Christopher Daniels has been a witness to a lot of wrestling history since his career started in 1993. He saw the rise of the "Attitude Era" and the Monday Night Wars, as he wrestled for WWE, WCW and ECW.
Once the latter two organizations had folded, and after a spell in WWE developmental, Daniels struck out for himself and made an immediate impact on the independent wrestling world. He wrestled for New Japan Pro Wrestling, won the "King of the Indies" tournament and otherwise traversed the globe, but ultimately, the next two decades of his career would tie Daniels to the fate and history of two companies: TNA and Ring of Honor.
Daniels was there in the formative stages of each company in 2002, and the defining moments of his career have come in these two organizations, for whom he's performed concurrently and independent of one another at various points over the last 15 years. He's had titles every step of the way, on both a tag team and singles level, but the man who will forever be known as "The Fallen Angel" has one major gap among his many career accomplishments -- a major world title.
With TNA (now Impact Wrestling) in his rear-view mirror, the now 46-year-old Daniels has the ROH world championship as his holy grail. As the company celebrates its 15th anniversary in Las Vegas on Friday night, Daniels gets another chance for that breakthrough against Adam Cole. Amidst a wave of fan support and emotion, following his victory in the ROH "Decade of Excellence" tournament and the betrayal of long-time tag team partner Frankie Kazarian to Cole's cause and the Bullet Club, it could very well be Daniels' last chance at a storybook ending.
Daniels' ninth shot at the ROH title may be upon him, but even 15 years later, his first ROH championship match -- the very first world title match in the company's history, in fact -- still feels like a fresh memory.
"I remember being in the Murphy Rec Center and it being 100 and hell degrees," recalled Daniels, during an ESPN.com interview prior to ROH's "Manhattan Mayhem" show at the Hammerstein Ballroom. "The idea of wrestling for an hour, it was like standing at the bottom of Everest and looking all the way up."
That championship match was a four-way Iron Man match, the culmination of a championship tournament pitting Daniels against Low-Ki, Doug Williams and Spanky (Brian Kendrick). That hot, late July day took what was already an incredible physical challenge and turned the difficulty level up to 11. As the old school basketball scoreboard clicked down the time from 60 minutes to zero, one of the things that sticks out most for Daniels would ultimately become one of ROH's calling cards.
"As we were going through it, just the sound of the crowd, the reaction that they were making, and the fact that they were all in," said Daniels. "They were 100 percent invested in who was going to win that match, and the four wrestlers that were involved in that match. It's a testament to the work of the four of us, but also the type of investment that they wanted to have. They came wanting to be engaged and emotionally involved with the people in that match. I feel like it's one of my favorite matches, even though it's one of the hardest ones I ever had to go through."
It was a particularly big deal that a company like ROH was gaining ground at that time, with the options outside of WWE starting to dwindle after companies like WCW and ECW had folded.
"For that period of time in Ring of Honor's history, it was only five to six months in, but I think we started to get an idea that Ring of Honor had a long-term plan to stick around," said Daniels. "Those first couple shows at that point, honestly, it was just work. At that point I was making my living just stringing together independent show after independent show after independent show. Around that period of time when the tournament started to happen for the world championship, and then culminating in that Iron Man match between the four of us, I think we started to get an idea that this isn't something that's going to close down tomorrow, or just last for a month or two."
When looking back at the biggest moments of his 15-year career, his decade with TNA is a great place to start. As a four-time TNA X-Division champion, Daniels created something with AJ Styles and Samoa Joe that gave that company a style to hang its hat on. They clashed periodically throughout each of their runs with TNA, but the three-way match for the X-Division title between that trio at Unbreakable 2005 -- a match that got a rare 5-star rating from wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer -- stands out as one of the brightest moments in Daniels' career.
As Daniels stares down Cole and what might be his final chance at the ROH world championship, it's staggering to consider how many generations of stars Daniels has found himself up against in big matches. In ROH title matches alone, he's been in there with CM Punk, Samoa Joe, Bryan Danielson, Roderick Strong, James Gibson (Jamie Noble) and Eddie Edwards, and that barely scratches the surface as far as the list of stars Daniels has gotten into the ring with
Even so, facing a rising star in Cole who was only three years old when Daniels made his in-ring debut is going to be one of his toughest physical challenges to date. It also presents him with a clear window to look at where his career stands.
"Honestly, it's a little bit intimidating, because now I realize that I'm all-in at this point," said Daniels. "I look at my career, I look at how much I realistically have left and it's something that I never really thought about. I didn't put a date on what's left in my career. I didn't say by the time I'm 46, or 47, or 48, or by the time I've been in wrestling for 25 years or 26. I just said I was going to keep doing it as long as I could, and as long as I was still having fun.
"I honestly think about how I feel after matches now and think about how I want to continue to live my life as a husband and a father, and just the quality of my life," Daniels continued. "I realize that I can't continue to do this for a whole lot longer. If that means I have another year, or another two years, or even less than that, I have to take each opportunity that I have coming towards me and make the most of it."
The next step for any wrestler looking at the end of his career can be scary, but to this point Daniels has outlasted most of his contemporaries. When it comes to taking off the boots one final time, a role in helping to groom the next generation of ROH stars seems a natural fit. He's already doing some of that kind of work right now, but the full crossover to being backstage instead of under the bright lights is tough for Daniels to consider.
"I think the tough part for me is going to be because it's not just wrestling that I enjoy, it's performing," said Daniels. "If I wasn't addicted to the idea of performing, I think retiring out of the ring and moving to a backstage position or becoming more of an office guy. That wouldn't bother me so much. I think the thing that's going to be the tough part is the idea of not performing anymore."
So how did we get here, to this do-or-die world championship match in Las Vegas during ROH's 15th anniversary show? Long before the "Decade of Excellence" tournament, the last seven years of Daniels' career have been defined by what ROH could provide him and what TNA, another place he helped build, could not.
"I left TNA in 2010 and came here. At that point in my career, it honestly was an idea like I wanted to convince myself that I was still good at what I was doing," said Daniels. "I felt very disrespected by TNA at that point because they let me go for what I thought was just superfluous and ridiculous reasons, but those are arguments that you never win."
After things fell apart the first time with TNA, Daniels proved to himself that he could still hang with the stars of the day. Opportunities to work with Richards, Edwards (with whom Daniels had his most recent ROH championship match, in 2011) and Kevin Steen helped Daniels re-establish his confidence and garner plenty of attention from his former employer.
He'd ultimately return to TNA for another run of more than three years, much of it spent as "Bad Influence" alongside Kazarian. For all of his singles success, Daniels has been a prolific tag team wrestler over the years. He's an eight-time tag team champion in TNA, with the likes of Styles, Elix Skipper and eventually Kazarian, among others; Daniels is also a four-time ROH tag team champion, winning the inaugural title tournament and match with Donovan Morgan, and later with Matt Sydal and Kazarian.
When he left TNA for the second time in 2014, and for good, Daniels didn't come alone.
"It was a situation where I felt like I was underappreciated by TNA, but at this point I realized that there was no going back for me there," said Daniels. "I felt like the situation in Ring of Honor for me was always going to be better than anything TNA could offer. When I came here with Frankie, they gave us an opportunity to work as the team and keep the team together, that to me said a lot in terms of 'This is a place I want to stay.' I always felt like I had a good relationship with Ring of Honor, but that was the moment, I think, that I decided this is the place to stay."
It wasn't an altruistic decision, by any means -- there were still bills to be paid -- but as the team that would come to be known as "The Addiction" came together, Daniels and Kazarian enjoyed a freedom they'd never known in TNA. Their second run as ROH tag team champions was particularly memorable, culminating in a three-way tag team ladder match with The Young Bucks and The Motor City Machine Guns (Alex Shelley and Chris Sabin) as part of the "All Star Extravaganza" pay-per-view in Lowell, Massachusetts.
In executing their vision for Ladder War 6, a spectacle that has to be seen to be believed, Daniels had further proof that moving to ROH had been the right call.
"I think when you have such high expectations for a match like that, there's such a pressure that you put on yourself as a performer and as a professional to try and not just get through the night, but to make history and to make it something memorable. To come away from Lowell, Massachusetts and Ladder War 6 with the response that we did, and knowing that people, especially the Ring of Honor fans, felt like that was the best match of the year for Ring of Honor, yeah, there's certainly a fulfillment, a feeling of satisfaction in knowing that you had the opportunity to make something memorable and then went out there and did it.
"I felt like of all the things that we had in our minds, the six of us for that match, I think every one of them, every idea that we had was executed exactly the way we wanted it to be executed, and we got exactly the response that we wanted get out of it."
Being able to put together performances like that at this stage of his career was a huge confidence booster for Daniels, who hopes to similarly impress the Las Vegas ROH faithful. While his in-ring ability at the age of 46 is stunning, Daniels' bread and butter continues to be his ability to channel his emotions into incredibly impassioned promos.
His talk of mortality, which was an epic way to lead into Ladder War 6, also provides the backbone for Daniels' on-screen motivation going into ROH's 15th Anniversary show. No matter how things play out, it's almost certain that Daniels will continue to do what he's done for more than 20 years by giving fans a show they'll never forget. Whether or not there's a happy ending remains to be seen.
"Going back to the idea of this possibly being my last world championship match, if I were writing my own story, it would be great to say, 'Okay, yeah, you're going to win. You're going to be the Ring of Honor world champion finally,'" said Daniels. "But I don't get to write that story. It's not just up to me. There are so many different factors that are going to go into everything up until the bell rings.
"Once that bell rings, all I can do is perform at the best of my abilities and at the top of my game. I'll find out, we'll all find out on [Friday night] if that's enough."