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Thursday Night Tanders (2/11/16): Where It All Began—Daniel Bryan's NXT Debut



In my tribute to Eddie Guerrero, I talked about how Eddie’s death made me feel like I had very little more to follow in WWE, hence my decision to stop watching regularly from late 2005 to late 2012. But what about the Throwback Tito’s decision to start watching current WWE again? What brought it on, and WHO brought it on?

You probably have an idea who brought it on, considering this week’s big news in the wrestling world. But just to fill you in on where I was at that time, it was the second half of 2012. I had just started as a full-time, work-from-home freelance writer, and I wasn’t handling as many projects as I do right now. I was also very much single. Translation—I had a lot of time on my hands, so I spent that free time going to YouTube and watching the wrestling I grew up with. 95% of what I watched was from 1985 to 2005, and I was pretty much clueless about the current state of WWE as of 2012. But since one of my good friends was heavily into the current WWE scene, I asked him one time whom I had to check out among the present-day stars.

He did mention CM Punk, and while I did know some stuff about him, I wasn’t too familiar nonetheless. So I watched the Summer of Punk promos of 2011 and I was impressed. My friend also mentioned Punk’s future missus AJ Lee, and while she wasn’t going to replace Lita as my favorite female wrestler of all time, she was pretty damn good in the ring. And I could relate to her, being a geek and all. But what really got me paying attention was the third wrestler my friend mentioned—a little guy by the name of Daniel Bryan.

The Bryan/Ryder/Punk Triple Celebration—one just retired, one's a barely-visible jobber, one wants nothing more to do with wrestling.

As suggested, I watched his matches, and as it turned out, he was quite the technician, and a fantastic high-flyer. I watched the post-TLC championship celebration promo with World Heavyweight Champion Bryan, WWE Champion Punk, and United States Champion Zack Ryder. And while Punk did most of the talking, I was suitably impressed by Bryan’s underrated charisma in the ring—he could also cut a good, if not great promo, in the brief time he was allowed to speak. But what really piqued my interest was when Bryan, fresh off his infamous “18 seconds” World Heavyweight title loss to Sheamus at WrestleMania XXVIII, turned heel and broke up with storyline girlfriend AJ. It was a great “breakup promo,” a great heel turn, and it basically sealed the deal for me.

As a wrestling fan, there was a lot about D-Bry that was worth getting behind. Standing just a couple inches taller than me at 5’9” and weighing 200 pounds at most, he was probably the smallest man on the roster not named Rey Mysterio. Like my boyhood heroes Bret and Owen Hart, he was an undersized underdog whose main asset was his technical skills. Apart from his lack of size, there was his lack of tattoos, lack of a chiseled physique, lack of a classic WWE Superstar look. While being about a hundred pounds lighter than Mick Foley, that made me recall why I got behind the Mickster during the Attitude Era. Like Foley, Bryan had that Everyman vibe about him, something that became far more apparent from 2013 onwards. And as I continued catching up on 2012’s storylines, I found out that Bryan was being booked in some good feuds. Also, while he was downright deplorable for breaking up with AJ like he did, that was proof that he could be just as good a heel as he was a babyface.

That was cold, Daniel. Real cold. Daniel Bryan's on-screen breakup with AJ Lee post-WrestleMania XXVIII.

I was sold. The future Mr. and Mrs. Phil Brooks were awesome, but I had become, as far as present Superstars were concerned, a Daniel Bryan fan first and foremost. And I was going to start watching WWE regularly for the first time in almost seven years.

Since it’s Valentine’s Day on Saturday, you may think I’ll be paying tribute to the recently-retired D-Bry by revisiting his on-and-off storyline relationship with AJ Lee. But since I also make a point NOT to cover anything newer than five years old, I might as well take you back six years ago, to when a 28-year-old “rookie” named Bryan Danielson in real life became one of eight WWE hopefuls taking part in the inaugural season of the original NXT.

We’ve already covered the aftermath of the first season of NXT, when we told you about how WWE Creative made chicken shit out of chicken wings by ruining the Nexus storyline and making it another case of #LOLCenaWins. But how about going back to how it all started?

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NO WINS, NO PROBLEM: D-BRY TOPS THE FIRST NXT PROS POLL


To say that Bryan Danielson made his WWE debut on the initial episode of NXT on February 23, 2010 is a bit of a misnomer. Using his real name, he competed on WWE’s C-shows Heat and Velocity in 2002 and 2003 as an enhancement talent. In fact, he had put over John Cena on the February 8, 2003 episode of Velocity, getting a lot of offense in and giving the then-rising star quite the fight. But as far as Daniel Bryan the character is concerned, he made his debut almost six years ago to this day, on NXT’s first season premiere.

From the get-go, Bryan was booked as the underdog. From being made an example out of by his mentor The Miz, from getting treated condescendingly by NXT host/interviewer Matt Striker for his disrespectful attitude toward the heel Miz, from being the only rookie on the first episode to face a Pro (no less than reigning World Heavyweight Champion Chris Jericho), from getting dissed repeatedly by announcer Michael Cole, who was building up for a heel turn—Daniel Bryan didn’t get any love from anyone except the fans, who were slowly getting behind him. Adding salt to the wounds, Bryan would get beaten down by The Miz after losing to Jericho in a tough main event match on the first episode of NXT, and entered the second episode with a kayfabe rib injury.



That’s how it was for most of NXT’s first month—they were seemingly building sympathy for Bryan, and while he had yet to win a match by the time of the first Pros Poll, he was given ample opportunity to show his wrestling skills despite being put in no-win situations. In his first match, he showed that he was no ordinary rookie, putting his ten years' experience in the indies to good use in that even matchup against Jericho. He was hampered by injury in his second match, where he was squashed by Wade Barrett, and in his third match, it was his Pro, The Miz, who was pinned in a tag match versus David Otunga and his Pro R-Truth. Fourth match saw Bryan get squashed by The Great Khali and beaten down afterwards by the Big Show—bear in mind that neither of these giants were Pros in NXT Season 1. And in his fifth match, it was just sheer bad luck that Otunga accidentally-on-purpose hit Bryan's partner Michael Tarver to prevent a tag in an all-rookies tag match. That threw Bryan off his focus, allowing Otunga to hit a spinebuster and help him and his tag partner Darren Young win the match. Yes indeed, for the first five weeks of Season 1 of NXT, you could have made a "Bad Luck Bryan" meme out of the man known in the indies as the American Dragon.

Daniel Bryan losing on NXT quickly became a thing.
Going back to the first Pros Poll, Matt Striker called all eight rookies to the ring, ranking each of them from last place (Young), all the way to first place, where Daniel Bryan edged Wade Barrett for the top spot. Although still a bit shaky with his promo skills, Bryan came about as humble with regards to his winless record thus far, but showed confidence when calling out Michael Cole for always putting him down, for saying that Bryan “doesn’t have the ‘it’ factor.” Afterwards, he held his own pretty well in a quick argument with the cocky “Hollywood A-lister,” David Otunga. No, this wasn’t the man who would one day lead the “Yes Movement” just yet, but he was getting there. And by having him ranked first in the Pros Poll despite not having won any matches, Creative was, in their own way, recognizing Bryan’s superior in-ring ability as something veteran mentors could respect.

As an aside, this was pointed out by Uproxx's Brandon Stroud in his series of NXT recaps: what was the first word Daniel Bryan ever uttered in the WWE? You can watch it in the video of NXT's first episode above, but if you need a clue, all you need to do is think of his eventual catchphrase. Prescient, isn't it?


WHEN BRYAN PUNCHED MAGGLE: ELIMINATED, BUT NOT TO BE FORGOTTEN


So Daniel Bryan topped the first Pros Poll despite being winless.  Did he keep on losing matches in between the first Pros Poll in Week 6 and the second in Week 12? Yes he did, and that's where you can definitely make your argument about WWE trolling fans so early on in Bryan's career, if you hadn't made it earlier in the season. Take his Week 7 loss to Darren Young—first-place rookie in the Pros Poll jobs cleanly to the eighth-placer in NINETY SECONDS. Consider his pitiful performances in those often pointless rookie challenges. It was okay when Bryan lost in his first four weeks. His taking the pin in the Bryan/Tarver vs Young/Otunga tag match was pushing it a bit. But having him lose cleanly to Young, who had storyline issues with his mentor CM Punk, was, for me, a clear case of WWE Creative throwing Daniel Bryan under the bus. Then there was Matt Striker interrupting Bryan's 30-second promo in the Talk the Talk challenge a week later. Even Fernando Poe Jr.'s "nagpapabugbog sa umpisa" logic doesn't stretch things so far!

As NXT host, Matt Striker loved interrupting people. Especially Daniel Bryan.

If Week 1-6 of NXT Season 1 was all about "let's make Daniel Bryan a sympathetic underdog as Michael Cole builds up his disdain," Week 7-12 was all about "let's make Bryan 'American Dragon' Danielson, er, Daniel Bryan look like a pathetic hero to the IWC dorks around the world, and let's have Cole keep yammering on about what a tool this no-TV-owning vegan runt is." Bryan was 0-10 as of Week 12, he performed poorly in the challenges, Cole and Miz were lambasting him left and right, and going back to his still-winless record, he was doing jobs to poorly-ranked rookies Young, Tarver, and Ryback Skip Sheffield. So what does Daniel Bryan say when Matt Striker asks him in Week 11 whom he thinks should be eliminated on Week 12?

"To be quite honest, I'm the only guy here who hasn't won a match, and if there's anybody who should be eliminated next week, it should be me."- Daniel Bryan to Matt Striker

No wins, no success in challenges, no respect from mentor, no respect from Cole, now no self-esteem? Yes, it did seem as if WWE was burying Bryan so early into his career, and with that said, it was no surprise when he and Michael Tarver were the first two eliminations in NXT's first season. End of story, end of career, back to the indies for the Dragon?

No, not quite. On the Week 13 episode, Striker called Bryan back to the ring, and he gave the fans the promo of his life thus far. In this worked shoot, Bryan stressed that he was "eliminated by management," and that he'd heard about backstage politics, and about how Vince McMahon "loves big guys" and Superstars the WWE itself creates. Bryan then referred to himself as a "self-made man" rather than a manufactured Superstar, and told everyone in attendance, quite emphatically, that the best person for the job of being the WWE's "Next Breakout Star" is him. He said that all the mentors, even The Miz, know how good he is, and that he, in particular, is better than The Miz. And after a quick back-and-forth with Miz, Bryan then turned his attention to Cole, calling him out for all the criticism, referring to him as a "parrot." And after confronting Cole at the announce table, Bryan, now aggravated and screaming off-mic, called the self-proclaimed "Voice of the WWE" a "poor man's replacement" for Jim Ross. Then, he decked Cole as Striker and a few referees restrained both men. Bryan may have often been shaky on the mic in his NXT stint, but on that night, May 18, 2010, he was on fire. He may have looked quite weak when he "eliminated himself," but this more than made up for it.


The next week, it was Cole's turn to call Bryan out, and with a bunch of security guards backing him up, he demanded that Bryan make an apology for his actions on the last episode of NXT. Bryan ostensibly apologized to Cole, saying that he did some things that he shouldn't have done. He then reiterated that he was "truly sorry," before adding that he is sorry that Cole is "by far the worst announcer in WWE history." Now that's more like it! He dissed Cole for being a "man who hides behind security guards and the announce table," dissed Miz for being the "worst Pro out there," and that set up a furious argument between indie favorite and annoying, cowardly heel announcer. Once again, they had to be separated before the shit really hit the fan, but the shots had been fired. Twice. This guy had what it takes to go places in WWE.

Though he was essentially tied with Michael Tarver for dead-last in the first season of NXT, and though he finished without any wins in matches or in challenges, those promos showed the WWE Universe that Daniel Bryan wasn't just an "Internet/indie darling" who could wrestle extremely well and hold his own despite being smaller than most of his opponents. The man could talk, he could inspire great fan reactions, he could stick it to heels despised by the IWC (Miz, Cole), and thusly had the complete package of skills, the potential to be a much bigger name in World Wrestling Entertainment in terms of performance and fan appeal.

The rest is history.


LAST WORDS ON THE MAN’S LEGACY

This has all been covered in great detail by Ro on this week’s Textual Chocolate, but we might as well cover this briefly to wrap things up, and explain why he's the only 2010s WWE Superstar in my top ten list of all-time favorite wrestlers, and fairly close to the top. In fact, you can even say that he'd one day have been right there on top if he hadn't retired at such a young age.

Although I became a fan of Daniel Bryan at a point where he was fresh off a memorable heel run and at that time, a hammy babyface as one-half of Team Hell No, those Everyman qualities still rang true. He was a great technical wrestler, flashy in the ring, a good promo man albeit not in the league of CM Punk or Paul Heyman, a very positive locker room presence, and, as I soon learned, a stand-up guy outside the ring. That's something you can't say 100 percent of the time about the wrestling heroes of my youth.

Dreams do come true. Daniel Bryan after winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 30.
An advocate of clean living, Bryan wasn’t overly preachy about it, like Punk often tends to be, especially when in-character. Unlike my old heroes—Bret Hart, whose drug as a wrestler was women, and Stone Cold Steve Austin, who allegedly hit his now-ex-wife Debra—Bryan always came about as a loving, faithful boyfriend, and eventually husband to Brie Bella. He’d often take the time to hang out with, and talk to his fans. And, at the end of the day, he was always Bryan Lloyd Danielson of Aberdeen, Washington, rather than someone who had become a “mark for himself," or a man who couldn't separate his real self from his in-ring character.

The Rock may call himself “The People’s Champion” while in character, but Daniel Bryan was arguably THE People’s Champion in the truest sense of the word. 

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When did you first become a Daniel Bryan fan? What aspects of his in-ring character did you like the most? How did you feel about his NXT run? And maybe you think he's got a chance to return to wrestling, may it be in the WWE or outside? Let us know in the comments section.

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The Throwback Tito is Enzo Tanos, a freelance writer and the drummer/manager for garage rock band The Myopics, where he hopes to debut his masked lucha drummer persona “Sin Verguenza” in future gigs. A wrestling fan since childhood, he’s old enough to remember watching Outback Jack’s pointless vignettes, and One Man Gang’s transformation to Akeem.

PHOTO CREDITS - Bryan/Ryder/Punk c/o CMPunk.com, Bryan and AJ break up c/o Reddit, NXT Season 1 photos c/o Uproxx, Bryan wins WWEWHC at WM30 c/o Between The Ropes.

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