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Daniel Bryan’s improbable comeback is going to make us cry

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We’re all definitely going to cry when Bryan returns at WrestleMania 34, and we have to hope those are the only tears he makes us shed.

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Daniel Bryan is going to step into the ring at WrestleMania 34, and it’s not going to be as an authority figure from SmackDown or as a one-off where he waves to an adoring crowd just to say hello. Bryan is going to step into a WWE ring to wrestle for the first time since he retired due to neck and concussion-related injuries over two years ago. It’s going to be emotional, as so much of Bryan’s career and its momentous occasions have tended to be, and we’re all going to cry.

Bryan’s character has been a fighter who won’t back down, regardless of the odds stacked against him. And, as a wrestler on the shorter side, one who grew an unkempt beard and long hair that management used to give him hell for, the odds were often not in his favor. Crowds loved Bryan for his hard-hitting in-ring style, yes, but they also loved the tenacity, the never-give-up attitude that John Cena spoke of and wore on a T-shirt but Bryan lived. And it’s the fact that never-quit persona wasn’t acting at all, but is actually how Bryan is, that makes his return to the ring that much more emotional.

You likely wanted Bryan back in a WWE ring to wrestle, but you never wanted it more than he did. Bryan has spent years now going to every doctor, taking every test, and doing whatever he could to attempt to convince WWE that the concussions and neck injuries that put a stop to his career — seemingly for good — in early 2016 weren’t going to keep him down forever. That there wasn’t going to be a long-term danger, that he could adapt his ring style so there was less flying through the air and fewer headbutts and a more grounded style that wouldn’t put him in as much danger of another concussion or major neck injury.

It doesn’t help that Bryan’s injury woes and his resulting depression that followed leaving the world he loved were all documented on television, between two of WWE’s reality shows, Total Divas and spinoff Total Bellas, which heavily features Bryan and his real-life wife, fellow WWE superstar Brie Bella. We not only got to see Bryan’s emotional retirement on television, and then read about all of the rumors about his health and his prospects of returning and all of the doctors he was seeing, but we also saw the actual footage of Bryan dealing with the fallout of his life falling apart. Sure, it’s reality television, and reality can certainly be scripted, but there was nothing fake about Bryan’s pain — no script was going to capture what he felt better than his actual feelings and his natural responses to his new lot in life.

The concerning thing here, amid all the celebrations that one of the WWE universe’s favorites is back, is that Bryan is at risk for another injury, one that will make the rest of his life worse than if he hadn’t come back to wrestle. That the doctors are wrong, or that it was the wrong doctors, and that Bryan’s going to land the wrong way or take the wrong bump. The next concussion could be the one that we all point to years down the road as the one that sent Bryan down an irreversible course, the one that ends with his brain donated for research to keep another Daniel Bryan from happening down the road.

Sorry for going dark there, but we are talking about the effects of wrestling on this man’s brain, and it’s a dark subject — there’s a reason he was gone from in-ring action for two years. Bryan has undergone some experimental treatments, though, and his time with hyperbaric oxygen therapy seems to have improved his condition enough to be cleared by WWE. The same company that, prior to clearing Bryan, were extremely reluctant to so much as hint that he could ever return.

So, why the concern now, after Bryan has been medically cleared? Because WWE is still going to be testing Bryan after every match and bump, to make sure that he is, in fact, as healthy as the tests that got him cleared suggests: considering Bryan hid post-concussion seizures the last time he tried to return to the ring, the extra effort is more than just caution.

WWE also knows if Bryan didn’t wrestle for them, he would wrestle somewhere else when his contract was up this fall, and “somewhere else” might not protect Bryan as much as they will. Whether that’s true or not about being safer is unclear, but WWE isn’t hiding that it’s their thinking, either: Triple H, who plays an onscreen role but is also a legitimate authority figure for WWE in real life, said as much himself.

Bryan absolutely could be healthy enough to wrestle, and could change his style enough that he’s limiting the chance of a recurring concussion- or neck-related injury that will plague him for the rest of his life. The hyperbaric oxygen therapy he received could be a major breakthrough in the treatment of athletes (or anyone) suffering from concussions or concussion-related issues, and Bryan continuing to receive therapy while successfully keeping his career as a wrestler going would only add to that breakthrough.

It’s also pretty clear that the chance exists that Bryan is not healthy enough and never will be, and further wrestling is only going to bring his body and mind ruin. At this point, however, it’s Bryan’s choice to test that: WWE would rather he test it with them, knowing he’s going to do it regardless.

Fans will be cheering the return of Bryan. The loudest moment of all from an absolutely packed WrestleMania 34 will likely be when Bryan’s music first hits, or when he’s tagged in to dominate his opponents like he used to back before any of his health concerns existed in the minds of WWE or their fans. In the back of everyone’s mind, however, will be the knowledge that every bump Bryan takes could be his last. We’ll get more comfortable with that in time, as will WWE, and we all just have to hope Bryan and his doctors are right, and that the only tears he’ll make us shed in the future are those of joy at the successful return of a legend who had nearly been cut down in his prime.