It’s WrestleMania week, with the ‘Show of Shows’ set to take place on Sunday night. Every day between now and the big event, Tom Beasley takes a look at a different element of the build-up. Today, it’s the in-ring return of Daniel Bryan and how the ‘Yes Movement’ has changed SmackDown for the better…
WWE dropped a bomb and a half in late March when the company announced that former WWE Champion Daniel Bryan has been cleared to return to in-ring action after two years on the shelf. The sudden, brutal end to Bryan’s career and his subsequent retirement speech – a high watermark for wrestling’s ability to elicit emotion – still hurt for many fans. Along with the WWE return of CM Punk, the prospect of Daniel Bryan getting back in the ring would have placed highly on anyone’s list of unlikely, but exciting, hopes for the future.
For the SmackDown Live television product, the return of Bryan had a secondary effect, beyond the obvious bump in excitement. Bryan’s ability to wrestle again has turned a muddled nightmare of a feud into one of the biggest events on the WrestleMania 34 card.
It has been almost a year since Kevin Owens and Shane McMahon first embarked upon a rivalry, when Owens believed that poor refereeing on McMahon’s part cost him the United States Championship at SummerSlam. The tension soon boiled over into a blood feud that appeared to culminate inside the Hell in a Cell structure in October. That match boasted a shocking ending, in which Sami Zayn rescued Owens from one of McMahon’s death-defying elbow drops, turning heel in the process.
Since then, however, the rivalry has been utterly nonsensical. WWE has hinted at friction between McMahon and Daniel Bryan as the top brass on SmackDown, with McMahon seeking to sack Owens and Zayn, while Bryan has handed the duo multiple opportunities at the WWE Championship, drawing AJ Styles into the black hole of this tepid rivalry. There have been tag matches, handicap bouts and innumerable multi-man championship battles, but we have now arrived at WrestleMania and something had to give.
For a long time, it looked as if the Mania match was going to be Shane McMahon against Owens and Zayn in a handicap match or, worse, a tag match in which McMahon would join forces with a random babyface in the Dolph Ziggler mould. That was until the Bryan announcement on March 20th, which seemed to give everything a purpose all of a sudden. Bryan fired Owens and Zayn, before enduring a hellacious beating in which, for a while, he was able to give as good as he got.
The thrill of seeing Bryan get physical in a WWE ring again was enough to shove a red hot poker up the rear end of this rivalry. A week later, Bryan announced that he will make his in-ring return as McMahon’s tag team partner against Owens and Zayn at WrestleMania. Finally, the holding pattern is at an end and this story can move towards its conclusion – a big WrestleMania moment.
The interesting meta-question in this case is how long WWE has known that Bryan is good to go. If they have been sitting on this news for months, then there is no excuse for the messy booking and on-the-hoof decision-making that has made the rivalry such a chore to sit through at times. However, if they found out within a few weeks of making the announcement, then they can perhaps be forgiven for holding out for the match they always wanted to book, stalling for time.
The rumours swirling around the WrestleMania 34 tag clash have suggested that a heel turn for either Bryan or McMahon is on the cards. Bryan would be the logical heel in this scenario, but trying to make him a bad guy would be an enormous mistake. The leader of the Yes Movement is at the peak of his babyface powers and he remains one of the few performers who unites hardcore, smarky wrestling fans and the casual family audience that WWE always seeks to target. A heel turn might earn Bryan some boos from those casual fans, but there’s simply no way that the hardcore audience will boo the man they have wanted to see kick some butt again for years.
Whatever happens, WrestleMania 34 should mark the end of the entanglement between these four men. All of them need to go their separate ways. For Bryan, it makes sense to switch him to the Raw brand, where he can renew the rivalry with The Miz that bubbled over throughout the self-proclaimed A-lister’s entire tenure on the blue show. It’s great to have Bryan back and, with the WWE roster even more stacked than it was when he retired, there’s a galaxy of dream match opportunities ahead.
Tomorrow: Indecisive Asuka booking and a thrown together women’s division.
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.