the realest

Last month, I got to see a guy retire from fake fighting. Daniel Bryan. Or Bryan Danielson. It’s hard to tell. I had a couple hours to prepare myself, using some of the time to walk to a Bartell Drugs and buy poster paper. A local radio station had a setup to make signs – savvy! – and I lingered over their pile of Sharpies, unsure just what to write to thank an icon.

Stuck, I hollered at my friend Martin, who knows more about the performance art of pro wrestling than anyone I know, “Should I write “THANK YOU DANIEL” or “THANK YOU BRYAN”?” He replied, “Bryan”, which seems the obvious choice in retrospect, a way to acknowledge the man and the character, the performer and the performances…but like I wrote, it’s hard to tell to where one ended and the other began. That’s one of the highest compliments you can pay to a wrestler.

Pro wrestling wasn’t part of my childhood – I have a collection of vague wrassle-related memories: playing with my Texas cousins in an approximation of chop-heavy mid-90’s wrestling offense, seeing Shawn Michaels cut a promo at a friend’s house, Wrestlemania coming to Safeco Field. I got into it on my own in senior year of college, watching Monday Night Raw in sub-standard definition on a tiny television on the floor of my dorm room. My favorite communications essay was on the many implications of WWE only displaying certain ethnicities as wordless savages.

I can’t remember when or how I first heard about Bryan Danielson, probably in awed, reverent prose somewhere on a message board. I remember the first time I saw him, though, the same as many fans: after a distinguished and untelevised career where he’d become the de facto best wrestler on the planet, his WWE debut was in a match on the first episode of a bizarre, half-assed live competition show called NXT [which would later change the course of the art form as its own promotion].

People are right to say that WWE didn't take full advantage of Bryan's gifts, but they knew what they had; not many wrestling debuts are competitive matches with world champs.

Wrestling is fake. Everyone knows it. More often than not, wrestling must look and/or feel real to overcome what everyone knows, to suspend the disbelief of millions [and millions!] watching in HD or a hundred in a bingo hall. It’s a hell of a challenge, and some of the best wrestling elects to ignore that challenge completely [see: Lucha Underground, the best show on television, which is a supernatural thriller that dispenses with notions of athletic-competition-authenticity almost entirely].

Bryan’s stories outside of the ring didn’t always suspend that disbelief [at one point, his storyline was that twin lady wrestlers misunderstood his proclamation that he was a vegan and were competing to take his virginity. Yeah.]. In the ring, he’s one of the greatest storytellers of all time. The realest fake fighter. In that match embedded above, Chris Jericho slams him ribs-first into an announce table, and it feels real. It looks real, too, as the welt raises. If you weren’t with him at the start of the match, he’d generate enough pathos to get you with him at some point. He was a star.

People fucking love him! They love him SO MUCH, and you know, I don’t blame them. There’s something great about Daniel Bryan. He’s not the best actor, but in wrestling, sometimes that doesn’t matter. When you have enough heart, and a weird enough face, you can reach the top of this industry.
— Max Landis in "Wrestling Isn't Wrestling"*

Part of Bryan’s global success was due to his unassuming appearance and stature. Everybody loves a convincing everyman, and pro wrestling has had precious few of those in the last twenty years. That stature allowed him to wrestle a million miles an hour, developing an offensive moveset that at times consisted almost entirely of strikes a frustrated prisoner might use to break through a wall.

This is a match on a show that could fairly be described as corporate bloat, probably in front of a half-empty arena, against a talented guy who wouldn't get near WWE's main event again. [There are probably hundreds of Bryan matches that are better than this, but I like this one.]

I never got to see Bryan wrestle in person, but getting to see him retire is one of the greatest shared experiences of my life. The rest of the show was pretty damn good, but it all felt like a prelude to hearing a guy talk to us. He retired due to concussions – he told us he’d had three in his first five months of wrestling. People booed the fact of his departure even after that. I couldn’t blame them.

Bryan was a pretty good speaker. The night of his forced, legitimate, surprise retirement, he didn’t have to be, and no one would have had a cross word to say.

He was great anyway. Funny, wry, endearing, melancholy, real, and as he said repeatedly, grateful.

You guys got behind me in a way that made me feel like I was more than just me.
— Daniel Bryan, in his retirement speech

He was just him, though, and it was more than enough for us. Much has been made of Bryan’s connection with the audience. His success in WWE stemmed from the audience’s connection with him. He unveiled a chant after a most ignoble title win that was designed to annoy – an index-finger-thrusting “YES!” mantra that seemed directed much to his insecure character as the crowd. It’s the most popular and ubiquitous chant in the history of wrassling.

The parable of Daniel Bryan: work hard and be your authentic self, and you can change everything.

Further reading: There's a lot of really wonderful things to read about Danielson - Brandon Stroud and Gabe Sapolsky's remembrances stand out. I'd had the the good fortune to read YES, Danielson's WWE-published and surprisingly unvarnished autobiography, a few weeks before going to this show, and it's excellent. Here’s a WWE.com list of Bryan’s favorite matches – in typical Bryan fashion, his all-time favorite isn’t available anywhere.

Further watching: Bryan Danielson vs. Takeshi Morishima in a series of brutal, surely-retirement-related matches; Daniel Bryan at Wrestlemania XXX, for my money the greatest 'Mania performance of all time; Bryan Danielson corpsing through a Paul London promo; a Seattle audience refusing to let the star power in the ring for a coronation ceremony outshine their guy.

*Here's the Max Landis video I quoted, which is the only 24-minute YouTube video worth the time.