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Mizunderstood: What WWE “Talking Smack” Really Showed Us by Mike Holland

The first column I ever wrote for TJR Wrestling (since lost to the sands of time, alas, and not relegated to the Hall of Eternal Countenance as I and only I had requested) had to do with the art of the wrestling promo. I like to think that as much as I enjoy the physical aspect of the sport, it’s the verbal skills that I appreciate even more. Maybe that’s why I’m a writer instead of a wrestler. Or maybe it’s the flat feet and propensity to continue a steady diet of Sno-Caps and bourbon. I bring it up because I find it more relevant a topic than ever thanks to all the buzz created by the segment involving Intercontinental Champion The Miz and Smackdown Live General Manager Daniel Bryan on the Talking Smack aftershow this past Tuesday. (Incidentally, this whole deal where everything has thirteen properly capitalized titles is getting a bit old. It adds an imposing sense of formality that is obliterated when you recognize this is a profession where a grown man uses a spangled featherduster as a selfie stick.)

For those who didn’t see the segment, it was powerful in a way that few current WWE promos are. Bryan and Miz have had a back-and-forth since Bryan and Shane McMahon drafted the champion to their show, ostensibly over the fact that the title itself has more value than its bearer. That is a classic case of a truism being intentionally obfuscated by the sex appeal of a statement meant to achieve a reaction, which is a fancy way of me saying that WWE knows better but said it so that you and I would think they don’t. The championship belts, particularly on the main roster level, have never meant less. That’s not a shot at the champions so much as a statement that the company those titles represent have spent little to no time on the whole developing them. They aren’t defended consistently at pay-per-views, they are flipped back and forth with relative abandon, and they’ve been added to thanks to the brand split to the point where you’d need a wheelbarrow or arms like Bobby Lashley to cart them around. And even Lashley got tired of that.

Up to this point, it’s been a rather one-sided debate. That’s due to the fact that Miz’s character is extremely effective in its ability to make your average Joe dislike him immensely. In any other circumstance, Miz would be a hero to many. Here’s a guy who was famous for the slicked-up, lowbrow vegetable soup of reality television and managed to successfully turn that into a solid wrestling career. He’s in many ways living the dream: he’s been given runs with every major title WWE recognizes (prior to the split, natch) on his way to being the 14th Grand Slam champ in the promotion. He’s won the Money in the Bank match and been tag team champion with four different partners. He’s married Maryse. Need I say more? Miz’s stock has risen so much over the course of his career that he managed to be named #1 in the Pro Wrestling Illustrated 500 in 2011, the same year he was not-coincidentally named Most Hated Wrestler of the Year. Think there’s a connection?

Fully embracing the role of the heel, though, means you eschew the friendly confines of applause and adulation and lounge in the murky and uncomfortable outpost of hostility and anger. It also means that WWE finds ways to market you despite a large majority of the audience wanting your head on a spike, and in a strange way his B-list movie appearances through their movie studios have helped to get his clueless heel character over in a way that his microphone braggadocio alone never would have. It resonates because everything he’s saying is just true enough. And it rankles because this is a guy that didn’t “earn” it in the traditional sense that he knew from day one he was going to be a professional wrestler and toured the world in search of achieving said goal. He got bored with his quickly evaporating soap opera career and was brought up through the minor league ranks of the world’s biggest wrestling promotion, apparently catching enough eyes of the power players to be considered a good hire and worthy of further bestowments of praise and respect.

This is the complete counter to a guy like Daniel Bryan, who overcame every adversity in the book to prove his true and complete love for the business. Unlike the photogenic Miz, oddball Bryan wrestled in every corner of the globe becoming the dirtiest words ever uttered in the WWE lexicon, an “indy darling.” Even at the outset of what has truly become a movement to sign stars developed outside of the cushy lair known as Titan Tower, Bryan’s presence in Connecticut was used both on television and behind the scenes as a source of amusement and rancor. One glance at him and you can easily see he’s not cut from the cloth the McMahons were building their flashy, bedazzled wardrobes with in the eighties and nineties. He’s a short, bearded vegan who favors action over discourse and relies on things like striking kicks rather than overstated slapstick moves to drive his offense. Perish the thought. WWE wasn’t in Kansas anymore, but that didn’t mean they planned to make things comfortable for Dorothy.

Bryan’s entrance to NXT was treated as a running gag from the very beginning. Him being paired with The Miz as his mentor was the first and easiest example of that, as the clash of characters was aggrandized to the point of ridiculousness and Miz made it his business to let Bryan know in no uncertain terms that his background was as irrelevant as it was to be looked down upon. It continued through the scripted scoring system, and was put to the side only when it became clear that this indy darling had achieved what neither the Miz nor very few others ever in the history of the company had managed to do: namely, win the crowd over by doing something that many of them had never seen performed in that way before. If that sounds like new NXT champion Shinsuke Nakamura or injured former Universal champion Finn Balor, that’s also not a coincidence. It’s important to mention these details now before WWE has time to whitewash events and claim that they knew from the start that Bryan was money. This is, after all, a promotion that wants you to believe The Bella Twins are the tentpoles of the Women’s Revolution. If this is indeed a revolution we are witnessing, the Bellas are far more Marie Antoinette than they are Robespierre. I will concede that I likely eat more cake.

Entering the WWE makes the promo element important, as you’re reaching a far wider audience that wants to know what you have to say. Failure to perform well on the microphone can relegate you to needing a manager for your whole career or seeking employment elsewhere, so it really can’t be overstated. Like anything else in this business, you used to develop those skills or your own on the road in town after town or under the wing of grizzled veterans who had to dig deep into their soul (real or pretend) to convert the locals into reacting to their worldview. Now it’s been reduced to a corporate roundtable, a soulless exercise where you’re handed a script from someone who always loved wrestling but never actually did it and told to communicate verbatim their thoughts on the matter in your own “unique” style. It’s a tough road to hoe, and it’s even tougher when you’re not built like Batista. This is a natural progression of the business, of course. It’s WWE’s right as king of the hill to convince the talent that they know best from the start, and there’s little doubt that many of the raw talent needs shaping. But at what point do the training wheels come off? That’s a question that has led to much discussion, with Steve Austin leading the charge on pointing out that many of today’s promos sound exactly as they are: the result of forced memorization rather than bullet points delivered with moxie.

Daniel Bryan

What’s unique about this situation, then, is that it’s sort of the ultimate irony. Miz, a guy steeped in doing it the “WWE” way and despised by many a fan not for his character but everything that comes with it, reaches into the inner depths of his psyche and unleashes a blistering verbal torrent on the beloved Daniel Bryan that isn’t entirely accurate (naturally) but is entirely effective. Anyone that doubts Daniel Bryan’s desire to wrestle at the drop of a hat tomorrow either is deluded or doesn’t own a chapeau. Similarly, anyone who thinks WWE would break their medical strictures to allow Daniel to place himself further in harm’s way has either a short-term memory or a case of dementia. WWE is way too responsible as a publicly traded company under threat of concussion litigation to mess around here. This is a company that has lost LIVES as a result of ill-advised attempts to entertain. That tends to put things in perspective even from the business end of a balance sheet.

All of that said, it is World Wrestling Entertainment, after all, and the reason it’s not called the WWF anymore has as much to do with making you understand the final word is the most important as it does with pandas and sea turtles. This is a company that takes a guy who truly had his career likely ended due to a series of head injuries and puts him in a backstage skit with Heath Slater where Slater feigns not knowing where he is or who he’s talking to. You may be outraged, but you’ll never take the carnival out of wrestling, and you never should. Every man and woman who signs with the WWE knows exactly what they’re getting, and I won’t fault them for choosing financial security over good taste at times. I also know in my heart of hearts that being in the WWE gives them the sort of exposure that anyone would crave, and allows them to become what Bryan himself became: the start of a movement rather than a guy that wrestlers other guys for moolah. That he did it from inside the belly of the beast makes it the stuff of legend rather than passing fancy. That will be Bryan’s legacy no matter where he goes from here, and he knows it. His live crowd reaction is second to none on the roster, and he has no belt and few prospects of lacing up the boots again. It matters not. And I’m fairly certain it’s why when presented with this angle on Talking Smack, he went along willingly and excited at the prospect. It got us all talking and it showed he’s still a driving force in the business without being an active competitor.

The crux of the situation is that none of this matters if Miz doesn’t do his part effectively on Tuesday. Playing on our emotions about Bryan not wrestling anymore is a heel hallmark. It’s exactly the same sort of thing UFC’s Conor McGregor did when calling out WWE’s roster recently. Perceived as a slight, it led to a litany of protests from every corner of the wrestling world. Guys and girls who do promos for a living should know better. It’s noise intended to provoke a reaction. The bigger the reaction, the more effective the din. Put aside the emotion involved in the situation and recognize that both men played their parts to a T. Moreover, they did so at a time when the business desperately needs more off-script situations that were indeed jotted down on a script somewhere. That’s the beauty and illusion of a business that prides itself on equal parts direct force and misdirection, and it’s what makes watching the product different than viewing anything else on the planet. It may be for you, like it was for me, what attracted you to this crazy industry in the first place.

If it is, enjoy the beauty of the moment. Appreciate that a person you never thought possible of it delivered what amounted to the current equivalent of the classic CM Punk “pipe bomb.” Relish the idea that WWE is listening and endeavoring to steer its new young talent away from the frightening stark reality of the Titus promo on Raw, the land of flop sweat and uncomfortable silence, and toward the safer shores of playing off the moment and your audience. That is, after all, what all great actors do. I just never realized I was looking at one when I looked at the guy from The Real World. That’s a moment of truth I had to face. You should too.

Twitter: @DharmanRockwell