Backstage at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, five hours before a late March taping of WWE's Monday Night Raw, Daniel Bryan, the unlikeliest of wrestling heroes, settles into a chair in guest host Arnold Schwarzenegger's dressing room. The hulking ex-Governator, who has yet to arrive, possesses the physique one expects to see milling about these premises. Ditto for 6'5", 235-pound, current WWE World Heavyweight Champion Randy Orton, who's chatting up female competitor and E! Total Divas star Nikki Bella down the hall. Bryan, by contrast is a mere 5'8", weighs less than 200 pounds and − with his shaggy shoulder-length hair, rustic beard, flannel button-down and eco-friendly Toms shoes − looks like, say, a member of Band of Horses who showed up at the arena on the wrong day.
But make no mistake, 2014 is Bryan's time. The 32-year-old Aberdeen, Washington native, who's engaged to WWE starlet Brie Bella (also currently seen on Total Divas) and who will take on Triple H at Wrestlemania XXX on April 6th, has engineered a connection with wrestling fans unseen since Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in the late Nineties. Except where Johnson boasted about delivering smackdowns, or his contemporary, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, bragged of opening cans of whoop-ass, Bryan's popularity has spawned a much simpler, cuddlier catchphrase: "Yes!"
"When you look at Austin, if he'd happened in different eras, he would have been hated," reasons Bryan about his current zeitgeistiness. "Hulk Hogan, if he came out now saying, 'America, take your vitamins,' and he's this jacked-up dude, you would get people going, 'Wait, what? I hate this guy.' To me, it's whether you fit into the atmosphere."
Fortunately for Bryan, topics such as sustainable living and veganism, both squarely in his philosophical wheelhouse, have become part of the mainstream conversation. And with his jacked-but-not-gross-jacked physique and relatable, earthy aesthetic, as well as his presence in WWE anti-bullying campaigns and underdog appeal, Bryan has become a grassroots success — he's wrestling's first artisanal star.
But it wasn't until 2012, after almost 15 years of professional scuffling, that Bryan stumbled on his game-changing catchphrase. An avid mixed martial arts fan, he semi-satirically adopted fighter Diego Sanchez's ritualistic, pre-match repetition of "Yes!" — goofily hoisting his index fingers in the air each time he said it. Suddenly, in the tradition of Ric Flair's "Woo," Bryan had a trademark call-and-response to go along with his growing confidence and skill in the ring.
"The whole arena was chanting, 'Yes! Yes! Yes!'" Bryan recalls of the night that same year when he realized fans had latched on to his motto. "I didn't predict it; I didn't plan it. It just happened, and you feel lucky to be a part of it."
That little motivational cry has since been invoked on Twitter by the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks and become a regular occurrence at Michigan State men's basketball games. The meme-worthiness of the phrase has helped contribute to Bryan's accruing of nearly 1.5 million Twitter followers.
And while there'll likewise always be a place in professional wrestling for decidedly inorganic muscle-bound giants, Bryan, "has broken the mold," argues his fiancée Bella. "Daniel is making not only your hardcore wrestling fan base, but your casual viewer, look at the smaller guys differently."
Bryan has been defying categorization since growing up a middle-class kid in the Pacific Northwest. His therapist mother and logger father divorced while he was a child, and he was a self-described anti-social teenager. Still, he participated in every sport his high school offered, even if he was bad at all of them. "I wasn't a great athlete," he says with a laugh. "I loved playing football, but I hated the games because it's a lot of pressure. I just loved putting on the pads and hitting my friends. If you watch dogs play, they run and they fight, but they don't fight to hurt each other. They just play. And that's been me my entire life."
In 1999, inspired by popular cruiserweight wrestlers like Dean Malenko, Bryan decided not to go to college, enrolling instead in WWE legend Shawn Michaels' Texas Wrestling Academy. After a brief fling with the big time in 2001 (he was let go following WWE's consolidation with the rival World Championship Wrestling outfit), Bryan semi-retreated back to his mother's house in Aberdeen, Washington, and signed up for classes at community college, intending to someday teach English.
But his heart was still in the squared circle. By 2002, Bryan was back touring with small indie wrestling promoters. It took eight years, and a near-career-ending detached retina, before he was called back to the WWE. It wasn't a smooth re-entry: he was fired for spontaneously choking ring announcer Justin Roberts and spitting on superstar John Cena while in character during an infamous 2010 Raw segment, only to be re-hired two months later.
If Bryan, an avid reader who recently polished off books by Malcolm Gladwell and Stephen Hawking, has learned anything from this roller coaster ride, it's the benefit of playing passenger. "You have to realize that a lot of life is just fortune and the ebbs of flows of what goes on," he says humbly.
Whether or not he emerges from Wrestlemania victorious or Yes! turns into a cultural meh, Bryan has plans for a future that's both literally and figuratively grounded. "Brie and I would like a simple organic farm that's not farming to sell stuff, but just to be self-sufficient," he explains. That's important, he adds, because "you never know what the world's gonna be like." He's proof of that.