Will Daniel Bryan be able to pick up where he left off when he returns from his neck surgery?

WWE.com

The last couple of months have been filled with as much bad luck as the build to WrestleMania was good luck for the now former WWE World Heavyweight Champ. Will he and WWE be able to recapture the magic when he returns?

Was it really just two months ago that Daniel Bryan was leading 80,000 people inside the Superdome in a YES chant to close out WrestleMania 30?

It seems like a lot longer.  Because surely it takes longer than 62 days to go from having one of the biggest shows in company history booked around you reaching the top - to an episode of Raw where you're stripped of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship without so much as an appearance.  Right?

Not in this case.

You can pick the starting point of Bryan's amazing journey to become champ, a bonafide main eventer, a face of WWE.

Was it in 1999 when he left Washington state to join Shawn Michael's Texas Wrestling Academy?  His role in the founding of Ring of Honor (ROH) in 2002, or his World Championship run with that promotion that made him a legend on the independent and international scenes at the age of 24?  Signing with WWE?  Being fired and rehired during the Nexus angle?  Winning Money in the Bank and cashing in on The Big Show to become World Heavyweight Champ?  Losing that belt to Sheamus in 18 seconds at WrestleMania 28?  Winning and losing the WWE Championship on the same night at SummerSlam 2013?

Most would start the story with the loss to The Celtic Warrior in Miami, but regardless, it's no wonder pro wrestling fandom got behind the guy like it never had anyone before.  It's The American Dream (not Dusty Rhodes, but the conceptual ideal) written for pro wrestling.

The stars aligned for him leading up to the 30th edition of The Showcase of the Immortals.  Audience resentment that had been building since Big Show was booked into his place for Survivor Series crested when he wasn't even entered in the Royal Rumble match.  His simple catch phrase caught on - spreading to sporting events like Michigan State University's Rose Bowl pep rally and lead to mainstream attention on places like ESPN.  CM Punk left WWE, leaving a hole in the company's booking plans and creating a pressing need for an unconventional headliner.

And so, fans that were still shocked he had beaten John Cena clean eight months earlier were beside themselves that he pinned Triple H and submitted Batista in one night to reach the top of the sports entertainment mountain.

The company seemed all in on Bryan in the new role, prominently featuring their new champion in documentary specials on WWE Network, placing him front and center in marketing efforts for the over-the-top service, upcoming pay-per-views (PPVs) and their annual post-Mania European tour.

Vince McMahon and his braintrust had been convinced this was a guy they could build around.

They accommodated a week off for his wedding and honeymoon with fellow Total Divas star Brie Bella, which made sense, given the role that show has in WWE's plans and the part that Bryan and Brie have played in its success.  But one week turned to several following the tragic passing of his father, and the storyline Creative came up with to explain the extended absence - an attack by a remasked Kane - excited no one.

For all the things that had broken in his favor leading into WrestleMania...were we starting to see the flip side of those?

What will turn out to be his only title defense (the Raw-after-Mania bout with The Game having ended in a no contest) was a victory over Kane at Extreme Rules.  The match was fine, but the feud seemed to ignore or disregard everything that had made Bryan's character a success.

The obvious continuation of his issues with The Authority would have been Corporate Kane seeking to prove himself to the bosses while the champ sought to keep his titles and sway his former friend back from the sell-out side.  Instead, we got Stephanie McMahon supernaturally imbuing THE DEMON KANE by having his put his mask back on, followed by a drive-in quality horror flick featuring the newlyweds as they were chased by the star of Eye Scream Man.

News of his need for neck surgery broke.  As more evidence of WWE's plans for him, they chose to not strip him of the belts and officially put him on the shelf right away, instead stalling while hoping for a speedy recovery.  That ended last night, when Stephanie and her husband announced that he was still not medically cleared for competition in June, and placed  his titles above the ring to be fought over by seven men in a ladder match at Money in the Bank.

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It would be hard for even the most pessimistic wrestling fan to have predicted a more disappointing two months for Daniel Bryan as WWE World Heavyweight Champion.  But now that we know he's off the table as a piece of WWE's booking plans, he can hopefully focus 100% on a complete recovery, dedicating himself to rehabilitation and tweaking his wrestling arsenal to maximize his career longevity upon his eventual return.

Even given that (and completely ignoring the possibility of further setbacks) though, we have to wonder about the effect that losing his momentum will have.

Sure, we were all on in his pursuit of the belts and mainstream acceptance in 2013-14.  But the second time around for something is rarely as thrilling as the first.  Despite Triple H and Steph's best heeling, we now know that WWE does believe Daniel Bryan is someone they can promote as a top guy, so the 'Reality Era' intrigue is largely gone.

Fortunately, WWE has at least a couple of fresh threats to put in his way as he attempts to reclaim the throne.  Plans were reportedly already in place for a David vs. Goliath feud against former UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar.  And, not sure if you heard, but they recently made a hot new heel who has some ties to The Authority...

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Someone with Bryan's character, passion and skill will not be kept down and out by anything but the worst case medical scenario.  WWE has demonstrated a commitment to him that would make it shocking if they didn't pull out all the stops to make sure his return is every bit the success that his ascent was.

But what if he'd been blessed with good health (or Cena-esque recovery powers), and the powers-that-be had booked a more appropriate feud for his first act as WWE World Heavyweight Champ?  What if he had ridden the momentum of that historic New Orleans night right into another history making feud against Lesnar?

We'll always be left to wonder if we didn't miss out on something even more special.

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