When it comes to the WWE there has been something missing over the past few years and that something has been a big, huge, breakthrough star that can unite the current WWE fan base and draw in some of the fans that it lost or has yet to really appeal to just yet. The last time that we saw something like this was in the last 1990’s with Stone Cold Steve Austin. Steve Austin was, at the time, the culturally perfect hero. He was everything that made sense for back then; he was brash, in-your-face and wasn’t afraid to stand up to his much richer boss and tell him to go to hell. For older fans who might not of felt much of a connection with some of the WWF’s cartoony characters, something “real” like Steve Austin was exactly what would bring them in. Steve Austin spoke to them unlike a Diesel, Shawn Michaels or Undertaker could.
Over the past few years the WWE has been at a bit of a standstill, with most of their performers from the Steve Austin “Attitude Era” aging, retiring or just moving on to greener pastures. WWE’s answer to these doldrums was to push new, younger stars as their main attractions and while they were able to attract younger audiences, the magic was gone for many. John Cena, the muscle-bound do-gooder wearing jorts and spouting off modernized Hulk Hogan catchphrases like “Hustle, Loyalty and Respect” was enough to win over younger audiences, but for older fans he wasn’t cutting it.
What’s funny is that if John Cena was able to perform up to the lofty standards that many older fans have in the ring, John Cena might be seen in a different light, but he’s simply pretty good, not great. What has been clear is that the WWE is doing fine with what they’ve got right now, but if they want another boom period, they need someone who is in the right place at the right time to have that cultural impact. In the 80’s and 90’s Hulkamania was all about American pride and overcoming the odds, which spoke to fans then, just like in the late-90’s the “screw corporate America” sentiments of Steve Austin and the Attitude Era did them a world of good. What would work for them in a modern time, though, has seemed to elude them.
I think that they have made some feeble attempts at pushing a guy like CM Punk as their “next Austin,” and by all means he could work for a modern Steve Austin formula of a hero, but the timing is simply not right. CM Punk is anti-authority, he’s “alternative” and appeals to the working class because he’s a hard-working guy who likes what he likes and isn’t afraid to be himself. But, the thing is, much like John Cena is built into the Hulk Hogan mold and CM Punk might be built into the Steve Austin mold, these are different times and require a different kind of hero.
If you would have told me back in the mid-00’s when people were going crazy of Bryan Danielson’s ROH work that he would be the guy I would have laughed, hard. It isn’t that Danielson isn’t talented, because he’s been one of the best in-ring guys for over a decade now, but it was that he lacked many of the attributes that the WWE has been pushing for its entire existence. Him even being in the WWE and having the success that he’s had up until now is like a fairytale story, which is, in part, what makes him the improbable hero that could be the WWE’s next breakthrough star.
The live crowds are reacting to him unlike we’ve seen since Austin and it is unreal to watch. Somehow Daniel Bryan has survived the embarrassing gimmicks that he’s had placed upon him, the times where he’s held a title only to get annihilated in-ring by guys that were being pushed as the next big star only for fans to give a lukewarm reaction. Hell, this whole recent main event run came as a WWE marketing ploy to try to endear John Cena to older fans more by giving John Cena his “five-star match.” But just like Steve Austin was the right character at the right time, Daniel Bryan is the right character for right now. Older fans find the appeal of his work in-ring, as well as his work ethic and attitude in general appealing, while younger fans can see an underdog who isn’t afraid to be himself who has a fun gimmick of pointing his fingers into the air and shouting “YES!” repeatedly.
The WWE has stumbled upon gold with Daniel Bryan, even if they aren’t aware of it or don’t believe in it just yet. The fact that for the whole lead-up to last night’s Night of Champions PPV we saw nothing but Triple H, The Shield, Randy Orton and even the Big Show decimate Bryan and make him look like he had zero chance of winning that the fans still supported him. Even when they did that confusing angle with the Big Show that made zero sense, the fans were still going crazy for him. While it is not a guaranteed home run just yet, as live audiences have taken to Daniel Bryan and it might take a while for television audiences to get as interested — if they ever do — but all of the signs are pointing towards this being a lot bigger than anticipated.
Daniel Bryan was supposed to be the likeable face that never became the huge star, the Chris Benoit for this generation who was called up every once in a while to put on a classic match with the big star and would get an occasional title run to keep him happy, but at this point the crowd and fans have spoken and Daniel Bryan is bigger than that. What happens tonight on Raw will help to either further this or try to suppress it, it’s unclear which path they’ll choose. It is certain that the “fast count” angle from last night will come into play, but how it’s handled could either cement Bryan’s future as the improbable breakthrough star of this generation, or just another guy who got too close to the sun only to have his wings melt and cast him into the sea never to be seen again.
Daniel Bryan is, for this cultural epoch, the perfect hero that could make WWE all that more exciting and relevant again, but can fans trust a company who have made so many mistakes over the years?