Bryan Danielson on Life in AEW, Tony Khan and More in Wide-Ranging B/R Exclusive
The former Daniel Bryan had spent the last 11 years of his 21-year career with WWE, so this was his first appearance for another promotion since facing Shelton Benjamin for Northeast Wrestling in 2010.
As one of the most popular stars of the modern era, and also one of the most talented between the ropes, Danielson could have written his own ticket with just about any company on the planet.
His arrival came on the same night as Satoshi Kojima, CM Punk and Ruby Soho's in-ring debuts, as well as the first AEW appearance of Adam Cole. Needless to say, AEW packed a lot of big moments into one night.
We had a chance to speak with Danielson about why he chose AEW, how fatherhood has changed him as a wrestler, his new entrance music and much more.
Making the Jump to AEW
As someone who is known around the world as one of the best technicians in pro wrestling, Danielson probably could have picked whatever promotion he wanted. When it came time to make that decision, there were a few factors that came into play.
"I have gotten asked that a lot, and the hard thing is that there's no one thing," he said. "There's no simple answer. It's mostly because it just seemed like a lot of fun. And, yeah, I was kind of looking for something different. When you're in the same place for a long period of time, sometimes you just need a change of scenery. And at the end of the day, that was kind of what might have tipped it over the edge.
"I mean, there were so many other factors, but there were so many factors that went both ways. Like, 'OK, if this were the case, I would have never left or if that...' you know, that sort of thing. So there were myriad factors that kind of went into it. It's complex.
"It was really hard, actually, because not only do I have so many friends and people that I love there, but I legitimately have family there. That part was a little bit difficult. I feel like the next several years of my career are probably going to be the best version of me that I've got. And then after that, because my body feels great right now, then you're starting to get like 43, 44, 45.
"Right now, I feel great. So I want to be able to use these next couple of years to be able to go as hard as I can. And I think the best place to do that is AEW now."
Brie Bella's Reaction
When Danielson made the decision to leave WWE and sign with AEW, he also had to consider how it might impact his wife's career.
Brie Bella still has ties to WWE, but her husband said she was completely supportive of his decision.
"Brie's great. She literally just wanted me to be happy," Danielson said. "She was always like 'Hey, whatever you decide, I want to 100 percent support you.' So there was never any pressure from her being like 'Hey, this might affect Total Bellas' or anything like that. She never wants to even talk about that. She was like 'I just want you to be happy.' And so I'm a very lucky man to have such a supportive wife."
How Fatherhood Has Changed His Life
Danielson's time with WWE led to him achieving worldwide fame and fortune, but most importantly, it's where he met his wife, Brie.
They have two children, a daughter named Birdie and a son named Buddy. The former world champion spoke about fatherhood and how it has changed the way he approaches life.
"It's weird because wrestling used to be the base in the back of my mind, you know what I mean?" Danielson said. "When I say the base, like the home base in the back of my mind like as I'm doing other things, say, as I'm gardening, it would always just kind of go back to pro wrestling. And that's been since I was a kid, it was my default thing to think about.
"And now that's not the case. It's weird how your brain can be rewired so quickly to be like, 'Oh, my default setting is not thinking about what I say, my default setting is thinking about my kids.' And I think any parent knows once you have kids, you realize how selfish you were before you had kids. I feel I'm a lot less selfish now."
Goals in Pro Wrestling and His Approach to His Career
For fans of international pro wrestling, there are countless dream matches to be had between Danielson and a number of stars from around the globe.
One of the places he has expressed interest in working is New Japan Pro-Wrestling, specifically in the G1 Climax Tournament that is held every year. Unfortunately, it wasn't possible for him to participate this year due to the ongoing pandemic.
"There are things I want to do, but I don't ever think of them as goals," Danielson said. "Oh man, I'd love to do the G1. But if I never do the G1 and all I ever do is wrestle in front of 19,000 people at Arthur Ashe Stadium, I think I'm going to be OK, I'm sure. So it's weird as far that kind of stuff goes because there are so many things you can't control. I would love to do the G1, but until we get COVID under control, that's not even possible for me to go quarantine for two weeks."
As a fan of Eastern philosophy, the 40-year-old has focused less on achieving goals and more on appreciating the things he already has in life.
"One of the things that I've really worked on is trying to desire less and less," he said. "I feel like, and this is more of like a minimalist philosophy, but the less things that you want, your overall well-being is better, right? So, if I don't want a nice car, I don't desire a nice car, it doesn't bother me that I don't have a nice car, right?
"I think that that comes from growing up poor and trying to focus on being thankful for what I have, which is something that my mom was always really great with us. And that's kind of expanded into my 20s when you get more into the Eastern philosophies and all that kind of stuff. So when it comes to it, it was hard, because with WWE, they want you to be very goal-driven.
"All those the media interviews, if you don't say you want to main-event WrestleMania, then they're like, 'Oh, he doesn't have any drive, or he doesn't have any ambition,' which I don't [laughs]. But sometimes you just have to lie to please demand. My overall goal is just having fun and being satisfied with awesome people.
"There's a part from the Tao Te Ching that really spoke to me. It's something about real happiness is living right next door to another country and having no desire to go there. Because you're so happy where you're at, you know what I mean? But I am an adventurer and kind of an explorer, so I like seeing different things. And one of the reasons why I came to AEW is the curiosity.
"There's no desire for any sort of external expectations. As far as what's going to happen [in AEW], I'm going with an open mind and an attitude of trying to be the best wrestler I can be. And that's always been a focus. I think one of the cool things about wrestling is that if you really focus on it, and don't worry about the politics and anything else, you focus on just becoming a better pro wrestler."
The AEW Locker Room
When it comes to being part of a promotion that tours the country, wrestlers spend a lot of time with each other, which is why it's important for the locker room to provide a good environment for the roster.
Danielson spoke about the differences between the AEW and WWE locker rooms and asking some of the younger wrestlers for advice on what's cool these days.
"It's hard for me to say honestly, it's weird because WWE itself has changed so much in the time that I've been there," he said. "People go in, and I think this happens in every company regardless, and push for ideas that will make them look good. And so everybody does that. So I think more of the politics, the struggle in WWE is that the system is so big that it's hard to get access to the people you need to get access to, to get anything to change.
"One of the wonderful things about AEW is that almost everybody has access to Tony [Khan]. He's very friendly and very approachable. It's not just me, it's people lower on the card who will go up and talk to Tony. It’s a very open-source system. And as the company gets bigger, that might actually not be functional. One thing I will say is that I feel like the locker room is more upbeat at AEW.
"I think most of the talent feels like they're a part of something. They feel like they're not only just a part of this company, but they're also a part of an industry-type change. They feel like they're a part of the wrestling business changing, and I think that that's really cool. And I also think it's interesting because there are a lot more younger people in the AEW’s locker room."
One of the biggest changes for Danielson when he moved to AEW was all of the new, young faces he had never had never met before. As a dad in his 40s, he seeks advice from some of the young talents who understand what's cool better than he does.
"I've only been there a couple of weeks, but I love chatting with Dante Martin and Hook," he said. "And I keep asking them if I look cool or not because I'm 40 and I'm not cool. And it's just different. I've never met a lot of the people in AEW. I've known some for years from the indies before, but the other guys I've never met before.
"So there's this fun mix of younger people. You've got the real veterans like Big Show [Paul Wight], Mark Henry and Christian. And then you have people like MJF, who would never normally pile on Big Show, but it feels like if I start giving Big Show a bit of crap, and he feels like 'OK, I can maybe make a joke here.' And I think that's a fun dynamic. And I also think that's the best dynamic for learning as a wrestler who has been in this for over 20 years, now for 21 years."
How His Style Has Changed for His Health
Danielson spent 11 years with WWE, but three of those were spent on the shelf. After rehabbing his neck injury and finally getting cleared, he returned to in-ring competition in 2018.
While he still uses most of the same moves, he has had to adjust his style in order to ensure he can stay healthy.
"I really focused on taking less of the big bumps that I was taking every night," Danielson said. "I was doing the top rope dropkick every night. I just took the giant backbone bump. And in 2013, before I had my neck surgery, I did 227 matches that year, which is, I think, the most anybody had done in a long time. And I don't know if anybody's done that number since.
"I know Jon Moxley had a couple of years in a row where he had the most matches in WWE. So he might have reached that, but then after that, for the live events, I kind of toned it back a bit. I think the hard thing with WWE is that you just do so many shows. You have to, so the big thing is on those on those live events, doing 227 diving headbutts probably isn't a great idea for anybody.
"So that's kind of what I focused on. But now my body feels great. Since the pandemic, I feel it's been a minimal amount of work compared to what professionals are used to even if you have a match every single week, which most people don't. For TV, that's only 52 matches a year. So it's a lot easier for your body to recover and rest.
"I also think that one of the things I've really focused on outside of wrestling is my workouts. Everything is more geared toward health as opposed to size. Right before I got my neck surgery, I was doing all this heavy lifting. I would dead-lift over 500 pounds, I squatted 400-something and that's not great for me when I'm doing that many matches. You need to be a little more strategic with your lifting and that sort of thing."
The Night of His AEW Debut
Danielson's AEW debut had been rumored for a while before All Out, but nobody knew for sure if he would show up or if the promotion would wait for a future date.
When he did show up, the crowd at the Now Arena in Chicago went wild. You could see the excitement on his face as he made his way to the ring, but he wasn't nervous about the moment.
"I actually kind of laugh sometimes just at the absurdity of everything," Danielson said. "But I was just excited. It was really interesting because you could feel the energy of the crowd. Especially after Adam Cole came out. So Cole came out and I'm standing there, and you could just feel kind of the electricity of like 'Oh, is there going to be something? Is there going to be something more?'
"I was just trying to soak up that energy. It's also really funny because, apparently, I met Tony several years ago or something like that. I think at a Giants game. I don't remember. And so to me, [All Out] was the first time I met Tony. And he was just so excited. Like he's giddy, you know what I mean? He's just like 'This is gonna be awesome.' It just puts a smile on my face.
"A lot of times before a big thing, I also try to focus on my gratitude on things. It was like an incredible sensory experience that, if I close my eyes right now, I can think about it and feel it again."
His New Entrance Music
Danielson used the song "Ride of the Valkyries" for the majority of his WWE career, but he was known for using "The Final Countdown" by Europe during his time on the indie scene.
When he went to AEW, he knew he was going to need something fresh. A public-domain version of "Ride of the Valkyries" would have been an easy option, but he decided to reach out to a friend for help.
"Tony and I talked about a couple of things. We had talked about 'The Final Countdown,' but that was way too expensive," he said. "I hate talking business stuff when I don't exactly know what it was, but it wasn't just the amount of money. They would only let [AEW] play it like 20 times a year or something like that. For several $100,000 you can play 'Final Countdown' 20 times a year. That doesn't work for us.
"I had kind of wanted something a bit different, so I reached out to my friend, Elliott Taylor, and said 'Hey, here's an idea. But I don't know if it's any good. Could you do something like this?' He dropped everything. I think he's done 72 hours in the studio and made the song that I come out to now, which I think he's also going to do a full-length release because it actually has like two chorus lyrics.
"I really, really liked it. And it also incorporates a chant that people would do when I was on the independents. I kind of wanted to get it in there. I would love for people to start chanting it again."
Danielson's new theme is titled "Born for Greatness" and it was co-written by Taylor and his fiance, Skylar Grey. Both musicians have collaborated with the likes of Celine Dion, Eminem, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj.
Who Is the Future of Pro Wrestling?
One of the things Danielson is looking forward to in AEW is the chance to face some of the young talents who have come along in recent years.
"The younger guys in AEW are the future of the business. And they're all different, which is what's really cool," he said. "Darby Allin is very different from Sammy Guevara, who's very different than Jungle Boy, who's very different than MJF. But I think variety is the key to the future of athletes. It's because, especially now, people get tired of the same old thing relatively quickly.
"One of the things that I'm interested in, in general, is the idea of actually learning from younger talent. Picking one person is so difficult, because they're all developing at such a fast rate. But I think Allin has such a smart mind for wrestling and a great balance between crazy stuff and excellent storytelling. I think he's really good at that.
"Then you've got someone like MJF who is such a great talker. His style is also very story-driven, but more action-packed than it would have been if he had come in when I came in 21 years ago. There's going to be somebody who comes in that none of us expect, and they're just going to blow everybody away.
"I saw Darby in Evolve before he was in AEW. I thought 'Oh, yeah, this guy's fun.' I would have never expected that if you put them on national TV. He's one of AEW's most popular guys right now just because he connects to people through stories. He is a very smart person in general and has a lot of drive.
"I was talking to him at my first Dynamite. I was like 'Woah, he does a lot of stuff.' He put out a skateboard with Tony Hawk or something like that, and he wasn't bragging about it. We were actually talking about meditation, and he was asking me about my meditation practice. He was talking about his method and how he is very goal-driven and focusing on these things, and mine is the complete opposite. It's like the absence of goals. But it was really interesting to talk to him about it."
To wrap up our recent interviews with AEW stars, we have been asking them to review a movie they have seen recently. Danielson spends most of his TV time with his kids, so he went with a family film from Netflix titled Wish Dragon.
"I don't watch any movies on my own," he said. "The only movies that I watch are with my daughter. That said, there's this great animated movie on Netflix called Wish Dragon. And as soon as I saw it, I was just blown away because of the lead villain.
"I think they took it from Orange Cassidy. He's a bad guy who fights with his hands in his pockets. He's a cool guy but he wears a suit. He's like a kung-fu guy who fights with his hands in his pockets. They had to have gotten it from Cassidy, but I haven't heard any wrestling fans talk about it. I can't even tell you the full story because I'm not sure I saw the whole movie. I will say if anybody is interested in seeing how you can translate a worldwide cast into an animated film for kids, watch Wish Dragon.
"I think you have to be in the kid's section a lot to see it. It was my daughter's favorite movie for about a month. She wanted to watch it at least once or twice a week. Brie watched it and she said that it's really good. It's a good story. OK, so I said I didn't know a bit more about the plot, but then I thought, so the dragon was a rich Emperor or something in China and all he cared about was being rich.
"He thought he was going to go to Heaven and they wouldn't let him in. They said he has to be a wish dragon for 10 people, which is going to take 1,000 years, so every 100 years or whatever. So he just encourages everybody for their wishes to make themselves rich, because that's what makes him happy.
"He is trying to get the last kid to want to be rich. And he's like 'Well, I don't want that, I want this, I kind of have a crush on this girl,' which is probably also not a great lesson. But, that's kind of the thing. And then he actually uses his last wish to save the girl's dad or something like that. And the dragon ends up learning the lesson from the kid and becomes a better person."
Bryan Danielson can be seen this Wednesday on Dynamite when he battles Kenny Omega in his first match with All Elite Wrestling.