A battleground for larger than life personalities, superhuman feats of athleticism, and pageantry, circumstance and theatre amped up beyond belief. Say what you will about the performance art of professional wrestling, you cannot deny that there is simply nothing like it. From the boys’ club that dominated the genre in its infancy, such as Lou Thesz and George Hackenschmidt, and the first stars of TV, like Verne Gagne and Gorgeous George; to the rise of the WWE’s “Superstars” in the 80s, like Hulk Hogan and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, through to today’s household names, such as John Cena, The Miz and Randy Orton, professional wrestling has been the ultimate rogue’s gallery of Greek-god-like heroes, wheeling-dealing anti-heroes and athletic machines. But one man stands apart from them all.
Standing 5’11”, and weighing about 225lbs, Bryan Danielson, now known to WWE fans worldwide as Daniel Bryan, a product of WWE’s obsession with trademark ownership, doesn’t cut much of an imposing figure in a locker room full of giants and characters. Nor is he given to as much grandstanding and egomania as his trainer and mentor, WWE Hall of Famer “The Heart Break Kid” Shawn Michaels. But when the urgent trumpets of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” ring out around any arena WWE is in, the crowd simultaneously lets out a roar reserved for characters long taken to their hearts. Indeed, some would say Bryan Danielson has earned it. Ten years of hard work around the world, and some of the greatest matches, perhaps ever, from Philadelphia’s world-famous grassroots wrestling promotion Ring of Honor, to before a crowd of 40,000 screaming fans in the Egg Dome, Tokyo, Japan, will do that for a guy’s rep. But to a section of WWE’s fanbase, Danielson has gone above and beyond the call of duty as a role-model.
In a world of protein-guzzling carnivores, Bryan Danielson, is vegan.
And upon being fired in early 2010 for deviating from WWE’s notoriously tight script in a rookie invasion segment on its Monday Night RAW programme, veggie and vegan wrestling fans took to PETA and peta2’s website, and a campaign for his rehiring was underway.
Truth is, there’s been a number of veggies in pro wrestling. An art-form so dependent on physique and “the right look” has driven many wrestlers to shortcuts such as eating animals, and injecting steroids, among other things. In the 1980s and 1990s, big men received the big push from wrestling organizations, in the wake of Hulk Hogan’s industry-altering popularity. But one of the great legends of wrestling, and a man who trained current WWE main-eventer and rumoured eventual creative director Triple H, among many others, was a veggie.
Killer Kowalski, a WWE Hall of Famer and former NWA United States and WWWF Tag Team Champion, became a vegetarian in the 1960s, widely believed to have been the first man to do so. He would not eat meat, drink alcohol or even milk, refusing also to travel the roads his profession took him on with smokers, severly limiting his travel options at the time. Even after retirement, Kowalski continued to extol the virtues of a cruelty-free lifestyle to wrestling fans and interested listeners alike, often appearing at Boston Vegetarian Society events and vegetarian restaurants in his area to give talks about life on the road, vegetarian nutrition and his opinions on the sport today. Shortly after his passing late last year, Triple H paid tribute to Kowalski on WWE.com, recounting the many nights of travel with the Killer spent looking for vegetarian-friendly restaurants while earning his stripes on the independent circuit.
Indeed, while his clean-living example has left a mark (former World Heavyweight champion CM Punk has built a career from his sobriety, whether as a clean-cut role model, or a crazed David Koresh-style cult leader), he’s not the only one.
Austin Aries, formerly of TNA Wrestling, has cut a niche for himself as a swaggering, cocky ladies’ man in Ring of Honor, the cult wrestling promotion that, in the eyes of long-time observers, stands as the last major vanguard of independent, athletically-oriented wrestling.
Indeed, not only has he cut a vast swath through the egos and win/loss records of the RoH roster, he’s done so in the great tradition of the wrestling villain: calling himself The Vascular Vegetarian, Aries often rubs his meat-free lifestyle in the faces of his detractors in the crowd, playing up perfectly to the perception of vegetarians by the vast majority of carnivores as being anally-retentive and somewhat smug about his life choices. As far as pitches for being a baddie go, there’s not a whole lot of more effective ones out there: vegetarians in the crowd cheer him on rabidly, while carnivores, whose aggro for vegetarians remain by and large a mystery, simply have another reason to jeer the loudmouth wielding the mike.
And of course, one of the hottest veggies on the planet calls the wrestling business home – Taryn Terrell, known to WWE fans as Tiffany, was nominated last year for PETA’s World’s Sexiest Vegetarian. In her time with WWE, Tiffany’s oratory and mike work slowly became one of the highlights of the company’s unfortunately comatose version of the legendary wrestling brand ECW, becoming the brand’s General Manager and overseeing on-screen the comings and goings of new Superstars and veterans alike in the former Land of the Extreme.
“Yes, I am a vegan, and no, it is not pronounced vee-jan… nor is it pronounced vee-jan in any part of the world. Michael Cole simply mispronounced it on NXT, and I assume he doesn’t know what it means.”
– Bryan Danielson on Michael Cole mispronouncing the word “vegan”
When WWE’s horrendous version of ECW went under in March 2010, its replacement was NXT, a concept whereby rookie wrestlers are paired with WWE “pros” and made to wrestle, talk and complete challenges on the way to a WWE contract and title shot. The controversy began of course, when WWE attempted to position new signing Bryan Danielson, well-known as he was, as a “rookie”. Much worse, his “pro”, comparative newbie The Miz, was the yin to Danielson’s soft-spoken yang, a brash, motormouthed runt with a Napoleon complex and a knack for dirty tactics. It was the perfect odd couple, guaranteed to make great TV and so it did. Danielson, now known as Daniel Bryan, and the Miz had several confrontations, a rivalry that continues to this day.
But when commentator/mouthpiece Michael Cole began ragging on Bryan for being completely antithetical to the average WWE superstar, the real story became clear. Week after week, Cole vented his spleen on Bryan’s perceived nerdiness, from his taste in music, to his refusal to watch television, apparently mystified that such things didn’t make a difference to his career’s trajectory. However, when Cole ventured upon insult for Bryan’s veganism, WWE, looking to typecast him as an unfashionable nerd, encountered the opposite to what it had intended: audiences and internet fans showed unprecedented support for a new face, cheering him on wildly through the ups and downs of his career. Indeed, when WWE announced it had released Danielson from his contract for violating the terms of WWE’s PG rating (he improvised during a heavily scripted set piece, something WWE is legendary for loathing) his legion of fans was in uproar, to the point that PETA themselves wrote Vince McMahon personally to reinstate the man by now known as “The Best in the World”. The movement took, and the internet was ablaze with fans boycotting WWE until he was rehired.
Los Angeles saw the people, veggie and non-veg, get what they wanted, when, after a five-month hiatus, Daniel Bryan returned as part of Team WWE at Summerslam, a mystery teammate revealed in opposition to The Nexus, the group of rookies he had been a part of on NXT and the night of his firing. Bryan cleaned house before his surprise elimination, and despite the criticism Michael Cole, company owner Vince McMahon and numerous in-ring opponents have made of his lifestyle, living clean and cruelty-free has led Bryan to the WWE United States Championship, the rung on the ladder below WWE Heavyweight Champion. Taking on any and all comers, Daniel Bryan, with a faux-leather strap on his belt, held his own against giants, Luchadores and his former allies in The Nexus, and although Bryan lost the title to “The Celtic Warrior” Sheamus in suspicious circumstances, his rematch is one of the feature attractions at this Sunday’s WrestleMania, wrestling’s equivalent of the SuperBowl, or the World Series.
Win or lose, the man called “The Best in the World” has gotten to the pinnacle of a big man’s world, and done so the old-fashioned way, with hard work, ability and a little bit of work. And like his veggie counterparts in and out of the ring, friends of animals everywhere will be rooting hard for the man in maroon as he walks calmly to the ring at the Georgia Dome.
By Mike McGrath-Bryan
Drop-d Music Journal – http://www.drop-d.ie