”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE’s top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a worldwide 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: True or False: The Miz or one of his contemporaries from “The Lost Generations” will main-event a future WrestleMania
The rise of the all-day, every day public stream of consciousness that social media outlets provide fans and pundits alike has changed the way that professional wrestling gets analyzed. Time, without which full context cannot be properly established, will always be a factor for a better-rounded discussion on any topic but, living as we do in a society that thrives on knee-jerk reactions and their associated hastily-drawn conclusions, big picture conversations are happening faster and more furiously than ever before. Wrestler legacy, for instance, can be set in the minds of some fans, promoters, and pundits a decade before a wrestler’s career is even finished, but it is talents like The Miz who are reminding us all of the value that time possesses, his on-going career renaissance having steadily altered the perception, as it has, of his all-time hierarchical position in WWE lore.
At this time two years ago, The Miz was nearly five years removed from the end of his “career year.” During the period in between 2011 and 2016, he had apparently solidified his status as another in an increasingly long line of temporary headliners who proved that they could get at or near the top, but that they could not find a way to stay at or near the top.
On the topic of legacy, consistency of elite roster positioning is one of the foremost hallmarks of an elite superstar worthy of immense historical praise in wrestling, no different than a professional basketball player who makes ten straight All Star teams is lifted to a higher plane on the pedestal than a peer who made two All-Star appearances in the span of a decade; it is the difference between being in the Rick Martel class (a good, noteworthy career), the Owen Hart class (a very good, very noteworthy career), and the Edge class (an outstanding, incredibly noteworthy career). From his debut in the mid-2000s through 2015, The Miz could have been categorized by some in the Martel class, a beneficiary – they might say – of devalued championships which allowed him to accumulate a vast golden trophy case and of a post-WrestleMania 26 Hall of Fame talent departure nearly unrivaled in modern WWE history that put his underdeveloped skill set in too bright a spotlight, reflecting the not uncommon sentiment that his run as a leading man in WWE had been a failure.
Defeating John Cena in the main-event of WrestleMania 27 became his unbreakable bond with WWE relevancy akin to (albeit a lesser version of) Chris Jericho, pre-2008 renaissance, leaning on his (amazing) crutch of having beaten The Rock and Stone Cold in the same night to become the first-ever Undisputed Champion. Jericho provides an interesting career parallel for Miz that I initially identified when writing the first edition of The WrestleMania Era. Y2J’s first foray into consistent WWE headlining was also critically panned, though for different reasons than the first run by The Miz, and it took Jericho leaving WWE and completely changing his tried-and-true act to get another honest shot at the top. Miz struck me as a poor man’s Y2J, a talented star not as talented as Jericho and a D-list rather than B-list celebrity well-regarded enough by Vince McMahon and the other executives to be given the time and opportunities to grow as a sports entertainer and eventually get back to a bankable spot maybe not on the marquee like Jericho but near it. However, it looked as of early-to-mid 2016 like maybe Miz would go down instead as a rich man’s “Model” Martel.
The influence exerted on the WWE product by CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, the rise to prominence of The Shield generation, and the influx of seasoned wrestlers from the independents, many of whom finally confirmed their successes achieved elsewhere on the WWE canvas, seemed to push Miz out of the running for getting back to the top, which swings the conversation again to two years ago and how fast narratives can shift. Before the Talking Smack worked shoot promo that Miz cut on Bryan and everything that has followed it, you could have argued that Dolph Ziggler had the superior career in WWE compared to Miz; fast forward to a mere twenty months later and there are people who, on social media just last week, confidently claimed that The Miz was one of the Top 20 WWE Superstars ever (Ziggler is nowhere near that list). On an upcoming special edition of The Doc Says podcast to close out Miz Appreciation Month, his place in history will be heavily explored, suffice to say that even an isolated comment about him being a Top 20 candidate would exemplify what his career renaissance has done for his reputation.
Put into the big picture think-tank, Miz’s resurgence is not only reshaping how we collectively view his own career, but it is also forcing a reevaluation of what I have come to refer to as “The Lost Generations,” a gap in WWE history during which time not a single new, consistent featured Top 5-caliber star was produced (Miz included).
Consider the following: every year between the WrestleMania Era’s origins and the mid-2000s, a new staple superstar was confirmed who would for many years be one of the unquestionable focal points of the WWF/E product. After Hulk Hogan in 1984, there was Roddy Piper in 1985, then “Macho Man” Randy Savage in 1986/87, The Million Dollar Man in 1987/88, The Ultimate Warrior in 1989/90, The Undertaker in 1991, Bret Hart in 1992/93, Razor Ramon in 1993/94, Diesel in 1995, Shawn Michaels in 1995/96, Mick Foley in 1996/97, Stone Cold Steve Austin in 1997/98, The Rock in 1998/99, Triple H in 1999/00, Kurt Angle in 2000/01, Brock Lesnar in 2002, Randy Orton in 2003/04, John Cena and Batista in 2004/05, and Edge in 2005/06.
From 2006/07 to 2011, nobody new stuck at the top. Mr. Kennedy won Money in the Bank, but got the original Baron Corbin treatment; Bobby Lashley had about an eight month flirtation with becoming a major player; MVP showed flashes of potential but could never get over the mid-card hump; Attitude holdover Jeff Hardy liked living in the moment a little too much; Sheamus was like Kevin Love, putting together impressive stats on a bad “team” before settling into a suitable role as a top notch third wheel on a more talented roster; Jack Swagger drew early comparisons to Angle, then fizzled out as fast he bubbled up; Wade Barrett had an expectation-building rookie campaign the momentum of which injuries and bad timing contributed to derailing; Alberto Del Rio was a 3-star match waiting to happen but, even with the World Title regularly on the line, was never really more than a glorified mid-carder; and The Miz, whose peak eclipsed everyone from these “Lost Generations,” was like a comet, streaking across the WWE Universe for approximately one year before disappearing into comparative mid-card monotony.
Throughout the original wrestling boom, The New Generation, The Attitude Era, and the heyday of the first brand extension, there was also a combination of upper mid-carders with massive career crescendos and accomplished upper mid-card singles wrestlers who emerged to compliment the core, Top 5-ish superstars – guys like Jake Roberts, Rick Rude, The British Bulldog, Owen, Kane, Jericho, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Booker T, Rob Van Dam, JBL, and Rey Mysterio.
The totality of The Charismatic Enigma’s career certainly puts him in the same league as even the least successful (RVD? Owen? Rude?) of the secondary Hall of Fame list but, other than Sheamus as of 2016, none of the others who debuted in WWE in 2005 or later seemed even plausibly on track to be remembered in the same breath as “Ravishing” Rick Rude, much less lived up to the previous twenty-plus year featured star standard; of the original aforementioned group, Razor is probably the outlier, but even though he never made it quite to the tippy top, his role was extremely well-defined and nobody would have questioned a career like his in the same manner that someone might question The Celtic Warrior’s today.
CM Punk in 2011/12, Daniel Bryan in 2012/13, Seth Rollins in 2014, Roman Reigns in 2015/16, and AJ Styles in 2016/17 got the old headliner trend restarted (Dean Ambrose slots in there somewhere too), and they have been flanked (particularly after The Shield took their collective next step in 2014) by a strong cast of upper-tier talents like Bray Wyatt, Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, Braun Strowman, and the revolutionaries responsible for the massive upward trajectory of women’s wrestling, all of whom could conceivably be celebrated someday like their well-regarded peers of eras gone by.
The modern prosperity of the so-termed Reality and New Eras only amplifies the failure of “The Lost Generations.” Asking it bluntly, what the hell happened? Was it really just a simple matter of WWE creative failing miserably? After all, the tunnel vision that WWE had for its main-event scene and the consequent elimination for most of a decade of both tag team wrestling and the mid-card in general from consistent relevance created an environment in which getting over at a main-event level for someone not already over at a main-event level was harder than perhaps it ever had been before in WWE. Bear in mind that Punk and Bryan were nearly derailed by the same ineptitude, so it certainly feels fair to reassess their positions above and claim that only through sheer personal will to succeed, an audience unwilling to watch them join “The Lost Generations,” and a little bit of lucky timing did the multi-generational gap not extend all the way to Rollins; think about that for a second – it would have meant that The Architect would have become the first consistent top tier talent produced by WWE since Edge EIGHT YEARS prior.
What would Ziggler’s career have looked like had his two year push toward the top from 2011 to 2013 not abruptly ended? He had made it; Ziggler was over and he had developed a form, both as a character and in the ring, that was ready to take the ball and run with it as far as WWE would allow him, but he was creatively cut off from the knees and has only (very) sporadically ever gotten anywhere near his Money in the Bank cash-in peak. How are we going to remember him other than as a disappointment who could have been more, and/or will he get similar recognition as Van Dam, who is also viewed as someone who could have been more in WWE if not for a creative handicap? And what about Cody Rhodes? Jim Ross – I’ll never forget this for as long as I watch wrestling – stated quite clearly in an interview circa late 2012 that, by his estimation, he would be shocked if both Ziggler and Rhodes had not become major players by 2013’s end. Both did indeed have their career peaks in 2013, but Ziggler ended the year jobbing to Fandango on the TLC pre-show and Rhodes was downtrending as a member of the tag team that ultimately turned him into Stardust and prompted his WWE departure. On his way out, Cody famously said in a lengthy Twitter explanation, “Star quarterbacks don’t want to sit on the sidelines”; yet, until further notice, he will go down as a career back-up.
Another reason for the plight of “The Lost Generations” that has been talked about in recent years is the possibility that its members just were not as talented and/or not as motivated as those who came before or after them. Rollins, Reigns, and Ambrose earned notoriety for barging into McMahon’s office in February 2013 and basically saying, “We don’t care if Cena is about to main-event WrestleMania against The Rock, we shouldn’t be losing to him right now; let us show you what we can be before you weaken our momentum.” No such story exists about Barrett ahead of Summerslam 2010, when Cena’s desire to get a win he did not need basically killed the promising Nexus faction dead in its tracks, and Ziggler is notorious in my mind for stating on Chris Jericho’s podcast some ten years into his WWE career that his dialogue with the controller of his fate (Vince) was only just then “starting to get better.” John Morrison, another intriguing prospect, famously quit WWE because of backstage politics. Rhodes obviously threw in the towel; so too did Lashley.
Perception is reality, and regardless of the details that have shaped their perception – a drop-off in talent level between 2006 and 2011, a lack of the same killer instincts that McMahon has so craved throughout the WrestleMania Era, WWE failing to cultivate an environment that made its new stars feel like the glass ceiling was penetrable, changes in health policies and medical advances that allowed established stars to stay at the top for longer, etc. – the fact of the matter is that the guys who debuted in 2002 or prior kept thriving at the expense of “The Lost Generations,” as did the talents who broke through after Punk and Bryan made it big. It is such a stark contrast between everyone WWE pushed to the top before 2006 and after 2011 compared to the group that it pushed during that five year stretch.
However, just when it seemed like it was time to throw in the towel on “The Lost Generations,” The Miz began the most critically acclaimed run of his career competing against the most stacked roster in fifteen years. He has done so much to reinvigorate the Intercontinental Championship that some of its greatest titleholders, Ramon and recent Hall of Fame inductee, Jeff Jarrett, among them, are heaping public praise upon him. Much maligned by the diehard fanbase for much of his career, The Miz is now regularly embraced by a fanbase that increasingly appreciates his contributions; he has gone from someone enthusiasts legitimately seemed to hate to someone that they now love to hate. Thought unlikely to ever make it back to the main-event (much less win the WWE Championship again), he has people clamoring for him to return to the mountaintop. These past two years have forever changed the way that we will look at him.
It remains to be seen what kind of impact his renaissance may have on his peers, but if his success has helped or will help quell some of the sour attitudes toward his contemporaries, affording them opportunities that may not have existed without his resurgent efforts, then we may look back on his recent run as one of WWE lore’s underappreciated turning points, one that served as a redemptive platform for formerly less heralded stars (Lashley, Drew McIntyre, perhaps Rhodes if he returns, etc.) to rewrite their WWE narratives. Such an intangible quality would only enhance the legacy that The Miz is developing in the all-time discussion. Either way, it is now historically irresponsible to label his career as anything less than AWESOME.