Bryan Danielson never thought the day would come, but his life and professional wrestling career changed forever in December.
When Danielson stood atop the World Wrestling Entertainment announcer’s table in Baltimore, Md., holding the World Heavyweight Championship title belt above his head for the first time in his career, it signaled the Aberdeen native’s ascent to the top of the professional wrestling world.
On April 1, Danielson — known professionally as Daniel Bryan — will take part in one of two championship title matches in the WWE’s yearly signature event, Wrestlemania XXVIII, in Miami.
The match against Sheamus for his World Heavyweight Championship will be Danielson’s biggest of his career and it’ll highlight the long road the 30-year-old traveled to get atop that announcer’s table and to Miami.
“It was crazy,” Danielson said of his championship night. “I’ve been doing this for 12 years and a lot of people thought I couldn’t succeed at this. It was vindication, that I reached the top. When people are doubting you that much, sometimes you doubt yourself. It was more retrospective — I can’t believe I went through all of that and I’m at this moment.”
The road for Danielson, who stands 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds and is known as a submission specialist, started out 12 years ago when he left Aberdeen for San Antonio, Texas. The road began in his family’s backyard in Central Park.
The Backyard Championship Wrestling was a friendly wrestling league between Danielson and his middle and high school friends — Evan and Kristof Aho, Tony Sajec, Skyler Parker and Mike and Jake Dove — that allowed them to wrestle each other and create pro wrestling personas before they watched televised wrestling shows every Monday night in the 1990s.
The Central Park home doesn’t have the holes he and his friends created during their matches anymore, but the memories are still there.
“There used to be a huge hole that Bryan created with his back, more of an egg-shaped gap,” Kristof Aho said. “There were holes where someone’s heel would go through and other scrapes. It was a lot of fun. It is fun to watch (tapes) again, seeing all of the spots where we’d wrestle. How (Danielson’s mother, Betty) would let us do that for so long, I don’t know.”
Once Danielson graduated from Aberdeen in 1999, he had already convinced his mother that it would work out for him to travel to San Antonio and train at the Shawn Michaels Wrestling Academy. He worked two jobs to pay for the school and other expenses.
“All of us talked about being professional wrestlers, but no one was serious; we were more worried about (college),” Aho said. “Then, all of a sudden, Bryan told us he was going to Shawn Michaels’ school. After our senior all-night party, he loaded up his car and drive to San Francisco, then to San Antonio.”
From there, it was a quick start in the ring — training at the Academy and wrestling in the Academy’s house shows in the Texas Wrestling Alliance, then working out in front of WWE scouts after a trip to Japan and a tour with Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling as the “American Dragon.”
Danielson eventually signed a developmental deal with the WWE at the end of his time at the Academy and was on his way — until the pro wrestling industry downsized.
Detours on the road
In early 2001, WWE bought Atlanta-based World Championship Wrestling from Turner Broadcasting, ending pro wrestling’s biggest modern rivalry and consolidating the top of the industry into one company.
With an overflow of wrestlers from both promotions, Danielson was released.
“I moved back to Aberdeen, started going to school and working two jobs, one of them at Video Tonight,” Danielson said. “I figured that I would go to school, prepare for life outside of wrestling and be able to work on the weekends, get in some shows in the Northwest and in Canada.”
One of the independent wrestling shows Danielson worked on was in Hayward, Calif. — All-Pro Wrestling’s “King of the Indies” tournament in 2001. The promoter, Roland Alexander, paired Danielson with Lacey native Brian Kendrick in the first round and the duo put on a wrestling display that impressed pro wrestling legend Nick Bockwinkel, who was in attendance.
“I wasn’t supposed to win the match, but we put on such a good match that Nick went up to Roland and told him that ‘that kid should win this tournament,’” Danielson said. “Roland offered me a job to wrestle and train (at APW), gave me a good salary on top of that and the flexibility to do my indy bookings.”
It was the break Danielson needed. In 2002, he joined up with Pennsylvania-based promotion Ring of Honor, which is considered the world’s third largest wrestling company, and set out as a globe-trotting wrestler.
Lessons on and off the road
With Ring of Honor, Danielson traveled around the world, especially to Japan and England. He eventually moved to Las Vegas and also purchased his mother’s home in Central Park, allowing him to come back for short trips to unwind and get away.
“He’s the same exact guy from 12 years ago,” Aho said. “He’s a little more outgoing than what he was, but hey, he’s a professional wrestler. He’s a small-town guy.
“He reads a lot; there are stacks of books around the house,” Aho added. “At home, he works out, reads, plays with his dog, Asparagus. That’s what he does here, even chops wood for the house and works in the yard. It is pretty simple.”
On the road, Danielson crafted his wrestling style in front of both intimate and large crowds in small venues.
“Confidence, I’ve been in just about every possibility imaginable in the ring,” Danielson said of what he learned as an indy wrestler. “What (those matches) do is instill in you confidence that you can go out there and do your job and perform. I’ve been in the ring when a wrestler snapped his leg during a match. I’ve been in the ring when a fan runs in, with no security and the only one there to help you is your opponent.
“I’m confident now, because I’m really good at what I do and that is so important,” he added. “I’ve evolved into a pretty good wrestler and it wasn’t always that way. I realized that I was tough enough to stick it out and work at it.”
Danielson considers himself lucky that during his career, he hasn’t suffered a long-term injury that could have kept him out of the ring for a long period of time.
If he did have a long-term injury as an independent wrestler, it could have been a career-ending situation. There’s no money to be made when you are injured, he noted.
However, there is a steady paycheck and medical crews on site to help out the WWE wrestlers.
“I’ve been very fortunate in that respect,” Danielson said. “There were years when I’d wrestle more matches than guys in the WWE. In England, you’d have 6-7 shows a week. In Japan, five shows a week. If you get a minor injury, you wrestle through it, because you don’t want to spend the money to go to the doctor. You don’t know when you’d get paid again.
“On site (in the WWE), there’s a doctor and trainer, who’ll stretch us out before and after the matches,” he added. “That’s the biggest difference. I’m 30 years old now and I have to do more stretching, more yoga, just to keep my body healthy. It is interesting, because my body feels better than what it did in 2009. When you are at this level and your income improves, I’ve been able to take care of myself better. You have the people and the money to do that.
“Financially, I did well in the indies, but when you are hurt, you have to make those kinds of decisions.”
Back in the WWE
Danielson noted to his family that if nothing went right for him by the end of his Ring of Honor contract in 2009, he would step away and begin his post-wrestling life.
He had a tryout with the WWE in 2008, but nothing materialized. At the end of his Ring of Honor contract, he was contacted again by the WWE and this time was signed in September, 2009.
In a pre-contract physical examination, Danielson learned that he had some significant health problems that needed to be taken care of — including high cholesterol and elevated liver enzymes.
“I had always eaten pretty well, lots of vegetables and lean meats,” he said. “But then, all of a sudden, I had all of these issues. One of the best things to take care of that, my doctor told me, was to become a vegan.
“When you do it smart, you’ll miss out on some vitamins, but you are healthy,” he added. “I feel great. I’m eating foods that are easy for the body to digest and I use all of the spare energy.”
The revelation would also feed into his in-ring persona as a bad guy (aka a heel, in wrestling terms).
One of Danielson’s strengths is his connection to the fans, to get them to cheer or boo him in order to advance the storyline. Danielson morphed into a heel, touting his health to being a vegan and, with a bit of arrogance, how much of a better person he is.
“I never thought (being a vegan) would turn me into a bad guy,” Danielson said. “‘Hey, this guy doesn’t eat meat.’ The way we’ve (incorporated it) it has been kind of fun. It is the personality that makes people hate me — winning my matches by disqualification, cheap ways to win, claiming I’m a role model because I don’t eat meat. It all gets under people’s skins.
“I’ve always loved being a bad guy; there’s something more fun about it,” he added. “It always makes me smile. Now, I’ll hear my music and (the crowd) instantly starts booing. I have to keep myself from laughing, because it makes me happy.”
Wrestlemania and beyond
On April 1, Danielson will step out onto the elevated stage in front of several thousands of people at Sun Life Stadium in Miami and to millions of fans on television.
Last year, Danielson and Sheamus were supposed to meet in one of the opening matches at Wrestlemania. However, the match was moved off the pay-per-view schedule, thus giving this upcoming match a bit more urgency.
“I’m not nervous about the match, but I’m excited about the experience,” Danielson said. “We’re not afraid to hit each other. Some guys like to fight. I like to fight. Sheamus was a bouncer for years. There’s something about being in front of a large crowd and getting hit. It fires you up.
“We want to steal the show, even with Rock vs. Cena (on the card),” he added.
In the ring, Danielson wants to stay where he’s at, headlining shows and working in storylines that create public reactions.
“I’d like to stay at this level, but become a (John) Cena or a (Randy) Orton — one of the faces of the company,” Danielson said. “I have to transcend the guy who is there at the moment to being ‘The Guy.’ I want to be that guy, like CM Pink is becoming.”
Aho gave a little glimpse as to what Danielson would like to do once he’s done in the ring.
“He told me one time that when he’s done wrestling, he wants to pick strawberries for a living,” Aho noted. “He doesn’t want to do it at any pace, just whatever pace he wants. He wants to come home and fix the yard, come back to Aberdeen and just live his life.”
For now, Danielson is leading the company as one of its two main champions. The other champion is CM Punk, who wrestled with Danielson in ROH and shared the ring many times.
In fact, Danielson has a picture of himself with the World Heavyweight Championship belt and CM Punk and his WWE Championship belt from that night in December.
“I joked with him that the two of us wrestled for 45 minutes in front of 30 fans in Florida in 2004,” Danielson said. “We’ve wrestled in front of minuscule crowds before this and now, we’re two of the biggest champions in the WWE.”
You can follow Danielson on Twitter (@WWEDanielBryan), on Facebook (facebook.com/bryandanielsonwrestling) and at his site at www.bryandanielson.net