On the April 24 episode of WWE Smackdown, Big Cass attacked Daniel Bryan from behind. The audience never saw the actual attack. We just saw the immediate aftermath, when Bryan was rolling around on the floor, and the post-aftermath, when Bryan appeared outside the locker room with ice bag taped to his left arm.
Three years ago, this entire sequence would have been handled differently. The actual beatdown would have been filmed, and we would have witnessed Bryan slammed into furniture, walls, and nearby objects–similar to what Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn did to Shane McMahon, or what AJ Styles did to Shane McMahon, or what Kane did to Shane McMahon. But instead, WWE left this beatdown to the imagination. And that’s a smart move, considering who would be on the receiving end of it.
Bryan, after a three-year layoff from active competition, is back as a full-time performer. That exile was not his decision; WWE was concerned (for reasons both personal and PR-minded) that Bryan would suffer long-term physical damage from his career, were he to continue. He had multiple concussions, many of which Bryan concealed from WWE’s doctors. He had lesions on his brain. He suffered from seizures. And despite being told, multiple times by the WWE brass, to slow down and not take so many risks in the ring, he ignored that advice and continued using suicide dives and his diving headbutt–the same diving headbutt that Chris Benoit used as a finisher, week in and week out, before killing his wife, son, and himself. It’s the same diving headbutt that permanently injured Dynamite Kid, who’s now confined to a wheelchair. Bryan, in other words, couldn’t be trusted to care of himself.
But now, against all likelihood, Bryan is back, with doctors’ approval. And it seems that this time, he’s taking people’s advice seriously, both in the way he delivers moves and in the way he takes them. There are no more suicide dives to the outside of the ring. There are no more flying headbutts off the top rope. And several of his signature moves have been slightly altered to make them safer.
Take, for example, his corner drop kicks. Pre-retirement Bryan would finish his delivery with a shoulder roll. Occasionally, he put his hand down to soften the impact. But more often, he simply took the impact directly on his upper body, especially if he over-corrected.
At Wrestlemania 34, post-retirement Bryan delivered this move by holding onto the ropes and deliberately planting his hand. The result was a flip; although the signature move is slower than what we remembered, it’s a lot safer. And it’s better to have Bryan going at 80% speed than not going at all.
There have been a couple of questionable booking decisions. On the March 20 episode of Smackdown before Wrestlemania, Bryan wasn’t protecting himself on the corner dropkicks very well and nearly landed on his neck. Shinsuke Nakamura delivered a Shinkasa to the back of Bryan’s head on the April 10 episode of Smackdown–mere months after Paige’s career ended from an errant, blind kick.
On the whole, however, Bryan is moving in the right direction, and the other WWE superstars can also learn from his example. There are a handful common sense adjustments to consider. Maybe suicide dives should be a PPV-only type move. Maybe WWE can bring back razor blades to cause bleeding, instead of deliberately elbowing people in the head. The debate between either wrestling the risk-taking indie style and the safer, softer WWE style is a false dilemma. There’s a compromise between those two extremes. Bryan is trying and thus far succeeding at finding it.