There’s a part in the documentary series Planet Earth where, whilst discussing the mating rituals of the Mongolian wild ass, narrator David Attenborough says "Female asses are mysterious creatures. They come and go as they please, and much of their behavior seems unfathomable to an outsider". The joke, of course, is a rather cheeky (read: British) one, where nothing is quite said explicitly, but everyone is supposed to get it after the implied wink. In the midst of a very serious documentary of the very serious nature of nature, it’s one of the few laugh lines.
It works, not just because of the subtle charms of our former oppressors, but because nearly everyone watching knows what Attenborough means when he says it, having experienced or at least been born into a society where women having their own motivations is confusing. It’s a built-in joke, not because it’s spelled out, but because it gives a point of reference for such behaviors we find in our everyday lives.
It serves, more or less, as an origin story for every hardluck loser that couldn’t find a girlfriend, and it allows those "hardluck losers without girlfriends" to settle into the idea that the universe isn’t against them, it’s against people like them.
Which is where Daniel Bryan comes in.
Bryan’s meteoric rise has reached a level that we haven’t seen since the time of Hulk Hogan. Not from a popularity perspective -- that’d be the Austin era -- as the ratings can attest, but in the way that Daniel Bryan has solved the biggest problem in wrestling: the "Why?". For all the importance of championships from a narrative perspective, the quality of the story usually rises when it transcends "sports", and begins speaking to the permeable membrane between what we are seeing on television and how we think about it.
The problem with the John Cena Era is/was not John Cena, but that he fit so perfectly as the character of superhero -- and sold the attendant amount of merchandise -- that even rebelling against him fed into the corporate machine in a big picture sense. Other than not watching, there was no way to shake him, he wasn’t a character in a larger story.
He was Inspector Gadget: the main character in his own main storyline who always seems to find a way out of a sticky situation. All the other, smaller story lines filling in the rest of the card were Looney Tunes, telling barely connected stories on a separate show that mostly served to maintain the status quo as the company kept ticking along fiscal quarter profit after fiscal quarter profit. There was no larger antagonist for us to rally against, but no reason to see John Cena as anything other than an extremely persistent obstacle for "our" heroes to not overcome.
The point of the story was us, we were the ones being worked over in the ring, as Cena spent year after year teasing smart fans with nods to the IWC in his promos and fleeting moments of high-octane brilliance in the ring before giving (in our heads, his) fans what they paid (in our heads, their parents’) money to see by performing a superhero feat of strength on an impossibly large man to overcome impossibly long odds.
But, when you are Daniel Bryan, you can be Bugs Bunny, creating a portable narrative around yourself, bouncing in between feuds with Yosemite Sam, Marvin the Martian and even sometimes your buddy Daffy. Being against Daniel Bryan says that you’ve chosen a side, one outside of not just the mainstream opinion, but the free market and the will of the people. Being against John Cena doesn’t. It mostly says that you are going to lose at the next pay-per-view (PPV).
But getting to that point in your career is not easy. You, more often than not, have to form a tag team with Kane to do it. That’s usually the best way to make the main event, especially if you have a beard.
Mick Foley tried to start a Union, too. Because of sledgehammer shots to knees as well as the stupidity of trusting Vince McMahon to support a labor movement -- and presumably, the difficulty of forming a collective with a group of independent contractors -- they lasted less than a full month. Performing together once on PPV, at 1998’s Over the Edge, the match and the group was largely forgettable (though, not to be glib, the match was mostly forgettable because of an incident that would have been prevented by an actual union, but digression).
Much like its successor, the J.O.B squad, the Union was mostly an excuse for puns and "clever" acronyms like U.P.Y.O.U.R.S (Union of People You OUghtta Respect, Son), with the narrative goal of the group to make Foley seem like a leader in the fight of the card fillers against the Corporation Ministry, and their cadre of champions. It worked. Kind of.
To say that it was an unqualified success is hard, as he held the championship for only slightly longer than Daniel Bryan’s first title reign, equaling Bryan’s second reign by losing the title to Triple H the next night on Raw after winning a Triple-Threat match at Summerslam 1999. But it was the culmination of Foley’s career-long journey to reach the role he’d most expertly fill: everyman.
Foley didn’t create that persona as much as have it thrust upon him, becoming the first major star in the WWF to be shown as a wrestling fan growing up, with the jumps off his roof and Dude Love promos he cut in his childhood basement predating the Hardys backyard wrestling antics and Edge’s trip to WrestleMania VI by nearly a decade. He was seen as one of us, but beyond that, he was seen as someone who had come from the same place.
For all the bloodthirsty implications, being against him wasn’t just saying that you didn’t believe in whatever the equivalent of Hustle, Loyalty and Respecting Your Vitamin/Prayer Givers, but that you didn’t believe in humanity. If not believing in John Cena was as simple as choosing to not believe in a religion, not believing in Mick Foley meant you thought Jesus was a jerk for getting people drunk at a wedding and giving them free bread and fish on picnics.
The E (or at that time WWF) didn’t get there by telling you that Foley was Good or God or "Good God, He’s Broken in Half", but by letting Foley shine through. They let the actual bits of his personality that would work towards creating the everyman persona shine through, allowing the character to be him with a dirty sock in his pants added for flavoring.
It took years, thousands of interviews, lost ears, exploding barbed wire cage matches, falling off of (and through) cages and developing through sheer force of will the ability to shoehorn the name of a city where he was performing into literally every single promo he ever cut, but he made it. He earned it, and he did it largely by being himself. And three other gimmicks at the same time, but he did it his way. By giving us a "Why", we were able to root for him without thinking about it, no matter how many different times he would break our heart. We knew he didn’t mean to, and that was enough for us.
Daniel Bryan can be his own man, and develop his own character. He doesn’t have to be the Mick Foley everyman, he may even be able to pull off a Rey Mysterio perpetual underdog situation, except he’s taller than my mother so it might be sustainable. But, above all else, it has to be him.
If being a sarcastic pain in the ass is what Daniel Bryan is, then they should take those parts -- like the ones that calmly and bitingly knocked down Vickie on Friday without using the words "fat", "ugly" or "fat and ugly" -- and fashion that into what they sell their fans on. If mischievous smart aleck who pulls pranks on his corporate oppressors is how Bryan really is, they should fashion that into what they sell their fans on.
Ultimately, like politicians, wrestlers are brands, and narrowing the focus and marketing on a brand is always necessary for it to reach the highest levels. They need to symbolize something to us, be something for us, not just a character on their own show, but the star of ours. Because of this, what’s most important for the development of Daniel Bryan is that he gets us to continue to root not just for him, but the idea of him.
A wrestling company can be successful when the fans care about the company, as the last ten years of the WWE attest, but true success comes from a real connection by an individual to the fans. They don’t just want to know the "Why" of what they are watching, but to feel it. And they can’t feel it if they’ve already made the same connection with someone else. The only way to do that is to let Bryan find the Bryan that both he and the people love, and be that guy. Hopefully he won’t have to fall through a cage to get there.
Nick Bond is the Editor-in-Chief of Juice Make Sugar and the Managing Editor of The Classical. He tweets @TheN1ckster, which is his self-appointed third person nickname because The Nickster lacks the ability to process shame.