The first and only time I met Bryan was in August of 2010, before an IPW show in Indianapolis called Reign of the Insane. Two months prior, Bryan had been released by the WWE for… well, you know the story. Once the WWE signed him again, they agreed to allow him to finish out his remaining dates on the indy circuit over the next few weeks. One of these dates was in a poorly-lit Salvation Army building on the bad side of Indianapolis, wrestling Circle City golden boy Drake Younger and teaching a training seminar before the show. Standing in the ring with fifteen or so other guys, some of them my friends, some of them wrestlers on the card that night, some of them strangers I’d never see again, my sixteen year old self was blown away by this short, clean-cut, dorky man standing in front of me. Six days earlier, he had returned to the WWE at SummerSlam, in a match with the likes of Bret Hart, John Cena, and Chris Jericho, and now this man was showing me how to really work a side headlock and make it feel real. It seemed like a dream. I was completely blown away.
I had been a wrestling fan for about two and a half years at that point, after getting into the sport pretty late in life, later than most people from what I gather. Having little else in my life other than a library card and time to kill, every day I’d walk to the public library two blocks down from my house, get on one of the computers, and learn about wrestling. I’d soak up anything and everything I could get my hands on, from shoddy Wikipedia articles, to full shows uploaded at 360p on YouTube, to long-since-dead Angelfire blogs. I started with WWE, and once I learned everything I felt I could there (not nearly enough, looking back), I moved on to WCW and ECW, which led me to CZW, ROH, PWG, and Japan. In searching for every bit of information and footage I could find for free, the name “Bryan Danielson” popped up time and again in those early weeks of 2008, in the first days of my fandom. Time and again, I saw this man called “the best”, or “the best in the world”, or “the best technical wrestler in the world”, or “the most outstanding wrestler in the world”. I was quickly able to find some videos of his matches against Nigel McGuinness, Takeshi Morishima, KENTA, and Roderick Strong. Thinking back, it’s hard to recall what exactly I felt and thought as a piss-poor teenager hungry to lose myself in something, but I know one thing for sure: when I watched Bryan wrestle, I didn’t want to stop.
To be fair, though, Bryan was never my favorite wrestler. He never quite captivated me like Shawn Michaels or Jumbo Tsuruta did, making me believe in the emotions and pain he was feeling. He never made me laugh quite as hard as Chuck Taylor. He never quite personified the dirty, beaten-down, broken kid I knew I was the way CM Punk or Eddie Kingston or Jon Moxley did. He never wowed me with his tenacity and brutalism like Roderick Strong or Shingo Takagi or Nigel McGuinness did. But he was simply the best, in a way I couldn’t fully grasp or explain for many, many years, and I couldn’t deny that. He was endearing and heartfelt, and connected to audiences in a way that few people ever could, and I couldn’t deny that either. I’m not sure if I’ve ever grown to love Bryan like I love those other wrestlers, but time and again he blew me away with what he did in the ring, and the love he had for it. Even at a young age, having seen precious little wrestling outside of the current WWE product, I could tell I was looking at someone special doing something special. When he first signed with the WWE in 2009, I was overjoyed. I was overjoyed that this man who worked so hard and was so good at what he did was having that work pay off, and was one step closer to living his dream.
This is why, when he stood before fifteen or so disheveled, ragamuffin young men, some of them only children like myself, in a dim, grimy community center on the bad end of town, and looked at all of us and said, “I’m grateful to be here”, I was confused. I was confused how this man who had, only days before, wrestled in front of 17,000 screaming fans and had stepped in the ring with a few of the best of all time, how he could be grateful to see us and to be there with us. I was confused how he could be so cheery and friendly and helpful, and have a genuine interest in each of us as individuals and with our progression over a period of two or three hours as he taught us more than we’d ever realized we’d learned. I couldn’t wrap my head around how and why this man could care about any of this.
It was a wild ride, watching Bryan’s career over the next few years. The ups and downs of life in the WWE were strenuous and painful, for both Bryan and his fans. The high points were magical and won’t ever be forgotten. The low points were tragic and will likewise never fade from memory. But through it all, through the injuries and poor booking and burials and the eventual elation of success, Bryan was still wrestling. He was still doing what he loved, for himself, and for people who loved him. But from the outset of his career, only a few months into wrestling, he had been plagued with concussions. Over the years, damage began to build and build and build, and by this day in February 2016, it simply proved to be too great. It was a day years in the making, a day everyone saw coming, but not a day that was any easier to live through when it finally came.
Tonight, Bryan stepped in the ring at a RAW show in Seattle and announced his retirement in what I consider, and what the greatest reporter in the business likewise considers, to be the greatest segment in wrestling history. About halfway through his speech, he said that he woke up that morning and felt nothing but gratitude, and again, for the thousandth time in my life, I was blown away by this man. It transported me back to that dismal Salvation Army building in inner city Indianapolis, to my few, solitary moments with a man who simply loved wrestling and was so incredibly happy to be able to do it in any way he could. Listening to this man, voice cracking, eyes watering, tell a nation of fans that he wasn’t able to do what he loved any more, was simply heartbreaking. But through it all, he was happy. He was thrilled that he had been able to do it for so long, all over the world and with some of the greatest to ever step foot in a ring. He was, and is, so immeasurably grateful for every single moment he had in this business. And as much as it pains me to see him go, I have to say that I’m grateful too. I’m grateful that I was able to experience what I could of the man, through his wrestling, through stories other people told about him, and through the one, short, incredible meeting I had with him. I’m grateful that a man as talented as Bryan loved this profession as much as he did, and that I was able to share in that love. I’m grateful that I didn’t miss out on seeing this truly awesome human being do what he adores and chase the impossible dream. And while I’m so, so saddened that it had to end this way, I’m so grateful that I was able to see it happen. The wrestling world now has to say goodbye to one of the absolute best ever, but we have been so very, very lucky to have him for this long, and we should be grateful for every second of it.