Given the following — or better put, back in 2001 when this first happened (not to mention, all the subsequent drunken things that happened like it on MTV in the years shortly thereafter) — it would have been crazy to predict that Mike “The Miz” Mizanin would become the darling of pro wrestling smarks, right up there with Kevin Owens and Daniel Bryan (The Miz’s opponent tomorrow night at Summerslam).
A smark, of course, is a “smart fan.” Or as one thread in r/SquaredCircle puts it: “Marks sit back and enjoy. Smarks sit back and criticize.” In recent years, though, they’ve become much more forceful about their criticism — and not just via message boards either. They’re now best known for airing their opinions directly at live events, derailing matches and/or promo segments with chants of “boring” and other forms of protest against who Vince McMahon has chosen to push or, in their opinions, hold back.
They are, in this way, the Ricky and Morty fans who stormed McDonald’s when it ran out of Szechuan sauce. But they’re also much more than that — their opinions are eventually almost always catered to (and correct). Case in point: Bryan, who McMahon and other WWE executives thought too small and bland to ever become a main eventer. The smarks, however — by flat-out rebelling against any other outcome — got him there, and ever since, he’s been one of the organization’s biggest stars. The same is now true of The Miz, though his journey to this kind of fan favorite happened in reverse: He was loathed only to become loved when it seemed as if his run was over — in large part because of that early loathing.
“In the beginning, the Miz had little going for him besides some low-level MTV fame,” says Claire Warden, a theater professor at Loughborough University and a co-editor of the book Performance and Pro Wrestling. “He has managed to transition from a character the fans mocked as a reality TV star pretending to be a wrestler to a genuinely respected performer, which is quite unusual given that it’s difficult for an outside celebrity to gain respect as a wrestler if they start with so very little athletic credibility.”
Honestly, Warden is very much understating just how much The Miz was disliked during his rise through the wrestling ranks. Per the video above, his grappling persona first appeared on Season 10 of The Real World: Back to New York as, in Mizanin’s words, “a wrestling star who is ready for the big leagues.” The gimmick annoyed his castmates and enabled him to chew scenery while establishing the Miz’s bona fides as someone willing to do whatever it took to fake it until they made it. (He had, in fact, no athletic background.) Nonetheless, he “made it” quickly thereafter. Or more specifically, reality TV begat more reality TV. First, as a frequent competitor on The Challenge, a reality game show now in its 32nd season that allowed MTV to recycle an ever-expanding cast of characters from The Real World and Road Rules as well as their myriad incarnations and spin-offs. Then on Tough Enough, sort of WWE’s version of Survivor, the winner of which earned a WWE contract.
“The Miz was savvy in a way few other [Real World] castmates were — savvy about his branding and career trajectory at a time when other folks were just flailing about, hoping that their newfound reality TV fame would let them do commercials or promote their personal training at a local gym or all the other ways people struggled to become ‘influencers’ back before social media existed in its present form,” says Susie Meister, a podcaster and scholar-at-large who also won two seasons of The Challenge. “At the time, I wasn’t sure what the heck he was doing, or how it would come together. His rise seems preordained now, but if you’d asked me then, I’d say there were probably better ways to capitalize on reality show appearances.”
“I mean, he didn’t even win the million-dollar [Tough Enough] contract!” Meister continues. “Some MMA guy won the show and the contract [Daniel Puder, best known for applying kimura lock that almost broke Kurt Angle’s arm during a Tough Enough ‘shootfight’ gone very wrong]. Somehow, though, The Miz eventually got signed anyway.”
Puder described The Miz in a 2017 Bleacher Report interview as a try-hard he could “beat in a mile race every day,” someone who “wanted to beat me” but simply wasn’t well-trained or well-versed enough to do so. As such, The Miz would continue to lag behind other wrestlers in the minds of smarks, says long-time wrestling forum poster Ryan Christie, who introduced me to wrestling forums and e-wrestling [wrestling fan fiction] back in 1996. “Miz was vastly overrated from 2006 to 2010, and if you look at [wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer’s] bellwether Wrestling Observer Newsletter match ratings from that period, they reflect that,” Christie says. “His only good matches — his three-star matches — came when somebody who had really come up in the trenches and thus could really work a fast-paced match, like Daniel Bryan, was carrying him. He also wrestled some horrible matches with novelty acts like R-Truth and the Big Show, just the shits, stuff you’d want to fast-forward through.”
According to backstage rumors, many in the locker room agreed, as reports in wrestling publications like Slam! Wrestling often discussed the hazing that The Miz received from other wrestlers. In fact, reports of hazing and physical abuse at the hands of bruiser John “Bradshaw” Layfield were often incorporated into The Miz’s interviews, during which he discussed how “everyone wanted to get rid of me.” They became such a defining part of his against-all-odds character that wrestling journalists were left to ponder where the truth ended and kayfabe began.
I, too, wasn’t a fan. I hated that he consumed so much airtime, that he didn’t have the all-important “indie cred” that guys such as Bryan and CM Punk possessed, that he wrestled on almost every card and pay-per-view and that he appeared to be working or at least talking nonstop during his downtime. I remember wishing he’d stop and do something else, the same way I wished that R-Truth and Big Show and a few other performers from Miz’s early career peak would hang it up. “Maybe he wasn’t initially any good, but the thing about The Miz is that he’s very consistent,” says Meister. “Consistency is how you survive on those MTV shows, because stupid behavior like fighting will get you kicked out of the house, and you won’t make any money.”
Then, strangely, at his nadir — in 2011, he lost the WWE Championship and slipped toward the middle of the card — all of this started to change. “He’s too good at ‘reality’ entertainment to ever stay there,” says Eero Laine, a professor of theatre at the University of Buffalo and Warden’s co-editor on Performance and Pro Wrestling. “Although he arrived at WWE through Tough Enough, his trajectory was ahead of the curve for WWE — like WWE was catching up with the Miz sometimes when it came to total media saturation. He’s a fantastic heel in that he stands in for many things that wrestling fans already dislike as he continues to actually do those things — social media, reality TV, being ‘famous for being famous.’ His gimmick is that he’s actually lived up to his gimmick, that he’s succeeded at his gimmick, which is a sort of odd return to kayfabe.”
“In other words, he’s not playing a character, he is a character: in the WWE, on social media, on his new reality TV show [Miz & Mrs., a series about his marriage to fellow WWE performer Maryse],” Laine continues. “Maybe a similar heel would be Vince McMahon and his villainous ‘Mr. McMahon’ persona, but even then the relation between performer and character is different. Mr. McMahon was ostensibly a fictional character played by Vince McMahon. However, there is no Mr. Miz. It’s just The Miz, all the time, everywhere. Very often in acting there’s distance between performer and character. Even if that distance is diminished or erased in performance — you’ll often hear actors praised for ‘becoming’ the character — more often than not there was an original gap, meaning the character was created by someone like an author and the actor then begins to understand, empathize and embody that character. However, The Miz emerged from The Miz, who is playing The Miz. It’s like a Mobius strip of Miz-ness. On the other hand, what would The Miz be if he wasn’t The Miz? I wonder if he’d still be The Miz, just not active on TV and Instagram.”
Two developments have gradually forced me to revise my opinion of the Miz. The first was the extraordinary promo that the Miz cut in 2016 on the then-retired Bryan, whose career I’d appreciated but whose seemingly endless high-risk maneuvers and the resulting injuries eventually bothered me. (Those resulting injuries included some serious concussions that led to his early retirement.) In that sequence, Bryan began by mocking The Miz’s soft, safe style, which he described as characteristic of the boring WWE style. In response, the Miz flipped the script, excoriating Bryan for his unsafe antics while explaining that he took care of his own body because he wanted to provide the fans with decades of quality entertainment.
It was one of the few moments in a lifetime spent following wrestling that I found myself nodding along with the speaker, because after watching many promising careers cut short by injury and many lives destroyed by concussion-related trauma or painkiller abuse, The Miz’s words rang true. The heat from that moment has continued to cook right up to this year’s Summerslam, with the Miz touting his ubiquity in WWE programming as an alternative to on-again, off-again wrestler Bryan’s unreliability.
The second was the advent of The Miztourage, a comical back-up team for The Miz consisting of capable but underutilized third-generation wrestlers Curtis Axel (son of Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig and grandson of Larry “The Axe” Hennig) and Bo Dallas (son of Mike Rotunda and grandson of Blackjack Mulligan). Despite brief moments of success, neither Axel nor Dallas had gotten over despite top-tier athletic ability and impeccable bloodlines. The Miz turned them into amusing lackeys, as he had Damien Mizdow previously, but also gradually got the pair more and more over, giving them room to display their chops while slowly preparing them to turn against him and enjoy a run as WWE Raw Tag Team Champions under their new nickname “The B-Team.”
“Always aware of his own weakness, The Miz constantly surrounds himself with others who, on the one hand, he can hide behind and, on the other, are clearly subservient,” Warden says. “Perhaps even mirroring our own political times, The Miz is presented as both cowardly and dictatorial, even though these two character traits seem strangely oxymoronic. And yes, he can perform anger really well, as recent promos attacking Daniel Bryan have demonstrated.”
“On some level, it doesn’t matter if something like the Miz’s show with his wife Maryse is any good,” adds Meister. “I haven’t watched that, so I can’t really comment. But it bears noting that although Maryse had been a decent wrestler in the WWE long before they started dating, it wasn’t until they got together and became a power couple that they could reach the heights of something like Miz & Mrs., a reality show on basic cable that is providing both of them with the most valuable commodity of all: Airtime that provides even more exposure.
“The Miz might play a villain, but he’s also been a winner, because the defining quality of winners is that they don’t quit. Mere mediocrity doesn’t get you real far, but plodding mediocrity can because you just keep plodding along, avoiding screw-ups and controversies while building your brand. Think of where The Miz has come from, how he’s steered clear of all those pitfalls, how he was launched from MTV in this totally unexpected way — making it into big-time wrestling through the back door, then sticking there. It’s fascinating. Some folks still might not like him, but they surely envy his success. Because he’s always shown up, and maybe that’s enough.”