The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff
Due to a cavalcade of breaking news stories; from WWE releases to new TV deals to the return of live wrestling in front of fans, Daniel Bryan has been blown off of the front page. Make no mistake about it though, Bryan’s current free agency is the most intriguing ongoing story in wrestling, and just what is going to happen next in his career could be the defining moment of wrestling in 2021.
If we believe everything that has been reported up until this point, Bryan is no longer under contract to WWE and is a free agent, and because his contract expired he is not subject to any no-compete-clause. That means that Bryan could show up at any time, in any wrestling promotion, and the possibilities for him are endless. Where is Bryan going? What do we know about him, and what does that tell us about his motivations?
First, let’s look at the possibility of a return to WWE. Bryan has shown loyalty to WWE over the years and reportedly, has some influence backstage with creative input into his angles. Bryan’s time in WWE has been bizarre and nobody has had a career quite like him, starting out by getting fired the day after his main roster debut, then coming back and eventually becoming a main event star, launching a struggle for fan support between himself and company management that didn’t see him as a top draw, followed by a sudden retirement, a period spent in non-wrestling roles, and finally a return to action that saw him pushed as a star but still not quite made the face of the company.
To summarize it briefly, WWE does not see Bryan as a real top star and have consistently treated him as such. When he came out of retirement, he should have immediately been the biggest babyface in the company. Instead he floated around in forgettable midcard feuds and ended up turning heel just seven months after his return. He got a world title run (but only as a heel and never on the “A” show) and mostly spent 2020 wrestling mid-card matches, before one last hurrah on SmackDown where he did several jobs to Roman Reigns as his contract expired.
WWE can offer Bryan a lot of things; including a lot of money and the kind of passive stability he wouldn’t necessarily find in any other promotion. Outside of WWE, he would have something to prove and have to really push himself, both mentally and physically. Bryan has a lot of wear and tear on his body and while I’m sure mentally he would love the challenge of working in other promotions, there is also something to be said that in WWE he can work mostly easy matches and protect his body and his long-term health. His wife, Brie Bella, also works on-and-off with WWE, although I don’t think Bryan going somewhere else would really change that.
Selfishly, I think Bryan going back to WWE, whether it be on RAW, SmackDown or even NXT, would be boring. He has already done pretty much everything there is to do in the company, and it’s clear the company sees him at a certain level. For Bryan, the fact that he maybe hasn’t been pushed as hard as he should have been might not be that big of an issue. He has spoken many times that he enjoys helping other wrestlers and likes putting other talent over, and while fans may want to see him win the world title again, he might be fine just working the midcard and having fun matches that he enjoys doing.
However, even if Bryan enjoys working and helping other talent, WWE is not always the promotion that is going to value his unselfishness. Last year, Bryan worked with Drew Gulak and even put him over in a series of matches, with Bryan’s motivation being that he thought Gulak was a good talent who could use a break. Even though Gulak got that break by working an even feud with Bryan, WWE never followed-up with him and a year later he is getting roses literally shoved up his ass on RAW.
Bryan has spoken out in recent months about his desire to work outside of WWE, while also touching on some dissatisfaction he has had in recent years in the company. When he made those comments, part of me thought it was kind of a work, as his match with Roman Reigns where he put his SmackDown career on the line and it made sense for him to drop some hints that he might be done with WWE, to add some drama to his match. However, before Bryan came to WWE he traveled the world as a wrestler and understands the wrestling industry outside of WWE, and it has arguably never been more exciting.
For starters, one thing that comes up a lot when people talk about Bryan’s future is that he will “do what is best for his family” which typically translates to “take the most money.” WWE would probably offer him the most money, but no matter what happens to him he is going to make millions. AEW would almost certainly make him an offer that would be competitive with any WWE bid, and NJPW and ROH have the large financial backing to offer him a lot of money if they felt like he was worth it. Bryan also would surely have the #1 store on Pro Wrestling Tees the minute he opened it up, plus he’d be able to name his price on any indie show, both in the US and abroad.
Bryan has mentioned that he wants to work all over the wrestling world, whether that was in CMLL at Arena Mexico, doing a G1, or wrestling Kenny Omega. With that in mind, flexibility seems key for Bryan. That might mean he never signs anywhere and instead freelances in different promotions. That might not give him the long-term financial security of a traditional contract, but it would give him the ability to work almost anywhere he wanted and schedule his life accordingly. Bryan has also said that he plans on stopping as a full-time wrestler soon, and that he’d like to wrestle for many more years but he isn’t going to be working all the time. If he can make his own schedule as a freelancer, that would seem to allow him to do that more easily as opposed to being tied to one promotion.
With that in mind, it’s hard to see what Jon Moxley has been doing in AEW and not think that Bryan would be interested in a similar role. Moxley is a top star in AEW, but also has the freedom to work regularly for NJPW. On top of that, he can even work indie dates and if he wants to confront Nick Gage in front of 400 fans in a parking lot, he can do that. Since he left WWE, Moxley has been showcasing the flexibility that Bryan seems to crave.
Bryan in AEW has a world of possibilities. There is not a single person on the AEW roster that would not be an interesting opponent for Bryan; from a dream match against Kenny Omega to a match against a younger wrestler like Jungle Boy, pretty much every match would be better if Daniel Bryan is in it. If Bryan stayed in WWE, he might occasionally work with new opponents, but as an established star there wouldn’t be the same kind of diversity of opponents he could find elsewhere.
AEW Double or Nothing takes place this Sunday, and will be the first major wrestling event in the United States to have a capacity crowd since March 2020. If you wanted to have a wrestler come out and get a big pop and have it feel like a huge moment, that would be the time to do it. I could see Kenny Omega closing the show and retaining his AEW World Championship, only for Bryan’s music to hit (either his Flight of the Valkyries music from WWE, which is public domain, or The Final Countdown by Europe, which was his music on the independents) and for him to confront Omega as the crowd goes crazy. Wouldn’t that be such a fitting moment for the return of wrestling with full crowds?
At this point in his career, Bryan has all the leverage when it comes to his wrestling future. He has already had an incredibly decorated career, and there are few things left for him to accomplish in what has been a Hall of Fame career. We know that wherever he ends up working, he will be a valuable asset no matter how he is being used, but some places could probably use him better than others.
In the latest episode of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings (@JesseCollings) and Jason Ounpraseuth (@JasonOun95) discuss Daniel Bryan. First, they go over his history in WWE and his strange last few years, then they fantasy book some future angles for him and discuss where he could go outside of WWE.