Even in the world of the WWE there are few better underdog tales than that of Daniel Bryan. Following his shock retirement, the former world champ speaks to Esquire Middle East
April 01, 2016
Everything about Daniel Bryan goes against the traditional traits of a WWE Superstar. At 5’8” and 86kg he was smaller than the average wrestler and lacked the posterboy good looks of a Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson or a John Cena.
Instead, Bryan was a vegan, admitted to not owning a television, and grew a beard so untamed that people would describe him as ‘goat faced’. But to the watching audience his quirks were strengths, not weaknesses. From his debut in the WWE in 2009 until his recent retirement – due to lingering injuries – he became the relatable everyman that fans had needed for a long time.
Through a combination of hard work, great technical in-ring ability and relatability he gradually gained a boisterous fanbase that would roar its approval with chants of ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ while mimicking him thrusting his arms skywards – even when he wasn’t in the ring. The tidal wave of public support grew to such a level that the unfancied underdog would ride it to the very top of the industry, and into cultural stardom.
The pinnacle of his career would come in 2014 at the 30th edition of Wrestlemania – the ‘Superbowl of wrestling’ – where in front of a live audience of 75,000 people (and millions on live TV) Bryan would conclude a six-month long feud against his dastardly on-screen bosses to become the undisputed WWE World Heavyweight Champion, against all odds.
Unfortunately, as is the case of the most memorable stories, the tale of Daniel Bryan would sadly be cut short. The wear-and-tear of life in the ring led to a combination of neck surgery and a concussion that would force the affable 34-year-old to call an end to his in-ring career, but not his association with the WWE.
Ahead of the WWE's visit to Dubai on April 14 and 15 for the WWE Live Dune Bash event, Esquire Middle East managed to grab a world exclusive with Daniel Bryan on March 11, speaking on the phone, bizarrely from John Cena’s living room in Tampa, Florida:
ESQ: Good Morning Daniel, how’s retired life treating you? Good. I’m doing well. Although, randomly my wife [WWE Diva Brie Bella] and I are currently at John Cena’s house, dog sitting for him while he continues rehab from his shoulder surgery! [Laughs]
Haha, what is Cena like as a patient? I haven’t had to do a single thing for him. He does several hours of rehab, twice a day. On top of that he’s learning Chinese and teaching himself to play the piano! He is incredibly hard working, but that’s probably why he is able to recover from injury so quickly.
It must be the Chinese. Probably!
Like any athlete, injuries are not uncommon in wrestling. How do you react when people say ‘you know wrestling’s fake, right?’? I normally just say “Yeah, I know!” [Laughs] I think when people say things like that, they are trying to insult you, so agreeing with them puts them on the back foot. They then start back-pedaling saying, “Wait, it can’t all be fake, right?”. I mean, I’m not pretending to get slammed on my back! It’s just a matter of taste. The way I see it is that if it’s not your style of entertainment, then that’s cool by me.
Do you remember the first wrestling event you went to? Yeah, I was nine years old and my dad took me and my sister to see the Ultimate Warrior against ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude. Warrior was my favourite, and there was a moment when he did a Sunset Flip and happened to pull Rude’s pants down, showing his butt to the whole arena! I was there with my sister, and it was the first male butt that she’d ever seen! [Laughs]
Your retirement came as a shock to many people. Do you feel that you have more to give? I have to look at my career as ‘it was what it was’, but I do wish there was more of it. I really didn’t want to do the retirement speech. I wasn’t ready for it. [WWE’s live Monday night TV show] RAW just happened to be in my home city of Seattle, and two days earlier I had heard from doctors that for the sake of my health, I probably shouldn’t wrestle again. I didn’t want to retire, but, if I had to, at least all my friends and family could be there to see it, so I just sucked it up and did it.
Ultimately, I think that it helped me focus on the reality of my situation, and helped me move on. I got injured in April 2015 and was solely focused on returning to the action, but then all of a sudden it dawned upon me that I couldn’t do it anymore, and that I had to move on from the thing that has been the entire focus of my adult life.
What are your plans now? Part of me wants to stay involved in wrestling, because I love it. But the thing I loved most about it was the wrestling part of it. I didn’t get into it to be famous, or to be a TV star, I got into it because I loved the act of wrestling.
I do love the travel and the interaction with the fans, but if I can’t wrestle any more then it will be tough. There are so many amazing things you can do in this life, so why not try and do something else that I’m interested in? I’m into environmental and ecological issues, so maybe that is an avenue to go down. That’s what I’m trying to figure out right now.
Unlike other sports, the WWE schedule runs all-year round. What was it like? It was pretty tough, but you get into a routine. My last fulltime year was 2013, where I had 227 matches! If you include the travelling days and overseas trips, we are probably on the road 250 days a year. In general you work Friday to Tuesday, and then get home for a couple of days before setting off again. The trouble is if you have a wife and family, those people want to see you when you get home. They don’t want you to just lay on the couch all day!
Did you like the overseas tours? They are my favourite. The fans are amazing, because they only get to see us once a year, so they are always really excited about it. What I love the most is that for a guy without a college education I have been able to see most of the world. I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower with my wife, and been in the sand dunes of Abu Dhabi, all the while performing in front of packed arenas of people.
The fans seem to have played a much bigger role in your career than in most other people’s. What do you think it was that endeared you to them?
I have no idea. People have said it’s because I go out there and “be myself”, or that I’m an underdog, or that I’m a good technical wrestler, or because I work hard, but none of those points are unique to me. Others have done the same, and it hasn’t worked.
There is one of my contemporaries, Low-Ki, who has done very well for himself, but never had the success at the WWE [where he wrestled as Kaval]. To me, he is amazing, works so hard and has everything I had and more. But why were our careers different? I think a lot of that is luck and timing, and reacting to how people treat you and you treat them. I think timing and luck has a lot to do with it.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point he wrote a chapter about hockey players, and how most professional Canadian players happen to be born within the months of September to November. Basically, he goes on to explain that when they are in school, being that little bit older than other kids in their year is an advantage. They are bigger and therefore are put into teams with older players, which in turn makes them better players and gives them access to better coaching. Sure, talent and hard work matter, but it also helps that they were lucky to be born in those months.
So, you’re saying that you were just lucky?
Not entirely. But, for example, when I first got into wrestling I had the choice of going to two wrestling schools. One was run by Dean Malenko, my favourite wrestler, and the other by [WWE Hall of Famer] Shawn Michaels. I wanted to go to Malenko’s in Florida, but his school closed down, so I ended up going to Michaels’ school in Texas. It was there that I had the opportunity to get a developmental deal at the age of 18, and meet the people who set my career in the trajectory it went. Who knows if I would have gotten here if I’d gone to Florida?
How much creative input did you have in the Daniel Bryan character?
Quite a lot. Essentially, how it works is that the creative team tells you what your storyline is, and whether you are winning or losing an upcoming match – and I lost a lot of matches! Like an actor they give you direction as to what your motivation is and the rest is down to how you interpret the story. I’m a terrible actor, I would suck in films! The only way I would do well is if I was playing myself, which is what I did in my career. I looked at the situation and thought ‘How would I deal with this problem?’. Then I cranked it up to eleven.
In the ring I was normally entrusted to have complete control. Only in some circumstances would the endings be scripted, like in WrestleMania 28 when I lost to Sheamus in 18 seconds. I didn’t get to choose that one!
Your biggest moment came in 2014, at WrestleMania 30 where you won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in the main event. What was it like in the three-month period building up to it?
It was a really tumultuous time. During that period, the plans of who I was supposed to face at WrestleMania changed dramatically. The day after Royal Rumble [in January], I was supposed to be facing Sheamus at ‘Mania, but then CM Punk left the company, the main feud between Batista and Randy Orton wasn’t as hot as expected, and the crowds were constantly going crazy for me, chanting ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ even when I wasn’t around! It made sense to insert me into the main event.
For someone who has been a lifelong wrestling fan, it was my dream. I had the chance to be in the main event at the biggest show of the year in front of 75,000 people. When I was lying in bed as a kid and I was dreaming about becoming a wrestler, I didn’t even dream that big!
Is it fair to say that the ‘Yes!’ chant became a bit of a cultural phenomenon?
It was a way for fans to show support for me. But it was never meant to be as successful as it became. In fact it was actually Brie and her sister [WWE Diva Nikki Bella] that came up with the idea of calling it the ‘yes movement’, on the night of the 2014 Royal Rumble. They then put it up on their social media channels. I didn’t do anything about it because I didn’t want to get in trouble with management! [Laughs]
I think it has given the fans a voice, and it has linked wrestling fans together regardless of where they are in the world. When I was growing up, I talked about wrestling with my friends who followed it. I didn’t go up to random people on the street and talk about how Brian Pillman should have been in the main event of RAW. And now, you can voice your opinion to people who are likeminded regardless of where they are. It helps create bond that there are more people in the world that think like you do, and that gives you a stronger voice.
The trouble is, ‘Yes-ing’ is exhausting! When you try to get the crowd to do it too many times, they stop – not because they’re not into it, but because they get tired! After WrestleMania 30, I was standing there with both heavyweight title belts (each weighing 25-pounds), and at this point I had a bad neck and I had just wrestled two 20-minute matches! I wanted to soak up the moment, but the TV producers around the ring kept telling me to keep yes-ing! I did some more, and my arms and shoulders were spent. Surely that was enough, right? Nope! They wanted more because it’s a great visual to have 75,000 people all chanting in unison to close out the show.
Do you count to a set number in your head? Sometimes. For the most part, I like to get a feel from the crowd, if they want more then I’ll go for it. We did a thing once where we had other wrestlers in the ring were doing it as well, and they all said to me "man, it’s harder than it looks!’ I try to keep in great shape, so that I never get tired in a match, so I can ‘yes’ a lot… without the titles. As soon as I see the fans dropping off, then I stop.
Are you a big social media guy?
No, not really. Apparently, I have over two million Twitter followers! But I’m not really that active. I was on a plane with [WWE owner] Vince [McMahon] and he asked how many Twitter followers I had. I had no idea!
Let’s talk beards. How much care does yours need?
Very little past shampooing and conditioning it. Whenever my beard would look good, it would mostly be because of Brie. If I was due on a red carpet or a photoshoot, then Brie would make sure that it was trimmed and looked nice. If I was left to my own devices, it would be a wild mess!
Considering the current hype around people like Donald Trump and Conor McGregor do you think people today are more willing to embrace ‘bad guys’?
I think, more than ever, people are obsessed with entertainment, and specifically choosing how they are being entertained. People who don’t even like politics are taking notice of it because Trump is entertaining. It’s the same with McGregor; he calls people out and that rubs some people the wrong way, but it sure is entertaining. That’s what they bring to the mix.
If you could’ve wrestled anyone who would it be?
Shawn Michaels, and it would be at WrestleMania. He was the guy who originally trained me, and is known as ‘Mr. WrestleMania’. For me, he is the best North American in-ring performer in history.
Was there ever the opportunity?
There was a moment but Shawn wasn’t interested in wrestling anymore. In fact, I learnt from him that having a family changed his entire outlook on life post-wrestling. Even though it was still important to him, when it came to family, even wrestling took a backseat.