WWE's Daniel Bryan: "I Want to be More Hated Than Brock Lesnar"

Daniel Bryan had a whirlwind 2018. Not only did he return to a WWE ring for the first time in four years, but he turned heel on AJ Styles, one of the most popular superstars in the company, winning the coveted WWE Championship in the process.

As the calendar flips to 2019, the "new" more eco-friendly Daniel Bryan is heading into the Royal Rumble event with the title and with more wisdom to impart onto the WWE Universe every week. And while he won't look past his opponent Styles heading into WrestleMania season, Bryan is confident he'll come out on top. That's just how the best wrestler in the world thinks.

Newsweek caught up with the current WWE Champion about his upcoming title match with Styles, his heel turn and how he wants to be the most hated person in WWE.

The Royal Rumble pay-per-view will stream live on the WWE Network on Sunday, January 27 beginning at 5 p.m. EST.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

daniel bryan wwe championship
WWE

It's been about 10 months since your return, how does it feel to be back week after week?

It's great. I'm having some of the most fun wrestling that I've had in a long long time. I really like being the WWE Champion [laughs] and I really like being able to change my attitude and persona. I've had a lot of fun doing that. I've also got to wrestle some incredible wrestlers. Like Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series and now AJ Styles, who when I was out I kept watching and said "man, this guy might be the best guy in the world."

And now I get to face him at the Royal Rumble in Chase Stadium, which is a baseball stadium, in front of 40,000-plus people there. Wrestling AJ Styles on that kind of stage it gets me really pumped.

Being the GM of SmackDown you said you watched him, but now being in the ring with him do you feel he's the best wrestler in the world?

Hell no! I'm the best wrestler in the world [laughs] Are you kidding me?

It's interesting. There are people you can say that are better at different aspects of wrestling than I am, but I don't think there's anyone in the world who is a better, complete performer than I am right now. And obviously, that changes and evolves over time. People fall into lulls and dips or whatever it is but as far as being a complete wrestling WWE performer, there's no one in the world who can touch me.

You've been a heel in the past, how is this change in character different?

It's interesting because even my bad guy stuff in WWE before, one in 2012 — that's a long time ago now. But a lot of it is based on my confidence and my ability to understand what it is that we do, and understanding myself. That's the most interesting thing about wrestling in general. It's martial arts-esque, and you learn a lot about yourself by doing it. You learn about the things you believe and don't believe. You learn how to properly move your body, different ways to get people to react and not react to certain things.

When I was a bad guy before that, I was most proud of and most reminiscent of when I was in the independents in a Ring Of Honor-type setting. But even then I wasn't as developed a performer as I am now.

WWE has really helped in that regard and even my time off helped because as the General Manager all I did was talking segments, and that's not what I'm naturally good at. But I've always been somebody who tries to do their best with everything they've been given, whether it's working at McDonalds when I was 15 years-old, delivering newspapers or being the general manager of SmackDown. Trying to get as good as I possibly can, and that helps when it's time to really turn it on and get more comfortable out there. It really made it seem more natural.

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WWE

The creation of the "new" Daniel Bryan, were you holding onto it? Or was it something that came later down the line?

In true WWE fashion this was all spur of the moment [laughs]. It was a "day of" change, and for me it was awesome because it was a clean slate.

The old question, when I came back, was "I'm really excited to come back to wrestling but you also have to deal with expectations" personal and company expectations and all that kind of stuff. Where as when the [heel turn] happened, there's a clean slate. It's a blank page where I can draw whatever I want, and that's exciting.

One of the things I loved about independent wrestling before I got to WWE is the ability to tinker with things. I could be a different character when I'm in England or Ring of Honor or Japan or Germany. I could change all these things, but it's been very fun to tinker almost every week. I'm enjoying things that I'm playing with from a character and wrestling perspective. That's been a lot of fun.

Your match with Lesnar, how different would it have been if you were still face?

It would have to have been a different match. One of the challenges with that match, specifically, from a creativity standpoint is "ok I just turned into a bad guy maybe 5 or 6 days ago, I can't go out there and be a good guy. Otherwise it's an ineffective turn." So how do I go out there and make people want to see me beat Brock Lesnar but at the end of it still have them hate me?

And I feel we accomplished that very well [laughs]. It's funny too, because a lot of people give Lesnar a lot of crap especially from wrestling fans. But man, what an incredible performer that guy is. I've been wanting to do the Brock Lesnar match for a long time and I was very satisfied.

But by default, you'd be cheered because you're up against Lesnar no matter how heelish you are. That must have been difficult.

Yea it's an interesting dynamic because this was my thinking going in and it worked. Get people at first, because I want to be the most hated guy in the company. I want to be more hated than Brock Lesnar. Some people want to cheer for the bad guy. I don't want them to cheer, I want to be hated. So far I've had two jumpers at live events [laughs] and that's an old school kind of mentality. You don't want those guys to jump but you want them to hate you. You want them to pay to see you get beat. Or pay to see you get beat up or at the very least enjoy seeing you get beat up. That's my thing.

In the Brock Lesnar match, specifically, before we got to do much, I wanted people to see Lesnar kick my ass. But then I want them to be concerned about Brock Lesnar kicking my ass, and then I kick Brock Lesnar's ass. And then when I lose, I still want [the fans] to be like "I wanted to see him win but you know what, I hate him. What a despicable human being this guy is" [laughs].

So it's a challenge. I look at professional wrestling as a martial art, almost. But if you're looking at martial arts, MMA is the most martial aspect of it, professional wrestling is the most artistic aspect of it. And so this is my performance art. When I do other martial arts I do them to be better at my performance art. Creating those kind of narratives is something I think about a lot. People think of wrestling they don't see it as a performance art or something that is very nuance or have that kind of depth to it. It doesn't have to, but I don't mind having that depth.

One of the things I think of when I think of professional wrestling is music. I'm thinking more classical music. If you're in the ring and you're listening to classical music, and this is an imperfect example, but it would be like "boom... boom... boom...boom boom boom boom." So you get used to the "boom….boom….boom" part so when you get the "boom boom boom boom" part you say "oh that's different." And then you throw in variations on that, and you throw in the horns [makes horn noises] and that sort of thing.

[I want to ] add those sorts of things to the art of professional wrestling in a way that even people who are watching aren't' thinking of. I do it because it isn't "I want the critics to be like this!" this is something that I do because I love doing it and I appreciate the small nuances of that. And selfish as it is, I'm not doing it for anyone else but myself [laughs].

[Laughs] But that's ok, it's something you love to do.

But when you're in entertainment you get "I want the people to enjoy this" and I do but at the end of the day…. There have been times in gorilla position where I go backstage and everyone is clapping after a match and I'm just shaking my head and thinking, "what are these people clapping for? That was nothing. That was a spotfest." I try to work hard in every performance that I do, but when I get back there it wasn't special, it was thoughtless. And there have been times where I go back there and I'm so proud, but not a single person in gorilla cared [laughs]. And I just walk with my chest out and my head held high, proud of what I've done.

Going back to AJ, you say you want to be the most hated. On Smackdown, at least, he's the most loved. Is that the perfect foil for your character?

Yea and I think that's why this match is happening, there's a lot of reasons. I saw AJ Styles as one of the best wrestlers in the WWE and maybe in the world. And now I see that I'm the best wrestler in the world, but if you're talking about "who is in competition for that?" Ok, it's AJ Styles, Seth Rollins a couple of other people. I don't know if you saw Rey Mysterio and Almas from last week but that was awesome you have to throw those guys in there [laughs]. But that's one of the reasons why I'm so excited and jazzed for this match because I get to wrestle AJ Styles, one of the best wrestlers in the company, and we're doing it at the Royal Rumble.