Pro wrestling is an act, as many a helpful Internet commenter will point out below any article about this stuff. It’s staged. It’s scripted. The evil Russian bad guys, it turns out, are often actually Americans.
Those of us who are hooked crave the moments when something might be real, when we can’t tell if what we just saw was really in the script. We love those moments when, at the very least, fact and fiction have momentarily found themselves on the same page. There was one of those–one of the best in years–during an online WWE post-game show Tuesday night.
For about three mesmerizing minutes, a perennially hated wrestler, The Miz, verbally thrashed one of the most beloved pro wrestlers of all time, Daniel Bryan. By the next morning, the conventional wisdom online was that the bad guy was in the right. Could that have been what they planned? Did they really mean to go there? Did WWE really air an argument about the impact that a wrestler’s in-ring style has on their health–and make the guy who had to retire because of an apparent brain injury lose the debate?
In all likelihood, the Miz-Bryan debate was scripted, or at least outlined. It aired on Talking Smack, an online-only show on the WWE Network that runs live on Tuesday nights right after the televised Smackdown. As much as wrestling fans love to imagine that wrestlers go off-script, stuff that isn’t supposed to happen usually doesn’t make air. It’s easy to cut the cameras. What happened with Bryan and Miz is nevertheless shocking and tantalizing about what might really have been going on.
In storyline, Daniel Bryan is the general manager of Smackdown and the co-host of Smackdown Live, a show that’s designed to feel more spontaneous than the tightly scripted broadcasts typical of WWE. The Miz is WWE’s Intercontinental Champion. Both men have been pro wrestlers for well over a decade.
Bryan has long been a crowd favorite. He spent most of his career wrestling hard-hitting matches in the pro wrestling independent scene. For many years, he was considered the most talented in-ring worker in the world. He was the “smart” fan’s favorite wrestler, a darling of fans who preferred the more complex, less cartoony, more dangerous-looking style of wrestling than what was offered in WWE. It’s likely he’s saying what he really feels in his row with The Miz when he says The Miz wrestles like a “coward” and seems afraid to get hit. “When I was an independent guy and I was thinking, ‘What’s the soft WWE style?’ It would be that.”
Bryan started wrestling full-time with WWE in 2010, but was mostly cast as a bit player or comedy character, viewed by management as too small and possibly too bland to be a headliner. He’s an irrepressible talent, though, so in late 2014 and early 2015, he rode a wave of unexpected popular support, compelling WWE to change their plans for Wrestlemania 30 and crown him as their champion.
Shortly after his Wrestlemania moment, though, his career began to fall apart. He was sidelined with a neck injury for eight months, returned for four months, and then went down with a concussion. He’s never been cleared to return to the ring and tearfully retired live on WWE television in February 8 of this year, citing signs of a possible concussion-related brain injury that wasn’t impacting him at the moment but was feared could be exacerbated and affect him later in life.
When The Miz is going off on Bryan in this segment, he’s talking about Bryan’s physical collapse. When he brags that “the reason I wrestle the way I wrestle is because I can do it day in and day out all the time for 10-plus years” he’s taking a shot and not missing. “I don’t get injured for six months to a year,” The Miz says to the purported best wrestler of the last decade who wrestled a harder style that put him out of action for that long and more.
“Let me tell you about a coward,” Miz says. “Let me tell you about a guy who tells his WWE fans–the people that he loves–that he will be back. He promises them! He promises: ‘I will be back in one year’s time to claim this title!’ But you didn’t, Daniel, did you? But I’m the coward.”
The realest thing about this segment is that Daniel Bryan badly wants to wrestle. “If they would let me come back, I would come back,” he says, his voice cracking. This is the one line in the exchange that doesn’t quite make sense if this is all storyline. If he’s really a GM, he’s calling his own shots. But of course he isn’t. He’s talking about WWE management, who have refused to clear him.
It’s obvious to anyone who has watched him that Bryan badly wants to get back into the ring and the wrestling reporter Dave Meltzer has even said Bryan tried, unsuccessfully, to get out of his contract prior to his retirement so he could wrestle for other companies. Bryan started wrestling right out of high school. He wrestled tirelessly in the independents for years and bragged that he fought through numerous severe injuries, including a detached retina. Perhaps to make up for his small stature, he wrestled with nearly reckless aggression in the back half of his WWE career, drawing cheers from fans for his flips and dives and seeming lack of regard for his body. When he came back from his neck injury, he did not slow down.
When WWE benched Bryan because of his concussion, he sought medical clearance from any doctor he could find, even as the WWE’s main doctor refused to clear him. He recently told an interviewer that he had a “horrible mental breakdown” after his retirement, he was so despondent about no longer wrestling. As recently as this past weekend, when asked by PWInsider’s Mike Johnson if he was at peace with his retirement from competition, he replied, “Uh, soooo...no.”
One tantalizing possibility about this segment is that it’s an intervention, some tough love to help Bryan out and explain to him why his in-ring career, at least with WWE, is likely finished. That idea works if you view WWE as trying to steer Bryan’s life in a better, healthier, safer direction. To buy into that, one has to see WWE as not just a corporation that airs wrestling shows but as a caretaker of a certain type of performer. Pro wrestlers work for WWE as independent contractors, and the company has no obligation to care for them after their careers end. WWE, though, has regularly paid for its ex-wrestler’s drug rehab and has given many a retired performer a job as a trainer or backstage producer. They also try to maximize value of signed talent, using wrestlers who are too injured to perform but are otherwise healthy in ambassador roles to promote the brand.
Bryan recently told a reporter that, after battling post-retirement depression, he was planning to go to college and leave the wrestling world behind. As he tells it, WWE wooed him back by offering him an announcing job and then the on-air role of Smackdown GM. To some this might seem cruel, like telling a suddenly wheelchair-bound former star quarterback that he has to keep showing up to games, mug for the crowd and watch his back-up play. Perhaps it’s also a way of backing Bryan away from the ring more slowly, letting him get close enough to feel the rush of the crowd reaction without putting his body on the line.
If you go with this intervention theory and believe last night’s segment is part of it, then the idea would be that Bryan needs to clearly and definitively hear that he bears some of the responsibility for his plight. He needs to understand that his zeal for wrestling a dangerous style did him in. It’s true and Bryan has recently, begrudgingly begun to admit that perhaps he should have toned his style down in the last year of his career.
The best bad guys in pro wrestling speak uncomfortable truths. You hate them more when you know that they’re right. They brag that they’re good looking and get all the girls, and, damn it, it’s true. They brag that it was actually the good guy who cheated, who pulled the hair or took advantage of the distracted referee and, you know what, sometimes they’re right. They just do it in a smarmy way. They’re obnoxious. In the world of WWE, the good guys often had the advantages. In last night’s confrontation, The Miz’s only fault is that he is, if anything, too right.
The Miz is spot-on as he zeroes in on one of the most annoying truths of all of pro wrestling: the guys who wrestle the more boring styles have longer careers. It should be a barely-contested statement, made unmotivated by outside litigation, that Hulk Hogan wrestled a safe, dull style and got by on his unmatched charisma. Physically, he did uncomplicated moves, mostly just pretended to punch and kick, eschewing the more physically-demanding daredevil acrobatics of Shawn Michaels, a far better in-ring performer. Hogan wrestled a much longer career than Michaels and spent far less time out with injury.
Many of the risk-taking wrestlers thought by fans to have the most exciting matches went down to injury more frequently than the safer, more boring guys. One of the reasons John Cena has stuck around so long is that he spent much of his career wrestling a faker-looking safe style, only upping the complexity and riskiness of his moves in recent years.
Bryan is the antithesis of the wrestler who wrestles a safe style. He says as much to The Miz, telling him “to me, you wrestle like a coward...you wrestle like someone who’s afraid to get hit.” If Bryan’s career is measured in full, he got a lot of ring years out of it, but his WWE career was certainly too abbreviated. For so long, he was considered the best pro wrestler in the world, but Miz is raising the nauseating possibility–not just for Bryan’s fans but for Bryan himself–that maybe you weren’t the best at the thing you love if the way you did that thing broke your body prematurely and stopped you from doing it. It’s a philosophical debate of whether it’s better to blaze briefly or burn long.
Several years ago, the pro wrestler Edge was forced to retire due to a spinal injury. Doctors can look at your spine and tell you how severely the risk of paralysis is. Brain injuries are harder to judge. Over the past year and prior to his retirement, Bryan has said that at least two doctors have cleared him. A different doctor in New York, however, found something amiss with his brain, not something that was affecting him at the moment but that they feared could cause problems down the line. WWE didn’t like that, nor did they like Bryan’s account of suffering small seizures many years ago after getting one of several concussions in his career.
WWE is haunted, rightly so, by the murder-suicide committed by Chris Benoit, a competitor who, like Bryan, wrestled an aggressive style and who, some speculate, committed his crimes as a result of subtle injuries sustained to his head. Benoit was still an active wrestler when he killed his wife, young son and himself. WWE is also likely spooked by lawsuits it regularly battles from ex-wrestlers who claim that the wrestling company bears liability for any damage to their heads, though WWE has so far fended those lawsuits off.
WWE’s motivations for keeping Bryan out of the ring may be myriad, though none completely explain why, in a business of scripted matches, they couldn’t let him safely wrestle through a final match. Perhaps he couldn’t be matched against the at-times reckless Brock Lesnar than against a guy who wrestles a pretty safe style, like, say, The Miz.
Behind all of this, there’s a good storyline, the kind of long-arc drama WWE rarely builds and that they’ll likely build upon following this segment.
When Bryan first entered WWE in 2010, the company paired him in a staged rookie-veteran competition with The Miz. The inside joke was that, to Bryan’s legions of “smart” fans who collected his matches on DVDs and rated his matches better than anything in WWE, it was The Miz who should be learning from him. Bryan was made to lose match after match, enraging his on-camera mentor until the two started wrestling each other. Bryan beat The Miz for his first big WWE win, and then began his circuitous path to the top of the company. The Miz stayed in place, having graduated from locker room outcast to solid supporting character.
Bryan climbed the card, had the better matches, won the bigger titles and became the bigger star, at least in the minds of WWE fans. The Miz remained steady, built a legacy of longevity even if he failed to thrill. Now look where it got them: the veteran still going, the not-quite-a-rookie retired; the bad guy speaking the truth while the lovable good guy seethes about how his nemesis does the thing he wishes he could still do.
Somewhere in the Bryan-Miz confrontation there is something real. There’s an argument about the best way to do pro wrestling and about the consequences of the style a wrestler chooses. There’s a discussion about how real or how fake the staged violence should be and what becomes of that hurt years later.
Fans are going to debate how much of what was said between the two was off-script and how much was played up for drama. We know that wrestling is staged, but at its most interesting, as was the case last night, it is true.