Holding a toy championship belt in one hand and a throw pillow in the other, Mike Mizanin stood atop a couch and posed triumphantly.
He had just reclaimed the plastic title from his housemates after hitting them with a series of pantomimed punches and chasing them through the house. He applied a cartoonish version of the claw hold, spoke in a bassy voice and sauntered along the floor as he messed around with Coral Smith and Lori Trespicio. And now the costume-store championship was his again, a fact made clear by his prideful stance on the furniture.
This was an ordinary sight in the house.
Cameras often caught Mizanin morphing into his alter ego, The Miz. During his time on The Real World: Back to New York in 2001, a college kid from Parma, Ohio, became an amalgamation of pro wrestling personalities.
“There were pieces of Ultimate Warrior, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, DX [D-Generation X], you name it. I was taking from all of them,” Mizanin told Bleacher Report of the inspiration for his Miz character.
He roughhoused with his housemates. He held a lamp to his mouth as he issued trash talk. He grew brash, loud and ridiculous.
Mizanin couldn’t know at the time that these ventures into another self would be the genesis of a WWE career.
What began as a playful act from a frat boy ended up being the first steps into the world of the squared circle. Eventually, Mizanin would become The Miz full time. Years after his six-month stint on reality TV, he became one of WWE’s most recognizable faces, holding the WWE Championship, serving as intercontinental champion six times and headlining WrestleMania XXVII.
Before wearing those gold straps, though, he first carried around a plastic one, when The Miz wasn’t a ring name, but a persona he slipped on for fun.
The Birth of The Miz
A native of Parma, Ohio, Mizanin went to college less than 300 miles from his hometown.
His time at Miami of Ohio began conventionally enough. He studied business, joined the Theta Chi fraternity, went to class, partied, the usual.
But while watching TV, he found the inspiration to step into the reality TV world.
“I remember sitting on my couch on a Saturday watching reruns of The Real World. And it said, ‘Do you want to be on The Real World? Go to MTV.com and you can try out there.’ And I said, ‘I want to be on The Real World.’ And I sent in my tape,” Mizanin recalled.
After producers reviewed the VHS of his audition and interviewed him, Mizanin found himself in a house full of strangers in Greenwich Village, New York.
The Miz @mikethemiz
20 year old Miz RT @IASMusic: #TBT @MTV’s The Real World Back to New York featuring @mikethemiz http://t.co/Ka7NqYYsTa
1/9/2015, 10:49:49 PM
It was a shock to the system for a young Ohioan.
“I’m 20 years old. I move to New York City, the biggest melting pot in the world,” Mizanin explained. “You go in there. You have these cameras on you. You have roommates you’ve never met before, people from all different walks of life.”
Viewers could see how uncomfortable he was. Mizanin struggled to click with his housemates early on.
He felt that he struggled to fit in from moment one.
“Right from the start, it felt like I was the outcast, the person that nobody was going to like,” he said.
Things changed when he began to embody what become known as The Miz.
Mizanin issued over-the-top threats in a low, gravelly voice. He crashed into a trailer to show it didn’t hurt him. He goofed around under the guise of a wrestler invading The Real World.
He told the cameras, “The Miz is a character I created. He’s basically a wrestling star. And he’s ready for the big leagues.”
The Miz became a way to cope. It was the mask he could wear at the masquerade.
“The Miz came in as a way to say exactly what I was feeling and not have any repercussions for it because it was a character I was playing. That character became very popular, not only with fans but with castmates,” Mizanin said.
The castmates asked him to reprise the role, to re-embrace the role.
“They were in on the joke,” he explained. “They were laughing with me. And they loved it. They were having so much fun with it.”
After the show ended and Mizanin had to return to normal life, The Miz could have easily dissipated. It could have been an act that he reflected on fondly, but instead stayed very much in the present.
Entering the Business
Mizanin didn’t dream of WWE stardom when he held up his toy championship or convinced his housemates from The Real World to roughhouse with him. His wrestling persona was a plaything then.
But the itch to enter the ring soon hit.
After filming ended, Mizanin watched himself and his alter ego back on TV. Again, inspiration struck from the screen.
“In August, when I started watching the show, I thought, ‘What do I want to do now?'” Mizanin said. “I was sitting in my bedroom at my dad’s condo. I remember seeing an action figure of The Rock and going, ‘You know what? I’m going to become a WWE Superstar.'”
He sat at his computer and researched wrestling schools. Ultimate Pro Wrestling based in Southern California popped up. And luckily, he had an in.
Rick Bassman, the school’s founder, knew a reality TV producer, Scott Freeman, who had worked on The Real World. That connection helped get the ball rolling for Mizanin as a wrestler in training.
It didn’t matter that Mizanin had been on TV and developed a following of sorts. He started with a blank slate at wrestling school.
And at first, Bassman took little notice of him.
“I had over a thousand students come in through the door. We were really prolific at the time. I was so hyper-focused on the giant, jacked-up guys at that point,” he explained.
The muscular and magnetic John Cena stood out at UPW. Mizanin did not.
“I knew from day one that guy [Cena] was going to be a star. It was pretty obvious. I definitely wouldn’t have had that impression about Mike,” Bassman said.
Rick Bassman @rick_bassman
Love the tag match entrances.Usos in particular.
And the win goes to Miz! That’s one for Team UPW.
#fatal4way #upw http://t.co/1m2oDdJght
11/24/2014, 1:54:07 AM
Mizanin’s everyday physique didn’t catch the trainer’s eye, but unfortunately, his attitude did.
“I remember him being really arrogant in the early stages,” Bassman recalled. “I really prided myself on running a school and a backstage that was super copacetic and friendly. Mike didn’t really fit that mold.”
The UPW headman decided to venture down a path he hadn’t before to remedy that.
The promotion held shows at the training facility at times where the matches were made on the spot and the trainees had to quickly piece together a plan before performing. Mizanin’s opponent that night was Sylvester Terkay, a 300-plus-pound mixed martial artist and kickboxer.
Bassman instructed the big man to go after Mizanin hard in the ring.
“He beat him up good,” he said of Terkay crossing paths with The Miz. “After the match, Mike came up to me and said, ‘I get it.’ And that arrogance was just gone immediately.”
After that sudden shift, Mizanin began to catch on to the art. He found his stride down a difficult path.
“He was coming along really nicely. At that point, you could see that he was ultra-serious, and that he was probably going to go somewhere,” Bassman remarked.
And months later, at a show in Anaheim, California, Mizanin would get a ringing endorsement from a former world champion.
Diamond Dallas Page stepped in to make a cameo for the UPW promotion. He requested Mizanin as his partner. The pair took on Adam Pearce and Babi Slymm in front of around 700 people. DDP liked what he saw fighting alongside the rookie.
“After the match, he (Page) came back to me and said, ‘That guy’s going to be a star,'” Bassman said.
To achieve that status, though, a heavy workload awaited him. As much as reality TV prepped for the talking side of wrestling, it didn’t elevate him past his peers at UPW. Bassman noted that while Mizanin “was definitely a good promo guy,” he didn’t stand out from a talented crop of grapplers.
It would take more stages in his evolution to demand more attention.
Proving His Toughness
A hybrid of his past two experiences awaited. Mizanin would be both a wrestling trainee and a reality show star as part of WWE’s Tough Enough in 2004.
This was the fourth season of WWE’s reality show competition, and the company chose to amp things up by having the finalists perform various challenges on its SmackDown show. This edition of Tough Enough also promised the winner a million-dollar contract.
Mizanin had a leg up on everyone else thanks to The Real World.
“It got me comfortable in front of the cameras,” he said of his reality show experience. “Whenever I had an interview, it wasn’t a nervous situation. That was something I’d done for a long time.”
“It showed me I could play up to the cameras. The camera was my friend,” Mizanin explained.
He also had a head start over some of his competition thanks to what he learned at UPW. But didn’t have an athletic edge over eventual winner Daniel Puder, who was an MMA fighter before signing up for Tough Enough.
Puder hadn’t seen Mizanin on MTV, but after a quick search on the computer he discovered how much of a name his fellow competitor already had.
When the MMA fighter saw Mizanin in action, he came away impressed.
“I thought he was smart. He knew how to build a name. He knew how to create what he wanted,” Puder said of the man who would become The Miz.
In Puder’s mind, Mizanin was driven, but not as much as himself. That’s what allowed him to emerge the victor, forcing Mizanin to settle for the runner-up spot.
“I beat him in a mile race every day. He wanted to beat me. I came in training harder than him for what this was. But he was a good athlete,” Puder said.
If anyone dismissed Mizanin as too soft for the squared circle, they were quickly proved wrong.
Mizanin took the continual punishment of the training and strode on. His back blasted against the canvas over and over. Trainers rode him and his peers hard.
Puder found himself respecting the guy from MTV.
“He’s a tough guy. That’s why he’s gotten so far in life,” Puder said. “When you go into WWE and you’re in there for more than a match and you get pounded, you’re tough. When you keep coming back day after day after day, you’re tough.”
“He trained hard in the gym. He listened. Out of all the other guys, I’d say he was the one that really pushed the envelope.”
That pushing and training was enough to catch WWE’s eye, even with the second-place finish in the competition.
WWE exec John Laurinaitis later called up Mizanin to offer him a development deal with the company’s then-feeder system Deep South Wrestling in McDonough, Georgia.
Resistance and Reinvention
As much as his experience with The Real World prepared him for WWE life by bombarding him with interviews, it also taught Mizanin how to thrive somewhere he didn’t feel comfortable.
When he worked his way up to the main roster in 2006, he was met with his fair share of resistance.
He was the “MTV guy” who didn’t belong. He was the outsider.
Mizanin put it simply: “I wasn’t liked.”
“I think of WWE as a fraternity. You have the fans involved. You have the WWE Superstars involved. And you have me wanting to be a part of the fraternity and no one accepting me,” he said.
Fans often dismissed him as a C-list celebrity getting an opportunity he didn’t deserve. He didn’t have the indy cred that well-traveled wrestlers like CM Punk had.
His career became a long series of moments where he proved himself, from his tag team success alongside John Morrison to his recent memorable reigns as intercontinental champ.
It wasn’t until the last few years that the majority of the audience started to appreciate Mizanin’s athletic ability, his mastery of his character and the hard-hitting verbal jabs he throws.
The current version of The Miz is a brash, self-absorbed jerk who believes himself better than anyone else. He and his wife Maryse strut around the WWE landscape, wearing sunglasses inside and taking pot shots at everyone.
It’s very little like the loud, in-your-face persona he played while on The Real World. He’s evolved the character as he’s cemented himself as one of WWE’s key figures.
Mizanin relishes the uphill nature of his climb to this point.
“Every ounce of respect I have today, I had to earn,” he said. “I guess I’m glad for it because it made me the person I am today and I like me.”
Today, he’s taking on a new climb in a medium—acting.
Playing the action hero Jake Carter for the third time, Mizanin starred in The Marine 5: Battleground. The movie series has forced him to dive into a different side of himself.
“You want to root for Jake Carter,” Mizanin explained.
“Every time I come into the Jake Carter character, I think of him as Mike from Parma. The kid that just wanted to be a WWE Superstar who would work hard and fight for everything.”
The disparateness of the characters is clear. The Miz is a self-server; Carter is a protector.
And strangely enough, in this latest movie role, he found himself surrounded by familiar faces from his WWE gig. Superstars Naomi, Curtis Axel, Heath Slater, Bo Dallas and Mizanin’s wife Maryse all star in the action flick.
Mizanin credits some of his recent success with having Maryse so close to him.
“The reason I’ve had such a good 2016 and 2017 is because I get to have my wife with me at all times. She pushes me. She drives me,” Mizanin said.
“To have her there on the movie set to shoot a scene is just an absolute bonus.”
Movies may be Mizanin’s go-to art form at some point. If he proves himself there as he did in the WWE ring, success awaits him. And he’s triumphantly gone from one platform to the next before.
As his old trainer Bassman pointed out, he had to work hard for his success.
“He didn’t come in with all the gifts of a natural athlete,” Bassman recalled. “He had to emerge from the pack.
“He redesigned himself. He recreated who he was,” Puder said of his former Tough Enough competition. “He’s done really well. I’m really proud of him.”
From Ohio kid to reality TV star to WrestleMania headliner to actor; that redesigning process for Mizanin rolls on.
The Miz (@MiketheMiz) is a former WWE and intercontinental champion. He has starred in three installments of the film series The Marine.
Daniel Puder (@DanielPuder) won the 2004 WWE Tough Enough competition. He is a former MMA fighter and founder of the nonprofit My Life My Power.
Rick Bassman (@rick_bassman) is the founder of Ultimate Pro Wrestling, talent agent and the author of Little Big Man.
Ryan Dilbert is the WWE lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.