Recently, I stayed up late to watch the premature retirement announcement of one of the most popular athletes of the last five years. An athlete who despite being only slightly older than myself, was advised by doctors that it would be in his best current and long-term interest to retire in what should be his prime years. This was not a baseball, football, soccer or hockey player. It was professional wrestler and bearded superstar Daniel Bryan.
It seems like many people overlook the difficulty of professional wrestling. Because some of the action is scripted and the outcomes are predetermined, the typical non-fan likes to refer to it as “fake”, yet the injuries these athletes suffer is as real as anything you might have seen on Super Bowl Sunday. Daniel Bryan absorbed ten documented concussions throughout his career – and those were just the ones that were actually documented. While trying to recover and having not had a match in nearly a year, it became clear that he would not be able to safely return to the ring. After recently having an EEG to measure the electrical brain currents, Bryan was told that he had a “small, sub-acute lesion” in the temporoparietal region of his brain—where seizures and epilepsy are often localized. During his retirement speech, he admitted having (and hiding) seizures since his last concussion.
An incredible athlete, despite his small stature, Bryan (born Bryan Danielson) reached heights in his career that nobody could have imagined. His rise from lower card afterthought, to arguably the most popular wrestler in recent years, opened doors and created opportunities for a huge number of people in the business. His ability to have elite level matches, in multiple fighting styles, will certainly put him in the WWE Hall of Fame at this year’s WrestleMania.
Aside from his numerous championships, his connection with the crowd was what really made him special. The non-stop crowd chants of YES! YES! YES! were of a power and energy that may never be seen again. There was even an occasion on live programming where a scripted segment had to be put on hold for the boisterous crowd chants to die down.
There is much more that makes Daniel Bryan unforgettable than only his work inside the ring. His incredible beard skills are as legendary as his matches. The fact that he lived a vegan lifestyle, while competing in such a physically and time demanding sport, led to him being given a Libby Award from PETA for being the “Most Animal-Friendly Athlete” in 2008. He also used his popularity and spotlight to help sick children, becoming friends with a young boy named Connor Michalek who was battling brain and spinal cancer. Bryan even used the first part of his retirement speech to tell the world about donating hair to a non-profit organization called Wigs4Kids.
WWE may never have another entertainer who connects with the fans the way he did, but the world is lucky to have a person like Daniel Bryan.