Around 8:40pm on August 18 of last year, in Los Angeles, Daniel Bryan had his He-Man moment. On pay-per-view with WWE SummerSlam, Bryan challenged WWE Champion John Cena for the company's most prestigious title—and won. Known for years in the independent wrestling orbit by both his benign real name (Bryan Danielson) and flashier nickname (American Dragon), the Aberdeen, Wash. native entered WWE as an underdog with a cult of die-hards enamored with his agility, sturdy strikes, and grappling- and submission-focused moveset. He was not nearly as famous as he'd become, but there were a great many people who wanted very much to see him succeed.
Bryan was fired and re-hired by WWE, all in the span of a few months in 2010, but continued to work—and work is the word—his way up. Bryan won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in late 2011, and then there was the catharsis of that SummerSlam win. In the closing moments of that match—the culmination of a feud predicated on Cena declaring that Bryan still hasn't left a dent in the big leagues—Bryan stationed himself by a turnbuckle. As he threw his arms up and down, an enthusiastic L.A. audience endlessly answering his unasked question with the word: “YES!”
There is no other word so closely associated with Bryan: it's his trademark phrase, and that short affirmation has made a lot of money for both him and his promotion. At that juncture, he—like Hulk Hogan, like the Undertaker, like Cena himself—carried a strength that temporarily made him ultra-supreme. This was his “I have the power!” speech, the twist that transformed the mild-mannered, nice, Prince-Adam-like vegan dude who had previously been consigned to drift through goofy story lines into goddamn He-Man. Once Bryan catapulted a knee toward Cena's face and pinned the man clean, he had really made it. A man became He-Man.
Of course, with pro wrestling being pro wrestling, Bryan lost the title within minutes to a screw job; he regained it later, and then lost it again. After a mess of other loop-the-loops (including an alliance with ancient rival CM Punk and a recent fakeout heel turn with his joining of the Wyatt Family), Bryan receives another chance to reclaim his position as top dog should he win the Royal Rumble in Pittsburgh on Sunday, January 26, and acquire another title shot.
But the transformation is now complete, it seems. No matter what happens at the Rumble, Bryan is a star, now—he's made it, and seems along way from finished with the work of making himself into the champion he could become. I spoke to him about his days on the come-up, his fiancée Brie Bella—the reason he appears on E!'s reality series Total Divas—and the DNA that wrestling shares with MMA.
On YouTube, there's an old video of you doing an interview with Memphis Championship Wrestling in 2001. It was after MCW was doing some sort of developmental deal with WWE. You were released during this deal, and the interviewer asked you what you were going to do now that your time with WWE was over. You mentioned that you were going to go to Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen and live with your mother. What do you remember of that period?
I was really kind of scrambling as far as what to do back then. I was very fortunate because when I was under developmental, they let me go and do an independent tournament called the Super 8, which was hugeback then. I think they still run it now. While I was under developmental, they let me do that, and that helped me make a name for myself on the independents before I even got fired. So then when I had gotten fired, people knew a little bit [of] who I was, but still, they didn't know me enough to pay me more than $75 for an independent show.
I was going back to school, I was working in a video store, I was wrestling on the weekends as much as I could, and very few people would fly you out from Washington state, which is where I lived, so I would drive up to Vancouver, British Columbia. I was very lucky just from placement there, too, because there was a company up there called ECCW who was running, at the time, about 150 shows a year. I would go up there and do loops. [But] it was really just a struggle of trying to make things work and trying to figure out where my place in wrestling was, if there was a place in wrestling for somebody like me.
You've had an enormous career in terms of all the people you've come across on the independents or in WWE. You must have seen hundreds of hours of matches. In terms of finishing holds besides your own, do you have any favorites and, on the flip side, ones you really dislike?
I still think the Superkick is the best finisher ever. It was just so good. There's so many [favorites]. I think Antonio Cesaro's finish right now is cool. I always loved the Piledriver, so an adaptation of the Piledriver is very awesome to me. I've always loved submission holds, so I love the Sharpshooter, that sort of thing. I love Dean Malenko's Cloverleaf.
The things that I never really liked as finishers were the stuff that was wacky, stuff like the Von Erichs [who] did the Tornado Punch, you know what I mean? [Laughs] The Ultimate Warrior—even though he was my favorite as a kid—[had] the Press Slam, and then he'd hit the ropes a couple of times and give 'em the Big Splash, the Hulk Hogan Legdrop—stuff like that was all stuff [where] I was just like, 'Eh.' To be fair, I honestly always hated the Rock Bottom. To me, it was just like, 'Uh, that's weird and stupid.'
Considering the success of Total Divas and your big role on the show, what do you think of the idea of Daniel Bryan as a reality show star?
Oh my gosh, it's so surreal. If you would have asked probably anybody in my high school who was the least likely person in our graduating class to be on a reality show, I probably wouldn't have [been] the top as far as the least likely, but I would be up there in the top 10 percent, you know what I mean? [Laughs] Even my friends from the independents: 'Hey, will Bryan ever be on a reality show?' 'No, he has no interest.' It's just very surreal. [The cameras are] not following me around, they're following Brie around, so it's not exactly the same thing. But [considering] just that I'm in it, my friends and family are like, 'This is crazy.' [Laughs]
Well, you and the Miz now have something very unusual in common that I never thought I'd be able to say. You are both reality show guys.
Right, but you look at Miz, and he aspires to be somebody in a reality show. That's his thing. He wants that sort of thing. I never had any desire for it. [Laughs]
Aside from what the cameras pick up, what's your relationship with Brie like?
We very rarely get time off, so for us, it's mostly just recovering from wrestling. A lot of times, I'll leave on Friday and I don't get home 'til Wednesday, so then I have the rest of Wednesday, which I'm exhausted [for], and then Thursday, [for] which I spend a lot of the day packing for the weekend. We don't go on a lot of dates per se. Our lives are relatively boring in comparison to what you would think.
But when we do get some time off, like for Valentine's Day , we had like four days off, and we went to Sedona, Arizona, which is like a little piece of Heaven. We did some stargazing. We went hiking. We went on this guided spiritual tour thing. It was so much fun. It was beautiful. It was out in the mountains and all that kind of stuff. That's kind of the thing that we're into.
Let's talk about how pro wrestling’s relationship with MMA seems to be growing with time. There's been MMA fighters going into wrestling for the competition, and some guys who left WWE and are now doing stuff with MMA. You personally have history with MMA, with you taking “Yes!” from UFC fighter Diego Sanchez' walkout routine, and you and CM Punk recreating the notable ending of a Chael Sonnen/Anderson Silva match. Why do you think this cross-pollination is happening?
Well, originally, pro wrestling made a significant contribution to MMA. If you look at a lot of the early mixed martial arts fights, [they] involve Gene LeBell, and Antonio Inoki against Muhammad Ali, and stuff like that, so there's a history there.
[In] Japan, pro wrestling came before MMA and it was almost seen as the same thing. Pro wrestlers were seen as the toughest fighters, and then the pro wrestlers got into MMA. Obviously, if you’re doing pro wrestling full-time as opposed to going against somebody who’s fighting full-time, the guy who’s fighting full-time is going to have an advantage clearly, but [it’s about] that sort of thing.
A lot of us have been fans, and so much of it transfers over. A lot of what we do is an entertainment version of MMA. That's why there's so much of it. A lot of us [wrestlers] have histories of training. For me, the “Yes!” Lock or “No!” Lock or LeBell Lock or whatever you want to call it is a legit submission, and it’s a move that I get all the time when I'm grappling ‘cause I'm a fan of the omoplata. [Wrestling] just has so many great crossover characteristics to sports, so it's pre-made.
As someone familiar with both forms, what’s something wrestling should be taking from MMA and something MMA should be taking from wrestling?
Okay, so there's a lot of things that wrestling can take from MMA. One of the things that MMA does very, very well—and boxing does this, too—is creating personality profiles leading up to big fights, like the 24/7 stuff and the UFC Countdownspecials—promoting people as personalities and how they’re training and how important this particular fight is for these fighters. I think they do an incredible job with that, especially given that they don't have the hours of TV time that we do on WWE.
For example, if you would have seen [something on] me and John Cena, one of the interesting aspects is how different we are and the different lifestyles we lead and how we train. He's very strong at doing the Olympic lifts. Whenever we go somewhere and we’re doing some Olympic lifts, people will always comment, one, on how strong he is, and two, on how great his form is. He's worked extensively on his Olympic lifting—snatches, clean-and-jerks, all that kind of stuff. If he wasn't wrestling and focused exclusively on that, [he'd] probably [be] world-class. For me, I do train with Olympic lifting and that sort of thing, but I'd rather be kickboxing and grappling. That's how I train for wrestling. Those kind of personality profiles would really enhance the company [if they would] really get a look at people as they’re training for a big match.
What MMA can take from us is a lot, especially [with] fighters after they win. 'Hey, is there anybody that you'd like to fight next?' and when they're just kind of like [apathetic voice], 'Oh, you know, just whoever Dana White wants me to face,' and that sort of thing. No, man! That's a chance for you to get yourself over or to make a challenge. I think more and more guys are starting to get that now, especially with how successful Chael Sonnen has been with just using his mouth. Even somebody like Quinton Jackson was such a big talker. Any time that you can add something to yourself and make yourself more marketable, that's going to help you in the long run, and that’s going to help whatever company that you're fighting for, whether it be boxing, MMA or that sort of thing.
They could probably even take some stuff from having exciting ring entrances or fancier ring gear. You see that a lot with boxing. You get those awesome robes.