The return of Daniel Bryan as an active competitor in WWE is by far the biggest news story of the year so far. It may be difficult for anything else to top it. The reason it’s such a big deal is because the 36-year-old Bryan is a four-time WWE Champion who hasn’t wrestled since April 2015.
On February 8, 2016, Bryan stood in the ring on Raw informing the WWE Universe that he was forced to retire due to suffering too many concussions. In July 2016, Bryan was appointed as the General Manager of Smackdown Live as WWE restarted the brand split. Bryan also worked very hard to see the best doctors in the world who could hopefully get him cleared to compete again.
Back in January, I wrote about Bryan’s quest to return to the ring and how hard he was working to come back. The article also looked at Bryan’s journey from being a skinny kid on the original NXT show in 2010 to becoming a WrestleMania headliner four years later.
This past Tuesday, WWE announced that Daniel Bryan was medically cleared to wrestle again. Later that night on Smackdown, Bryan was greeted with thunderous “yes” chants from the crowd while the fans chanted “WrestleMania” at him for his next match. In the main event, Bryan fired Smackdown’s top bad guys, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, which led to the evil Canadian duo kicking Bryan’s ass so badly that he was taken away on a stretcher.
The angle will likely lead to a major tag match at WrestleMania: Daniel Bryan and Smackdown commissioner Shane McMahon (who Owens and Zayn beat up two weeks ago) vs. the now fired duo of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. But how? It’s WWE, my friends. That’s how.
Saying goodbye to the ring was one of the hardest moments of my life. But thanks to the amazing people supporting me, I was able to keep fighting for my dream. This moment feels surreal and I'm glad to be able to talk to you all at the beginning of #SDLive tonight.
— Daniel Bryan (@WWEDanielBryan) March 20, 2018
Bryan is one of my favorite wrestlers ever because he’s an everyman who stands 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds. Despite his lack of size, he makes pro wrestling look easy, he’s a natural at it like all the best wrestlers are and his excellence as a performer makes him even more likable. Bryan’s an exceptional talent who has a special relationship with the fans due to the popularity of his “yes” chant and he just looks like an underdog.
Since Bryan is now cleared to return to the ring, it feels like a good time to look back at 10 of the most memorable matches of his career. This is not a ranking of his best matches, but important matches that helped him become the future Hall of Fame talent that he is. This is only a WWE list. I’m very aware of Bryan’s great career in Ring of Honor as well as independent wrestling promotions around the world, but the focus of this column is on what Bryan has done in WWE so far.
The matches will be listed in chronological order.
10. Chris Jericho vs. Daniel Bryan @ NXT – Feb. 23, 2010
This was Bryan’s first official match on WWE programming. Bryan originally signed with WWE in 2000, but was let go in 2001 when WWE acquired WCW and they didn’t have a spot for him. Bryan returned to WWE in 2009 as a 10-year veteran considered the best wrestler on the independent scene who used the name Bryan Danielson, which is his real name.
The original version of WWE’s NXT began on February 23, 2010 with veteran wrestlers on the main roster coaching “rookies” that were new. Bryan was coached by The Miz, which was a slap in the face to indy wrestling fans that knew Bryan had been wrestling for 10 years at that point, while The Miz only had about five years of experience. Anyway, it led to this match between a top guy in Chris Jericho (the coach of eventual NXT winner Wade Barrett) and the rookie Bryan, which had a lot of us internet fans excited at the time.
It’s a short match that was a lot of fun as Bryan nearly won by making Jericho tap out with a submission move on Jericho’s legs. Jericho ended up coming back to win as expected, thanks to a Codebreaker followed by the Walls of Jericho submission. That’s the worst match I’ll recommend, but it’s important to watch to see how much Bryan evolved in WWE.
9. Smackdown Money in the Bank Ladder Match @ Money in the Bank – July 17, 2011
The Money in the Bank 2011 PPV is one of my favorite shows ever, thanks mainly to the excellent CM Punk vs. John Cena in the main event. There were some other great moments, though, including the rise of Daniel Bryan. Winning Smackdown’s Money in the Bank match at this show was a huge moment in Bryan’s career, showing that WWE management believed in him a lot more than some people thought.
I remember going into the match thinking Wade Barrett or Cody Rhodes was going to win. I wanted Bryan to win, but I never thought WWE would do it because of his size. The match came down to Bryan and Barrett battling on the ladders, Bryan kicked Barrett down and Bryan won the match to a thunderous ovation.
A few months later at TLC 2011, Bryan cashed in the MITB contract to beat Big Show to become the World Heavyweight Champion for the first time. The “yes” chant followed as Bryan became an egotistical heel who loved to brag about his victories. We didn’t know it at the time, but years later that chant would be crucial in his career.
8. Sheamus vs. Daniel Bryan @ Extreme Rules – Apr. 29, 2012
This isn’t the most famous Bryan match against Sheamus. That would be at WrestleMania 28, where Sheamus beat Bryan in just 18 seconds to win the World Heavyweight Championship match. Since it was WrestleMania, that’s what people will remember the most. But if you want to see the best Bryan match against Sheamus, I recommend this 2/3 Falls Match at Extreme Rules 2012.
Unlike the WrestleMania match, they got plenty of time in this World Heavyweight Championship rematch as they went about 23 minutes with Bryan working over Sheamus’ arm relentlessly. Bryan is one of the best technical wrestlers I’ve ever seen in terms of weakening an opponent by working on a body part, so that was on full display here. When you can tell a story like that, it helps the quality of the match big-time.
Sheamus won the first fall when Bryan was disqualified, Bryan won the second fall with the Yes Lock submission and the fighting babyface Sheamus came back to retain the World Title, thanks to his Brogue Kick finishing move. Even though Bryan was the heel in the match, the “yes” chant was really making him win over some of the fans.
7. CM Punk vs. Daniel Bryan @ Over the Limit – May 20, 2012
CM Punk was the face WWE Champion in the middle of his incredible 434-day reign while Bryan was in the heel role. They were two “indy darlings” who made it big in WWE, even though they were smaller guys. The thought of them getting 25 minutes on a pay-per-view was unheard of a few years earlier, yet here they were.
This match was incredible. The sad thing is that since it took place at a lowly May PPV called Over the Limit, it is not remembered as the classic that it is. If it was at WrestleMania or SummerSlam, maybe fans would think of it more. It was an even match for much of it with Bryan working over Punk’s back and ribs relentlessly. Bryan slapped on the Yes Lock submission, Punk countered it into a pinning predicament, which led to Punk winning by pinfall. They had other matches on PPV and TV, but this was their best match in WWE.
My biggest complaint about this show is that this match should have been the main event. Instead, the John Cena rule was in effect, which essentially meant that Cena’s match went on last even though Punk was the WWE Champion. It was the most frustrating thing about Punk’s reign. Cena’s match was against heel authority figure John Laurinaitis, while this match wasn’t given the spotlight it deserved.
6. Daniel Bryan and Kane vs. R-Truth and Kofi Kingston @ Night of Champions 2012 – Sept. 16, 2012
This is not a great match, but it’s important to watch if you want to see Bryan’s journey in WWE. Honestly, I couldn’t remember who Bryan and Kane beat until I looked it up to remind myself that R-Truth and Kofi were Tag Team Champions at the time.
Bryan was a heel in 2012, but he was winning people over with his quirkiness and showing off his personality. When Bryan would chant “no” the fans would chant “yes” at him to make him angry. That led to Bryan becoming the reluctant tag team partner of Kane, who has had many personality issues in his career.
The finish of this match was creative Bryan argued with Kane, so Bryan shoved Kane off the top rope leading to a splash from Kane and they won the Tag Team Titles in a fluke way. I went to a WWE live event a few weeks after this. The crowd was so hot for this act. Eventually, Bryan turned face due to his association with Kane in Team Hell No, which showed how important it was in his career.
5. Daniel Bryan vs. John Cena @ SummerSlam – Aug. 18, 2013
This was a breakthrough match for Bryan because WWE finally gave in to how popular he was with the fans. John Cena was the WWE Champion who chose to face Bryan, which the fans loved. Going into the match, a lot of us knew what the result would be because of reports that Cena would need triceps surgery. Cena only ended up missing two months (he cut his rehab time in half, which was originally set for four months), but the title change was inevitable.
The match was great with Triple H serving as the special guest referee. Triple H was still in a face role at this point, although it was another example of something obvious that was going to happen. They ended up going 27 minutes in front of a hot Los Angeles crowd that badly wanted Bryan to win and that’s what happened. Bryan pinned Cena with a running knee to the face. It was rare for Cena to lose clean at this point in his career. Good for him for putting over his future brother-in-law. (Hey, Bella Twins.)
After the match was over, Triple H turned heel by hitting a Pedigree on Bryan. Randy Orton also turned heel by cashing in the Money in the Bank briefcase and beating Bryan to win the WWE Title. That set up Bryan’s long journey to win back the WWE Championship that was taken away from him, while Triple H, Stephanie McMahon and Orton calling him a “B+ Player” repeatedly to try to get sympathy for him. It worked.
4. The Usos vs. Daniel Bryan and Bray Wyatt @ Raw – Jan. 13, 2014
Daniel Bryan was known as “Daniel Wyatt” for a few weeks while he was a reluctant member of the Wyatt Family. It led to a tag match on the January 13, 2014 edition of Raw where Wyatt and Bryan lost to The Usos in a Steel Cage match due to miscommunication. Bryan was wearing an outfit that made him look like a janitor. We had no idea how long it would last. It ended up being only a few weeks.
After the cage match loss, Bryan revealed that he was only part of the Wyatt Family in order to get revenge on Bray Wyatt. The crowd exploded as Bryan attacked Wyatt with several kicks and finished him off with the running knee, all while the crowd exploded in “yes” chants.
This should have led to Bryan winning the 2014 Royal Rumble and going on to challenge for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania, but that didn’t happen. Bryan wasn’t even in the match. There was a good match between Wyatt and Bryan at the 2014 Royal Rumble that is worth checking out, though.
3. Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H @ WrestleMania 30 – Apr. 6, 2014
WrestleMania 30 is known as the Daniel Bryan show, as well as the night when The Undertaker’s streak ended. Bryan wrestled in the first match of the card against Triple H and if he won that match, he got to move on to the main event.
This is another match with an obvious result because there was no way WWE would screw Bryan over again and have him lose this match. Until it happened, though, you never really knew for sure. It was a long match that went nearly 30 minutes with Triple H wrestling at his usual slow and methodical pace. Bryan was dealing with a sore shoulder throughout the match as well, but he’s a tough guy that managed to get through it.
Bryan ended up winning with the running knee to the face. I think it’s the second-best WrestleMania opening match ever after Owen Hart vs. Bret Hart at WrestleMania 10. After the match was over, Triple H took a steel chair and hit Bryan’s arm with it. The story was that Bryan would be too banged up to win the WWE Title later in the evening.
2. Daniel Bryan vs. Batista vs. Randy Orton @ WrestleMania 30 – Apr. 6, 2014
This is one of my favorite matches ever because of the memories I have from sitting in the crowd that night ready to explode when Bryan won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Orton was the heel champion, Batista was a heel who won the Royal Rumble (it should have been Daniel Bryan) and Bryan was the most beloved good guy that you’re ever going to see in a WrestleMania main event.
The key spot in the match was a dangerous one as Batista and Orton double-teamed Bryan by the announce tables. Batista hit a Powerbomb while Orton joined in with a neckbreaker that sent Bryan crashing through the table. Considering what we know about Bryan’s concussion history, as well as the neck problems that happened shortly after this match, it was tough to watch it again as I wrote this column.
Bryan came back from being put through the table, which is a spot WWE does often to make the winning wrestler look more heroic. With the fans chanting “this is awesome,” Batista hit a Batista Bomb on Orton. Bryan went back in the ring with the running knee to the face of Batista. Bryan slapped on the Yes Lock, leading to Batista tapping out to give Bryan the WWE Championship once again, which was two titles at this point. Don’t ask me to explain. Long story!
The celebration was on and those “yes” chants are still ringing in my ears from that night. It was a special moment for a man who truly deserved it.
1. Daniel Bryan and John Cena vs. Cesaro and Tyson Kidd @ Smackdown – April 16, 2015
This match is labeled as “Daniel Bryan’s final match” on WWE’s YouTube channel. That’s what it was, but it’s not his last match anymore. Bryan was the Intercontinental Champion, Cena was the United States Champion and Cesaro/Kidd were the Tag Team Champions. The match was basic with the heel champions working over Cena for most of it, Bryan got the hot tag, cleaned house and got the win for his team with the Yes Lock on Kidd.
I was a bit sad watching this match because of Tyson Kidd. He is one of my favorite wrestlers of this generation, but had his career cut short in June 2015 due to a serious neck injury. Thankfully, he’s okay and working for WWE as a producer who helps put together the matches. I just miss seeing him in the ring.
Bryan was sent home from the European tour after this match. The reports of him having a serious concussion were true, although WWE tried to hide it as much as they could. Bryan ended up not being cleared to wrestle again, which led to the retirement promo in February 2016 and finally getting the green light to wrestle again this past week. It was tough to watch the match again knowing what happened to Bryan, but I am grateful (a word he has used so well) that he’s able to do what he loves once again.
These 10 Daniel Bryan matches help tell his journey to the top of WWE. There are several non-wrestling segments you could check out as well, including the memorable “Occupy Raw” promo from March 2014 that was ranked #11 in my Top 25 Raw Moments Ever list.
It’s great to know that Bryan will be a part of this year’s WrestleMania and I hope that he has many healthy years ahead of him.