Just hours before the start of SmackDown Live, the news that Daniel Bryan had been cleared for an in-ring return had spread at rapid pace throughout the wrestling universe.
Bryan was the ultimate underdog -- the guy who had captured the imagination of the Everyman in a way few performers before him had. He was one of the most likable, engaging personalities to ever step foot into this business and now, after two-plus years into semi-retirement, he wasn't going to be relegated to a talking head anymore. Bryan was ready to resume drop-kicking and punching his way back into wrestling relevancy.
And as we would find out later in the night, ready to take the kind of beatdowns he'd occasionally been the recipient of before his long hiatus.
On Tuesday night, Bryan opened the show with a can't-miss smile on his face. He made his way ringside to a thunderous chorus of "Yes!" chants and a standing ovation from everyone, including the announce team. He delivered a heartfelt message to the fans at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, running down the list of reasons he was grateful: his family, his friends, his fans. But mostly because of his wife, Brie Bella, who was the source of his drive back into the ring.
"When I was depressed and angry, she said, 'You need to fight, fight for your dreams,'" a visibly emotional Bryan said. "She is the one who encouraged me to start to go see specialists. And when they gave me good reviews, she said go see another specialist. Then go see another specialist."
Daniel Bryan tells the story of his wife, Brie, encouraging him to start to see specialists, which led to him being cleared to return to wrestle for the WWE.
Brie had lifted Bryan, he continued, until he had enough clearance to make his way back to the one thing he wanted -- more time in the ring doing what he loved.
In many respects, despite the "land of opportunity" shtick that was in theory the essence of SmackDown, the overall direction of the show had grown stale in recent months. Not every show and not every storyline, but there as an underlying trend of playing it safe recently.
The anticipation of AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura, along with the blue brand's Charlotte Flair taking on the undefeated Asuka at WrestleMania, have jazzed up the narratives, but from a week-in, week-out perspective, it just couldn't match up to its sister show on Monday Night Raw.
The return of Daniel Bryan the in-ring performer can single-handedly change the dynamic. His poignant words Tuesday were a reminder of how deeply he connects with his devoted audience. Not so long ago, it was only an abstract thought that Bryan could one day end up duking it out in the squared circle again.
But Tuesday, it all changed.
"Because every hard thing seems impossible, until it becomes real," Bryan said.
Bryan conceded that his in-ring return is still to be determined, but in a not-so-subtle hint, as the fans sang "WrestleMania" in unison, he stared at the banner that spelled those very words hanging high over the arena. Could it be? The return of an icon at the grandest stage of them all?
Turns out, we weren't going to wait until WrestleMania to see Bryan get physical.
Bryan had more business Tuesday than to discuss his impending return; he had to deal with the horrific Kevin Owens-Sami Zayn evisceration of general manager Shane McMahon a week ago. It was, as far as beatdowns go, one of the ugliest attacks on an authority figure in recent memory.
In the final segment of the show, Bryan met the two conniving heels in the ring. Both KO and Zayn gave Bryan a hug upon entering and extolled his virtues as a fair and just leader on SmackDown.
"This is just a classic case of good things happening to good people," Zayn said.
Bryan wasn't there to listen to their felicitations, though. He was there to fire Owens and Zayn after what they did to McMahon. And for what? McMahon had admitted he mistreated Owens and Zayn. He had already announced he was taking a leave, and he gave them a match at WrestleMania, albeit against each other. Still, it is Mania, the one event everyone wants a piece of.
"I hate that I have to do this," Bryan said. "But Sami and Kevin, you're fired. It doesn't mean you're gone forever, just gone for now. I'm so sorry."
Needless to say, Owens and Zayn did not take the news well and unleashed another appalling attack on a head honcho. Despite a valiant attempt from Bryan to fight back, he was outmanned. Among other things, Zayn caught Bryan with a Helluva kick, while Owens ended the assault with a powerbomb on the apron.
As the show went off the air, Bryan was being placed in a stretcher. He was hurt and in agony. He'd been beaten ... but he was back.
Hits and misses
It was pretty bad timing Tuesday for Rusev and Shinsuke Nakamura to continue their rivalry. The two stars came to the ring immediately after Bryan's heartfelt announcement. It was an impossible act to follow, even for these two popular stars. Why now give the fans a few moments to catch their collective breath? Maybe throw Dolph Ziggler or The Ascension into a match for 10 minutes first. Despite that, Rusev put on a good show, but once again, he fell short. Sigh.
The Charlotte Flair-Natalya match was by far the best action of the night. They went at it in a long back-and-forth battle, one that ultimately ended when Carmella sprinted to the ring in what looked like an attempt to cash in her briefcase, though she never officially did. The distraction allowed Natalya to take advantage and secure the win. Seems as though Carmella is just teasing us before an official cash-in come Mania time, no?
We had a Tye Dillinger sighting Tuesday night, though he was overwhelmed by Baron Corbin. Dillinger, it seems, has fallen from the ranks of mid-card status to squash dude, which is too bad. The fans like him, and he's pretty talented in the ring.
It was fun to see Luke Harper in solo action again. The Bludgeon Brother took out Jimmy Uso in a pretty convincing manner. It was a reminder that Harper could have been one of the top singles performers a year ago before his momentum came to a sudden halt. Still, he looks all but destined to land gold in tag-team competition soon, unless the invincible thing he has going with Erick Rowan is also just a tease.
Not sure what else there is to say about the disjointed feud between Randy Orton, Jinder Mahal and Bobby Roode. It just doesn't work, as we found out (again) Tuesday night, when Mahal delivered more banal fighting words, only to see his two foes make their way to the ring. They will officially go at it at WrestleMania for the United States championship, and if this battle doesn't have Kickoff Show written all over it, then, well, we're not sure what does.