The first time I saw Daniel Bryan in person, I was so impressed that I did the only thing I could think to do: I gave him some money.
This was about a year ago, and it was only about a year before that I learned of his existence. But it felt like I'd known him a lot longer.
Early Monday morning, Daniel Bryan announced his retirement from pro wrestling. And I can't help but reflect on the effect, weird as it may sound, that this stranger I once gave my money had on me. He has, in measurable ways, made my life better. And I owe him for that.
In early 2014, I rekindled a latent love for professional wrestling after a night during which my Twitter feed became a wall of WrestleMania 30 reactions. It sounded like everybody was having fun, and I was missing out. I signed up for the WWE Network, and gave pro wrestling another shot. Of course, I began with the show that everybody was talking about.
WrestleMania 30's in-ring performances began and ended with Daniel Bryan, someone I'd never heard of. Standing at all of 5-foot-8, his shoulders barely crested the top ropes. He weighed less than 200 pounds, another sharp contrast between him and the bodybuilders he faced and I expected to see. He didn't much look like a wrestler, either, with a shaggy mop of hair and a lumberjack's beard.
And yet, the crowd loved him. I could tell that he was the fan favorite star of WWE's biggest pay-per-view the instant that he emerged from backstage to a rendition of Wagner's "Flight of the Valkyries" as interpreted by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Seventy-plus thousand people in attendance leapt to their feet, chanting "Yes! Yes! Yes!" and thrusting their arms, index fingers pointed to the sky, with every monosyllabic cheer. It looked awkward as hell, but they were happy, and I let it slide.
Just before he came out, the WWE's talented video department ran a montage of his story arc, a yearslong struggle against the powers that be, against those who never thought he could make it, against those in power who actively worked against his ascendancy both in the story and in the real world. I knew nothing of his man, and within moments, the story that the WWE told was so powerful that I was rooting for him. He and his story sucked me back into a form of entertainment I hadn't watched in more than a decade.
When he got into the ring (where, of course, the odds were stacked skyscraper-tall against him), that small, kind of odd-looking dude wrestled his ass off and won. A couple hours later, he had his second match and walked out of WrestleMania 30 having defeated three of the biggest stars on the roster. He walked out the Heavyweight Champion.
Daniel Bryan would not be denied. Neither would his fans. Of course, he became one of my favorite wrestlers. Call me today, and you'll hear his entrance music. Say something I'm excited about in a text, and odds are you'll get a "Yes!" GIF.
DANIEL BRYAN'S ARC
Those who've been watching wrestling steadily during my sabbatical spent more time with Daniel Bryan, and I'm certain that they could tell you more stories than I could. But I tried to catch up to them by reading his story and learning his history. The more I learned, the more I liked. Bryan was an everyman, as close to those who watched pro wrestling would ever get to stepping inside the squared circle.
Last year, I saw Daniel Bryan wrestle in a random local match. It wasn't televised. The venue wasn't sold out. He wrestled his ass off, flipping and flying and smacking and taking bumps that, as often as not, couldn't possibly be fake. The short guy's performance stood head and shoulders above any other — and nobody was slouching that night.
He gave everything, and that was clear. It was exactly what I'd learned to expect from Daniel Bryan. He did it, everybody knew, because he loved it. That's everything you could possibly want from a wrestler. And it's precisely that attitude and work ethic that gained him legions of fans and the highest accolades his profession has to offer. There was a palpable sense that the fans in attendance appreciated him as much as he appreciated us.
This happened everywhere. WWE fans have a kind of vote in the entertainment they watch. Their love (or sometimes hate) for a wrestler can determine what happens in the ring. It can change stories. Unassuming Daniel Bryan was an unmitigated fan favorite. There were live tapings of shows where the crowd just took over screaming Daniel Bryan's name and chanting "Yes!"
His reaction? A smile that touched his ears. My reaction? Goosebumps.
You can't plan that stuff. If you're the WWE, all you can do is react to it. It did, acknowledging Bryan's importance and fan desire.
But it wouldn't last. It couldn't. The attitude and work ethic that brought Daniel Bryan to the top of industry may also have undone him.
The last two years have been tough for him. He faced injury after injury. He wasn't Heavyweight Champion for long because of his health. He spent time convalescing last year after complications from a back injury. Not long after he returned, he won the Intercontinental Championship belt. And not long after that, he suffered another injury that sidelined him.
It was tragic. He'd worked so hard to get to the top and just as he finally convinced everyone that he belonged there, the real world knocked him back to the ground.
During every pay-per-view while he was gone, I secretly hoped that he'd make a surprise comeback. Everybody felt that, as far as I can tell. There were rumors of his impending return. Reports said that the WWE doctors wouldn't clear him, not because of his back but because of the dangers that repeated concussions now posed to him. It was a reminder that wrestling's outcomes may be predetermined, but much of what happens in the ring is real. It's entertainment, for sure, but entertainers pay a physical price.
He didn't say much in his most recent absence, but he made it clear that he wanted to return. Those who followed him on social media could see that he was still training, still keeping in shape. There were reports — some from Bryan — that he had his own doctors who cleared him to wrestle. People wondered if the WWE and its leaders were being skittish or unfair.
That's the best of pro wrestling in a nutshell, when you can't tell the real-life drama from the scripted stuff.
Still, we wanted Daniel Bryan back. Not having him made each week less special. And the idea of him being sidelined in his early 30s was, again, tragic.
Nobody — including Daniel Bryan — knew his future. Until Monday, when he announced on Twitter that he would never come back.
Due to medical reasons, effective immediately, I am announcing my retirement. Tonight on Raw, I'll have a chance to elaborate. #gratitude— Daniel Bryan (@WWEDanielBryan) February 8, 2016
Last night, on the WWE's flagship TV show, Monday Night Raw, he appeared to minutes of raucous applause. Then elaborated on his tweet. He owned the last segment of the show, speaking from his heart and thanking everyone and making sure that everybody knew he was grateful. He said it over and over.
But the simple, sad truth was that he was never coming back. He went through test after test and scan after scan, he said, and some doctors told him that there was nothing wrong with his brain — even though he sustained his first three concussions after he started wrestling as a teenager and many since.
Then, a couple weeks ago, he did another test that said things weren't as good as he thought. Something, it appears, may be wrong with his brain. And wrestling, we presume, would make it worse.
"Maybe my brain wasn't as OK as I thought it was," he said on Raw.
That led, inexorably, to his decision to retire. And that decision led to fans' loss.
I saw Daniel Bryan last year in a random show in a random town, and he blew me away. His performance was the physical manifestation of everything I'd learned about him. I wanted to shake his hand and say thanks, but I really couldn't. I did the second-best thing I could do. At intermission, I made a beeline to the merchandise stand and bought a Daniel Bryan T-shirt — the same one he wore that night. Some of the T-shirt money, I've heard, goes to the wrestlers. I said thanks in the only way I knew how.
It is, without hesitation, my favorite shirt. I'm wearing it as I type this. I wore it over the weekend — and probably twice last week. And every time I put it on, I think of the same thing.
When I saw him locally, he walked off after his match and did something you don't see on TV. The crowd was going wild. I was going wild. Remember that awkward finger-pointing "Yes! Yes! Yes!" chant? I led it in my section, embarrassment be damned. I was on my feet, moving like an idiot, screaming myself hoarse.
Daniel Bryan paused before walking backstage. He turned back to the crowd and waved, big hands flopping above his head like bats. He bowed. The crowd, already wild, went mad. I did, too.
I'll never see that again. Nobody will. But boy, those of us who did are lucky.
Today, Daniel Bryan is no longer a professional wrestler. I miss him already.