In a world full of scripted emotions, words and actions, there was one real moment -- one story -- that many fans had hoped to see for more than three years.
The best stories in WWE often have a healthy dose of real life that are too true to be written or scripted, but even in the fantastical world of WWE, a happy ending to this particular story seemed an impossibility. But on an otherwise inconspicuous Tuesday during the heart of WrestleMania season, one of the unlikeliest stories in WWE added another chapter as Daniel Bryan announced on March 20 he was cleared to return as an in-ring competitor.
Two years after Bryan tearfully announced his retirement due to concussion-related complications, he was suddenly back. But the truth is, even though that night two years ago marked the end of Bryan's wrestling career in the minds of many within the WWE, as well as many of his die-hard fans, Bryan's quest to return never ended.
Once he was cleared, he wasted little time hopping back in the deep end. Just an hour after Bryan stood in the middle of the ring and spoke his heart out regarding the change in his status on SmackDown, Bryan was flat on his back and being placed on a stretcher following a bevy of attacks, including an apron powerbomb, at the hands of Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens.
"Part of me was so afraid in the period of time when it [was] all going down that he was going to walk and say 'forget it' and go wrestle for someone else that doesn't care, that doesn't take their health into consideration -- because that's pretty much everywhere else -- and risk his life and his health and his family and his baby and risk all of it. And it's not worth that. We take enough risk every day in what we do. Every day." Paul "Triple H" Levesque
Some fans watched in shock as Bryan, who had been physically off-limits for two years, took a series of serious-looking bumps. Paul "Triple H" Levesque, on the other hand, watched with pride and happiness for a man who continued to chase his dreams.
"There's a certain point in time when Daniel is not still cleared by us, but he's gotten clearance from his team and his people and all his things, and I'm sure he was already training and doing things," Levesque told ESPN. "Maybe not taking bumps, but training and doing the things he wanted to do to get himself back in shape just in case this did happen. So while we were making him go to additional doctors ... and running more tests and doing all these things to ensure that everything was all right, he was preparing."
While Bryan's public statements since he was cleared have been limited to a single tweet and his remarks on WWE platforms, when it comes to the saga of Bryan's last three years, Levesque watched it all play out behind the scenes. The relationship between Bryan and Levesque goes beyond the latter's role as Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative for WWE, in part because of the role Levesque played in Bryan's most triumphant moment and what it meant to him personally.
The opening match of WrestleMania XXX, which saw Bryan and Triple H battle in one of the most memorable WrestleMania matches of the past decade, was a crucial moment on a night when the on-screen version of Bryan's lengthy underdog storyline finally reached its apex. After Bryan defeated Triple H that night in April 2014, he went on to beat Batista and Randy Orton to win the WWE world heavyweight championship in the main event, with the entirety of the capacity crowd at the Superdome chanting "Yes!" in unison.
"I put so much more pressure on myself to [lose] to somebody than I ever did to win a title because ... I just want it to be [such a big moment] for this guy," said Levesque. "Watching that story evolve over that long period of time -- from a behind-the-scenes standpoint -- being behind it with him and being like, 'Man, I know this is not the plan right this moment, but this is where we need to go.' Just seeing that feeling and getting to that moment, having that match with him and having that moment, and knowing what's coming later and being out there in that moment for him ... when you have the circumstances that all work out to make this fairy-tale moment -- it's just awesome."
Bryan thrived as one of the company's biggest faces, until neck surgery kept him out for eight months, and concussion concerns shortly after his return led doctors to refuse to clear him for a return to the ring.
There was no joy among WWE officials when Bryan's diagnosis from their doctors forced him to retire, but it was a decision they felt they had to make with the information they had at the time.
"One of the hardest things we ever have to do in our jobs is tell people that it's over," Levesque said during an interview with Peter Rosenberg on the Cheap Heat podcast.
But Bryan continued to seek outside opinions, to the point where Levesque and others were concerned that Bryan could potentially walk away from the WWE to resume his in-ring career elsewhere -- potentially even to the detriment of his own health.
WWE Universe chants 'Yes!' to Bryan's return
Daniel Bryan says he isn't sure when his first match back will be, but the WWE Universe clearly has a positive reaction.
"Part of me was so afraid in the period of time when it [was] all going down that he was going to walk and say 'forget it' and go wrestle for someone else that doesn't care, that doesn't take their health into consideration -- because that's pretty much everywhere else," said Levesque. "And risk his life and his health and his family and his baby and risk all of it -- and it's not worth that. We take enough risk every day in what we do. Every day.
"Luckily we never got there, and luckily things worked out," he continued. "It's funny, because as Bryan was putting out things like, 'I'm going to do this if they won't let me do that,' he was already working the information. He was already getting those tests done. He was already getting that stuff done. ... Looking back on it, he was already prepping. He was prepping everything about it."
On April 8, Bryan will return to the ring in the same stadium in New Orleans in which he enjoyed his greatest triumph, serenaded by "Yes!" chants and cheers. While fans often fantasy book surprise appearances and returns, Bryan's first match back will be a moment that will allow for an almost universally positive, excited moment -- not just for Daniel Bryan, the wrestler, but for Bryan Danielson, the man. There will be concerns, and an abundance of caution, but no matter the twists and turns to come, there is undeniable joy in this moment.
"The true [stories] are always the best in some way," Levesque reflected. "Nothing is stranger than the truth. You can't write that. Nobody could. The story that he has, and what he's gone through, is unbelievable. My sincerest hope is that right now he's happy and it's all perfect -- and we want to make sure that as we turn those pages, it stays that way."