Daniel Bryan vs The Miz
WWE Summerslam PPV
August 19, 2018
Brooklyn, New York
The match between The Miz and Daniel Bryan at Wrestlemania recalled a match that happened nearly 35 years earlier under similar circumstances.
1984, whether surprisingly or not, was a real slump of a year for Jim Crockett Promotions. After the overwhelming success of Starrcade '83, perhaps they had nowhere to go but down. It didn't help that they lost so many top stars to the WWF, including Roddy Piper and Greg Valentine, fresh off of the biggest grudge match on their biggest show in history. It also didn't help that Ric Flair was in such high demand as NWA World Champion that he was no longer a regular, week-to-week fixture on JCP television. Perhaps the biggest factor of all in JCP's lull was when Ricky Steamboat announced his retirement from pro wrestling during spring.
The Steamboat-Jay Youngblood duo might have been the hottest in the history of territory, a major accomplishment since the Mid-Atlantic area spotlighted tag team matches over singles matches. The very success of the team, culminating in a Greensboro match in March of 1983 where Steamboat and Youngblood would have to break up if they couldn't become tag champions, was so successful that it became the inspiration for Starrcade, itself the inspiration for Wrestlemania. In the wake of wrestler defections and the rise of the WWF and Hulk Hogan, the landscape became even more challenging for JCP when in early summer, Steamboat announced his retirement from wrestling, presumably to spend more time running the Carolinas-area gyms that he owned. In Steamboat's absence, Tully Blanchard debuted in JCP. Tully was quickly teamed with Wahoo McDaniel to give him credibility and the two raised as much hell as they could in the hopes of reversing JCP's fortunes. Their efforts were futile until optimism was restored at the end of the year. Dusty Rhodes, a megastar in his own right, was the booker and was building to a "$1 million challenge" match with Flair, which would have "Smokin'" Joe Frazier as a referee. The second-annual Starrcade was coming up. Steamboat also returned to the ring and was immediately programmed against Tully Blanchard.
In a move met with controversy at the time considering their relative stardom, Dusty used Steamboat to put over Tully Blanchard; for the finish, Tully punched Steamboat in the face with a hidden foreign object to get the win. Many theories have been espoused over the years as to why Rhodes made this call, with the most popular take among the anti-Dusty crowd being that Rhodes saw Steamboat as a threat to his spot as the top babyface and wanted to take him down a peg. Steamboat caught the next bus out of town, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, and became a star in the WWF. Blanchard stayed behind and was one of Dusty's most effective heels for the next few years, proving the decision right in hindsight. When Daniel Bryan's wrestling career came to a temporary halt because of a high-risk style that was finally catching up to him, he studied the wrestling of this era in the hopes of establishing a new and more sustainable style for himself, all for a return that he wasn't even sure would happen. Bryan has cited Jerry Lawler and Nick Bockwinkel, great workers well into their 50s, as influences for creating a new in-ring style, a gradual change still in progress. The Miz, much like Tully Blanchard, was also casually dismissed as a credible rival when the two were first paired off. In the same way time proved Dusty right in setting up Tully Blanchard for a run as one of his top heels, time has also proved that Miz is a viable star, one who has been a foil for Daniel Bryan since Bryan's 2010 company debut.
The credibility gap was in fact one of the reasons they were paired in the first place. Billed as "American Dragon" Bryan Danielson, Bryan had just wrapped up a decade-long run as arguably the best independent wrestler (some would just say "best wrestler") alive just before stepping into a WWE ring. He made his name by working a stiff, mat-based style, which was inspired by training with William Regal. His size was never really a deterrent to being a dominant, aggressive champion, just as much because of the hard-nosed way he presented himself as because wrestlers on the independent scene were usually smaller than their nationally televised counterparts in WWE. Meanwhile, The Miz debuted in wrestling in a way that even the advantages he had served equally as disadvantages. Because he first received television exposure on MTV's The Real World, he was viewed, fairly or not, as someone playing a pro wrestler more than he was simply being one. It didn't help matters that he was seen as the living embodiment of WWE's sports entertainment philosophy, from the character bias toward being "charismatic" and making a grand, choreographed entrance all the way to using a variation on his real name that mirrored Dwayne Johnson's variation on Rocky Maivia -- Mike Mizanin was simply The Miz. Frustration mounted. Miz actually became very good in the ring but because he was viewed as a wannabe -- he was even calling himself "The Miz" when play wrestling in his bed during his reality TV star days -- he had a label he couldn't quite shake.
Perhaps Daniel Bryan could relate, albeit from the opposite end of the spectrum. If fans saw Miz as a poser, Vince saw Bryan as a smallish great worker who had no other positive attributes and smothered him with "help" in the hopes of making him a bonafide WWE superstar. Some would argue that help was backhanded in the days when Bryan used a non-rock version of "Flight of the Valkyries" as his entrance music while wearing reading glasses and carrying a book to the ring, or when WWE "divas" debated whether he was a virgin. Over time, Bryan, along with CM Punk, would achieve superstardom in well-documented fashion, changing at least some ideas in WWE, historically a land of colorful giants, of who could and could not get over. He did that in part by working a more action-packed style, not only because it was his preferred style, but also because it was a surefire guarantee for crowd reaction. In a company where smaller wrestlers have to prove all over again in every single match that they are viable, that crowd reaction held his career in the balance.
This match suggested that Daniel Bryan is a victim of his own success. While hardly the sole benefactor, he did play a key role in shifting fans to those who pop for action away from those who pop for characters, even while receiving huge character reactions himself. Bryan's 2013-2014 success is something WWE still struggles to reconcile and perhaps that's because it's bogged down by so many contradictions -- there was a dose of comedy in Team Hell No that was key in his rise to stardom, but he was mostly beloved for his ability in the ring, making him a true main event mechanic, so to speak. The days of WWE fans caring most when their favorites had the advantage in the body of the match seem to be, at least for now, in the past. What we have instead is an athletic pseudo-meritocracy, one where reactions are primarily driven by highspots and nearfalls. This match was part of a longer-term project to undo what Bryan had already helped undo, as Bryan encouraged fans to cheer when he balled up his fist to punch Miz in the face or to rally to his side while he fought to reverse a figure-four leglock. It was an interesting role reversal for someone who, when facing HHH at Wrestlemania four years earlier, saw the early quick rollup attempt off of HHH's trash talk as a bit passe and encouraged HHH to modernize his game by throwing in a tiger suplex or two. The Brooklyn crowd came along on this night, but not always with as much gusto as Bryan and Miz probably hoped for, which can partially be attributed to shifting norms, just as it can be attributed to WWE's current feud storytelling that no one really believes or to being in the middle of a card twice as long as most seemed to want it to be.
In the post-match segment, Bryan begrudgingly admitted Miz was right, but the match itself doubled as a similar confession. The popular argument is that Miz was the moral victor with part of the crowd here because he's gotten the best of Bryan at every turn of this feud so far. However, it's also true that in the end, Miz's supposedly "soft" style has already won the war of ideas. The sports entertainer tried to mentor the wrestler; the wrestler refused to listen and instead carved his own path; and the fans decided they liked the wrestler's ideas better, only for the wrestler to realize he'd reached a physical dead end and needed to sports entertain if he wanted to continue at all. Bryan's desire to punch Miz in the face and settle a grudge was the "story", but like any effective WWE feud in 2018, the meta story occupies equal space in the zeitgeist.