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Never say never: Daniel Bryan defeating Triple H was a really big deal at the time

One of my favorite stories in WWE history is Daniel Bryan’s championship ascension, culminating with his WWE world heavyweight title win at WrestleMania 30. There isn’t a story in recent memory that had me more personally invested than that one.

It was the prototypical underdog story mixed with plenty of meta themes to make it feel special and real. Daniel Bryan was the undersized fighter with heart fighting to overcome the big bad Authority (Triple H & Stephanie McMahon) who were protecting their choice for champion, Randy Orton. There’s your typical underdog story with all the beats that you get with any tale regarding overcoming adversity.

But at the same time, it pulled on the behind the curtain fabric to add the extra layer to make it feel really special. Undersized guys like Daniel Bryan who made their names outside WWE often didn’t get the #1 spot in the company, no matter how much the fans love them. CM Punk did, but he was champion in a sea of men like John Cena, Triple H, Randy Orton, and Batista. When Bryan was told by Triple H and Stephanie he wasn’t “championship material” there was more than a small aspect of truth to that statement when it came to Stamford.

Triple H had his own meta narrative that was masterfully weaved into his villainous character. He played the role of authority figure who literally took the title from Daniel Bryan at SummerSlam and continued to hold him down in favor of his personal choice. If you don’t recall the details since it’s been five years, here’s a quick reminder:

At SummerSlam 2013, Daniel Bryan faced John Cena for the WWE title with Triple H, who was still a babyface a the time, as special guest referee. Daniel Bryan defeated John Cena clean in the middle of the ring, which in itself was something that was special (though a known injury to Cena lessen the impact of the move).

After the match, Randy Orton, who held the Money in the Bank briefcase, walked out threatening to cash in. With Orton capturing the attention of the brand new champion, Triple H grabbed Bryan and delivered his signature Pedigree. The Viper then slid into the ring and covered Bryan. Orton did no work. Triple H handed his guy the championship.

Triple H and Stephanie McMahon spent the next nine months holding Bryan down, explaining that guys like Bryan are just B+ players. They’re not good enough to be on top.

Eventually, Bryan had enough. He and some rowdy fans hijacked Raw with demands that he fight Triple H at WrestleMania to finally prove he’s on the same level as the Game. After an irate Triple H agreed, The Beard goaded the King of Kings further, getting himself added to the title match if he successfully defeated his foe.

At WrestleMania 30 in New Orleans, Bryan defeated Triple H and then Batista & Randy Orton in the main event to win the championship.

While the match for the title was obviously the main attraction, Bryan defeating Triple H may have been the bigger deal.

It may not feel that way looking back on it. In the five years since WrestleMania 30, fan opinions of Triple H have softened. Much of that is due to the success of NXT, the fan favorite promotion that Triple H runs. Also, watching him put people over is far less surprising. He lost to Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 32. He lost to Seth Rollins at WrestleMania 33. He let Ronda Rousey get her shots in on him and sold them like death during the mixed tag at WrestleMania 34.

But this wasn’t his image when WrestleMania 30 rolled around. NXT was still relatively new. Their first special, dubbed Arrival (this was before the TakeOver name even existed) was only months prior. It had a small following but was nothing like the popular promotion it is now.

The time of Triple H losing to the next generation of talent hadn’t yet happened. He wouldn’t even take the loss to CM Punk a couple years prior when Punk was arguably the hottest talent in wrestling. He lost to established talents like John Cena, Undertaker, and Brock Lesnar, but that doesn’t count as putting over the next generation. Just the idea of him facing Daniel Bryan would be surprising even a year before their match. Triple H losing clean would have been unheard of.

Given his image, it was absolutely feasible he’d give Bryan a good match, beat him, and then win the title in the main event.

That’s what made this story so compelling. They took the underdog story that we all love and mixed it in with the images of the business that fans at least believed to be true. On paper, of course Daniel Bryan was going to overcome the odds. That’s how stories like this play out. However, knowing what we knew about the type of person who typically succeeds in WWE and the type of people who beat Triple H, it put enough doubt in our minds to keep us on the edge of our seats the entire time.

If that story happened now, it wouldn’t have that drama. Triple H puts up and coming stars over now. We have had guys like Seth Rollins and AJ Styles and Kevin Owens as top champions. NXT is a fan favorite for the niche hardcore crowd and Triple H runs that. He couldn’t be the meta villain he was able to play years ago.

The best stories are lightening in the bottle affairs. They’re a good foundation of storytelling and characters but at the same time, a perfect storm of timing and fan emotion. That’s what the Daniel Bryan championship chase was. A fan favorite underdog being held down by the evil authority being told by a company that’s known to not push fan favorites and an evil authority who never put over that type of talent.

WWE capitalized on all of that and that’s why it was so great.

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