Daniel Bryan, or Bryan Danielson if you prefer his earlier days, is a wrestler’s wrestler. Working the highest of highs in the ring, he performs with the grace of a gazelle and the fury of a rhinoceros, even in a typically (for wrestling) small frame of 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds. In baseball, a five-tool player is described as having an amount of talent in “hitting, hitting for power, running, fielding and throwing.” Daniel Bryan, since day one, has had all of the tools in professional wrestling. He has constantly created some of the most entertaining and innovative moments in the industry throughout his twenty years training and performing as a superstar of the highest proportions. Bryan recently announced after Smackdown on October 23 that this current run of him working on SmackDown is the final run of him performing as a full-timer. Now more than ever, it seems like a great time to look into why Bryan is the GOAT – and not just looks like a goat – actually the greatest of all-time. What makes Daniel Bryan the greatest of all-time? Lemme try to work this out, starting with some context…
His start in wrestling was training with the “Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels, then offered a developmental contract in WWE that was cut short after the promotion he was working for (Memphis Championship Wrestling) was stripped down in 2001. This period, though, was important for the time Bryan spent with trainer-at-the-time William Regal. Regal helped Bryan with so much that in Bryan’s 2015 autobiography, he describes this working relationship as “instrumental” to his career. This was also the beginning of the moniker “American Dragon,” something Bryan would use until he returned to WWE as a full-time performer.
Immediately following his first developmental WWE run, Bryan Danielson started wrestling in New Japan Pro Wrestling, which at the time was not the “peak puroresu of Japan” we all know and love today. Donning a mask, the “American Dragon” worked hellacious matches with many different Junior Heavyweights, culminating in a IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team title reign with Curry Man in early 2004. In between working for NJPW, Danielson actually had a handful of WWE matches, mostly for their secondary shows Velocity and Heat. Danielson even had a match against future megastar John Cena in the most hideous yellow pants.
Most people that have followed the journey of Daniel Bryan know of his legendary run in Ring Of Honor, starting in 2002 and ending in 2009. A “founding father” of the company, Bryan did everything and more to legitimize the indie company in the beginning, along with the incredible cast of wrestlers stationed there at the time. It is extremely clear watching even the early matches of Bryan’s career (see: a two out of three falls match with Paul London) that he had the “it factor,” the “superstar talent,” the wholly encompassing “fight forever, this is awesome” guy. To have that right out the gate is improbable, but to use it to push an independent company with dozens of other guys trying to make a name for themselves – then you have magic. Throughout the years of his ROH work, Bryan elevated to the point of being one of the hottest names in the world, despite not working for WWE, an extremely hard feat in that era. I could select dozens of matches from his ROH days, maybe the 74-minute slobberknocker against Austin Aries before he won the ROH World Championship (finally, three years after joining, despite being the first main event of ROH and winning the Survival of the Fittest tournament in 2004), but ROH has actually put three of his better matches during his tenure, embedded below.
During this time of NJPW and ROH work, Bryan used his already elite talents to all reaches of the world, including dozens of indie promotions all over. He famously spent a few years doing events for Pro Wrestling Guerilla, including a hilarious and great performance of a match with Kenny Omega at PWG: One Hundred. Working in sister promotions of ROH, a few different promotions in the UK, and many others, Bryan stood at the peak of independent wrestling in a plethora of names that had slowly and surely started to all join WWE for the first time or again after blowing up. Bryan stood at the doors of WWE in late 2009 again and joined the first season of NXT in 2010. If you’re not familiar with the original format of NXT, a superstar already on the main roster was a mentor to one of the contestants in a quasi-reality television hybrid of WWE programming. The first season is mostly remembered for Daniel Bryan’s storyline with his mentor The Miz, which would be a long story throughout his WWE time. But the first season will always be remembered for the fallout – most of the contestants were featured after the finale in a stable known as the Nexus, led by the winner of the first season, Wade Barrett.
However, Bryan’s impact on the first promo of the Nexus – a complete blindsiding wave of destruction – was a massive mistake. In the moment, Bryan grabbed ring announcer Justin Roberts by his tie, choking him and immediately breaking an important unwritten rule of not getting involved with the personnel around the ring. Worse, Bryan at one point spit in John Cena’s face, and with the combination of events, Daniel Bryan for the second time was told to not come back to the WWE. Fired four days after the event, Bryan would later note that WWE apologized to him about firing him, saying they “had sponsors to deal with.” Declaring he would never return again in a promo, Bryan returned again to the independent scene, including CHIKARA, Dragon Gate USA, and the company originally created in his image to run, EVOLVE.
He wouldn’t be gone from the WWE for long, though. Two months after being fired, Bryan was featured at SummerSlam on August 15, 2010 as a surprise entrant (replacing The Miz) to a 7-on-7 elimination tag match designed to be WWE vs. his old buddies The Nexus. This match would go a long way to show how he would be booked going forward for the rest of 2010, mainly in its finish and effect on the storyline thus far. Bryan replacing the Miz in this match was perfect for many reasons – fans who knew him were extremely excited to see him back in the WWE, he was replacing a heel, and he was actually a great part of the story of the match. Miz eventually came down and attacked him after making Heath Slater tap, giving Wade Barrett an easy pin for his elimination. From that point, he was on the Raw roster feuding with The Miz for the United States Championship, with Bryan finally winning and getting his first singles belt a month into his run in the WWE.
Despite a play multiple times throughout the career of Bryan, women in stories with Bryan have always worked, even if they weren’t the obviously good idea to begin with. An entire angle like this involving his future wife cost him the US championship against Sheamus, planting seeds for the future. Despite having the feud that he did with the belt, Bryan was shipped off to Smackdown in the 2011 supplemental draft. Months later, he would enter the Smackdown Money in the Bank contract and begin a very long, very good story for Bryan. Proving that he wouldn’t need to cash it in after, he announced he would cash it in in the main event of Wrestlemania, letting everyone know so there would be no surprise. After a few weeks, Bryan ended up feuding with then-World Heavyweight champ, Mark Henry, leading to him considering cashing in after Big Show knocked Henry out, but after multiple teases and even Bryan cashing in but being told by GM Teddy Long that he wasn’t cleared to compete, Bryan still had the case. When Big Show defeated Mark Henry at TLC ’11 on December 18, Daniel Bryan came down and cashed in his contract and won the World Heavyweight Championship. One year after being hired for officially the third time, Daniel Bryan was the main champion on a brand of WWE. He also won a main belt faster than anyone else in NXT.
Right before he won the belt, however, as stated above, there was always a woman around Bryan. AJ Lee, or if you prefer AJ, was behind Bryan every step of the way, even if Bryan was cold or just downright rude to her. He was growing into more of a villain by the day. He defended his belt three times (including a great Elimination Chamber match) before WrestleMania XXVIII, in which he lost to Sheamus in a matter of 18 seconds after getting his good luck kiss from AJ. At this point of this, I have described all of this at length in an attempt to paint the picture of the major part of my argument. The first ten years of Daniel Bryan/Bryan Danielson/American Dragon is the best “first ten years” of any wrestler ever. No one could possibly reach the peak quite the way he did. Wrestling is all over the place and definitely not completely applicable to certain counter-arguments based on the availability of it. But. Bryan had done all that he could in the short frame of time. Ten years isn’t short? Ask “Bullet” Bob Armstrong. Most of the greatest have had over a decade of work, even if they were only on top or near the top for a short period. Steve Austin was not popping crowds all over the world before he became “Stone Cold.” Daniel Bryan sought nothing more than the best and he gave it all and then some.
Now, I’m going to assume that most people that know Daniel Bryan know most of his WWE work. I’m not gonna sit here and go over the in depth story of the Yes Movement or Team Hell No, because I assume you do know about all of that. Even if you knew about all of that before, it is worth mentioning for previously stated reasons. Continuing from there is that Bryan’s next decade of wrestling didn’t really have him slow down, outside of the injury and early retirement. But even since he’s came back after, there’s only so much of a fraction of a step he’s lost. Definitely still one of the greatest workers in the business today. He pulled off the “Miracle on Bourbon Street,” a surefire contender for best moment in WWE history – the culmination of the greatest height of Bryan’s powers on the grandest stage in the craziest and riskiest situation possible. Bryan wrestled for over an hour in two different slugfests with a shoulder in wrap and beat the entirety of Evolution, a stable that has always been infamously described as “egregiously overbooked” of Triple H, Randy Orton, and Batista. The amount of gold those men held… And they couldn’t stop YES YES YES. And if not that as his greatest moment as a wrestler, then even him in defeat creates historical moments. In the months-long organic build of fans and workers, Kofi Kingston had earned and was given an opportunity to take down the heel version of Daniel Bryan that turned the belt into hemp and oak in a masterful character that is just enough cheesy and mostly just rude.
A phenomenally unmatchable first decade (workrate) and easily two of the greatest moments in the more recent part of pro wrestling (draw) not enough? Is it his personality that doesn’t sell it for you? He’s not Macho Man, screaming and straining for every single syllable for emphasis, having you either in stitches or the edge of your seat with every word, that’s for sure. But. He is definitely enough of a character to create one of the greatest movements of all-time in any era. I’d argue the Yes Movement was the 2010’s version of Austin 3:16 or Hulkamania. One key example of when Daniel Bryan had really got to fans: the 2015 Royal Rumble. Audible chants of his name echoed throughout the arena after his elimination when he was announced unexpectedly at #10 after months of rehabbing an injury. This was widely regarded as a very bad move to eliminate him. So charisma can’t be a true factor to say he can’t be the greatest. Dude had people fired up for wrestling again, and diehard fans could finally get behind someone from the indies who still had their integrity and didn’t lose a thing for moving up.
Accolades? Bryan is a Grand Slam champ, finishing last with the Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania 31. However following that, he would lose the belt and be pulled from the roster and retire from wrestling. Even then the argument could’ve been made then, but coming back and adding more title reigns really fills in the HOF statue easier. So he hasn’t won a Royal Rumble… Or had any belt a bajillion amount of times. The fact he’s done it all and done it all so well should really be even more impressive than just winning one title a bunch. Win one title a bunch and you look strong, sure, but win every title on the brand and you look good for the brand, too.
I think that’s a start of a much bigger, much more nuanced take on why I think Daniel Bryan is the greatest of all-time. The consistency, the passion, the drive – it all adds up to a guy who not only did it all, but did it all at the top wherever he was because he was that good. A person gifted with that talent did not go wasted. Did he go too hard? Possibly. Alternatively, had he saved something for later, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I could go into more of his history or his moveset or his characters along the way, but the truth is… Daniel Bryan is always great. Not good. Great. No one is always great. But he is. I imagine I will never see anything like him again.