Daniel Bryan discusses his concussion history, his uncertain wrestling future with WWE and more.
As Daniel Bryan waited for his entrance into the main event at WrestleMania in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, a strange sight caught his eye.
The Undertaker was sprawled out on the floor, suffering from a painful concussion.
Bryan’s new autobiography, “YES! My Improbable Journey to the Main Event of WrestleMania,” perfectly captures his voice as he brings readers along for a fascinating ride through his wrestling career and life. Bryan—whose real name is Bryan Danielson—knows the meaning of sacrifice, as he has risked his present and future health with a daring approach to his wrestling. Yet even he was taken aback by the sight of The Dead Man on the ground.
“The scene was tragic, but also motivating,” said Bryan. “There are sacrifices to what we do, and the Undertaker has sacrificed. You look at everything he’s done to make WWE better and make wrestling better, so I needed to go out there and be good enough to carry that on.”
Bryan went out to the ring and won the WWE championship in a triple threat match against Randy Orton and Batista.
“It was really hard, too, because after Brock Lesnar had beaten ‘Taker, the life was just sucked out of the building,” said Bryan. “You can’t have the show end like that, you have to bring it back up. You don’t want a WrestleMania ending with people depressed. So there was that kind of pressure to go out there and bring the people back.”
And, yes, Bryan brought the energy back to the Superdome.
The 34-year-old, who is currently on the WWE’s injured list, revealed to Sports Illustrated that he does not know when he will return to wrestling.
“I’d like to return to the ring tomorrow,” said Bryan. “It’s not an issue of how I feel—I feel great—it’s an issue of getting cleared. That’s a process that is somewhat out of my hands.
“I’m trying. I don’t want to push, push, push. I’ve made my statement to WWE, but they’re going to listen to their doctors. I’m trying to do it as soon as possible, but they’re looking out for my best interests, so I’m trying to be a little bit patient with them.”
The three most important attributes to Bryan’s success are his legs, lungs and heart. Though he is extraordinarily talented, success is not due to his athletic ability. His greatest strengths are the limits he is willing to push himself in the ring, his work ethic and the fact he never gives up–all of which were apparent to even the eyes of the blind on the night of WrestleMania 30.
Yet, while Bryan is an inspirational wrestler, he is also a potential cautionary tale.
His title reign was short-lived, headlining only one pay-per-view as champion. Bryan was forced out of the ring five weeks later in May for neck surgery. After finally returning to action this past January, Bryan was dealt a severe blow to his career–and his brain—when he suffered another concussion just three months after his return.
“I suffered a concussion in April, and I’m trying to get cleared back from that,” he said. “It was during a six-man tag match, and I don’t remember if it happened during a particular move, but it was during the trip to Europe.”
The WWE, Bryan writes in his book, has become a parody of wrestling. But in a world of fiction, he is the clearest example of reality. Concussions have been the No. 1 factor to plague him throughout his career. Off camera, Bryan is not the leader of the “Yes Movement.” He is a man desperately seeking to return to his first true love: wrestling.
“I really don’t know life without wrestling,” said Bryan, who stressed that he is in an excellent condition in terms of his health. “I’ve taken all these neuropsychological exams, and my brain, right now, is healthier than most people my age who’ve never even had a concussion.”
In a recent story on SI.com, Bret “Hitman” Hart stated the concussion would end Bryan’s career. Not surprisingly, Bryan feels differently.
“Everybody’s situation is different,” said Bryan. “Bret’s situation was different than my situation. With my history of concussions, the WWE wants to protect me, so I’ve had to take a lot of neurological testing. I’ve been cleared by my neurologist in Phoenix, who was the neurologist for the Super Bowl. So it’s just a matter of getting cleared by WWE doctors. Obviously they’re concerned for my health with the history that I’ve had.”
Bryan has to pass the WWE’s impact test in order to return to active wrestling.
“They take a baseline test when you are 100% healthy, testing your neurological capabilities,” said Bryan. “The first thing you do after a concussion is take another impact test. It’s a pretty thorough process. The issue for me is that, after the concussion, my symptoms stayed a little longer than they should have. Typically the symptoms only stay about a week, but mine stayed for over three.”
The brain needs time to heal, and Bryan is slowly adjusting to the recovery process without his primary artistic outlet in his life.
“It’s frustrating,” said Bryan. “My mind thinks in wrestling. As I’m thinking of things and my mind is being creative, it constantly keeps going back to wrestling. That’s my inspiration, and to not be able to express that puts me in a spot where I almost don’t know what to do with myself.
“I come up with ideas in my head, with entire matches and different concepts, especially now that I’m watching. For years, I was on the road, or didn’t have cable or a TV, so I didn’t watch much. But now I’m at home and I watch Raw, Smackdown and the pay-per-views. I watch for the things I don’t like and I can change and think, ‘How would I do this?’ My mind races thinking about all the different ways I could tell a story, because that’s essentially what we’re doing—we’re telling stories within the realm of what we do. I try to do other things to try to use my creativity, but my brain just doesn’t work like that.”
The problem directly connects to Bryan’s love for the business. He doesn’t view himself as a “sports entertainer.” He is a wrestler, and his willingness to sacrifice his body in the ring is a testament to his desire to give fans the most genuine product possible.
Bryan once wrestled with a detached retina—which causes loss of vision in an eye—during a match with the Ring of Honor promotion. He felt the storyline of the match would be far more compelling if his opponent attacked his injured eye. As a result, Bryan still suffers from a loss of vision in his left eye.
“When I’m in the middle of a match, this is all that is going through my mind: ‘Can I do this? Or can I not?’” said Bryan. “Gabe Sapolsky, who was the booker of Ring of Honor, wrote a really interesting thing to me on when I separated my shoulder five minutes into a 60-minute match and finished out the match. It was interesting to read what he wrote, because he had a completely different perspective than me. I never thought of it as big deal. I thought, ‘Either I can do this or I can’t,’ and I thought I could get through it. Gabe saw it as something different. I just saw it as something I could do, so I went through with it.”
Bry list of injuries is long and distinguished. Multiple concussions, separated shoulders, a fractured orbital bone and a detached retina are a sampling of the injuries suffered during a decade of wrestling in the independents. In 2001, Bryan won the “King of the Indies” tournament, and the moniker was fitting because it was true. His independent crucible—wrestling throughout England and Japan, at flea markets and Walmart parking lots, even an amusement park in Ohio and literally living in the Antonio Inoki Dojo in Santa Monica—allowed Bryan to infuse his pro wrestling style with legitimate martial arts. Bryan’s 10 years of work produced nearly 10,000 hours of wrestling, the magic number for greatness.
“People have said to me, ‘It must be nice to prove so many people wrong,’” said Bryan. “But I’ve never really cared about proving anything to anybody else. Wrestling is a very selfish endeavor. It’s something I do for me. It’s very rewarding when we can really give back to the fans, like with Connor [“The Crusher” Michalek], and that gives me an even greater satisfaction about what we do.
“But most of entertainment is full of people who are doing it for themselves, and this is rewarding for me. So if Vince McMahon likes me or doesn’t like me, that doesn’t change what wrestling is to me. If Triple H likes me or doesn’t like me, that doesn’t change my passion. There have been times when I walked into the ‘Gorilla position’ after a match and everyone is clapping. Internally, I’m thinking, ‘Why is everyone clapping? That was rotten.’ There have also been times when I came back and I’ve been really proud of what I’ve done, and everyone doesn’t care and were too busy looking down at their phones. That doesn’t bother me. It’s really satisfying to me as far as doing something that I love to do.”
Bryan finds sources of inspiration from both McMahon and the greatest advocate in the history of pro wrestling, Paul Heyman.
“Paul’s very in touch with what’s going on in the world,” said Bryan, adding that he would have worked for TNA in 2010 had Heyman taken over the company. “He also sees the changes that wrestling needs to make to be more viable to more people. I would never describe myself as a genius, but I am not afraid to follow people who are geniuses, who know more than me about certain things. He’s just very creative, very smart, and on top of things. People say that Paul Heyman is a genius, and the same can be said about Vince McMahon. Paul and Vince just have different ideas.”
One of the more fascinating stories in Bryan’s book is the story of how McMahon instructed a class on giving promos to his talent in 2010. The wrestlers, a mixture of six established stars and six newer talents, were instructed by McMahon to cut promos on random, inanimate objects.
“The class wasn’t graded with an A, B, C or D, but Vince would tell you what was good and what was not good,” said Bryan. “He’d say, ‘These are points you need to make when you’re cutting a promo.” Some of the stuff didn’t feel right at the time—I didn’t want to cut a promo on a table. But I improved dramatically after those classes because of the lessons Vince taught.
“He would also open you up to criticism from other people in the room. He’d say, ‘I am not the sole authority on this. Big Show, what did you think of this?’ Then he’d ask Mark Henry, ‘Would that promo sell tickets? Would it interest people?’ It was always interesting to hear the opinion of people who’ve been doing this for so long. The casual fan who watches Monday Night Raw doesn’t necessarily see an interview or a promo in the same eyes that I do. It was great to have that kind of feedback.”
Feedback from the WWE Universe is also vital. The past two Royal Rumble matches have served as a very bold assessment of wrestling fans’ disapproval of the WWE’s booking for Bryan.
“I actually wasn’t frustrated by the 2014 Royal Rumble,” said Bryan. “The fans were. I was thankful that I wasn’t in the Royal Rumble. They weren’t planning on having me win it, and I’d already lost to Bray Wyatt earlier in the night, so I just thought it was better not to be in it.”
Bryan was satisfied with his match against Bray Wyatt during the 2014 Rumble, and sat in stunned disbelief with Brie Bella and Brad Maddox in the back as the crowd voiced its displeasure every time a wrestler entered the ring, endlessly chanting for Bryan. He felt a different set of emotions, however, during this past Rumble.
“This year’s Royal Rumble was very frustrating,” he said. “I knew, and everybody knew, that with the way I was going in and out, people would be disappointed. I think it actually made it harder for Roman [Reigns] the way it was done. People were angry, which made it harder for Roman to get over with the fans. People were angry I wasn’t in the match very long and then I just got dumped out. I was hoping for a little bit more story in there, but you take what comes.”
CM Punk left WWE in January 2014, throwing off plans for WrestleMania 30. Punk was slated to wrestle Triple H, but Bryan does not question what would have happened if Punk stayed with the company.
“I don’t wonder,” said Bryan, who once fought a nearly 45-minute match with Punk over a decade ago in front of 30 fans for Full Impact Pro in Florida. “I just find it funny, it’s such an odd thing. I wasn’t supposed to be in that spot. Because Punk quit, I was in that spot. My mind doesn’t work in what-ifs. What happened, happened, and I don’t really think about it too much.”
Early on the road to WrestleMania 30, Bryan was injured in a match with Randy Orton in June 2013. The injury eventually led to his surgery after ‘Mania, and occurred after delivering a dropkick off the top rope. Bryan lost feeling in both arms and could not stand up. He desperately wanted to finish the match, and was furious when WWE’s doctor stopped the match. Bryan lit into Paul Levesque afterward, using an array of obscenities to articulate his point that he should have been allowed to finish the match.
“Once I apologized and talked to Hunter and Vince, they seemed to get it,” said Bryan. “I could see Hunter sympathizing with me. It’s a different era now. [Levesque] worked through his torn quad, and if they’d stopped his match, he would have been angry. But it showed them that I cared. Since I normally take things so well, it actually helped me show that I truly cared and was pissed that I didn't get my opportunity that night.”
The book also touches upon Bryan’s arrival into WWE as a competitor on NXT, where he was paired up with Mike “The Miz” Mizanin. Bryan recalls a story where the Miz bothered some of the wrestlers and was actually banned from the WWE locker room.
“I wasn’t there when it happened.” he explained. “But now, it’s funny, because we don’t really have that [locker room enforcer]. John Cena has his own bus now, and that wasn’t the case several years ago. All of the guys—Cena, Randy Orton, Big Show—when they get to a certain level, they’re on buses. People would see Kane as a locker room leader, but there is a different locker room for more of the established veterans, and he changes over there. The main talent locker room doesn’t really have a real locker room leader, at least not as far as someone who would kick you out of the locker room.”
Bryan currently has a much different view of the business, as he is now only watching instead of wrestling. When asked who is currently the best in the business, he quickly decided upon two names.
“Cesaro in the ring is as good as anybody out there in WWE,” said Bryan. “If you’re talking the entire wrestling world, there is a guy in New Japan [Pro Wrestling] that I really love watching named Shinsuke Nakamura. He’s awesome and really fun to watch. But in terms of the WWE, in ring, I love watching Cesaro.”
Bryan’s future story remains unwritten. Whether he will return from his concussion and continue on with a successful career – and a healthy life – is a question only time will answer. He is not offended if people—including the WWE hierarchy—question whether he will ever return. He is a wrestler, and promises he will return to wrestling.
“When I started wrestling, I knew that I was not the prototypical WWE superstar,” said Bryan. “I’m not what people are looking for in wrestling, but I took the mindset that, if I’m not good enough to get there without steroids, then I’m not good enough. It’s the same thing with the politics. If I’m not good enough to do it without politicking for this or that, then that just means I’m not good enough. All I can control are my own actions.
“It’s never bothered me mentally knowing that I was not what Vince McMahon was looking for, or even that I’m not necessarily what Triple H is looking for. That’s never bothered me, because I’m not pursuing being great in Vince’s eyes. I’m pursuing the things that make me happy, and that’s really helped me along the way.”