For the better part of a decade, Bryan toiled in the wrestling independents, unsure if he would ever make it to the top of his profession. His first professional match was in Shawn Michaels' Texas Wrestling Alliance (TWA) in 2000. Between 2000 and 2010, Bryan competed in Ring of Honor, as well as a slew of other independent and international promotions, often using the nickname "The American Dragon".
Bryan was signed by World Wrestling Entertainment in 2009, and made his in-ring debut in early 2010, before joining NXT season 1. When the NXT Rookies became The Nexus, Bryan was initially a part of the faction, but was "fired" for choking out ring announcer Justin Roberts. He was subsequently re-hired at Summerslam 2010, as the mystery partner on John Cena's team.
Bryan won the United States Championship from The Miz at Night of Champions 2010, and held the belt until March of 2011. Later that year, he was drafted to Smackdown, where he won the Smackdown Money in the Bank briefcase. At WWE TLC 2011, Bryan cashed in his MITB briefcase on a groggy Big Show, who had just defeated Mark Henry in a brutal chairs match, to win his first WWE World Heavyweight Championship.