Daniel Bryan is a free agent.
With those two magic words, inevitably, one's imagination spills outward.
Because, after all, a free agent could literally turn up *anywhere*. Or they could re-sign with their recent home. Or they could do nothing at all, growing spores from their limbs while binging afternoon soaps from the couch.
The first option is clearly the most exciting, because there's implied chaos in there. A change for one man means a change to the larger picture, especially if that one man totes the weight that Daniel Bryan carries.
Now, personally, I suspect Bryan will ultimately re-sign with WWE. I sense that WWE will make him an extremely flexible (and obviously lucrative) offer that fits his needs, comforts, and desires. Perhaps such a deal would include the option of taking an occasional date outside WWE (so long as it isn't with a major competitor).
Regardless, it's still fun to discuss what *could* be, isn't it?
It's also fun to see someone like Bryan in this position, where he could command highly-deferential offers from multiple suitors. While he was regarded as one of the premier technicians in the world even *before* he signed his 2009 deal with WWE, to see him have his main event runs in the "sports entertainment" giant is to see something of an underdog overachieve, in a very real sense.
Even ardent "American Dragon" supporters would've had a hard time picturing Bryan standing tall at the end of a future WrestleMania, just because he felt like the antithesis of WWE's vision.
And even when Bryan first arrived in NXT in February of 2010, most figured the height of his ceiling would've been significantly lower.
Ahh, the old NXT.
That first season of "NXT: The Vaguely-Defined Game Show" began more than 11 years ago, and feels like it was 311 years ago. To look at that premiere episode is to see something that, in many ways, feels like an alternative reality to 2021.
The only two palpable similarities between then and now are:
1) NXT aired on a Tuesday night
2) Michael Cole's commentary was unbearable
So hooray for consistency.
The concept of NXT in those days was a reality-type program in which eight developmental talents were mentored by eight established main roster stars, and one hopeful would be given a shot at main roster immortality.
Given the roles on the show, it felt like something of a cosmic rib that Bryan's mentor was The Miz, somebody perceived to have perhaps one-tenth of Bryan's global experience, athletic skill, and ring savvy. But the contrast between the two made for good drama, and fans (even the ones outraged by the pairing) latched onto that fact quickly enough.
But rather than focus on Bryan and Miz's dynamic, I'd like to discuss the match that Bryan had on the maiden NXT episode.
In what is canonically recognized as the beginning of Daniel Bryan's WWE career (throwing out the Velocity match with John Cena, and other rarities), he got to show off his wares against the man who, 48 hours earlier, had won his final World title under the WWE banner.
That man would be Chris Jericho.
I figure it's an interesting match to look back on, because Jericho in 2010 was basically where Bryan is at today. 2010 Jericho and 2021 Bryan are both 39 going on 40, both have been World champions many times over, and both are largely unassailable in terms of their credibility as wrestlers and on-air characters.
By 2010, Jericho had the ability to call his own shot. He'd already come and gone from WWE once in the previous few years. By the end of 2010, he'd be taking another wrestling sabbatical. Over the eight years ahead, he'd return to WWE and then leave, sometimes with such frequency that you figured he was just showing up to collect his mail.
Jericho definitely called his shot when he agreed to a return to New Japan a few short years ago, drawing more than a few headlines in the process. Later, he ended up as the center-piece signing for upstart All Elite Wrestling, where his name value, and clear zeal for elevating young talent, aid the young company to this day.
Jericho is hardly the only established wrestler for whom a major run away from WWE captured attention. Jon Moxley and Cody Rhodes hit the juvenation machine once they each gained freedom, but Jericho's post-WWE run feels different. While the latter two felt held down to an extent in WWE, Jericho could've had a main event run in that place any time he felt like going back.
Instead, he chose to try something different. Jericho hadn't wrestled for another American company in two decades, and realized that away from WWE's "samey" way of doing things, he could create something special.
If Daniel Bryan decides to take "The Jericho Path", whether it's to AEW or New Japan, ROH or MLW, or wherever, we could get to see something off the ordained path. As a WWE main eventer (one inserted into the WrestleMania main event this year on an apparent whim from Vince), Bryan really does have his pick of what he feels is the sweetest deal.
That's something you wouldn't have assumed probable on Tuesday, February 23, 2010.
It was on that date in Milwaukee that decorated, established WWE icon Jericho matched up with "starting fresh" Bryan, for an audience used to seeing WWECW in this time slot.
Jericho admitted that this form of NXT wasn't to his interests, as it just felt like moderate busy work for he and the other presiding vets. As he later wrote of NXT, "I couldn't be bothered getting there on time just to sit around all day doing nothing. On the days I did have to wrestle, it was a piece of piss just to put together a short match against a guy with very little experience. I'd lay out the whole match and nobody had any better ideas anyway, except maybe Daniel Bryan."
Jericho praises Bryan, calling him, "Excellent from the moment he walked into the WWE," something that a long list of industry peers could confirm. And now, "Y2J" would join the list of ring greats that could personally attest as much.
Despite being an indy "legend", Bryan was presented as someone whose past success meant nothing, since it all happened outside WWE (a suddenly-heel Michael Cole posited as much on commentary, with much frequency). Those fans in Milwaukee, some knew Bryan, but most were quiet towards him. At first, anyway.
The match dynamic didn't pit Jericho and Bryan as equals, but rather Jericho as proven stud and Bryan as an earnest underdog, gamely seeking to solve the Jericho puzzle.
Jericho toyed with Bryan at the onset, only to get smacked across the face for his troubles, a spot that resonated well with the fans. For a while, though, Jericho dominated, forcing Bryan to fight from underneath. An early turning point was a dragon screw legwhip that halted Jericho's momentum. From there, Bryan got plenty of shine, establishing a little parity between him and one of WWE's stalwarts.
Then came the moment for which most fans remember the match. After Jericho was sent to the floor, Bryan attempted a suicide dive, only to overshoot his target. In trying to save Bryan from a complete wipeout, Jericho caught Bryan enough, sort of half-turning him out of the air. Alas, Bryan ended up smashing into the commentary desk with his side ribs in a pretty gnarly shot. The bruising was instant.
Back inside, Jericho tried for the Walls, only for Bryan to corkscrew his body, pulling Jericho down into sort of a half crab/heel hook submission. By this point, the fans were buying the newcomer upsetting Jericho, only to be sorely disappointed when the World champion snagged the bottom rope. Minutes later, a Codebreaker and a deep-knee Lion Tamer snuffed out the attempt at a miracle win.
Bryan went 0-for-forever in his remaining run on the program, failing to win a single match. In 2021, it's hard to imagine somebody with Bryan's standing and following going through that sort of lacklustre streak.
The Jericho match was as good as it got for Bryan on NXT, as Jericho had the forum (and inclination) to give as much to Bryan as possible. There's a reason why, of all of Bryan's matches in that period, we remember that one the most.
Jericho is still that same Jericho in AEW (albeit a step behind athletically). The pathological need and want to give to the future of business are still evident.
And hey, Bryan's been that same wrestler, especially so on SmackDown these past couple of years - someone who understands the value of building up others, while secure in the knowledge that their own spot is safe.
He and Jericho certainly have more in common than just being all-time great performers. They both go above and beyond for those that will follow them.
That's what makes a match like this a nice snapshot in time. As Daniel Bryan decides what his next career move will be, it's good to remember a time when one of wrestling's "made men" worked hard to pull him up.
Wherever Bryan ends up, he'll continue using his name to do the same.