On Monday, at the age of thirty-four, Daniel Bryan announced his retirement as an active professional wrestler. With speculation growing over the past few days that news concerning his future was imminent, Bryan took to Twitter on Monday afternoon to confirm his fans’ worst fears, stating ‘Due to medical reasons, effective immediately, I am announcing my retirement. Tonight on Raw, I’ll have a chance to elaborate. #gratitude’.
Bryan endured an extended spell on the sidelines after winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in the main event of WrestleMania XXX, soon succumbing to a persistent and debilitating neck injury that required surgery. On 15 May 2014 he underwent a cervical foraminotomy, meant to relieve arm pain caused by a pinched nerve in the neck. Initially expected to be out of action for no more than six to eight weeks, Bryan struggled to regain strength in his arm, and a second surgery was contemplated until a trip to Denver turned him on to the Muscle Activation Technique, which restored his strength and allowed him to plan for a return to the ring.
His return – after eight months and being forced to relinquish his world title belt – came on SmackDown on 15 January 2015, and he competed just over a week later in the year’s Royal Rumble, where he was eliminated in the early going by Bray Wyatt. After narrowly losing out to Roman Reigns the following month at Fastlane, Bryan claimed the WWE Intercontinental Championship in a seven-man ladder match at WrestleMania 31. But by the middle of April he had been pulled from all upcoming WWE events, ceding his Intercontinental title on the 11 May episode of RAW where he admitted having taken an MRI which posed serious questions for his future. Bryan’s injury troubles were later revealed to be concussion-related, with he and WWE seeking separate medical advice as he sought to be cleared to wrestle.
Elaborating in his retirement speech on Monday night’s RAW, Bryan recalled suffering three concussions within the first few months of his wrestling career, and he stated that after sixteen years in the business, the number of concussions had mounted. He said that he had been told he could no longer wrestle, citing a test taken only a week and a half ago which indicated ‘maybe my brain isn’t as okay as I thought it was. I have a family to think about and it is with a heavy heart and the utmost sadness that I officially announce my retirement’.
Fittingly, Monday’s RAW was at the Key Arena in Seattle, Washington, in the same state as Bryan’s hometown of Aberdeen. Making ‘gratitude’ the theme of his retirement speech, he thanked the fans for their constant support, colleagues and mentors including Kane and William Regal, and managed an hilariously irreverent off-the-cuff joke about he and his wife Brie Bella’s plans for kids. He gestured towards the breadth of his career, noting that he has wrestled everywhere from a gas station parking lot to a WrestleMania in front of a crowd of 70,000, and fondly reminisced on his rise to the top of WWE from the spring of 2013 as the ‘Yes!’ movement captured the imagination of the fanbase in a way not seen for more than a decade.
Closing his eyes at one point to embrace the fullness of the crowd, Bryan emotionally revisited the last time his father saw him wrestle, pointed out his mother and sister sitting at ringside, and showed appreciation for the support of his wife. Amid surging ‘Yes!’ chants, he concluded ‘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. I have gotten to do what I love for nearly sixteen years. I am grateful. Now I start a new life, a life where I am no longer a wrestler’.
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Debuting in the Texas Wrestling Academy at the age of 18, Bryan Lloyd Danielson was briefly trained by Shawn Michaels and Rudy Gonzalez before signing a developmental deal with WWE and being assigned to Memphis Championship Wrestling. The training he received there from William Regal proved formative in the development of his career, and he began using the American Dragon monicker, but the first phase of his often fractious relationship with WWE came to a close when they cut their ties with MCW in July 2001. He would wrestle a few shows for WWE as enhancement talent a couple of years later.
Meanwhile Bryan built his reputation in Japan, before becoming in 2002 one of the founding figures in Ring of Honor. Engaging in memorable feuds with Homicide, Austin Aries, Samoa Joe, and Nigel McGuinness, between 2002 and 2009 Bryan enjoyed one fifteen-month reign as ROH World Champion, unifying the belt with the ROH Pure Championship which he won in August 2006. In inter-promotional matches and working independently outside Ring of Honor, Bryan also fought outstanding bouts against Takeshi Morishima of Pro Wrestling Noah, CM Punk in Full Impact Pro, Chris Hero in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, and Munenori Sawa for Evolve Wrestling.
He signed with WWE in August 2009, after a few months being given the ring name Daniel Bryan, and made his in-ring debut with the first iteration of NXT on 23 February 2010. His first feud in WWE was with his former NXT mentor The Miz, but when Bryan portrayed the strangling of ring announcer Justin Roberts during the debut of the faction Nexus on 7 June, WWE released Bryan from their contract, citing the violence of the act and the need to placate sponsors. He wrestled independently for a couple of months before returning to WWE in mid-August.
Bryan defeated The Miz at 2010’s Night of Champions before feuding over the title with Sheamus. On 17 July 2011 he won the Money in the Bank ladder match, successfully cashing in on 18 December at TLC when he pinned Big Show to become World Heavyweight Champion. By this point Bryan was involved in a romantic storyline with AJ, who ended up costing Bryan his World Heavyweight Championship with an ill-timed kiss at WrestleMania XXVIII. Later in 2012, he formed a curious alliance with Kane as part of Team Hell No, and began his steady ascent towards the main event. He claimed his first WWE Championship on 18 August 2013 at SummerSlam, only to lose the strap moments later when Randy Orton made the most of his Money in the Bank contract. It would take Bryan almost eight months to avenge his loss, but after performing double duty at WrestleMania XXX he stood at the pinnacle of professional wrestling.
Commenting on Bryan’s retirement, Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer wrote, ‘It will be a long time before people fully understand the contributions he made to this industry, which is a far better place because of his involvement. There were things dating back to 2001 that he was involved with that changed the underground foundation of the industry, and over the past few years, significantly changed talent evaluation at the highest level of the industry’.
Wrestling fans will continue to love and appreciate Daniel Bryan for his unique combination of humility, good humour, attention to detail, and quickness of thought: for an intense and varied in-ring style which made him seem a legitimate threat to men of much larger stature, and for a charismatic warmth and enthusiasm which won him the sort of searing popularity only few in the history of the business have ever witnessed. The story of professional wrestling in the 2010s belongs to Daniel Bryan.