The Lost Boys vs. Entropy: On Grief, Pain and Transcendence

The air is heavy with the scent of rice crackers and seaweed-wrapped rice balls, and I am grieving. It’s February 2016 in Osaka, I’m here for the New Beginning show, and three days ago Daniel Bryan announced his retirement from wrestling. The people around me are nibbling on snacks, chatting about the card in the darkened arena, waiting. Beside me, Dan is bowed over with his head in his hands. He started to get a migraine on our way to Osaka, and by this point is nearly incoherent with pain. I touch his hand and he flinches, then grips my fingers tightly.

I hold his hand and look at the empty ring and think about Daniel Bryan.

For a very long time, I didn’t get Daniel Bryan at all. I was a truly casual fan at the time he arrived in WWE, unaware of the larger context of wrestling, and wrestlers like C.M. Punk and Bryan seemed to just walk onto Raw from a different world altogether, fully-formed and with chips on their shoulders I couldn’t possibly understand. Bryan was different. Looking around the current landscape of WWE it can almost be hard to remember, but in 2010 the vast majority of wrestlers there had a very similar look, trimmed and sculpted like particularly large, glossy shrubbery. Bryan was short, and kind of fuzzy, and had a crooked smile that quirked up his whole face in quizzical ways. I’ve read that Vince McMahon wants his wrestlers to be the kind of people everyone does double-takes at; people who, when spotted at airports, turn heads and make everyone ask “Who is that?” Daniel Bryan could sit next to you on a four-hour flight to Seattle and chat with you about your garden and how to keep the blight off your tomatoes and what kind of mulch is best, and at the end of the flight you’d have no idea you’d been talking with a WWE superstar.

That is, of course, part of his appeal.

Triple H famously called him a “B+ player,” and the Authority’s inability to see past his relentlessly mundane exterior rang true and deep in the hearts of the fans. We felt like we could see beneath that surface, and when he wrestled–oh, when he wrestled, any fool with eyes could see how fully he existed in the ring, how transformed he was by his love of this weird wonderful thing that is professional wrestling. It made him into something transcendent. I came to feel it was oddly appropriate that one of the insults flung at him was “goat-faced”–not just for the maybe-unintentional play on Greatest Of All Time, but because there was a touch of Pan about him, the goat-footed pagan god of wild magic. If there can be fire elementals and water elementals, Daniel Bryan is a wrestling elemental, the essence of the wild chaotic logic of wrestling, wrapped up in a plaid shirt and an unassuming smile.

A friend of mine once said, “If all of professional wrestling was a single story, one good place to end it would be with Daniel Bryan’s win at WrestleMania 30.” It would make a great climax to a movie: Bryan in the ring in 2014 with his two shining belts, triumphant after beating two of the most dominant, muscular avatars of the WWE, the confetti raining down like joy itself around his luminous face.

Daniel Bryan celebrates with his titles

But events keep moving forward, and Bryan had to leave that moment and move on into a year full of personal grief and loss and increasing medical worries. He was stripped of his title. He vanished from tv. The audience refused to forget him and kept loving him with a fierce, steadfast love that would not dim. He came back and won the Intercontinental title, and then had to vacate that as well. When he came to the ring in May 2015 to relinquish the title, he looked out at the audience chanting his name, and then he smiled and said, full of fond bemusement at our inexplicable love:How long have you guys been treating me like I was something special?He laughed in disbelief, and I surprised myself by bursting into tears of horror at the idea that he might not understand why we love him so much, how he stands for our hope that we too might, under the B-plusness the world can’t see past, have some spark of wild magic in our souls. And yet he had to give up his title again. It’s too unfair. Having to watch him lose everything like this, twice–it’s a terrible story. Why would Fate do this?

As if Fate ever cared about a good story.

The Young Lions start this New Japan show as they always do: boys in black trunks, limited to just a few moves at this stage in their careers. They only have the beginnings of characters, but the audience loves to pick favorites, knowing they have a good chance of watching them rise all the way to the top.

Dan’s fingers are cold, his mouth tense with pain as he watches them. I ask him if we should leave, knowing it’s pointless: we’re hours from home, an awful jolting sequence of trains and buses to get there. He shakes his head and winces at the motion.

Daniel Bryan had to retire three days ago. Entropy is winning and there’s nothing I can do.

Through 2015, doctors tell Bryan again and again that he can’t wrestle, that he risks his life if he does so; he resists their arguments and many of us resist with him, obstinately faithful. We’re sure that if we can just hope hard enough, he’ll be cleared to come back. Any day now, he’ll come to the ring and tell us it’s okay.

On February 8, 2016, he does finally come to the ring, in his hometown of Seattle. The crowd is delirious and delighted, chanting his name with fervor as he stands in the middle of the ring, his eyes closed as he takes in their applause.

Daniel stands with his eyes closed.

He begins to speak and the delight and anticipation falters immediately at the sadness in his face. Slowly, carefully, as you would explain to a hopeful child whose heart you’re about to break, he talks about his history with concussions and his medical issues. The audience doesn’t want to hear it; when he says he hasn’t been cleared to wrestle they break into loud chants of “No! No! No!”: eager to be part of a story, a wonderful shining story. They can see it, we can all see it, and if we just hope hard enough it’ll happen, right? Triple H’s music will hit and he’ll swagger down to the ring to mock Bryan’s misfortune, and finally Bryan, filled with righteous fury, will kick him hard enough to knock the sneer right off his face, and they’ll all cheer, and it’ll be the start of the next chapter of the story, the story, the story…

No one interrupts him. No one comes down to attack him and thus save us from our grief. You can see in his eyes an awful pain as he tries to make the audience understand that no, this isn’t an angle, this is real. Please, please be lying to us, Seattle begs him. You lie about everything else and we love you for it, just please be lying about this too. Later, backstage, he’ll struggle to talk about how hard it was to hurt us with the truth:

It’s hard sometimes, because… We say so many things out there that are fiction. Right? We go out there and we deliver works of fiction. And to go out there and say something that you… you WISH was fiction. It’s very… very difficult.

The arena fills with desolation as he talks about his father, about his gratitude, as he says goodbye.

You guys don’t owe us anything. We do this because we love to do this.

“You don’t owe us anything,” Bryan says, and that he seems to think it’s true only makes it even more false.

Everyone cheers and weeps. The camera fades out on Bryan still leading a “yes” chant, so we don’t have to watch him walk away from the ring, but we know he does.

We know entropy wins again.

Three days later in Osaka, we’ve reached the match for the IWGP junior heavyweight tag championship. It’s a three-way match between ReDRagon’s Bobby Fish & Kyle O’Reilly, Matt Sydal & Ricochet, and the champions, the Young Bucks. Each team has a distinctly different style: Fish and O’Reilly are vicious brawlers; Sydel and Ricochet ethereal high flyers; the Young Bucks flippy razzle-dazzle punks. The story of the match is clear even before the bell: which style will triumph tonight?

As the wrestlers come to the ring—“I’m glad they’ve got a nice tall ceiling for us tonight!” Sydal announces—I watch Dan’s face and fret. What will I do if he can’t get home? What if he needs medical attention? In a strange city, with my limited Japanese: what will I do if entropy catches up with us? Dan squeezes my hand, flicks his eyes to the ramp where the Young Bucks are strutting toward the ring, befringed and tanned with their titles over their shoulders: don’t worry about me. Watch the match. I try.

Here’s the one thing you need to forget about wrestlers: that they’re in pain most of the time. From the temporary welts and wrenches to the grinding, permanent joint damage, there’s always something. But you need to forget that because–here’s a savage irony for you–they put aside whatever aches and pains and weariness they have as they come through the curtain in order to swagger down to the ring, where they will then pretend to be in terrible pain. It would destroy the illusion to think too much about it. The most jarring thing about Being the Elite, the Youtube video series featuring the Young Bucks, is seeing Matt and Nick Jackson exhausted and hurt. It feels fundamentally wrong, watching them stumble wearily through endless pre-dawn airports.

Tired Bucks in Airports

No, surely–whether you love or loathe them–the Bucks are indestructible, right? They’re annoying forces of nature, eternal Lost Boys blithely following whatever Peter Pan is leading the way this year, whether it’s Kevin Steen or Adam Cole or Kenny Omega; gleefully thumbing their noses as they dodge and mock that old pirate who keeps stealing their friends away. Their suffering is well-deserved and fleeting, their pain is ephemeral, and they are forever, forever young bucks. That’s their story, and as they come to the ring in Osaka that bleak February night, that’s the story I need to see.

The match is fast-paced, a cascade of skill and talent, of human beings in mastery of their abilities and their surroundings. The Bucks suffer loudly and theatrically as they usually do, as if they’re winking at the audience behind the referee’s back: don’t worry, we’re not really hurt, it’s all a game.

Their anguish is so ridiculously over-the-top that it risks giving Matt Sydal the giggles at one point.

It’s fun. Everyone is fierce and bright and all their suffering is bounded by the story in the ring. You would never know that Sydal shattered his foot in a car accident years ago and can barely walk on it; in the ring, he doesn’t bother to walk: he dances, he flies, he soars.

There’s not much story to the match beyond “Who’s the best,” no deep anguish or thrilling redemption, and sometimes that’s just what one needs to see; sometimes that soothes the soul, to watch human beings show off and slap physics silly, laughing.

In the middle of the match is a spot that presents the main conflict in brief: each team goes to the turnbuckles and pulls off a tandem move. Fish & O’Reilly go for body presses and miss; the Young Bucks immediately try 450 splashes and also miss. As Ricochet and Sydal climb the turnbuckles, the crowd’s energy lifts: it’s clear from the rhythm and pacing of the match that if they can hit their synced shooting star presses they will win the titles.

The Young Bucks dodge and save their titles for now, but all the pieces are in place for the resolution of the story. Will grace and talent triumph over ReDRagon’s vicious efficiency and the Bucks’ cunning? As it turns out, the Bucks’ trickery costs ReDRagon the match: a Bullet Club henchman literally carries O’Reilly away from the match, disappearing backstage. But without a unified ReDRagon to stop them, Sydal and Ricochet are able to climb the turnbuckles again uninterrupted, and as Osaka watches, they launch themselves upward into perfect, simultaneous shooting star presses.

Five thousand people inhale in wonder, and the wrestlers seem almost to be borne aloft by that soft gasp of delight. They make radiant arcs against the darkness, conquering gravity, and at the apex of their flight time seems to stop for one instant, frozen in a moment of brilliant mastery and the promise of triumph.

Time stops.

Entropy stops.

It’s just one instant. Soon everything will go on once more: Ricochet and Sydal will descend from the heavens and win the titles from the Young Bucks; the world will slip forward into the future. Somewhere across the ocean Daniel Bryan will step into the new life in which he is “no longer a wrestler,” as he says in his retirement speech, in the same tone I might say I was no longer able to breathe air but must somehow keep living. Soon I will head home with Dan, who is still pale and shaking and in pain, pushing our way through crowds and into the night. I hold on to him so we won’t get separated in the crush, two atoms in a sea of chaotic motion.

The train moves through the dark and I close my eyes and discover the gift of this night: the image of Ricochet and Sydal, bright against the darkness in that moment of grace, burned into my heart beyond any forgetting. In my mind’s eye they dazzle there forever, caught in my memory at that breathtaking moment before they actually win, like ornaments hung on the face of eternity.

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J.J. McGee Written by:

I'm an American expat who lives in Japan and spends most of my free time being painfully earnest about narrative, character development, and slippage between kayfabe and reality in wrestling.

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