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Nobody Beats the Miz

How the MTV reality star turned WWE mainstay became must-see

Dan Evans

If you talk to Mike “The Miz” Mizanin long enough, he’ll invariably slip in and out of character. One moment, he’s Mike, offhandedly trying to explain why he’s experienced an improbable, almost cultlike swell of popularity on the back end of a 13-years-and-counting career in WWE. “I don’t see the cult following,” he intones sincerely while driving to Allentown, Pennsylvania, for a live event late last month. “What I see is an audience starting to see a veteran.”

But then there’s the Miz. He’s not acting, per se. (Though he has been known to do that outside the ring.) But when he tries to explain his longevity within WWE, his response leans toward performance art: “I’m a guy that WWE looks at and says, ‘Hey, we need someone to go to a Fox upfront sales pitch, the Miz is there. We need a person for a Snickers campaign? The Miz is there. If we need a host, we need a commentator, we need a main-event WWE superstar, we need a movie star, we need any of those types of things, get the Miz in there.’ Because I dedicate myself and I make my goals a reality.”

To Mizanin’s credit, he’s self-aware enough to stop midstream, laugh at himself, and apologize for “cutting promos on you.” And in the 38-year-old highly decorated (18 total championships!) veteran’s defense, the line separating the Miz from Mizanin was virtually nonexistent as far back as 2001, when he was on Real World: Back to New York. Millions (yep, MTV prime time used to notch millions of viewers) witnessed Mizanin’s antic metamorphosis into his aspiring WWF alter ego, a goofball persona that helped smooth over tensions with his racially diverse roommates and later, on spinoff competition show The Challenge, left him pegged as a bit of a bonehead.

“I was losing a lot and I didn’t know how to take it, so I drank a lot, listened to Slipknot, and just started hitting my head on things, talking to myself as the Miz,” he recounts of his infamous 2002 “Battle of the Seasons” meltdown. “It’s funny, because that kind of created a whole new realm for the Miz. Everyone stopped calling me Mike and started calling me the Miz, so that moment really catapulted who the Miz is even though it was the most embarrassing moment I’ve ever had on a show.”

Miz has essentially spent his entire adulthood getting paid to walk the tightrope of his split personalities—megalomaniacal athlete-cum-convivial-entertainer Miz and dialed-in professional and family man Mizanin—and conjure his childish id. In a very real way, his dedication to nurturing those dual identities is paying dividends this week. On Tuesday, he and wife/former two-time WWE Divas Champion Maryse celebrated the Season 1.5 premiere of their USA reality series, Miz & Mrs., which can best be summed up as a long-delayed wrestling-world echo of Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica. (Miz & Mrs. was just renewed for a second season.) Then on Sunday, Miz will square off against ex-tag-team partner Shane McMahon in a Falls Count Anywhere WrestleMania grudge match. (Shane got tired of the Miz and took it out on his poor, potato-faced father.) All this with—as we learned recently—baby number two on the way.

We are living in an era of peak Miz, which seems like a ridiculous thing to say, and even more ridiculous if you had been in a coma since his Real World turn, or since The Challenge, or even since his WWE debut, or, hell, since he last held the WWE Championship. Here’s the question for Mizanin: How has this once-sheltered Midwest jock from Parma, Ohio, remained a constant pop-culture fixture since the turn of the millennium? And is he his generation’s defining WWE superstar?

Dropping the Mike

Miz gets defensive when you talk about wrestlers paying their dues on the indie circuit. His voice tightens, and even though we’re talking over the phone, it’s easy to imagine his cheeks flushing and his hands digging into the wheel as he steers himself toward Northeastern Pennsylvania. “I would do speeches at colleges when I was on the Real World in front of 3,000 people and get paid to go do that, and then I would go wrestle for UPW in front of 20 people in the back of an alley somewhere,” he says, referring to his early-2000s stint in Ultimate Pro Wrestling, also an early launching pad for his future onscreen foe John Cena.

But I didn’t care, because I was learning how to become a WWE superstar, what the art of wrestling is. Did I spend 10 years developing a character and getting up wherever I need to go? No. But I also didn’t have the opportunities to go to Zero1 or New Japan to do that, because when Zero1 came in, they didn’t want me. But then when Tough Enough”—basically WWE’s version of American Idol—“came along, they wanted me, so I did it. And I guarantee all those indie guys, when the opportunity came, they took it.”

That much is self-evident with even a cursory glance at the current WWE roster. Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, AJ Styles, Ricochet, Adam Cole, Seth Rollins, and Dean Ambrose are several among a sizable bloc that executive VP of talent, creative, and live events Paul “Triple H” Levesque and his team have siphoned off from Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Ring of Honor, Combat Zone Wrestling, and other smaller promotions.

But if there’s one area where Miz did work to distinguish himself from his scrappier counterparts, it was honing the intangibles that make a total sports-entertainment package. While he was training at UPW, Miz moved from Ohio to Los Angeles (he’s since moved with his family to Austin, Texas), invested in acting lessons, and secured an agent. By the time he booked Tough Enough, his goal was simple: transform his Miz persona as witnessed on Real World into an immersive, unapologetic spectacle of ego and entitlement. And once they’re hooked, reel them in with your refined(-ish) in-ring skills.

It worked—Mizanin finished Tough Enough in second place, scored a deal with then-WWE developmental arm Ohio Valley Wrestling and debuted on SmackDown in late summer 2006. He was, to put it lightly, overeager in the early going. He was also put through his paces—at one point being exiled from the locker room for months after demonstrating disrespectful dining etiquette—by an experienced coterie of old-school standard-bearers, and openly ridiculed by fans still coming to grips with the departures of signature, charismatic Attitude Era figures like Steve Austin and the Rock. Fans were searching for an heir apparent. Miz was not it. Not at first anyway.

“I am a true underdog story,” he suggests. “I was on a reality show. You’re supposed to be good for nothing. I wasn’t supposed to be in the fraternity of WWE. I was the outcast. When I first got there, nobody wanted me. I was kicked out of the locker room, the audience didn’t want me, and I fought tooth-and-nail with crowds booing me, telling me I suck.”

Swiss Army Man

The Miz was stubborn. He weathered his initiation period and—unlike earlier Tough Enough graduates like Maven and Chris Nowinski (who has since gone on to great visibility as a concussion-science advocate)—the Miz stuck around. He’d proved useful as a tag-team worker (notably with John Morrison) and solo antagonist, and demonstrated that he could bridge TV time between matches as the impish host of his own interview segment, the still-occasionally-running “MizTV.” The heel interview show has a long-standing tradition in WWE—“Piper’s Pit,” “The Funeral Parlor,” 2019 Hall of Fame inductee Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake’s pointedly titled “Barber Shop,” etc.—but this one came with a wink toward Miz’s MTV reality past. Instead of playing against expectations, he embraced them, and he evolved into one of the industry’s most hateable villains. He won his first WWE Championship in 2010, and successfully defended it (with help from the Rock) against John Cena in the headline match of WrestleMania XXVII.

“I always put goals out there that are never supposed to happen,” he says. “I was never supposed to get on the Real World, but every week I would think about the questions they might ask me and about how I could impress them and make them want me more. Cut to WWE; I don’t look the part, I don’t act the part. You were supposed to be bigger, better, more athletic. But I said I could do this, and I not only did, but I went on to main-event WrestleMania.”

Despite losing the title shortly thereafter, Miz was a made man. He spent the first half of the 2010s parachuting into repeated opportunities for the Intercontinental and United States championships while moonlighting as WWE Studios’ marquee name, starring in a succession of its straight-to-home-video Marine sequels after the franchise’s original anchor, John Cena, graduated to blockbuster theatrical releases. It is hard to miss, though, that Cena and the Rock—whom Miz cites frequently in our conversation as a benchmark for crossover legitimacy—along with Dave Bautista, all pushed past the perceived limitations of a pro wrestler’s versatility. Miz forged a lucrative niche by balancing his in-ring stints with parts in additional WWE Studios fare (Santa’s Little Helper, anyone?) and, in a bit of corporate reciprocity with Raw broadcaster USA, prime-time series like Psych. A-list big-screen roles, however, eluded him.

“Whenever a WWE superstar gets an opportunity, I am so happy,” he insists. “When Bautista got Guardians of the Galaxy, I looked at that and went, ‘That is so amazing.’ There’s no sense of jealousy because there’s no way I could play Drax. Drax is huge. Bautista’s perfect for it.”

That might suggest a self-effacement uncharacteristic of the Miz, but for all his showmanship on SmackDown, it’s clear that he understands his place in the big-picture food chain. He’d rather ham it up as a comedic foil in a show like Modern Family or Curb Your Enthusiasm—two examples he cites as inspiration for Miz & Mrs.’s antics—than try to fit in where he’s ill-suited.

“A lot of people don’t like auditioning, but I enjoy it,” he says. “It allows me to play another character that I may not normally do. I’ve been doing a lot of auditions for voice-over, and man I’ve been having so much fun. I love hosting, all these different things. If things don’t come my way, that’s OK. Something might. Sometimes it just takes one movie. For the Rock, it was The Mummy. It was a small part but it got him in the door. John Cena, Trainwreck. Some people were like, ‘Why is Cena doing these small parts?’ He had to build and get his foot in the door, and now everybody wants him. Everybody wants Rock. Everybody wants Bautista.” Miz says he’s been gunning for a part in Bill & Ted 3, though his agent at CAA hasn’t come back with anything yet.

The Revival

While he waited for Hollywood’s call, Miz set about what would quickly become the most critically well-received and fan-supported stage of his WWE tenure. In an echo of how “MizTV” initially played against perceptions of its host, Miz winked at his wannabe-celebrity status by turning his SmackDown character’s delusions of grandeur up to 11. He spiked his hair and put on sunglasses, a martial arts headband, and a sleeveless robe. He looked like Derek Zoolander if he’d traveled through the Matrix. But the true turning point came in August 2016, when Miz laced into longtime nemesis Daniel Bryan on the Tuesday-night aftershow Talking Smack, leaving everyone wondering what was real and what was planned and prompting the kind of mouth-foaming among fans that tacitly confirms a performer’s mystique.

“In 2016, all of a sudden, things started clicking to where I knew exactly what I had to do. And I had the confidence to do it.” He recalls an eye-opening chat he once had with Christian: “I was like, ‘You’re so good. There’s never a dead spot. The audience is always into it. When did that happen?’ And he goes, ‘It clicked about three years ago for me.’ And this was about 15 years into his career.’ And I always thought, ‘Oh I’m great.’ But then the same thing happened to me.”

Around that same period, Maryse—herself a former two-time Divas Champion—reappeared and joined her husband in an intergender story line opposite (who else?) Cena and his then-girlfriend and women’s division powerhouse Nikki Bella. Miz and Maryse’s chemistry in a series of parodic 2017 vignettes laid the groundwork for Miz & Mrs., but more importantly, the angle finally repositioned the former world champion closer to the top of the card than he’d been in years. Recognition was coming from all corners, and that momentum carried over into 2018 with a buzzy feud against the miraculously unretired Bryan and a slow but steady turning of crowd sentiment in his favor. In an age when even the biggest names are relentlessly torn down for flubbed lines or forced-seeming promos, Miz is objectively the company’s surest hand.

“This is a level of excellence I expect myself to have,” he surmises. “I have trained myself to be a great actor and have levels and feel emotion and make it feel real. And it is real.” Circling back to his present, onscreen issues with Shane McMahon, Miz again navigates that fine line between sticking to the script and giving it to you straight, exclaiming, “The guy put his hands on my father. I got to watch that. You don’t have to act that. I’ve always prided myself on having a lot of layers in this character, because that’s what the audience deserves. I think they’ll get involved and be more entertained if we have that. That’s what I’m trying to do, and I guess you’re kind of seeing that.”

The Ultimate WWE Superstar

It’s a time-honored tradition for villainous wrestlers to pivot to the side of the angels to coincide with TV or movie pushes, but Mizanin demurs on the question of whether his good-guy pivot is meant to coincide with Miz & Mrs.’s return. “It kind of happened organically,” he contests. “With WWE, I’ve played a bad guy for basically my entire career. When we set out to do this story with my dad, a lot of people were like, ‘Wait, this is a little heartfelt.’ And I’d go, ‘Yeah, but it’s relatable.’ Think about it—why would Shane ever want to tag with the Miz? When my dad came out and said he loved me and was proud of me, that was something special to me, and I think fans could relate to it. Do you really see Vince McMahon ever telling Shane that he loves him or that he’s proud of him?”

If this face turn is the reward for a decade of character building, Miz has likewise matured into a veteran who is synonymous with WWE for an entire generation of fans. And thanks to that same overeagerness he could hardly contain in his SmackDown debut, he’s the template for what Vince McMahon had in mind when he formalized the phrase “WWE superstar.” As the company faces headwinds from upstart threats like All Elite Wrestling—whose roster is already stacked with former WWE staples including Cody Rhodes, Chris Jericho, and PAC (known in WWE as Neville)—the Miz is content to stay where he is for as long as time and health allow.

“I am a loyal person,” he says. “When I was on MTV, I was never a guy that said anything bad about them. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. WWE gave me my life. It gave me my wife. It gave me my child, and my other child. I am loyal to WWE and will always be loyal to WWE and everything it’s ever given to me. I’m a WWE superstar.”

That’s Mike Mizanin speaking, for the record. “It’s taken me 13-plus years, but I finally feel like I’ve actually earned [respect], and I think [fans] know I earned it, and they’re backing me. This is the first time in my career that they truly like me and cheer for me, and honestly, I don’t know how to react to it. I’m just kind of savoring it.”

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