The Wrasslin’ Essay: The Daniel Bryan Problem

The underdog we all loved is turning into a classic heel GM, writes David Gibb.

We need to talk about Daniel Bryan.

When Bryan was made general manager of SmackDown under the supposed supervision of Shane McMahon, it created a true “babyface territory” within the WWE for the first time since the Monday Night War against WCW began. That is to say, SmackDown was established to take place in a fundamentally fair world built on rewarding merit and rejecting meddling from authority figures.

Less than two months later, it appears that WWE may already be itching to return to their usual format. Bryan, the most unanimous fan favorite of the last decade, is gradually feeling less like the hero of WrestleMania XXX and more like Vickie Guerrero, John Laurinaitis, or Eric Bischoff.

That’s right: it’s slow and subtle, but Daniel Bryan is turning into a classic WWE heel general manager.

For whatever reason, WWE just can’t bear to present a nice person as an important authority figure, and as a result, they’ve booked Daniel Bryan over the last few weeks to make him look less like a smart, reasonable guy and more like, well, a WWE authority figure.

The direction of the character first became evident during Bryan’s blow-up with the Miz on the August 23 edition of Talking Smack. Bryan revealed two new aspects of his character: a raw, defensive sensitivity about his inability to wrestle and a sense of elitism about the skills of other wrestlers. Both of these are decidedly heelish qualities.

Throughout the first three rounds of the Cruiserweight Classic, Bryan openly and passionately cheered for Brian Kendrick in his capacity as color commentator. While he cited their longtime friendship as the reason for his gushing support, the fact remains: he was vociferously cheering a heel. This was mostly clearly on display during Kendrick’s memorable match against Tony Nese, one of the most natural babyface competitors in the tournament.

When Kendrick was ultimately eliminated by Kota Ibushi in the tournament quarterfinal, Bryan acted like an unlikable WWE authority figure in a completely different manner. As the crowd acknowledged Kendrick’s career-changing performance after the show formally ended, Brian marched down the ramp, grinning broadly from ear to ear, and climbed into the ring, ostensibly to help Kendrick celebrate the emotional moment.

Just like Triple H or one of the McMahons, Bryan simply couldn’t leave the moment in the ring to the wrestler. He had to inject himself into the emotional climax of the show. He was there to glom onto the hottest heat and condescend to validate the performance a wrestler. Bryan celebrating between the ropes with Kendrick was no different from Triple H presenting the Universal Title to Kevin Owens – it reinforced the worn WWE trope that if something of consequence is going to occur, an authority figure must be part of it.

The Daniel Bryan of WWE Draft day wouldn’t do that. He was all about letting the wrestlers do their thing and staying out of the way.

Sure, Bryan played mostly nice on last week’s go-home edition of SmackDown, helping build excitement for the inaugural SmackDown Women’s Championship match, but small hints have persisted, including him questioning cage-diving super babyface Shane McMahon’s decision making and leadership on the September 6 edition of Talking Smack and then complaining about his off-color language being bleeped on the September 13 episode.

When the appointed moment comes, Bryan will execute one of the most heartbreaking turns of the modern era, and the most memorable star of a generation will be reduced to the same old thing.

If these aren’t breadcrumbs in a trail ultimately leading to a Daniel Bryan heel turn, the alternative is even worse. If Daniel Bryan’s not being tuned up for the big flip, it’s the biggest tell of all time that the WWE just doesn’t understand how a decent person acts.

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