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Thank You, Daniel Bryan (or, a look back at a life of watching wrestling)

Last night, with thousands of people waiting on his every word, millions of people watching at home, and countless typically-cynical fans tweeting away their tears, WWE star Daniel Bryan (real name: Bryan Danielson) retired. And it has me looking back at my own relationship with professional wrestling.

Professional wrestling isn’t a “real” sport. The outcomes and characters are predetermined. Their actions decided by a team of writers, or one centralized “booker”. This causes many to call wrestling fake, which, in theory it is – but the way the characters and real people behind them connect is anything but.

It’s as fake as our favorite movies and television shows, only the actors do their own stunts. Live. Without crashpads (usually.) Yes, Game of Thrones didn’t really happen, but it doesn’t stop us from investing ourselves in the lives the Lannisters and Starks. Yes, Daniel Bryan didn’t really defeat his opponents on his way to champion – but he won us over.

The intrinsic link between performer and audience is what has always gravitated me to pro wrestling. I grew up devouring it as a child, my father exposing me to the weekend televised antics of the WWF and the NWA (later WCW). I stuck with it through the Monday Night Wars, as WWF and WCW battled on the airwaves, as dozens (if not hundreds) of talented performers looked to eek out their stake of one of the most successful eras of the so-called sport.

Given my love of comedy – another performance art without a net – and what we’ve created with Super Art Fight, that started as people drawing, and grew into a colorful parade of characters in hyper-dramatic “combat”, this probably isn’t too surprising to hear, but I absolutely loved it.

My friends were just as enraptured as I was. We started getting together for all of the pay-per-views, even those of the rogue, genre-redefining ECW, and then we got even deeper.

Yes, I was (along with my friends, some of whom have gone professional – or are working to become it) a backyard wrestler. But we weren’t those dumb kids you saw on 20/20 jumping off of roofs, hitting each other with fluorescent light tubes, or cutting our foreheads to bleed. Oh no. We were nerds – and in turn, our interests were more in the work of smaller, more talented guys like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Rey Mysterio Jr. and Chris Benoit. I also really loved doing commentary, aping the styles of Jim Ross, Gordon Solie, and Joey Styles.

We wanted to know how to move like them. We wanted to know how to work like them. We wanted to talk like them. And we continued on with our interest. Watching pay-per-views and talking the weekly episodes of Raw and Nitro quickly turned into reading message boards and news sites online to get the behind the scenes info. Our roads on the Internet then quickly turned us to the world of VHS tape trading, buying blank VHS tapes, mailing them to reputable sources, and getting hours of independent or Japanese wrestling back, all to be devoured.

As time moved on, so did we, and so did the industry.

WWF purchased WCW and ECW. They dropped the F and became the WWE. And for years, in the mainstream, things were docile. There was no competition. It got boring. It got stagnant.

But if you put in the effort…it got very interesting.

The world of VHS tape trading turned to DVD-R trading. Fans, such as myself, got even easier access to show footage. And at the same time, the Internet became the way for independent promotions to make a name for themselves. And those promotions featured stars you’d never heard of.

In 2002, I went to Philadelphia, PA with my friends to head to a rec center gym. The company was “Ring of Honor”. The show, just their fourth, was built around crowning their first champion. And while the card was full of names we’d come to know and love – Christopher Daniels, AJ Styles, Low Ki, the guy that got my interest the most was “The American Dragon”, Bryan Danielson.

The new era of wrestler was interesting. They were fans, like us. They watched tapes, like us. They were built…better than us, but they were no longer the large, steroid fueled monsters we were used to.

Danielson was my height, but he had something special. Coming to the ring with short hair, clean faced, in white tights and boots, you wouldn’t have marked him as special. But he carried himself as someone special. He carried himself like he was important. And when the bell rang, he was amazing.

He could work a hold in a way we hadn’t seen in years. He could throw himself over the ropes with such energy and enthusiasm. He wanted to have great matches, and we wanted to see those great matches.

It was the beginning of something special.

From 2002 to 2007, I became a hardcore fan of independent wrestling. My buddies Jason, Adam, and most frequently, Mark and I (who I was already close with, due to our love of – coincidentally, indie rock) would go from state to state, weekend to weekend, seeing shows from Ring of Honor, the comic-book styled CHIKARA, CZW and others. If we could tack on music shows before and after? Sold. We’re in.

New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania…if it was within driving distance, and the card sounded good? We were there. The shows we missed? We caught on DVD. We were into it. Hard.

And who was always the personification of this era? Bryan Danielson. Sure, guys like CM Punk wouldn’t be denied (and would go to mainstream fame in WWE, and is now planning to take over UFC), but Danielson was that era of indie wrestling. Danielson always had the best matches. Danielson was the measuring stick for new talent. If they could hang with him, they were going to be great…and usually, they were.

2007 was when being a wrestling fan became difficult.

2007 saw the horrible, nightmarish murder-suicide, when Chris Benoit killed his family, and then his wife. He was the guy who represented the style that indie wrestling was following in the footsteps in, a guy who I’d traded tapes and watched pay-per-views to see, but it’s that same style that mangled his body and gave him concussion after concussion. We were learning the dark side of concussions, and we learned it in one of the darkest moments in sports, probably ever.

It was hard to be a fan after that. Watching shows, following companies didn’t really feel the same. It felt off. It felt sad. So my interest went dormant. I’d read about things, sure, but watching weekly TV, trading footage…it just wasn’t worth the effort anymore.

In 2008, I had the joy of, alongside a group of amazing artists whom I get to call friends, starting up Super Art Fight. They needed a host and commentator. I – alongside Ross Nover – stepped in. How appropriate is it then, to take everything I learned from watching years upon years of footage, and apply a pro-wrestling touch to two artists drawing on a wall?

As Super Art Fight grew, my love of wrestling returned from there. I didn’t have the time, money, or energy to follow as much as I did, but I did start watching WWE again. If I was going to be helping people act like over-the-top pro-wrestlers, how could I give the right advice if I wasn’t learning from that world anymore? They had me again. I was in.

In 2010, what I thought was unthinkable happened. I had heard that CM Punk made it to the WWE – it made sense, he had the gift of gab. But Bryan Danielson, the guy who personified the era of wrestling that I loved more than anything else, had signed to the WWE.

Was he still smaller than everyone else? Yes. Was he still working matches in a way no one else would? Yes. Was he still outclassing everyone else on the card? Yes.

And his would be done.

In 2014, after four years of poor writing, including where he had a character where he was boring, a character where he danced wacky, a character where he was a “loser vegan”, Bryan Danielson – now Daniel Bryan – didn’t just find himself in the WWE, no. He proved that his talents and skills could not be denied. He found himself in the main event of the Super Bowl of wrestling, Wrestlemania. And he found himself champion.

It seemed like the beginning of a new day for the WWE. Millions watched as he became champion on the WWE Network, a new Netflix-like service, where you could watch every major event streaming live (and look through the decades of catalog footage, countless pay-per-views and television episodes…who needs DVDs?). And with Bryan at the top, the WWE was now filled with talent who he helped shine a line on. Guys like Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Kevin Owens, Adrian Neville, Sami Zayn, and countless others, who he worked with in the indie world, and I had the pleasure of watching come up. I felt just as excited to see those guys arrive as I’m sure they felt to be atop the mountain, to be a part of the biggest company in their industry.

It felt great. But sadly, clouds would soon come. Shortly after having his Wrestlemania moment in 2014, Danielson had to walk away due to nagging injuries. His shoulder? His neck? Something wasn’t right. He tried to come back at the beginning of 2015, and again, found himself injured. Legitimately unable to compete.

Last night, Bryan had the final segment of WWE’s weekly show, Raw, all to himself. He had mentioned on Twitter earlier that he would be retiring. This wasn’t a storyline. This was anything but fake. Like one of his idols, the concussions caught up with him. But thankfully this story would not end so darkly. 9 years later, we have better testing, better abilities to spot when and where things could go wrong.

With his final moment, he got to share with his fans the same joy and same gratitude they had shared with him. It’s a sad moment – but one gets to recognize the greatness he had. Sixteen years in the industry he loved. He met his wife (fellow WWE star Brie Bella). He made countless fans, myself included, love his skills, his ability, and hold their breath during his amazing matches. But he has to walk away. And thankfully, it’s with his health, and his head held high.

To that, all I can say is this: Thank you, Bryan Danielson. Thank you for rekindling my love of one of my favorite hobbies. Thank you for being a class act. Thank you for showing us how one can do everything and leave happy and fulfilled. Thank you for the memories. And good luck with the next step.