As he stood in the Arizona Diamondbacks' dugout getting ready to throw out the first pitch before Wednesday night's game vs. the Dodgers, WWE superstar Daniel Bryan tried to visualize the transition of a 48,000-seat baseball stadium to a venue that will host one of the world's most popular annual pro wrestling events.
"It's an incredible stadium. We were actually just talking about what the metamorphosis would look like," Bryan said about WWE's Royal Rumble pay-per-view, which will take place at Chase Field on Jan. 27. Tickets go on sale Oct. 12.
"Right now, the thought is that we’d come out of the dugout. We’ve never had a Royal Rumble in a baseball stadium before. I’m super-psyched. I’ve never come out of a dugout to go into a wrestling show before."
A 37-year-old Valley resident and three-time WWE champion, Bryan has undergone a metamorphosis of his own in the last several years.
Four and a half years ago, Bryan culminated his unlikely journey to the top of the pro wrestling world. At under six feet tall and just over 200 pounds, he overcame his small stature, as well as the preferences of WWE decision makers both on and (allegedly) off the screen, to win the WWE championship in the main event of WrestleMania XXX in New Orleans. Bryan's popularity was due in part to the "yes" chants he began years earlier -- chants that began to resonate with fans and even make their way into mainstream culture.
The "yes" chant is one of Bryan's favorite things about performing live. "Sometimes it’s a couple thousand people. Sometimes it’s 70,000 people doing it with me all in unison," he said. "It’s just a very surreal thing."
But Bryan's run to the top ended just weeks after his crowning achievement. The month after Wrestlemania XXX, he was forced to relinquish the championship in order to undergo neck surgery. He made a brief return to action in 2015, but concussions put a quick end to that return, and an emotional Bryan announced his retirement from the ring in February 2016.
Bryan stayed in front of fans by serving as on-air general manager of WWE's Smackdown Live show beginning in 2016. Despite WWE's refusal to medically clear him, Bryan continued to have a goal of returning to in-ring action -- and he prepared by learning additional skills that would aid him in that return.
"For me, it’s always about improving and evolving my own art form, and a lot of times that involves me doing other martial arts like jiu-jitsu, kickboxing, that sort of thing, and incorporating that stuff into what I do," he said.
In March, Bryan was finally medically cleared to return to WWE's active roster. He won a tag-team match at Wrestlemania 34 in April and has become a regular in-ring performer once again, albeit with a slightly modified style that has allowed him to put his additional MMA training to use.
"The way I view pro wrestling is different from the way a lot of people view it as. I view it from the spectrum of martial arts. I look at it as my own martial art," he said. "For me, it’s a real art form that I like to work on constantly."
Bryan is from Aberdeen, Washington, about 100 miles southwest of Seattle. But he and his wife, Brie Bella -- a graduate of Chaparral High School in Scottsdale and a fellow WWE superstar -- have lived in the Valley multiple times. They recently sold their home in Phoenix and have taken up temporary residence in San Diego for the filming of "Total Bellas," a reality show featuring Brie and her twin sister Nikki. But Daniel and Brie are in the process of buying another home in Phoenix and will make a full-time return to the Valley in November.
In 2014, Bryan famously apprehended a would-be burglar at his Phoenix home. But that experience hasn't soured Bryan, an avid outdoorsman, on Valley life.
"I love the hiking. I love the hiking and I love the sunsets. I think people underestimate the sunsets here and how beautiful they are," Bryan said, adding Phoenix has become a "low-key awesome" venue for fantastic food.
"When we first moved out here in 2013 ... we were coming back because (my wife's) mom lived here and all that kind of stuff, and when we got here, we were like, ‘Wow, there’s all this awesome food. This was never here before!’ There are so many great pizza spots, Mexican food spots — just so much great food here. I love it."
Daniel and Brie welcomed their first child, a daughter named Birdie Joe, to the world 16 months ago. For Bryan, being a full-time parent and a full-time wrestler is as challenging as any opponent or injury he has overcome -- but it has also been a rewarding experience.
"There are pluses and minuses to this whole thing. When you’re away — we go to Australia next week and I’ll be gone for 8 or 9 days and won’t be able to see my baby, but when I get to be home, I get to be fully home and fully there with my baby," he said.
"A lot of people have 9 to 5 jobs or whatever it is. You come home, you’re tired from a long day at work and then you get an hour and a half or so until you put him down. The days I’m home, I get to spend completely and fully with her, which I love."
Bryan has yet to reclaim his WWE championship, but his opportunity might come soon. During his upcoming trip to Australia, Bryan will compete against his long-time nemesis, The Miz, for the right to a future WWE title match. That match will be part of WWE's Super Show-Down that will take place next Saturday, Oct. 6 and will be streamed on WWE Network.
"For those of you don’t watch the show, he cheats a lot. He’s a real bad guy, that Miz," Bryan said with a grin. "I’ve opened my eyes a little bit to the different ways he (cheats). But at the end of the day, I’m just a better wrestler than he is, and that’s why I think I’ll win.
"But you never know. Daniel Bryan has a history of losing a lot of matches in WWE. Sometimes it’s false bravado."
As unlikely as Bryan's first run to the top of the WWE mountain was, a second run might be seen as even more improbable. But Bryan, who began his pro wrestling career fresh out of high school nearly 20 years ago and had to scratch and claw simply to make his way onto the WWE roster, has never been one to back away from a challenge.
The power of "yes" got Bryan to the top once, and in his mind, there's no reason to think it can't happen again.
"That’s kind of what it feels like to me," Bryan said when asked if his journey won't be complete until he recaptures the WWE title. "But I also feel like the journey is never complete. There’s never going to be this end goal where it’s like, 'OK, now I am satisfied.' It’s like a musician who just always wants to play music."