There's no superstar quite like Daniel Bryan. The star that wasn't supposed to be, and yet was destined to be. His WWE run is one of a kind, culminating in a WrestleMania XXX victory that came on the heels of the rise of the immensely popular Yes Movement. The Yes Movement was special because Daniel Bryan was special. The reactions he got at that time weren't supposed to happen in wrestling anymore, either because kayfabe had died or because fans just didn't get invested in the same way. But Daniel Bryan was different. He was, and is, universally beloved. No other talent could pivot to an authority figure role and have such sustained love from the crowd. Even legends like Mick Foley and Kurt Angle wear out their welcome. And yet, Daniel Bryan persists.
A career cut short, revived, and then cut short again. That was seemingly the end. But, as of this week, he's back. Cleared by doctor's for a return to in-ring action, Daniel Bryan is back, and boy does he make the most of his first night being medically cleared. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Bryan's presence on SmackDown Live, and the promise that there's so much more to come, is an immediate boon for the show. Who would have thought that that SmackDown's sluggish streak could be remedied by one of the most beloved performers of all time making his return to the ring, right?
Daniel Bryan is really, truly back
SmackDown Live comes hot out of the gate in its first hour by featuring some of the best performers the show has to offer. The show has to begin with Daniel Bryan, and it does. He comes out and delivers an incredibly heartfelt speech about his retirement, his struggles with wanting to return to the ring, and his drive to get back. He thanks Brie again and again for motivating him, for making sure he "fought for his dreams." "That's what Daniel Bryan does, he fights for his dreams," he says, and it's beautiful.
More than beautiful, it's also wonderfully radical. It's not often that the sport of pro wrestling, and especially WWE, let's its male performers be vulnerable. And yet, here's this generation's most beloved performer talking about grief, failure, and the love he has for his wife and this business all while barely holding back tears. That's a remarkable thing. He cries, we cry, and we can all rejoice in the transformative experience that is pro wrestling when it's building on real, earned emotions. That's Daniel Bryan's whole WWE career, and he's back in fine form at the top of this (and we'll get to the end later).
Nakamura is in WrestleMania mode
It's difficult to then have the show transition to a match, but having that match be Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Rusev is certainly the way to keep the momentum going. The match itself is fine, nowhere close to what they did at Fastlane, but the takeaway should be that Nakamura is upping his game these last few weeks. We're getting more charisma, more personality, and more in-ring urgency. It's the Nakamura that any NJPW fan knows shows up when it really matters, and right now it really matters. Add in a little backstage humour—Styles says, "yeah, I know, you're going to beat me at WrestleMania," and Nakamura responds with, "you should be more confident,"—and suddenly you have Nakamura, the true main event talent.
Let's get the United States Championship feud over with already
Truthfully, the rest of the night, outside of the main event, is like any other recent SmackDown Live. It's a show just going through the motions, repeating so much of what we've seen these last few weeks. If I told you there was an in-ring promo segment involving Jinder Mahal, Bobby Roode, and the United States champion Randy Orton, would you guess that it ends in a bunch of finishers and eventually a standoff? You would, because you've seen it again and again since Fastlane. If I told you that Becky Lynch and Naomi, who've been slotted into the Women's WrestleMania Battle Royal, had to get some time on the show, would you assume that SmackDown booked them in a tag match against the Riott Squad? Yes, you would, because you've seen it again and again since well before Fastlane.
Despite such a horrendous, familiar middle stretch, this is still the best SmackDown Live in some time. The match between Jimmy Uso and Luke Harper does exactly what it needs to do to set the stage for WrestleMania, once again showing that the Bludgeon Brothers might be unstoppable. The match between Charlotte and Natalya may not have the same storyline implications, but those two have good chemistry, and they get a good amount of time to tell an interesting story that ends in another tease of a Carmella cash-in. It's not perfect, but for a women's division that's been lacking definition, the focus and TV time they get is encouraging.
Owens and Zayn get the heel heat they need
But, this night is all about Daniel Bryan, and he's the anchor of the show. He sets the tone for the evening right off the bat, and then closes out the show on his back, instantly adding stakes and clarity to a months-long storyline that's been struggling to define exactly what it is. Cutting to the chase: Daniel Bryan fires Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens for their attack on Shane McMahon, but he does so regretfully. He tells them that they can come back as better men who've learned from their mistake. It's a wonderful bit of continuity when it comes to character motivation, as Bryan's been in their corner for quite some time, but he also understands that this time they've gone too far.
Then, things turn. Owens fumes, and his eyes glaze over. He attacks Daniel Bryan, and Sami joins in. They get in some offense before SmackDown Live gives us the moment we had no idea we'd get on the first night of Bryan's return: he fights back, sets Sami and Owens up in opposite corners, and delivers one running kick after another. The crowd is going wild! Daniel Bryan is back! And that's the perfect moment for Zayn and Owens to get the upper hand, take Bryan to the outside, and have Owens hit him with a powerbomb on the apron. It's all so intense, so vicious, and it leaves no doubt that Daniel Bryan is ready to go again. More than that though, it finally gives us a sense of who we should be cheering for. This whole segment not only returns Bryan to his former self, it also gives Zayn and Owens the heel heat they couldn't get from an entitled, whiny, cheating Shane McMahon.
In other words, it's pretty much perfect. Welcome back, Daniel Bryan.
- "Let me be the first to say, I can't wait to beat you." Dolph Ziggler would be the first one to confront a returning Daniel Bryan.
- I desperately need WWE to give Tye Dillinger something productive to do after WrestleMania.
- Carmella cashing in tonight, where if she wins she'll face Asuka at Mania, is all sorts of dumb in kayfabe terms.