Today, Tuesday, May 22, is Daniel Bryan's 31st birthday. Despite being a WWE wrestler who has an enviable spot on the roster and is likely at the height of his fan popularity, his plans for the day don't sound anything you'd expect of a celebrity. His main commitment is appearing on a taping of WWE SmackDown this evening, and even though the performers hit the gym on TV days, he's treating himself to an off-day because of the special occasion. He's received “a nice little surprise” from someone who sent gifts to his hotel in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., with the most notable piece of the haul being “some nice vegan cupcakes.” That's about all he has to say about his big day.
Granted, the Las Vegas-based Bryan (whose real name is Bryan Danielson, which makes things a bit confusing) could be painting an incomplete picture of the potential that lies ahead. Hypothetically, a night-long party, some streamers, or a panty raid could be on the horizon, but probably not. Bryan's a guy low-key enough to just have the birthday festivities mentioned above. He doesn't drink, do drugs or watch television, which makes him an anomaly in his business. He's also a vegan, a fan of gardening (he grows raspberries, apples, strawberries and other edibles), and has a dog named Asparagus he's taken many a wonderfully dorky photo with. Last year, he rapped on a Kimya Dawson song for fun despite the fact that he can't really rap. Daniel Bryan is, by all evidence available, the most down-to-earth superstar in WWE, which somehow makes it a bit more remarkable that he's one of the finest wrestlers alive. (Although Bryan is primarily associated with SmackDown on Fridays, he will appear in Hartford during a special three-hour edition of WWE Raw on Monday.)
Aside from his hobbies and traits, Bryan still isn't the type of persona you would immediately assume is a wrestler. According to WWE.com, he clocks in at 5'10” and 210 pounds. He's trim, agile and athletic, but his fresh-faced look (even with beard) means it's easy to imagine him as a pleasant Whole Foods stock boy who would be more than happy to help you find your organic yogurt. Nonetheless, Bryan is spectacular in the ring, which is, in some measure, likely due to the grappling and kickboxing he does for fun outside of it. His kicks leave a resounding smack, he wrenches his amateur-wrestling-style submission holds with enough pressure to look like he's going to maim his opponent, and if and when he flies through the air, he throws his body up as if he's going all in. Bryan's brilliance with mannerisms and moves are an excellent representation of the possibilities of the unusual performance art known as pro wrestling.
From 1999 to 2009, Bryan honed his craft on the independent wrestling scene, going by his real name plus “The American Dragon” and “The Best in the World.” Like today, Bryan's style was heavy on constant movement and hard-hitting moves, but back then, he wasn't much on the mic. Fans still adored him, and his status as “indie darling” followed him until his signing of a WWE developmental deal in 2009. His reputation and size both helped and hurt. “I felt like when I got to WWE, all the wrestlers treated me great, but coming from independent wrestling, you really have to prove yourself more to the office than anybody else because I don't look like your prototypical WWE superstar,” Bryan says. “I don't have a lot of the qualities they look for in a WWE superstar, so it's [about] going out there and proving that you belong there. I felt like only in the last six, seven months, I've really proved to the people on top that I really belong here.”
This last year truly has been his game changer. After several starts and stops, he's moved from being an aimless midcarder to the holder of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, the title that's second only to the WWE Championship (which he's currently feuding for). After scoring Heavyweight gold, Bryan went from a good-natured and occasionally dangerous nice guy to an arrogant, self-entitled heel who runs around screaming “Yes! Yes! Yes!” to remind you of his championship win. Though Bryan lost the belt in an uncomfortably short match at this past WrestleMania, that “Yes!” chant has grown so popular that WWE crowds will recite it whether or not Bryan is around. He's also manipulated and dumped his petite on-screen girlfriend AJ yet remains incredibly popular. The man's an unrepentant asshole whose charisma comes from how much of an unrepentant asshole he is.
These character developments contrast the real Bryan, who is friendly, relatable and always sounds like he's about to crack a joke or smile. Bryan's response to a question about his non-wrestling-related ambitions reveals a bit more about the guy who plays an immensely talented loudmouth on TV. He'd like to pick strawberries but only n his own terms: “I want to pick a few strawberries, eat a few strawberries, pick a few strawberries, eat a few strawberries.” It's a gag, yes, but he has a reason for making it. “A lot of guys want to be rich and have nice cars and all that kind of stuff. I don't want any of that. I want to be comfortable. I don't want to have to worry about money,” Bryan says. “I just want to be happy, you know?”
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