Originally published in The Kingston Whig-Standard on Jan. 24, 2013. All rights reserved.
WWE Inc. superstar Daniel Bryan remembers the exact moment that pro wrestling came into his life.
It wasn’t catching a glimpse of it on TV as a boy. Nor was it attending a live event.
“I had this friend named Abraham Godfrey,” explained Bryan, whose real name is Bryan Danielson, in a telephone interview this week. “My family didn’t watch wrestling at all; my dad liked football, my mom didn’t watch TV (much) at all. “Abe, he came over and he had this thing in his backpack,” Bryan said, replaying the secretive conversation that took place that fateful day. “He was like ‘hey, I’ve got this thing I want to show you, but you’ve got to keep it a secret,’ ” Bryan said, whispering as Abe no doubt did that day. “It was this big deal,” Bryan added with a hearty laugh.
“He pulls out this wrestling magazine and we just flipped through it. As a kid, wrestling characters are so colourful and larger than life and I was like ‘whoa, what is this?’ It was just a totally new world to me. From then on, I was hooked,” said Bryan, who is scheduled to wrestle alongside his tag-team partner Kane when WWE brings its Road to WrestleMania tour to Kingston’s K-Rock Centre on March 2.
Bryan is the first to admit he had many passions growing up. Wrestling just happened to be one of them.
“Kids are kids right,” he said. “During baseball season, I wanted to be a baseball player, during basketball season, I wanted to be a basketball player, during football season, I wanted to be a football player.” But come off-seasons, wrestling ruled. “Whenever I wasn’t playing any other sport, I wanted to be a wrestler.”
By high school, pro baseball, football and basketball had taken a back seat.
“When I got to high school, and realized that I really had a passion for it, I thought ‘ah well, I’m too small, I’m too this, I’m too that … All of a sudden Rey Mysterio came on in WCW, and guys like Dean Malenko and Eddie Guerrero, guys that really broke down the size barrier, and it made me realize that there’s no reason why I can’t least try.”
At age 15, passion turned to determination.
Bryan would cut his teeth under some of the very best the business has to offer. His first trainer, Shawn Michaels, ranks among the greatest superstars — if not the greatest — of all time.
To call Michaels’ work legendary would be an understatement. He’s no slouch as a mentor either, Byran said.
“As a trainer, he was very, very good,” Bryan said. “There were three guys from my class alone who made it to WWE — one was Brian Kendrick, one was me and the other was Lance Cade. He was a very good trainer.”
But being so new to the business, training was all about the basics, Bryan says, meaning he couldn’t learn from Michaels the very things that made him such an icon.
“The things that Shawn was great at, he couldn’t teach you because you have to learn the basics first,” Bryan said. “You’re just trying to focus on falling without hurting yourself. There’s all these things that need to be done in order to wrestle safely. That’s why we tell people don’t try this at home because it’s a very dangerous thing. I spent a year in San Antonio training with Shawn Michaels and that year was pretty much focused on doing the basics. I was never able to learn from Shawn the things that made Shawn Shawn.”
That wasn’t the case with his next trainer, another WWE great, William Regal.
“When I got to William Regal, I had had a lot of the basics down,” Bryan said. “So William Regal was really able to take me under his wing and help me. He was able to teach me the things that made him a great wrestler, whereas Shawn couldn’t do that because I just wasn’t ready yet.
“I was under a WWE developmental deal at the time. When I got let go, William Regal stayed in touch with me and he was always asking to see my matches and he was always helping me along the way. When you’re an independent wrestler, and you don’t have a lot of guidance out there, that’s so incredibly helpful.”
Bryan and current WWE champion CM Punk are by far the most famous graduates of independent company Ring of Honor, a small company founded in 2002 that has risen to become the third-largest wrestling promotion in the U.S.
For Bryan, who spent much of his career working the independent circuit, his Ring of Honor run remains close to his heart.
“I’m very proud of what I did in Ring of Honor and I’m very proud of Ring of Honor as a company,” he said. “It’s very difficult to make it as a wrestling company when you don’t have television, when you’re not broadcast throughout the United States, when people don’t see you as superstars. But we brought people to those shows based purely on how good the wrestling was. That’s something that I’ll always be proud of.
“Before Ring of Honor ever got TV, I wrestled a Japanese guy named Takeshi Morishima in New York City and drew close to 2,500 people, which is, to me, one of the proudest things I’ve done in my career. People really wanted to see that. I’m very proud of what Ring of Honor has accomplished.”
While he’s currently one of the top stars in WWE, having been a world champion, U.S. champion, Money In the Bank winner and a WWE tag-team champion, this is not his first run with the company. He signed a developmental deal in the late 1990s, was released in 2001, signed with WWE again in 2009, was let go in 2010 and later returned.
Bryan is proud of where he is in his career, but is a realist.
“I’m proud that I’ve gotten here,” he said when asked if he was proud of finally triumphing in WWE. “A lot of it, and people don’t like to hear this, a lot of it is luck. My first experience with WWE was when I was 18 years old, I got signed when I was 18 because Shawn Michaels was my trainer. But I was fired by the time I was 20, you know, and so … I wrestled all through the indys.
“Why (WWE) would look at me as opposed to somebody else, I have no idea. (Sometimes it’s) just the circumstance. They (pursued) my friend Nigel McGuinness, who was a perfect fit for WWE, but he had some bicep damage and so they wouldn’t sign him. Well I had some shoulder damage, but for some reason, my damage was OK and his damage wasn’t.
“A lot of it is just luck and being in the right place at the right time. It’s very humbling when you see how many great wrestlers there are out there that never get an opportunity like I’ve gotten. It just makes you realize — I have worked hard and I have perservered through some hard things — but there are a lot of guys who, if they had the same opportunities that I had, they’d be in the same spot.”
Having spent the better part of his career on the independent scene, it’s in Bryan’s blood. And yes, he does miss it.
“You know what, I do,” he said. “There’s something very rewarding about creating your own thing, creating your own identity, and going out and doing kind of whatever you want, even if it’s in front of smaller crowds. And there’s the intimacy of smaller crowds that I actually really miss.”
But every pro wrestler has one goal in mind, to make it to the big leagues, WWE.
“There are a lot great things about WWE, too,” he said. “There’s nothing like going out in front of — for example, (last) WrestleMania even though I was only out there for 18 seconds — 70,000 people. Just walking down the ramp gives you goose bumps.”
To know a superstar is over, as they say, in wrestling, you need look no further than crowd reaction. Few superstars get better crowd reaction — and interaction — than Bryan. When he hits the entrance ramp, fans chant one of two things: “Yes!” or “No!” Both catchphrases were never intended to become the iconic phrases they have.
“You know what, it’s literally incredible,” he said. “It was never supposed to be this. Nobody told me do it, I just started doing it. And I started doing it without any intention of people doing it with me — the Yes! thing. It was just a way to celebrate that I was the world heavyweight champion. And then gradually people started doing it and then WrestleMania last year, it just exploded. Then everybody was doing it.
“Then I rebelled against it and started doing No!, which makes people chant Yes! more. Really, it’s just a form of fan interaction. For me, it’s a lot fun.”
Bryan said the interactive battle has even caught the eye of a health-care professional.
“One of the WWE doctors, Dr. (Michael) Sampson, was telling me … he has a psychologist friend who finds the whole thing just fascinating,” Bryan said. “Just the whole schtick of me coming out and saying No! and then people saying ‘Yes!’ back in my face and I say No! louder and they say ‘Yes!’ louder. That whole thing, she finds absolutely fascinating because it’s happening before your very eyes on TV. I’d never thought about it like that.”
At the moment, Bryan is one half of the tag team known as Team Hell No, which began as a reluctant partnership between Bryan and longtime WWE superstar Kane. The relationship has seen its share of funny moments — thanks to segments involving their anger management counsellor Dr. Shelby — and success, including a stint as tag-team champs.
Bryan can’t say enough about his current partner, whose real name is Glenn Jacobs.
“I feel like people respect (Kane) plenty, but regardless of how much, or how little, people respect him, they should respect him more,” Bryan said. “Knowing him outside of the ring makes you respect him even more. He’s a leader. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He goes out there and, for a big guy to do the things he does, it’s literally incredible. He’s been Kane in WWE since 1997. Through all that time, he’s always gotten great crowd reactions. When we go out there, and we wrestle on these live events, people are still excited to see him and he always goes out there and busts his butt to give them the best show possible.
“I have so much respect for that man, it’s incredible,” Bryan said, adding that Kane ranks among the top WWE superstars of the last 15 years.
Team Hell No is scheduled to grace the ring at the K-Rock Centre on March 2. While fans will be treated to some wrestling, Bryan considers it a treat for the talent coming to Canada. He even paid homage to wrestling fans north of the border.
“Canadian fans are always very enthusiast, but what I really like most about them is that they’re not afraid to buck the trends, to buck what seems to be getting shoved down their throats,” he said.
“It’s very clear that we want this guy to be a good guy, but you know what, we don’t like this guy so we’re going to boo him,” he said, speaking as though he were a Canadian fan. “You’re not supposed to like this guy,” ‘but you know what, we do like him, so we’re going to cheer for him,’ ” he added. “That, to me, is one of the funnest parts about WWE, going to these places, in Canada and in England and (places) like that where these people are like ‘you know what, we’re not taking what you guys are shoving down our throat; we’re going to make our own opinions and we’re going to cheer for who we want to.’ It’s a lot of fun.”
One thing is certain, Bryan will find more people at this Kingston appearance than a previous trip he made.
“I did an independent show in Kingston, too,” he revealed. “I forget who the promoter was, but it was in front of a very small amount of people, like 35 people, which did not justify flying me in,” he added with a chuckle.
For Bryan, house shows like the one looming in Kingston are what it is all about for WWE superstars. They offer the talent opportunities they don’t have on live TV.
“To me, it’s being able to wrestle more, which is what I like. On TV, there are time restrictions — you have to go out there and wrestle, but ‘wait, we’ve got an ad break!’ — that sort of thing. For me, that’s the fun part.
“When you’re wrestling on Raw, you’re not wrestling for the live crowd, you’re wrestling for the TV audience. For me, at the live events, it’s very fun to go and get in Yes!-No! shouting matches with people in the crowd. Being able to play to the people is one of the funnest parts of this job.”