Daniel Bryan enters WrestleMania 37 prepared to close a chapter in his wrestling career.
The former WWE champion and father of two will turn 40 this May. His WWE contract is coming up very soon. But now he finds himself in a triple-threat match with champion Roman Reigns and Royal Rumble winner Edge for the Universal title in the Night 2 main event of WrestleMania 37 (April 10-11, 8 p.m., Peacock).
He’s going into the match with the understanding this may be his last WrestleMania as a full-time performer — a decision he’s spent more than a year preparing for — after getting a second chance in 2018 following his retirement from complications with concussions.
“It really started entering my mind the end of 2019. We had done three or four months in a row on international tours. I was gone for 14 days at a time,” Bryan, whose real name is Bryan Danielson, said in a Zoom interview. “Plus, you leave your kids for that long, you leave your wife [Brie Bella] for that long and all that kind of stuff and it just gets to be a little much.
“I love wrestling. Wrestling has been my favorite thing for a long time, but I don’t love wrestling nearly as much as I love being a dad. There’s nothing harder than your daughter telling you, ‘Daddy please don’t go.’ It was around that time that I started to talk to the head people in WWE, like I don’t know if I’m going to be doing this full-time for that much longer.”
Conversations with WWE officials on the matter began last March at the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view, just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic hitting. He told them that with just a little more than a year left of being a full-time ring performer he wanted to find “the best way to use me so I leave this place better than when I came in.”
Since his return three years ago, his focus has been on giving back and helping the talent that will be carrying the organization when he’s no longer there. He was the foil for Kofi Kingston during Kofimania, feuded with “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt and had a program with Drew Gulak.
Then, as this year’s WrestleMania season came around – and with the clock on this portion of his career possibly ticking – Bryan wondered if he had gone about it all wrong. Bryan questioned if he had done a “disservice” to himself by not pushing himself to try to earn a higher-level spot in WWE. It wasn’t about trying to be in main events, but ensuring he gets to have “cool kick-ass matches” that resonate. But those usually happen in the upper portion of the card.
“There was a moment where I was a little disappointed in myself and I was just like, ‘ugh, did I make the wrong choice going down that road,’” Bryan said. “I had expressed that thought to maybe the wrong person, who brought it up to other people [higher up].”
That person was a member of the SmackDown creative team, of which Bryan is a member. Bryan’s feelings about his approach came up during a general conversation about how people do things that are “self-defeating” that “you may deep down do them on purpose to give yourself kind of an out” on why you aren’t getting pushed or getting what you feel you might deserve. He wondered if that was the case for him in this instance, too.
“I don’t know if that [conversation] played any part in why I’m now in this [main event] because I didn’t bring it up to anybody else and here we go,” Bryan said.
Those same sentiments, doubts and determination started to trickle down to his character on TV, admitting on camera that this WrestleMania might be his last before starting to do whatever it took to find his way into the main event. The edge this Daniel Bryan is showing is a “very real” part of Bryan Danielson’s personal journey.
Slowly things started to turn. Bryan’s Universal championship match with Reigns at Fastlane in March was his first pay-per-view singles match since WrestleMania 36 and his first pay-per-view main event in more than two years. He’s following that with one of the most unlikely WrestleMania matches ever.
Reigns (Joe Anoa’i), who is operating at the highest level of his career right now, took four months away from WWE over 2018-19 to deal with the return of leukemia. Edge (Adam Copeland) retired in 2011 because of a serious neck injury. He was medically cleared to return at last year’s Royal Rumble and now will try to win back a world title he never lost. Bryan, himself, never knew if he would wrestle again.
“I think it’s pretty incredible,” Bryan said. “The odds of any one of the three of us being in this position is pretty slim. In descending order, Roman, me and then Adam. Coming back from triple neck fusion is absolutely incredible, but all three of us shouldn’t really be here. But thanks to the miracles of modern medicine we are.”
This isn’t the first time Bryan has found his way into a triple-threat match for a world title at WrestleMania that also included the year’s Royal Rumble winner. He did so during the most iconic moment of his career at WrestleMania 30, the culmination of the YES! movement. Bryan defeated Triple H earlier in the night and later beat Randy Orton and Batista to become WWE world heavyweight champion. The story around this one doesn’t feel the same.
“The big difference is WrestleMania 30 you knew everyone wanted me in it,” Bryan said with a laugh. “We had real crowds there, audibly reacting to these kinds of stuff. I think for this one, it’s hard to tell if … to me in the back of my mind once this kind of started, it’s do people really want this? I was somebody who really thought Edge and Roman is a strong WrestleMania main event on their own. I think it’s worked out well for me.”
As joyful as the WrestleMania 30 moment in New Orleans was for him, his fans and those close to him, Bryan said he feels “a little bit numb” when he thinks about that time now because of the circumstances around it.
“Fans think of it from a Daniel Bryan perspective from mostly a positive perspective,” he said. “I have just a mixed bag. There was WrestleMania 30, there was Ultimate Warrior passing away shortly after that, then my wife and I get married, then my dad passes away, then [8-year-old superfan] Connor [Michalek] passes away, I have to have neck surgery and I don’t have wrestling as a catharsis to deal with the emotional pain that I’m going through from my dad passing away, which is how I’ve emotionally dealt with everything in my life”
If he is to leave WrestleMania 37 as champion again, he hopes the moment feels more like losing the WWE championship to Kofi Kingston at WrestleMania 35 did. That night at MetLife Stadium, in his mind, feels ‘infinitely better” than winning at the Superdome because “there’s no negativity to it.”
“At the end of it, I lose, I come back, I have a great moment with Kofi, but then I go to my wife and my daughter’s there and my daughter just saw me wrestle in front of I don’t know what, 65,000 people and it’s just a pure joyful moment,” Bryan said. “That’s kind of what I expect if that were to happen this time. But I also think there is just going to be a cool moment that I’m having regardless because for the first time in over a year we are wrestling in front of a live crowd. The thought of it just gives me chills.
“In Mexico, there is tons of just older people who love just still going out and wrestling just because it’s fun. It’s this lifelong passion you have. So what’s the right amount? How much does my wife actually want me in the house?”
At least for a little while longer, Bryan’s regular second home is still WWE’s 20×20 ring. He enters WrestleMania 37 expecting to soon close that chapter in his life and has been preparing himself for it.
“Since I’ve come back from retirement I’ve approached a lot of matches with the feeling that this could be your last one, because you never know,” Bryan said. “My last one, before I was forced to retire I had no idea that was my last one even when it was happening. There’s this idea that no matter what the circumstance is this could be the last time you get to do this thing that I’ve done my entire adult life that I get such joy doing. It’s created a completely different perspective almost every time I’ve wrestled since I’ve come back, a different level of joy as I wrestle and do this thing that I love so much.”