Bryan Danielson, formerly Daniel Bryan in WWE, faces All Elite Wrestling world champion Kenny Omega in a non-title match in the main event of a loaded “AEW Dynamite: Grand Slam” on Wednesday at Arthur Ashe Stadium (8 p.m., TNT) in the company’s New York City debut. Before the dream match, the 40-year-old Danielson, who debuted in AEW at “All Out,” took time for some Q&A with The Post’s Joseph Staszewski.
Q: What’s been your general impressions of AEW after being around the company the last couple of weeks?
A: It’s been a lot of fun. One of the things that I really like is the energy of everyone feeling this company is growing together. From Tony Khan on down to the younger wrestlers, it’s a really fun atmosphere to be in. It feels almost playful in a way.
Q: Do you like the idea of getting this dream match with Kenny right out of the gate?
A: This is kind of one of my ideas I came in with is doing this right away. The idea came from when I came back from my retirement (in 2018) there were a lot of matches in WWE people wanted to see and we either took a long time to get to them or even didn’t get to them at all and I think we lost some of the momentum when fans were excited about me coming back from my retirement. And at the time I felt yeah, build to these matches, build to these matches. I think with so many exciting people coming into AEW you can build to a CM Punk-Kenny Omega match. You can build to some of those matches, but I also think fans want to see something right away to get them super excited. To be fair, I want my first match in AEW to feel like a big deal. So there is no bigger deal than me versus Kenny Omega right now.
Q: Has it hit you that you were in the WrestleMania main event a couple of months ago and now your debut is probably the biggest “Dynamite” AEW’s had?
A: It doesn’t hit me like that. The WrestleMania part at least doesn’t. It’s weird though because it literally feels like the biggest match of my career (Wednesday) because of the jump. It’s my first match in AEW. Because it’s Arthur Ashe Stadium, because I think a lot of people are going to be watching it and maybe trying out AEW for the first time and if we give them something great, I hope they stick around. On the converse side (laughs), if it really bombs and it really sucks, it’s gonna be, “We don’t want to watch this show.”
I have also been looking forward to wrestling Kenny for years. As I was in WWE I thought it was a match that actually would never happen. But when Kenny and I wrestled before he didn’t have that much of a name on the independent scene and hadn’t done all the stuff he did in Japan. As that was happening and I was in WWE I was like, “Woah, I would love to wrestle this guy.”
Q: The last time you faced Kenny was in 2009 in PWG (Pro Wrestling Guerrilla). What do you remember about that match?
A: I had known Kenny a little bit and that was essentially — it’s really weird looking back at it now — it’s essentially a comedy match. Obviously what you see Wednesday will be 100 percent different from that. I very distinctly remember us talking about the match before we had it. We were joking about some of these ideas. We just started riffing on the concept like, “OK, your name is not American Dragon, that’s nobody’s real name (Laugh). What if we both had the same name? We are both John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,” and then we’d start singing it. Would the crowd start doing it? You have to keep in mind we were riffing back and forth on it and then Kenny’s like, “We should do it.” For me, there was a very fear-based reaction of like, “Hey I don’t think people are gonna like this.” (Laughs). It turns out they loved it.
Q: You talked about comedy there, it feels like your presentation so far in AEW has been more intense. The language has been a little more intense. Why have you chosen that to be the way to start differentiating Daniel Bryan from Bryan Danielson? And how would you like the audience to separate the two?
A: There is a very clear distinction from the Bryan Danielson pre-WWE and the Daniel Bryan underdog character WWE kind of created. So I like my wrestling to be intense. I like it to be serious and you can add comedy and that kind of stuff in there and you can add a bit of levity. If I came in and didn’t feel like I was ready to be the best, right, if I was like, “OK, I’m not sure where I’m at in the company” or whatever, I might have taken a different tact. I feel like this is the best version of myself right now and I want people to be excited in the sense of like, “Whoa we’re gonna see some hard-nosed great wrestling.” Eventually, we may get to some sort of things that may be a little bit lighter and looser, but I wanted to come in and really differentiate between Bryan Danielson and Daniel Bryan.
Q: What was the thing that put AEW over the top and at what point did you make the final decision?
A: Gosh, I made the final decision pretty late in the game. (Laughs) My wife (Brie Bella) was actually the one who kind of pushed me in the sense of, “Hey you have to make a decision at some point.” I was really enjoying the summer with my kids. I was really putting it off because it was a hard decision for me. I think at the end of the day there were two main things that put AEW over the edge. It is one, what would be best for the wrestling business in the sense of, “Hey, could I make a big impact in AEW?” If you have two really strong wrestling companies that’s good for the fans, it’s good for the wrestlers, it’s good for everybody. Sometimes I contemplate things in the idea of service versus selfishness. Especially since we’ve had our daughter, I’ve tried to focus on service more than selfishness.
There’s the service aspect. When I went back and forth, where would I be of most use or that sort of thing, I kind of decided that the best place for the entire industry would be for me to be in AEW. But then from the selfishness aspect, there’s just so many people I want to wrestle there (Laughs). I’ve been in WWE for 11 years. I’d wrestled a lot of the people on the roster. You look at all these fresh matches, you look at the ability to do outside stuff. Also, the next three years are probably the last three years of my career that I’ll be able to go as hard as I want to be able to go.
Vince McMahon was very protective of me in the sense of protective of my health kind of stuff and I get that. I believe I’m more capable than… he protects me in a caring way. I feel like I can go harder than sometimes they would want me to in WWE. AEW will allow me that freedom to go as hard as I want.
Q: Protective in the sense of how many matches he was allowing you to wrestle or something along those lines?
A: No, no. Protective in the sense of like things that I could or could not do that were very specific to me. You also have to understand that WWE’s relationship with my health is different. So, Tony Khan knows all the information, but he didn’t have to experience it in real-time. So when the doctors say, “Bryan’s clear to literally do anything,” right, and these are the best doctors in the world, right? He doesn’t have any residual pain of these others things that had happened to me the way that WWE does. And you say that and there’s the freedom argument but the WWE perspective is coming in a very loving way. It’s not a negative way.
(Vince) used this analogy with me a lot. He likened me to a racehorse who needs a bit in their mouth because some races horses need a bit in their mouth because you need to be able to control the racehorse. If you don’t they’ll run themselves into the ground. When he said that in the back of my mind I’d always think, “Yeah, but I’d kind of rather be a wild horse rather than a racehorse with a bit in my mouth. That was a big point too as far as signing with AEW.
Q: Did you have a conversation with Vince before you made the decision or tell him that you were leaving?
A: Besides my wife, he was the first person I told. He and I have a great relationship. That was actually one of the harder things about leaving. Because I had such a positive experience in WWE. From my perspective, I have a lot of respect and love for him and that was one of the hardest things. Like, I don’t want him to think I’m betraying him or anything like that. It was really hard. One of the main reason’s why it took me so long to make the decision was my loyalty to Vince.
Q: Why is getting to wrestle in New Japan so important to you and were you surprised WWE was going to allow you to do it had you gone back there?
A: I wasn’t that surprised because there’s a good logical argument as to why anybody should try to have a good relationship with New Japan or another Japanese company. It’s not only good for, “Hey, this is fun to do.” I think it would be good for talent to go and learn there. There’s a lot of reasons why I think it’s a smart idea. The reason why wrestling in Japan is so important to me is it’s kind of my favorite style. The fans enjoy and like more of the mat wrestling style and the hard-hitting style.
Q: Are there guys at the top of your list in AEW that you want to make sure you wrestle?
A: Jon Moxley and I had wrestled in WWE, but never on a super big singles match of anything like that. I would love to wrestle him and Cody. But then there are the young guys that I really think are interesting matches. Darby Allin is becoming a huge star but I’m really intrigued by Dante Martin. He’s not the biggest name on the list, but he can just do so many incredible things. There’s Jungle Boy, there’s MJF. Hangman Page is only 30 years old.
Q: Fans have kind of had fun with the idea of you coming out in white T-shirts for a few weeks. Was there a reason to wear just a very plain shirt?
A: I’m really not interested in selling people things, my merch shirt or anything like that. The other idea, this is more of a general concept in my life as far as … if you try so hard to look a certain way you’re focusing on the wrong thing. Steve Jobs just had like five black turtlenecks or something. He didn’t have to choose.
I like the idea of simplicity. I like the idea of when people are watching it’s what I say, it’s what I do. It’s not necessarily, “Oh man that’s a cool T-shirt.” And hoping and believing that what I say and do is strong enough to keep people watching.