Bryan Danielson — better known by his WWE nom de guerre Daniel Bryan — was an authentic man in an inauthentic world.
Fans recognized his sublime skill and his earnest will to apply it, and as such, they essentially strong armed a reluctant company into giving Danielson the biggest win on the biggest stage possible.
The night he hoisted the WWE title at WrestleMania 30 in New Orleans was one of pure elation for those of us who'd watched Danielson rise from his early days as a genius performer in dimly lit armories and rec centers. Moments of true justice are rare in this world.
Less than two years later, on Monday night, we watched Danielson explain that he was retiring from wrestling because of accumulated head injuries. It was the most bittersweet half hour of television I've watched in recent memory. As surely as Danielson wanted to wrestle again, we wanted to glimpse him once more in the flower of his greatness. As surely as he knew it would be imprudent, we knew he was doing the only sane thing by walking away.
But the tears in fans' eyes as they serenaded Danielson with his trademark "Yes" chant, the heartfelt Twitter tributes from his peers, spoke to how real this ordinary-sized guy felt in a land of lies and cartoon giants.
Wrestling Observer Newsletter founder Dave Meltzer said it was the most stirring piece of wrestling television he'd ever seen (and he's seen more than anyone should).
This is shaping up as a week of endings. On Sunday night, we watched Peyton Manning win the Super Bowl in what seems likely to be his last NFL game. Given his ailing hip and surgically rebuilt neck, it's hard to imagine one of the greatest quarterbacks ever gearing up for another autumn of tossing fluttering ducks.
But I suspect Danielson's goodbye is the one I'll remember. He had so much excellence left in him yet was cut off by injuries he fueled with his insatiable desire to excel in the ring. On the other hand, for those 30 minutes on Monday night, he got to feel — truly feel — how deeply people loved and appreciated his work. For many of us, the kindest summaries of our lives will not ring out until we're in the ground, unable to hear.
Danielson heard. And that's a wonderful thing.
There's an old adage in wrestling that the world champion should be able to walk into any room and instantly attract every eye. You see it in others sports as well. When Michael Phelps walks onto a pool deck, he isn't just the guy who's won the most races. He looks like our divine ideal of a swimmer. Same with LeBron James on a basketball court.
But that wasn't Danielson. He was more of a Steph Curry — the ordinary dude whose skills inspired rapture. Guys like that are somehow admirable and lovable on a more human scale than the obvious demi-gods.
WWE, however, had no idea what to do with him when he joined the regular roster in 2010. Danielson looked nothing like the superheroes and villains Vince McMahon had spent a lifetime peddling to the public. But it was more than that. McMahon likes his stars to burst off the screen with world-conquering ambition, much as he does. Danielson, meanwhile, is a modest person who reads philosophy and tends an organic garden in his free time. He once talked of leaving the business to join the Peace Corps. He liked to tell the story of the company personality test on which he achieved the lowest score for ambition of anyone WWE officials had ever reviewed.
That wasn't exactly right either. Danielson might not have lusted for fame or riches. But he burned to be great. He was, and this is what drew me to him, the ultimate craftsman.
I think I really recognized it in 2006, when I first saw Danielson wrestle live at a Ring of Honor event in Philadelphia. I had been an on-and-off wrestling fan for much of my life, but the last time I'd regularly attended events was childhood, when my dad took me to see Andre the Giant and Ric Flair and Randy Savage at the Baltimore Civic Center.
Anyway, Ring Of Honor (the chief indy in a land dominated by WWE) held its show at a rather unglamorous armory on the outskirts of town. Many of the wrestlers were gifted but still smoothing out their skills. Then Danielson came out and he was just different. Every move looked so tight. Every turn in his match felt so well-conceived.
I had read of his excellence and enjoyed a few of his matches on tape, but viewed from 50 feet away, this guy was a revelation.
I learned that he had spent many months in England and Japan, apprenticing himself to masters of different wrestling styles. He wanted his grappling to look as real as possible, so he eventually moved to Las Vegas to train at the gym of MMA great Randy Couture. If you watched Danielson wrestle two matches a year apart, you'd see numerous tweaks to his arsenal. His mind never stopped working on the art he'd chosen as a teenager growing up in Washington state.
I thought nothing of driving solo to Philadelphia or taking the train to New York to watch Danielson wrestle. I hate to think how much money I spent accumulating as many of his matches as possible on DVD. My wife is probably glad he retired so he won't drain any more of our discretionary income.
When he finally jumped to WWE in 2009, I and many ardent fans watched with mixed emotions. We wanted him to achieve financial security but feared the company would squander him because he was so far from the McMahon prototype.
Those fears were hardly unfounded. WWE spent months essentially mocking Danielson on television, with announcers dinging him for his veganism, his vanilla personality and his 5-foot-10, 200-pound body.
Announcers could not deny his ability to stage a compelling match with just about anyone. But a star? No way.
This dynamic persisted for the majority of his WWE tenure, with fans cheering him to the next level and the company finding increasingly frustrating ways to put the crown on someone else. This was no deliberate effort to ratchet up the tension of Danielson's quest. The powers that be really didn't get it.
It led to full-scale rebellion at some of the company's biggest shows, with the crowd reigning boos on any top star who wasn't Danielson.
When McMahon and Co. finally capitulated and Danielson took the title after winning a brilliant match against the ultimate inside man, Triple H, the triumph felt as real as anything I've seen in a proudly phony business.
I can't say it was a surprise when Danielson's body started breaking down in the wake of his greatest triumph at WrestleMania 30. Physically, he was always his own worst enemy.
I watched him take vicious kicks to a busted shoulder and ignore a detached retina to hurl himself into a 300-pound Japanese monster. Even after a neck injury waylaid him for the better part of a year, he could not or would not stop careening full speed into the unforgiving barricades around the ring. Somewhere deep in his soul, he did not believe in giving less than his best.
He admitted he could not begin to count how many concussions he had suffered. And as sports fans, we've all learned how unsettling a prospect that can be.
But Danielson can walk away knowing he likely opened WWE's doors to a wave of regular-sized maestros, including his generational peer A.J. Styles. He can walk away knowing he inspired new vigilance regarding head injuries — a very real scourge in this "fake" sport. And he can walk away knowing he beat the machine. He beat it because he loved what he did so much, and we all felt it.