For someone so at ease inside a wrestling ring or in front of a camera or so eloquent during an interview over the telephone, it’s a bit surprising when World Wrestling Entertainment megastar Daniel is at a loss for words.
But on this day, the upbeat and down-to-earth man behind the “Yes!” craze is just that, when asked to go back in time one year to the night he captured the WWE World Heavyweight Championship during an emotional and memorable night at WrestleMania 30.
“Honestly, words can’t describe it,” Bryan said just days before WrestleMania 31, during which he’ll compete with six other men in a ladder match for the Intercontinental Championship. “I don’t know how language happened,” Bryan added, “but there are some things that language can describe and there are other things that language can’t describe: sometimes feelings of intense happiness and also feelings of intense sorrow. Just saying ‘Oh, I was really happy!’ doesn’t necessarily do it justice, right?
“I guess gratitude would maybe be the best word, like a very intense sense of gratitude. It’s a rush, but also there’s this weird feeling inside like, ‘What did I do to deserve this? What have I done in my life to sort of deserve this really special moment?’ (It’s) almost just a sense of awe. That’s the best way I can describe it.”
On that night, Bryan, fuelled by fans’ insistence he get a shot at the WWE title, defeated Triple H in singles competition earlier in the night before joining Batista and Randy Orton in the main event, which he won, igniting the wrestling world into collective “Yes!” chants.
Without those fans, Bryan says, none of that would have been possible. It’s something that is clearly near and dear to his heart.
“I don’t know if I’m the first person that this has happened to, but literally, the WWE fans put me into the main event at WrestleMania,” Bryan said, a sense of satisfaction in his voice. “Without them being so vocally supportive of me at every show, the WWE wouldn’t have given me that opportunity.”
It’s a perfect example, Bryan says, of how much things have changed thanks to social media.
“This generation of fan realizes they have a voice,” he said. “Until last year, I don’t know if they knew they could change things, but they did, and now they have this voice and they have this power,” he said with a hearty laugh.
“That’s incredible across so many boundaries, not just wrestling,” Bryan added. “If you think of the implications of that politically, economically — all that sort of thing. It transfers to a lot of things broader than just wrestling.”
Nearly as quickly as Daniel Bryan reached for, and grabbed that proverbial brass ring, his entire world came crashing down with a resounding thud. That thud was a lingering neck/shoulder injury that forced him to undergo career-threatening surgery literally weeks after becoming one of the most unlikely WWE champs in history.
His future in doubt, Bryan was forced to forfeit his WWE title and fans were left in stunned silence to wonder if they’d seen the last of the man who’d only weeks earlier captured imaginations around the world.
Bryan talks openly about the injury, which he suffered months earlier at the hands of Randy Orton, and the subsequent surgery.
“I knew it was serious,” Bryan said, but added that most people assume it was an injury suffered following his WWE title win.
“The injury actually happened in June of 2013 in a match on TV against Randy Orton,” Bryan said. “They ended up stopping the match and I was furious. Anyway, after that, I was having these horrible shooting pains down my arm, for literally months on end. The WWE doctor said, ‘At some point you’re going have to get surgery on this, it’s just inevitable. You’re going to need to get surgery on your neck. If you don’t do it now, it’s not going to hurt you, but if it gets worse, we’re going to have to do surgery.’”
Unfortunately for Bryan, that is exactly what happened.
“It got to the point where it was very painful. The pain, I guess, is OK,” Bryan said, but added that “when it turns to weakness (that’s a problem).”
That he even got to WrestleMania in the first place was a blessing in and of itself, Bryan said.
“In hindsight, I was thrilled that I got through WrestleMania and was able to experience that moment,” he said.
It’s only been very recently that Bryan has been able to use the word thrilled when discussing anything from the last number of months.
“You have to keep in mind that this is several months after I’ve been able to come back and have dealt with being really angry about it for a while,” Bryan adds with a laugh. “This is the long-view, perspective, right? I’m very thankful at this point that I was able to get through WrestleMania and all that kind of stuff and then had the surgery rather than then getting to January and just all of a sudden just having to have that surgery.
“I express more gratitude now than anything else.”
When asked if he’s 100% healthy, Bryan pauses.
“I don’t know if any of us are 100% healthy,” he said, again laughing. “It’s interesting because I don’t feel like there’s anything I can’t do … although the WWE tells me occasionally that there are things that I can’t do,” he quipped. “For example, tonight, I think it aired in Canada last night, on SmackDown, I got suplexed and landed on my head by Luke Harper and when I got to the back, (WWE officials) were like, ‘Yeah, literally, we’re not allowing you to take that move anymore,’” Bryan said with a chuckle. “It’s like, ‘Oh, OK.’ I feel fine today, but people are genuinely concerned.”
It it’s not just WWE officials who are concerned for Bryan’s long-term health.
“My wife … she is concerned,” Bryan added, referring to fellow WWE star Brie Bella. Bryan says his wife is concerned not only for her husband’s immediate health, but thinking about the future, too. “Hey, we want to have kids, right? Then you you’ve got to think about (being) able to play with your kids.”
Admittedly, Bryan says it’s hard to turn off the competitive juices that flow through his five-foot-10 frame.
“Sometimes it’s hard for me because I’m so passionate about wrestling and I love doing what I’m doing and I get that adrenaline of going out there and doing something that to me is creatively fun and do it, but sometimes I don’t have the long view in mind,” Bryan said.
Going back to his original thought, Bryan admits he’s maybe not as healthy as he once was.
“Does my body feel like it did when I was 22?” he asked. “Probably not, but I don’t know of any 33-year-old wrestlers whose bodies do. Other than that I feel good.”
As he works his way back from a very serious injury, Bryan finds himself again on the biggest stage in pro wrestling: WrestleMania. And while he may not be main eventing at Mania, much to the chagrin of his legions of fans, Bryan is both happy to be wrestling and looking at it as a personal challenge.
On Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif., before tens of thousands of fans, Bryan has an opportunity to win the Intercontinental title in a match that also features Stardust, Dolph Ziggler, Luke Harper, Dean Ambrose, R-Truth and the IC champ, Wade Barrett.
Bryan’s approach to the match is simple.
“I’m taking the approach that I hope everybody in this match is taking: no matter who wins or who loses, I want this match to be the match that everybody talks about at the end of WrestleMania,” he said, very matter of factly.
“Now, will that be the case? I have no idea. There’s bound to be other incredible matches at WrestleMania, but setting that kind of bar for ourselves and being able to (leave there and have people saying) ‘Man, that Intercontinental Championship ladder match, that was awesome.’ ”
In the process, Bryan hopes he can play a role in restoring a little lustre to the once glorious Intercontinental championship.
“The Intercontinental Championship over the last little bit hasn’t necessarily been the attraction that it has been in the past,” Bryan said, adding that “after this year’s WrestleMania, for the Intercontinental Championship to mean a lot more and for people to be able to do a lot more with it, that’s kind of my goal going into and coming out of WrestleMania.”
Asked whether he thought the other six guys in the match can look to Bryan’s meteoric rise last year as inspiration, Bryan was indifferent but thoughtful.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “It’s hard to know how other people perceive you and how other people see you. I actually see it as an example to myself because I didn’t even know that that was possible. This idea that even though the WWE had no plans for me to be near the main event in WrestleMania, that the fans can make that change, that they can force the WWE to put somebody in a spot because they won’t accept anybody else, that’s an inspiration to me.”
That said, Bryan hopes people look to his example for inspiration.
“I would like to think that (someone) like Dean Ambrose sees that and not necessarily just because of me, but just sees that and says, ‘Hey, I’m every bit as good as Daniel Bryan and I can get these people to be every bit as (supportive of) me.’ Same with Dolph Ziggler and all these guys. We have, we truly do, we have an incredible amount of talent in the WWE right now, and it’s just a matter of giving all that talent an opportunity to go out there and get the fans behind them. Whether or not I’m an inspiration, I have no idea, but I know that we have a bunch of motivated people in this ladder match to prove that not only do we deserve to be in a main spot at WrestleMania, but that we deserve to steal the show and be the guys that people are talking about at the end of the night.”
It’s hard to imagine that a person who is as open and honest and engaging in a conversation as Daniel Bryan could be altered by success or fame. When asked if his rise to megastardom has changed him, Bryan was his eloquent self.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m sure it has to change you at some point, on some level. But I don’t know in which way. It hasn’t changed me in the sense of I don’t live any bigger of a lifestyle, I’m hoping that I haven’t changed as far as how I treat people, but I’m sure mentally, it changes your perspective. It must, right?”
Change isn’t always a bad thing.
NOTE: Jan will be reporting live from WrestleMania 32 this weekend. Please watch for his coverage here and follow him on twitter.com/Jan_Murphy