Daniel Bryan is the best wrestler in the world today because he has achieved the impossible twice in less than a year.
He defied every expectation of him – from those of the paying fans to the multiple members of the medical profession – when he was cleared to make a return to the ring in March of last year.
Until that point Bryan had been ‘on the shelf’ since February 2016 due to complications which had arisen from a series of head injuries sustained while practising the roughneck style which had made him one of the most popular performers in WWE.
He was the indie darling who successfully transitioned from small-scale acclaim and a uniquely compelling style to the big leagues, headlining WrestleMania 30 in one of the most memorable moments that event has provided in recent times.
He was the GOAT, the leader of the Yes Movement, the man who stood front and centre as the figurehead of a campaign whose modus operandi was that work rate matters and that captivating in-ring stories could be told without using monster-sized wrestlers or ultra-dangerous high spots.
And then it was all gone.
“I’ve been angry, I’ve been sad, I’ve been frustrated, I’ve been all of that. But today when I woke up this morning, I felt nothing but gratitude,” he said in his retirement speech on Raw.
In an interview with ESPN, Bryan would reveal he had suffered 10 documented concussions while wrestling but a frustration lingered.
WWE’s medical staff continually refused to clear Bryan to compete and continually he sought second opinions, with the threat of an exit always in the background as he transitioned into a role as SmackDown general manager.
“I would’ve been gone,” he would tell Sky Sports in an interview ahead of last year’s SummerSlam. “Gone.”
As it was, there was no need. Bryan was finally given the green light to step back into WWE’s squared circle in March 2018 in one of the biggest shocks of the year. The Yes chants were deafening in Dallas for that night’s SmackDown.
He soaked in the cheers and thanked in the fans in another emotional speech as they responded in kind, his place as a top-level babyface immediately retaken.
So that was the first impossible feat Bryan achieved. Returns from major injuries – especially concussion-related ones, and especially in the modern era – are few and far between and as a result nobody was expecting to see him back in the ring, at least not a WWE one.
Initially he worked alongside Shane McMahon against Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn before a surprising mini-feud with Big Cass.
Then came the much-anticipated match with The Miz, with whom Bryan had a rivalry which dated back to a particularly incendiary episode of Talking Smack during which Bryan left the set in anger. But it didn’t quite hit the mark; something was off.
And that something was the disposition of Bryan. Only the bravest scriptwriter would have pitched a move to the dark side for Bryan, one of the company’s most popular babyfaces, the underdog hero who had conquered the odds at WrestleMania 30.
But fortune, as the expression goes, favours the brave and that has certainly been the case with Bryan. Another expression says that a wrestler’s on-screen character is simply an amplified version of themselves. Bryan’s is a version amplified through a festival-sized wall of speakers and with the volume turned up to an ear-bleedingly high level. This is Bryan turned up to 11.
To witness ‘the new’ Daniel Bryan in person is to witness a modern-day wrestling genius in action.
As part of the build-up to the Royal Rumble, he was dispatched to do interview duty for local television affiliates. At 7am he tore into an ABC reporter with a unique ferocity, calling him “stupid” and completely disrupting his closing piece to camera.
“You live in a desert where you get seven inches of rain a year and you still want lawns?” Bryan pondered, his eyes growing increasingly wild. “What is your problem?”
A few hours later, another broadcast journalist, this time from NBC, would be reduced to (admittedly not entirely genuine) tears by the viciousness with which Bryan presented his case for environmental awareness.
When Sky Sports told him most of his beliefs were sound, he immediately provided a response.
“That makes you worse than the others,” he said. “You know I’m right and you do nothing about it.”
Bryan’s ability to maintain that character and to improvise with is a unique skill. It requires intelligence, charisma and confidence by the bucketload. Bryan has all three, and that is what sets him apart from the increasingly-large crowd of highly talented in-ring performers.
His match with AJ Styles at Royal Rumble, admittedly, fell somewhat flat. It was in a tough spot on the card but still did not reach the levels of which both men are undoubtedly capable.
On Sunday night Bryan defends the WWE title in a chaotic cluster of a match: a six-man Elimination Chamber contest, which he will enter first by virtue of his loss to Kofi Kingston on this week’s SmackDown, the latest televised defeat for Bryan, none of which has done anything to hurt his momentum.
There is nothing to suggest he should lose the title at this stage. Bryan should keep the ‘eco-friendly’ championship strap around his waist all the way to WrestleMania.
And not just because he has achieved two seemingly impossible feats in the past year. But because he is the best all-round package of a wrestler in the world today.