The WWE has been building towards Daniel Bryan's upcoming Wrestlemania moment since he was brought into the company five years ago. Now hold on, I'm not suggesting that they drew this all up match-by-match and angle-by-angle all the way back in 2009 when he was first hired from the indie scene -- that's giving everyone involved more credit than any show, wrestling or otherwise, likely deserves. The point is that everything the WWE has done to Bryan, and everything Bryan has done for the WWE, has led us to this point. Bryan could theoretically defeat his current nemesis and the most powerful man in the industry, Triple H, as well as take home the WWE World Heavyweight Championship that has eluded him for the better part of a year. And he'd do it all during WWE's premier event, in its momentous 30th occurrence.
There's a pretty good chance you didn't watch all of the last five years of WWE programming that brought us to this point, and since it's the moment that could make or break the momentum Bryan has managed to build in that time, it's worth knowing what got us here. Specifically, that the message has almost always been the same, a message Bryan has beaten back time and again and is now mere days away from possibly shedding for good. If you're considering chanting, "YES!" along with the rest at that time, it's best you know why you're doing it.
2010: NXT and Miz
Bryan was hired by WWE in 2009, but his televised career began with the launch of WWE's developmental show, NXT, though, back in 2010. It was a reality show format with Superstars managing rookies, and Bryan was one of them. Whereas the message today straight from Triple H and the WWE Authority's* mouth is that he's a "B+ player" incapable of handling A+ opponents vying for top-tier titles, back in his beardless days, Bryan was considered a nerd with hypothetical wrestling talent. The nerd thing was hammered home for a couple of years, with Bryan's own manager -- known as a Pro in NXT parlance -- the Miz basically shitting all over Bryan for a lack of charisma or ability to work a mic, in contrast to the Miz who had some WWE success behind him and was a reality television star from his time on MTV's "The Real World." The message was clear, and it was one lead announcer Michael Cole loved to reiterate: WWE audiences wanted and WWE itself needed more of a showman like the Miz, not some sub-200-pounder who could be labeled a nerd and hadn't achieved anything in wrestling's major leagues.
*The storyline group in charge of WWE, but also actually in charge of WWE -- there's a reason they're currently in what's known as the Reality Era, you know.
This was a setup, though, one audiences were supposed to lash out against. It was clear Bryan was incredible in the ring from the start, when he battled longtime Superstar Chris Jericho in his NXT debut -- while Bryan lost, he looked fantastic in the process. Then-heel announcer Cole couldn't admit as much, and would continue to belittle Bryan for a couple more years, but that's part of the whole wrestling game: fans aren't supposed to agree with the heels. Bryan, who looked the everyman part, was supposed to to be the hero we could relate to, and WWE was planting that seed with Cole, an announcer we were supposed to disagree with on principle, if not instinctively.
Bryan's time on NXT was relatively brief, but he joined the actual WWE in 2010 as part of the Nexus, a stable of the NXT rookies who banded together for the obvious benefits of strength in numbers. This was short-lived, as Bryan would be fired for an incident in which he strangled ring announcer Justin Roberts with his own tie, an act WWE couldn't let go in the PG era of wrestling television since they "had sponsors to deal with," in Bryan's words. This, like another event later on, might have helped Bryan's career out, however.
Bryan returned to take on his former Nexus teammates in late 2010 as a representative of the WWE at the SummerSlam pay-per-view, handpicked by the modern-day Hulk Hogan, John Cena. Even better, it was at the expense of the Miz, with whom Cole was infatuated. This kicked off the delayed feud with the Miz, and earned Bryan his first WWE gold with the United States Championship, freeing the Miz up to chase the WWE Championship. A high-profile main event at one of WWE's larger pay-per-views followed by a feud with a wrestler being primed for the title scene that matters most: not a bad way to start things off.
Good God Almighty
2011-2012: Titles, titles and more titles
For all the talk about Bryan being buried, he is always either with title in hand or chasing one. The idea that he's been buried at any point is an absurd one -- buried performers don't wrestle the second-most matches of anyone in a year, as Bryan did in 2012 -- but it's also one that WWE has been purposely utilizing. Fans get more and more worked up about Bryan's chase for a championship -- any championship -- as the WWE continues to tell us that he doesn't deserve one.
The US title was just the first. Bryan won the Money in the Bank briefcase* that allowed him a chance at the WWE Heavyweight Championship, the Heavyweight Championship itself, and later held the Tag Team titles for the better part of a year before diving in to the WWE Championship picture, where he's been more often than not since August of last year. The whole time, WWE questioned, through their announcers, whether Bryan deserved any of these accolades, just to keep audiences from getting too comfortable about his acceptance into the company. No wonder everyone is so paranoid about him.
*The Money in the Bank briefcase is essentially a free pass to cash in an opportunity at a specific belt, won at a pay-per-view of the same name. Bryan used his to pin a passed out Big Show and win his first Heavyweight Championship without wrestling a legitimate match.
WrestleMania 30 Predictions
WrestleMania 30 Predictions
When Bryan lost the United States title, he was almost immediately thrust into the Heavyweight picture. He defended that belt multiple times at pay-per-views before losing it in embarrassing fashion to Sheamus at Wrestlemania 28 in 2012. Bryan, distracted by a kiss from his on-screen lady, AJ Lee, took a boot to the face and was immediately pinned 18 seconds after the bell. It was a stupid idea for a match, in the sense that people wanted to see these two wrestle their asses off at the year's biggest event, but it took that concept of Bryan being hated by WWE's decision-makers to the next level. Fans chanted Bryan's catchphrase, "YES!" which Bryan had been using ironically to be annoying to fans as an overenthusiastic, full-of-himself heel, at the Monday Night Raw following Wrestlemania 28, even in segments Bryan wasn't involved with. The WWE had broken down an up-and-coming, popular wrestler in a mere 18 seconds, and audiences responded with intense and instant loyalty for their fallen hero. Like with getting fired and then returning to immediate important angles, the unceremonious defeat sped up Bryan's ascent, even if it's easy to see it as unintentional.
2012-2013: Team Hell No
After failing to recapture his Heavyweight title from Sheamus at the following pay-per-view, Bryan didn't slide down WWE's hierarchy. Instead, he entered into a summer feud with another former indie darling, CM Punk, who was the WWE Champion. Bryan didn't come away with gold, but it did help set up another angle that would keep him on television.
Lee, now Bryan's jilted ex after being mistreated by him for months during his run as a heel, enrolled Bryan as well as Kane* in anger management classes. This resulted in fantastic comedy segments where Bryan and Kane used trust falls and yelling and hugs and more yelling to work through their emotional issues. It could easily be dismissed as a joke only meant to embarrass Bryan, but he and Kane performed splendidly in these segments, and WWE even provided video packages detailing the entire thing. They don't waste time on that if it's only a joke.
It led to the two forming a tag team and, through their own inability to work together, they would come away victorious again and again. Team Hell No, as they were eventually named, were Tag Team champs for 245 days, and only lost the titles in a high-profile match with one of WWE's most popular and talented forces, The Shield. Like with Bryan's other title losses, this was meant to send him to something bigger.
*Kane, the Big Red Monster, the Undertaker's brother, the dude who makes fire shoot out of the ring posts. Yup, comedy tag team about anger management and hugging it out, and it is possibly his best work ever.
All the hurtful words about Bryan's abilities, all the anger issues that supposedly kept him from being as successful as he could be and the fact Bryan ate the pin that lost Team Hell No the titles collided at once in a new storyline. Bryan claimed he was not the weak link of Team Hell No, and set about proving this by destroying every single competitor he met up with, most notably Randy Orton, who has a larger part to play later in Bryan's story. When John Cena handpicked his opponent for the WWE Championship match at SummerSlam, he chose Bryan, who entered to a chorus of "YES!" chants that began well before he even appeared.
2013-2014: The Authority is born
Bryan would win the match and do away with the insecurities he might have had about himself caused by the years of being put down by WWE. Orton would come out right after, though, and with Triple H's assistance, take the belt from Bryan through the same Money in the Bank cash-in tactics that earned Bryan his first Heavyweight belt back in 2011. The Authority, led by storyline COO Triple H and his real- and story-wife, Stephanie McMahon, was born, and they had no use for Bryan in the main event scene.
When announcer Michael Cole tells you that you're nothing and that you're not good enough, it's one thing. Bryan won Cole and seemingly everyone else over with his in-ring work and connection with the fans, who were there at every turn to chant "YES!" or "NO!" or the always acceptable "DAN-IEL BRY-AN" at every opportunity. When your boss -- who is not just the storyline boss but also the real boss -- tells you that you're not good enough, it's something else entirely. This took the idea of Bryan not being right for WWE to a whole new level, as it blurred the lines between reality and WWE as an entertainment product. It brought back those doubts that maybe they -- the corporate, decision-making they -- didn't believe in Bryan as a main event title-holder who could be the face of the company. Maybe on-stage wasn't the only place where Triple H and Stephanie McMahon discussed how much better the company was with Orton carrying the title.
The Authority kept Bryan from the WWE Championship time and time again after SummerSlam. First, they claimed a fast count was made by the ref in Bryan's favor, and they put the titles in abeyance*. Next, they installed Triple H's buddy, Shawn Michaels, as the special guest referee in a Hell in A Cell match, which ended with Bryan taking a kick to the chin and Orton winning back the title. We can just skip over the follow-up pay-per-view where Orton took on Big Show for the championship, since WWE seems to want to forget it ever happened, too.
*This is a much cooler way of saying "vacated" that I learned thanks to wrestling.
Bryan was pushed out of the title scene some more, with the idea being that he had his chance -- Bray Wyatt and his cult attempted to lure Bryan to their side during this stretch, promising Bryan the chance for the title that he seemingly couldn't get on his own. In the end, Bryan fought back against Bray and proved once again he was more than capable of handling his own affairs. In the meantime, Cena returned from injury and challenged Orton, with the idea being that once Cena rightfully won, he would give Bryan the chance that the Authority would not. Cena never won the titles back, however, allowing the Authority to once more keep Bryan out of the picture.
Fans lost patience, especially when Bryan didn't enter the Royal Rumble to earn a chance at the title, but Wrestlemania season brought new, better ways to finish off this storyline and give Bryan's arc the closure it deserves. Bryan muscled his way into a fight with Triple H himself, knowing that proving he wasn't the B+ player the Authority claimed him to be was the only way to get his rightful shot at WWE's top championship. Triple H refused, but was pushed to his breaking point with Bryan utilizing the fans -- the fans who stood by him, felt he was mistreated and always cheered for him -- to essentially hold Raw hostage in an Occupy-esque movement.
It took a long time to get here, but WWE created this believable moment with their treatment of Bryan throughout his career, and the potential payoff for that comes Sunday. "YES!" chants became the "YES!" Movement, with WWE monetizing customer backlash to prop Bryan up even higher and make him feel even more despised by authority, and fans feeling like they're the responsible parties in getting Bryan the chance he otherwise could not attain. To a degree, they are. If they hadn't reacted as they did over the years, then WWE would have abandoned this tale of everyman triumph over the odds long ago. It wouldn't have been, as the Authority likes to say, "best for business."
If Bryan defeats Triple H at Wrestlemania, he is inserted into the main event for an elusive shot at the belt he hasn't officially held since last August.* That doesn't mean he'll win the title, not yet, but the chances of Bryan defeating Triple H and taking his story to the next step are high. He's already proven his doubters in the audience and at the announce table wrong, he's shown to himself that he's the best wrestler on the roster and not the weakest link, and now it's time to show the ones holding him back from the shot he deserves that he has in fact earned it and can hang with the best. Winning the belts after that would just be the exclamation point on an already-emphatic statement.
*Just for fun, Triple H gets into the title match if he defeats Bryan, solely because his lackeys already involved in the match, Orton and Batista, are doing a terrible job taking orders and making Triple H money. Also because a large segment of WWE's fan base fears this exact thing happening any time Triple H puts on his gear.
With Bryan, it's all about the chase. He's been forced to jump through hoop after hoop over the last five years, but he's survived again and again. The justification for all of this will be if Bryan defeats Triple H, the man holding him back from his career taking that next step, the Final Boss and A+ player of WWE as it were. If he doesn't, then there is no payoff to this intricate, years-long story. They still wouldn't be burying Bryan at that point, no matter how many message boards might say so, but they would have missed their greatest opportunity in the last few years to truly make a star at WWE's ultimate showcase.