On Tuesday March 20th, Daniel Bryan was officially cleared to return to in-ring action by WWE, two years after his retirement. When the two of us sat down for a long chat at the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi two days earlier, he had no idea this would happen.
For years in and out of WWE, Daniel Bryan, real name Bryan Danielson, established himself as one of the most popular wrestlers in the world, revered for both his humble charisma and technical prowess. In the ring, viewers knew he could beat anyone. Out of the ring, they felt they really knew who he was, and what he stood for. As a result, he cultivated one of the most impressive fan bases in the industry, one that stuck with him through every injury, including the concussions that finally forced him to call it quits.
Though he’d said his goodbyes, still, no one wanted to give up hope. Neither did Bryan. He went to every doctor, received cutting-edge treatments, and did everything in his power to get back to the point where he could wrestle again. Some fans questioned whether he should leave WWE when his contract expires and wrestle elsewhere, but Bryan always maintained that it was wrestling in WWE that he loved most, especially at a time when so many people he worked with throughout his career have joined the fold.
When I sit with him, it’s clear he still has a passion for the WWE. He’s excited about the company’s 10-year deal with Saudi Arabia, for the future of the company, and what its push into the Middle East will mean for the brand. He’s excited to be a WWE ambassador, meeting with young athletes from the UAE and around the world at the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi. He doesn’t love every aspect of his job, but he cares about the company and the people in it.
As positive-minded as he is, as we spoke, there was still a sadness in him, as he still thought he might never get the chance to get back into the ring and do what he loves most, and what that would mean for his future.
He wants to change the world. He wants to do good things. He did that when he met with children in Abu Dhabi at the Special Olympics, but he wants to do more. He still will have the chance to do that, but for now, he’s gotten his wish. Daniel Bryan will wrestle again in a WWE ring.
Read the full conversation below:
What are your thoughts on WWE’s upcoming Greatest Royal Rumble in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia?
This is something that I’m really excited about. I don’t know if I’m coming or not, but I’m crossing my fingers that I am coming to the show in Saudi Arabia on April 27th. Wrestlemania is a big event, the biggest event of the year for us, but I think, historically, the show on the 27th might end up being more important, if you look at where WWE’s trajectory goes and our influence on the region. I think it’s really cool that we’re having such a big show in a stadium in Saudi Arabia with them behind it, because that could be a shift to more shows in the region where we obviously have a huge fan base.
If you look at Wrestlemania, it’s huge, and I don’t want to dismiss that at all, but what we’re doing in Saudi Arabia… You can tell that they’re not just doing a show in Saudi Arabia, it’s a 50-person Royal Rumble match that’s bringing every person from both brands. One it’s a huge expense but it also shows how much we’re putting into it, and how much Saudi Arabia is putting into it, and if it’s really successful, how much that means we’ll be in the region more. I think that’s super cool.
I know you’ve worked a lot with people with illnesses in the past like Connor Michalek, you’ve put a spotlight on people with intellectual and physical disabilities. So what does it mean for you to be with the Special Olympics representing WWE?
It’s incredible to me because I feel like every time I do something like this I learn more and more. When you look at all of these opportunities as not only ways to educate people outside but also to educate yourself, it becomes pretty awesome. I didn’t realize. When you look at the Special Olympics and their mission to help people with intellectual disabilities and include them in society, that’s wonderful. But then you hear about the health aspect of it. They talked to me about how that’s actually one of their broader goals—to do health screens for these kids.
They told an amazing story about an Egyptian kid who didn’t realize that he only had 15 percent of his vision. He came in and they told him that there’s something wrong with his vision. He said no there’s not, but actually yes there was. They gave him glasses, and now he can see for the first time. A lot of doctors, when they’re dealing with people with intellectual disabilities are not trained to deal with some of these things, and how much it changes their lives. To be a part of that, to be able to support that, is incredible.
What are you able to do when you meet with these kids? Do they recognize you? What do you see as your role?
Oh my gosh. I thought, ok, I’m here as an ambassador with WWE, so that’s good for media stuff for me to be here, but I always underestimate the global power of WWE. I tend to think small, right? I underestimate that. When I went out on the basketball court, all of a sudden this young lady comes over and yells, ‘Yes! Yes!’ Then the whole basketball team was around me wanting pictures and that kind of stuff. Then I played a basketball game. One of their big messages is inclusion—including people with intellectual disabilities into stuff, and one of the great ways to do that is through sport. I know that if I’m going to a new area, one of the best ways for me to make friends is to go do jiu jitsu because sport brings you in close contact with people, and makes you realize that despite outer appearances or whatever that you’re actually more similar than you are different.
After this experience with the girls, who then immediately after doing this went to play a game, I thought, oh, we’d do a little warm up together. But then I went and played a game with the guys, and I hadn’t played a game of basketball in I don’t know how long. Getting involved in that is just incredible.
As you’ve said, you’re not really aware of WWE’s global reach. What’s your relationship like with your own fame?
I have weird thoughts about my fame. It changes. It evolves over time. I did an interview, I forget where it was, and the interviewer looked at me and said, ‘I feel like you feel guilty about your success.’ No one had ever pointed that out to me before, and I think that’s very true. I have a lot of very smart friends and people around me who try to encourage me and say, ‘hey, you can use that to improve the world.’
I love wrestling. It’s really weird. It’s a weird fascination with this thing we call wrestling. I love it. But there have been times where I’m just like, what have I been doing with my life? There’s so many problems! I need to be going out and changing the world! But if I wanted to tackle climate change, for example, I know a little bit about climate change, but the people that are working on it, I would have to get in another 20 years of hard study just to get where these people actually are. One of the better things I can do is bring attention to these issues.
One of my friends specifically is very into saying, hey, you can change things, but if you’re talking about division of labor and what you can do that would benefit the world the most, it might not be actually doing it, going out there and doing climate science, it may be going out there and bringing attention to it. The fame allows you to do more than you could if you don’t have it, but sometimes it’s really hard for me, because I don’t like all the attention, and y wife has two reality shows and a YouTube channel, and WWE follows me around, so it’s like…
My wife pressures me to do social media. [Laughs] She’s like, ‘you really need to do more social media! We need to take advantage of this and you need to use this platform to educate people about the things that you care about!’ I’m like, ‘yeah I know! But I hate social media! [Laughs]. I have a weird thing with it.
John Cena is also a part of your life as well, and he’s just a person who’s not just about changing the world in a macro sense but very much on an individual basis, the kids he meets with and the ways he’s able to affect peoples lives. Do you feel responsibility in that way too, especially coming to something like the Special Olympics?
Yes. I also feel the responsibility of being a good role model. One of the things that’s really hard is meeting with kids and making them feel that they’re important to you, and everything that they’re going through is just as important as everything everyone else is going through. I think that’s one of the most important things to me, when I connect with kids like Connor, is working with them as individuals. With some people it’s hard because schedules get so busy, but WWE does a great job of saying here’s an individual with a problem, and they really look up to you. We get to go and take their mind of their problems and I think that that’s—I don’t know.
For a long time I felt guilty about being a part of entertainment because I felt that it’s a very selfish industry. Why do you want to go out in spandex tights and go out and play-fight with people? Uh, because it’s fun? And I love it? But how is that benefiting the world? I don’t know, but doing more things like that makes me feel like I’m benefiting the world a little bit.
Back to the selfish aspect, obviously wrestling is a huge passion, you want to get back in the ring, I think you last put it at 20 per cent that you’d get back in the ring with WWE, is that still what you’d say now?
I think that’s increased, but I don’t know by how much. As of today, I’m still not cleared by WWE. I’ve been working very hard to work with their doctors as far as like, ‘hey, what do you guys need to see from me to show that I’m ok? Send me to any doctor you want. Send me to doctor in the country, send any doctor in the world, I don’t care, as far as concussions and brain health and all that kind of stuff, send me to any doctor you want and I’ll see them’. If they don’t clear me, then I’m ok. I’m ok with some someone saying because of this and this and this, we can’t clear you, but when everybody else has cleared me, and you don’t clear me, then that’s where I don’t understand.
I think I’m getting closer. One of the things that I really respect about Dr. Joseph Maroon, the Director of Medical of WWE, his opinion is that I should not wrestle. When he’s sent me to doctors, he could easily send me to doctors who would just verify his own opinion, but he doesn’t. He says, ‘these are the people that I think are the best people in the country’, and he sends me to them. Every person he’s sent me to has cleared me. Whether or not that ends up being me getting cleared by WWE, or whether that’s a thing where they say, ‘I’m sorry but we still don’t feel comfortable clearing you’, I don’t know. I would imagine that if I don’t get cleared by Wrestlemania I won’t get cleared.
It’s coming up! You’ve been saying that for a while but now we’re here.
Yup, we’re here. And I think that’s the hard part. We’re three weeks away, and it’s truer than ever, and I’m still not cleared. That does weigh heavy on my shoulders. That means a lot. If I don’t get cleared, my contract is up in September and what that means from there. My wife’s business is so intertwined with WWE, I cannot just say, ‘thank you guys very much for everything that you’ve done for me over the last several years, but I’m going to part ways with you and I’m going to go do my own things. It’s like ok guys I’m going to part ways with you, but your cameras are still going to follow me and my wife around! [Laughs]
If I do end up leaving, it’s leaving people that I’ve known for years, before I was with WWE, but there’s also something things that are exciting about that too. I would say that the chances of me getting cleared by WWE have risen but I don’t know to what percent.
How fulfilling has it been for you in the last year or so since Talking Smack ended? How have you enjoyed the General Manager position?
I go up and down with it.
Part of me sometimes is like, what am I doing here. I would just rather be… What’s really hard for me is my passion for wrestling. A lot of fans love the Rock, right? When they grew up, they loved watching the Rock…
I had his action figure!
Yeah yeah! So they were like ‘smell what the Rock is cookin’!’ and all that kind of stuff. I was always like, ugh, get me past all these long interview segments I want to see the wrestling. I liked Dean Malenko right? They were complete opposite ends of the spectrum. I got better at talking because it was a requirement for the job. That’s not my passion—my passion is for the in ring stuff. Doing the GM stuff—it’s good in the sense that it’s helped me learn how to become a better talker, but it’s not necessarily something that I’m passionate about. What’s the lady’s name who wrote Eat Pray Love?
Yeah. She wrote another book and I forget what it’s called but I read that. I really liked it. What she said is, every job has a bad part. Being a writer—a lot of people want to be writers, because they think about the writing part. But it’s not just the writing part. It’s writing, and submitting it to somebody, and having somebody tear apart your writing that you spent two years writing this book and they’re telling you that it’s not good, and then doing it all over again, and submitting it again—the people that are successful at writing put up with the parts that are really hard.
There are parts about being a wrestler that are really hard. The constant grind of the travel, and all that kind of stuff. As a wrestler, I was very good at putting up with the parts that are very hard because I love the wrestling so much. Putting up with the parts that are really hard, when you’re doing the part that you don’t like [laughs] isn’t as easy. That’s kind of my thoughts on being GM.
It’s interesting when you have this relationship with that skill, that talent of yours, your ability to connect with the audience. Obviously you’re not using the way that you want right now but that ability never goes away. All eyes are always going to be on you. Your ability to get people behind you is just always going to be there. I find interesting your disinterest in it.
Yeah. My interest in a lot of things that other people think are important are sometimes—we talk about inclusion—makes me feel very separate from people. It is interesting. I would love to be able to talk with somebody who could say, ‘hey, because of these skills that you’ve acquired and these skills you seem to have, here’s a way to make the world better.’ Instead of ‘hey, you could make these stories better on Smackdown Live’. I think that’s part of the issue.
When I go out, and I do something, people feel connected and it does something, but what is the end of that? What is the goal of that? If the goal is not to do either something that I’m passionate about or to do something that betters causes that I care about or betters the world even in a way that I don’t care about. If it betters the world in some way, I see the point, but…
In this world, there’s lack of a lot of things. Some people don’t have access to clean drinking water. Some people don’t have access to a ton of food. Access to entertainment in first world countries? There’s not a lack of entertainment. In fact, there’s so much entertainment.
I don’t watch much television. Do you know how many times people come up to me and say, hey, have you seen such and such a show? I say, ‘no, I haven’t!’ They say, ‘you need to watch it!’ Do I? Do I really? Then they say that for 15 different shows, because there’s so much great entertainment out there. All these different places are producing great entertainment. There’s no lack of entertainment.
To use a skill of connecting with people, and how I do that I have no idea, I don’t know why that happens, but to use that skill to just create more entertainment that isn’t particularly fulfilling to me, I don’t necessarily care. If somebody could point me in the direction of how to use a particular skill or an avenue to really help people with it, or do this, or do that, then I would be much more engaged in the process.
I wanted to set the record straight on a recent report that’s been floating around. Is September 23rd the day your contract expires?
No, no. I had somebody say that to me on my Twitter. They said, does your contract expire on September 23rd? And I was like, how do people even know that. But no, my contract actually runs out September 1st, which is actually the day of the All In show, but it’s funny because that doesn’t compute. I was in the Bahrain Comic Con the last two days, and we did Q&As, and at each one, somebody asked me about that. They said, ‘are you going to be at All In’? I’m not. I don’t know what to tell you. But yeah, my contract is up September 1st.SHOW MORE