Former WWE champ Daniel Bryan: Lucky to be getting out alive

daniel bryanThe great shame with the recent news about former WWE champion Daniel Bryan isn’t that he’s retiring in his prime at age 34. It’s that he’s not just the latest in a long line of wrestling stars able to get out early with some hope of a normal, long life afterward.

With Bryan’s retirement announcement earlier this month, it’s pretty much, what, Daniel Bryan and Edge (Adam Copeland), who retired in 2011 at 37, who either had the sense to get out early, or had people around them with the sense to make them see that they needed to hang up the boots?

Actually, we need to also count “Stone Cold” Steve Austin (retired in 2003 at 38) and maybe Bret “The Hitman” Hart (retired in 2000 at 43) as top stars who decided wisely to cut their careers short due to in-ring injuries.

But now we’re done, and for each one of these four, we have how many tragedies to count?

A nowhere-near-exhaustive list includes “Prime Time” Brian Pillman (died in 1997, age 35), Eddie Guerrero (died in 2005, age 38), Davey Boy Smith (died in 2002, age 39), Chris Benoit (died in 2007, age 40), “Ravishing” Rick Rude (died in 1999, age 40), “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig (died in 2003, age 44), Bam Bam Bigelow (died in 2007, age 45).

These guys, and many, many, many others, saw their lives end prematurely due to heart disease, drug abuse in the form of overuse of prescription painkillers and forms of self-medication, issues related to repetitive head traumas, combinations thereof.

It’s a tough business, to say the least, not only for what we see on TV and in the arena – the accumulation of body slams, suplexes, backdrops, neckbreakers and the like – but as much or more so when the bright lights are off.

Wrestlers work hard to climb the ladder from wrestling high-school gyms and community centers for a shot one day at the big time in WWE, lucky at the start to get paid anything for a night’s work, feeling like they’ve won the lottery when a promoter offers $200 and transportation, thinking they’ve found gold when Ring of Honor or TNA gives them a tryout, and WWE … WWE is a ticket to heavenly paradise.

You don’t get very far up the stairway to heaven by setting and observing your own concussion protocol, if you know what I’m saying there. A twisted ankle, swelling in the knee, a bum shoulder, they just get in the way of what you’re trying to do in life, and time is of the essence, because the shelf life of a pro wrestler is as short as it is for other athletes.

So you’re busting your hump on the weekends for nothing trying to get noticed, taking any and all bookings you can, working a nine-to-five during the week to pay the bills, ignoring the pain from the bumps, the dizzy spells, the headaches, as the cost of doing business, and when you finally get there, when you finally get to the top, you’re going to shut it down?

This all said, I totally feel for Daniel Bryan, an undersized people’s champion who had one of the top all-time WrestleMania moments in 2014 with his main-event WWE title win in front of 70,000 fans at the New Orleans Superdome.

That was almost literally it for Bryan at the pinnacle of the business. Not long after the confetti drop, Bryan was forced to vacate the WWE title due to concussion issues, and a brief comeback in 2015 ended similarly.

Bryan told “Good Morning America” this week that he pleaded with his wife, WWE Diva Brie Bella, not to tell anybody about seizures he had been experiencing for fear that they would spell the end of his career.

This as he gave interview after interview telling anyone who would listen that he was feeling perfectly fine, and was able to convince doctors to give him clearance to return to the ring, though not the one that mattered.

WWE has been trying to clean up its act with respect to the health and well-being of its performers, though it has a long way to go, particularly in terms of the demanding schedule that it requires of its talents. Credit to the company on the Bryan matter, though: WWE held firm that Bryan will not step into one of its rings again, and it is holding him to the terms of his contract to basically keep him from working for a competitor or on the indy circuit as well.

That last bit could be viewed cynically as WWE protecting its bottom line, not having to watch Bryan go to rival TNA or New Japan and do good business at WWE’s expense.

I’m coming down on WWE doing the right thing here, and dragging an obviously reluctant Bryan with it.

Nothing can bring back the Eddie Guerreros and Chris Benoits, but anything that the wrestling industry can do to prevent future personal tragedies is a good thing.

– Column by Chris Graham

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