In the wake of the announcement two and half weeks ago that WWE World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan would require a surgical procedure on his neck, there's been a lot of writing and discussion of what that means for the titles, for Bryan, and for WWE.
To date, the company has basically stalled for time. The European trip ate up the dates needed for the operation and acute recovery phase. Upon WWE's return to the States, the champion returned to television, appearing on Monday Night Raw this week to appear in a segment with Stephanie McMahon.
Next up is an appearance at this Sunday (June 1st)'s pay-per-view (PPV) event, Payback. While he almost certainly won't be involved in anything physical, it will provide an opportunity to keep champ and championships on screen as he responds to Stephanie McMahon's demand the he turn over the belts or see his wife, Brie Bella, lose her job with WWE.
Whether or not the plan is to remove his titles, a couple of things are becoming pretty clear:
1) The powers-that-be are done being hesitant concerning Bryan's main event status. He may not be their chosen champion (or whatever), but he's the guy the fans got behind, so they put their marketing machine behind him. Television ratings, WWE Network subscriptions, PPV buys...they're all tied to him now. Not him alone, but he's such an integral part of them that there is no "Plan B" for his role in them.
2) Medical advice and previous experience are telling them that Bryan can remain an on-screen character through his recovery period. Again, this is not say that they won't take or have him forfeit the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, but even if they do, he'll remain a week-to-week part of that story even if he doesn't wrestle until Money in the Bank or even Battleground.
Trying to put together a timeline for his return...WWE reports that Dr. Joseph Maroon performed "a minimally invasive microsurgical procedure known as a cervical foraminotomy to decompress the nerve root" on May 14th. Reports from the company and others were that "went great".
Literature on cervical foraminotomy indicates that patients are usually discharged from the hospital the day after surgery with instructions to not drive for one or two weeks (largely due to risk of trauma in the form of whiplash in the event of an accident). Light physical activity can be resumed after four weeks, with heavy activity and sports targeted for two or three months.
Neck braces and outpatient physical therapy are options that may be prescribed in the event of significant pain or muscle weakness.
Now, this is pro wrestling, so there's the caveat that what WWE.com is reporting may be kayfabed version of whatever is actually happening medically. But, we also know that Bryan is a professional athlete who is in much better shape than the average patient, and that he has the medical and training resources of a global entertainment company aiding his recovery.
So, if twelve days after surgery he was able to travel to Knoxville, march to the ring with 20 - 30 pounds of championship gold, give an impassioned speech and perform his signature catchphrase arm movements (all signs that he is not experiencing significant muscle weakness)...why would there be any need to take one of the key pieces of your storytelling and marketing plan off the table?
All caution should be exercised with the champ's health. Five to ten more years of Daniel Bryan, main eventer, is worth a heck of a lot more than just the main event of SummerSlam. And that's why vacating the titles may end up being the best in story option.
But that doesn't mean he can't be on television, agitating The Authority and whoever the new champ (or championship contenders) might be.
And since word on the screens is that he'll resume his program with Kane when he returns, a heavily gimmicked match against a safe, veteran performer could conceivably be an option a month and a half (MitB) or little more than two months (Battleground) after surgery. It wouldn't be the fast-paced, technical bout that propelled the champ to fame, but it would get him back in the mix.
However they end up going about it, the manner in which they have dealt with his injury thus far indicates that WWE is 100% in the Daniel Bryan business, and they have no intention of letting his neck issues disrupt that business.