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Bryan Danielson on Joining AEW: ‘Sometimes, You Need to Do the Things That Scare You a Little Bit’

Saying goodbye to WWE was difficult, but the 40-year-old wrestling superstar knows he made the right decision.

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Bryan Danielson: “If I wasn’t already known to people, could I come in and get massively over? I think about that a lot.”

The decision was complicated, but Bryan Danielson knew it was time to leave WWE for AEW.

Of course, it was exceptionally difficult to say goodbye. Danielson built countless relationships in WWE over the past dozen years, as well as enjoyed incredible success. He headlined WrestleMania on two different occasions and stole the show in his WrestleMania 35 title match against Kofi Kingston. A believer in loyalty, he remained loyal to WWE for more than a decade. But following WrestleMania 37, as his contract was set to expire, Danielson followed the same plan he had when he first entered the industry at the age of 19.

Danielson yearned to wrestle all over the world. Now 40, with two children at home, not to mention a litany of injuries, he is beginning to approach a new chapter in his career. So it was time to be free, leaving behind the massive reach and perks of working as a top performer for WWE.

“I appreciate the job that I’ve had, but I’m ready to try something different,” Danielson says. “There is a part of AEW that scares me and makes me nervous. I haven’t felt that way in a long time. I was very comfortable in WWE. Sometimes, you need to do the things that scare you a little bit.

“And I just knew this was right. I remember watching a random Dynamite, and Cody [Rhodes] was wrestling Penta. Penta was standing on the top rope, and Cody did a springboard up to the side and then a top-rope hurricanrana. It was amazing, and my jaw just stopped. I know Cody, I rode with Cody, Cody and I are friends. At least I thought I knew him until I saw him do that. I asked myself, ‘What on Earth is going on over there?’ In my mind, I was thinking, ‘I can’t do that.’ Then I started thinking about it, and I thought, ‘Yes, I can.’ So the idea of pushing myself past comfort zones I’ve been accustomed to, that really excites me.”

Danielson is returning to his roots. His initial goal was to wrestle all over the globe, and he is following that same path in 2021. He now has unlimited opportunity, whether that means a lucha de apuestas bout against Psycho Clown in Mexico, headlining a Tokyo Dome show against Kazuchika Okada in Japan or even wrestling AEW champion Kenny Omega, which is exactly what he is doing Wednesday on Dynamite at the famed Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York.

“This is the chance to be able to do the style of wrestling and the kind of wrestling that I love,” Danielson says. “Not to say I wasn’t able to do that in WWE because I was. I hate to say wrestling is acting, because I am not an actor by any stretch of the imagination. But you have to find a part of yourself that identifies with what they want. A lot of times the desires of the character aren’t my actual desires. It was a very helpful exercise. So it’s finding a part of the character that feels authentic to me, and then going out and being my authentic self in the form of that character.

“I would assume it’s similar to method acting. I’m trying to find myself in what they want, where this is an opportunity in AEW to be entirely me. The way I love to wrestle. The way I love to do interviews. The way I love to present myself. That’s one of the many exciting things about this transition.”

For now, there will be no more “Yes!” chants, despite their endearing nature. There are no emphatic “No!” responses to the crowd, as well as no more waiting for office time with a fickle boss, even one that has turned himself into a billionaire. This is a long-awaited opportunity to be Bryan Danielson, connecting with the audience at large through real promos and his passion in the ring.

There are moments in AEW that would simply never be allowed to occur in WWE. One took place this past week on Dynamite when Danielson had a standoff with Omega that led to tonight’s match. Neither Danielson nor Omega was wearing his merchandise. Instead, they both sported clean white tees.

The symbolism through those shirts served as an emphatic reminder of what is taking place. This program is not going to be gimmick-oriented or laden with catchphrases. Danielson—as well as Omega, who reached a new level of notoriety in the industry in the summer of 2016 when he dazzled the wrestling world while winning New Japan’s vaunted G1 Climax—is here to prove that wrestling sells.

“That’s been an intentional thing on my part,” Danielson says. “Not wearing a merchandise shirt, not wearing a Bryan Danielson shirt. Not that I won’t in the future, but the idea is to strip everything down and see if what I present and what I do is enough. And I think it is.

“I’m at a point in my career where I really want to challenge myself. If I wasn’t already known to people, could I come in and get massively over? I think about that a lot. I also try to simplify my life. The older I get, the less I need. A plain white T-shirt is exactly that in its most abstract form.”

This week’s Dynamite is unlike any show AEW has ever produced. It is in New York, at the prestigious Arthur Ashe Stadium, and headlined by a clash of titans in Danielson and Omega. So sit back, pour a drink of refreshing water—per Danielson’s request, stay away from the plastics and instead use a sustainable beverage bottle—and enjoy the present and future of pro wrestling.

“From my perspective, this is the biggest match of my career,” Danielson says. “From afar, I’ve watched Kenny become one of the best wrestlers in the world. He’s fantastic. I’ve watched this new company emerge, giving competition to WWE for the first time in 20 years. And we’re doing this at Arthur Ashe Stadium, where there has never been a wrestling show. This moment feels like the biggest match. If we knock this out the park, we can have a lot of new people watching AEW.

“And people will see tonight—I’m approaching this entire run with AEW as not the end of my career but the climax of my career. People are going to get the best Bryan Danielson they’ve ever seen.”

Big E on song titles on his gear: “I’m a hip-hop head”

WWE's Big E posing on top of the turnbuckle

Big E returned to SmackDown on Friday as the WWE champion, and he looked the part.

Wearing gear paying tribute to The Fugees, Big E informed Roman Reigns that he had arrived. That led to a New Day–Bloodline match Monday on Raw, as well as a triple threat against Reigns and Bobby Lashley. It was fitting that E had Reigns all but defeated until Lashley broke it up. Not only would that make a phenomenal main event at next year’s WrestleMania but Reigns is truly E’s biggest rival. In order to become even more of a star during this title reign, E needs to take part in story lines that are better than what Reigns produces each week. And it is critical that E be given a chance to seize control of pay-per-view main events, a spot that Reigns has claimed as his own.

This new title reign for Big E has the chance to be unique and distinct. That has also been apparent in his choice of gear, which happened last week when he won the title in Boston. The gear worn during the most pivotal night of his career was a heavenly blue singlet that served as an homage to the “Below the Heavens” album by rapper Blu and producer Exile.

“It was ‘Below the Heavens’–inspired, and my gear had all the song titles,” says Big E, whose name is Ettore Ewen. “Jonathan Davenport has designed our gear for The New Day for years, and he did amazing work with this. I am a hip-hop head, and this is an album I love.”

While not the biggest commercial album, “Below the Heavens” features a collection of music that left a lasting impression on the reigning WWE champion.

“It dropped around the time I was in college, and it really connected with me,” Ewen says. “It’s this coming-of-age story about a young man who is at this pivotal point in his life. He’s thinking about his legacy, his future, if he wants a family, and how he wants to leave this world at the end of his life.

“That album has meant a lot to me. It’s something I wanted on my gear. I gave Jonathan Davenport the idea of what I wanted, and he did an incredible job.”

Week 300 for The Week in Wrestling

Today marks the 300th consecutive week that Sports Illustrated has run The Week in Wrestling column.

The chance to share a perspective on professional wrestling is something I do not take lightly. It is an honor to share the voices of so many people from throughout pro wrestling, from WWE to AEW to New Japan and all across the indies. Although not traditionally a field covered by SI, the athletes I have the privilege of covering are incredibly talented, determined and full of charisma. That keeps every week full of excitement. And, of course, I’m grateful for the readers. I really enjoy the feedback I receive, whether it is through email or social media, and I hope people enjoy reading the column each week as much as I do writing it.

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I look forward to continuing on this journey with you. We’re on to 400.

The (online) week in wrestling

  • Last week’s Dark Side of the Ring episode detailing the “Plane Ride from Hell” was both revealing and abhorrent. Heidi Doyle, the flight attendant who spoke about the incidents on the plane, recounted some horrid memories of sexual abuse. Everyone that committed those acts should be ashamed of themselves. The details surrounding a naked Ric Flair were particularly disgusting, and that was further exacerbated by hearing Tommy Dreamer defend it. (Dreamer was subsequently suspended by Impact Wrestling.) Both Flair and Dreamer have since issued statements, and Flair also commented on the latest tweets by Rob Van Dam, who was also on the plane.
  • AEW’s first trip to New York takes place tonight, and Arthur Ashe Stadium should be an incredible venue for pro wrestling.
  • The New Day–Bloodline match on Raw ended with Roman Reigns getting the victory, and I really enjoyed the wrinkle of Big E having Reigns all but beaten in the main event before Bobby Lashley interfered. A key for Big E as champ will be WWE presenting him in a light equal to Reigns, as that would be an extraordinary match at next year’s WrestleMania.
  • CM Punk returning is phenomenal, and it is even better when he can work with emerging stars like Powerhouse Hobbs, which he will this Friday on Rampage. 
  • Tetsuya Naito is out of the G1. 
  • The Miz continues to shine, including on Dancing with the Stars. 

Bandido ready to take this weekend’s PWG show to the next level

Bandido posing with his ROH championship

Bandido will headline Sunday’s Pro Wrestling Guerrilla Threemendous VI show, defending the promotion’s top title against the returning Davey Richards.

The reigning Ring of Honor champion is also the current face of PWG, a California indie that has served as a launchpad for a number of the biggest stars in the industry, including Kevin Owens and The Young Bucks. Bandido is among the elite of the industry’s rising stars, and he just closed out ROH’s Death Before Dishonor pay-per-view earlier this month by winning a four-way elimination match against Brody King, Demonic Flamita and EC3.

Bandido won the title from rival Rush in July at the Best in the World show, and he is determined to leave his imprint on the title.

The ROH world title has an incredible legacy and lineage, with former title holders including Bryan Danielson, AJ Styles and CM Punk. Bandido is honored to now hold the belt, crafting a distinct run to make it his own and unlike any other in ROH history.

“I am so happy and proud to represent all Latinos as the world champion of Ring of Honor,” Bandido says through a translator. “And I am going to work hard every day to defend this title and make it even more special.”

Only 26, Bandido has an exceptionally bright future ahead of him. As a major wrestling champion in the United States, he is far removed from his days as a child in Torreón, Coahuila, Mexico. Yet he is proud to represent his home across the globe, which he just did earlier this month in Philadelphia at the ROH pay-per-view, as well as in a successful title defense Thursday against ROH staple Matt Taven in Iztapalapa, Mexico.

“I am not just representing myself,” Bandido says. “I have a great responsibility to represent my entire region, star luchadores like Ultímo Guerrero, Blue Panther, Dr. Wagner and Andrade. That is a very big task, and I am honored to do it.”

In addition to his work with ROH—where he is trying to create a buzz that has been absent since the departures of Kenny Omega, the Bucks, Cody Rhodes and the stars of New Japan—comes a chance for Bandido to generate significant interest with PWG. This is an opportunity to showcase his sublime ability in the ring in front of a sophisticated crowd at the sold-out Globe Theatre in Los Angeles, making PWG go viral once again.

“I am preparing to give 1,000% against Davey Richards,” Bandido says. “He will present a strong challenge, but I will give the fans everything I can.”

Shayna Baszler on Valentina Shevchenko in a third fight against Amanda Nunes: “That’s a fight I want to see”

There will always be a link between pro wrestling and mixed martial arts. Even though the two fields are very different, both are filled with driven, determined athletes who are often underpaid and underappreciated by the mainstream. And there have been plenty of people to cross over between the two fields, including Shayna Baszler, who has been successful in both.

Baszler lost last week on Raw to Charlotte Flair in an extremely good match, then followed that up this week with a dominating win against Nia Jax. If the powers that be in WWE wanted it, Baszler could be presented as an unstoppable force. If given the chance, she would do it in an extremely convincing manner, as she is a legitimately dangerous mixed martial artist.

Baszler is fully committed to her pro wrestling career, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be paying attention this weekend when Valentina Shevchenko enters the Octagon to defend her flyweight title against Lauren Murphy at UFC 266. As exciting as it is to see Shevchenko ply her trade in the cage, Baszler is still impatiently awaiting a third fight pitting Shevchenko against Amanda Nunes.

“Nunes seems unbeatable right now, but you’re always unbeatable until you’re not,” Baszler says. “In MMA more than any other sport, it’s very much a style matchup. Valentina and Amanda, their styles complement each other so well. That always leads to an exciting fight. I know Amanda won the first two, but that’s a fight I want to see.”

Tweet of the Week

It will be interesting to see where this goes next.

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