We’ve made it folks. For the past 20 days, I’ve been posting one WrestleMania moment per day, leading up to this year’s Ultimate Thrill Ride™. Today’s will be fun, because half of you will probably say, “Uhhhh no duh”, and the other half will complain that your personal favorite moment didn’t make the cut…and to them I say, whaaadowegotovaheye? Cuppa haters? So this, boys and girls, is my favorite WrestleMania moment of all time:
1. A Miracle On Bourbon Street
Daniel Bryan winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship is not only my favorite WrestleMania moment, not only my favorite moment in wrestling history…I think it’s my favorite moment. Like, ever. I’m going to talk a lot about Bryan’s career to get you to this point, because this is the culmination of years and years of hard work. Sure, the title win is “fake”, but it represented a whole lot.
Bryan Danielson made his pro wrestling debut in 2000, after a few months of training under “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels. Danielson worked under a mask in the early stages of his career, going by “American Dragon”, a nickname that has stuck with him to this day. Most of the wrestlers who have been by Bryan’s side since his independent days still call him “Dragon” as if it were his first name.
After winning APW’s King of the Indies tournament in 2001, Paul Hayman’s protege Gabe Sapolsky saw a ton of potential in Danielson, and many other competitors on the APW shows. Sapolsky launched a new promotion called Ring of Honor less than a year later, and put Bryan Danielson in the first show’s main event against Low Ki and Christopher Daniels.
As many of you know, Bryan’s Ring of Honor career was a rousing success. Danielson was the workhorse in a company full of the best of the best, and when I say that Ring of Honor was the best of the best, I mean it. From it’s inception to about the time Danielson left, ROH housed what was possibly the best roster in wrestling history. Over those seven years, Ring of Honor’s roster included CM Punk, Low Ki, Samoa Joe, AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels, Austin Aires, Nigel McGuinness, The Briscoes, Kevin Steen, El Generico, Roderick Strong, Jay Lethal, and many more.
While Danielson was loved by the Ring of Honor audience, he wasn’t necessarily their guy. That all changed in 2005, when James Gibson (AKA Jamie Noble) was signed by the WWE. Gibson had just won the ROH World Championship from CM Punk, who had also just been signed by WWE, so Gabe Sapolsky was forced to put the title on someone new. Sapolsky decided that man would be Bryan Danielson, after Bryan promised Gabe that he would be fully committed to ROH, and not leave for another promotion.
Bryan’s ROH World Title reign was, in my opinion, the best in company history. Danielson worked as a heel for a large portion of it, determined to prove to every wrestling fan on Earth that he was the best in the world. He took challengers from Ring of Honor, Combat Zone Wrestling, and Pro Wrestling NOAH, and was successful in 38 title defenses, which still holds as the number to beat. When Bryan held the championship, he embodied the old school “working champion” mentality. Danielson worked through many injuries and matches that were so hard hitting you’d think they were real. Some of the highlights from this run were his matches against Nigel McGuinness, particularly the match at UNIFIED in 2006, his time limit draw with Samoa Joe, and his classic with KENTA in New York City.
After 462 days, Danielson lost the Championship to Homicide, and took some time off to heal his injuries. When he returned, Bryan’s first feud was with Takeshi Morishima from NOAH, and it is still remembered as one of his best. During their first singles match, Morishima detached Bryan’s retina and broke his orbital bone with a punch in the first few minutes of the match. Bryan, being the worker he was, continued wrestling for another twenty or so minutes, and put on one of the best matches of his career. Three weeks later, against doctor’s recommendation, Danielson was back in the ring for his rematch, and decided the finish should be Morishima punching him in the eye (which was now covered by an eye patch) until he was “knocked out”. It’s just the kind of wrestler he was. He would probably cut a limb off if it made for a good angle or match.
In 2009, Danielson was signed by World Wrestling Entertainment, and started working under the name Daniel Bryan, which I’ll refer to him as from here on out. Daniel started off in NXT, which is standard for anyone starting off in the WWE today, but in 2010, NXT was a completely different entity. Instead of NXT being a developmental system, or separate brand (which it is at this point), NXT was more like a reality show. Scripted reality, of course. This is pro wrestling we’re talking about. NXT’s concept was that “Rookies” like Bryan (who had been considered the best wrestler in the world for many years now), would be paired up with a “Pro” like The Miz, who would mentor them. Every week, the Rookies would go through silly challenges like carrying kegs of beer, or drinking a large soda as quickly as possible, and at the end of the episode, one would be voted off. Many believed that the only reason Daniel Bryan was even there was to make a fool out of him. Michael Cole, following somebody else’s instructions, I’m sure, buried Bryan like his job depended on it, and Bryan put up a record of 1-5 before being eliminated. Still, he was ranked #1 in the “Pro’s Poll”, who all knew his potential.
After Bryan was eliminated, he was told to cut a promo about it. He thought that was legitimately the end of his WWE career, and used the promo to advertise himself on the independent scene. He famously said, “Daniel Bryan, he might be done, but Bryan Danielson…who knows what’s gonna happen to him”, which Vince McMahon initially hated, and made him redo. After watching it back, though, Bryan realized that they used the first take. Daniel Bryan stuck around on NXT despite his elimination, appearing in segments with The Miz, Michael Cole, and Matt Striker. When the show’s first season ended, a plan was made to take all of the Rookies, and put them in a stable to debut on RAW. This stable, Nexus, would make their first appearance by attacking John Cena and CM Punk in the main event of Monday Night RAW, causing havoc while doing so. Bryan was included in the Nexus stable, and while raising hell, grabbed ring announcer Justin Roberts’ tie, and choked him with it. Choking is against the WWE’s PG guidelines, and it led to Bryan’s release a few days later.
Upon hearing the news that he was fired from the #1 wrestling company in the world, Daniel Bryan was not upset. Seth Rollins said it best, “For [Bryan] it was never about being famous. It was never about making millions and millions of dollars, or being in movies, or anything like that It was just about wrestling”. Bryan looked at his WWE run as great exposure, and had been making less money than when he was on the indies anyway. Gabe Sapolsky gave Daniel a call, and told him his plans to make Bryan the face of his new promotion, EVOLVE. Much like Ring of Honor, Daniel Bryan was featured in the debut show’s main event. Everything was going okay for Bryan, and he was finalizing negotiations on a contract with New Japan Pro Wrestling. That’s when WWE gave him another call.
The WWE’s higher ups decided that when Bryan choked Justin Roberts with his tie, they had to let him go, but still wanted him. They figured a few months was a good enough “punishment”, and Daniel Bryan returned to the company as a surprise member of Team WWE in a 7-on-7 match with the Nexus at Summerslam. WWE’s website accidentally spoiled his return earlier in the night, but he still received an amazing reaction from the crowd. I can’t help but wonder what Vince’s reaction to that was.
Daniel Bryan started a feud with his NXT Pro, The Miz, after Summerslam. The two had a match for the United States Championship at Night of Champions, the next pay per view, and Bryan came out victorious. It was some sight to see Daniel Bryan hoisting gold above his head in a WWE ring, even if it was just the United States title, and even if I had only been following him for a little over a year by that point. He’s such a natural underdog, though, that it felt like he had made it, against all of these obstacles, Daniel Bryan’s U.S. title defenses stole every show he was on, most notably his “Champion vs Champion” match with Dolph Ziggler at Bragging Rights 2010.
Bryan returned to NXT in December, but this time, he was a Pro. His rookie was none other than Derrick Bateman (AKA Ethan Carter III), and the two of them provided some of the best comedy segments in the last decade of wrestling. Bryan would try to show Bateman all of these submission holds, and Derrick could never get the hang of them, which pissed Daniel off. They also caught some heat for “rigging” the games that were supposed to be done legitimately. You could just tell from watching how good of a time they were having with the whole thing.
The Bella Twins competed for Bryan’s attention towards the end of 2010, and into the beginning of 2011. This is where Bryan first met Brie Bella, who he is now married to. It was a silly storyline, and it’s goal was to make Daniel look bad. He was built as a nerd who didn’t eat meat, and fans were supposed to question why women like the Bella Twins would be after such a loser. It culminated with the Bellas walking in on Bryan kissing Gail Kim and realizing he was dating her the whole time.
Wrestlemania 27 in Atlanta was going to be Bryan’s first with the company, and he wound up getting a match on the card, defending his United States Championship against Sheamus. Originally, it was a one on one match. Like many others, I was looking forward to this so much, because Wrestlemania that year didn’t have much to offer. Right before the show, it was made into a lumberjack match, and booted to the pre-show. It went okay, but obviously, not as planned.
After losing his title to Sheamus the night after Wrestlemania, and being rescued by Sin Cara of all people, Daniel Bryan was drafted to SmackDown. He feuded with Cody Rhodes very briefly, and then won the SmackDown Money in the Back briefcase. Bryan announced that he was going to wait until the following year’s Wrestlemania to cash in, while in reality, behind the scenes, Vince McMahon and company immediately regretted putting the briefcase on him. They got cold feet and decided to have Bryan lose almost every match he was in. He was actually lucky if he got to lose a match, because he wasn’t even flown to most pay per views. During this time, he also became romantically involved with AJ Lee on screen.
When December rolled around, Mark Henry was the World Heavyweight Champion in a feud with the Big Show. They had a match scheduled for the Tables, Ladders, and Chairs pay per view, and Henry got hurt right before it took place. The WWE needed to take the strap off of Henry, but didn’t want to give it to the Big Show. Daniel Bryan, who wasn’t even on the show, was called in and informed that after the Big Show beats Mark Henry, he’s going to get laid out, giving Bryan the opportunity to cash in. He’d do it successfully by pinning the Big Show, and delivering no moves. Daniel spent the day backstage lying to those closest to him as to why he was there. He even began watching Mark Henry vs Big Show with Brie, and told her he had to use the bathroom before cashing in.
Daniel Bryan’s World Heavyweight Championship reign was fantastic. He started doing something new before and after his matches, too. To be as annoying as possible as a heel, Bryan started screaming “YES!” in the faces of opponents, fans, and everyone in between. To add to his heel-ish ways, Daniel started to become more and more rude to AJ. She would tell him how much she loved him and would do anything for him, and he’d never say anything affectionate in return, often times telling her to shut up. AJ became Bryan’s downfall, as well, when it came time for Wrestlemania 28. Once again, Daniel Bryan was defending a championship against Sheamus at Wrestlemania, only this time, it was the World Heavyweight Championship, and it was on the show. Unfortunately, this one wasn’t any better than the last. After coming out to a crowd of 78,363 rabid fans holding YES signs and chanting along with Bryan (even though he was the heel in this match), Daniel Bryan kissed AJ Lee on the apron, and turned into a Brogue Kick. The match lasted only 18 seconds, and deflated the Wrestlemania crowd for the entire first half of the show. As a fan myself, of course I wanted Bryan to win, but I wanted him to have a good match more than anything. I wanted people tuning in for Wrestlemania to see in Bryan what I did. Daniel Bryan’s 18 second loss on the “Grandest Stage Of Them All” wound up being the best thing that could have ever happened to him, however.
On the Post-Wrestlemania RAW the following night, the crowd was going absolutely crazy for Bryan…who wasn’t even on the show. The YES chants went wild all night, making WWE put Daniel in the dark match that night, where he was able to get on the mic afterwards, where he said, “Last night was the worst night of my wrestling career…but thanks to you people here, for chanting YES! YES! YES! YES…I think you people have finally convinced them to make me a new t-shirt.” It was such a Daniel Bryan promo, in that, even though he was a heel, everybody loved him, and he showed how much he appreciated that.
“Even though Daniel Bryan was ________, everybody loved him” is actually a pretty common sentence when talking about his career.
As the YES chants grew louder and louder, Bryan’s position on the card seemed to move up, when he faced CM Punk in a few matches for the WWE Championship. AJ started to show interest in Punk and Kane behind Daniel’s back, leading to their split on the 1,000th episode of Monday Night RAW. Bryan’s character became an extremely angry, borderline lunatic who now resented the fans who chanted YES, and chanted NO instead. If you explained that to someone who didn’t watch the angle, it comes off as super lame and cheesy. Like, “There’s this guy that used to scream YES at the top of his lungs, now he says NO. It’s great!” but it really was. AJ became the general manager, and after seeing how angry Daniel Bryan was in his feud with Kane, sent both of them into anger management classes together. What could have been the worst comedy segments ever were made into some of the best, simply because of how Bryan, Kane, and their therapist, Dr. Shelby played their parts.
Daniel Bryan and Kane were made into a tag team, titled Team Hell No by the WWE fans. Team Hell No won the WWE Tag Team Championship in September of 2012 when Daniel Bryan pushed Kane off the top rope in a fit of rage, and Kane just so happened to land on Kofi Kingston. They held the titles for 245 days, including a successful defense at Wrestlemania 29, making it Daniel’s first real Wrestlemania moment. Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns defeated Team Hell No for the titles at Extreme Rules in 2013.
After losing the Tag Team titles, Daniel Bryan wanted to show everyone that he was not the “weak link” of Team Hell No. He teamed with Randy Orton to take down their common enemy, The Shield, and then faced Orton in a singles match on RAW. The match with Orton was going to be the biggest match of Bryan’s WWE career, as he was going to beat Randy Orton clean in the center of the ring. The crowd was super hot for Bryan, and the match was picking up, when Bryan hit a missile dropkick, and took a harsh landing on his back that caused him to lose feeling in both of his arms. He tried to keep going, but Triple H, looking out for Daniel, called for the referee to stop the match. That’s all we saw as fans. What went on backstage was much crazier, however. Bryan talks about it in his book:
“When I walked through the curtain, I yelled, ‘What the fuck is that all about. That’s fucking bullshit!’ ‘You need to calm down,’ responded Triple H, who had been communicating with the doctor over the headset and called for the match to be stopped.
‘No, you need to calm the fuck down,’ I replied.
We were up in each other’s faces and both ready to fight. I never had a match stopped in my entire career-not when I separated my shoulder five minutes into an hour draw and not when I detached my retina. Certainly not through any of my concussions. I’m sure I shouted all those things to him, but I was blackout mad so I don’t necessarily remember. He was livid, too, and shouted back about stopping the match for my protection, but I wasn’t having any of it. It felt hypocritical for Triple H-of all people-to do that, considering in 2001 Hunter himself tore his quad live on Raw and yet finished the match.
‘How the fuck can you say that to me?’ I asked. ‘You went out there and tore your quad and you continued to wrestle!’ It was getting so heated that guys stepped in to separate us and I stormed off.”
One week later, after he apologized to Hunter and Vince for his blow-up, Bryan got his win over Randy Orton in a phenomenal street fight. He was then inserted into that year’s RAW Money in the Bank match, with the likes of Randy Orton, CM Punk, Sheamus, Christian, and Rob Van Dam. Bryan came up short, but was chosen to be John Cena’s challenger for the WWE Championship at Summerslam the next night, by the champ himself. The crowd’s volume rose to Attitude Era levels when Cena said, “I select Daniel Bryan.”
Leading up to their match, Daniel Bryan and John Cena worked an angle where Bryan said that Cena was a parody of pro wrestling. Bryan said that John Cena wasn’t a true wrestler. Cena didn’t take kindly to those accusations based on his WWE accomplishments, and smacked Daniel Bryan in the face. That’s where Daniel told him he wasn’t going to smack him back, because he didn’t respect him enough to do so. When the time came for Summerslam, the crowd was almost entirely behind Bryan. Everyone wanted to see our underdog win his first WWE Championship clean, off of the face of the company…and he did.
Daniel Bryan defeated John Cena in one of the best matches of either’s careers, and he did it clean in the center of the ring. The match had everything in it, and told a fantastic story, culminating with Bryan finally smacking Cena, showing his respect, and debuting his running knee finisher. It seemed too good to be true…and it was. Triple H, the special guest referee for the match, Pedigreed Bryan, allowing Randy Orton to cash in his Money in the Bank. Part of me was disappointed that my favorite wrestler’s first WWE Championship reign lasted about five minutes, but a much bigger part of me was excited that Daniel Bryan would now be in pay per view main events frequently.
Randy Orton was backed by The Authority (Vince McMahon, Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, The Shield, and Kane) and they explained why Daniel couldn’t be champion, with a hint of reality; he didn’t have the look of a WWE Champion. Daniel Bryan wasn’t tall enough, or built enough, or clean shaven enough to be WWE Champion. He did have a rematch clause, however, that he used at Night Of Champions. After a few weeks worth of RAW fading to black with Daniel Bryan laid out by The Authority, he defeated Randy Orton, seemingly clean, for the WWE Championship…but it wasn’t clean. There was a fast-count by referee Scott Armstrong that allowed Bryan to pick up the victory, although Orton’s shoulders were on the mat for much longer than the three count. The following night on RAW, Daniel was stripped of the title, and The Authority fired Armstrong, even though it seemed like he was on their side.
Once again, Daniel Bryan was deserving of a rematch, as was Randy Orton, so the WWE used the same formula from the previous month: Bryan, now the most popular wrestler on the roster, by far, will be trashed by The Authority on the microphone, then trashed by The Authority in the ring. Fans were starting to become restless, which is usually good for storyline purposes, but not what the WWE had in mind. The two next met at Battleground, where after another hard fought match, the finish was messy. The Big Show, being pressured by The Authority, went out towards the end of the contest, threw the referee out of the ring, gave Bryan a Knockout Punch, then feeling guilty, and gave Randy Orton a knockout punch. So Battleground ended with Big Show standing tall over a downed Bryan, Orton, and referee. I am positive the crowd didn’t want to see that happen.
Bryan’s final challenge for the WWE Championship in 2013 was at the very next pay per view, Hell in a Cell, once again facing off with Randy Orton. The match took place in the steel structure the show was named after, and was officiated by Special Guest Referee Shawn Michaels. Everyone was wondering who’s side Michaels would be on, because even though he was Bryan’s teacher, he was also Triple H’s best friend. Shawn wound up siding with his best friend, and delivered a Sweet Chin Music to Bryan, making Randy Orton the new WWE Champion.
Despite Daniel Bryan being the clear fan favorite on the roster, and consistently delivering the best matches, he was written out of the main event picture and put into an angle with the Wyatt Family, while John Cena vs Randy Orton became the Championship feud. John Cena and Randy Orton are some of the best WWE wrestlers of our generation, but couldn’t have been pit against each other at a worse time. At the annual Slammy Awards, Daniel Bryan won Superstar of the Year, just two hours away from where he grew up, nonetheless. The night was supposed to end with a “Championship Ascension Ceremony”, where both the World Heavyweight Championship and the WWE Championship would be raised above the ring before getting unified at the Tables, Ladder, and Chairs show the following Sunday. The Seattle crowd had other plans, however. With a ring full of former WWE Champions such as Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, Mick Foley, CM Punk, and Rey Mysterio, the fans chanted “DANIEL BRYAN” so loud that Triple H had to stop his promo, Shawn Michaels had to ask the crowd to be quiet, and Mark Henry had to ask them to cut it out. Did they? Nope. The fans just went right into YES chants. You could see a few of the wrestlers in the ring smirking, with a look of, “Yep. Knew this was gonna happen!” Daniel cites this as the best moment of his entire wrestling career, because it was the last time his father got to see him wrestle, and see how insane the fans were for him.
Unfortunately, fans were once again displeased when Bryan joined the Wyatts, turning heel when he was red hot. Behind the scenes, Daniel actually requested to be a Wyatt member, because he was afraid that he wasn’t going to get a match on Wrestlemania, so he figured at least he would be apart of John Cena’s. It really makes me wonder what the hell backstage mentality was like at that time, to the point where the most popular wrestler in the company was hoping he’d make it on Wrestlemania. The Wyatt run was short-lived, and ended when Michigan State adopted the YES chants, and got mainstream coverage. When Bryan turned on Bray Wyatt, the crowd’s reaction sent chills down the spines of anyone who was watching. Every single fan in the arena followed along with Daniel’s slow-to-fast YES chant, in unison. I’ve never seen anything like it. I actually got a bit choked up.
Bryan was finishing up his feud with Bray Wyatt in the first match of the Royal Rumble pay per view, giving him just enough time to recover and win the Rumble…except he didn’t. Daniel Bryan lost to Bray Wyatt, then wasn’t even an entrant in the Royal Rumble. The Pittsburgh crowd was chanting for Bryan leading up to the #30 countdown (and during the entire John Cena vs Randy Orton match), and when it wound up being Rey Mysterio, turned on him, and the match itself. There were chants of “DANIEL BRYAN” for the rest of the match, and whenever the crowd wasn’t chanting that, they were booing. A returning Batista won, was supposed to be the beloved babyface to finally take the title from The Authority, and was booed so loud his music had to be turned up for the post-match celebration.
It started to look like Daniel Bryan’s last chance at the Championship at Wrestlemania would be winning the Elimination Chamber in February, and having his first defense in New Orleans. Daniel made it to the final two in the Chamber match, but was once again screwed by Kane and The Authority. Then it looked like he would be against Sheamus again, then it looked like he would be against Triple H. We, as fans, weren’t going to settle for that, even if Bryan would. The show hijacking continued, and continued, and continued, in any segment Daniel wasn’t in. The hijacking was then written in to the storyline, when members of the “YES! Movement” stormed the ring, and “Occupied RAW”. Bryan claimed he wasn’t leaving until he got what he wanted: a match with Triple H at Wrestlemania. The crowd popped, but not as loud as they regularly were. After Hunter accepted, the leader of the YES! Movement demanded that if he were to win their match at Wrestlemania 30, he would be entered into the main event for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. The pop from the crowd grew louder, and when Triple H agreed to that too, it grew even louder. Finally, we got what we’ve wanted for months. Daniel Bryan has a very good chance of being in the main event of Wrestlemania.
Wrestlemania 30 was probably my favorite show I’ve ever watched, all because of Daniel Bryan. His match against the C.O.O. of the WWE, Triple H, kicked off the show. Triple H, like he always does, had an extravagant entrance involving a throne, beautiful servants (who were actually Charlotte, Sasha Banks, and Alexa Bliss in disguise), a golden crown and cape, and dramatic music. Bryan? He had the exact same entrance he’s had for years. No dramatic music, no extra pyro, nothing. Daniel Bryan came to the ring, chanting YES, leading the 70,000 fans behind him. Sometimes, the most simple symbolism works the best. His “Monster” video package is “My Way” good, as if he needed it to be.