How The Miz went from ‘Real World’ chump to WWE champ

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As he sat down to film a documentary about his WWE career, Mike Mizanin decided that he was going to do something different.

The persona the Parma, Ohio, native honed over a nearly two-decade television run wouldn’t be the one who was going to be talking when the camera started rolling. Fans who had grown used to seeing The Miz on weekly WWE programming weren’t going to see and hear the arrogant wrestling star they had seen for the past 16 years.

For the first time ever, they would be getting just Mike.

“This was the first time that I sat down for an interview and I said, ‘You know what, let’s just make this real. I’m not going to entertain you. I’m not going to try too hard. I’m literally just going to answer questions honestly and raw and open. Just have a conversation with the camera,’” Mizanin told Yahoo Entertainment. “When I watched it back, I realized that it was the first time I didn’t feel The Miz once. It was just me talking to a camera. It was crazy.’”

‘I didn’t know how to deal with the emotions’

Mizanin is the subject of the latest installment of the WWE’s 24 documentary series (watch an exclusive clip above). The 77-minute episode details Mizanin’s sometimes tumultuous rise to becoming one of WWE’s most influential and well-known figures. It’s an in-depth look at how Mizanin overcame the stigma of being a reality star to win over fans and peers alike during his career.

The Miz’s origin story begins with The Real World: Back to New York in the early 2000s. Mizanin, then a 20-year-old college student, moved from suburban Ohio to New York City and struggled initially to connect with his roommates. As Mizanin became more isolated, he developed an alter ego that was fashioned after WWE stars he grew up watching.

“Whenever anything is new, you’re learning as you go,” Mizanin said. “I didn’t know how to deal with the emotions. I was 20 at the time and you think you know everything at that age. You don’t know anything. I moved to New York City on my own, with seven strangers, and I just tried to be me.

“Usually being me was OK. In high school and college I had no problem meeting people and being around them, but all of a sudden, I’m living with seven people who don’t gravitate towards me. They don’t like me. I’m saying things that are rubbing people the wrong way. That’s why The Miz was created. All of a sudden on the show, people started liking The Miz more than they liked Mike. I started doing The Miz all the time, because they liked it more.”

From Ohio to California to Phoenix to Cancun — A juggling act in pursuit of a dream

Comfortable enough being The Miz, Mizanin spent post-Real World time making appearances and starring on MTV’s spin-off series The Challenge. Not just broke, but in debt after maxing out his credit cards while on The Real World, he decided he was going to move from Cleveland to Los Angeles and make a run at another career — professional wrestling.

The documentary touches on Mizanin’s initial foray into the industry, on the independent circuit with UPW in California, as well as his time on WWE’s reality show Tough Enough. Mizanin spent three years juggling working for MTV, wrestling independently and taking acting and improv classes, before finishing second on Tough Enough and eventually earning a WWE contract.

“I would go to Justin Roberts and he would hire me in Phoenix for a place called IZW and he would hire me literally every month,” Mizanin said. “I would go there and wrestle in front of 50 people, sometimes 20 people, sometimes 10 people. I went to Cancun for a month and hosted MTV’s Spring Break. They had me come out there and I would practice my promos on the fans in Cancun and then go back and wrestle.”

Mike 'The Miz' Mizanin addressed the virtual crowd during an episode of WWE's

Mike ‘The Miz’ Mizanin addressed the virtual crowd during an episode of WWE’s “Monday Night Raw.” (Photo courtesy of WWE)

Mizanin’s difficult start culminated in him being kicked out of the WWE locker room, forced to change in bathrooms and hallways, separate from his colleagues.

“When I first came to WWE, I think everyone assumed — and I wasn’t out there telling everyone I was on the independent scene — I was on The Real World and that’s why I was there,” Mizanin recalled. “Everyone was like, ‘We don’t care who The Miz is. As a matter of fact, we don’t like The Miz, we don’t like Mike, we don’t like you. Period. You don’t belong here.’ I was always trying to find the right spot on the dial. I was turned up [as The Miz] for so long that when I got to WWE and I was at 100, WWE wanted me to take it down to like a 20. It takes time to develop that, it takes time to learn where you have to be and where you need to go.”

Banished from the locker room and his wrestling future in doubt, Mizanin doubled down on his efforts to succeed in the industry.

Over the next few months, Mizanin began taking advantage of WWE’s media days — viewed as a burden by stars at the time — to practice his promos. He got written into a program with John Cena, WWE’s top star, and picked his brain during live events.

“Guess what? Vince heard about [the media days] and would come up to me and say, ‘You’re doing a great job.’” Mizanin said. “That’s my boss. That’s the person I want to impress and the person who could get me to where I want to be. Now, at 40, with 16 years in the business under my belt, I get [what I was doing wrong then.] It was just through time and repetition and one day it just clicks. John Cena taught me all of that. When I started working with John Cena in live events, that’s when I learned what it takes to be a main-event caliber superstar.”

Eventually, after a match with The Undertaker, Mizanin was allowed back into the locker room and would even win the WWE championship and main-eventing WrestleMania XXVII against Cena.

Getting booed means The Miz is doing something really good

Now, ten years removed from the highest point in his WWE career, Mizanin remains perpetually at the top of the WWE card. The 24 documentary covers both of Mizanin’s WWE championship reigns, his most recent coming last month.

While his first run as WWE champion validated his status in professional, his most recent stint served an entirely different — but equally important — purpose.

“Do I need a title to be relevant and a main event-caliber player in WWE? No, I don’t, but I can take a title and make someone else,” Mizanin said. “I had the title for eight days, but if you really look at how much I did in those eight days, Bobby Lashley was made to be the biggest monster in WWE [during that time]. I’m proud to say that I was a part of that. Bobby Lashley deserves the WWE championship and my job was to make him the biggest, scariest monster out there. We did it in one night. There is no better thing than when you’re a bad guy and you get pinned, to hear the crowd erupt.”

Mizanin’s tenure, albeit brief, and his match earlier this month at WrestleMania 37 serve as a testament to the trust he has earned with Vince McMahon and within WWE. Mizanin is often entrusted with being the anchor in many celebrity-based moments and getting fans behind crossover stars like one of his opponents in Tampa Bay, Grammy-winning artist Bad Bunny.

“Reading Twitter, which is the only way I can understand where our audience is right now, I walked into WrestleMania thinking that they were going to cheer me and boo Bad Bunny because it was our uber fans” Mizanin said. “John Morrison and I walked out there and the fans were booing us. When Bad Bunny walked out, they cheered him. Twitter had it wrong. To go to WrestleMania with everyone saying that Bad Bunny didn’t deserve that match to afterward calling it an amazing match, match of the night, the best celebrity match ever. That’s my validation.”

‘I’m trying to kick the door in’

Having accomplished nearly everything possible in what Mizanin admits in the documentary is “the career that never should have happened,” it’s hard not to wonder what is next for The Miz.

WWE stars like Cena, Dave Bautista and Dwayne Johnson have all successfully made the jump from professional wrestling to Hollywood. Mizanin has starred in several installments of WWE’s Marine film franchise and has a reality TV show, ironically enough, on USA Network called Miz and Mrs. that chronicles his personal life.

Mike 'The Miz' Mizanin wrestles Damian Priest during an episode of WWE's

Mike ‘The Miz’ Mizanin wrestles Damian Priest during an episode of WWE’s “Monday Night Raw.” (Photo courtesy of WWE)

While Mizanin says he’s trying to kick in Hollywood’s door, he’ll just as readily say he’s not fully there yet in the same way Cena, Bautista and Johnson (who Mizanin calls “the smartest businessman he has ever seen” and “of course” someone he’d vote for in a political race) were before him.

“When Cena went to Hollywood, he had four or five big movies,” Mizanin said. “He had these parts and was ready to be a main character in movies. Now his career has taken off. I haven’t had those opportunities. I haven’t had big-budget, theatrical-release movies come to me. Right now, Hollywood isn’t calling and I’m trying to kick the door in. I’m doing everything I possibly can for when an opportunity comes in Hollywood, I am fully prepared. That doesn’t mean that I am leaving WWE by any means. I’ve been able to do the things I needed to do to be the biggest star I can.”

If anything, Mizanin’s honesty about his career and his aspirations embodies the lessons he’s learned over the past 20 years. It sends a message and exemplifies a level of comfort that is far from what he experienced both on The Real World and in his early days in WWE.

“[This documentary] hopefully will motivate people to understand that things won’t just happen,” Mizanin said. “Everyone goes through those hard times, but it’s your job to find the tools that will get you to where you need to be. Make sure that when an opportunity comes, that you are well-prepared and ready for that opportunity. It takes a lot of work and it’s not easy to be great. I don’t consider myself great, but to be considered great, you need to work.”

WWE 24: The Miz can be streamed Sunday, April 25 on Peacock.

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