Everyone loves an underdog. David vs Goliath. Eddie The Eagle. Rocky Balboa. Wrestling fans are no different. In fact, the WWE Universe has made an artform of rooting for the unexpected to happen. They live and breathe off the little guy overcoming the odds (see Rey Mysterio in 2006) and they thrive off seeing someone take it to the man (see Stone Cold vs Vince McMahon). But one example that will live long in the minds of any wrestling fan is the tale of Daniel Bryan. Rushonrock’s King of the Ring, Andy Spoors, was invited to take part in a chat with the man himself ahead of the event where it all started…the Royal Rumble.
5…4…3…2…1…ERRRRR. The infamous sound of the Royal Rumble buzzer is accompanied by silence. Anticipation blends seamlessly with the hopes of the thousands in attendance. This is it. Number 30. The final entrant into the Rumble. As Rey Mysterio’s music hits, ordinarily his appearance would be met with a raucous reception as a perennial face character. But 2014 is no ordinary year. It is the year of Daniel Bryan.
Bryan had already appeared earlier in the night against Bray Wyatt (in full cult leader persona and years away from the conception of The Fiend). The match was a culmination of Bray’s attempts to indoctrinate Bryan into his Wyatt Family of misfits. For a few weeks it looked as though the Eater of Worlds had gotten his wish as Bryan donned the overalls and stood by the charismatic leader’s side.
Everything unravelled as Bryan’s true intentions were revealed: take down the cult-like Family from the inside. The match at the Rumble was a sleeper hit and arguably the match of the night and it was Wyatt that ultimately claimed a hard-fought victory. With the bout opening the PPV, combined with the popularity of Bryan, it was presumed that he would make an appearance in the Royal Rumble match.
But as Mysterio’s music hit, the crowd very vocally turned the mood of the PPV upon realisation that one of their favourites was not going to be entering the Rumble and instead stood very little chance of a main event at WrestleMania 30.
“I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen in the Royal Rumble or anything like that and then when Rey came out and he got booed because he wasn’t me, I felt so bad because Rey is like one of my heroes,” said Bryan.
“So really there was this weird sort of feeling where I was like yeah this feels good that people want me but I feel so bad for Rey. I could feel the temperature of the audience and I was like ooh.”
In reality it’s hard to imagine the Pittsburgh crowd had ill-feeling towards Rey. The boos had started a little earlier and simply grew to a crescendo that night. Batista also received the cold shoulder and Big E’s entrance was met with ‘Yes!’ chants. Even after Rey was eliminated ‘No!’ chants interspersed boos and shouts of ‘Daniel Bryan’. This marked a huge turning point in the evolution of the Yes Movement.
Bryan rode the wave of momentum all the way to Mania in New Orleans and in the process created one of the most heart-warming and feel-good moments in WWE history.
Fast forward to the 2015 Royal Rumble event, this time emanating from the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Philly is, more often than not, a red hot and expectant crowd that knows what it wants and more to the point, what it doesn’t.
It’s Daniel Bryan’s name that once again echoes around the arena. But unlike the previous year, the man himself is in the event to soak up the atmosphere. For a short while anyway. Entering at number 10, he lasts 10 minutes and 10 seconds before being eliminated.
Lightning strikes twice. The crowd hijacks the rest of the show with boos, chants of ‘bullshit’, ‘Daniel Bryan’, ‘CM Punk’ (who had acrimoniously left the company by this point) and various other names of Superstars that had already been eliminated.
After the PPV, it’s Bryan’s name that predominantly appears on social media, often accompanied by #CancelWWENetwork. In the wake of the event, CEO of WWE Vince McMahon, even commented on a conference call that ‘Santa Claus didn’t come on that PPV’.
2015 was the last time Bryan was involved in a Royal Rumble match. A serious and degenerative injury put his career on hold from 2016 to 2018, before returning to capture the WWE Championship during a reign in which he gave himself the title of the Planet’s Champion.
“Being the Planet’s Champion was by far my favourite,” said Bryan.
“In WWE my championship runs haven’t always gone very well. I won the championship at WrestleMania 30, but then shortly after had to vacate it because of a neck injury. I won the Heavyweight Championship in 2011 and then lost it in 18 seconds at WrestleMania 28. So, those didn’t feel as special as when I was the Planet’s Champion and a bad guy.”
It feels as though the name Daniel Bryan will forever be synonymous with the title of underdog. Even during his time as the Planet’s Champion, Bryan riffed off the insults he himself had faced. A B+ player. A good wrestler but never the face of a billion-dollar company. Those same put downs were applied to his own challenger, Kofi Kingston, in the build up to their WrestleMania 35 match.
“A couple of years ago we had an Elimination Chamber match that involved Kofi Kingston and Kofi really had been mostly focused on tag team wrestling,” remembered Bryan.
“The way that he showed up that day surprised everybody and made people root for him. Anybody who competes hates losing the championship. But if you’re going to lose it, lose it in a great match at WrestleMania against somebody who really steps up which is what happened when I lost that match to Kofi Kingston.”
Proudly coming from an independent wrestling background, Bryan has never been afraid of doing things his own way, whether it be his own beliefs outside the ring, that include veganism and becoming environmentally aware (‘sometimes my beliefs are just unpopular, especially in the United States. Maybe worldwide!’), or his evident passion for the wrestling industry.
“I still love wrestling,” he added. “It’s weird, even though it’s been 21 years since I first started wrestling, I still get really excited about it almost like somebody who’s new to wrestling.
“I love wrestling people who love wrestling and who are excited about wrestling. People who are just like ‘hey you want to get stuck into a match?’. What William Regal, my mentor, calls ‘stuck in’. You’re in it and you’re just there man.”
In recent interviews, Bryan has heavily hinted that his time in the ring is drawing to a close, at least in a full-time capacity anyway. Backstage gossip has circulated that he has been using his experience to help with creative and training the next generation of talent.
An incredible match against Cesaro earlier in the month gained plaudits for the pair’s technical prowess and showed there is still plenty left in the tank.
“I want to wrestle until I’m old,” he added. “And when I say old, I mean like really old! I love wrestling right? I’m inspired by people like Jerry Lawler and Terry Funk and even some European wrestlers like Johnny Saint, who will still go out there and wrestle in their 60s maybe even 70s.
“Not because they need the money or not because of this or that, they just do it because they love doing it.”
If we are witnessing the beginning of the end for Bryan, it would only be fitting that the path he stands at be blocked by the event he is now synonymous with — despite never winning. Yes, the Royal Rumble.
This time the ultimate underdog finds himself in alien territory. He will enter as the bookies’ favourite to win the event (you can indeed bet on professional wrestling!).
“I wouldn’t say that it’s ever smart to put your money on me in a Royal Rumble,” he added. “I just haven’t had a lot of luck in those but I’m training really hard to try to do this one thing that I’ve never done before.”
When asked if there is a certain irony to being the favourite to win an event that fans so vocally demanded back in 2014/15, with none in attendance, Bryan is melancholy in his reply.
“I try not to think about it because I think it’s a little sad,” he replied. “One of the joys of wrestling is the energy from the crowd, even if the energy isn’t for you.
“Given that those two specific Royal Rumbles people really wanted to see me win it, I don’t want to say bittersweet, but I would probably think it would be nice if people were here. “But you could say that about a lot of things and you have to be grateful for the moments that you get. That’s the perspective I try to take on it now.”
There are seemingly few people heading into the 2021 Royal Rumble with quite so much on the line than Daniel Bryan. Determined to make amends. A story seven years in the making. No longer the underdog but, instead, singing a different tune. A redemption song. One of hope. One last chance to erase the boos of yesteryear and answer the calls of his name that floated around Pittsburgh and Philly. One more Royal Rumble for the WWE Universe to say YES! in unison.