Daniel Bryan, A WrestleMania Triple Threat, And Live Crowds - Sound Familiar?

YEStlemania season rears itself once more amid some amusing coincidences

So what's everybody looking forward to most at WrestleMania? Sasha vs. Bianca? Edge's first World title match in a decade? Shane McMahon falling off something?

I don't know about you, but I'm just looking forward to having a crowd for a WWE event again.

It's been over a year since we had an audience for a WWE card.

And by that, I mean a *real* audience, as opposed to merch-accessorized Performance Center extras, or walls of Max Headroom faces that are told who to cheer and boo through their muted gesturing (the crowd sweetener does the rest).

Raymond James Stadium may not be filled to capacity next month, but at least we'll have something close to that organic barometer of human emotion at a WWE event once more.

An estimated 25,000 fans or so will be in attendance down in Tampa for each night of WrestleMania in April, and as a home viewer, there's just something cathartic about that. No, we're not out of the woods yet as far as the pandemic goes, but as long as precautions are taken, to hear that from-the-heart ambiance once more is a relieving reclamation of something lost.

And given Daniel Bryan's placement at WrestleMania 37, the timing couldn't be more appropriate.

After all, we've seen this before, haven't we?

You know the tale that parallels seven years ago: enduring, oft-pushed World champion that's the son of a WWE legend. Royal Rumble winner of the part-time ilk that's now in their forties, serving as challenger, instead of WWE elevating an everyday performer to the spot. Completing the trifecta is the sudden insertion of popular Daniel Bryan into the title picture.

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Hell, the event's even taking place in the stadium of a team from the NFC South. If Daniel Bryan's yes'ing his way through a kick-laden beatdown of WWE champion Dominik Mysterio and a fellow challenger in 50-year-old John Cena at Bank of America Stadium in 2028, then we've stumbled onto a rather curious pattern.

But rather than deal in future hypotheticals and present reality, let's talk about that glorious moment of the past, one of the last truly special WrestleMania endings that warmed the hearts of onlookers the world over.

April 7, 2014 marked the date of a WrestleMania that won't soon be forgotten.

Through masterful storytelling, WWE turned the negative of some poor decision making into a supreme positive by ending the night with Bryan as its World champion.

It was the result of a two-match parlay inside New Orleans' Superdome. First, Bryan had to overcome restrictive COO Triple H to qualify for the evening's World title main event. Then once there, he had to survive champion Randy Orton and Rumble winner Batista to punctuate the storybook ending.

Said storybook ending was to be the ultimate treat for WWE fans.

The same fans who refused to let WrestleMania end with any other conclusion.

Bryan had long had support of WWE fans, even if it wasn't the rock star-like adulation coming his way by the end of 2013.

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The wrestling fan whose tastes extended beyond McMahonland knew the exploits of "American Dragon" Bryan Danielson, the world-travelled master of the mat whose ring work existed within an exclusive percentile. Even when the renamed Daniel Bryan wasn't receiving the staunchest push, he had the backing of his long-time followers.

Then there were the WWE fans who picked up on Bryan in his "sports entertainment" life. Some were most mesmerized by what he could do between the ropes. Others latched on to his infectious quirks, especially his comedic give-and-take with Kane.

No matter what Bryan was doing within WWE's confines, there were an increasing amount of fans warming to his inspired performances.

This was proven by the reaction to how he was booked to lose the World Heavyweight title to Sheamus at WrestleMania 28. The Brogue Kick and pin in a breezy 18 seconds didn't sit well with fans who at least expected, you know, a competitive match.

It can be easily argued that the booking hurt Sheamus (the beneficiary of the booking, whose character was "smiling jerk we're supposed to cheer for anyway") far worse. Bryan's supporters, meanwhile, chanted his name and YES'd for him, even when he wasn't on camera.

By 2013, a wildly-popular Bryan was back in the main event scene, where he got to do something most figured would've been a pipe dream years earlier: he got to pin John Cena cleanly in a WWE title match.

Of course, that was tempered minutes later by Orton's Money in the Bank cash-in, but the thought counts.

Over the months that followed, Orton and Bryan feuded over the WWE title, and the run concluded with Bryan falling short.

Fans who'd grown accustomed to Bryan as a main event player were disheartened to see him trickle down the card, replaced in the main event tier by Big Show (who co-opted the YES finger-points, as contentiously noted by critics and Bryan supporters).

They were even sadder when a weakened, battered Bryan chose to join the Wyatt Family, instead of continuing to fight them one against three.

By the end of 2013, Bryan certainly didn't feel like WrestleMania main event material, not from a booking standpoint, anyway. In spite of the massive response he received in a ring full of legends during the World title "ascension" ceremony weeks earlier, the crowd favourite felt more like a candidate for the Andre the Giant battle royal than an undisputed show-closer.

What followed in 2014 is the greatest example of sheer fan will altering the design of wrestling's biggest annual production.

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First, Bryan turned on the Wyatts, after just two weeks under the spell of Bray. With his turn came another enormous crowd response, a wall-shaking reverberation of yeses as, in a well-crafted "moment of truth", he took down the three backwoods heavyweights at the conclusion of one episode of WWE Raw.

If there was a movement to have Bryan win the Rumble and go on to WrestleMania to avenge all prior main event wrongs, this moment galvanized that thought.

Which is why people were less than enthused to see Bryan lose cleanly to Wyatt in the opener of the Royal Rumble two weeks later.

You remember that Rumble, don't you? The negative response to the World title match ("Orton vs. Cena VIII: Viper Takes Manhattan") was kind of expected going in, but was made especially fouler by the booking of the opener.

Then when the Royal Rumble match itself came around, all remaining semblance of filterization was officially suspended.

Thirty entrants hit the ring, and none of those thirty came equipped with a melodic rock cover of "Ride of the Valkyries". To say this didn't sit well with the fans in Pittsburgh is understating it a tad.

WWE fans have long had a love/hate relationship with the "part time" headliner, and the recently-returned Batista (casually striding in after four years away) was experiencing the brunt of the "hate" side. It was abundantly clear that WWE was building to long-absent Batista vs. subjectively-stale Orton at WrestleMania 30 for the title.

That reality crystallized when Rey Mysterio flew out of the Rumble chute as the thirtieth entrant. It was precisely then that Pittsburgh (and most of the home audience) completely turned on the designs sitting in front of them, in a manner rarely seen prior to then.

And it didn't stop with Pittsburgh. The sour taste lingered long after the boos drowned out Batista's sign-pointing. According to reports, the planned WrestleMania card had Bryan matched up against Sheamus, in a face-off situated well below the gaggle of designated main events.

One of those bigger matches pitted Triple H against CM Punk. However, within 24 hours of that maligned Rumble match, a frustrated, physically-ill Punk left WWE in his wake. He walked out of the company, never to return.

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Between the outrage over the booking, and the general sympathy toward a veritable crowd avatar like Punk, fans did not relent in their campaign against WWE. For weeks and weeks, crowds let the organization know that Bryan was their man, while fans on social media echoed the same refrain.

Orton vs. Batista was on its way to being the first WrestleMania main event where neither competitor was accepted as anything resembling a babyface (even Cena's opponents got some "trolling" cheers).

WWE needed a babyface in the main event, so by early March, they changed course. Drafted was the two-match deal to have Bryan conquer 75 percent of Evolution en route to the gold, and that big ballyhoo finish of confetti and pyro that WrestleManias are predicated on.

WrestleMania 30 would've been a very different show had WWE not caved in to the tireless sentiment toward Bryan. To many, it's a top five Mania. But where would it rank if the big images were Bryan in the undercard, Batista hoisting the belts, *and* the Streak ending?

Maybe we'd have all been a little warmer and fuzzier toward the "glory days" of 27.

Instead, we got what we got. And we've got fan relentlessness to thank.

While a more financially-secure WWE has perhaps been less inclined toward specific fan desires in the years since, one can't help but see some parallels between this and the Universal title match at this year's WrestleMania.

It's not *all* the same, though. Fans are fine with Reigns as champion (a sentence that would've been absurd if written between 2015 and 2019), and Edge hardly inspires the same venom that a part-time Batista push conjured up.

But hard-working Daniel Bryan, in a WrestleMania main event, fighting for one of WWE's World titles, happening in front of WWE's first live crowd in over a year - something about that just feels right.

Sounds like things are getting back to normal.

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Justin Henry

Written by Justin Henry

In addition to writing lists and commentaries for Cultaholic, Justin is also a features writer and interviewer for Fighting Spirit Magazine, and is co-author of the WWE-related book Titan Screwed: Lost Smiles, Stunners, and Screwjobs.