(CBS Miami/CBS Local)- Flash back to 2018. Christopher Daniels is at a crossroad. The longtime wrestler has a decision to make, one that could be the last of his 25-year career.
Laying before him are a number of options.
He could re-sign with Ring of Honor and continue competing for a promotion where he had become a well-respected leader in the locker room and gained the confidence of company executives.
He could also choose to retire from in-ring competition and move into a more "corporate" role on camera in ROH. Nearing the age of 49, the latter was something he had been contemplating for some time and had a tentative plan worked out in his head.
Then there was an opportunity that would take him down a completely different path. He had a chance to roll the dice and try his luck in a new well-funded promotion that was quietly being formed by the elite members of the ROH roster.
After soul-searching and contemplation, Daniels determined that he wasn't ready to hang up the boots just yet. And, realizing that he had what likely is a once in a lifetime opportunity, he chose to gamble on the upstart and become elite, himself. Shortly thereafter he signed a contract with All Elite Wrestling to rejoin his ROH locker room brethren in Cody, The Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, and Adam "Hangman" Page. When the ink was dry on the new deal, Daniels not only found himself back in the ring, but also in the front office for the first time as the newly appointed head of talent relations.
The optimism surrounding the launch of AEW is unlike anything he's experienced in any of the vast number of promotions where he's previously been employed, including WWE and Impact Wrestling.
There is a positivity that has become infectious throughout the entire company that has long been absent in an often jaded industry. Selling out your first show in a matter of minutes — in a major arena no less — and becoming the talk of the wrestling world will do that to you.
Add the fact that the locker room is full of fresh faces and ticket demand for the second pay-per-view was even higher and you've got darn near utopia.
The euphoria among talent, management, and fans alike now shifts to this Saturday's Fyter Fest show in Florida. It's the second outing for AEW, but the first time they will be streaming the show for free and not on pay-per-view. Coming off the success of last month's historic Double Or Nothing, the company still has a lot to prove but has a prime opportunity to capitalize on the buzz and capture new fans. Because the ultimate fate of the promotion will live and die with the success of its weekly live broadcast beginning in the fall, it is critical they have as many eyes on the product as possible before then. And giving the show away for free is a great way to do just that.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Daniels as he prepared to face CIMA, a highly regarded Japanese talent, on Saturday. We talked about how he struggled to make a decision to leave ROH for AEW, being a liaison between talent and the office, how much longer he'd like to continue wrestling, and just who AEW fans actually are since reports surfaced that crossover viewership with WWE and other promotions is surprisingly minimal.
How does the morale and overall environment of AEW differ from the locker rooms that you've been part of in the past?
It really doesn't. I feel like I've been very fortunate to be in locker rooms where there's been a lot of positive feeling toward the company we're working for. When we started with Ring of Honor, when we started with TNA, there was a very similar mindset that we were building something, that we were doing something good. But just the amount of positive, goodwill that there is in this company for this company and from the wrestling fan base, it's just off the charts. We've sort of got the professional wrestling fan base on our side and they want to see us succeed and do well. And we're all very lucky to be in that situation where we're part of a hot brand before the brand is even six months old.
You're not just a performer here in AEW; you're also the head of talent relations. Describe that role.
It's really just a matter of being a liaison between the talent and the office. Right now my job is a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls. We're working on visas for international talents and all this stuff for all the regular talent. Trying to find referees, trying to find announcers. Just coordinating all of that stuff. It's a lot of busy work. But, it's fun and I'm glad that I was given an opportunity to sort of use my relationships with a lot of these wrestlers in a positive way, to help the company and build from the bottom a good locker room, and a positive feeling between the talent and the office.
Did you ever envision yourself transitioning into that kind of managerial capacity?
I hoped I would, but I didn't realize it was going to happen so quickly. If you had asked me two years ago, I probably would have told you that I would be doing something similar to this in Ring of Honor. But you know, this opportunity came around, and when it did, I couldn't really turn away. Yeah, it's brand new territory that we're sort of blazing a trail in, but it's an opportunity that I couldn't say no to. And I'm glad. So far the trip has been exciting and amazing and I can't wait to see how the next couple years go for us.
You said recently on Chris Jericho's podcast that you were contemplating retirement. Now here you are, 49 years old, and it is full steam ahead for you. Is hanging up the boots at all in your mind right now or is your mentality, "I'm going to go until my body can't go anymore?"
It is and it isn't. Every day I wake up, and I think about the wear and tear on my body, and will I be able to continue to perform at a high level. Sometimes I'm working with guys that are 15 years younger than me, 20 years younger than me. But the positive to that is that I always feel like the experience that I have is going to carry me through any aches and pains that I might have. And yeah, I'm always cognizant of where I'm at in my career.
But I also want to continue, especially now with us being in the early phases of this company. I want to help build and make something great. I don't want to do that just with my mind, I want to go out there and put on matches that people are going to remember, you know, 5, 10 years down the line. So yeah, I'm of the mindset now that I'm going to keep going until I can't. And this is the best place for me to do it, I feel.
A weekly grind is going to start in the fall when you run live shows for TV. Have you thought about how you're going to pace yourself?
No. It's not going to be up to me whether I'm wrestling every week or not. If I'm wrestling every week, so be it. And we'll see if I can hang or not. We'll all find out together, but my plan is to wrestle as often as I can, and once the television goes on, it's all hands on deck. I'm going to continue to go until I feel that I can't go at a level that is respectable for me.
AEW already really has already made a tremendous impact on the wrestling scene with Double Or Nothing. Now we just saw All-Out in Chicago become another instant sellout. What were your expectations as far as ticket demand heading into that?
The goodwill for our brand right now is at an all-time high. I think because we've only announced a small amount of shows, I feel like the demand is certainly outweighing the supply right now. Once we get to a weekly schedule, I think it might tone down a little bit, but at this point with only two or three shows it makes perfect sense that we're selling out. People want to see what's next, they want to be a part of all this. There's a feeling of seeing something starting from the ground up and being on that ride from the very first day that appeals to a lot of wrestling fans. And so I'm not surprised that All-Out sold out as quickly as it did.
Just a couple of months ago Ring of Honor ran Madison Square Garden with New Japan. You were still there when that show was announced, but left before it took place. Is it feasible to think that you might still get an opportunity to perform in the Garden, but with AEW?
Certainly! I feel like if the opportunity were to come, if Madison Square Garden and AEW can come to some sort of agreement, I feel like it's a smart thing. If you're Madison Square Garden and you see that all the big shows that AEW's already done have sold out, how can you turn it down? How could you say that's not for us?
Fyter Fest is going to be streamed for free online. Are you guys hoping to capitalize on the buzz you have now and capture a new audience who wasn't necessarily able to see Double Or Nothing because it was in fact a pay-per-view and this one's free? What are you expecting in terms of viewership?
I feel like it's the beginning of the relationship between us and Bleacher Report Live, which is part of TNT. We're hoping to grow that fan base there and solidify the relationship between us and them. If people were wary about buying a pay-per-view, they'll give this more of an opportunity perhaps, and hopefully once they see the product, they'll see a reason to stick around. This is also an opportunity for people who may not know what AEW's all about to see it before our television show starts. Maybe this is the sample that they need to decide whether or not this is something they want to commit to once October rolls around.
Are you guys are approaching this show with the same type of intensity as Double or Nothing?
Absolutely. Right now every show's important for us. We're starting from the ground up, so every show's an opportunity to make new fans, to introduce people to the AEW product and to the roster. There's only a few guys that have that national recognition. Then there's the rest of the guys who are known to the hardcore wrestling fan base, but are maybe brand new to a casual fan.
Hopefully the fans who watch Fyter Fest will get introduced to guys like Adam Page, and MJF, and Jimmy Havoc. You know, the Lucha Brothers and Laredo Kid. All these guys that may not be household names now, but once October rolls around and television starts for us, hopefully people will have had a chance to watch a couple of our shows and decide, "All right, this is what I want I watch, this is what I'm going to invest in when the time comes."
It takes time to build anything. What are the expectations as far as what AEW can grow and become? Is it possible we could we be witnessing the birth of the new number one promotion?
Like you said, it's going to take time to grow to any sort of thing. I feel like we've got all the tools and now just depends on us going out and putting on the best product that we can. We've got the right athletes to build a good product that's worth investing in. Some people want to see an actual competitor to WWE. Time will tell if we'll get to that position or not, but I feel like we've got the right ingredients for that. It's up to us to capitalize on that good will [from fans] and build off of that to the point where we've got a loyal fan base watching us week after week.
Fyter Fest takes place Saturday, June 29 at 7:30pm ET from Daytona Beach, Florida and will air for free on B/R Live.
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