Five years ago, just when he was hitting his peak, Daniel Bryan had his career cruelly stolen from him. This week at Elimination Chamber, just under a year after his improbable return, the current WWE Champion put on the performance of his career and re-asserted himself as the leader of this generation of wrestlers, a position he should have occupied since 2014.
Every generation of wrestlers has a guy or two that truly lead the pack and set the tone for the in ring product. It isn’t to say that others don’t contribute or have a heavy influence on style of the time but for the longest time the WWE has a history of having a ‘top guy’ that sets the pace for others to follow. Of course Hulk Hogan was that guy in the mid 80s and early 90s, after him came Bret Hart who led a wave of more athletic in ring action. Hart’s leadership continued into the early Attitude Era (of which he was a pioneer) where Steve Austin took over as the dominant force, setting and defining the tone that the WWE would ride until the early 00s. For a brief period after the Attitude Era, Triple H became ‘The Man’ while the WWE waited for the next round of stars, led by John Cena, to mature into their role. Cena was a divisive but distinctive face for the company through the late 00s and into the early ‘10s when CM Punk forcibly pushed his way into a leadership role beside Cena and kicked off The Reality Era with The Pipebomb.
Come mid 2013 though. Punk had already begun to take a step back from the main event scene, while injuries and other career aspirations were seeing Cena begin his own move back down the card too. New acts like The Shield and The Wyatts had asserted themselves as future main eventers and the developmental brand NXT was beginning to forge its own reputation as a place that took wrestling seriously. It was a roster made for one of the most celebrated indy wrestlers of the 00s, Daniel Bryan, to lead into the future. But it just wasn’t meant to be.
As we now know, Bryan briefly did set the pace in the company, chasing the WWE Championship from Summer Slam 2013 to Wrestlemania 30. In that run not only did he work main event matches against established stars, he also spent a considerable time leading midcard acts against The Authority and notably worked opposite The Shield and The Wyatts, helping lay a platform both teams would launch themselves off. However his time in the ring after Wrestlemania 30 was short lived. The coming generation lost its figurehead, the man who would lead them onwards and eventually pass the baton on, was gone.
The WWE tried to fill the gap with a number of different wrestlers, John Cena was once again pushed to the top for a stint before, Brock Lesnar was given the title at Summer Slam 2014. As good as he is, I think it’s fair to say that in 2015, Seth Rollins was thrust into the top position a little before his time; while in comparison to now TV that year was a dream, the numbers still show that Rollins was not quite ready to be the leader of a generation. By all accounts Roman Reigns may have fit the leadership role backstage but was never accepted by the fans. AJ Styles came to the WWE a little too late in his career to truly define a generation and headliners like Dean Ambrose, Bray Wyatt and Kevin Owens were never trusted to completely mould a show in their own image.
Not having a star like Bryan to base the product around in those transition years was no doubt one of the reasons the WWE started to rely so heavily on returning veterans when the biggest cards of the year rolled around. It also led to quite a bit of stop start booking for men that should have been slowly progressing towards the main event scene.
Yet just as this generation truly began to reach its maturation point, when Roman Reigns was finally being given the chance to topple the WWE’s final boss, Brock Lesnar, and when Seth Rollins was made the primary in ring focus on Raw to much critical acclaim, who should re-emerge but the man who would have been leading the charge up to this point, Daniel Bryan.
Even Bryan himself would probably agree that his return didn’t get off to a flying start, but since turning heel on AJ Styles, he has truly asserted himself at the top of Smackdown. While the WWE seemed to initially be hedging their bets on Bryan, possibly wary of him jumping ship and heading to another company, they are now clearly behind Bryan and Bryan has gone all in on his current direction. He has embraced the role as chief antagonist on his show, doing everything in his power to draw boos from an audience that once loved him. For their part the WWE has backed him up, even letting him modify the WWE Championship, one of company’s sacred branding cows, the same belt they send to disabled children and sports teams that win their own championships.
Which brings me to the Elimination Chamber last weekend. As good as Bryan was in his first run with the WWE, wrestling opposite the likes of CM Punk, John Cena and Triple H, he has never so utterly dominated a match as he did at the Elimination Chamber. From the promo during his entrance, to the intelligent, controlled ferocity in ring, to the breathless finish, Bryan set the tone of the match, controlled the action in ring and pulled off the ending. It is one of the best Elimination Chamber matches ever and it has Bryan’s stamp all over it.
It is performances like this that show Bryan is not only elevating himself, but the rest of the men around him. Try as he might last year, AJ Styles championship programs tended to fizzle out, proving fun, but not quite living up to the hype that preceded them. In comparison, since he became champion, Bryan has already helped elevate Mustafa Ali from main roster rookie to title contender and worked his magic dragging Kofi Kingston out of midcard purgatory into the championship scene. It isn’t a coincidence that suddenly the Smackdown roster seems to have found its ideal shape and wrestlers like Randy Orton, who have previously coasted, are now looking hungry and motivated. Just like how the women on the roster seemed to find a new gear after Becky Lynch set out a yardstick in the second half of last year, Smackdown is reaping the reward of having a leader who is firing as a character and wrestler.
Bryan is also asserting himself at a key time. In the current climate WWE creative blows too and fro on a weekly basis, seemingly living and dying on the whims of a man who has long lost his touch. For a generation that has already been damaged so much by sub-par booking, having strong personalities at the top of the roster is imperative; performers who hold themselves to a high standard, are not afraid to challenge or pitch their own ideas and have a passion for their art form. Daniel Bryan ticks all of those boxes and is lifting up those around him as a result.
Five years ago, the strength of Daniel Bryan’s performances were enough for Vince McMahon to change his entire plan for Wrestlemania 30. Sadly we were robbed of a real follow up act at the time but performances like Bryan’s at Elimination Chamber give me hope that the course of the current generation of wrestlers can still be corrected if men like Bryan continue to live and breathe excellence in the ring and demand the same of those around them.
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