Doctor’s Orders: At WrestleMania 34 and Beyond, All Roads Lead Back to Daniel Bryan

”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE’s top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a worldwide 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.

QUESTION OF THE DAY: What is your vision for Daniel Bryan’s comeback?

This is always the week on every calendar that rekindles my upper-level interest in WWE. Fair criticisms have been levied upon it in recent years, both on its “Road to” and in its night-of execution, but WrestleMania remains unlike any other event in sports or entertainment. The 2018 version set to culminate in New Orleans this Sunday may not have spent the past few months firing on all its creative cylinders, but much respect to various parts of the card and the decision-making that led to their booking. Any time it does not seem too far-reaching to suggest that the upcoming WrestleMania could be the best one ever, WWE has done something right.

For a regular WrestleMania preview, “The Doc Says” podcast has got you covered, but today’s column intends to highlight an interesting sub-plot quietly going into and assuredly coming out of WrestleMania 34, that being the fate of Daniel Bryan and how it impacts most of the roster.

Wrestling history smiles on periods of time during which WWE could build its product around a star as over as Daniel Bryan was and still is. The best creative stretches in WWE lore have come at times when the audience, throughout its various sects, largely came into agreement on its affection for a particular wrestler. White-black, male-female, young-old, western-eastern – everyone who loves wrestling across the globe united in their desire to see Bryan overcome the restrictions imposed by The Authority. That is a great, cathartic memory that is also very culturally relevant; we could use more uniting-forces in the world today.

Accordingly, I truly believe that the masses do not yet discuss often enough the quality of the product when Bryan was peaking in 2013 and 2014, for it and its immediate aftermath following his injury was quite frankly as emotionally engaging a run of television as WWE has produced since the Attitude Era. Bryan’s inability to follow-up his WrestleMania XXX main-event-confirmation and the unfortunate injury-related matters that followed created an attachment to disappointment-laden “What Ifs” about Bryan instead of not just an appreciation for how that period made us feel – how much it made us feel – but also an appreciation for the positive influence Bryan’s peak had on the week-to-week creative flow of the product from the summer of 2013 until the end of 2014.

With all due respect to the best of the generation that rose to the forefront while Bryan was forced to sit the sidelines for more than a third of his defining decade in the business, none of them have ever earned that level of investment from WWE’s audience. The product has been far more robotic since 2014 and a big part of the reason why has been the absence of a primary protagonist to whom people strongly relate. Because of how much he emotionally resonates with fans, Bryan’s comeback could really change things for WWE, altering courses that would have otherwise been traveled (without Bryan’s return), particularly over the next twelve months; and I think WrestleMania 34 is going to potentially be a microcosm of that.

Do not forget how all-consuming The Yes! Movement can be. Remember, three and four years ago respectively, Bryan’s stories that we all thought were too obvious to miss were almost completely ignored by WWE during WrestleMania Season, and it was absolutely maddening, so the vast majority of us revolted in some way, hijacking WWE’s ability to tell other stories effectively. Bryan has wonderful new stories on deck for him to tell now that his public battle with getting cleared by WWE doctors is over. Is not the obvious direction for WWE to take putting him in a series of dream matches with modern contemporaries for the next eight months and then pushing him straight to the moon when the calendar flips, giving him that elusive Royal Rumble win, and peaking his career once more by defeating Roman Reigns in the main-event of WrestleMania 35? His story will continue at WrestleMania on Sunday and that tag team match, loaded as it is with elite talent likely giddy to be part of what will undoubtedly go down as one of the most cathartic moments of the decade, is going to write the first chapter in the unexpected new Book of Bryan.

A few of my colleagues have argued that such an arc as described above will put the future on hold for yet another year. Those that have read my columns in the past eighteen months know that such a point is spoken in my language, if you will. To that point, one of the biggest problems with the part-timer influx and WWE’s resistance to fully committing to the likes of Styles, Rollins, Ambrose, Owens, Strowman, Balor, or even Miz alongside Reigns in the headlining hierarchy is that it leaves on the cutting room floor more interesting stories to be told by talent who have never been given the chance to tell them on WWE’s platform in favor of re-runs of episodes we have already seen featuring talents whose relevancy peaked years ago. However, Bryan’s return to the ring, potential run back to the very top, and the months that he should all rights be afforded the chance to stay at the very top, introduces a story that simply has to be told, performed by the only wrestler who can possibly tell it.

Resistance is futile, I say, to anyone who cannot see the value in telling that story, no matter who it ultimately proves to effect; and make no mistake about the fact that, even if you intensely support Bryan’s story being told to that magnitude, it will have an impact – quite possibly a significant one with major career implications – on some of our other favorites. For instance, I am fascinated to see how this affects Seth Rollins, who is at least tied for first if not outright first on my current list of favorites.

Quietly at first but a lot louder after the Gauntlet Match on Raw before Elimination Chamber, there was a voice in my head that said, “2018 is going to be the year that Rollins takes the next step in his career as a babyface and in which we really get to see what he is capable of as a top good guy, the foundation set and the benefits of reuniting with Ambrose last summer reaping their long-term rewards.” Depending on how the presumed roster shake-up takes place, I feel as though Rollins ascending to the next level as a protagonist would be put on the back-burner because of the Bryan story (I can feel the blood boiling across the Atlantic Ocean from wherever Samuel ‘Plan sits reading this). I think it was realistic for Rollins to approach the pedestal that AJ Styles occupies in the hearts and minds of the diehard fanbase, but Bryan occupies the rarefied air breathed only by Austin, Rock, and Hogan in the pantheon of WWE history. With the brand split still in place, The Architect could conceivably remain separate from Styles and Bryan week-to-week, but recall that we have apparently seen the last of the brand-only pay-per-views for the foreseeable future, meaning that Rollins will have to compete with both on each month’s biggest shows; Rollins is unlikely to be anything more than the third-leading protagonist.

Most of the above – albeit to a lesser extent – applies to my other modern favorite, Finn Balor, as well, Demon or James Dean version. A month ago, I would have sworn to you that the match most likely to steal the show from prohibitive Match of the Night at WrestleMania favorite, Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, was Rollins vs. Balor vs. The Miz for the Intercontinental Championship, but the volume got turned down on that sentiment quite a few notches thanks to Bryan getting cleared.

How Bryan’s return effects The Phenomenal One could be interesting too. On Sunday, Styles vs. Nakamura will now have Bryan’s emotional juggernaut of a comeback breathing down its neck. For months – and especially after Nakamura won the best Royal Rumble Match in a decade – fans swore that Nakamura vs. Styles was a match guaranteed to deliver a classic come April 8th. Yet, here comes The Yes Movement! It is a wonderful problem to have, but what are the odds that Bryan’s match gets placed in the middle of the card and zaps everyone’s energy for the rest of the night, leaving a crowd that swore a month ago that it would certainly do its part to ensure the success of Styles vs. Nakamura emotionally exhausted from getting back the most over star in modern company history?

Styles, or so the story he told on Chris Jericho’s podcast last summer goes (with a little authorial embellishment by yours truly), convinced Vince McMahon that a match between him and Nakamura could only happen one way: for the title at WrestleMania. Styles vs. Nakamura still may well end up being the most memorable match at WrestleMania this year, but remember that most people are excited to see that performance more so because they think it is going to be awesome and less so because they have a deep emotional bond with it. Bryan’s match on Sunday, even if not aesthetically superior, is going to be cathartic on a higher plane of emotional consciousness.

Long-term, Styles instantly became a distant second most over babyface in the company three weeks ago. I thought it seemed quite possible that Styles would exit WrestleMania 34 on a collision course with Reigns for either Summerslam or WrestleMania 35, mainly because I can easily envision a scenario in which The Big Dog becomes Universal Champion on Sunday and goes on a lengthy title reign (recall he has not had one yet) that organically sets him up to wrestle his most psychologically-stimulating matches for the next year against the types of performers who feel most like his natural opposites; Rollins and Balor were certainly on that list and I think that, for the majority, Styles would have been at the top of that list. Should Nakamura vs. Styles not end up main-eventing WrestleMania this year, I think there might have been a big push to see Styles main-event WrestleMania next year, and Reigns would have been a logical antagonist to him. Logically, does not that spot opposite Reigns now seem like Bryan’s for the taking?

As excited as I am for Bryan to be back – and I am excited enough to have already fantasy-booked his next twelve months in my head (The Miz is first up post-Mania, followed by Ambrose turning heel at his expense for the benefit of the June and July PPVs, wrestling Styles at Summerslam, a brief break until Survivor Series and an ensuing feud with Owens, winning the Rumble, and beating Roman for the title at ‘Mania 35) – I am equally as intrigued to see what kind of effect he will have on the product and on his peers, even if there may be some tough pills to swallow along the journey.

There is so much bright side to his comeback, not the least of which will potentially be its embodiment of the expression that rising tides lift all ships, again referencing his effect on the product in 2013-2014. The Authority, from its inception until Survivor Series 2014, was the creative linchpin for an outstanding run of television and its efficacy was shaped by its systematic abuse of Bryan’s character, the same as The Corporation became the ultimate symbol of pro wrestling evil during a celebrated era by targeting Stone Cold. We needed to see Bryan somehow win and everyone from Triple H to Stephanie McMahon to Rollins to Randy Orton to Batista to The Wyatt Family to Dean Ambrose to Cody Rhodes to Ryback to Dolph Ziggler (and on and on) benefited from our passionate investment in WWE storytelling that Bryan sparked. I would venture that we need him to do that again and that we need WWE to be more aware of why rolling with what is organic should take precedent over what WWE ideally might prefer; the product is simply better with someone like Bryan to act as our avatar and nobody else has yet proven that they can replicate what he brings to the table.