PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Bryan Danielson is known as many things. Husband. Father. Wrestling superstar. The leader of the 'Yes!' movement. American Dragon.
And for the past decade, Daniel Bryan.
But the 40-year-old Danielson has left that moniker and the company that created it, WWE, behind for what he hopes will be greener pastures, or at least more pro wrestling focused pastures in All Elite Wrestling.
Last month, the former WWE Champion made his highly anticipated debut at AEW's All Out event.
AEW, which launched just two years ago, is the brainchild of Cody Rhodes, the son of legendary wrestler Dusty Rhodes, and independent wrestling fan favorites The Young Bucks and current world champion Kenny Omega. The company is backed by the Khan family, owners of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars.
AEW has worked to build its own stars in Darby Allin, Orange Cassidy, Britt Baker, Sammy Guevara, the Lucha Brothers and Jungle Boy. At the same time, it's been a destination for former WWE headliners including Chris Jericho, Christian Cage, 'Big Show' Paul Wight, Mark Henry, and just recently Adam Cole and C.M. Punk. The latter returned to pro wrestling after a seven-year absence.
Danielson and the All Elite roster will be in Philadelphia this Wednesday as AEW celebrates the two-year anniversary of its Dynamite TV program at the Liacouras Center.
"I encourage everybody to come out and watch the show. It should be a great show. That energy you feel coming to a wrestling show - at AEW it's unlike anything else. The AEW crowds are awesome and wild," Danielson told 6abc in a Zoom interview.
The American Dragon spoke about a variety of topics such as what was behind his decision to leave WWE, the differences he sees between the companies, the worst fan responses he received to his move, why he didn't like 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin and The Rock as a fan, his forced retirement, and is he looking to become the Tom Brady of pro wrestling.
Bryan Danielson started out wrestling on the independent circuit which is made up of smaller promotions across the country. He has been wrestling as Daniel Bryan for the WWE since 2010. There he met his wife Brie Bella. They have two children. He was in the main event of WrestleMania 37 this past April and wrestled his last match for the company later that month in a Smackdown telecast against Roman Reigns.
6abc: Wrestling is such a different business. Are you getting used to people calling you by your real name again?
Danielson: People always called me by my real name because there were so many people within WWE who knew me from my time on the independents, and so a lot of people just naturally call me Bryan regardless. And then the new people sometimes they would call me Daniel.
What was really weird is my father-in-law, (WWE executive and former pro wrestler) John Laurinaitis still sometimes calls me Daniel - and he's my father-in-law!
6abc: Where are you living these days?
Danielson: I'm in Nevada right now. I'm in Lake Tahoe, which is nice. This year was tough because the fires have been so bad so it's been super smoky. We actually had to evacuate; the air quality was 500, which is like the worst it gets, the AQI was 500 and I'm sure if it went over 500 it would be over 500. But the fires are just killing the west right now. So, I mean, outside of that, it's beautiful now that the fires have quelled at least in our area. There's no smoke. We're surrounded by beautiful trees; they've done such a good job of keeping Lake Tahoe clean, and there's a whole initiative about it. It's a pretty wonderful place to live.
6abc: You grew up in Washington, you live in Nevada, you are definitely a West Coast guy. Ever see yourself moving near Philly and the East Coast?
Danielson: So I like chilly weather. I like cold weather. It was actually really hard for me. When (my wife) Brie and I first moved in together it was in San Diego. San Diego is a different animal. It doesn't get super-hot in the summer, or at least not when we lived there. It might get a little bit hot, but a lot of those houses don't even have air conditioning, and then the winters aren't super cold either.
But I grew up in Washington where the year I graduated high school, it rained 100 days in a row. We would get some snow, but it would just be like chilly and rainy and all that kind of stuff. Then we moved to Phoenix, Arizona.
It's like those summers are wild, especially last year with the pandemic. My wife was pregnant during the pandemic. It's 115 degrees outside. They do set up all these indoor things in Phoenix where they say 'OK, you can do all these indoor things during the summer,' - not during the pandemic you can't.
6abc: So you are headed here to Philadelphia for AEW Dynamite. You are no stranger to wrestling in Philly. Is it easy for you to tell that it is a Philly crowd?
Danielson: So I think you used to be able to. On the independents for sure; there was a total difference between the Philly crowd and different crowds. Once you get to WWE, like when I first started, the Philly crowds would be more intense and that sort of thing. But then it kind of stopped being like that. I don't know. I'll be interested to see how it is for AEW because AEW fans tend to be like "wrestling" fans. They love wrestling. "Wrestling" fans, when I would come do independent shows in Philadelphia, they were some of the best and some of the worst. If you didn't have a good match, they were some of the worst.
I'm a big Seahawks fan and my wife's a big Eagles fan and we were wanting at one point to go to a Seahawks-Eagles game in Philadelphia. She was like, 'You do realize you can't come here with a Seahawks jersey?' I was like, 'What do you mean?' That happened when we went to a Phoenix Cardinals game where the Seahawks played the Cardinals and I wore Seahawks stuff. I would say, 15% of the crowd was wearing Seahawks stuff. But it's like 'no, you just can't do that in Philadelphia.' It's like, 'it's not safe.' That's the unique nature of Philadelphia crowds in general. But it's fun.
My sister has three daughters and there were times on the independents where I wouldn't want her to bring her kids. But now I don't feel like that. Now I feel like there are rowdy crowds, but it's safe.
6abc: For someone who has never stepped foot in a wrestling ring, can you explain what's it like to move from one wrestling company to another?
Danielson: I think it's essentially like just changing jobs. Like anytime that you switch jobs, you do similar work but there're differences. There're differences in culture and there're differences in all sorts of things. I would think to the average person most people can understand that. It's like if you're a teacher and you want to switch schools or if you'd like teaching third grade instead of sixth grade. You switch for different reasons.
6abc: Now that you are at your new job, is there one big difference between AEW and WWE that you have seen so far?
Danielson: I mean there's a litany of differences. But I think this is one of the things that drew me to AEW and why I kind of wanted to come to AEW: It's that AEW is a wrestling-first company; it's a wrestling company for wrestling fans. Sometimes WWE is more just based on general entertainment where they want to reach as many casual viewers as possible, where I think AEW is like 'hey, if you love wrestling, here's this.' But also even if you're not a wrestling fan, we're putting on wrestling, and the wrestling itself is going to bring you in.
If you were to do a comparison just watching the shows, you'll see that there's a lot more wrestling in the two hours of Dynamite than there is even in a three-hour WWE Raw. Sometimes there's more wrestling on an AEW Dynamite show than there is in RAW and SmackDown combined. So that's one of the things that drew me to it because as a fan, when I was in high school everybody loved the Rock and ('Stone Cold') Steve Austin. They were my least favorite people because all they did was talk. I like the 'wrestler' wrestlers.
6abc: It's a different style. Not bad, just different, right?
Danielson: It's just a different style marketed towards different people. It's just a different philosophy on wrestling. My dream when I started wrestling was not to be in WWE and to main event WrestleMania or anything like that; my dream when I started wrestling was actually to be a big star in Japan, because I loved the Japanese wrestling style which is very wrestling-based. I also liked the idea because I was scared to death of public speaking. I loved the idea of being able to go to Japan- you could be mildly famous over there, and then come back and nobody would know who you are, and I loved that idea. 'For sure, that's what I'm going to do,' and then, yeah, that didn't happen.
6abc: I think they do know you now in Japan.
Danielson: There's no escaping it now.
On Sept. 5, Bryan Danielson became part of AEW at their All Out event as a surprise towards the end of the show, just minutes after former WWE star Adam Cole made his debut. As the Chicago crowd cheered his WWE catchphrase of 'Yes!,' Hall of Fame commentator Jim Ross shouted: "Oh my God! For the love of God, it's Bryan Danielson! What an ovation! Listen to this place!"
6abc: Can you describe what was it like at All Out when you first walked out and the crowd erupted?
Danielson: It's interesting. For different moments in my career I can close my eyes and I can feel it all over again. And one of the things that I tried to do to reinforce that is meditating shortly after I have an incredible experience, so that you can just feel the sensation because it doesn't stop once you go out there. You go out there and you come back and you're still buzzing. You've still got this feeling.
So AEW hid me and Adam Cole in a trailer, but then Adam Cole left with Britt Baker. I went back into the trailer for a little bit. I was just there by myself. And, and so now I can close my eyes and it's just weird. It just feels like a tingling sensation, like just an energy coursing through your body.
I think that's one of the reasons why I love wrestling; it's the energy that you get from the crowd. Then when there's massive energy like that, it's unbelievable.
I've been really lucky throughout my career to have some really cool moments that if I stopped thinking, quiet my mind and close my eyes, I can feel the chills all over again and All Out was one of those moments.
6abc: Then not too long after, you wrestled Kenny Omega on AEW Dynamite in Queens, New York. The fans went crazy for just your initial tie up. What were you thinking at that moment?
Danielson: When you look back on favorite matches, it's hard because there's a recency bias but it feels like my favorite experience in a match. My favorite experience before might have been wrestling Kofi Kingston at WrestleMania (35). But that, I think that may have topped it.
But one of the things that I think in these moments where fans are just super into something is that how lucky am I to be doing this thing that I love, with this incredible reaction.
I haven't talked to C.M. Punk about it in years, but C.M. Punk and I wrestled each other, I think it was in like 2004 or 2005, at this little promotion in Florida in front of 75 people. And we wrestled for like 45 minutes. So we're out there in front of so few people, and it's so quiet and you can just hear the people. Like the guys weren't even booing us. It's a guy sitting in the front row, chatting to his friend, he just goes, 'These guys aren't very good, are they?' His friend goes, 'No, not really.' It's not even booing us; they're just talking to each other, but we can hear it. That's such a deflating experience, as opposed to having this experience where fans are excited to just see you tie up. Gratitude is what it feels like.
6abc: From one extreme to the other.
Danielson: I think those moments of 'hey, these guys aren't very good' lead you to the gratitude when you have the things like you had at (Dynamite in) Arthur Ashe Stadium.
After leaving WWE, Bryan Danielson published an article on The Players Tribune, the website founded by Derek Jeter where athletes can write their own stories. It was a letter to wrestling fans and his former company titled "Thank you, WWE." For his WWE fans, he wrote, "I hope you will continue to follow me in AEW, but I completely understand if you don't. You've given me more than enough - more than I could ever repay. Thank you for all of it."
6abc: Why was writing that letter important for you to do?
Danielson: It's weird. There's a decent amount of tribalism in our culture today. Let's say politically. If you're right, everything on the left is bad; if you're left, everything on the right is bad. Same thing with wrestling.
The worst ones (fans) would be like sending (messages to) me on Instagram saying 'I hope you die' or 'I hope your son dies.' But that's a small minority. I think wrestling fans for the most part are great people and great humans. But what it does is it's kind of like conspiracy theories. Because the really bad conspiracy theory, like flat Earth or something like that. The issue is distrust. They don't have a trust.
So the most hardcore of these people who are saying these horrible things, why are they mad? Well, because (they think) 'we supported you for years and years and we're the ones who pushed you to this level, and we feel like you've betrayed us or we feel like you've left us.'
And from a personal standpoint, I never got a chance to say goodbye to a lot of people. A lot of people didn't even know it was my last day. I didn't know if I was going to go back or not. My contract was up. Most people in the company didn't know my contract was up that day except for a handful of people, and I didn't know if I was going to come back. I didn't know if I was going to go to AEW. I didn't know if I was going to stop wrestling for a while.
So there was never really a chance to say goodbye and I also just kind of wanted to express the gratitude that I have not just for the fans of WWE who pushed me to such a high level, but also for the people in WWE.
You have to understand, it's everybody. It's like the catering people who when I came in as a vegan, nobody else was a vegan on the roster, they would make me my own food every week. They took the time to make me extra food, and this is before I main evented WrestleMania, this is when I was barely on TV. They would still make me food.
It's like the creative team like Ryan Callahan. They asked me to be part of the creative team a little bit. And it's the conversations with Ryan Callahan where we would sometimes be talking for an hour about the show, sometimes we'd be talking for 30 minutes about the show, and for 90 minutes about other stuff. Them just welcoming me with open arms. It's the other wrestlers. So it's so many people that you don't get a chance to say 'thank you, these past 11 years were awesome and it's thanks to a lot of you.'
When the pandemic hit, wrestling companies were forced to pivot. WWE initially brought their television programs into their training performance center in Florida with no crowds. They later moved to stadiums and arenas, still with no audience, installed a board of virtual fans, added crowd noise and called it the Thunderdome.
6abc: What brought on your decision to leave WWE and go to AEW? Was it building up and you were thinking what else is out there?
Danielson: So my contract with WWE was coming up. Brie and I thought when I signed that contract that after this, I'm going to be kind of done. I had told them before the pandemic started, I said, 'we've got a little over a year left on my contract, I'm kind of done being a full-time wrestler so let's use this next year and a half that we have for me and use it to build as many stars as possible.' What's the most effective way I can be of use?
But then I started really, really loving wrestling during the pandemic again. Empty arena wrestling. For me it was such a unique challenge. Oh my gosh. When we were in the WWE Performance Center, there was no people, there was no extra audio, there was no crowd sweetening, there was nothing, and I loved it! Because it was such a unique challenge as far as like - whoa, what even is wrestling? How do you even present this? Some people just did their same old thing and that clearly doesn't work with no crowd. And so it made me look at wrestling differently, it challenged me. It was a lot of fun.
And then my daughter's going into preschool and I was like maybe it's just time for me to just be dad. I had all these conflicting ideas about what I wanted out of my life.
I thought 40 was going to be the tipping point where I was just like physically, I won't be able to do what I want to be able to do. Turns out I'm 40 and I feel great!
In 2016, Danielson, then known as Daniel Bryan, bid farewell to the WWE due to injuries. He would return to in-ring action two years later after saying he was medically cleared to compete again.
6abc: Just a few years ago, you were in a WWE ring giving a retirement speech, now look at you.
Danielson: So I was kind of forced to retire. But it wasn't entirely based on my medical history. It was also based on me lying about my medical history. I really try to be truthful in most things, but one of the things that I was not honest about with WWE - and you have to understand their point of view on it is that I lied about certain things about my health to get in the door. Then all of a sudden, they find out these things when it's six years after they signed me. They're like 'oh my God,' like it's a Pandora's box. So it wasn't just my medical history, it was the lying about my medical history.
Well, then you have to reestablish trust and all these different things.
It is different since I've come back from having to be retired because it's honestly felt like it's a blessing every time I'm able to go out there.
I don't get nervous before I wrestle anymore. I was trained by (WWE Hall of Famer) Shawn Michaels. He said, 'When you start getting nervous before you go out there, that's when you need to quit.' I was like 'well, I don't know.' I feel like I'm having more fun than ever and I don't get nervous so maybe that's not the case.
6abc: Having been around the wrestling industry for as long as you have, can you identify the biggest change you've seen in the business since you started your career?
Danielson: So I think the biggest change is from a wrestler standpoint, it's the focus on health amongst wrestlers and the decreased drug use, like when it comes to steroids, painkillers, all that kind of stuff.
You look at AEW, I don't think Kenny Omega drinks or doesn't drink very much. I don't think the Young Bucks drink or drink very much. C.M. Punk is straight edge. I've never drank in my life. You have all these top guys who not only not do steroids, do not do painkillers, or whatever it is, they don't even drink. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with drinking, but, that's a huge culture shift from what wrestling was.
And I think a lot of us saw the decline of past wrestlers and the early deaths. You talk to a lot of the guys, and a lot of them now have kids, and what their goals are. We want to be healthy, not only healthy dads, but we want to be healthy grandparents.
So that's a major culture shift and it's a major cultural shift in the sense of how we take care of ourselves.
When I first got into wrestling, you would see guys do a couple squats and then just go out there and wrestle. Now, I'll start warming up an hour before my match. But you see the same thing in the NFL; you see the same thing in the NBA. That's why Tom Brady is able to perform at such a high level (at age 44) or LeBron James is able to perform at such a high level at (36 years old.) We're all taking care of our bodies and our minds better so that we last longer, but so that we're healthier when we're done wrestling.
6abc: At age 40, you could become the Tom Brady of pro wrestling!
Danielson: It's hard because there are so many other people who could also be the Tom Brady of wrestling. There are people older than me who are performing at an incredible level right now. But yes, I could be. I could because I kind of want to wrestle as long as I possibly can, not full-time obviously but when I'm 70 I still want to do five to 10 matches a year.
("The King") Jerry Lawler still goes out there and he still does shows and I love that. He doesn't need the money. He just still loves it, and he's been wrestling since maybe the late 60s, but at least early 70s, and he still goes out there and loves doing shows and loves it because there's just something that you can't get anywhere else.
6abc: You are a family man now with a wife and two young kids. Very different from when you started your career. Has fatherhood changed your outlook on the business and how you perceive the wrestling industry?
Danielson: So the major shift is that wrestling has always been the backdrop of my mind. If I'm out doing something, it always kind of falls back to wrestling. That really started to shift when we had our daughter. It doesn't fall back to wrestling. Wrestling is something that I have to actively think about. My thought process now goes back to my daughter, my son, my wife, whereas before, if I wasn't doing anything, if I just sat there empty, my mind would immediately kind of wander to wrestling. Now it wanders to my family. I think that's the huge unique difference as far as like the wrestling and family placement in my life.
The other thing that's non-wrestling related is I only had one cup of coffee in my entire life, that was forced upon me. I think in 2003. And then, when we had our daughter, I started drinking coffee. I still hate the taste, but it's like now I'm addicted and I can't function without it.
AEW Dynamite takes place Wednesday, Oct. 6 at the Liacouras Center on the campus of Temple University in North Philadelphia. It will air live on TNT.