On Tuesday, March 20, WWE reported that Daniel Bryan, after two years of "retirement," would return to in-ring action just in time for Wrestlemania 34. Along with this announcement, WWE emphasized that it had done its due diligence in medically clearing Bryan. The company listed the names of four medical doctors and implied that there were many more--a battery of "neurosurgeons, neurologists, and concussion experts"--who had cleared Bryan to wrestle. It was them, you see, and not the company, that had driven this decision.
It's not yet clear how Bryan will return to action--whether as a part-time wrestler who only fights at the major PPVs or as a regular, in-ring presence on the weekly shows. But regardless, the press statement was a textbook example of WWE covering its butt--that if Bryan were to get severely injured during his current run, it's the doctors, not the WWE, who should suffer the blowback for clearing him.
Truth be told, that's not a bad instinct in this situation. During his original WWE run, Bryan was a go-for-broke wrestler who placed his high-risk spots as a top priority, even above his own well-being. And WWE should be taking backstage measures to protect its employee, given his medical history, his wrestling style, and his temperament. This is a man who, by his own admission, was experiencing post-concussion seizures at odd times and lied about them to his employers.
WWE can't get in Bryan's head and convince him that working a safer style is the best idea. But it can institute a series of restrictions on Bryan's ring work to force him into a safer style, and institute a heavy penalty (a fine, perhaps, or being taken off TV) if he breaks them. No suicide dives to the floor outside of the ring. No high-risk moves from the top rope, or from ladders or announcer tables.
And absolutely, positively, no diving headbutts. That needs to be a company mandate if it isn't already. There is no reason to perform this dangerous move, for any reason, when it's caused so much misery for its most famous practitioners. Dynamite Kid was confined to a wheelchair with spinal injuries. Chris Benoit experienced multiple concussions throughout his career, which may have led him to commit horrible crimes on the last weekend of his life. For a concussion-prone man to continue using this finisher, at this point in his career, would be unconscionably stupid. And WWE should reflect that in its regulations.
The WWE producer who works with Bryan and his opponents might consider choreographing huge portions of their matches, rather than only scripting the major spots and calling the rest of the action on the fly. Because many times, the major injuries don't happen during the high-risk spots. It happens at the most mundane points in the match, when performers get complacent and run on autopilot. There is precedent for this sort of exhaustive choreography. "Macho Man" Randy Savage and Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat planned out every single move of their WrestleMania III Intercontinental title match, and it's widely considered to be one of the greatest matches in WWE history.
And ultimately, Bryan needs to self-regulate and do all this on his own, without the WWE forcing his hand. In 2015, WWE warned him to tone down the theatrics, and Bryan was largely dismissive of its requests. In an interview with the Miami Herald, he pushed back on this sentiment, stating, "I have always marched to the beat of my own drum. We are all individual entities. Not to say I ignore their advice, but you also have to know your own body and where you're at physically."
Clearly, he didn't know his own body. In more recent interviews, Bryan appears to have toned down his stance. He seems committed to working a safer style. On Edge and Christian's podcast, he cited Jerry Lawler as someone who was still able to work, despite being a senior citizen, because he protected his body in the ring. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin is another model Bryan can look to. After hurting his neck during a botched piledriver spot, he changed to a brawler style that was more grounded and less risky. And still, Austin main evented WrestleMania X-7 with The Rock, in a match that didn't have a single top rope spot.
Rock and Austin relied on their psychology more than their athleticism to get over with the crowd. And granted, Bryan is much smaller than those guys; he may feel pressure to stand out in a room full of big men. But there's no longer a need for that overcompensation; Bryan is already working for the biggest wrestling promotion in the world. He's as over as a single individual can be and dropping the high-risk maneuvers isn't going to change that status. Currently, Bryan is saying all the right things. But who knows how his mindset might shift once he's back in the ring? And really, what has he done to earn the WWE's trust in this matter?
In his return speech on the March 20 episode of SmackDown, Bryan thanked the WWE for looking out for him, and for treating him as an individual who needed to be protected from harm. The best way that WWE can follow through on this commitment (if it hasn't already) is by instituting rules that will protect the best wrestler of his generation from himself.