Every generation of wrestlers has a handful of people who aren't regularly world champions—and usually not world champions at all—but who give buoyancy to the form. They're solid hands, the kind of wrestler other wrestlers want to work with, the every-night-a-good-match men and women. They're the character actors of the pro wrestling world, its Harry Dean Stantons and Paul Giamattis.
Christopher Daniels is perhaps Generation X's best example of the archetype. He's helped usher in the modern indie wrestling scene, rising from lower-midcard status to main eventing in the earliest days of Ring of Honor and then a long stint as a TNA stalwart over a 25-year career. Now, at age 46, he's back in ROH and the thing that he's wanted for so long—a world title reign—is within reach. He's wrestling the current world champion, Adam Cole, at the promotion's 15th anniversary show on March 10 in Las Vegas.
The story of this match is as plain as it is compelling: Cole, the three-time ROH world champion, a 27-year-old golden boy with a big mouth and hard-hitting style, versus Daniels, the respected veteran nearly 20 years his senior, going for his last shot.
"It would be the storybook ending if I win in Vegas," Daniels tells VICE Sports. "I have to be honest and say that my world-title shots are going to be few and far between if this one doesn't work out for me. Just because, honestly, I'm close to the end of the period where I'll be wrestling full-time. If this isn't the last shot, I can't imagine when the last shot would be. So I'm going into this thinking this is an all-or-nothing scenario for me."
Daniels is the oldest of his contemporaries—wrestlers like CM Punk, Samoa Joe, AJ Styles, Daniel Bryan, and Chris Hero. They were wrestling's jazz musicians in the post-ECW, post-WCW world, having to practically reinvent how to fill the middle ground between high-school gyms and WWE's monolithic sold-out arenas. They created an indie style of rapid, high-impact moves which was a synthesis of ECW solidity and lucha libre grace. With it came a new way of doing business, charting something like the territory days of the pre-Hulkamania years; wrestlers traveled the country, going from promotion to promotion like the old days, but with the waning of the National Wrestling Alliance, pro wrestling's old umbrella organization, there were myriad champions and tournaments. It was the formalization of the wrestler as independent contractor and traveling artist.
"I feel like those guys—guys like AJ, Joe, Punk, myself—a lot of the success we found was from hard work," Daniels says. "Because we didn't have one company behind us, we had to be the engines on our own trains. Most of us were never TNA's golden guy or ROH's golden guy. A lot of the success we ended up having as we moved to TNA, ROH, or even WWE at this point, was largely self-made. It was way more about us working over a long time than any one show that we did. We built up word of mouth to the point that you couldn't not see us on the scene."
Daniels became the sort of guy you'd hear about from your friends before you actually watched him, a legendary worker with a nimble, nearly botch-free style. It's weird that he's never gotten a run with the world title, given his talent and sustained popularity.
He was there at Ring of Honor's first big event, in a triple-threat main event against Low Ki and Daniel Bryan (then Bryan Danielson). From there he was nearly always in and around the main event scene, whether in ROH or TNA. He's been in many world-title matches, including the very first ROH world title match, but he never got over the hump to become the main guy.
And next week it will be Ring of Honor once again. He was there at the beginning of the promotion; today, it's there for him, in what are probably the waning days of his career.
"I don't have an end date set, but at the same time, you realize that sometimes those decisions aren't even up to you," he says. "You always hope you stay healthy and don't get injured, but at 46, injury is a lot more possible than when I was 36 or 26."
That's not to make the lead-up to the match a scene from The Wrestler, and Daniels is in better shape than even a lot of other younger wrestlers, but entropy grabs hold of us all as we age. Our bodies break down, no matter how cleanly we live or how in shape we are, a fact Daniels is acutely aware of.
"Especially the past few years, I've had to use my mind to make up for the shortcomings my body may have," he says. "That's something that I'm constantly evaluating when I'm in the gym or when I'm traveling—about how I can measure up to the guys who are 15 years younger than me, and compete at a level which deserves to be in a Ring of Honor ring."
Daniels has a degree in theater from Methodist College in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and he knows, in a very fundamental way, that the sense of the dramatic can sustain a wrestler when his or her body begins to slow. He probably can't jump as high or as far, but he can still work a crowd with a tilt of his head or a gesture. It's his stage and he's there to give a performance.Youth and energy versus age and experience. It's an old story, far older than either Daniels or Ring of Honor, but it's endlessly fascinating and endlessly renewable. Regardless of the outcome, the wrestler with the theater degree has no intention of leaving it all behind.
"Once I'm done wrestling," Daniels says, "I'm sure I'll continue to be involved, whether it's on-air as a character or commentator, or behind the scenes helping put together shows."
Wrestling and Christopher Daniels aren't done with one another yet. Odds are, they may never be. That's a good thing for all of us.
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