2/11/16 – Andrew Berg – @WrestleRosters
The answer, of course, is no one. There will never be another Daniel Bryan. His combination of skill, determination, and timing is the sort of confluence that happens once in a generation, if we’re lucky. He was an impeccable wrestler who formed a unique connection with fans. That connection allowed him to have a year- from Wrestlemania XXIX to XXX- greater than any year in the careers of legends like John Cena, Randy Orton, or Triple H. To predict any individual to live up to the standard he set would be to set that individual up for failure.
At the same time, there are elements of Bryan’s success that might be replicable. His size made him distinctive, but it was only one element that allowed fans to connect with him and feel invested in him. Furthermore, his everyman quality allowed his popularity to grow organically so fans felt like they had a personal stake in his success. Of course, his technical wrestling ability was incomparable, so any comparison has to start with plenty of in-ring savvy. Finally, his determination was more than just a storyline; it was part of who he was from his very early success through his retirement. Who are the wrestlers who share those qualities and might see some similarities in their career trajectories?
- Kyle O’Reilly
O’Reilly’s similarities to Bryan go beyond a pasty complexion and a goofy sense of humor. Like Bryan, O’Reilly has had a high level of success in ROH and NJPW (3x ROH Tag Team Champion, 2x IWGP Jr Heavyweight Tag Team Champion) at a young age. Like Bryan, he wrestles a highly-technical style that is heavily influenced by Japanese wrestling and MMA. In some ways, the path will be easier for O’Reilly because Bryan came before him and proved that someone with that track record could be a world champion. On the other hand, I have not yet seen the type of charisma and personal magnetism in O’Reilly that made Bryan greater than the sum of his skills. I expect O’Reilly to have a great career, but I think the trajectory will look very different from Bryan’s.
- Sami Zayn
The former NXT Champion is often cited as a lineal descendant of Bryan’s underdog status. Zayn certainly shares the DNA of an expert ring psychologist. While he’s not the preternatural technical wonder that Bryan is, he puts matches together in a way that makes everything he does entertaining. If there’s a major difference between Bryan and Zayn, it’s that Zayn already seems destined for a top spot on the WWE roster. One of the things that made Bryan’s ascent so unreal was the constant feeling that it wasn’t supposed to happen. For better or worse, it would feel like a minor upset at this point if Zayn fails to main event main roster PPVs at some point. Perhaps that decrease in shock value arises out of fans being able to see WWE workshopping storylines with young wrestlers in NXT. In any case, Zayn is a star on his way to a great career, whether it resembles Bryan’s or not.
Ricochet, who also wrestles as Prince Puma in Lucha Underground, is one of my favorite young wrestlers outside of WWE. He combines otherworldly athleticism and aerial ability with a rare level of creativity. He was the top star of Lucha Underground’s first season and looks to be on track to stay near the top of the card. Meanwhile, he has developed a successful tag team with Matt Sydal in NJPW that will help him build on his victory in the 2014 Best of Super Juniors tournament. Ricochet is so quick and agile that he sometimes makes wrestling look too easy. It’s a minor complaint, but for him to reach the level that Bryan did, he will have to show his struggle and get fans engaged in it. Ricochet has so much charisma and skill that I think it’s only a matter of time before we think of him as one of the top wrestlers in the world. The question is whether he will ever catch the emotional lightning in a bottle that brought Bryan to the next level.
- A.J. Styles
Since he just debuted in WWE, Styles is a name on the tips of many fans’ tongues. He and Bryan share an impressive resume in smaller American companies and in Japan. Styles is also one of the few wrestlers who combines technical ability with fiery passion in a way that makes fans excited to see him make a babyface comeback in a match. Still, Styles will turn 39 later this year, which makes him almost a decade older than Bryan was when he started his tremendous rise in WWE. I can envision Styles having a smaller, shorter version of Bryan’s climb up the WWE ladder, possibly even ending with a WWE Title run. The thing that will always make Bryan’s ascent different is that it took several years to grow from the ground up, and Styles simply doesn’t have several years to plant those seeds.
Hear me out.
The best way to compare Bryan and Bayley is through the Q Score. The Q Score is a way of measuring public opinion of a person that essentially subtracts the percentage of unfavorable opinions from the percentage of favorable opinions. If someone is highly popular with some people but highly unpopular with others, the Q Score will be mediocre. The truly elite Q Scores are those who are very popular with many people and disliked by almost no one. While we don’t have actual Q Scores for wrestlers, I think that Bayley is the only wrestler with a comparable Q Score to Daniel Bryan in recent years. Everyone loves both of them.
Bayley’s popularity is well-earned, too. When she started in NXT, I didn’t think much of her wrestling ability. I thought her character was fun and likable, but didn’t see much of a future for her. Over the last two years, she has gone from a questionable worker to a very good one who doubles as a ring psychology prodigy. Bayley’s matches, regardless of opponent, feel like expertly booked contests from the 1980s. The stories are always clear and easy to follow. She creates stakes within the match and endings that that feel meaningful. Most impressively, she has an ability to express stories in the ring that parallel and even advance the overarching narratives that come into the ring. That skill is wrestling at its highest level.
The argument against Bayley would be that women’s wrestling has never reached the level that Daniel Bryan reached at his peak. I would say that this argument supports Bayley’s candidacy because part of what made Bryan’s peak so exciting was the fact that no one had ever seen anyone like him do what he did. Bryan was not only the most popular wrestler in the world, he was probably the smallest, goofiest, and most technically-oriented wrestler to reach those heights. Bayley already wrestled one of the two or three best matches of 2015 against Sasha Banks at NXT Brooklyn. It’s also clear that fans are ready to receive women’s wrestling more seriously than ever before. Is it really so crazy to think that a few years after Bryan broke down barriers for small technical wrestlers that Bayley could do the same thing for women in wrestling?