So we now live in a time where the two most influential names in WWE in the last five years or so, CM Punk and Daniel Bryan have retired from professional wrestling. That is a real shame. It’s fair to say that there are a lot of similarities between the two grapplers. Both forged a name for themselves on the independent scene before being signed by WWE. Both men don’t look like the typical WWE superstar. They’re shorter, less muscular than the archetype performer Vince McMahon is said to crave. They both seemed destined to be stuck in the midcard until a gimmick and fan support changed all that. They both, in unlikely circumstance, became WWE champions. Both are credited with starting the flow of indie talent to WWE that continues to this day. Both retired primarily because of injuries.
But one area where Punk and Bryan differ significantly is in the personality department.
What has made Daniel Bryan’s retirement even more emotional is how goddamn humble the guy is about it. Bryan said on ESPN that he didn’t want people to remember him, instead asking them to remember significant moments they spent with their loved ones. That’s why I have coined Bryan in the title of this article ‘The Self of the Selfless’. Bryan was never in wrestling to be famous, rich or even particularly successful. He comes across as a guy who wrestled because he loved wrestling. Bryan puts other people before his own successes in his career. That’s why he was willing to job to Sheamus in 18 seconds. That’s why he was more than happy to carry Roman Reigns to a great match last year at Fastlane.
Punk, on the other hand comes across in interviews as a very driven, self-motivated individual obsessed with being the best and nothing less. In his tell-all interview on The Art of Wrestling, Punk talks about his frustrations at not being included in the main event at Wrestlemania and how his ability to sell merchandise and gain exposure from outside the wrestling world, should have earned him that reward.
You can also see this difference in the way Punk and Bryan ended their wrestling career. Punk walked out of a RAW taping, mainly due to urgent health issues. He left on bad terms with McMahon and Triple H, compounded by his very public insight into some unsavoury parts of World Wrestling Entertainment. Bryan, on the other hand, went out on good terms with WWE. He got to have a retirement speech on RAW in his home state of Washington and is likely still to be involved in future WWE programming like Total Divas.
So far this article might sound like a damning indictment of CM Punk’s attitude. But really that’s not my point here. The truth is there is good in both Bryan’s and Punk’s approaches to professional wrestling and life in general. It’s great to be selfless in life. To be able to make someone else happy can make us feel good too. But too much selfless and you open yourself up to being manipulated and used by people. Being selfish allows you to stand up for yourself and have control over your direction in life. Too much selfishness though and you could find yourself alienated from others for not being willing to negotiate and work with them.
What I find intriguing is that despite vast differences in how the two approach their life, they have both managed to be the catalysts for change in the WWE landscape. I’m not really talking about WWE’s hiring policy either. While Punk and Bryan will always be considered as the trailblazers for indie talent, I think the two have left a much bigger legacy. That being WWE’s focus on the wellbeing of their talents.
Through the Colt Cabana podcast, Punk exposed us to potential issues with WWE’s policy when it came to medical issues. Shortly after this, many lawsuits have followed from ex-WWE wrestlers who feel McMahon is responsible for their injuries. In the year and a half since that podcast was released, it already appears that WWE are changing their approach on injuries. Daniel Bryan is a good example of this as the company weren’t prepared to let him back in the ring in fear of future concussions. I also wonder whether the long injury list that WWE currently has isn’t also an after effect of the Punk podcast. Back in 2013, when Punk was still an active competitor, more talent might have just worked through their injuries which Punk suggested that he did. Now WWE’s medical staff may be playing it safe and ruling superstars out with injuries rather than having them work through it in fear of future lawsuits and public relations issues.
Bryan’s less confrontational approach looks to change not only WWE’s approach to injuries but also wider sports in general. His case provides much needed awareness of concussion issues that we know are a problem in professional wrestling. Many would argue this is something we’ve known about for years. For instance, Bret Hart suffered from post-concussion symptoms at the end of his WCW in-ring career in 1999. But Bryan’s case shows a roadmap to a solution or lessening of this problem. The tests he has undertaken show a way that wrestling and other sports can protect their talent from severe brain damage. Bryan’s case alone is unlikely to change things overnight but is a high profile case that may put pressure on WWE to ensure more wrestlers don’t have problems in later life or worse – lose their life prematurely.
Now CM Punk looks to conquer the UFC (let’s hope no more injury issues) and who knows what’s next for Daniel Bryan. It is a shame neither of them got a proper retirement match. I always thought Punk and Bryan could organise an indie PPV themselves where they’d face each other in the main event in a double retirement match. Still I’d rather see them healthy than see that match.
There’s no doubt that Punk and Bryan have made their mark on professional wrestling, both in the ring and out of it. The Best and The Beard will be remembered by the fans for years to come. The question is – are the companies where they spent years sacrificing their bodies willing to learn from the way both their careers ended?