Last night was one of the most emotional nights for a wrestling fan to date. Daniel Bryan, easily the most beloved wrestler of the past few years, has retired from wrestling, after a long absence due to concussion-related issues. I didn’t want to make this an overly emotional piece like my Dusty Rhodes one, as that does not lead to good writing, let alone a good read. So here’s what I’m going to say: D Bry went out perfectly. He’s going to have a full life, without having to worry about CTE issues taking away years of enjoyment, and presumably become one of the best fathers in the world. We were given a gift in watching him perform over the last decade and a half, and we will always remember those times fondly. He was one of the best, that’s all there is to it.
That said, his run in the WWE, and I mean his run on top, is akin to one NBA superstar of the 1970s. The person I’m speaking of is none other than Portland Trail Blazers legend Bill Walton. Like Brian, he had a blinding moment in the spotlight, when he led the Blazers to the NBA title, in a truly shocking monster-like performance in the finals (check out clips on youtube or wherever you can, the man was incredible). I can see the argument over the longevity, as D Bry had a fairly long career in WWE, but for all intents and purposes, bear with me.
Let’s break it down. Bryan Danielson (Daniel Bryan’s actual name and name in the indys) had one of the best Independent wrestling runs we’ve ever seen, right up there with AJ Styles and Samoa Joe. He consistently had some of the best matches of the card, and, in the process, cracked the list of best matches of the decade. I specifically recall his match against AJ Styles in 2003 at a Ring of Honor event; just a technical clinic. For Walton, he was the center point for those dominant UCLA teams in the 1970s (following the dominance of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Walton lead UCLA to incredible heights, was named the best college player three years in a row, and he’s thought of as one of, if not the, best college basketball player ever. In that line of thinking, there’s also a compelling argument to be made that Danielson is the best Independent wrestler of the modern era.
Now, onto the big time. Bryan’s rise to superstardom is similar to that of Stone Cold Steve Austin’s in the mid to late 90s. Where Stone Cold embodied the crowd, Bryan shocked us with his in-ring ability and his charisma. This magnetic personality lead to a movement, the “yes” movement, which is one of the most incredible moments in wrestling in recent years. Bryan forced his way into the title scene at Wrestlemania 30 by being that damn good and getting the crowd behind him, an unparalleled move in WWE history. We wouldn’t allow WWE to go through with their plans to put the title on Batista. Bryan achieved his Wrestlemania moment, which is something the likes of CM Punk can never say. For Walton, he went to the Blazers (where his first two seasons were hurt by his injuries, like Bryan’s early WWE years being marred by poor usage) and lit the world on fire in 1976-77. The team itself wasn’t the best, but Walton lead them to the playoffs, where he put up ungodly numbers. A line in the deciding game of the championship (20 points, 23 rebounds, 7 assists, and 8 blocks!) was bafflingly good. He was incredible to watch, and the stats back up that amazing run.
The quick fall is where these two tragically match the most. After Walton lead the team to that championship, and subsequently 50 wins in 60 games the next season, he suffered a foot injury from which he never fully recovered. Winning the ‘78 MVP was the last we would see of that dominance from him. The hope was always there, but the surgical skills in the late seventies weren’t like they are today, he reluctantly teamed up with injury lawyers in Toronto, in an attempt to make money from it, but he never went to trial with it. In a similar turn of events, after the win at Mania 30, Bryan was looking to be a main eventer for the near future, before he was sidelined with injuries, to which he, like Walton, was never the same after. What really struck me is the scarily similar nature of a quasi comeback from the two. We remember Bryan coming out at Wrestlemania 31 and winning the IC belt, giving us hope for the future. Walton had a semi resurgence as well, when he joined the Celtics in the mid 80s and was a crucial bench player on a championship team. Both quickly got injured after those returns, and while Walton attempted to come back a few times, and Bryan tried in vain to get passed to wrestle by doctors, that was it for both of them.
These two are jarringly similar, and equally as painful when you think of what could have been. To close, I want to quote Bill Simmon’s in his excellent book, The Book of Basketball, where he discusses Walton in relation to Tupac (also a crazy similar comparison). After discussing lyrics to one of Pac’s best songs “Picture Me Rollin’,”(which I won’t do here. Don’t get me started on Pac, we’ll be here all day), he goes onto relate this to Walton, “…I feel that way about Walton and the Blazers. They didn’t roll for long, but they rolled.” Daniel Bryan rolled as well. We’ll never see another with that perfect mix that Bryan had, like Walton. But we will forever dream about the possibilities.