This is another match review request that came from one of our many loyal readers here at TJR Wrestling.
This match was never meant to happen. It was borne out of a mix of complicated backstage circumstances and an organic demand from WWE’s diehard audience that was unwilling to accept anything else. This match has one of the most interesting and compelling stories in modern times, one that saw WWE’s audience force a billion-dollar company to change their product.
But did WWE really do that, or were they simply capitalizing on a fad and then returning to business as usual? That’s a debate for another day; in the meantime let’s revisit one of the first results of that unique storyline and one of the best examples of underappreciated worker versus overrated boss in recent memory.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
Daniel Bryan/Bryan Danielson was the polar opposite of what WWE’s corporate machine saw in a top star. He was small, somewhat lanky, and, depending on whom you asked, lacking in magnetism and personal charisma. He saw and presented himself as a wrestler first and foremost, which was anathema to WWE’s promotion at the time (the word “wrestler” was outright discouraged at the time because some people wanted the company to distance itself from some less-than-savory connotations that word carried).
But despite these qualities, Bryan’s work spoke for itself and his fans loved him for it. Not since CM Punk has there been such a loyal following for a wrestler. Bryan had mild success from 2010 to early 2013, and then things started to change. In the summer of 2013, John Cena handpicked Bryan to be his opponent at SummerSlam. Cena respected Bryan that much despite Bryan not showing the same back to Cena. And despite Cena’s best efforts, he lost his WWE title to Bryan at that PPV. But Bryan’s victory was short-lived as Triple H, the referee for that match, attacked him during his post-match celebration and helped MITB winner Randy Orton cash in his prize and beat Bryan for the title.
It was clear that WWE was pushing Bryan and they wanted to extend his chase a bit longer. It made sense psychologically: Bryan reached the top of the mountain, only to be thrown off of it before his sense of accomplishment could really set in. And so, throughout the latter half of 2013 Bryan found himself trying to regain his glory, only to come up short again and again, mostly due to the corporate machine throwing curve balls at him each time he got close.
But Bryan’s fans wouldn’t relent. Even as WWE tried to create new stories for Bryan to move him away from the world title scene, either temporarily or otherwise, the fans weren’t going to let Bryan be thrown under the rug. During a big WWE/World Heavyweight Title unification ceremony the fans hijacked the proceedings much to management’s displeasure. Then Bryan found himself in a short feud with Bray Wyatt, which led to a singles match between them at the 2014 Royal Rumble PPV, which Bryan lost.
Then, well, to say s**t hit the fan would be an understatement.
The 2014 Royal Rumble event was, to put it mildly, an unmitigated disaster. WWE was bringing back Batista, who was management’s (read: Vince McMahon’s) handpicked favorite to win the Rumble match and main-event WrestleMania. Vince thought the fans would want to see Batista take on Randy Orton, even though they clearly did not. They made this crystal clear when they booed a singles match between Orton and Cena so badly that they chanted “we want Divas” over Cena and Orton (for younger readers, that was quite possibly the most stinging insult imaginable without using actual profanity).
Then during the Rumble match itself, the crowd rejection became even worse. Batista was booed out of the building, anyone anyone that wasn’t a clear fan favorite like Dean Ambrose or Dolph Ziggler was either booed or ignored, and even Rey Mysterio – perhaps the most beloved wrestler in WWE history who is simply incapable of being anything but an underdog hero – was booed for quite possibly the first time in his life.
The audience present at the Royal Rumble and watching around the world wanted Daniel Bryan and no one else. WWE still wasn’t listening, though; the company had their own plans and wasn’t going to change them…until another wrestler forced their hands.
Hidden among the cacophony over Bryan’s appearance at the event or lack thereof was a news story that started off small but soon ballooned into an enormous, industry-changing affair. CM Punk was eliminated from the Rumble match by Kane, who was a representative of The Authority and Triple H’s minion. That was done to setup a “main-event” match between Punk and Triple H, but that never happened because Punk walked out of WWE the following night. Tensions between Punk and the company had been growing for years and when Punk saw what the company had planned for him and had enough. He left WWE under the most acrimonious of circumstances, to the point that Vince McMahon still considered Punk one of the few people he refuses to do business with (the same cannot be said of Triple H who, based on recent news and rumors, has been opening to mending that fence).
With Punk gone, WWE’s problems mounted. Punk was just as beloved as Bryan and his absence risked causing further acrimony and negative publicity for WWE as they went into their biggest annual event. As if things couldn’t get any worse for WWE, rumors began circulating that WWE wanted Bryan – who was still riding this enormous wave of organic popularity – to face Sheamus at WrestleMania once again, despite many fans still remembering the widely-panned squash they had two years earlier.
To avoid impending disaster, WWE reshuffled its card and built it around Daniel Bryan. To create the illusion that “this was the plan all along”, WWE shifted gears and resumed building Bryan as a sympathetic underdog taking on the machine that held him down. All the talk of Bryan as a “B+ player” and all the attempts at burying him as an insignificant cog in the machine fell on deaf ears as he pushed forward to fight his way up to the top, to the position he reached fair and square in the summer of 2013.
So to really hammer the story home, Bryan was going to have to pull a Bret Hart at WrestleMania X and work double duty. Vince wasn’t going to change the main-event he wanted, but if Bryan wanted to be added to it, then he’d have to go through the man that started all his trouble, Triple H.
Since Triple H’s darling status with the fans due to his work with NXT wasn’t so widespread, he was able to embrace the same arrogant personality that carried him through the prior decade. HHH was loathed from 2000 to 2005, especially given all the rumors and hoopla around his relationship with Stephanie McMahon. People despised him for allegations that he married up and that he was the ultimate nepotism hire. He was also the visual contrast to Bryan: a guy that looked impressive but didn’t move or perform as well in the ring.
And so came WrestleMania XXX. It was different from previous ones in many ways. Whereas most Manias served as the conclusions to other stories, this one had a story that continued on the show itself. Bryan found himself in the opening match against Triple H with a spot in the main-event on the line. Bryan was smaller but a better in-ring wrestler while Triple H was bigger and heavier. And given Triple H’s career trajectory, there was something symbolic in this match as well: like WrestleMania X and XX before it, it was an example of a WWE creation and looks-driven superstar taking on a smaller performance-driven grappler. Plus, if Triple H won, then he would join his Evolution buddies in the main-event, which was a prospect that few fans were really warm to at the time.
With such huge stakes on the line, could Bryan overcome the guy that symbolized everything WWE stood for, or would Triple H shatter his dreams once again?
This match originally took place on April 6th, 2014. It was rated ****1/4 out of five by both the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and TJR’s John Canton.
Triple H gets a grandiose and fantastical entrance complete with throne, robe, and women at his side. Meanwhile, Bryan has a much simpler entrance but is greeted with tens of thousands of fans chanting “Yes” for him. Both Bryan’s left shoulder and most of his sternum are taped up as well from a previous assault by Triple H.
Both wrestlers soak in the atmosphere and then the crowd boos loudly as HHH offers a handshake. Bryan kicks HHH’s hand away and rolls him up for a two-count. HHH backs Bryan into a corner but Bryan lands a flurry of kicks. HHH bails to ringside and Bryan mocks him with a handshake gesture of his own. Back in the ring, they lock-up and HHH goes after Bryan’s taped up left arm. Bryan counters an arm wringer with a chain sequence and a dropkick and then takes him down with a headlock takeover. HHH powers out and knocks Bryan down with a shoulderblock. He charges but walks into a kneelift and Bryan lands another takeover for a one-count. They trade holds on the mat until Bryan starts hitting uppercuts and applies another headlock. HHH powers him into a corner and lands some shoulder thrusts and wrings the bad arm. Bryan fights back with (right-arm) forearms and kicks but HHH answers with a dragon screw leg whip. HHH goes to smash Bryan’s bad arm into a ringpost but Bryan breaks free and then kicks HHH off the apron. Bryan follows with a running DDT off the apron to the floor and then dives off a post with a dive to the floor. Bryan covers HHH in the ring but only gets a two-count.
Bryan goes for another dive but HHH hits the ropes causing Bryan to crotch himself. A big punch sends Bryan to the floor and HHH starts dismantling a ringside commentary table. Bryan blocks a Pedigree through the table but HHH smashes his bad arm onto it instead. The referee starts counting but Bryan makes it in at the count of seven, at which point HHH goes back to the injured arm. HHH follows with a jumping armbreaker and a grounded kimura-type hold. Bryan fights out and then ducks down as HHH charges, sending HHH back out to the floor. Bryan charges for adive but HHH punches him as he hits the ropes. Bryan follows with an armtrap back suplex onto the apron. Nasty landing for Bryan.
Bryan re-enters the ring at a count of nine so HHH applies a crossface chickenwing. Bryan tries fighting out but HHH switches to a crossface. Stephanie tries mocking Bryan from ringside but he still manages to get to the ropes, yet HHH takes his time letting go. HHH lands an arm wringer flip and then punches Bryan into a corner. Bryan starts fighting back and wins a strike exchange with a running forearm. Bryan lands some roundhouse kicks but HHH kicks the weakened arm. HHH sends Bryan into a corner and stays in place as he anticipates Bryan doing his flip out escape. Bryan counters a rear waistlock with a bridging German suplex for a two-count. He maintains control as he lands a second bridging German for another two-count. Bryan tries a third one but HHH counters, first into another chickenwing hold and then into a release Tiger Suplex. Yes, Triple H hit a Misawa-style Tiger Suplex. It takes a while for HHH to cover but when he does he gets another two-count.
HHH attempts a superplex but Bryan holds onto the ropes. Bryan fights out and lands a diving sunset powerbomb. Bryan fires up and hits one running corner knee. Followed by a second. And then a thi – no, HHH drills him with a lariat. Both men collapse.
HHH gets up forst and teases a Pedigree but Bryan counters with a jackknife cover for a two-count. Bryan roundhouse kicks HHH’s head and goes for a diving head-butt. Bryan connects but with HHH’s knee. HHH locks in a crossface. Bryan tries pulling himself (and also HHH) to the ropes. HH rolls back to the middle of the ring without loosening his grip. Bryan is now further away from the ropes than before so he counters by rolling HHH into a pinning position for a two-count. Then Bryan counters into a crossface of his own. The crowd goes wild cheering for Bryan but then they boos as HHH gets a ropebreak. HHH rolls to ringside but Bryan fires up and lands not one but two suicide dives.
Bryan runs wild with roundhouse kicks against the ringside barricade and a diving shotgun dropkick in the ring. Bryan lands a flurry of roundhouse kicks to HHH’s chest and another to his head for another two-count. Bryan charges for the Busaiku Knee…but HHH counters with a spinebuster. Pedigree! The referee counts one…two… and thr – NO, Bryan survives.
HHH goes to capitalize but Bryan traps him in a small package for yet another two-count. HHH drags Bryan into a corner and punches him until the referee reaches the count of four. HHH tries another Pedigree. Bryan counters with another pinning predicament and gets a two-count. HHH rolls over while still locking Bryan’s arms and knees Bryan’s head. HHH tries his finisher again. Bryan escapes and lands a roundhouse kick. HHH ducks another kick and goes for a back suplex. Bryan lands on his feet and lands the running Busaiku Knee. One, two, and three! Bryan pins Triple H! Daniel Bryan earns his spot in the main-event of WrestleMania!
Winner after 25:59: Daniel Bryan
Post-match, Stephanie bitchslaps Bryan and HHH attacks him from behind. HHH smashes Bryan’s bad arm into the ringpost again as Stephanie mocks him in the most condescending way possible. Then HHH hits Bryan’s arm with a steel chair and Bryan is helped to the back by several officials.
I’ve heard it said that this is one of the best openers in WrestleMania history, up there with Bret vs. Owen from WrestleMania X. I can certainly see that argument since there are so many similarities between the two matches. Both of them had excellent stories. Both had impressive in-ring action (there are some people out there that are still amazed that HHH could land a Tiger Suplex). The crowd was wild for both and lost their minds at the finish. Both are truly great, but there’s one flaw in this match that makes a cut beneath the standard-bearer that is Bret vs. Owen: no one believed that Triple H would win here.
Although Triple H wrestled incredibly well for an aging part-timer and did a great job telling a story, no one believed that he would win. Even if some people watching this match knew nothing of the background as I explained it above, there was simply no way WWE was going risk outright fan revolt at their biggest annual event by having HHH join Batista and Randy Orton in the main-event. Even if somehow Bryan’s overarching story didn’t exist and Triple H was in this match with someone else, there’s no way that WWE, with its strict adherence to the traditional babyface versus heel dynamic and storytelling structure, would ever book a main-event with three villains.
Maybe Triple H knew this. Maybe he knew that fans expected him to lose so he figured if he couldn’t stop Bryan’s momentum he could, at the very least, slow it down. If Bryan was going to make it into the main-event, then Triple H would soften him up as much as possible so that Orton and Batista would be able to pick him apart and turn him into a non-factor in the main-event. In that sense, what HHH did during the match and after it here was masterful. He made Bryan’s uphill climb that much steeper. Bryan was already hindered going into this match and HHH added further complications by weakening his left arm to the point of insignificance and made it next to impossible for Bryan to make a comeback.
Bryan still won thanks to his speed and his agility, but the story of the match made Bryan’s win come across as narrow and not decisive, which made sense given the larger story being told. This was a big win for Bryan but it was such a struggle for him. And if Bryan had such a challenging time facing an older and relatively broken-down Triple H, what hope did he have against a fresh and in-his-prime Randy Orton and a much more physically threatening Batista?
Although this match crossed into fairytale territory, the storytelling at play was still simple but executed brilliantly. There are few people in WWE history that can pick someone apart and get heat like Triple H and there are few non-wrestlers so adept at doing the same without actually wrestling as Stephanie. Together, they were the ideal villainous duo that put the roadblocks in front of Daniel Bryan’s path forward. Anytime he tried to gain any momentum Triple H shut him down and Stephanie added insult to injury. Their actions made building sympathy for Bryan so easy. The crowd loathed them and adored Bryan, which was the intended result. Bryan’s comeback was limited to short bursts and simple counters to further emphasize his underdog status.
While some people might think that a more decisive finish on Bryan’s part would’ve added to the match, I think that what they did here was more than enough. HHH had Bryan’s number all match and even humiliated him by doing better on the mat and hitting suplex variations that usually only Bryan could do. There were so many layers to the storytelling here which made the final act so much more satisfying.
Final Rating: ****3/4
While I don’t think this match hit the same high highs as others to receive this rating, I think that this match is quite possibly the most effective and most efficient at doing what it was intended to do. These two wrestlers told such a brilliant story without anything getting too cartoonish, exaggerated, or unrealistic. Even with some hamfisted moments in which Triple H and Stephanie laid the villainy on thick, they still kept this match grounded in a sense of realism. Triple H didn’t act like a Disney antagonist and Stephanie acted like an old school manager that tried to help her charge in any way she could.
And yet, I think that the company missed several opportunities to make better use of Stephanie’s presence in this match. For the most part she simply served as a cheerleader and didn’t get involved all that much beyond throwing insults. It would’ve been better if she did things like pull the bottom rope away from Bryan behind the referee’s back, attacked Bryan while HHH distracted the ref, or otherwise done something physical aside from her post-match slapping. Since she was as much of an integral piece of the larger story, she could’ve played more of a role in the match to add even more heat onto her side and therefore more sympathy onto whatever Bryan already had.
I remember watching the WrestleMania 32 main-event and one of the few saving graces in that dumpster fire was seeing Roman Reigns spear Stephanie. Even though she had less of a direct involvement in that match’s storyline as she did here, Reigns spearing her got him the biggest pop of that match. Having some kind of similar spot here, such as the referee expelling her and then her returning after the match is over or having someone on Bryan’s side to deal with her, would’ve helped this match’s story without it being overbooked.
For me this is the best match of 2014 by a wide margin. It was such a brilliant piece of wrestling as storytelling that its better parts compensated for its lack of raw tension and predictable conclusion. It was a case of the good outweighing the bad and a match worthy of going out of your way to see more than once.