From Firefly Funhouse to the ThunderDome, Bray Wyatt reflects on journey to SummerSlam

The rivalry between Braun Strowman, left, and Bray Wyatt has taken many twists and turns, including a brawl in the swamp. WWE

At SummerSlam, Bray Wyatt challenges Braun Strowman for the WWE Universal championship. Throughout his career, and many different incarnations, Wyatt has sparked great interest with his presentation. Within the past few months, Wyatt has inhabited his smiling Firefly Funhouse persona in a bright red sweater, brought back his swamp preacher/cult leader, and finally presented "The Fiend."

Wyatt has consistently been heralded by members of the WWE Universe as one of the most entertaining (and at times downright terrifying) superstars on the roster. The level of attention to detail in the character is something you would expect from a third-generation superstar and student of the game.

From the first major show of the WWE's fanless era, Wyatt has been on the cutting edge of efforts to find creative solutions and push the boundaries of what a wrestling match can be. His outlandish Firefly Funhouse match with John Cena set a tone for "cinematic" matches, and that continued with his confrontation with Strowman in the swamp at Extreme Rules: Horror Show.

This year's SummerSlam will emulate from the newly minted WWE ThunderDome, a massive production undertaking with all the bells and whistles WWE fans are accustomed to with some additional cutting-edge graphics, shots from drones and live fans on giant displays. And if anyone is capable of taking full advantage of another way to stretch his creative output, it's Wyatt.

ESPN had the chance to catch up with him just days before SummerSlam to speak to the once (and perhaps future) Universal champion.

What was your first reaction when you heard that WWE was creating a "ThunderDome"?

Well, the first thing I thought about was the film, like "two men enter, one man leaves." Man, how wild does that sound? I can't wait to see what it looks like and what it is because it just sounds so freaking intimidating, you know, like, like something brand new that I've never seen before. I love that. And it's exciting.

There will be lasers, pyro -- some would say "ballyhoo" -- but also fans, in an interactive screen experience. How much are you looking forward to having that element back?

Well, to be honest, and just if I'm speaking as me, man, I miss the fans. Oh, Lord, do I miss the fans. Having them screaming and yelling, whether they love or hate you. It's brought a different feeling, [performing in front of no fans]. And it's also brought a different approach, as to the things you would do and the things you would try. It's been this wonderful creative experience without [the fans], but I'm happy to have them back in whatever capacity we can have them back in. So I'm pretty pumped.

Someone who had praise for how you have performed with the lack of an audience is John Cena. What did you think of that praise?

John's such a sweet guy, isn't he? What a sweet guy that John Cena is. What a sweet, sweet guy. I've been through so much with John Cena, you know, it's amazing to me to see him, you know, from the star he always was turned into this gigantic movie star. And John is very much the type of person you have to earn his respect. Because he doesn't just give it, he's very forward that way. So hearing that phrase, for me and Seth [Rollins], it's a big deal because, like I said, John is this huge star. That's a milestone, for me and my legacy, I think it's pretty neat.

What was putting together your WrestleMania match with John Cena like?

It's pretty wild, really. When I came into the arena, it was like I stepped through a door and then I'm not kidding -- 48 hours, [it] just erased my mind. It was like I was teleported to another place in time. It was pretty wild dude, from what I remember it was, it was pretty wild.

How much are cinematic matches important to you? How many more of those kinds of presentations would you like in your future matches?

I think they're fun and all, but like I said, I like being around the people more. And those [matches], they should be select. There should be a few here and there. That's what keeps them special. Especially after the humdinger that Undertaker and AJ Styles put together, because that thing's close to undefeatable. But you know it's something that you get to approach differently, so it's wonderful for your creativity. But they should be finite.

What are some of your own SummerSlam memories?

I can remember the one where Bray debuted [at SummerSlam 2013]. It was Bray versus Kane in a "Ring of Fire." If you watch the other Ring of Fire matches and things like it, you will notice that our match, the flames shot up twice as high as they do in any of the other matches. So that one was a real towering inferno and one of the most uncomfortable situations you could possibly be put in as a sports entertainer. Go back and look now that I said it. It was that the closest thing you could be to boiling alive, you know, like a crawfish.

What do you make of challenging for the WWE Universal championship against Braun Strowman at SummerSlam, the second-biggest WWE event of the year?

Braun is someone that I hold near and dear to my heart. And I always will. Yeah, I can remember him when he was new, and he was this gigantic presence that I've never seen anything like him -- not walking the streets. You know, not even NFL guys. Braun has this aura around him.

To go into this match, him versus "The Fiend," is something that I would have looked forward to if I'd known about it 10 years ago. This is a full circle thing for him and I, and it's a beautiful thing. It's something that all of us will be able to take with us the rest of our lives and be able to, you know, reminisce upon and it's gonna be this gruelling, horrible battle. We're probably both gonna come out handicapped from. Whatever the ThunderDome looks like, who knows what's in there, because the one I remember [in the movie] had chainsaws hanging down from the ceiling and stuff. It's gonna be challenging, but something beautiful.

This has been a surreal several months for WWE and for you as a performer. The pandemic, no fans, different creative directions. How do you hope to look back on this moment in time of WWE shows, and in particular your involvement when you think about it in, say, five years?

That's an incredible question. And at first it was, you know, terrifying. I want to travel the world and I want to see all the things I'm used to and be in huge auditoriums with thousands of people. And, and when it came, it just quickly changed. It has opened up these opportunities, and a chance to completely think about [wrestling] with a different approach that no one could have had a chance to do before. The more I've gotten into it, I've gotten comfortable with the restrictions. It's made me be more creative with how I approach everything.

And when they look back on it, you know, through my career, this was the time that Bray Wyatt took the sword and marched on and made his career iconic. This little portion -- no matter what I've done before -- this is when I took the sword. And I marched us forward. And I'm pretty proud of what's come with it so far. And I'm gonna be very proud of what comes after this.