WrestleMania 37 was supposed to be headlined by Roman Reigns defending his WWE Universal Championship against Edge. But, as always, the card is subject to change and Daniel Bryan has now been inserted into the title match. It's an incredible turn of events for a talent who appeared to be just having fun wrestling his friends and now will have an opportunity to relive his epic title victory from WrestleMania 30.
But this time it is different.
The improbable journey for the 39-year-old is made even more significant considering that the three men involved in the title match were all on the verge of having their respective careers end prematurely. Reigns overcame leukemia while Edge and Daniel Bryan found their way back from career-threatening injuries.
Bryan talked with Sporting News to explain how he ended up back here, his current role with the company, why he wants to wrestle until he dies, his side of KofiMania, why he enjoys wrestling without fans and who he believes is the future of the business.
SN: Did you think that you would ever find yourself back in the main event title picture for Wrestlemania?
Daniel Bryan: Probably not. It was funny because after the Elimination Chamber PPV last year I told the WWE that I had just a little over a year left on my contract and we need to figure out the best way to use me because when my contract is up I’m probably not going to wrestle anymore. I wanted to be able to put people over so this place could be better once I’m gone. In no way shape or form did that include me being in the main event of WrestleMania.
SN: How did it all come together? Because it felt pretty obvious that we were getting Edge vs. Roman Reigns in a one-on-one match.
DB: I first heard about it shortly after Elimination Chamber. We all assumed it would be Edge vs. Roman until they changed their minds. How it happened, I have no idea. I was not part of any of that creative process.
SN: What has your role been with the company the past few years? There were rumors that you had more input on creative.
DB: How it started was I would just go in and contribute to things for my own stories. They liked my ideas and I think they liked that most of my ideas were not about getting myself over. It was always about making the show better. And then when the pandemic happened and my pregnant wife was literally due to deliver in a few weeks, I had to step back. They asked if I would like to participate in creative. My role isn’t that big, but they’d call and ask what I thought about certain stories. And now that role has diminished since before Elimination Chamber.
SN: You were in the main event as part of a triple threat at WrestleMania 30 and entered as the underdog. You’re in a similar situation seven years later but everything is different. How do you feel heading into this match versus WrestleMania 30?
DB: I knew at WrestleMania 30 that me being added to that match was beneficial to the show. Heading into this show we didn’t have a live crowd and I’m not convinced that me being added was the best route to go. Obviously, I'm thrilled to be a part of it. You don't turn down the main event of WrestleMania, right? But you don’t know for sure that was what the fans wanted at WrestleMania 30. The biggest difference to me is that I would hate to take away something that the fans really wanted.
SN: The other side of this is that Edge gets to be the Rated-R Superstar and, let’s be honest, the bad guy has always been the best version of Edge.
DB: Yeah, I think that's true. I can tell you, personally, it’s much more fun being a bad guy. As neat as it is to have people cheering for you, talking about the planet as a bad guy was something I could really sink my teeth into. It’s fun being hated. One of the hardest things to do in modern wrestling is being a good guy that the fans like. This version of Edge is both cool and dangerous.
SN: We’re seeing Cesaro finally have his first WrestleMania singles match. I know you two are close. How does it feel to see him in this position?
DB: I'm thrilled. He and I have known each other for the better part of 17 years. He’s someone who works so hard and is so talented. He’s an anomaly. There was a time before the pandemic that he did more live shows than anybody on the roster. You want to see people like that get rewarded. It should have happened a little sooner, but hopefully this one will feel really good for him, especially the first time in front of a live crowd. He gets to go out there and do his thing. I'm super excited for him.
SN: The past year has felt like you have been having fun working with your friends and talent that you’ve always wanted to get into the ring with.
DB: Oh yeah, for sure! I got to wrestle with Drew Gulak in front of a live crowd at Elimination Chamber last year. But once the pandemic started, we had to do these matches in front of nobody. While everybody else was trying to figure out what to do in front of nobody, I was like, “Yes!” Me and Gulak could just go out there and do wrestling stuff and we don't have to entertain anybody. I think that kind of stuff actually plays better with no people. I got to have a couple of matches with Cesaro in front of nobody and It was so much fun. The one guy that I didn't get to wrestle when he was on "SmackDown" was Gran Metalik. I have had a lot of fun over the past year.
SN: How do you feel physically now compared with how you felt heading into WrestleMania 30?
DB: I actually feel infinitely better now then I did going heading into WrestleMania 30. That was brutal because I had started experiencing neck problems and losing strength in my left arm. I feel so much better now. I've cut back on the heavy lifting and I take more of a Tom Brady approach to my athletic training. Unfortunately, it makes me look a little more like Tom Brady. There’s a certain pressure for when you headline your first WrestleMania where you have to deliver. I don’t feel that pressure anymore because I really don't feel like I wrestle for anybody else now. I wrestle because love it. There's a certain joy to it and it's unlike anything else. Overall, I feel physically, mentally, spiritually better than I did around WrestleMania 30.
SN: You were one of the wrestlers who truly opened the floodgates for a lot of the independent talent to make their way into the WWE. I know you aren’t one to take credit but is there a part of you who is aware that he was a catalyst for the current crop of talent in the WWE?
DB: I've had people ask me that before, but I actually think it's the natural evolution of having so much television time that you have to fill. As soon as "Raw" went to three hours, and with "Smackdowns" being two hours, all of a sudden you have to fill up all this time with something. And the people who are going to be best at that are the people who can go out there and entertain as wrestlers. There are guys who can cut promos, but you have to go out there and do an entertaining, two- or three-segment match with just wrestling. You're going to be used if you can do that. It's hard to say. Maybe I contributed to the WWE’s idea that a smaller person could be in a headline spot. But before me, there was Rey Mysterio and Rey is infinitely smaller than me. I don't think it's necessarily me per se, but I think it's just a natural evolution that requires more skill to keep people's attention.
SN: But you are known for wrestling and it feels like you have been a big part of the evolution of this business that has seen the WWE put more emphasis on pro wrestling by signing the likes of Samoa Joe, Seth Rollins, Chad Gable and others.
DB: I'm very happy with how much the wrestling quality has improved in the WWE, but I guess what I still get a little disappointed about is somebody like Chad Gable, who is insanely talented but still never has had a real breakthrough. And then there’s Cesaro, who has had a breakthrough and the fans have gone nuts over him, but somehow this is his first singles match at WrestleMania. On one hand, I’m excited about how the WWE has evolved but there are still things that are lacking and could improve. I’m disappointed that some of the people who I think have been fantastic are being overlooked. But there has never been a time in wrestling where there haven’t been fantastic wrestlers who were overlooked. I bet if you ask Leonardo DiCaprio if the best actors he knows were given the best roles in movies, I bet you the answer is probably not.
SN: The wrestling business lost a great one with Brodie Lee. Can you talk about what he meant to you and the boys in the locker room?
DB: I have a great story about Brodie. I had this really cool moment leading into WrestleMania 30 that I don't even remember in a steel cage match and I joined the Wyatt Family. We’re wrestling the Usos and I take off my jumpsuit and go back to being “Yes!” Daniel Bryan. The whole crowd is going nuts. I don’t remember a single thing from that day because I got a concussion in the match. We do "Raw" and "Smackdown" the next day. Brodie and Cesaro stayed with me the entire time. Eventually, the doctors told me to go see a doctor but I wouldn’t leave the building because I couldn’t find my filtered water bottle. I yelled at Brodie for following me around just to make sure I was OK. He was just somebody who takes care of people and looks after those that he loved. It hit really hard when we lost him. But in this business, you meet incredible people and you never know when they won’t be here anymore. But being around someone who is that caring was incredible.
SN: Speaking of incredible, you were instrumental in Kofi Kingston’s moment winning the WWE Championship, which was very similar to your moment at WrestleMania 30. Can you offer any insight on that match and being on the other side of it?
DB: I don't really have any insight, other than to say that we were all watching it unfold and everybody knew what the right decision was. It wasn't the original plan, but you knew the fans were going to like this way more. It was so cool being on the other side of it. There was another sense of joy in it. Kofi wins the championship and we all have this moment where we say how awesome it is. But then what happens is Kofi now has everybody coming up to congratulate him and you have to deal with all that. That's not as easy as it sounds. It drains a lot of energy. I'm sure the next morning he had to get up at 5 a.m. and do all kinds of media. Meanwhile, I get to slink over to my wife and daughter, give them a big hug and we just get to go back to our hotel room. I don’t have to wake up until 10 a.m. the next morning and the spotlight is off you. It’s so nice and you get to feel that joy for somebody else.
SN: You almost had your pro wrestling career taken from you because of injuries, but you are right back in the main event. However, you mentioned that you don’t have much time left on your contract. Could this be your last WrestleMania?
DB: For the last 10 years I've had this thing where I kind of want to wrestle until I die. Not like wrestle until I harm my health and pass away. But I mean like how Terry Funk and Jerry Lawler can still do a show. Dory Funk will pop up at 70 years old and can still do his thing. Nobody asks musicians when they are going to stop making music. I have to change how I do what I do and be careful. But when I’m 45 and when I turn 55, I’d still like to get out there once a month and do this thing that I love. I don’t care if it’s in front of 25,000 people at WrestleMania or 13 people at a flea market. Sometimes 13 people at a flea market is a little more fun. This being my last WrestleMania is a possibility, but we have to see where the balance is between wrestling and family. I’ll do what feels right.
SN: If you had to put the future of the business in someone’s hands who hasn’t had that opportunity to carry the company, who would it be?
DB: It’s hard, but that person would be Big E. He's such a good talker, wrestler and so charismatic. He’s still in his early 30s, he looks the part, he can be funny or scary or everything in between. If I were in charge, he would have a bigger role. One of the things with wrestling is that you don't know if somebody is going to succeed in the main event spot until you put them in the main event spot. You never know until they have that opportunity.