Courtesy of WWE

Daniel Bryan is embracing his chance to make a mark in the tag team division. 

By Justin Barrasso
May 29, 2019

SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.

Daniel Bryan: “The WWE tag team division is the best that it’s ever been as far as the matches”

If this were May 2016, there would be little doubt about the wrestling future of Daniel Bryan.

Bryan was finished in WWE. Head and neck injuries forced an early retirement, though Bryan still hinted that his career was not finished.

Only three years later, Bryan has returned to his perch as one of the most innovative and talented wrestlers in the world. His WrestleMania 35 match with Kofi Kingston was nothing short of spectacular, and should be part of a “how-to” manual for heels looking to enhance a babyface. It’s as if wrestling went back to the future with Bryan’s return to in-ring prominence.

“I did not think I would ever be back here in the manner I am now,” admitted Bryan. “I felt, at first, like it showed a little bit in my work that I was gone. I felt like, ‘I feel good, I feel like I move smoothly in the ring, but mentally I can’t work as fast as I did before.’ That’s what happens.

“My last full year was 2013, and I did 227 matches. When you’re doing 227 matches, it’s hard on your body but you’re firing on all cylinders mentally. There is great value in repetition. It took me some time to get back to that place. Every time someone grabbed me or every time I was in a situation, I needed to get back to that place where I knew exactly what to do.”

The primary focus in sports is centered around the winner, but pro wrestling is a unique entity. The winner looks better when the loser does everything possible to make the match, and that is the role Bryan filled for Kingston at this year’s WrestleMania.

Never straying too far from character, Bryan touched on the similarities between himself and Kingston (who remains the WWE Champion) as well as the differences.

“The amount of time I spent on the independent scene before coming to WWE dwarfs the amount of time he spent on the independent scene,” said Bryan. “Kofi talked about, in a negative connotation, that I don’t know what he’s been through because it took him 11 years in WWE to get a WWE championship match while I won my first WWE championship two years after being on TV. The difference is I spent the 10 years before that wrestling at high school gyms, wrestling in flea markets, sometimes wrestling in front of seven people, sometimes wrestling in front of thousands of people. That’s how I built up my experience.

“A difference between Kofi and me is that Kofi has been content for 11 years to sit there and then wait to be given opportunities. From the second I came into WWE, my mission statement was, ‘I am here to main-event WrestleMania, I am here to become WWE champion, and I am here to be the best.’ You never heard Kofi Kingston say that.”

Courtesy of WWE

Bryan’s storyline with Kingston is on a hiatus, as he now looks to redefine the tag team division. As part of “The Planet’s Tag Team Champions” with Erick Rowan, Bryan is one-half of the SmackDown tag team titlists.

“The WWE tag team division is the best that it’s ever been as far as the matches,” said Bryan. “The matches between the New Day and the Usos, The Bar, The Revival, they’re all fantastic. But there’s all this big hullabaloo about the women main-eventing WrestleMania. How come no one is talking about tag teams main-eventing WrestleMania?”

Naturally, Bryan has a theory as to why.

“It’s because Kofi Kingston has become tag team champion with so many different partners that people see him as one of the leaders of the tag team division,” said Bryan. “Especially his work in the New Day, being a five-time champion, people in the tag division have looked up to Kofi. But because Kofi is not someone who knocked down the door and said, ‘Hey, we as the tag team division are putting on the most exciting matches, we’re going out there and doing incredible promo work and incredible segments, we should be in the main event of at least one pay-per-view! We should be in the main event of the SmackDown TV show! We should be aiming to main-event WrestleMania!’

“That’s my goal, but none of them say that because they’ve followed Kofi’s lead. So people just sit here and wait to be handed main-event opportunities. That is not how the WWE works.”

Bryan’s promos and in-ring work are among the best in the entire world. His believability is genuine, and the versatile Bryan also has decades of experience to pull upon when needed. Although those who didn’t live the life often mock it, Bryan believes his time on the indies made him into the star he is today.

“There are so many people who do mock it, and they do so in a sense like, ‘Oh, he wrestled in bingo halls and flea markets,’” said Bryan. “You know what? I loved it. That’s the thing that they will never understand. That’s the drive that got me to where I am. When they told me I’d never wrestle again, I worked for three years to come back. I love this.”

Bryan turned 38 years old last week. While that may be an age in other pro sport professions to start looking at the next phase in his life, Bryan is genuinely content to wrestle until the day he dies.

“There are people who say, ‘I only want to do this for three or four more years,’ or ‘I only want to do this until I’m 45,’” said Bryan. “No. I want to do this until I’m 70. Months before I die, I want to be doing a wrestling show. I won’t be able to do the stuff I do now, but I want to go out and do this thing I’ve been passionate about wrestling my entire life. I want to do that my whole life.”

Lance Anoa’i ready for WWE

Lance Anoa’i made his Raw debut this past Monday, providing a glimpse into the future of the Samoan Dynasty.

Anoa’i wrestled Shane McMahon, and the storyline saw him used as a pawn in the McMahon-Roman Reigns storyline.

A cousin of both Reigns and The Usos, Anoa’i is the son of former Headshrinker Samu. He is also the grandson of Wild Samoan Afa, making him certifiable wrestling royalty.

Family is especially meaningful to Anoa’i, which is why he is helping run a fundraiser for his father, who is in need of a liver transplant. The Samu Anoa’i Fundraiser takes place Wednesday night in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

World X-treme Wrestling C4, run by Afa Anoa’i, organized the show, which is receiving an incredible boost from the WWE. Samoa Joe, Kassius Ohno, Billy Kidman, Primo, Epico, and Hall of Famer Michael “P.S.” Hayes will all be in attendance, which is raising money for a liver transplant in Samu’s battle against cancer.

“My dad was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer last year,” said Anoa’i. “And this show will help raise money for the liver transplant, and WWE was more than willing to help out.

“He is in positive spirits, and he can’t wait to enjoy the show on his birthday.”

There is also a GoFundMe page for those looking to contribute to Samu, who turns 56 on Wednesday.

“My dad has always been there for me,” said Anoa’i. “Even when he was on the road when I was young, he would take me with him. I’m glad I can be there for him, and whenever he needs anything, I’m always there for him.”

Anoa’i is fully immersed in the success of his father’s fundraiser, but looking forward, he is one of the business’ brightest prospects. Standing 6’1”, the 27-year-old is known for his brawling but he is also well-rounded with a skillset that allows him to work on the mat as well as in the air.

“Being from the family I come from, I grew up in it,” said Anoa’i. “I’m proud to follow in my family’s footsteps. This is like a family business to me.”

Anoa’i started training in 2009 and had his first match in 2010. Since then, his wrestling portfolio includes time with MLW, Tommy Dreamer’s House of Hardcore, as well as Maryland Championship Wrestling. In April, Anoa’i was crowned the winner of East Coast Wrestling Association’s twenty-third annual Super 8 Tournament, which has also been won by Xavier Woods (2010) and Tommaso Ciampa (2011).

This past Monday marked Anoa’i’s debut on Raw, but he also had a one-off on SmackDown in 2015 in a tag team loss to The Ascension. As for whether Anoa’i will be returning to WWE television, he recommended that people stay tuned.

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” said Anoa’i. “I don’t know, but I hope so.”

The (Online) Week in Wrestling

• Along with the Squared Circle Sisters, Mick Foley is raising money for the daughter of the late Ashley Massaro.

• This week’s “Being The Elite” features the debut of Jon Moxley.

• Moxley also makes his New Japan debut at Ryogoku Sumo Hall on June 5 against IWGP U.S. champion Juice Robinson.

• Following Double or Nothing, Cody Rhodes even caught the attention of U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. https://twitter.com/AOC/status/1132759023281934337

• Even away from the WWE spotlight, there is no one in wrestling quite like John Cena.

• Brock Lesnar is even more entertaining with the “Money in the Bank” contract than he is with the Universal title.

[youtube:https://twitter.com/WWE/status/1133164599497224193]

Bret Hart appearance at Double or Nothing connects to the final days of WCW

Bret Hart endorsed the All Elite Wrestling world title this past Saturday at Double or Nothing, giving a stamp of approval that few others can provide.

Ricky Havlik/All Elite Wrestling

Back in 2014, I connected with Hart for a “Montreal Screwjob” story. Near the end of the piece, Hart shared his disgust with Eric Bischoff for allowing WCW to reach the point where it was no longer fiscally viable. WCW’s crumbling was far from a one-man effort, but Hart’s point was that wrestling had a gaping hole without a viable competitor to WWE.

“A lot of things changed forever because of [the Screwjob],” said Hart. “Back in 1997, that was one of the only times in wrestling where wrestlers had leverage with the business doing so well and two different companies where you could go back and forth. It was a really amazing time.

“Eric Bischoff squandered that and drove the company into the ditch by misusing wrestlers like Chris Jericho and Big Show and Rey Mysterio. He even misused Hogan. Bret Hart-Hogan should have made all kinds of money for them… Vince took away all that leverage. All of that opportunity is now gone.”

Hart has dedicated a lifetime’s worth of sacrifice in pursuit of wrestling greatness. Seeing him hold the new AEW world title above his head instantly gave the title an entirely deeper meaning.

Chris Jericho and Hangman Page will wrestle for the right to become the first-ever AEW champion, which is likely to happen at “All Out” this August 31. Having “The Hitman” present the new champ with the title would be an especially meaningful moment.

Tweet of the Week

Austin vs. The Man, just like it was always written.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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