly turned to Bryan as its chosen hero. He’s headlining the WWE Live Events he tours on. He released two T-shirts in the span of a month. And it’s hard to imagine him resting until he wins (and keeps) the WWE Title. So why doesn’t he feel like he has made it yet?

 

“I always feel like I have to do better, and I think that’s one of the things that drives me forward and has made me the wrestler I am now, because I don’t feel like, ‘Okay, now I made it,’” explained Bryan. “You might be ‘The Guy’ right now, but being the main-event guy is not enough.”

 

Another factor, of course, is the response of the WWE Universe. He doesn’t just want nationwide sell-outs. He wants true, must-see competition that gets people talking and attending events. He feels if you wrestle, they will come.

 

“I want it to be like with ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and The Rock where, everywhere we go, it’s 18,000 people in the arena,” said Bryan. “That’s the kind of thing I was talking about with John Cena; it’s one of the things that drives him forward and drives me forward."


"No excuses"


Bryan’s certainly doing his part to make it happen, but getting to that point also depends upon the quality of competition. Part of that comes from the wrestlers mined from the top of the indies. (“If those places dry up and don’t exist anymore,” he noted, “we have a very small talent pool from which to draw wrestlers from.”) But a big new wave of Superstars is coming up to challenge him, nurtured by – ironically enough – Triple H and the new WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida.

 

“They have seven rings ... you can go in there and learn to be as good as you want to be,” said Bryan. “When I was in the WWE developmental system in 2000, we had two rings, one of which was nearly unusable, and we had a TV with the wire antennas and you had to bring your own tapes if you wanted to watch anything. But the WWE Performance Center has any DVD you could ever want there.” The quality of the Superstars who pass through is not only what’s best for business but what’s best for Daniel Bryan, who has never accepted anything less than the toughest of challengers. “Really to me, there’s no excuse for this generation of wrestlers to not be the best,” he said.

 

And with good competition comes great rewards. “The success that I felt with that 2,500 people from that Morishima match, I want that success here,” said Bryan, “But it’s got to be infinitely expanded because our audience is infinitely expanded.”

 

Presumably, that doesn’t come with infinitely expanded injuries, but the idea of that doesn’t seem all that bad to Daniel Bryan. Hardship has clearly fueled him. And if the WWE Universe is left to understand one thing, it’s that Daniel Bryan, more than most, lives for the fight. True, he’s not all that assuming. He’s the undersized guy with the gimpy shoulder, iffy eye and caveman beard; the guy who didn’t pass gym and tops out at 5-foot-8, 200 pounds. But don’t underestimate him. Whatever you do, don’t count him out. Because he'll never stop fighting back, and you might just get your head kicked in. After all, with the odds stacked against him, isn’t that what a wrestler – what a WWE Superstar – does?

 

The answer, of course, is yes.

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