WWE superstar Daniel Bryan is fighting for his right to remain on SmackDown (airing Fridays at 8/7c on Fox).
Universal Champion Roman Reigns challenged the future Hall of Famer to a title match this week with the stipulation that if Bryan loses, he is banned from the Blue Brand for good.
The stakes are extremely high for the leader of the Yes Movement and former SmackDown General Manager, who’s been exclusively wrestling for the brand since 2015. The match also marks a full circle moment for both wrestlers given that Bryan fought Reigns in Reigns’ debut match with the Shield in December 2012, as part of a six-man tag bout.
After being forced to retire in 2016 due to injury, and returning to in-ring action in 2020, the four-time WWE Champion isn’t taking this second shot in the ring for granted. Ahead of his game-changing match against Reigns this Friday, Bryan hit up TVLine to discuss his legacy with SmackDown, his potential second retirement, and why he’s finding joy in the little things this time around.
TVLINE | If you lose this match, you will be banned from SmackDown for good. Are you ready to take on Roman Reigns 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 a SmackDown exclusive wrestler. This was before we were on Fox, so it’s still considered the underdog show but it was using the same wrestlers [on both Raw and SmackDown]. I thought, ‘How do we make the show special?’ When the brand split, I became the general manager of SmackDown, and since that time, I’ve been exclusive to SmackDown.
The idea of being banished from my favorite show is a tough pill to swallow. Falling in love with ‘80s Mexican wrestling, one of the things that I think Mexican wrestling does better than anybody is they have matches with stipulations that have real consequences. They’ll do mask versus mask matches, or hair versus hair matches, and they never go back on the situation. If you lose the mask versus mask match, your mask is gone and you wrestle without a mask for the rest of your career. So, that’s one of the things that I’ve really tried to take to heart with my love of lucha libre. If I do this, and if I lose, I’m banished from SmackDown and I have to be OK with that.
The flip side of that is getting the opportunity for the Universal Championship. There’s nothing quite like being the top guy. I love wrestling under any circumstance, but when you’re in a championship match and you’re the champion, there’s just a different feel [to them] and that’s the feeling I love… When I came back from my injury, Roman was the one guy on my list that I wanted to have a big match with. This is it. This is as big as it gets.
TVLINE | I can’t imagine juggling both family life and the road life, which is very chaotic. How has it been for you this past year, jumping back into that but now having more responsibilities at home?
One of the pluses of my life is that I get to do this thing that I love and then when I come home, I don’t have to do anything else. When I get home, I’m just home and I can be fully present with my kids. The hard part is coming home and having energy on a day like Saturday [Bryan performs Friday night on SmackDown and will then fly home for his daughter’s birthday] where she’s going to want her Daddy to have maximum energy for her party.
This morning, she was helping me set up the sprinklers for the first time, so that we can appropriately water the plants that we planted yesterday. It was harder before the pandemic, when you were doing all these untelevised live events, and also my wife [Brie Bella] was super busy because she owns three companies and does a reality show (Total Bella). Since the pandemic, the actual work/home balance has been much easier. There are so many negatives about the pandemic, but when you try to look for the positives, that’s one of them.
TVLINE | You’ve been championing for others around you to get those big pushes, like Cesaro getting an opportunity at the Universal Title. Why has it been so important for you, in this last run especially, to uplift those around you and see those pushes for them rather than just for yourself?
My mentor William Regal… when he sees somebody who’s 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 singles match at WrestleMania, and so I watched the first night and I was so happy for him. When you see somebody else do things that they’ve dreamed up or they accomplish something awesome, and you love that person, it almost feels better. One of the things that people don’t think about a lot in regard to entertainment personalities is their lives outside of what they see on television. One of the things with WWE superstars, specifically, is that there’s a lot of camaraderie there and a lot of love for each other. When somebody does something great, like Cesaro finally getting to break through, there’s a whole slew of people who are happy for him. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about our industry that a lot of people don’t get to see.
TVLINE | Coming back from an injury as serious as yours, how has that shaped your approach to this last full-time run in the ring? Did you find yourself being more appreciative than you were 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 there are very few times that I’ve taken it for granted. One of the things that I’ve fallen in love with that we don’t get 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 they had these golf carts that take people around, and I like to surprise them by jumping in front of the golf cart and getting hit. Finding joy in the in between moments, finding joy and appreciation in the fact that we get to do this awesome thing that I love so much, I think that there’s really been a turning point in my perspective.
TVLINE | Jumping in front of golf carts sounds fun in theory, but has that gone wrong yet?
So, I was just in the main event of WrestleMania and I’m waiting for my wife and I’ve got my bag. One of the producers, Tommy, is driving somebody in a golf cart. He’s coming, he totally doesn’t see — he’s looking for something else — and I jumped in front. 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 that I got in the [WrestleMania main event] match. I had a conversation with Vince McMahon this past week and John, a writer’s assistant, was right there. He’s taking notes for everything that they need for the show and I threw him under the bus. Like, “He pushed me out of the golf cart. He literally pushed me out of the golf cart at full speed and John drives fast in that golf cart.” Vince didn’t even know what to make of it. Eventually, he realized that it’s not a real thing, but it’s those little things…
TVLINE | With your contract expiring in September, you’ve previously talked about plans for becoming a part-time wrestler. What does that look like? Do you see yourself shifting to a backstage role, or occasionally appearing in the ring?
It’s funny that people gravitate towards the date “September,” and I think it’s because that’s when my last contract ended, 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 that looks like… I had a tag team match on SmackDown last Friday, and it was a lot of fun, but my neck was just wrecked. I’m going to 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 that point where it’s like, how long can I do this full-time and still be able to do those kinds of things with my daughter? What’s the right balance between part-time and that sort of thing? It may be that it’s just every once in a while when the urge strikes, or maybe like a schedule where it’s like eight months on, these months off.
One of the coolest things about wrestling, and just be being an independent contractor in general, is that you can say, “Well, I really only want to do this amount of work.” What that amount of work is, I have no idea yet. I still have to figure it out. But I also need to be respectful of the people who are relying on me to go to work. I have to give them an answer sooner rather than later. I’m trying to figure that out, trying to be responsible as an employee of somebody who’s taken care of our family very well. But then also, trying to take the time to figure it out.
TVLINE | Have you talked to other wrestlers who’ve gone through this? Like Stone Cold Steve Austin, who decided to retire due to nerve damage from a serious neck injury? Or the Undertaker, who became a part-time performer?
Honestly, I haven’t. I just talked to my friends and my family about it. We all know the risks of continuing to do this and the return on the risk. My neck injury wasn’t nearly as bad as Steve Austin’s and our generation pays a lot closer attention to taking care of their bodies than the previous generation. That’s the same with every sport. That’s why Tom Brady is able to quarterback 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 we’re able to take care of our bodies better. When you’re 20 and wrestling, you can go pedal to the metal in every single match. Now I know if my body’s not feeling so great, I’m going to have to ease up a bit. I’m a little more respectful of my body. Even this week, with my neck bothering me, I didn’t lift any weights. I did yoga, I did physical therapy exercises and I did some gymnastics-type stuff as opposed to heavy squatting.
TVLINE | Is there anything that you still hope to check off the list of things to accomplish in WWE? Or do you think you’ve hit them all?
I don’t even think in those terms. A lot of a lot of those things are “make believe” in our own minds. There was a time where I was like, “Oh, I’d really like to do this…” and I never got any real sense of fulfillment or accomplishment from that. Obviously, I’m in a blessed place where I’m regularly on TV, I’m regularly in cool stories, I regularly get to be on pay-per-view matches. It’s different when you’re struggling to get on TV and pay-per-view matches. It’s a different ballgame. But I don’t have those goals or checklists.
Part of the thing that I’m mostly interested in learning, and the hardest part about stepping away from full-time, is the idea of how much I still have to learn. I’ve been fortunate enough to sit in a lot of production meetings and I’ve learned a lot. Whenever you get deep into something, you start to uncover layers and the different aspects there are to putting on a wrestling show. I spent years trying to learn how to talk in front of people because I was never good at that. Now, it’s looking at camera angles and things like that. It’s interesting just to learn deeper and deeper about this thing that I love so much.