There are very few superstars in WWE history that have as much universally-recognized respect as what Daniel Bryan has earned over his storied career filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
Daniel Bryan is one of the purest good guys in WWE history and not many superstars have had to overcome what he has dealt with in recent years with what appeared to be career-ending injury issues.
He officially retired in early-2016 and would become the SmackDown GM later in the year, but after consulting with doctors all around the country, Bryan was medically cleared to return to in-ring action just before WrestleMania 34. Bryan’s in-ring return came at the showcase of the immortals and since then, he has been back to his old self.
The Yes Movement was back and Bryan was back in the role that brought him major success in the past, but something just felt like it was missing. He hadn’t lost a step in terms of in-ring competition, but this new run didn’t quite click like it was clicking in years past. Maybe it was due to a lack of creative direction; who knows?
His run as a babyface did have several noteworthy moments, such as the brief Team Hell No reunion and a solid, yet abbreviated, feud with long-time rival The Miz. However, many fans weren’t happy with how the WWE was booking Bryan during this time with many feeling like he wasn’t doing much of anything in the grand scheme of things.
That all began to change when he entered the WWE Championship picture after earning the number one contender position after defeating The Miz at Super Show-Down. Bryan had a date with WWE Champion AJ Styles on the SmackDown leading into Crown Jewel when despite his best efforts, Bryan came up short against The Phenomenal One.
However, he got a rematch a few weeks later on the SmackDown before Survivor Series and everything changed. In a move nobody expected, Bryan low blowed Styles while the ref wasn’t looking to gain the upper hand. He followed it with a running knee to shockingly become the WWE Champion for the first time in over four years.
Bryan wasn’t finished there, however, and he attacked Styles after the match was over, solidifying his heel turn. Not only did he become the WWE Champion and turn heel in the process, but he earned the right to face Universal Champion Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series and took The Beast Incarnate to the limit before eventually succumbing to the F5.
The promo Bryan had on the SmackDown following Survivor Series was another step in his heel transformation when he sounded unhinged at times and declared the Yes Movement dead, along with his old self. This third-person promo was a far cry from what fans were used to, but it did its job and then some. Fans were understandably surprised at his heel turn, but the bigger picture suggests that it was the right move and a necessary one.
Think back to other scenarios similar to this one. When the WWE tries to recreate an organic buildup that changes the business, it usually doesn’t end up well. No matter how much success Bryan would go on to have in this new run as a babyface, it would have never been as successful or as impactful as the run he had in 2013 and 2014 when the Yes Movement took off.
Bryan is one of the greatest babyfaces in WWE history, but it just would not have been able to measure up to his past work this time around. Could it have been a good run? Of course. However, fans would always go back to that 2013-2014 run that took the wrestling world by storm. At the same time, fans often times criticize the WWE for not reinventing superstars.
How many times have fans demanded a John Cena heel turn over the past decade-plus? How many times have fans begged for a Roman Reigns heel turn? It’s important to stay fresh and reinvent yourself in this business to avoid becoming stale. Now that’s not to say Bryan was stale as a babyface, but giving him this heelish makeover has completely changed his perception in a positive way.
It was almost as if Bryan was a nostalgia act throughout much of his return with fans going back to that famous run that led him to the main event of WrestleMania 30. Now as a heel, the likes of which his character has never seen before, Bryan can write a new chapter in his legendary WWE career opposed to just adding on to already-existing chapters. And let’s not forget, Bryan has proven he can be a great heel in the past.
This version is totally different than the obnoxious heel that won the World Heavyweight Championship or the therapy-induced heel that argued with Kane. That gives the WWE endless opportunities to turn Bryan into something his character has never seen before. The sky is the limit for what this version of Bryan can do and maybe, just maybe, this could lead to a babyface turn in the future that feels fresher than his most recent babyface run.
This new version of Daniel Bryan has led to the WWE Championship, a character reinvention, and a new outlook that could bring Bryan the most success he has ever had as a heel in the WWE.