MOONEYHAM COLUMN: Daniels, Kazarian a throwback to wrestling’s heel tag teams
If you’re going to emulate a tag team, the duo of Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard is a pretty good choice.
The WWE Hall of Famers were hard-nosed, no-nonsense grapplers who talked tough and backed it up in the ring.
According to Christopher Daniels, one half of the current TNA world tag-team champs along with Frankie Kazarian, teams like Anderson-Blanchard and The Midnight Express represented the gold standard.
“They talked junk, but they got in the ring and got the job done. That’s the type of team we want to be. That’s the type of team I think we are right now,” says Daniels, who is approaching his 20th year in the pro ranks.
Growing up in “Flair country” in North Carolina during the ‘70s and ‘80s, Daniels got the opportunity to see what he considered the best wrestling in the country.
The Mid-Atlantic area, he says, helped shape the type of wrestler he would become.
“It was what I envisioned as the best wrestling versus the best entertainment. To me, the NWA/Mid-Atlantic was more about the wrestling. The WWF at that time was more razzmatazz and showmanship. That affected the way I looked at wrestling.”
It also would help shape how he approached his style in the ring.
“My first instinct when I’m contemplating my character is to figure out how the match is going to go. At the end of the day, the word on the marquee is wrestling. That, to me, is the most important part. Character and storylines are important, but in the end it comes down to what we do in the ring. All of our stories begin and end in a wrestling ring.”
For years Daniels, whose real name is Daniel Christopher Covell, has been recognized as one of the most talented competitors in the industry. A student of the game, he is well versed in a number of styles.
His ability in the ring, though, has sometimes been a double-edged sword for Daniels.
“If you look at my career, and sometimes to my detriment, my in-ring performance has been my main focus,” he says. “In the past couple of years I feel like I’ve gotten stronger in terms of character development. I’ve always felt like I’ve been able to talk and portray characters, but now I’ve made it my priority to make one catch up to the other.”
Daniels moved to Fayetteville, N.C., when he was 3, and graduated from Fayetteville’s Methodist College before moving with his wife a year later to Chicago where he began his mat career with Windy City Pro Wrestling during the early ‘90s.
The Mid-Atlantic area, he says, will always have a soft spot in his heart.
“When I first started really paying attention to professional wrestling was around the onset of The Four Horsemen. I grew up watching Jim Crockett Promotions. The first wrestler who was my favorite was Magnum T.A. I had a chance to watch him defend the U.S. title against Nikita Koloff at the Cumberland County Arena in Fayetteville. I got to see him wrestle Ric Flair for the world title.”
The more Daniels watched, the more he liked what he saw. He began paying attention to the angles and storylines, the conflict between babyfaces and heels. It was sports theater at its absurd finest.
“That formed what I perceived to be professional wrestling. Guys that got it done in the ring but were also entertaining — guys like Ric Flair and Jim Cornette and The Midnight Express. That was professional wrestling to me.”
Daniels says he was attracted to performers like Flair “who would tell you they were going to beat your favorite wrestler and then go out and do it.”
“The idea of being that evil, dastardly guy, but being able to go out there and back it up with your actions and your talent,” he says. “Like Floyd Mayweather now. There are more people who want to see his (behind) beat than want to see him win because he’s that arrogant, cocky guy who goes out and proves it. That’s the model of wrestler that Frankie and I want to be.”
Just like Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard.
“They talked junk, but they got in the ring and got the job done. That’s the type of team we want to be. That’s the type of team I think we are right now.”
The 42-year-old Daniels, who will mark his 20th year in pro wrestling next January, feels that he is just now reaching his pinnacle as a performer.
For years known as “King of the Indies,” Daniels has settled into a nice groove in TNA the past several years. No longer one of the industry’s top “independent” performers, Daniels finds himself in the enviable role as one of wrestling’s top performers.
A tag-team specialist, his current partnership with Kazarian may be his best to date.
Like those great teams of his youth, Daniels and Kazarian are a well-oiled unit who know how to draw heat as heels.
Their recent series of matches with A.J. Styles and Kurt Angle, including back-to-back pay-per-view bouts, have been one of the bright spots in TNA. A three-way battle with Daniels and Kazarian defending their belts against Styles-Angle and Hernandez-Chavo Guerrero Jr. could steal the show at the Bound for Glory PPV on Oct. 14 in Phoenix.
Daniels like the fact that the tag-team division and the tag titles are being featured in TNA.
“At Slammiversary we were one of the best matches on the show. I felt like we were one of the best matches on the show at No Surrender in a semi-main position. There have been times where the tag title has not been defended and not been featured. It’s being featured now. I feel like we’ve succeeded in that respect, and I hope the fans of tag-team wrestling appreciate what we’ve done.”
Daniels hearkens back to the days when tag-team wrestling was a main part of the show, and there was a dividing line between good guys and bad guys.
“One of the strongest memories I have as a kid of watching television was watching The Rock ‘N Roll Express defeat Ivan Koloff and Krusher Khruschev for the tag title. I was ecstatic being able to watch that. That was another feud I got to see live in Fayetteville. I appreciated tag-team wrestling, and I sort of feel like Frankie and I are a throwback to that style of team.”
Daniels has worked under a variety of names during his career, including Fallen Angel, Curry Man and Suicide, but says his current character is the closest to himself and has been the most effective.
It’s a role, he says, that’s somewhat based on his real-life personality and therefore easy to portray.
“This character now is the closest to me that I’ve ever been. I’m very proud of what I did as the Fallen Angel character, but I feel like that was more of a character that I was playing than a character I was being. In hindsight it’s taken a lot for me to take responsibility and say that wasn’t the best vehicle to showcase me. That’s just being honest. If that character had caught fire, I would have been the first to sing the praises, but it never really caught on the way my character now is catching on.”
Daniels has become a bona fide heat magnet.
“This is something that plagued me at TNA for some time,” he says. “I was a heel but so many people respected what I was doing that it was hard for me to get booed. It depended on who I was wrestling. I sometimes got cheered in spite of what I was doing. That’s not a problem now. I walk down that ramp and fans in The Impact Zone spit on me and yell at me and say some pretty wild things.”
The reaction hasn’t been lost on the TNA brass who are impressed with the duo’s “we don’t like you” brand of heat.
“They’re honestly not liking us,” says Daniels. “And that’s the pat on my back that I like. I’m doing my job as a heel. I’m happy to be the guy who gets his (behind) beat. It helps the company and it’s money for the company. And I have a blast doing it.”
Daniel has drawn praise in the past as being one of the most talented singles performers in the business. But he says he is reaching his peak competing in an art form that basically has become lost in recent years.
“I enjoy both equally. I enjoyed my runs doing singles stuff, and I enjoyed my time as a team with guys like A.J. or in Ring of Honor with Matt Sydal (WWE’s Evan Bourne) and Donovan Morgan. The thing that I enjoy as a tag-team wrestler, and the thing that I think makes a good tag team, is the two guys putting the team before their own personal aspirations.”
Daniel again points to Anderson and Blanchard as the consummate tag team.
“They’re a perfect example. It wasn’t Arn Anderson and a sidekick. It wasn’t Tully Blanchard and a sidekick. Those guys were equal parts of that team. I think that’s why Frankie and I are so successful right now. We understand that the minute it becomes Chris Daniels and sidekick or Frankie Kazarian and sidekick, and we start to put more emphasis on one guy than the team, then that’s when it will start to fail. We want this team to succeed.”
A keen student of the game, Daniels saw an opportunity arise last year when TNA’s tag-team ranks began to change.
“We saw the writing on the wall. They split up Bobby Roode and James Storm. Beer Money was no more. The Motor City Machine Guns were struggling through injuries, and we weren’t sure when they were going to come back.”
Daniel says he also wasn’t sure where TNA was going with him as a singles performer, and that Kazarian wasn’t being utilized much as well.
“We figured out a way to get together as a team. I perceived there was going to be a vacancy in that arena for that type of team, and we were lucky enough that the people in charge gave us that opportunity. I feel like we succeeded this past year in filling that role. We’re now at the point where the tag-team title and the tag-team situation in TNA is back to a top-level program.”
Daniels’ credentials in the tag-team division are lofty. The four-time TNA X-division champion is a six-time NWA world tag-team champ (three times with Low Ki and Elix Skipper, once with James Storm, and twice with Styles) and a two-time TNA tag-team titleholder with Kazarian.
He says he is excited about the prospects for his upcoming Bound for Glory match and the inclusion of Chavo Guerrero Jr. and Hernandez.
“Chavo has been around for such a long time. He’s a real ring general. Shaun (Hernandez) has had great success in the past as part of a tag team. Those guys have the opportunity to bring the best out in each other and be something in TNA as a long-term tag team. We’ve only wrestled with them a couple of times, but already Frankie and I have felt a good chemistry with them.”
Kurt and A.J.
Daniels, who met Kurt Angle at a WWE dojo in 1998 prior to Angle’s debut on WWE television, says one of his biggest thrills in TNA has been working with the Olympic gold medalist.
“You can’t ever have a bad match with Kurt. If you go out there and have a bad match with Kurt Angle, then something’s wrong. I’ve had the privilege of working with him in singles and tags. Being able to work closely with Kurt in the last couple of years has been a thrill.
“He’s still one of the best in the world despite his injuries. He still works like a madman. It’s insane in terms of how hard he works. To be able to go out there and put great matches together has been an honor. And I think he’ll tell you that he has enjoyed it as much as we have because he sees the opportunity to go out there and have show-stealing matches.”
Daniels says Angle has pushed for a best-of-seven series of tag bouts between the two teams.
“He thinks we could really make this rivalry something and make it last. Not just a flash in the pan, but something long-term. When you have someone like Kurt Angle going to bat for you in that respect, it means a lot. It’s a feather in your cap.”
Daniels also has enjoyed working with “The Phenomenal” A.J. Styles. The two share a special history.
In addition to being frequent opponents and teammates, Styles and Daniels are close friends, and both men named their sons’ middle names after one another.
“We first wrestled each other in 2001. There’s no one in the world who I’ve had more matches with in my career than him. It’s still fun and a challenge to find something different and do something different to make it special even after 11 or 12 years of working together.”
Daniels knows it’s a two-way street.
“I’ve been very fortunate. You’re only as good as the person you’re in the ring with. And I’ve been fortunate to share the ring with some great talent over the years.”
While Daniels was shaped by wrestling he saw in the Carolinas as a youth, his partner was a WWE fan and was trained by Killer Kowalski in the Northeast.
“Depending on where you grew up, it kind of affects and shapes the kind of wrestler you become,” says Daniels. “I’ve talked to Frankie in the past, and he grew up in Boston, so he grew up watching WWE (then WWF). And his perception of wrestling and mine coming up as kids are a little bit different just because we saw different stuff.”
In addition to Mid-Atlantic wrestling, says Daniels, the advent of cable television presented more opportunities to see different promotions and different styles.
“So all of a sudden, in addition to the Mid-Atlantic wrestling that I was watching, I got to watch Tuesday Night Titans (WWF) and World Class out of Texas. I got to watch AWA for the first time on ESPN. When you’re a hungry wrestling fan and two hours on Saturday night on TBS isn’t enough, all of a sudden you’re watching USA network and ESPN. Even for a period of time I was getting Bill Watts’ UWF-Mid South. That was some great stuff.”
Daniels made his TNA debut on the then-fledgling company’s third show in 2002.
“I was in Japan when they did their first and second show. They approached me very early on, and I was on the third and fourth show. Then I had some Japanese commitments that I had to finish up. I actually became full-time with TNA in December 2002. That was the debut of myself and Lo Ki and Elix Skipper as Triple X. And ever since then, I’ve had a very strong relationship with the company.”
Daniels says TNA and its president, Dixie Carter, have shown confidence in him as a performer and have put a great amount of effort into his development.
“They’ve put a lot of time and effort into me as a performer and a character. It’s been a great fit. I think that if TNA hadn’t come along, I’d have probably been a Japanese mainstay for a long time. I had a great relationship with companies over there. I was very lucky to work in some of the high-level, high-profile independent promotions in the U.S. But TNA came along at a good point in my career, they put effort into me, and I reciprocated. I put all of my efforts into making TNA something.”
Daniels feels TNA is in the game for the long haul and appreciates the company’s commitment.
“We’re in our 10th year now, and I feel like the sky’s the limit for us. I feel like we’ve really built something special here. The Bound for Glory show coming up this month is the culmination of a lot of work. We’ve made great strides in 10 short years. There are those of us who have been here from the beginning and seen it grow that are one hundred percent committed to making it grow even more.”
Daniels also likes the depth of TNA’s talent roster.
“Bobby Roode is probably the most well-rounded performer. He’s a guy with character and a guy who can back it up in the ring. Austin Aries is another example of someone who can back it up athletically speaking and character-wise. Of course A.J. is still one of the top guys even though he’s been here since the beginning. There’s no downward slope on him or Samoa Joe.
“Frankie Kazarian is one of the best in the world. I’m fortunate to have him as my partner. It’s very rare in wrestling that you’re going to get someone you’re so simpatico with, and that has helped our team become what we are now. Hopefully we’ll get the opportunity to stay as a team for a good, long while. And hopefully in the future people will talk about our team the same way they talked about The Machine Guns or Beer Money or America’s Best Wanted.”
Still going strong
Daniels may have two decades in the business under his belt, but says he has no intention of hanging up the boots anytime soon.
“Right now I’m having a lot of fun. Everything seems to be coming together. I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life. I feel like I’m wrestling the best matches of my career. And I’m being given the opportunity to wrestle some of the best wrestlers in the world. The stars are aligning for me.”
Unlike some high fliers who have suffered serious injuries due to working a high-risk style, Daniels says he has worked “smart” and has been lucky enough to avoid major injury.
“I’ve been very fortunate in terms of avoiding real injury, and a lot of that has to do with wrestling smart. I feel like I very rarely take risks in terms of what I do in a match. It’s something that I tell wrestlers all the time. If you can’t do it 10 times out of 10, don’t do it. I never do anything that I don’t think I can do four or five times a week during a wrestling match. Accidents happen, but I’ve been very fortunate to avoid a lot of those. The few times I have been injured I’ve been smart to take the time off and get well rather than wrestle through it or wrestle hurt.”
Longevity in the business, says Daniels, has been his goal.
“That’s been my goal in my nearly 20 years in wrestling. Can I wrestle at that level and maintain that standard of excellence?”
“I never wanted to be a flash-in-the-pan guy,” he says. “I wanted to be someone that had a career and supported my family doing what I love. And I’ve been fortunate enough to do that. I do sort of feel the aches and pains now, but it’s not so bad that I can’t continue to do it. I’ve always said that if I ever get so beat up or hurt that I can’t wrestle at the same level as I am now, I’m going to get out. I don’t want to be that guy who has to rely on smoke and mirrors to get through. I want to be able to do what I do. I’ve adjusted my fitness accordingly, I do a lot of yoga, I do a lot of stretching and things that are meant to prolong my physical fitness so I can continue to do it at this level.”
Regrets are few
Although Daniels worked television and dark matches for WWE in the past, a contract never materialized.
“For whatever reason, I just think that they never really saw something that they could hook their teeth into. I recognize that I wasn’t their favorite flavor. I’m fine with that. I think the only regret is not being able to have a Wrestlemania match. But that’s minor compared to the ability to say that I’ve supported my family and I’ve done what I’ve done since starting full-time in 1998.”
In hindsight, says Daniels, it’s been a pretty good career.
“For almost 14 years I’ve made my living wrestling — doing what I love. I live in California, have two beautiful children, and my wife is fortunate enough where she can concentrate on running our house and taking care of our kids (9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son). I’ve been very fortunate. The regrets are very small compared to the positives in my career.”
Daniels says he has enjoyed seeing another former ROH star, C.M. Punk, break through the glass ceiling in WWE.
“It’s a testament to his hard work. I worked with him in Ring of Honor and knowing him behind the scenes like I did and watching him work, I knew he wasn’t going to let politics or anything hold him down. Finally WWE realized what they had, gave him an opportunity, and he ran with it. He’s in the position now to be that example of putting your nose to the grindstone and making it happen. What you put into wrestling is what you get out of it. He put his heart and soul into it, and now he’s enjoying the fruits of his labor.”
Daniels points to Chris Jericho as another top performer he admires greatly.
“I have always said that in terms of character and athletic ability, he’s had the best of both. He was somebody I emulated in terms of melding the character with the athlete. He had that mouth that talked them into the seats and the work that backed it up when the time came.”
Daniels says he’s still having fun in the business, still in good shape, and he’s wrestling the best in the company night in and night out. He says he will continue as long as his body can hold out and as long as his mind is fresh and wanting to still absorb and learn.
“Twenty years was the goalpost for me. And now that that’s a few months away, and looking at where I’m at physically and my desire and how I feel mentally and emotionally about wrestling, I don’t see an end. I know that it’s there, and most probable that I’m closer to the end than the beginning, but honestly I don’t see that end in my (immediate) future.
“As long as I can perform at that level and as long as it’s still fun, I’m not going to put a limit on my career. If I can avoid that serious injury and continue doing what I’m doing and progress, there’s no reason that I can’t make it a 30-year career. Make hay while the sun shines.”