Daniel Bryan has spent the past year as arguably WWE’s best all-around heel, but he emerged from Hell in a Cell as one of the company’s top babyfaces.
Inside the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California, Bryan teamed with former bitter enemy Roman Reigns to take on the newly reunited heel duo of Erick Rowan and Luke Harper, and the surprising pairing pulled off the major victory over SmackDown’s monstrous duo. Despite reports stating that Harper was in the midst of a contract dispute with WWE and could still jump ship to AEW, the creative team has made the former Wyatt Family member a focal point of SmackDown’s programming in recent weeks. His return as one of the most ruthless and physically impressive villains in all of WWE has also paved the way for Bryan to go back to his roots as an overwhelming fan favorite.
At Hell in a Cell, WWE essentially confirmed that with what appears to be a hard face turn for Bryan. All it took was a simple handshake with “The Big Dog.”
Ever since Bryan shockingly turned heel last fall, he had been doing some of the best work of his career, particularly as a talker as he has been cutting elite-level promos every time he’s touched a microphone. Bryan’s heel turn was reportedly done at his own request, and it was a great move at the time because SmackDown badly needed another top heel while Bryan hadn’t been booked all that well as a babyface. As Bryan morphed into the crazed “Planet’s Champion,” he simultaneously became perhaps the most hated heel in WWE and also one of its most respected. Simply put, fans couldn’t help but grow to appreciate Bryan’s new character, which was both innovative and compelling.
But as is the case with most heels who are fantastic performers, the boos for Bryan began slowly but surely turning to cheers, making an eventual babyface turn the only logical outcome.
As bizarre as this may sound given Reigns’ notoriously rocky relationship with WWE fans, pairing Bryan with Reigns was the best possible way to ensure that he reestablishes himself as a top babyface once again. Once hated by what seemed like the vast majority of the WWE fan base, Reigns has been one of the most universally liked babyfaces in all of WWE ever since he returned from a successful battle with leukemia back in March. The small pockets of boos are still there for “The Big Dog,” but they’re nowhere near as loud or as prevalent as they were at this time last year. So, pairing Bryan with the wildly popular Reigns is a great strategy that has instantly made him popular again due both to his association with Reigns and because he’s just someone who’s very easy to like.
Much like Reigns has been, Bryan has long been one of WWE’s top merchandise movers and most likable fan favorites when performing in that role over the years. What’s more, Bryan’s long awaited in-ring return at WrestleMania 34 caused ticket sales for the event to skyrocket, demonstrating that–with the right buzz and the right booking–he can give WWE another top draw to build around. As a heel, Bryan has been an absolutely phenomenal performer, but Brock Lesnar’s apparent move to SmackDown has paved the way for Bryan to return to his roots as a good guy for the first time since last year. Although it would have been unfathomable just a year ago to think that Reigns would be used to help another star get over as a fan favorite, that’s exactly what’s happened as Bryan and Reigns have feuded with Harper and Rowan.
The former Bludgeon Brothers are a very easy duo to dislike, and as evidenced by the fan reaction to their match against Bryan and Reigns at Hell in a Cell, WWE really has something brewing here. WWE has parlayed the undeniable popularity of Bryan and Reigns into strong heel pushes for Rowan and Harper, two underrated behemoths who can be remarkably effective heels when the booking is point. Over the past few weeks, WWE has done a wonderful job of positioning Rowan and Harper as upper midcard or main event caliber heels while paving the way for Reigns to become even more likable as Bryan appears to be well on his way to becoming a top fan favorite yet again.
With the 2019 WWE Draft taking place next week, it isn’t totally clear what the immediate future holds for any of these four stars.
But one thing is: Bryan is on the verge of being a main event caliber babyface, and Reigns deserves at least a little of the credit for helping him get there.