Wrestling like a coward

Every few years, something happens in pro wrestling that strikes sparks and gets people talking. You’d think for an art form meant to antagonize and shock this would happen more often, but it really only occurs at the intersection of reality and fiction. This is where pro wrestling exists, but it’s really difficult to pull off effectively, so it’s both rare and striking. But the longtime wrestling fan will tell you: when they get it right, there’s nothing else like it.

This time, it was an argument between an approachable good guy, Daniel Bryan, and a narcissistic bad guy, The Miz. They were arguing about wrestling should be. It was a violent four minutes, and I think the bad guy was right.

This argument happened on Talking Smack, which is a talk show that airs on the WWE Network that’s about a show called Smackdown that airs on network television. If you’re the ideal viewer, you watched 2 ad-filled hours of programming, and have now switched over to a streaming channel you paid $9.99 this month for to watch WWE officially recap the show you just watched. It’s a bit like Talking Dead, the talk show that airs after Walking Dead, except it differs in two ways: it’s on a completely different medium, and the performers are still somewhat in character. If this sounds insane to you, welcome to pro wrestling. This is a Tuesday.

One of the hosts of the show is Daniel Bryan, who plays the General Manager on Smackdown. He is also a commentator on the Cruiserweight Classic, a tournament that also airs on the network. He retired earlier this year due to doctor’s orders, because his brain was too damaged. This is both true in real life, and an important part of the narrative.

The present story began a few weeks back, when Daniel Bryan drafted The Miz to Smackdown (Raw and Smackdown have recently become independent spaces again, with unique casts). He stated that by doing so he guaranteed the Intercontinental Championship would be on his show, which is a prize he held dear. It was, as Miz reminds us, the last title Bryan held before retiring. It became very clear very quickly that Bryan had drafted the title itself, and that Miz just happened to be the person holding it. “I respect the title,” Daniel says. “But I don’t respect you.”

“I was more impressed with Apollo Crews,” Bryan says about Miz’s opponent in his last Intercontinental Title defense. Miz parrys with the most logical point he can: “He lost!” To the Miz, he’s a good wrestler because he wins. He’s a good wrestler because he has a title, a grand entrance, and a supportive wife who will cheat on his behalf. To Bryan, Miz isn’t a wrestler. He’s a parody of a wrestler. A phony. He’s “safe.” He pretends. I wanted Miz to blow the whole fiction right there, and proclaim, “this is all fake, Daniel!” He didn’t, but I will: this is a show where people pretend to fight, and we’re talking about an argument between two fake fighters who think each other’s fake wrestling style is bad. This is an argument about how best to pretend.

WWE’s storytelling style usually favors single-scene simplicity. They typically scenes are able to stand on their own, and if they have to reference the past, they should do so with accompanying video footage to either remind the viewer or show it to someone just tuning in. But Bryan and the Miz are talking about something big here. The Miz starts out being upset that other stories are getting more television time than he is. He hates that Bryan spent time introducing other new titles on the show and then ignores his, even though it’s the prestigious and legendary one.

The argument between Bryan and Miz is on the surface an argument about wrestling style. This is interesting enough, because they don’t do stories about this nearly as often as I’d like. Arguments in wrestling about about who is superior always comes down to the persona and never the craft. It’s always “I am superior,” and not “my style is superior.” The craft of pro wrestling is something that doesn’t get talked about enough period. They’re just scratching the surface here. I want to know why Bryan thinks “getting hit” is a smart idea. I want to know why Miz thinks not getting hit is a smarter idea. Keep going. Dig deeper.

Daniel Bryan and The Miz are, as longtime viewers know, permanent nemesis. They are the perfect set to have this kind of fight. Their styles are very different. They carry almost opposite personalities. And yet, they both married female wrestlers. They both won their first WWE Championships with the same angle–a Money in the Bank cash-in. They both have exactly one victory in the main event of Wrestlemania. And they both love wrestling with a palpable passion. It’s this passion that gives both of them justifiable viewpoints. Both perspectives are relatable, and both make sense if you know both characters.

What struck me most about this scene was how it was about so many things happening in WWE, both now and in the past, and how it indirectly references other arguments Miz and Bryan have had before. One that comes to mind is from August 12, 2013, where The Miz hosted an interview between John Cena and Daniel Bryan. During this exchange, Bryan’s main argument was that he was a true wrestler and Cena wasn’t, since Cena wouldn’t wrestle in a place smaller than WWE, but that he would. Fast forward to 2016, and Bryan is retired from wrestling in WWE (and frustrated about it, since he mentioned he would wrestle if only the doctors would clear him), but he’s still working there. He’s a non-wrestling character on the show now, and hasn’t quit to go wrestle in the bingo halls, like he said he would be in 2013.

You can watch the segment about halfway through this episode of Raw. In this scene, Miz is the antagonist, and his goading works on Bryan, leading him to rail on Cena for being a television star and not a wrestler. “I want to slap you, but you are not a wrestler,” Bryan told Cena, the prototype of WWE’s version of what they want a successful performer to be. “And you don’t deserve it.” Bryan may have been speaking to Cena, but he was talking about Miz.

But the references aren’t just years back, but also 20 minutes back, on this episode of Talking Smack. The Miz antagonized Bryan about quitting, and going to wrestling with his “bingo hall buddies,” and we know what he’s talking about not because we know that Bryan was an independent wrestler forever but because this episode began with Bryan talking about hitting up a small indie show a few days prior. Bryan mentioned Evolve, the indie wrestling troupe, by name. When WWE goes out on a rail and talks about other wrestling companies (Hey CM Punk, How ya doin?) it’s a nod to the hardcore wrestling fan who already knows about this stuff. But this right here? It’s in the text. They foreshadowed this moment 60 seconds into the show.

Finally, I’d be leaving out a huge chunk of subtext if I didn’t tie in something else that happened this week in wrestling. Finn Balor made his major PPV debut at Summerslam and won a brand new championship, but had to relinquish it on Raw the next night, as he had injured his shoulder during the match and would require surgery and months of rehab. Balor is the kind of wrestler Bryan is talking about when he says “WWE has transformed.”

When Miz says “the reason I wrestle the way I wrestle is because I can do it day in and day out…I have never been injured.” His style may be softer, but it is undoubtebdly safer. He’s yelling at Bryan, whose career was cut short due to too many injuries, but Balor’s injury was fresh in our collective minds as well. If Balor wrestled like Miz, it might be less exciting, but he might still be a champion. He might still be appearing on the show. If Bryan had listened to Miz in 2010 (when Miz, as Bryan’s “pro trainer” in nXt, told him he needed to be more like the Miz to succeed in the big leagues), maybe he would have never ascended to the top, but his career might not be over. And if that’s true, that’s true both in the narrative and in real life. Maybe wrestling like a coward is the right way to go.

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