Why Daniel Bryan’s Retirement from the WWE Matters

February 14, 2016

Wrestling is not “fake.” Fake is computer-generated imagery or CGI.  Fake is a movie fight scene. Fake is David Copperfield.

Daniel Bryan started wrestling when he was 18 years old. Within five months he had experienced three concussions. Nearly 16 years later, WWE wrestler Daniel Bryan has sustained more concussions than he can count or anyone knows.

Bryan announced his retirement from professional wrestling during an emotional ceremony on Monday Night Raw earlier this week. After years of getting in the head, Bryan finally accepted the fact that he could not continue to wrestle.

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There’s nothing fake about about a 34-year-old athlete retiring while in the prime of his career because of a serious brain injury.

In the world of professional wrestling, Bryan was one of the “real wrestlers.” In other words, he wasn’t like Hulk Hogan. Hogan took relatively few “head shots” during his career. Back then, most of the wrestlers worked different styles. Hogan bodyslammed people, kicked them in the face and then dropped a leg on them. The music played. The WWE cashed in.

But guys like Bryan were of a different generation. Bryan was a worker. He worked hard to make professional wrestling a spectacle among athletes. He worked a “stiff” style. He hit hard. He let others hit him hard. He delivered flying headbutts. He took steel chair shots to the head. He delivered dropkicks and moonsaults and flying bodypresses and running knees. Bryan was an athlete. Had MMA been anywhere near as profitable of a route in the 1990s, or even now, a healthy Bryan would have done well in that sport.

In wrestling he was revolutionary. At 5 feet 8 inches and 190 pounds he was supposed to be “too small” to every be an impact player. Bryan was supposed to just be one of those guys low on the card who entertained the fans to get them hyped up at the beginning before the main events between the bigger guys will all the muscles. But Bryan was one of the guys who changed that.

Wrestling fans are smart. They know what they are buying into when they watch. And when they give their respect to a wrestler it is because they believe that wrestler is great at what they do. There is no wrestling fan in the world who cheers for any professional wrestler because they think “Wow, he’s a great fake fighter.” No.

They cheer for Bryan and others like him because he is a great professional wrestler. Great at what he or she does. Bryan put his body on the line every time he wrestled. He was never protected or shielded or made to look good. He earned massive respect among the fans because he threw caution to the wind and took great risk in the ring. Just like Michael Jordan used to drive through the paint to dunk a basketball. Just like Cam Newton would scramble out of pressure and run 45 yards down field. Just like Muhammad Ali would shuffle his feet, jab and then deliver a big right hand. Bryan made wrestling special like many other great athletes have done for their sport.

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And that’s what the fans loved about him. Bryan reached the WWE pinnacle in 2014 after he won WWE title at the Superdome, with 75,000 people shouting his catchphrase “YES!” which he took from the UFC’s Diego Sanchez. The moment was not special because a fake wrestler won a fake title. That moment was special because a real athlete who is a professional wrestler forced the WWE to put the title on him because the fans who loved and respected his legitimacy as a professional wrestler demanded that Bryan be champion. The WWE never wanted Bryan as champion. The WWE brass wondered how could a small guy like Bryan drive tickets sales, ratings and merchandise? What kid would aspire to one day be like Daniel Bryan and not Hulk Hogan or even Triple H?

The answer, it turned out, was millions of them. They loved his innovative, high-flying, tough, stiff style. Now those millions of fans are watching Bryan retire, knowing they are saying goodbye to an all-time great, as legitimate and great as any athlete in any sport. A guy who fought so real and so hard in his career that he has to retire now to protect his health.

There’s nothing fake about that.

Follow Joshua Molina on Twitter: @JECMolina

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Image props: WWE.com