The untold truth of The Miz

Virtually everyone who goes into pro wrestling as a career does so because they loved it as a fan first. That's the only reason someone would go through the arduous training, years of sweating it out in independent or undercard matches, and endless weeks on the road, risking permanent injury for something that people who aren't fans still regard as "fake." So if you see someone in the ring, you can rest assured they're at least as big a fan as you are.

There's no one, however, who embodies idea of a fan who became a superstar as much as Mike Mizanin, better known to WWE devotees as the Miz. Part of that is because we've been able to watch every single step of that journey for the past 20 years. From his start as a reality TV star to working the main event of WrestleMania, and all the way back to reality TV, here's the untold truth of the Miz. 

The Miz starts by getting real

When the Miz first appeared on television screens across the country, it wasn't as a pro wrestler. In fact, it wasn't even as the Miz. In 2001, he was just Mike, a guy from Ohio who dropped out of college to become a cast member MTV's long-running reality show, The Real World.

MTV's official bio touted Mike as "the quintessential all-American boy" and a "chick magnet"  playing up the idea growing up in Parma, a suburb of Cleveland, had left him incredibly naive on the subjects of race and sexuality. Naturally, that brought him into conflict with other cast members — almost as thought they had stopped being polite and started getting real — where he was challenged to learn more about people who weren't like him. The arc of his season, and of his further appearances on spin-offs like The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, was largely the story of a kid who moved to New York, met a whole bunch of people, and tried to deal with the racism he'd unwittingly learned while growing up in suburban Middle America. That happens to a lot of people, but it doesn't usually play out for millions of viewers on TV every week.

Of course, there was another aspect of Mike's personality put in the spotlight during his time on The Real World. Much to the amusement (and occasional frustration) of his housemates, Mike had an alter-ego he dubbed "The Miz," an over-the-top fantasy version of himself as a pro wrestling superstar. There's plenty of footage of him goofing around, doing wrestling moves on his housemates, and even carrying around a toy WWF Championship belt. At the time, this made him seem like an affable goofball, but knowing less than a decade later, he'd be defending the real thing in front of a live crowd of over 70,000 people in the main event of WrestleMania makes all that goofiness seem a whole lot more prophetic.

The Miz was Tough Enough for the Diva Search

Given how up front he was about his desire to be a pro wrestler, it shouldn't be a surprise to learn Mike parlayed his success on The Real World to a career in the ring. After doing some training on the indies, he became a contestant on yet another reality show: Tough Enough, which had previously aired on MTV before moving to UPN as part of SmackDown. That season is mostly remembered for an incident where Kurt Angle, a legitimate Olympic gold medalist turned pro wrestler, challenged contestants to a "shoot" (pro wrestling slang for a real fight), and almost got his arm broken by a contestant named Daniel Puder. 

Mike was a runner up, but — as was often the case with Tough Enough — he wound up doing better than the actual winner, piquing WWE's interest enough they signed him to a contract. It wasn't a direct route to the ring, though. After spending some time in a developmental promotion called Deep South Wrestling (basically WWE's version of baseball's minor leagues) and even winning a championship there, he was called up to the main show, just not as a wrestler. Instead, he got the job of hosting Diva Search, a show where aspiring models competed for a WWE contract, and it… did not go well

In a disastrous segment, the Miz was clearly nervous, and wound up stammering his way through instructions on how to vote for your favorite Diva while the crowd booed: "Go to… [blank stare as he forgets the website] the, heh-hah, go to, uh, go to the, uh, WWE — dial [looks at his hand where he has written the number] 86946, and vote for your favorite Diva Search contestant, and — text message your favorite Diva Search girl! To — do her name." There was one very good thing to come out of the Miz's time with Diva Search, but we'll get back to that in a moment.

The Miz's Dirt Sheet

It would be very charitable to call the fan response to the Miz in his early days "mixed." Thanks to his awkward performance on Diva Search and the perception — however false it might've been — he was only getting opportunities because he'd been on The Real World. It wasn't just the fans, either: the Miz has often talked about trying to earn the respect of the other wrestlers, including a story where he "got kicked out of the locker room for eating a piece of chicken." Fortunately, pro wrestling will always have a place for people the audience hates, because every good guy needs a villain.

To his credit, the Miz was a better villain than most, and even provided WWE with one of the most forward-thinking tactics for getting over any wrestler has ever used. While working as a tag team, he and John Morrison launched a streaming segment on WWE.com called The Dirt Sheet, named for the slang term wrestlers have for websites and magazines focused on rumors about backstage goings on. Miz and Morrison wrote and performed the show's five-minute episodes every week, filling it with jokes, impressions, and other ways to antagonize their opponents while wearing hats that made them incredibly easy to hate.

These days, that's not actually unusual. WWE's Xavier Woods has carved out a dedicated fanbase for Up Up Down Down, a YouTube series where he and other wrestlers play video games, and the entire All Elite Wrestling promotion has its roots in its founders' YouTube series, Being The Elite. But here's the thing: The Dirt Sheet happened in 2008. YouTube itself was only three years old at that point, and steaming shows were far from the ubiquitous media they'd eventually become. 

The Miz's life in the midcard

Over the next few years, the Miz found himself, like most wrestlers, toiling away in the midcard — not the "enhancement talent" that lost to make other wrestlers look better, but not the kind of top-tier superstar the company would build itself around, either. That's not to say there wasn't some interesting stuff going on from week to week. The Miz had plenty of memorable moments, including getting fired and disguising himself in a luchador-style mask as "The Calgary Kid" to win a contract, a pretty masterful swerve that infuriated the crowd in Calgary. There was also a run as part of a tag team with the Big Show called — wait for it — ShowMIz. Apparently there's no Mizness like ShowMizness. 

One of the more interesting pieces of his career, however, came in 2010 when WWE launched the original version of NXT, a sort of faux-reality revival of the Tough Enough concept where "rookie" wrestlers pulled up from developmental or the indies were paired up with "pro" mentors on the WWE roster and put through challenges like drinking a bunch of soda or cutting memorably terrible promos. The Miz was a mentor, and his "rookie" was Daniel Bryan, aka "The American Dragon" Bryan Danielson, one of the most lauded and skilled independent wrestlers in the world. He'd been wrestling longer than the Miz, having started working in 1999 on the first of many tours of Japan, and — in all honesty — was arguably far more skilled at the craft than his mentor. 

The idea seemed to be playing up Bryan's indie cred by pairing him up with the kind of reality star-turned-wrestler that the kind of fans who obsessed over the technical purity of independent workhorses like Bryan would absolutely hate. Also, the announce team, a roster of die-hard WWE company men, would constantly dump on Bryan for being someone only "Internet fans" liked. Whether it was the intent or not, it worked, maybe a little too well. By 2011, hate for the Miz — both the character on TV and the real-life person who played him — was at an all time high among wrestling fans. 

The Miz main eventing WrestleMania... technically

In July of 2010, the Miz won a "Money in the Bank" ladder match, a six-man competition where the winner got a contract he could "cash in" for a WWE Championship match at any time, anywhere, over the next year. That November, he cashed in, winning the WWE Championship and kicking off a feud with John Cena, the company's top star, that would lead to a main event at WrestleMania, the biggest show of the year. With that, the Miz had gotten the highest honor a WWE Superstar could possibly get, both in-character and in real life

There was, however, a problem. Despite the fact he was in the main event match, despite the fact he was the company's World Champion, the story going into WrestleMania XXVII wasn't really about the Miz. It wasn't even really about John Cena and the Miz and the feud they were having. It was about John Cena and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who had returned to the company and was "hosting" WrestleMania that year. At the end of the show, the match between the Miz and Cena was headed to a screwy double count-out finish, a scenario where both wrestlers would be disqualified and the Miz would retain the title. To give the crowd a satisfying ending, the Rock intervened and used his nebulous host powers to restart the match. He then turned on Cena, hit his finishing move, and let the Miz pin him… which caused the Miz to retain the title, the same in-universe outcome that would've happened if he had done nothing. The whole thing was to set up a match between the Rock and Cena that would happen at the next WrestleMania, which was billed as "Once in a Lifetime" even though they had a rematch the following year. Twice in a lifetime is still pretty rare, though, so whatever.

In other words, the Miz wasn't even the second-most important person in the feud between John Cena and the Miz. He was a distant third, coming in behind a dude who wasn't even wrestling on the show. He may have become a part of the rarefied roster of people who have performed in WrestleMania's main event — only 35 men and, as of 2019, three women — but it would always be overshadowed by the presence of the bigger stars. On the bright side, though, his entrance included a pretty incredible video package covering the history of his career set to "Hate Me Now" by Nas, and that thing rules. 

Secondhand Nature

In theory, the Miz should be one of the easiest characters in pro wrestling for the audience to identify with. As wrestling critic Brandon Stroud wrote, "Miz has been a bad guy for most of his career, partially because of how awkward and punchable he was when he first showed up, but he's too sincere to be a bad guy. He loves what he does, and he knows how lucky he is to be there, because he was a fan long before he tried to become a wrestler." And yet, for some reason, something about him keeps pulling him back to the role of a villain.

There have been a few attempts at getting the crowd on his side, though, using every weapon in the WWE's considerable arsenal. The most high-profile attempt came in 2013, when "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair — a beloved elder statesman who has a pretty strong claim on being the best pro wrestler of all time — essentially anointed the Miz as his successor. He even passed down his finishing hold, the Figure-Four Leglock, which the Miz started using in his matches.

It should be noted this did not really work, and there are a couple of reasons why. For one, there's that naturally negative charisma that makes the Miz (and, for that matter, Ric Flair himself) work better as the bad guy. For another, the Miz's version of the Figure Four did not always look great, though he's gotten significantly better with it since. The biggest problem, though, was when this anointing happened, Flair already had a much more obvious successor: his actual daughter, Charlotte Flair, whose charisma, physicality, and overall vibe are pretty similar to Ric's. 

The Miz: A-list movie star

While he's had a long and successful career in the ring, the Miz's work for WWE hasn't always been confined there. He's had a surprisingly prolific career on the movie side of things, starring in a handful of studios for WWE Films, including four installments (3 through 6, if you're keeping track) of their homegrown action franchise, The Marine

As for why a guy who clearly loves pro wrestling spends so much time on the set of movies like The Christmas Bounty and The Marine 4: Moving Target, the Miz actually addressed that on an episode of The Art of Wrestling, a podcast hosted by indie wrestler Colt Cabana, calling himself "the guy that never says no." His idea was that saying yes to whatever opportunities the WWE presented him with, including "being the Ryan Seacrest of the WWE," would make him more valuable to the company, and get him more opportunities to show what he could do. 

His relatively prolific acting career has also bled into his in-ring persona. For a while, the Miz touted himself as "the A-Lister," with all the arrogance of a Hollywood superstar, which is the perfect (and very intentional) way for an arrogant bad guy to use his career in straight-to-video action films to get heat from the crowd. At one point, he even had a "stunt double," pro wrestler Damien Sandow, who would copy his moves outside the ring and occasionally be brought in to take the beating the Miz had earned from his opponents.

The Miz and Maryse

Remember when we mentioned there was a good thing to come out of the Miz's otherwise regrettable time hosting Diva Search? When he talks about that part of his career, there's one thing he mentions: "It's not getting an opportunity with WWE, it's not messing up the phone number a million times, it's the place where I got to meet the most beautiful woman I've ever met in my life. And I married her."

Maryse Ouellet was a contestant on Diva Search, and, much like the Miz back on Tough Enough, she was a runner-up who wound up working for the company for years. She and the Miz began dating, got engaged in 2013, married in 2014, and have one daughter together with another on the way. As you might expect, their relationship has been featured in WWE storylines, but it also broke out — or broke back in, depending on how you look at it — to reality TV as part of its own show. 

In 2016, Maryse joined the cast of Total Divas, a show that follows the WWE's female superstars (formerly known through WWE branding as "Divas") in their backstage and off-screen lives, and naturally, Mike showed up a few times as well. The two proved popular enough they were moved into their own show: Miz & Mrs. Unsurprisingly for a reality show veteran, the Miz comes off pretty well on the show, and often brings up his very relatable fears about his relationship after growing up with parents who had what he called "a bad divorce." 

The Miz's promo of a lifetime

In the years following his time as the Miz's rookie on NXT, Daniel Bryan became one of WWE's most popular stars, overcoming setbacks like an 18-second loss at WrestleMania. Unfortunately, a series of injuries including multiple concussions led to his early retirement in 2016, although he would eventually be cleared two years later to return to in-ring competition, and regain his spot at the top of the card. In the meantime, though, he remained a part of WWE as an on-screen authority figure, and with their history with each other, his story remained inextricably tied to the Miz.

On August 23, 2016, Bryan and the Miz appeared on Talking Smack, an online post-show for SmackDown, in a segment that seemed to blend in-storyline conflict between the two characters with their real-world history. Bryan leveled a heavy criticism at the Miz, saying, "I have respect for the title, I just don't respect the person holding it," and telling him, "You wrestle like a coward." The Miz would later say that comment "set off… everything." He responded by launching into the single best promo of his career, and arguably one of the best of all time, period. 

As the Miz defended himself by citing he had never been injured, and Bryan argued he would be happy to return to the ring if the WWE's doctors would let him, the Miz became increasingly intense, until he finally presented Bryan with an argument for which he had no answer: "You love wrestling. You love being right in that wrestling ring, and you love wrestling, right? Well why don't you quit? Why don't you quit and go to the bingo halls with your indie friends?" Bryan left the set, the Miz turned his ire to the viewers, and fans were left wondering how much reality had bled into the promo. It was at that moment the Miz and Daniel Bryan became low-key one of the greatest ongoing sagas in pro wrestling, and with Bryan actually being cleared to return to the ring in 2018 — and kicking off his return with an all-too-short feud with the Miz — there's plenty more of this story to tell.