On the June 19 episode of WWE Smackdown, Daniel Bryan performed a diving headbutt of the top rope. From health standpoint, this is a bad idea for any wrestler. But it's a specifically bad idea for a wrestler like Daniel Bryan, who not long ago was suffering from trauma-related seizures. Everyone who cares about him--hopefully, that includes the WWE itself--should remind him of his well-being and what he stands to lose if he continues down this path.
It happened during a gauntlet match between Bryan, Big E, The Miz, Rusev, and Samoa Joe. The winner would compete for the WWE Championship at Extreme Rules on July 15. In a shocking upset, Rusev won the match and the right to face AJ Styles in four weeks. Happy Rusev Day indeed.
But I found it difficult to focus on Rusev's achievement. I was too busy being appalled by what happened in the first third of the match. Daniel Bryan and Big E were the first two entrants and were engaged in a standard back-and-forth when suddenly, Bryan climbed on the turnbuckles and did this:
That's not an old screencap from several years ago; that's from the June 19 episode of Smackdown. Daniel Bryan, against all reason and advice to the contrary, attempted a diving headbutt. Big E rolled out of the way, and Bryan landed face first on the mat, with only his outstretched hands to cushion the blow.
There is no positive upside to this. A man with a history of multiple concussions (and a lesser history of concealing them from others) put himself at considerable, unnecessary risk for no reason. And if WWE officials signed off or approved of this, they're complicit in his recklessness. It's odd, because WWE has a controversial history of banning dangerous moves. The most well-known banned move is the classic Texas Piledriver, which has a long, established history; Jerry "The King" Lawler popularized it in the Memphis territories; it was the move he delivered to Andy Kaufman that "broke his neck." But just because something is established doesn't mean we continue to do it.
And after Owen Hart botched a variation of the move, in the Tombstone position, on "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and shortened his career, WWE stepped in. Since then, the Texas Piledriver has been rare to nonexistent in WWE. Lawler, when he occasionally wrestled, still used it, but certainly no younger wrestlers were using it as their go-to signature or finisher.
Why hasn't WWE applied this level of scrutiny to the diving headbutt? It was innovated by Harley Race. The man who adopted it after him, The Dynamite Kid, is now confined to a wheelchair; Race regrets inventing the move for this very reason. Prior to Daniel Bryan, the most notable practitioner of this move was Chris Benoit, who suffered from multiple, untreated concussions. These concussions may have contributed to his mental instability, which ultimately led him to kill his wife, his young son, and himself. The autopsy would later reveal he had the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer's patient.
Bryan, like Benoit and Dynamite before him, is one of the most talented wrestlers of his generation. He can mat wrestle and he can fly high; he can brawl when the occasion calls for it. And for a large chunk of his WWE career--largely by choice--Bryan opted for a spot-heavy, high-impact style, which included moves such as the diving headbutt.
It made him stand out in a crowd of men who were bigger than him. Narratively, it said: "I may be smaller and weaker, but I have more heart and more guts than you. I am willing to make the bigger sacrifice." Bryan got over with the fans, but this unrestrained style exacted a toll. He missed months of ring time; his run as WWE Champion after Wrestlemania XXX was cut short after he lost feeling in his arm. He required neck surgery. He suffered multiple concussions and post-concussion seizures. He hid this from many of his colleagues, thus putting himself--not to mention his opponents--in danger.
And all the while, WWE was telling him to slow down. He was now the most beloved wrestler in the company; he no longer needed these dangerous spots to get over with the crowd. But still, he ignored that advice and continued working like he had nothing to lose.
Eventually, WWE forced Bryan to retire in 2016. He had lesions on his brain; WWE could no longer trust him to take care of himself, and by extension, protect the company. And for two years, Bryan was relegated to mostly backstage roles.
Then in March 2018, the impossible happened. After months of hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which Bryan credits to healing his brain, he was cleared by WWE to wrestle again. And for his first few matches, it seemed as though the man had recognized his mortality. He grabbed the ropes to brace himself on his corner attacks. He stopped diving through the ring ropes to the floor, instead launching himself partially outside, feet-first. His top rope maneuvers were also feet first, and he landed with a flat back bump. He used more grapples and submissions.
And eventually, it felt comfortable to watch Bryan wrestle. He was finally taking care of himself, and we, as an audience, weren't enabling him to cripple himself or dig an early grave.
Now, that's gone. Instead, we'll worrying about the velocity of his next move. We'll be watching to see how hard his head hits the mat or the security barrier. We'll be wondering if this time, he's going to botch the next diving headbutt and get stretchered out of the ring. And even if we can't see the damage now, there may be long term damage, quietly piling up, that Bryan won't see for another 15-20 years.
No WWE fan should want Bryan to continue this backslide into old habits. But as of this morning, no major wrestling site has called Bryan or WWE over the carpet for allowing this. After months of bellyaching and performative "concern" over his health, the press has thrown up their hands and accepted this as standard operating procedure. But it shouldn't be this way; the multi-million dollar class-action lawsuit filed by former WWE employees, who now suffer from concussion-related disorders, confirms this.
Bryan needs to control himself. And if he can't do that, WWE needs to step in and do it for him, whether that's by banning the move, reprimanding him, fining him, or firing him. The company may not be directly responsible for Bryan destroying himself; the man can make his own choices, no matter how destructive. But it doesn't mean the fans have to accept it as a given, or that WWE has to give him a platform to broadcast it on.