By John Napolitano
#ThankYouDanielBryan – Yes, Daniel Bryan, the four-time world champion and inspiration of this generation, has retired from professional wrestling due to severe concussion and neck injuries that have plagued him throughout his career and during his tenure on top. The dust surrounding Bryan’s premature retirement has settled, and as it did after Hulk Hogan, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, and CM Punk’s departure from the ring, the wheel keeps on spinning.
For many a fan, including this writer, the “G.O.A.T.’s” retirement will not easily dissipate from our memory. He barely scratched the surface of what will be remembered as a legendary career. Daniel Bryan’s legacy will forever stand out as one that was seemingly never intended to be significant. His work ethic and relatable personality captured the hearts and minds of millions, who, in turn, demanded to see him succeed.
Unfortunately, reality doesn’t always write the best narratives, and there are a handful of money matches and riveting rivalries that the WWE Universe will never have the pleasure to witness. Shawn Michaels and The Rock will never be able to electrify the millions and millions. Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin will never headline WrestleMania in front of 70,000 plus ravenous fans, and Daniel Bryan will never put on a wrestling clinic with a handful of top stars in WWE. I present the top three Daniel Bryan rivalries that we will never see in WWE. It should be noted that this list will not include any of the current crop of NXT talent.
3. Kevin Owens
As fate would have it, Kevin Owens made his main roster debut on May 18, 2015, to kick off a three-month program with John Cena. Daniel Bryan hung up his boots, due to injury, for the second time in a calendar year on May 11, 2015. These superstars missed each other like two ships in the night. One can only wonder the money these two could have generated, the arenas they could have sold out, and the stories they could have told had circumstances been different.
At this current juncture, in my humble opinion, Kevin Owens is the top heel on the main roster, who isn’t named Triple H. As someone who pinned John Cena clean in his debut match, powerbombed Machine Gun Kelly off of the stage through a table on Monday Night Raw, and has main event-level heat, he is being drastically underutilized as the Intercontinental Champion.
Owens also has an incredible knack for dismissing the work ethic, popularity, and fairytale-esque aura of different WWE Superstars. He is talented when it comes to demeaning the legitimacy of underdogs and their fan base like no one else. In short, Kevin Owens is the perfect foil to Daniel Bryan and everything for which he stands. Daniel Bryan is the consummate underdog, and his “miracle on Bourbon Street,” as Michael Cole put it at WrestleMania XXX, is the type of storybook ending that would disgust “KO.”
Whether it be over the Intercontinental Championship at SummerSlam or the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania, Daniel Bryan and Kevin Owens could have created in-ring epics, as they are truly the antithesis of one another.
2. Seth Rollins
With the image of Daniel Bryan leading 76,000 strong in a “YES’ chant grasping the Intercontinental Championship and Seth Rollins holding the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in the middle of Levi’s Stadium at WrestleMania XXXI fresh in my head, I began actively campaigning to see the “Undisputed Future of the WWE” clash with the “G.O.A.T.”
I even fantasy booked their clash to take place at the Barclay’s Center on August 23, 2015, at SummerSlam with implications reminiscent of WrestleMania VI. The idea of seeing Daniel Bryan take on Seth Rollins in a winner-take-all match for the Intercontinental Championship and the WWE World Heavyweight Title excited me like no other fantasy match. Interestingly, the we witnessed a similar angle in John Cena vs. Seth Rollins for the United States Championship and the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at SummerSlam 2015, but I still held my breath that we would see Bryan and Rollins do battle down the line.
The fuel to this rivalry could have been the fact that Daniel Bryan walked out of WrestleMania XXX in New Orleans as the world champion, Seth Rollins left WrestleMania XXXI with the world championship in tow, and they wanted to prove who was the true “Undisputed Future of the WWE.” Their rivalry, quite literally, wrote itself.
We’ve seen these gladiators stand side-by-side and toe-to-toe during Rollins’ tenure as one-third of the S.H.I.E.L.D., but while Rollins was establishing himself as the top heel in the company, Daniel Bryan was sidelined with a debilitating neck injury. In a perfect world, Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins would compete as the top babyface and heel in the WWE for years to come.
At the moment, World Wrestling Entertainment is in an odd state of limbo with a part-time top heel as its champion and a top babyface who just cannot seem to be cheered by its fans. While the higher-ups sort out that sticky situation, it’s both entertaining and depressing to imagine what could have been had Daniel Bryan not retired.
Yes, yes, yes, I am aware that John Cena and Daniel Bryan did have a rivalry in the summer of 2013, but considering the heights Bryan reached shortly after, their abbreviated program wasn’t largely satisfying. While their match at SummerSlam 2013 is one of my all-time favorites, their feud could have been so much more.
The first time it occurred to me that Cena and Bryan were capable of having a great rivalry was in 2012, during the 1000th episode of Monday Night Raw, when I pitched the idea to Graham. That pitch wouldn’t come to fruition for another year when John Cena ever so anticlimactically challenged Daniel Bryan to a match for the WWE Championship at SummerSlam.
From the beginning, the angle appeared to be mere fan service, due to the increasing popularity of Bryan. Their rivalry, clearly, was not rooted in the sentiment it could be an epic narrative between two beloved babyfaces. Daniel Bryan was simply a pawn in an effort to set up Randy Orton’s Money in the Bank cash-in, which set up the WWE Champion vs. World Heavyweight Champion unification matchup between Cena and Orton later that year.
In fact, I would wager that had John Cena not taken time off that autumn, due to injury, Daniel Bryan wouldn’t even have been involved in his extended rivalry with Randy Orton over the WWE Championship. Bryan would have competed for the WWE Title against Orton in his contractually obligated rematch at Night of Champions, and ultimately, he would have lost his contractually obligated rematch at Night of Champions.
That same night, John Cena would have beaten Alberto Del Rio for the World Heavyweight Championship, and the world championship unification matchup between John Cena and Randy Orton would have taken place in October at the Hell in a Cell Pay-Per-View, as opposed to at TLC in December. All the while, Daniel Bryan would have been sent back to the midcard to feud with Sheamus for the next ten years, but I digress.
In conclusion, a legitimate John Cena and Daniel Bryan rivalry rooted in a narrative over an extended period of time could have been game changing.
For those wondering why the “Phenomenal One,” AJ Styles, is not featured in the actual rankings of Daniel Bryan’s greatest rivalries to never be seen in WWE, the answer is based on personal preference. Personally, I subscribe to the school of thought that pro-wrestling’s greatest rivalries take place between a clear babyface and heel. This does not apply to the above scenario between John Cena and Daniel Bryan because John Cena will more than likely garner 50% boos from the WWE Universe in any given arena. Although I do not doubt that AJ Styles and Daniel Bryan could create an amazing rivalry, there would be no clear heel without totally contradicting what we have come to know and accept about both characters.
Nonetheless, the idea of AJ Styles and Daniel Bryan fostering a feud in the WWE is fantasy booking if I’ve heard it. The in-ring action would be impeccable and the stories they could tell would have been second to none. No one is more upset that we’ll never witness AJ Styles vs. Daniel Bryan in WWE than AJ Styles and Daniel Bryan themselves.
1. Brock Lesnar
A rivalry between the “Sultan of Suplex City,” Brock Lesnar and Daniel Bryan is, without a doubt, the number one D-Bry program that, regretfully, we will never witness in World Wrestling Entertainment.
I realize that there are a great number of detractors of this concept, who claim that the very idea of Brock Lesnar and Daniel Bryan competing against one another is almost sacrilegious. They argue that Brock Lesnar is too imposing of a force, and there’s no way Daniel Bryan could amount any offense, let alone beat the “Beast Incarnate.” They continue that the very fabric of sports entertainment would be tarnished, and if those two superstars were to do battle, belief in the product would cease to be suspended. I am confident that Brock Lesnar and Daniel Bryan could have had one of the greatest rivalries of all-time, and to those detractors, I bring up three key points:
1. Daniel Bryan did not have to beat Brock Lesnar
Obviously, Brock Lesnar has every advantage in the world against Daniel Bryan. He is a 6’3”, 295-pound fighting-machine. He is a Division 1 NCAA Heavyweight Wrestling Champion, multiple-time WWE World Heavyweight Champion, and a former UFC Heavyweight Champion. He holds victories over Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Undertaker, Big Show, Kurt Angle, Triple H, and John Cena. Brock Lesnar is the most dominating force to ever step foot into World Wrestling Entertainment. To that I respond, “Exactly, and Daniel Bryan is an underdog.”
The very nature of this David vs. Goliath-type rivalry plays into Daniel Bryan’s character. Bryan has spent his entire career inspiring his fans and making them believe he stood a chance against the most diminutive of opponents, despite every single odd standing in his way. No, he didn’t always come out on top, but he got back up and kept trekking. Brock Lesnar and Daniel Bryan could have sold thousands of tickets, told a heart-wrenching story in the process, and no, Daniel Bryan did not have to beat Brock Lesnar.
2. Brock Lesnar has been beaten before
Yes, that was meant to sound every bit as sarcastic as you read it. Despite what Michael Cole and JBL will lead you to believe, Brock Lesnar has been pinned before, and in one case by someone who was the same size as Daniel Bryan. At No Way Out 2004, Lesnar lost his WWE Championship to the 5’10”, lying, cheating, and stealing Eddie Guerrero. Sure, give the assist to Goldberg if you must, but no one counted Eddie Guerrero out before the bell rang as was the case with Daniel Bryan.
Some may argue that Brock Lesnar circa 2004 was a very different Brock Lesnar than the “Conqueror” we have come to know and fear today. Although I agree with that sentiment, that didn’t stop me or millions of other members of the WWE Universe from getting behind the 218-pound CM Punk when he met Brock Lesnar in “The Best vs. The Beast” match at SummerSlam 2013. In fact, despite only having four inches and 28 pounds on Daniel Bryan, CM Punk came very close to defeating Lesnar at the “Biggest Party of the Summer.”
If one looks at the list of WWE Superstars who have pinned Brock Lesnar since his return to the WWE in 2012, only two names will appear. Those names are John Cena in an Extreme Rules match at Extreme Rules 2012 and Triple H in a No-Holds Barred match at WrestleMania XXIX. Daniel Bryan has pinned both John Cena and Triple H clean at SummerSlam 2013 and WrestleMania XXX respectively. If John Cena and Triple H were skilled enough to vanquish Brock Lesnar, then, by proxy, Daniel Bryan is capable of defeating Brock Lesnar.
3. Daniel Bryan has defied bigger odds
If you ask me, the concept of Daniel Bryan defeating Brock Lesnar in a no-disqualification bout is a lot more plausible than what he did in New Orleans, Louisiana, at WrestleMania XXX. In terms of grounded logic, Daniel Bryan beating Brock Lesnar suspends my disbelief miles more than the feat that he accomplished on April 6, 2014.
Bryan cleanly beat the 13-time WWE World Heavyweight Champion and COO of the WWE, Triple H, in a grueling 25-minute bout with Triple H’s conniving and devilish wife, Stephanie McMahon, at ringside bending the rules in favor of her husband. After having his shoulder injured in a post-match attack from the “Game,” Daniel Bryan, just hours later, competed in a 23-minute triple-threat match with the 12 and six-time WWE World Heavyweight Champions, Randy Orton and Batista. During said match, Daniel Bryan received an elevated Batista Bomb-inverted RKO combination through an announce table. After being stretchered halfway up the ramp and defying the better judgment of WWE’s trained ringside doctors, Daniel Bryan returned to the ring where Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, and resident crooked referee, Scott Armstrong, would arrive to throw the outcome of the match. Despite those, literally, impossible odds, Daniel Bryan walked out of WrestleMania XXX unpinned and as the new WWE World Heavyweight Champion, and no one batted an eye. Don’t get me wrong. For these very reasons, WrestleMania XXX is one of my all-time favorites, but the events that transpired there were far less likely to occur, logically, than a Daniel Bryan victory over the “Beast Incarnate.”
So do I think Brock Lesnar and Daniel Bryan could have had a great rivalry, marked by a WrestleMania caliber matchup, and still emerged from the dust having suspended my disbelief? Yes! Yes! Yes!
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