When you think Pro Wrestler, you probably think big noisy guys with more muscles than brain cells. It’s an unfortunate stereotype, and one that’s not all that true. I sat down to chat with WWE’s quietly-spoken Daniel Bryan to discuss education, online media and The Muppets.
As the photo above was taken, there’s an entire arena in Sydney going absolutely bezerk, chanting a single word over and over again. That word is undeniably the simplest pro wrestling chant there has ever been.
Yes. Or, to put it more accurately, “YES! YES! YES!”, the brainchild and chant of WWE Superstar (that’s their term) Daniel Bryan. He comes on stage prior to a match against current WWE Tag champs Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns, and everything is noise and lights and hype. The crowd absolutely loves Daniel Bryan, and they’re not shy in saying so, aside from the two slightly odd guys behind me, who (and I swear I’m not making this up), complain as he’s entering that who they really miss is Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake. Wrestling fans can be weird.
A few hours earlier, I was able to line up some time to interview Bryan at his Sydney hotel. As I waited to interview, him, current WWE champ (and Bryan’s opponent for the upcoming Summerslam Pay-Per-View event) John Cena was waiting in the hotel lobby nonchalantly.
It led to a wonderful moment where a roughly ten-year old was brought into the lobby by his mother and did one of the largest double takes I’ve ever seen any human being do. Mum had clearly had enough, dragging junior away, but Cena winks politely at the kid anyway.
Cena looks just like you might think a prototypical pro wrestler should look, but Daniel Bryan’s look is quite different. He’s amongst the shortest members of the current roster, and he’s all but defined by the large-scale beard he currently wears, the result of a bet with a US baseball player called Josh Reddick. When he gives a wrestling promo, he’s all noise and hype (as he should be), but in person he’s quite quiet and charming. He’s also undoubtedly used to answering questions about his beard, and whether he’ll shave it off, but not so much when I queried how he keeps it in trim.
“So this a whole process. Before I started growing my beard, all I had to do was soak my head, because it was bald — I’m sure you’d understand — but now I have to shampoo, condition and put coconut oil in it, because if I don’t, it does this” — at which point he alarmingly pulls the sides of his beard out at right angles. “I wish I could describe better for your readers.”
Aside from televised events, the pro wrestling business runs on smaller non-televised shows, such as the one that Bryan’s in Australia to run through, often called “house” shows. That involves a whole lot of travel, and that burns a lot of time. Bryan’s secret to staying sane is a pretty simple one.
“For me the big thing is reading and sleeping. So I read until I get tired, and then I sleep. I get up, I read until I get tired, and then I sleep. Right now I’m reading a book called “Weapons Of Mass Instruction“, which is talking about how the American school system is not good for children, and that it’s actually basically dumbing us down; the idea of relegating people to different learning topics based on age group, instead of on personal skills, personal interest, that sort of thing.
For example for me, I was relatively intelligent at a young age, but I’m herded into this group of people who are having a tough time with math and stuff like that, so even in High School; geometry came so easily to me, and I never had to study. I could have finished that entire year’s course in maybe two to three months. Well, that would have put me ahead if I could have gone at my own pace, like in a home schooling type setting, I could have gone further. The idea is also that genius is as common as dirt. We all have different genius in us, and the problem is that our schooling system doesn’t allow for that. It mandates a bunch of memory as opposed to true learning, it’s more about getting people to be used to living within the rules, all that kind of stuff. It’s a fascinating book — that’s the kind of thing that I like to read. Probably not most people’s cup of tea.”
The regime of wrestling most nights, working out and eating correctly — Bryan’s mostly vegetarian due to some soy intolerances and difficulty finding vegan food on the road — is a tough one on anyone’s body. “I was talking mostly about air travel, but it’s also very important, when you’re cramped in cars, or when you’re not moving around a lot is to stretch. I stretch extensively. If I can even get ten minutes of stretching time I will stretch to my heart’s desire.”
Wrestling used to hold its kayfabe secrets close to its chest, and WWE is still somewhat protective of its image; as I noted when writing up its photography restrictions, it’s the only time prior to going into an interview that I’ve had to sign a waiver that specifically mentions the risk of death.
The issue of reporting control has become even larger in recent years as wrestling promotion and news has shifted online, with WWE adopting Twitter, purchasing up a large proportion of online social video network Tout, and more than a few sites reporting on all aspects of the business. Some, like Dolph Ziggler embrace it, and while Bryan is on Twitter (@WWEDanielBryan) he’s not as active. Still, he’s generally in favour of online media.
“I think any sort of advertising as far as wrestling online is good from a marketing standpoint. I think it’s fun for people are very interesting in wrestling. You can become more involved because of the things online. But also if you’re not that sort of inclined, it doesn’t take away anything from it.”
He’s also quite open to criticism online. “I think a lot of people talk about the “inside” of wrestling being exposed, or people being critics, or whatever. I think people being critics is a good thing. If you are critical of something, that means you’re deeply invested in it. That means that you care, that you don’t want something to be bad. People who are deeply critical of comics, so, like, “I hated the most recent Spider-Man” or “The whole series sucks” they’re reading it, but they don’t like it, but they’re so invested in it, they want it to be good, and I think that’s positive for the business.”
Bryan has his passions that he’s geeky about — especially comics. “I tend to be more Marvel than DC, although in the last several years i’ve gone more independent than that. Although I haven’t been able to keep up. For example in the last year, I haven’t read a single comic. And that’s mostly because of the travel schedule. Last year I did 219 shows. I was on the road for over 250 days, and comics are rather cumbersome to carry around. Although now they have the apps, I guess, but I’m not very computer savvy, so that’s not my thing.”
In terms of his career, there’s one man that Bryan would love to face, the currently-retired Shawn Michaels. “Shawn Michaels is the ultimate dream opponent. He trained me, he is in my opinion the best American professional wrestler of all time, best in-ring performer. I would love to be able to wrestle him.”
Having said that, I rather optimistically asked him if there was anyone he was over facing. He laughed deeply, and then thought about it for a while. “Maybe REDACTED. No, wait, no, don’t print that. You know, no, not really. I enjoy it. Usually, the guys I’ve wrestled a lot, like, say, Seth Rollins, I’ve wrestled him, it feels like a million times, even though it’s not a million times. But it’s always fun, and it’s always good. I enjoy that part of wrestling; it strikes a new sort of creativity when you have to come up with new things wrestling the same person over and over again, because the fans get tired of the same thing, you get tired of doing the same thing, creativity is one of the fun things about this job.”
Daniel Bryan’s WWE character has tended towards the comedic in parts, especially his team-up with long-term WWE “monster” Kane, but he got attention as an independent mostly through being a serious, hard-hitting technical wrestler type. He enjoys the variety of comedy, however. “I like the ability to do both. It’s interesting, because on the independents I got a reputation for being a very serious, straightforward wrestler, and that’s mostly from Ring Of Honor and wrestling in Japan, but I also, for a company called Pro Wrestling Guerilla in the US, I did comedy. Not a lot of comedy, some comedy stuff, and I enjoyed it. I’ve always enjoyed the aspect of a wink and a nod that can come with pro wrestling. It’s fun and interesting and gives you a different point of view.”
Up to that point, the interview was relatively quiet and friendly, and I’m aware that he’s been doing the run of media all day so may be a bit worn out. But when I asked him my next question, he utterly lit up. The contentious topic at hand: What it was like working with The Muppets.
“It was AWESOME!. People don’t understand how complicated it is, and the people doing the Muppets, how GOOD they are. They did that thing with Miss Piggy and I think it was Kelly Kelly, and they did all that live. Those people are some of the most incredibly talented people I’ve ever seen; you just watch it and it’s awe-inspiring. It was fun; the guy who did the goat one was so good, like “Cousin Daniel”, and it was GREAT.”
Making it as a WWE Superstar is a tough grind, and it’s by no means assured, with only a few jobs on offer and many who would like the job. Many wrestlers have held varying jobs prior to becoming wrestlers, or at least had a backup plan in action. Dolph Ziggler studied law. Sheamus was an IT Technician for Symantec. But Daniel Bryan’s path into wrestling came straight out of high school into Shawn Michael’s training camp, although he did have a few thoughts about what an alternate universe Daniel Bryan might have ended up doing.
“I had thoughts as far as what I would have done had wrestling not worked out. I had very minor amount of college education; I don’t even have a 2 year degree. If I had not been a wrestler, I probably would have attempted to go into some kind of teaching, or some sort of medical field, although I don’t know that I would have the patience to go through being a doctor, but maybe nursing or something.
Because I would love to do Doctors Without Borders. Because to me, it’s important that I’m either doing something that I really love, or something useful and helpful. In this world today I find that there are very few jobs that are actually useful to the cause of earth or humanity. There’s fun jobs, and then there are jobs that are just “make the machine work”. And that’s not my cup of tea.”
In the end, Bryan and Kane (team “Hell No”) lose to Rollins and Reigns (“The Shield”), because it’s incredibly rare for titles to actually change hands at a house show. That doesn’t really matter to Bryan, or for that matter the crowd, who are still chanting “YES! YES! YES!” as he exits the stage. For a pro wrestler, it’s not the wins or losses that count; it’s whether the crowd cares about your match — and there’s no doubt that the crowd is solidly behind Bryan no matter what.