Although there had been tremors leading up to Tuesday's momentous announcement, the return of Daniel Bryan to WWE as an active competitor pretty much came out of nowhere. Over a 24 hour span, WWE fans essentially went from resigned to the fact that they would never see Bryan wrestle again inside a WWE ring, to anticipating his match at WrestleMania in a couple of weeks. After his retirement in early 2016, the general perception of Bryan was that he was too injured to wrestle, that if he were to suffer another concussion he would suffer serious, life-altering injuries. The reality was that while Bryan did have serious concussion issues; the science behind concussions was so new that it wasn't clear exactly how hurt Bryan was. That always left a sliver of hope in Bryan fans that he would one day return; and all of a sudden on Tuesday, March 21, those dreams came true.
On Tuesday, Bryan announced his return in a great promo to open SmackDown, and by the end of the show he was clearly back, taking bumps and dealing out offense to Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. Given current storylines, it appears to Bryan's return match will be teaming up with Shane McMahon against Owens and Zayn at WrestleMania. Bryan's presence takes a mid-card match and makes it arguably the most anticipated match of WrestleMania, even more so than Ronda Rousey, John Cena and The Undertaker, or the world title matches.
There are a lot of questions left unanswered by Bryan's return. The first is obviously his health; according to Dave Meltzer Bryan will be subjected to the strictest concussion assessment imaginable; having to go through concussion tests after each and every match. For fans, there is some form of a moral question about watching Bryan perform; should we be excited about a performer if they are risking their long term health in the process? It's a tough question; mainly because we don't know how hurt Bryan really is. There is a belief that if other wrestlers on the roster were subjected to the same examinations as Bryan, they would produce similar results since there are plenty of wrestlers working full-time who have suffered a half-dozen or more concussions over their careers. Ten years ago, Bryan certainly would have never been forced to retire in the first place, and there isn't enough evidence to draw a broad line for when someone with a history of concussions should and should not be wrestling.
For me; I'll always worry about Bryan when he is wrestling, simply because you can't dismiss his injury history. However, dozens of medical experts have cleared him to wrestle and he has made a personal choice to do so. I would also like to think that if Bryan was in a such a state that if he got one more concussion he would be seriously threatening his long-term health, that WWE wouldn't have him competing in their ring and that Bryan would not try and get himself cleared. Lastly; I'm sure that while injured Bryan has thought a lot about his wrestling style and how he did some truly stupid things in the ring throughout his career; particularly during his run in Ring of Honor. Once he returns to the ring, he probably has developed a modified style that limits a lot of the risks he would be taking.
The other big questions are how much is Bryan going to wrestle, and against whom. The reports I have seen is that Bryan would work a regular schedule but less than a true full-time talent; similar to Randy Orton, who works TV and PPVs but gets a lot of house show dates off. While a full-time worker may do about 180 matches in a year, Orton does about 110; which feels likes the right number for Bryan. There is also the matter of his contract, which expires this October. Before WWE cleared him, Bryan had been cleared by numerous other professionals, and the belief was that he would not re-sign with WWE and wrestle elsewhere, meaning ROH, New Japan Pro Wrestling and other promotions, having dream matches with Kenny Omega, Zack Sabre Jr., Kazuchika Okada, Matt Riddle and others. Now that WWE has cleared him; I imagine he would likely re-sign with WWE, since he doesn't appear to want to hold any grudges and there are still dream matches within the company that he can do; such as matches against Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, Johnny Gargano, Andrade and others.
Another big question is how Bryan will be booked going forward. Due to his injury history, it is natural that WWE would want to refrain from giving Bryan too big of a push. After all, the possibility is always there that in a few months Bryan could take a bad bump and never wrestle again. People expecting him to be pushed over Roman Reigns or become the new face of the company need to come to grips with that. At the same time though; Bryan is BY FAR the most popular wrestler on the roster, even if you factor in part-time performers. All you need to do is look at the reaction he got on SmackDown; it was the biggest pop I can remember anyone getting in WWE for years. Nobody on the roster, not Cena, Reigns, The Undertaker, Triple H, Kurt Angle, Ronda Rousey, etc. has gotten a reaction like that. He was popular before he was injured; but now WWE has the story of him being written off; but never giving up hope and working hard to make a miracle comeback to get back inside the ring. You can't write a script any better than the heroic journey Bryan has been on for the last two years; and from a business perspective you have to capitalize on that, even if you have reservations about his long-term health.
Now, there has been some revisionist history after he got injured, but make no mistake about it; even as Bryan was hoisting the world title high at the end of WrestleMania 30, WWE still did not believe in him as the face of the company. The plan at the time was for him to hold the title until SummerSlam where he would be destroyed by Brock Lesnar, setting up Reigns to dethrone Lesnar and become the real face of the company. Bryan of course got hurt and had to surrender the world title; so the squash at SummerSlam was changed to Cena getting killed by Lesnar. Even as it was clear that Bryan was universally beloved by the fans to the degree no wrestler has been able to match since the end of the Attitude Era, with the possible exception being The Undertaker, WWE still didn't see him as the top guy in the company. Today, with all of his injuries, WWE probably doesn't feel differently about him. I think it is likely that Bryan remains a star in WWE and works a lot of main events and contends for titles and maybe even gets a world title run; but I doubt he gets a shot at being the top guy; no matter how popular he is with fans.
On a more positive note; I'll wrap it up with this: Bryan's promo on Tuesday was great, not because of the content but because of who he is and how that person comes across on television. One of the reasons he got over so big was because unlike most people in wrestling, he never really felt like he was playing a character; so when he gives a speech straight from the heart, it feels honest. John Cena, as talented as he is, couldn't give a speech like that and remain true to his character. Certainly The Rock or Steve Austin couldn't do it either, and those are two of the most talented talkers in history. It's funny; Bryan isn't associated with being a great promo; but his ability to come across as a regular guy in an industry where everyone is supposed to be over-the-top makes him stand out.
Must Watch Matches
Zack Sabre Jr. vs Kota Ibushi: ****1/4 - NJPW New Japan Cup Day 6
Zack Sabre Jr. vs Hiroshi Tanahashi: **** - NJPW New Japan Cup Final
Over an 11 day period, Zack Sabre Jr. tapped out Tetsuya Naito, Kota Ibushi, SANADA and Hiroshi Tanahashi in route to winning the New Japan Cup and earning a IWGP World Heavyweight Championship match against Okada at Sakura Genesis. The thing about NJPW is that when Gedo (the head booker) wants to push someone, they get fully behind them and really make them look good. In two weeks Sabre Jr. went from being a talented mid-card performer who had never held a singles title in NJPW to being the number one contender for the world title; and it felt like it made sense because he secured convincing victories over some of the biggest names in the company.
Sabre Jr.'s classic British style focused on submissions and mat work is an acquired taste; and a lot of fans find him boring and lacking charisma. I think he is brilliant; but at the same time when I was watching several of his matches in a row as I did yesterday when I watched his run through the New Japan Cup, I did find myself getting bored at his plodding pace. At times Sabre Jr. is like a great golfer; you can tell that what he is doing is very difficult but that still doesn't make the activity all that exciting. Nevertheless, I think he is a fine opponent for Okada; who needs fresh new challengers and Sabre Jr. is certainly that.