On Tuesday night, SmackDown Live shocked the wrestling world during its main event, where Daniel Bryan defeated AJ Styles in an impromptu rematch from a few weeks ago to win the WWE Championship. Even more shocking, however, was the manner in which Bryan did it: the usually gracious and reserved Bryan intentionally put the referee in harm’s way of a Phenomenal Forearm, delivered a low blow to the champion while the ref was incapacitated, and then administered a post-match beatdown on AJ. While both surprises are welcome, Bryan’s change in attitude has far more reaching implications than his fourth WWE Championship reign.
It’s easy to initially reject a Daniel Bryan heel turn: for years, ever since the explosion of the Yes! Movement in 2013-2014, Bryan has been one of the most pure babyfaces in WWE, garnering nothing but respect and admiration from nearly every pocket of the WWE Universe. Even the most jaded, “cool heel”-loving wrestling fan can’t help but smile and get misty-eyed when Daniel talks about fighting for his dreams and getting to do what he loves. The wrestling world rejoiced earlier this year when Bryan was surprisingly cleared for competition after a two year forced retirement — however, since then, even the most ardent Bryan fan will admit he’s been treading water ever since.
It’s no huge surprise, given WWE’s penchant for writing almost all babyfaces as bland do-gooders, nearly void of personality. That Bryan was still as over as he was is a testament to who he is as a human being and the very rare, real connection he’s made with the fans. But since returning at WrestleMania 34, Bryan has not evolved his character in any meaningful way, and for the most part has toiled in the mid-card, fighting ultimately meaningless battles against the likes of Big Cass and The Miz. (The latter of which is a money feud on paper, but WWE’s tepid handling of it has cooled its momentum — much like Bryan himself.)
In WWE, for whatever reason, heels get all the character development, catchphrases, and mannerisms that turn people from wrestlers to Superstars. The Rock infamously was rejected by the fans when he debuted as a white meat babyface. John Cena didn’t start taking off until he became a villainous rapper. Even Bryan himself is a great example: the Yes! Movement was born when Bryan was a cowardly, delusional heel, trying to be as obnoxious as possible. So while it may seem like WWE is squandering the most universally beloved good guy on their roster, a heel turn is the shot in the arm that should kick-start Daniel Bryan’s career once again, boosting him to new levels of relevance and reinvention. Bad guys in WWE get far more creative freedom — somewhat paradoxically, Bryan has a chance to breathe new life into his popularity with the fans by turning his back on them.
If the pro wrestling rumor mill is to be believed, Bryan pushed for this heel turn personally, and has been doing so for over a month now. That Vince McMahon trusts such a proven babyface commodity to switch alignments — especially in the wake of other recent shock heel turns like Dean Ambrose and Becky Lynch — speaks highly of Bryan’s place in the company and the potential this turn holds. Daniel Bryan has a uniquely great mind for the business of pro wrestling, and a motivated Bryan is an exciting one.