Daniel Bryan Retires: Saying Goodbye to WWE's Everyman Champion

A look back on the career of a man who was both a cult sensation and a mainstream inspiration – and changed wrestling forever

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WrestleMania 31; Daniel Bryan; WWE
Daniel Bryan wins the Intercontinental Championship at 'WrestleMania 31.' Don Feria/WWE/AP

Within minutes of Daniel Bryan announcing his apparent retirement via Twitter this afternoon, it vaulted to the top tier of the national trending topics, not to mention generated bittersweet headlines by outlets ranging from TMZ to Forbes. With one simple social-media statement, an icon of modern wrestling and deserving pop-culture phenom said goodbye to the sport he loved and labored for half of his life – the 34-year-old Washington native first enrolled in wrestling classes in 1999, at just 17 – and set about living as Bryan Danielson.

As indicated in Bryan's tweet, more will be revealed on the big stage of Raw tonight, amid his presumed final appearance as a semi-active competitor (and that will be duly recovered in my weekly recap of the show). But anyone who's been following his ups and downs over the past several years knows the gist: He's been knocked around, battered, bruised, concussed and operated on to the point where there was a choice he had to make, a crossroads familiar to so many of his peers: Keep performing at your own peril, or put health and longevity first and see what family and the future have to offer. And anyone who knows anything about Daniel Bryan knows that his body likely weighed in some months ago, but his heart and mind needed time to reconcile.

Whether with the slew of indies where he plied his trade as an interdisciplinary grappler or in WWE as an eccentric firebrand who galvanized millions with two index fingers and three simple letters (don't forget the exclamation point), Bryan committed himself physically, emotionally and unselfishly. It's why fans loved him, and probably why wife and WWE Diva Brie Bella loves him, even as his lengthy mane and unwieldy beard grow to Biblical lengths. Now, he has an opportunity to apply that loyalty and tenacity to being a father, husband and relentless advocate for – and example of – living simply and sustainably, which have become as central to Bryan's ethos as giving 100 percent in the ring.

WWE will carry on, as they always have, and as any employer does when even the most valued worker decides it's time to move on. And fans will find ways to pay tribute at house shows and TV tapings from coast to coast with "Yes!" chants and hoisted fingers, much like devotees of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin – another legend who knew when to stop lacing 'em up – still chant "What?!" and come to arenas in 3:16 shirts long after his final match. They'll talk about being part of the audience in person or at home the night Bryan won the Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 30 in New Orleans as fondly as when he and unlikely tag partner Kane sampled each other's antithetical diets at an Albany, New York diner. Never mind the lucky ones who witnessed his rise through the ranks of smaller promotions like Combat Zone Wrestling, Ring of Honor and Chikara. Over a 15-plus-year run, he left his mark as both cult sensation and mainstream inspiration. It's a remarkable twin feat that, by virtue of Bryan's painful-but-essential decision, he'll hopefully savor and see grow in influence for many decades to come. Or at least hear about from his friends who own a TV.

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