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Daniel Bryan ready to Smackdown Joe Louis Arena

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Last week, while driving 400 miles from Buffalo to Newark, New Jersey, WWE superstar Daniel Bryan sat in silence and got lost in thought.

Not about his next match, or his improbable ascension to the top of the ranks of World Wrestling Entertainment. Rather, Bryan was daydreaming about building an earth-sheltered home and setting up a commune in the woods with his family and friends.

"I have an overactive imagination," says Bryan, the heavily bearded and scraggly-haired grappler who in recent years has become one of WWE's biggest stars. "I have all these weird little fantasies about self-reliance, and I like to construct this little world I would like to have."

These days the 33-year-old grappler's world is looking pretty good. He has suplexed and body-slammed his way to marquee status in WWE, which he joined in 2009 after working his way up through several independent wrestling promotions.

His enthusiastic "Yes!" chant — where he shouts "Yes! Yes! Yes!" while raising his arms in the sky and pointing his index fingers upward — has transcended wrestling and is now appropriated in other sporting events; it became a battle cry for Michigan State University's men's basketball team last year. And as WWE barrels toward its biggest annual event, WrestleMania, Bryan is positioned just outside the main event picture and is chasing an Intercontinental title bout at the March 29 event. (The road to WrestleMania drives through Joe Louis Arena tonight with a taping of "Smackdown," set to air at 8 p.m. Thursday on Syfy.)

Bryan's current highs come after a topsy-turvy year of professional and personal ups and downs. Last year he headlined WrestleMania XXX and earned the WWE World Heavy Weight Championship in the evening's main event, standing tall at the pinnacle of the wrestling business. Less than a week later, he married his girlfriend of three years, WWE Diva Brie Bella.

But while on his way back from his honeymoon in Hawaii, he was devastated by the news that his father had unexpectedly died at age 57. And less than a month later, he was forced to undergo surgery on his neck that sidelined him from in-ring action for the remainder of 2014.

"It was like career high, life high, life low, career low," says Bryan on the phone last week from a hotel in Newark prior to that evening's taping of WWE's flagship program "Raw." "The combination of those things, it was a very weird emotional roller coaster."

Like a lot of entertainers, Bryan says he has depressive tendencies, but he was able to avoid falling into a funk. "Sometimes things in life just happen," says Bryan, who was born Bryan Danielson. "You realize the reason why you're so down is because you had been so happy. When you get these extreme moments of joy, you're going to get moments in life that are bad — everyone does — and you're just going to have to react to that accordingly."

Bryan was born in Aberdeen, Washington, the same hometown as Kurt Cobain, and the Pacific Northwest — the rain, the fresh air, the trees — is very much in his blood. He's a vegan who believes in living off the land, and he dreams of returning to Washington and buying a small plot of property and creating a personal paradise, earth-sheltered home and all.

He began loving wrestling at an early age and pursued it as a career after graduating high school in 1999. He spent 10 years kicking around various indie promotions before signing a deal with WWE.

Once in WWE, Bryan began earning fan support by playing an obnoxious character who oversold his accomplishments and rubbed them in his opponents' faces. He earned the WWE Heavyweight title in late 2011 and defended it at WrestleMania 28, only to lose the belt to pale-skinned Irishman Sheamus in a blink-and-you-missed-it match that lasted a mighty 18 seconds.

The quick loss became a cornerstone of the growth of his popularity. Fans were fully behind him, and the squash match only made them more vocal in their support. Bryan's popularity crested with the ascent of wrestling's "reality era," where fans reacted against storylines they didn't buy into and heavily propped up the guys they liked. They really liked Bryan, and as his "Yes!" chant became a "Yes!" movement, WWE's brass had no choice but to take notice.

"Underdog stories are an intrinsic part of pro wrestling, and Daniel Bryan is one of the first true underdogs of the postmodern age of wrestling," says David Shoemaker, author of "The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling" and the pro wrestling writer for Grantland.

"He's undersized, he doesn't have a catalog model face, and despite the fact that he was one of the most gifted guys in the ring, nobody ever had any thought that he was going to make it to the highest level of WWE. He really succeeded on the back of the fact that everybody knew that, which in essence made it a real life underdog story."

Bryan says fans began feeling he wasn't getting what he deserved, "and where they get that from, I have no idea," he says. "There are certainly guys besides me who deserve more than they're getting, so why was there not that for them? I think it's maybe just because fans had a way to express that they were dissatisfied. That led to this very vocal group of people that were unsatisfied with the spot that I was given, and they wanted more, and they began chanting, 'Yes!'"

Bryan also knew it was important to take advantage of every opportunity he was given and to make the most of his TV time.

"None of us are owed anything," says Bryan, who says he was taught that lesson by his mentor, William Regal. "Any chance that they give you is an opportunity to go out there and do something special, or do something that's entertaining. And that's the idea you have to go with. Like OK, this is not where I thought I would be going, but I have to make the best of this and make it as good as I can."

While wrestling is a huge part of Bryan's being, he strives to keep things in perspective. "My father never 'main evented' anything, and he lived a quality life," Bryan says. "I love wrestling, but is wrestling the only thing I want to do? The answer is no. There's a million things I want to do. I want to bike the Lewis and Clark Trail. I want to go to Thailand and do some kickboxing. I want to be there for my mom as she gets older, and I want to be the best uncle I can be to my sister's three daughters. I want to be the best husband I can be to my wife. And what does all of that entail?"

Sounds like Bryan's got plenty to think about on his next road trip.

agraham@detroitnews.com

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