The Best and Worst of Raw.
And just like that, he was gone.
I spent all night sitting here, staring at my computer screen, trying to think of something I could say that nobody else would.
I could run down a list of my favorite Bryan moments — the “yes” chants in the cage with Bray Wyatt, the title win over Cena at SummerSlam, the greatest one-night performance by a performer in WWE history at WrestleMania 30 — but that’s been done. You’ll see those lists everywhere. You’ll probably see two or three of them on With Spandex. I could list my favorite lesser-known Bryan moments — being the worst person in the world in a Cage of Death, getting a small package over as the deadliest move in Ring of Honor, cheating to win NXT contests with Derrick Bateman — but those will be done, too.
I could look at how he was important in teaching WWE that smaller guys can be top stars and make them money, or how he taught them that the Internet was a real fan-base and not the enemy, or how his presence on NXT season 1 episode 1 built a tiny foundation that would eventually turn it into an independent wrestling utopia, where Samoa Joe gets to come back to life and guys like Sami Callihan and Austin Aries get WWE jobs.
I could write about how he’s good at wrestling. How they told him he couldn’t make it and how he did it anyway, and what that means for downtrodden artists around the world who’ve been made to believe their dreams are impossibilities. These things are all true. Somebody will write each of them, and they’ll move you to tears.
I don’t know what to type.
“My favorite guy from my favorite thing is leaving.”
“My favorite guy from my favorite thing can’t do the thing he loves anymore because his brain won’t cooperate.”
He was my favorite guy. Life as a teenage wrestling fan pulled me away from Sting and pushed me in the direction of guys like Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero. I got into Japanese wrestling and lucha libre, and learned to appreciate not only the fact that a person was a good wrestler, but why. “Technical wrestling” is vague as hell and most people equate it to “does a bunch of wristlocks and standing switches,” but these guys didn’t something special for me … they helped me create a sustainable illusion that what I was watching was real. Real enough to play along with, at least. I could lose myself in the stories and the wrestling like I did as a kid without having to feel stupid, and without having to pretend I didn’t see punches and kicks miss by a foot. They were misfit artisans, unappreciated geniuses in a medium of Hulk Hogan. They sorta pulled me aside and said, “hey, I know you’re growing out of this, but here’s a little something for you.”
When WCW folded, I followed the gaijin from my New Japan, All Japan, Toryumon and Michi Pro tapes to the American independents. Christopher Daniels, Reckless Youth, Mike Quackenbush … those guys gave me the impression that the next Benoit and the next Guerrero were currently working on their sh*t somewhere down the street, preparing for that day when they’d make wrestling real for someone. I grew up close enough to Tennessee to see a dorky little Jim Duggan in a mask named “The American Dragon.” Low Ki was doing things I’d never seen before. These guys ended up on a show called Ring of Honor, and while the show as a whole didn’t move me — skip the Christopher Street Connection at all costs — the main event did. There was an Opie Cunningham motherf*cker in tighty-whities wristlocking and standing-switching his ass off, and I was all-in. “I know you’re growing out of this, but here’s a little something for you.”
Here’s where we get to the sh*tty part of any “In Memoriam” writeup, or retrospective about a guy who was forced to retire too soon: the writer has to make it about themselves. It’s that Anthony Jeselnik joke about how when tragedy occurs, people run to social media to post “thoughts and prayers” as a way of saying, “don’t forget about me today.” The stuff I said earlier about his accomplishments and his great moments and all he did for wrestling, that’s what you need to take away from the column. It’s been said before and it’ll be said a thousand more times, because it’s the truth. It’s what’s important.
Pro wrestling breaks your heart. That’s what it does. It convinces you to love it with everything you’ve got, and then reminds you out of the blue that it’s for and by broken people you can’t give your heart to. It kills your favorites. It breaks them. You have to watch Ric Flair get old. You have to watch Sting struggle to get up after a buckle bomb. You have to watch Hulk Hogan cry with his face in his hands on Good Morning America. Sometimes you find out your favorite wrestler isn’t going to show up to Night of Champions to wrestle CM Punk for some reason, and then you read about how he and his family are dead, and you wonder if it was a gas leak or something. And you watch a tribute Raw, and then you find out. It breaks your f*cking heart.
After Benoit, Bryan Danielson guided me through wrestling. If he showed up somewhere, I said, “I’ll check this out.” He got a WWE developmental contract everyone said he shouldn’t get, because he’s too small and pale and whitebread. He’s got no personality. He doesn’t know how to talk. He was the ringer on season 1 of NXT, so WWE had him go 0-10 and get eliminated 3 weeks before David Otunga. They called him a nerd and did everything they could to make him look like the worst and least important wrestler in the world. It felt like WWE saying, “this isn’t for you.” When Bryan got fired for choking Justin Roberts with a tie, it felt even worse.
He came back, though, because that’s the thing about Bryan Danielson … he never gave up. It wasn’t a slogan or a fun character identifier. He kept working, harder than anyone, because he was the best person for the job.
When Bryan got into a romance angle with the Bella Twins and Gail Kim and got the dismissive WWE “ladies man” character, it was more of the same. “This isn’t for you.” Bryan would sneak in these cool submissions or do the Nigel McGuinness “lariat a guy crotched on the top rope” spot with The Miz, and it felt like someone screaming from inside a locked room. Bryan continued to succeed, but in that damning sort of mid-card way where they say, “we like having you around, but this is what you get to do. You stop here.” The passionate support of Dragon has been there since the beginning. It wasn’t born from a Yes Movement. It was a tiny group of people saying, “this guy you say can’t can.” Watching him get more and more fan support, have better matches, find his voice and blossom into a marketable WWE character with nothing more than enthusiasm, talent, dedication and a gentle amping up of his weird natural idiosyncrasies didn’t feel like a victory, it felt like an inevitability. It wasn’t an argument back then. We knew we were right. Dragon could connect. Dragon could talk. He could make 70,000 people in a stadium care as much as 35 people in an armory.
You can go back through his history and say, “here’s why, here’s why,” but there’s a simple truth: Daniel Bryan succeeded because he was so connected to the core of this thing, he so understood this thing that he loved that he could see into its fabric and manipulate it, and make it real for us. Even if it was just for a moment. Not crying, funny “it’s still real to me dammit” declarations of real, just … real. You wanted him to win because you wanted him to win, not because you wanted WWE to make the decision for him to win. He was disconnected from that sh*t. He was a living, breathing, fighting, unstoppable ball of angry, righteous energy. He was fire. He was dragon fire.
This is why we loved Connor so much at first. Not that we needed a reason to. But Connor saw this in Bryan before a lot of people. When someone asked Connor which wish he wanted to come true, Connor wished for Daniel Bryan.
Connor wasn’t a smark. Connor didn’t get into indie wrestling and get chatty about Ring of Honor year one main-events. He didn’t care about anyone’s impact on anything or the greatest moments in the career of anybody. He was a kid. An intuitive kid. Connor connected to the love inside of Bryan, because God, it’s there. It’s the easiest thing to connect to when you see it.
Eventually, I think most of us started to connect to Bryan that way. It was about wrestling, yeah, and all the stuff we argue about and call each other names over, but it was about love. Real love. Not “much love,” or any of those platitudes. The kind of love that makes your eyes fill up with tears when you say you love it. That’s how you know. You know what I’m talking about.
I can’t imagine what the past two years have been like for Bryan, so I have to “thoughts and prayers” it. He got to the top. The thing you can’t overstate is that Daniel Bryan won. He proved everyone wrong. He went from a little guy who couldn’t talk and couldn’t make it to a man who won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania by defeating three of the biggest stars of all time. He met the love of his life. He had the world’s greatest wrestling fan say Daniel Bryan was his favorite. Even here, he’s the guy who went from getting paid in t-shirt trades at local indie shows to having Vince McMahon congratulate him on a career well spent. He gets to be healthy and happy and raise a family. You’ll read that everywhere, and again, it’s the truth. It will always be the truth, no matter how selfish we are, and no matter how much we want him back. He won. He did it.
But the past two years have been hell. He got to the top, and because life isn’t a fairy tale, he lost a lot. He lost his dad. He lost Connor. He lost Asparagus. Warrior died. Every time he tried to work through the pain and injuries like he always had, it got harder. He stopped being able to recover. His brain stopped cooperating. His neck and shoulder stopped putting themselves back together. He was life, and sometimes that goes away.
We can’t ask him to keep going. We can’t clap our hands and make it so. We can’t be selfish. We have to say goodbye to our guide, to our fire, to the person for us, who makes this whole thing for us. We have to let him go. Kicking, screaming and f*cking crying, we have to let him go.
I don’t know what to write about Daniel Bryan.
There’s a moment before he starts speaking where he closes his eyes and listens to the Daniel Bryan chants. Later in the promo he explains that he was doing that to physically feel the ovation, instead of just hear it. That’s the moment I get stuck on. He closes his eyes, and he keeps them closed. He keeps them closed a little too long. If you go back and watch it, you can almost feel his brain trying to talk him out of it. “No, stay. It’ll be fine.” Daniel Bryan is standing in the center of a WWE ring, silently forcing his heart back into his chest. He’s got to do it. This has to be the moment, and he has to leave. For me, that moment will last a lifetime. I want to blink and realize I’m still watching Raw, and he’s still getting ready to speak. I want him to keep his eyes closed, so that final moment never comes. Keep them closed. If you never start, we never have to separate. We can keep living in a world where maybe this is all a work, and maybe the Undertaker’s gonna interrupt to set up a match at WrestleMania, and maybe they’re just keeping him off TV so Roman Reigns can something something. We still get those plans for April, and the comeback, and everything being fine. We don’t wince when you fall down anymore. We stick out our index fingers and throw our arms up to the sky, and we f*cking mean it.
My favorite guy from my favorite thing is leaving.
I’ve never been good at fitting things into a hashtag — I can’t write less than 500 words about a Nasty Boys match from 20 years ago, much less put my feelings into 140 characters or less — but from the bottom of my heart, thank you. Thank you, Bryan. Thank you for being kind to me in those moments where I awkwardly bumbled up to you and tried to tell you how much I appreciated what you did. Thank you for that match in Cleveland where you had a farmer’s tan. Thank you for those angry nights complaining about NXT on forums, thank you for that tiger suplex counter on KENTA at Driven, thank you for that promo with Paul London where you were high as sh*t and laughed about bees. Thank you for teaching me to appreciate William Regal. Thank you for making me laugh. Thank you for making me cry. Thank you for making me put my hands over my mouth and stand up in excitement over an elbow strike or a dropkick or a dive. Thank you for NXT season 4. Thank you for WrestleMania 30. Thank you for introducing us to Connor, and your Dad, and your dog. Thank you for completely justifying my love of a stupid, stupid thing that won’t stop breaking my heart. Thank you for me.
I miss you already. I’ve been missing you for years. I guess nothing changes.
And just like that, you’re gone.
The Rest Of The Show
I’m going to do my best to write some jokes and tell you what I thought about Raw. Here’s that.
Best: The Brock Lesnar I Asked For
In last week’s column, I wrote pretty extensively about being disappointed in how WWE was portraying Brock Lesnar. Here’s this once-in-a-lifetime presence, this guy who is literally and figuratively bigger than the sport of pro wrestling, letting Dean Ambrose talk sh*t about him to his face. He just smirked about it, and it wasn’t until Triple H showed up and questioned his dick hardness that he did anything about it. Even then, he showed up at the end of a match to opportunistically attack. That’s not a Brock Lesnar story, that’s a Sheamus story.
This week, almost all of my problems with last week’s arc were fixed. This week, Brock Lesnar responds to the first sign of disrespect at a contract signing by attacking everybody with the goddamn furniture and spamming F-5s. It’s perfect. Maybe last week he ate a J.J. Gargantuan before the show and was too bricked up to wreck shop.
I’m also a big fan of how Ambrose and Reigns were portrayed this week. Roman’s had some experience with Brock before and did surprisingly well against him, and he knows Ambrose is in WAY over his head. Ambrose is crazy, though, and he danced with the devil by the pale moonlight or whatever last week so he thinks it’ll be fine. He calls out Lesnar later in the show and tells Reigns to stay out of it, and … well, Lesnar mauls him. Ambrose taking Brock’s offense and getting broken into a billion pieces but refusing to stay down is a wonderful kind of crazy for Ambrose to be, and a hell of a lot cooler and constructive for the wrestling show than “I ride the subway unexpectedly and steal hot dog carts.” There’s a good crazy and a bad crazy for fighting. Lean into “more guts than brains” and away from “squirts mustard on people.”
Reigns more or less stays out of it, but eases into intervening when Ambrose looks like he’s gonna die. That distracts Brock long enough for Ambrose to exploit the Beast’s greatest weakness — his King Hippo’s belly-button balls — and escape. I love the continuity that Brock can power through almost any grand feat of skill or violence and punch you in the face, but goes down in a heap if you hit him anywhere between his stomach and knees. Brock Lesnar’s nuts are like the thermal exhaust port on the Death Star.
But yeah, heading into Fast Lane, these are the character dynamics I want to see. Roman is cocky and confident because of course he is, and he knows Ambrose is great, but he’s also pretty aware he’s the better of the two. Ambrose is cracked, but he’s ambitious, and he’s starting to believe he’s living in Roman’s shadow. Brock Lesnar is in God mode, and the only way he should ever lose a match is when there are two other people involved and he’s not taking the fall. It should take a miracle to beat Brock, or you know, Seth Rollins returning and everyone ganging up on him.
(I lost Daniel Bryan this week, let me have this one.)
The Middle Of The Show Lightning Round
A lot of stuff happened that didn’t really go anywhere or cover any new ground, so let’s knock it out.
Worst: Charlotte vs. Alicia Fox. It was fine, but it was no MELINA vs. Alicia Fox. Charlotte just kinda beats her, and that’s it. This is what happens when you’ve got Brie Bella hotshotted into a Divas title story, but can’t put Brie on the show because you’re in Daniel Bryan Town. They probably could’ve ridden those Yes chants to something positive for Brie, but if we learned nothing else from “CM Punk” chants badgering AJ Lee into retirement, it’s that husband and wife co-workers need to have their own things.
Note: Alicia Fox is such a strange character. She’s clearly pretty good at what she does, but she’s eternally in these matches where “pretty good” is the peak. Like, we will forever assume that Alicia Fox is secretly an ace joshi star who has never had a famously great match because her entire career’s been against the Brie Bellas and Rosa Mendees of the world. I want Foxy to spend a summer in Stardom just tearing it the hell up so we can say, “here, here’s the documented proof, we were right.”
Buh: Kevin Owens vs. Dolph Ziggler. Again? How are you making me actively root against ever seeing two good wrestlers wrestle good matches again? Why is Dolph Ziggler obligated to wrestle the same one or two people in 6-12 week batches? I know everybody’s hurt and the roster’s thin, but you had Ziggler wrestling Kofi Kingston 600 weeks in a row when everybody was daisies and waterslides. Does Dolph Ziggler wrestle like I play difficult levels in video games? “F*ck, I lost, let me try again. F*ck, I lost, one more time. YEAH, I did it! Let me do it one more time, I think I can do it better. Whoops, one more time, forgot that powerup. Hang on, one more time, I need to make this jump.”
Best: Bray Wyatt vs. Ryback. Bray Wyatt is the best when he’s allowed to wrestle a dynamic, fast-paced match (like the ones he had with Bryan) and not be a stoic, Kane-esque heel. Those big slow monster attacks only work for big slow monsters, and even then it can be a crutch. Like, I feel like Kane’s a way better wrestler than he ever got to be, because he spent his prime devoting 70% of his matches to tilting his head and fixing his glove.
I also like Bray cutting promos without a microphone. He gets to live in that moment and really act, and not pace himself so everyone in the arena can hear him. He also doesn’t have to deal with “what” chants, and he doesn’t have to be solemnly spooky in a dark room backstage. “Solemnly spooky” Bray Wyatt is never as cool as “incensed, BRING DOWN THE SYSTEM” Bray Wyatt. That’s the guy we loved from NXT. Anybody can do Cape Fear and Night of the Hunter wrestling characters. You just laugh inappropriately and dress like Panama Jack. It takes a special talent — the kind Bray is, which we often forget because his stories are such ass — to be an evil leader.
Worst: ALBERTO DEL RIO HAS PINNED THE UNITED STATES CHAMPION! Nothing gets me hype to see a babyface beat a heel like watching a heel handily beat that babyface almost every time they wrestle. I’m disappointed that King Barrett and Sin Cara didn’t spend the entire match stumbling around like O.J. Simpson in The Naked Gun.
Best/Worst: BAE vs. BAD. The story progress here was solid and gives us a second women’s match at Fast Lane — Banksy vs. Naomi and Tamina, who really need a Brandon Stroud tag team — but it’s done in all the tired, obvious ways. Sasha Banks is on color commentary, which only exists so that person can get involved in whatever match they’re watching. It’s turned into a birthday cake trope. It’s like, 95% guaranteed, and not in the fun “Edge and Christian call their own run-in” kind of way. It just telegraphs the finish before the wrestlers have even had a chance to work. That’s a little nit-picky, but I just see it too much. The other is the “babyface leaves the ring to help someone on the outside, and it ends up costing them” thing. Becky Lynch proves she learned nothing from that Charlotte feud and leaves the ring to help Sasha fight off Naomi, and she ends up getting superkicked on her way back in. Like I said, the ends justify the means, I just wish the means were a little more creative.
Is The Lightning Round The Entire Show?
Okay, We’ll End It Here: Chris Jericho on MizTV. Sorry, The Miz on The Highlight Reel. Sorry, Abraham Washington on Carlito’s Cabana.
Last week I learned that I should probably find the bright side in these AJ Styles segments because everybody reading is still really into AJ being here, so here’s some stuff to like. I like that they’re keeping Styles around some of the best talkers in the company, both to hide his major weakness as a performer and to get WWE crowds associating him with the “entertainment” side of things. For better or worse. Even if he’s intro’d by Miz arguing over set design and Jericho crediting The Chipmunks for Christmas songs they just covered, and didn’t make famous. The specifically famous Chipmunks Christmas song is ‘The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).’ Attributing ‘All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth’ to the Chipmunks is like crediting them for ‘Beat It.’ Give Spike Jones and his City Slickers their due, Jericho! I WILL FIGHT YOU ABOUT THIS.
But no, AJ. I don’t feel like he totally fits in yet, but getting him involved with these talky dudes and having him legitimately knock out their teeth is a great start. AJ will be my favorite wrestler ever if he just KENTA Rushes his way through chatty promos and puts everybody on their asses.
Worst: It’s Too Bad
I read a lot of social media about Goldust being in blackface here, so I wanted to mention that his face always looks like that. Plus, he’s actually done horrifyingly offensive blackface on purpose, and I feel like there’s a pretty clear difference.
This was definitely a step down from “dog, you got doo-doo on your foot,” but I mean, honestly, how can you follow that up? Truth visits a museum to see a Jimi Hendrix exhibit and runs into Goldust dressed as Jimi, and shenanigans occur. They make a Little Jimmy joke, Goldust smashes a guitar and gets taken away by police. I feel like sometimes a, “that was good, but let’s try it again, only this time completely differently” would benefit WWE TV. I’m still trying to figure out why R-Truth is the straight man in these skits. Is the payoff that Goldust starts tagging with somebody else, and Truth gets super wacky trying to take him back?
They could skip a lot of the work if they just had Goldust show up with a suitcase full of spiders and chase Truth up to the top of a building with it. Or like, throw a soda in his face.
Best: THE RADICAL MONGOOSE
1. Laugh all you want, but “The Radical Mongoose” is a better pro wrestling nickname than “The Big Dog” or “The Lunatic Fringe.” It’s also a massive gimmick upgrade from both, “I’m a party-goer nobody likes,” and its followup, “I hate parties and say the word ‘poop.'” RADICAL MONGOOSE. I’ve always though Raw needed more opportunities for Rikki-Tikki-Tavi jokes. They need to have Adam Rose fight Santino.
2. I love that Titus O’Neil beats EVERYBODY, then loses to Adam Rose. Stardust must feel like an incredible pile of garbage watching this.
3. JBL loving Heath Slater is my favorite canonical running gag. I don’t care if the beats him up sometimes, I know they’re pals.
4. The only thing better than Bo Dallas thanking the WWE Universe for giving him three best friends and spitting more hot fire — “Best friends make best trends!” — is the backstage followup where he doesn’t know how to do Cough Snark Cough. Bo Dallas made me smile on the saddest Raw.
Best: Working On The Table
Speaking of smiling, here’s Mark Henry agreeing to be partners with The New Day for a night and getting low. He gets tired of them halfway through their match and bails, ruining my dream of a gigantic pink and blue Mark Henry with like three unicorn horns being a permanent part of the squad, but it was fun while it lasted.
As for the table match itself, it accomplished something that was DRASTICALLY needed: it ended the Dudley Boyz’ impotent nostalgia run and gave them an edge for the first time since their return.
At first, I was ready to type a Worst for the Dudleys being able to walk up to the Usos and say, “hey, you can’t have a table match without us, the ‘get the tables’ guys, so now we’re in the match too!” That’s the kind of thing Stephanie McMahon’s had segments about in just the past few weeks. “Whim” is not the GM. Then I actually watched the match, and while the “how can you just add yourself” stuff is still a question, I love that it was all a plot from Bubba and D-Von to lure the Usos into a false sense of security and eliminate all of their enemies at once. It was hurt a little by the crowd chanting ONE MORE TIME when they’re supposed to give a sh*t about the Usos’ well-being, but it’s the Usos, you can’t expect them to care too much.
I’m assuming this is to build to a TLC match at WrestleMania, because the tag teams need something to do and there are only a few of them. If Del Rio wins the United States Championship back at Fast Lane, you can work in the Lucha Dragons and have the only four teams that’ve wrestled tag team matches in the last what, year? If it means we get the hardcore Dudleys back, the guys who would tell crowds to put their heads between their legs and kiss their stinkin’ asses goodbye, that’s a good thing. A+ decision.
Worst: The Fourth Guy On New Day’s Team Couldn’t Be Seth Rollins
Come well soon, Captain.
Best: With Spandex Makes Raw …
Worst: … For The Saddest Reason Ever
Thanks for the shoutout, WWE. Sorry we had to meet like this.
(Also, I’m considering having my byline being photoshopped out as “Brandon being erased from WWE history.”)
Best: Top 10 Comments Of The Night, Goodbye Daniel Bryan Edition
THAT’S TOMORROW. BUT THIS TONIGHT. SO TONIGHT I’M GONNA HAVE AN IRONMAN MATCH – Daniel Bryan
No wonder Peyton didn’t retire yesterday. He didn’t want to be overshadowed by a real hero.
Daniel Bryan is like Wes Welker. Scrappy beloved lil white guy who got hit in the head in the too much trying to prove his worth in a sport where all the outcomes are predetermined.
Mr. Royal Rumble, TheCensoredMSol
Brandon’s headline made it on Raw, but my “F*ck you, Vince” comment didn’t. Talk about selective reporting!
Hot to Tot
“I don’t see what all this Daniel Bryan fuss is about, Triple H is the greatest superstar of all time”. Sting
SuedeGuy & Jushin Thunder Bieber
Daniel Bryan retires but Sin Cara is still around. The world is so cruel
In fairness, we’re on our second Sin Cara and there’s only one Daniel Bryan
don’t cry because he’s gone. smile because we had 16 years of one of the greatest wrestlers to ever step in the ring. thank you, bryan.
“It was just about wrestling.” Chills.
“You can’t fight the biggest superstar in WWE. Me. I mean, ‘injuries’.”
That’ll do, Goat. That’ll do.
Thanks everybody. Sorry. See you next week, when things will be sadder and happier at the same time.
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