I was twenty-five when I first started writing THE RAW REVIEW in 2012. I was a typical angsty, young writer - single, pissed off at the world, envious of “better” generations, and certain that my work was the best in the world. I would tap away furiously at the keyboard, churning out long, irony-laced, condescending, thoughtful critiques of RAW. These early write-ups reflected my state of mind and my state of life.

Four years later (today) I sit calmly in bed on my off-day, typing next to my wife while my pit-bull, Brenda, rests her head on my foot. I don’t harbor a vague grudge against a vague enemy like “the world”, I don’t waste time romanticizing beatniks or bohemian lifestyles, and I know that being the best in the world takes incredibly hard work (not mere self-affirmation).

In writing about the WWE’s flagship series consistently for almost four years (June 6th will be the anniversary), I’ve unwittingly charted the course of my life and the lives of the wrestlers I admire. THE RAW REVIEW is less a weekly evaluation of how the WWE is doing and more a living document that examines how we become who we become.

When I reflect back on the early days of my pro-wrestling writing, I recall being fixated on three particular talents: CM Punk, AJ Lee, and Daniel Bryan.

Whenever I went off on angry, rant-filled tangents about the state of the WWE and the state of the world, this Holy Trinity of The Reality Era would reel me in and get me writing about joy again. Week after week, despite whatever absurdity or questionable creative surrounded these three, they would produce memorable, entertaining segments and often awe-inspiring matches.

These three performers defined and transformed the WWE between 2011 & 2016. They are The Rock, Austin, and Mick Foley of their day (not in characterization, but in their significance). They simply weren't booked to be top stars and that's why they're not often described in these more accurate, important terms.

The WWE tried to push other talents instead of these three. The WWE tried to convince the fans that Punk, AJ, and Bryan were supporting characters in a theater reserved for larger than life titans like John Cena and sultry sirens like Eva Marie.

But professional wrestling fans rejected that.

Professional wrestling fans denied the WWE’s narrative, and decided to tell a story that reflected the real-world. The WWE offered us big, bulging muscles and bouncing breasts, and we said “No thanks”. We chose the Straight Edge Punk-Rocker covered in tattoos, the adorably evil nerd, and the 5’8” flying goat.

On the stage of today’s reality, CM Punk, AJ Lee, and Daniel Bryan are the primary players. These are "The Big Three" of The Reality Era - a very specific span of time that began on June 27th, 2011 and finally, officially ended last night with the retirement of Daniel Bryan.

As I listened to Bryan describe the past five years in his farewell speech, I became more aware than ever of how intertwined my own life is with the WWE. I remembered running back to my dorm after my shift at the Hofstra Medical Library just so I could see Bryan, Punk, and AJ work together. I didn’t want to miss one minute of their screen-time. I remembered, much to my surprise, enjoying Bryan & Kane’s segments with Dr. Shelby (it just seemed to make sense - it was genuinely funny and their bond felt real).

I remembered AJ Lee's "Pipebombshell".

I remembered CM Punk's relentless war for the main event despite already being Champion.

I remembered seeing one of my all-time favorite matches; Daniel Bryan vs CM Punk for the WWE Championship at Money in the Bank with AJ Lee as the special guest referee.

I remembered meeting my wife in the midst of all of this and becoming a calmer, happier human being.

I remembered losing faith in the WWE’s booking, as these three great artists continued to find their ascents negated again and again simply because they did not “fit the bill” of prototypical WWE Stardom.

I would stop watching RAW and I would stop writing the RAW REVIEW. But these three would reach through my cynicism and call me back.

Last night, Daniel Bryan managed to gather the best of times and the worst of times into one moment, hold it there in the middle of the ring for as long as he could, and then let it go.

I couldn’t have known how much I (we) needed to hear his retirement speech until he was in the middle of it. He gave all of us the most resolution we’ll ever get when it comes to the WWE between 2011 & 2016. It was a public catharsis, a form of communal therapy that perfectly embodies Daniel Bryan’s kindness, selflessness, and, most importantly, his love of professional wrestling.

People often speak about how much they love their passion.

“I love this, I love that…” they prattle on, as if their love makes them great and happy and perfect.

Love is not great, happy, and perfect.

Punk, AJ, and Bryan represent true expressions of love because love is incredibly painful.

Love is difficult. Love crushes us. Love restores us and ruins us all at once.

It's hard to talk about real love. It's hard to write about real love.

That's why this one is so short.

Somehow, Daniel Bryan managed to articulate his love with dignity, grace, and joy despite the heartbreaking reality of his departure from wrestling. He walked us gently through the past five years like a calm tour-guide, and then he thanked us for visiting.

With CM Punk, AJ Lee, and Daniel Bryan all retired from in-ring competition in the WWE, a very precious time in professional wrestling has passed.

This was an era where the WWE and the WWE fans refused to agree on who the “top guys” were.

And the fans won.

The fact that these three “unlikely candidates" will be forever remembered and revered represents a shift in our culture and a shift in our pro-wrestling priorities. For an entire generation Punk, Lee, and Bryan made muscles and breasts less important than talent. Punk, Lee, and Bryan made being a nerd cooler than being a jock. Punk, Lee, and Bryan raised the consciousness of professional wrestling fans and the consciousness of the entire professional wrestling business. Their fight against the system and the prominence of ongoing fan-frustrations is the result of a culture clash between the WWE-brass and the entire modern-day television viewing audience. Despite the fact that this fight persists, Punk, AJ, and Bryan were successful in laying a foundation for a better, more socially relevant WWE.

And they did it all without the benefit of consistently favorable booking.

Today, wrestlers who would have never been considered by the company are featured prominently and will continue to be featured more prominently as the years go by. Female wrestlers are defined less by their gyrations and more by the content of their character.

And, most importantly, a healthy dose of dissent has been injected into the next generation of wrestling fans. Punk did this with his militancy, AJ did this with her personality, and Daniel Bryan did this with his love. Each of them has departed the WWE in a way that was in-keeping with the significance of their careers and the mark they made on the biggest promotion in wrestling history. The seeds they planted will inevitably blossom into more permanent, lasting changes as dictated by fan-reactions and an ever-evolving popular culture.

Four years ago, I would have written this RAW REVIEW from a place of anger, railing against the machine for not learning from its mistakes, for continuing to ignore the realities of 2016-culture, for continuing to needlessly fight the cheers and the boos of fans, insisting on "their guy" over "our guy".

Today, I just want to express my gratitude to CM Punk, AJ Brooks, and Daniel Bryan.

You made me pop more times than I can remember, and you did so at a time in my life when I really needed it. You gave me laughter and heartbreak and revelation and motivation. You gave me pure professional wrestling.

You made me a better writer.

You made all of us better people.

For that, I will be forever grateful.