He may only be 25 years old, but current Ring of Honor and Full Impact Pro World Champion “American Dragon” Bryan Danielson has already spent seven years in the ring in a career that has taken him around the world. He just doesn’t talk about it much.
It is rare that Danielson does interviews, so it was with a great deal of honour that SLAM! Wrestling had the opportunity to speak to him for over an hour last week, taking an in depth look at his career. Born and raised in Aberdeen, Washington, Danielson grew up in the western Washington state and attended the same high school as fellow Aberdeen resident Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Even in high school Danielson knew what he wanted to be. He just took a different path to get there then he originally intended.
“It was never my intention to go to Shawn Michaels’ school originally. I was planning on going to Dean Malenko’s school and had actually sent in my deposit to go there when I was a sophomore in high school,” Danielson said. “Three months before I graduated I got a call from Phyllis Lee, who was responsible for taking payments for the Malenko school, and she told me the school was closing down and I wouldn’t be able to go. So I was scrambling because I didn’t have any plans for after I got out of high school other than moving to Florida and training to wrestle. I started applying for colleges, and then a friend of mine was on the internet and saw the Shawn Michaels’ wrestling school. I called it up and decided to go there. I went through a process of looking into a number of schools as most young wrestlers do. I grew up in Washington State and there wasn’t a big wrestling scene there and nowhere to train. To get where I wanted to go I would have to leave the area.”
Danielson was one of the first people in Michaels’ camp. There is a list of wrestlers that are rumored to have started with him, but Danielson is quick to clear up those misconceptions. “The first full-time class did not include Paul London or Michael Shane. It included myself, Brian ‘Spanky’ Kendrick, a guy named Shooter Schultz who was really good and got a developmental deal, and current WWE star Lance Cade. Michael Shane was in the next class after us. I don’t think Paul actually ever trained with Shawn but with Rudy Gonzales, who helped us train after Shawn closed the school.”
Regardless of who started when, it is still an impressive list of success stories for the facility’s brief existence.
“What made it work was having good people around that worked really hard,” he said. “Spanky and I really pushed each other. A lot of guys when they start training they are really lazy about it. We had four guys who have made a decent living wrestling and out of one class. That is a lot. We had different personalities who were all hard workers who were willing to try different things, which made us learn faster.”
The association with Michaels paid off, Danielson and Kendrick were both signed to WWF developmental deals in 2001 and assigned to Memphis Championship Wrestling. The deal came to an end with the purchase of WCW. With an influx of new cruiserweights that had already been on TV from the dead promotion, Danielson and Kendrick were told they were no longer needed and released. While this would devastate some young wrestlers, Danielson continued on. He returned home to Aberdeen unsure of where to go with his career. It was then that he established a connection to Canada with a promotion in British Columbia.
“Extreme Canadian Championship Wrestling is a big part of my wrestling career. After I was released I didn’t really have anywhere to go or know much about the independent wrestling scene because I had gone from Shawn’s school straight to developmental. I went back to Aberdeen and was trying to find work there,” he explained. “I had met Tony Kozina through the ECWA Super 8 tournament, and knew he had worked in the Pacific Northwest, so I called and he hooked me up with ECCW. They were great for me when I got released because they would do little tours on the weekend. It wasn’t a regular occurrence for me to be flown out to indies at that point in time, so I would do one show a month on the east coast and the other weekends I would wrestle for ECCW. I haven’t wrestled for them in a couple of years now but when I go back home I see if they want me on the shows. The crew there is a really good group of guys who work really hard, they just suffer from not getting a lot of exposure. At the time when I started working there they were drawing good houses and it is unfortunate that the people there don’t get a lot of recognition.”
It was during ECCW’s annual Pacific Cup tournament in 2003 that Dragon helped establish a young up and comer by the name of Scotty Mac. The two faced off in the finals of the tournament and Mac ended up having his hand raised in victory. While Scotty spoke highly of the learning experience of wrestling Dragon, Dragon also points out that he himself was hardly a veteran.
“I have never thought of myself as being that good. Unfortunately what wrestlers have to deal with today that they didn’t in the past is they wrestle guys who aren’t very experienced. If you read Shawn Michaels’ book, when he first started wrestling, it was with veterans for the first two or three years of his career. He was wrestling 250 nights a year and wrestling guys who had been wrestling five to 15 years. They were constantly learning from guys like that. The first time I wrestled Scotty Mac, I had been wrestling for three years, where I go in as the experienced guy. At that point you are only wrestling one or two shows a week, so it is kind of like the blind leading the blind, but the guy who is less blind is doing the leading. The opportunity was there for somebody like me to come in and work with guys like Scotty. [ECCW promoter] Michelle Starr had been bringing in guys like Honkytonk Man and Steve Corino but they were wrestling in the main events against ECCW stars who had been wrestling for awhile like Juggernaut. It was just a good learning experience to wrestle someone who has a different style.”
Dragon is lucky in that being an American citizen he can travel to where he can get work. Some of his friends in Canada don’t have that ability, which he feels is a detriment to their career. In addition to his ECCW time, Dragon has toured in Japan with T.J. Wilson and Apocalypse and spoke highly of both. Dragon even arranged for Apocalypse to stay with him on a recent trip to the east coast and set him up on a ROH show against Samoa Joe.
“I have told Apocalypse I would love for him to come and stay with me in Philadelphia. I don’t know the Calgary scene, but I know you don’t get much exposure there and when you are not getting much exposure you don’t get a lot of outside bookings. The exposure that is given is also given to a guy like Harry Smith. T.J. got quite a bit of exposure too. A guy like Apocalypse or Juggernaut is very talented but gets limited exposure. I would think the key for those guys would be to move somewhere with more action where they can get their name out. It is a hard step, though, to move from where you have lived for most of your life to where you would have to change countries to get indy bookings. That is a hard step for people to make. Juggernaut is a phenomenal talent who is huge, excellent at judo and very agile and he did the whole driving around thing for years and it really didn’t get him much at the time. I think if he tried it again it would get him somewhere but you never know. That is a big step to take on just a hope.”
Even as an established name on the independent scene, it can be difficult for promoters to justify bringing in a talent even the caliber of an American Dragon, Samoa Joe or Christopher Daniels.
“That is a tough situation. A lot of that is independent wrestlers overpricing themselves. Say a wrestler charges $500 US a match, on top of which the promoter has to pay an airline ticket. That is $900, and if they are selling tickets at $10 a piece that means 90 people, on top of your usual crowd that is going to come and see just that person. There are very few wrestlers out there that just by adding their name to the card will add those extra 90 people. A lot of times people say that they want to see these guys, but promoters have to be able to justify bringing those guys in.”
The days of packing eight wrestlers into a van and driving to shows to work seems to be a thing of the past as well.
“A lot of wrestlers aren’t willing to do that now because they have been spoiled, myself included, with being flown everywhere. When I was with Reckless Youth in Memphis, he, Don Montoya and Mike Quackenbush would drive all over the country looking for bookings. Now guys are hesitant to do that with the exception of a couple of guys. As much as I don’t like Chris Hero, he and Claudio Castagnoli drive all over the place just to get bookings. That is very commendable on their parts. As a wrestler you can’t blame the system for not getting bookings, you have to work within the system to do your best.”
The next big break in Danielson’s career came on a trip with Kendrick to the Cauliflower Alley Club reunion in Las Vegas in 2003. The pair heard about an opportunity at the Los Angeles New Japan Dojo and quickly drove to California.
“Antonio Inoki was in attendance and they needed people there to look good for a TV thing. That opened the door for me and the next time they had a tryout in September I went down. New Japan’s Makabe said, ‘Some of you guys are good and have a lot of talent but if you don’t come in and train at the dojo every day you can’t expect to get work in New Japan.” I was living in the Bay Area at the time and training at Roland Alexander’s school. I wanted to expand so I moved to L.A. and lived in the Dojo and trained there. Eventually I got a tour, so that worked out well for me.”
For awhile, it seemed that Danielson was being groomed as a top junior-heavyweight much like The Dynamite Kid and Chris Benoit before him. He and Christopher Daniels (as Curry Man) actually defeated Jado and Gedo for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship in March of 2004 and held the belts until June. Business began to struggle for what was once the top promotion in Japan, and the foreign regulars suffered for it, including Danielson.
“The last time I went to New Japan was December of 2004. James Gibson and I were supposed to be going over as a tag team in February of 2005. Whenever they had told me that I was going on a tour I had always gone. I cancelled my bookings for the February tour and when I asked Simon Inoki, who was running the L.A. Dojo, about my contract he said that I was not going to be on the tour but I would be on the next one. I had to rush and try and get some indy bookings and then I wasn’t on the next tour. I don’t want to just sit around and wait for tours. I went to England in the summer of 2005 and when I was over there Simon was e-mailing me saying that New Japan wanted to offer me a contract as they had heard TNA and WWE were both interested in me. I told him I would love to sign a contract, but when I got back and called him and left a message I never heard back. I didn’t realize they were in financial trouble at the time. I think it is a case that they spent so much money on a guy like Brock Lesnar that they couldn’t spend as much on another foreigner. There are no hard feelings on my part. I heard from someone else that they said I was asking for too much money but I never asked for more then what they always offered. It was a weird situation and I was disappointed with the whole thing but it worked out well for me in the end.”
In addition to Japan, Danielson’s international experience includes several tours of England, mostly for Brian Dixon’s All Star Wrestling. Any wrestler who has gone to the UK will tell you it is a valuable trip and Danielson is no different.
“It is a great experience because as opposed to American independent wrestling you are working a lot of experienced guys in the UK. I would get to wrestle guys like Robbie Brookside, PN News and Johnny Kid. Also you are wrestling five to six nights a week, my first tour we did a stretch of 17 dates in a row which was fantastic. You have to put your ego aside a bit because you are setting up the ring and taking it down and aren’t getting paid very much but it is a fantastic learning experience. It is also a blast, the guys over there are a lot of fun and you live the wrestling life that a lot of independent wrestlers don’t get to live now because there aren’t that many shows around. It has helped me a great deal as a wrestler. A lot of the shows in the UK are more character driven which made me improve on that. That influence can be seen in the way I wrestle now and it is a really important part of wrestling.”
It is in Ring of Honor that Bryan Danielson has made his name. He headlined the first show in February of 2002 and has ridden with the company through its ups and downs since then. Danielson has become known as an iron man in the promotion due to the length of his matches. It started with a 42-minute, two-out-of-three falls match at The Epic Encounter against Paul London. Next was Testing the Limit, a two-out-of-three falls, 75-minute match against Austin Aries. This year has seen Danielson in three lengthy matches against Roderick Strong and 60-minute draws against Samoa Joe, Nigel McGuiness and Colt Cabana. Dragon has perfected his cardio to prepare to go the distance when required.
“I don’t train like a bodybuilder, I have no interest in looking like that, I train like an athlete. Knowing that I am the champion means knowing that on any given night you can go 60 minutes. I am always doing loads of hindu squats and bridges to keep me in shape physically and makes me feel like I can wrestle indefinitely. The hardest part is keeping matches interesting for the fans. Sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don’t. Wrestling fans are hard to please now. It is not like I have the experience of Ric Flair who in 1979 was doing 60-minute matches on a regular basis so by the time he and Ricky Steamboat were having 60-minute matches in 1989 he had perfected the art of the hour-long match. For our generation it is different because most guys will never go 60 minutes. Those who do have fans who have shorter attention spans and we haven’t been wrestling as long as a guy like Flair. That part of the match is tough; other than that you train for it like you do any other match.”
Danielson’s lengthy battles with Roderick Strong are some of the best matches of the year, each one getting progressively better and building on the previous. While Danielson walked out with the belt, he did not leave unscarred thanks to Strong’s chops.
“My chest will never heal. There are these goofy scars all over my chest, which I think will lead to great stories if I live to be older and if I can remember what actually happened to it. I don’t think it will ever completely heal and I have sensitive pasty-white skin anyways, so anytime I get chopped it seems to re-open old wounds.”
With such a vastly talented roster, there can be pressure as the top man in the promotion to put on the best match. When following matches like the Dragon Gate six-man at April’s Supercard of Honor or one of the many other five-star matches ROH produces on a regular basis, it would be hard for some wrestlers to try and fill that role. Not so for Danielson.
“I don’t think about it. My style is different from just about everybody’s on the roster. When Joe was the champion he elevated the belt to such a high level that the championship matches became so important and you still get a championship feel in most ROH title matches. That alone helps matches seem like more than they are. That feeling and aura that the ROH belt has because it is important to the wrestlers and the fans and a lot of people in the industry itself is what allows you to do that. If it wasn’t for the belt I don’t think you would be able to go out after the Dragon Gate six-man and do me and Roderick Strong for 57 minutes. I just don’t think it would be feasible without the importance of the belt.”
In 2005, Danielson took on a different look from the clean-cut babyface that he had always been. When asked on the Ring of Honor board what question they would ask Danielson if given the chance, the top response was to ask about the “hobo beard.” Shaving his head and growing a massive beard, Danielson certainly looked different than fans were used to.
“The original thing with the beard, I came back from Japan and realized I had left my razor in a Japanese hotel room. Razors cost like ten bucks. I am a notorious cheapskate; if I don’t need to buy something I don’t buy it. I kept saying I would get a razor tomorrow and three or four weeks went by without getting one. I finally did and was going to shave when I got to Japan. When I got there, the Japanese really liked my small crappy beard and told me to keep growing it. So I did, and I just kept growing it. Christopher Daniels tells me all the time that I am slave to my whims, and when I decide I am going to grow a giant beard I just grow a giant beard. Part of it was just curiosity — because I have never had a lot of facial hair — to see if I could actually grow a proper beard. It never was one but it was as close as I am probably going to get. Shaving it happened because my sister’s wedding was coming up and she really didn’t want me in her wedding with my big giant beard. When she told me that I just shaved it off and that was the end of the beard.”
Danielson has also developed an edge to his personality as champion. His promos are highly entertaining, as despite being cheered, he acts like a cowardly heel. Some quotes from matches include being announced as “the wrestler too good, to wrestle in front of all these pricks!” and while cheating reminding the official “I have ’til five, referee!”
“I don’t know where it comes from. Everybody would like to think they are not a prick, but really we all are. Everybody has that in them and competition brings it out in a lot of people. When I was in basketball in high school there was a guy we didn’t like on the other team because he had long curly hair. When one of our players accidentally elbowed him and knocked his tooth out we all cheered. That is a really prickish thing to do. We all have that inside of us and it is just a matter of letting it go.”
As the ROH champion, Danielson has taken on all comers regardless of whether they are a heel or face. In the year that he has been champion Danielson has beaten both popular stars like Christopher Daniels, A.J. Styles, Colt Cabana, Delirious, and Austin Aries as well as hated heels like Jimmy Rave and Alex Shelley. Another interesting part of his reign has had Danielson trying to prove he is the best in the world by facing the best in open contract matches. This has lead to victories over Steve Corino, Chris Sabin, Naomichi Marufuji, Chris Hero, and Lance Storm. While this has lead to some fantastic matches, Danielson has some others in mind he would love to sign his contracts.
“I would like to wrestle Dan Severn, Alex Porteau, Barry Horowitz, and Kamala. One of the things that I think Ring of Honor has missed the boat on with the open contracts is they brought in TNA guys like Chris Sabin and had me wrestle him. It would be interesting if they have another main event in the show that is not my match; I think fans would be interested in seeing me versus some of the older wrestlers like Kamala because they don’t get to see that in Ring of Honor. The idea had been brought to me by another promoter to wrestle Dan Severn and unfortunately it fell through. That for me would be so much fun. I had also wanted to do an open contract match with Apocalypse to get his name out there because he is a great wrestler and unfortunately because he is in Calgary nobody gets a chance to see him.”
As for who his fans would like to see sign the contract? While it isn’t likely to happen in ROH due to him being a WWE superstar, the thought of Chris Benoit vs. American Dragon is enough to make any ROH fan drool. What is shocking is despite many calling Danielson the best wrestler in the world today, he himself does not feel like he is in Benoit’s league.
“I would love to wrestle him. The only time we have talked is randomly backstage at WWE shows. As far as comparisons, you can’t compare us because he is an entirely different level unto himself. He is one of those guys who you never see have a bad match, he is so good and skilled that he rises above everything else. It is flattering when people say that kind of stuff, but it is very apparent to me when I watch my wrestling that I am nowhere near that level. I would like to be at some point but at this point it isn’t the case. It is a flattering comparison though. Jamie Noble said when he wrestled him it was amazing going in there and feeling like he was out of his league wrestling Chris Benoit. I am sure if I wrestled Benoit I would feel the same way.”
Danielson’s fans will likely be stunned by his statement, as many feel he is on the level of wrestlers like Benoit and truly one of the best.
“It is hard to see myself as a fan would see me. I have no lack of self-confidence but when it comes to people thinking I am a really good wrestler, that is hard for me to understand. When I watch myself wrestle all I see is the negative parts. I really enjoy the act of wrestling but once I am done and go back and watch I try and focus on the things to make me better. I am very critical of myself once I am done with a match and seeing what I can improve on, you see all your flaws and negatives. You watch a guy like Chris Benoit and you don’t see any of those bad qualities it helps you stay humble. That is a very important thing as there are a lot of guys in wrestling who once they achieve even a mild level of success in wrestling they think ‘I am a great wrestler’ when for the most part that is not the case. A lot of wrestlers are just really mediocre wrestlers who think they are better then they are. I try not to fall into that category.”
Having been on top of Ring of Honor for a year, wrestled internationally and competed in a variety of different promotions, Dragon still feels there is much left to do in independent wrestling and always will be.
“I don’t think you can every accomplish everything there is to on the indy scene. Say I felt that I had accomplished everything I could with Ring of Honor. There is always another company that you could try to build up and other people that you can try to make better. I don’t think you can ever say ‘I have done everything.’ People will get that mindset but I don’t see it as reality and a lot of times that is an ego thing where they want a change of scenery. I don’t see that ever being a problem.”
As for leaving the independent scene, despite his old WWF deal and working dark matches and Velocity tapings for the company, Danielson doesn’t see that in the near future.
“I haven’t heard anything from them in a long time. There was a period in the summer of 2005 when CM Punk e-mailed me and said that WWE and TNA were both interested in me, him and Joe. I got that e-mail and then Joe signed with TNA, Punk signed with WWE and I didn’t hear from anybody. I haven’t thought about it much. If it comes up I may consider it, if it doesn’t it doesn’t bother me. I am happy doing what I am doing, I get to travel the world and not be responsible to anybody but myself and I am going to college.”
In addition to wrestling and running the ROH training school, Danielson is preparing for the future by taking college courses in order to achieve another goal in life.
“I am taking general classes right now online. I had applied for the Peace Corps in 2005 but they wouldn’t accept me because they said I didn’t have any proper skills. All I have been doing since I was 18 was wrestling. That is what I would really like to do, and once you get a college degree it is easier to get into the Peace Corps. In addition the volunteering and such that I do it shouldn’t be too hard. That is probably where I see myself going from wrestling is into the Peace Corps. I love wrestling and it is a great sport but I also want to help people with my life. There are a lot of people out there who need support and aren’t getting it from a lot of places. I may not change the world but it will make me feel a little bit better.”
Danielson isn’t doing this in case he can no longer wrestle, but instead as a yet another goal he has set for himself.
“It is not so much ‘If I can’t wrestle,’ it is just that life is so short. There are so many things I want to do with my life, it is part of my personality. One of the reasons I got into wrestling was that I really wanted to do it. But it isn’t the only thing I want to do. Sometimes individuals feel stuck in something just because they are getting paid well to do it. I never want to be stuck in that situation, I want to live my life more free than that and live outside boundaries. I want to do the things I will really appreciate so when I look back on things I did most of the things I wanted to do and not have too many regrets.”
There will come a day when Bryan Danielson will step away from the ring. When that time comes Danielson wants to be remembered, but hopes that the fans that are watching the product instead focus on the present and the future instead of the past.
“When I am done with wrestling I want the older fans to remember seeing me. But I would like when I am done for them to be thinking about the newer guys. I don’t need a legacy it doesn’t interest me or serve a purpose to me it is just ego. I try to rid myself of a lot of that kind of stuff. When I am done wrestling I want people who saw me to remember that they enjoyed watching me wrestle. I want them to continue to support the sport of professional wrestling.”