WWE Superstar Daniel Bryan is fighting for his right to stay on SmackDown (Fridays at 8 / 7c on Fox).
Universal Champion Roman Reigns challenged the future Hall of Famer to a title match this week with the condition that if Bryan loses he will be banned from the Blue Mark for good.
Much is at stake for the leader of the Yes movement and the former SmackDown general manager, who has been wrestling exclusively for the brand since 2015. The match also marks a full-circle moment for both wrestlers, as Bryan battled Reigns’ debut match with Reigns The Shield in December 2012, as part of a six-man day fight.
After the four-time WWE Champion was forced to retire in 2016 due to an injury and play in the ring again in 2020, this second shot in the ring cannot be taken for granted. Prior to his groundbreaking match against Reigns that Friday, Bryan hit TVLine to discuss his legacy with SmackDown, his potential second retirement, and why he enjoys the little things this time.
TVLINE | If you lose this match, you will be permanently banned from SmackDown. Are you ready to face Roman rule and fight for your right to stay?
Before the brand split in 2015, I went to [WWE creative] with this idea that I would be an exclusive SmackDown wrestler. This was before we were on Fox so it’s still considered an underdog show, but the same wrestlers were used [on both Raw and SmackDown]. I thought, “How do we make the show special?” When the brand split, I became General Manager of SmackDown and have been exclusive to SmackDown ever since.
The idea of getting banned from my favorite show is hard to swallow. Falling in love with ’80s Mexican wrestling is one of the things that I think Mexican wrestling is better than any other, that they have regulations in place that have real ramifications. They do mask-to-mask matches or hair-to-hair matches and never go back to the situation. If you lose mask to mask match, your mask is gone and you will be wrestling without a mask for the rest of your career. That’s one of the things I really took to heart with my love for Lucha Libre. If I do that and if I lose, I’ll be banned from SmackDown and I have to agree to that.
The downside of this is the chance for the Universal Championship. There’s nothing like being the top guy. I love wrestling in all circumstances, but when you’re in a championship game and you’re the champion, it just feels different [to them] and that’s the feeling I love … When I got back from my injury, Roman was the only one on my list who I wanted to have a big match with. That’s it. It’s as big as it gets.
TVLINE | I can’t imagine balancing both family life and street life, which is very chaotic. How was it for you to jump back over the past year but now have more responsibilities at home?
One of the good things about my life is that I can do what I love and then when I get home I don’t have to do anything else. When I come home, I’m just at home and can be fully present with my children. The hard part is coming home and feeling energized on a day like Saturday [Bryan performs Friday night on SmackDown and will then fly home for his daughter’s birthday] where she wants her daddy to have maximum energy for her party.
This morning she helped me set up the sprinklers for the first time so we could properly water the plants we planted yesterday. Before the pandemic, it was harder when you did all of these non-televised live events and my wife did too [Brie Bella] was super busy because she owns three companies and is doing a reality show (Total Bella). The actual work-life balance has been much easier since the pandemic. There are so many negatives about the pandemic but if your trying to look for the positives this is one of them.
TVLINE | You have worked to ensure that others around you get this big boost, like Cesaro, who gets a chance at the universal title. Why was it so important to you, especially in this last run, to uplift the people around you and see these impulses for them and not just for yourself?
My mentor William Regal … when he sees someone special he uses the word magic because part of what we do is magic, like the illusion. Cesaro is magic. He’s never had a single game at WrestleMania so I saw the first night and was so happy for him. When you see someone doing things they invented or doing something great, and you love that person, it almost feels better. One of the things that people don’t think much about when it comes to entertainment personalities is their life outside of what they see on TV. One of the things about WWE Superstars in particular is that there is a lot of camaraderie and love for one another. When someone does something great, like Cesaro finally breaking through, there are quite a number of people who are happy for them. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about our industry that a lot of people can’t see.
TVLINE | How did your approach to this final full-time run in the ring after an injury as bad as yours have made? Have you been more appreciative than in the past?
I found myself wrestling with more joy. Sometimes you take things for granted, and since I’ve come back from the injury, I feel like I very rarely took them for granted. One of the things I fell in love with that we don’t have a chance to do right now [since SmackDown’s current ThunderDome set at the University of Southern Florida is much smaller than their previous location at Tropicana Field] is that they had these golf carts showing people around and I like to surprise them by jumping in front of the golf carts and getting hit. Between the moments of finding joy, finding joy and appreciation in the fact that we can do this great thing that I love so much, I think there really was a turning point in my perspective.
TVLINE | Jumping in front of golf carts sounds fun in theory, but has it gone wrong?
So I just went to the WrestleMania main event and I’m waiting for my wife and I have my bag. One of the producers, Tommy, is driving someone in a golf cart. He comes, he doesn’t see it at all – he’s looking for something else – and I jumped forward. The top bar of the golf cart hit me harder than I thought and I had this mark on the side of my head that was worse than anything I got in [WrestleMania main event] Game. I had a conversation with Vince McMahon last week and John, a writer’s assistant, was right there. He’s taking notes for anything they need for the show, and I threw him under the bus. For example: “He kicked me out of the golf cart. He literally pushed me out of the golf cart at full speed and John is driving that golf cart fast. “Vince didn’t even know what to do with it. Eventually he realized it’s not a real thing, but it’s these little things …
TVLINE | With your contract expiring in September, you’ve already discussed plans to become a part-time wrestler. How does it look? Do you see yourself in a backstage role or do you occasionally appear in the ring?
It’s funny that people are focusing on the “September” date and I think that’s because my last contract ended at that time, but it doesn’t end in September. [Note: Bryan was tight-lipped about when his contract actually runs out.] I’m still trying to figure out what this looks like … I had a tag team match on SmackDown last Friday and it was a lot of fun but my neck was just broken. I’ll be 40 in May and my daughter likes to get on my shoulders to pick leaves from a Japanese maple in front of our house [and he couldn’t this time due to the pain]. You get to the point where it looks like how long can I do this all day and still be able to do such things with my daughter? What’s the right balance between part time and something like that? It may just happen occasionally when the urge comes, or maybe like a schedule where it’s eight months later, those free months.
One of the coolest things about wrestling and just being an independent contractor in general is that you can say, “Well, I really just want to do this much work.” I don’t know yet what a lot of work that is. I have yet to find out. But I also have to respect the people who rely on me to go to work. I have to give you an answer sooner rather than later. I am trying to find this out and I am trying to be responsible as an employee of someone who has looked after our family very well. But also try to take the time to find out.
TVLINE | Have you spoken to other wrestlers who went through this? Like Stone Cold Steve Austin, who decided to retire due to a nerve injury from a serious neck injury? Or the Undertaker who became a part-time artist?
To be honest, I haven’t. I just talked about it with my friends and family. We all know the risks involved and the return on the risk. My neck injury wasn’t nearly as bad as Steve Austin’s, and our generation is much more mindful of their bodies than the previous generation. It’s the same for every sport. That’s why Tom Brady can quarter the Super Bowl at 43, that’s why LeBron James is still the best basketball player in the NBA at 37. We just have a lot more information and can take better care of our bodies. When you’re 20 and wrestling, you can step on the metal in every single match. Now I know if my body doesn’t feel that good, I need to relax a little. I am a little more respectful of my body. Even this week, when my neck was bothering me, I wasn’t lifting weights. I’ve done yoga, I’ve done physical therapy exercises, and I’ve done a few gym-type things as opposed to strong squatting.
TVLINE | Is there anything that you hope will be struck off the list of things to do in WWE? Or do you think you met them all?
I don’t even think in those terms. Many of these things are “make believe” in our own mind. There was a time when I said, “Oh, I really would love to …” and it never really gave me any real sense of accomplishment or accomplishment. Obviously, I’m in a blessed place where I’m on TV regularly, I’m a regular on cool stories, I get to play pay-per-view games on a regular basis. It’s different when you’re struggling to get on TV and pay-per-view games. It’s a different ball game. But I don’t have these goals or checklists.
Part of the thing that interests me most, and the hardest part of moving away from full time, is the idea of how much I have yet to learn. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a lot of production meetings and I’ve learned a lot. Whenever you dive deep into something, you begin to uncover layers and the different aspects of a wrestling show. I tried to learn how to speak in front of people for years because I was never good at it. Now it’s about camera angles and the like. It’s interesting to learn more and more about this thing that I love so much.