That's right: The Miz. I don't care if he's off shooting The Marine Part XL or on the precipice of paternity leave. It doesn't matter that he's not in contention for a world title any time soon, or that he's left his poor Miztourage of Bo Dallas and Curtis Axel to fend for themselves during his absence. He is still a leader. In fact, he's been the de facto leader of Raw for most of the past several months, stepping up when others were hurt or stuck in storyline limbo, taking his licks against the biggest names in the biz and coming out scathed but frequently hoisting Intercontinental gold above his shoulders. Mike Mizanin and that prestigious belt have become synonymous over his frankly illustrious decade-plus career, itself an improbable manifestation of a publicly documented quest to flower from Midwest naïf to eponymous sports entertainer.
Granted, Miz did possess the IC strap for much of 2016, but he and that title were mired in middling, post-Mizdow feuds with Dolph Ziggler, Apollo Crews, Darren Young, Kalisto and even Zack Ryder. He was effectively holding place while John Cena and A.J. Styles duked it out over who was SmackDown's dominant face, and as the women's revolution took root and new talent like Baron Corbin parted seas and made a splash.
But something started to turn around the time he took Daniel Bryan to task on an episode of the late, lamented Talking Smack that August. Viewers, and apparently WWE producers and writers, were reminded that the then-35-year-old veteran had plenty left to vent and prove. He gamely finished out his pre-designated 2016 programs, including an overdue button on he and Ziggler's zig-zagging rivalry. By then, buoyed by the onscreen chemistry between he and real-life wife Maryse, the wheels were in motion for one last rush to the top of the card.
A Chris Jericho-like, 32-minute stay of endurance at 2017's Royal Rumble cleaned the slate, and Miz and Maryse spent the rest of that road to WrestleMania making the most of a blockbuster mixed-gender beef with John Cena and Nikki Bella. Pre-filmed vignettes featuring the power couple parodying their adversaries' Total Divas personae didn't always hit the mark, but Miz proved he's the only active man on the roster that can stand toe to toe opposite Cena in an extended live promo. (Though, as always, Cena's jujitsu in putting competition over by putting them down is like no other.)
Cena and Nikki, as we know, went MIA for some months. But before newly pregnant Maryse joined them on the extended-hiatus list, she helped pass the torch of Miz companionship to two idiots named Curtis and Bo. That summer, the four of them – now back on Raw, where there was still room for old pros – spun a disastrous Dean Ambrose angle involving a provocative bear (bunnies are so 2014, after all) into the beginnings of a sycophantic faction that revived the careers of two WWE legacies lost in transition. It also helped make possible myriad scenarios in which Miz could insert himself into the main-event picture. (Think an updated Seth Rollins/J&J Security for 2017.)
And thing was, Miz's matches all year – whether squaring off against Super Cena, a healthy Finn Bálor, somewhat adrift Roman Reigns or frequent foil Ambrose – were absolutely dynamic. Like no other heel save Kevin Owens, now safely across the divide on SmackDown, Miz became locked in between the ropes. He was executing innovative offense that rebuked Cena's accusations of derivative skills, while staying 100 percent in character as a sneering, sneaky, smart and underappreciated worker.
As it happens, Cena's not wrong: Miz does crib from former mentor Ric Flair, but not merely by applying figure fours. He has that oily, finer-things flash down cold, catching you off guard with his physicality and cunning. Mizanin makes no bones about having honed his chops at acting classes after first failing to conquer Tough Enough in 2004. Nor does he hide the fact that all those repeat appearances on Real World spinoffs was his way of learning how to fake it till he made it. The Mike Mizanin we see slaying guests like Enzo Amore on MizTV is, paradoxically, more of a genuine callback to the goofy (and, yes, sheltered) Real World kid we met in 2001 than the poised camera presence still hosting new iterations of The Challenge. And just as ironically, the very thing that forestalled his legitimacy in fans' and peers' eyes – i.e. those inauspicious MTV beginnings – is what so many young wrestlers today are working toward achieving tomorrow. The Miz and wrestling's critical mass have finally met halfway, and judging by his past 12 months, there's fertile ground ahead.
The Best of the Rest:
Runner-Up Wrestler of the Year (Male): Braun Strowman
Runner-Up Wrestler of the Year (Female): Pick 'Em – Alexa Bliss
Tag Team of the Year: The Usos
Comeback of the Year: Jinder Mahal
One-Night-Only Face Turn of the Year: Neville
Overdue Title Run of the Year: Natalya
Most Overdue Yet-to-Be Title Holder of the Year: Nia Jax
Most Welcome Loss of Sanity of the Year: Matt Hardy
Best Fake Onscreen Authority of the Year: Stephanie McMahon
Gamesmanship of the Year: The Ascension
Most Promising Youngster of the Year: Chad Gable
Eeriest Entrance of the Year: Asuka
Most Bittersweet Exit of the Year: James Ellsworth
Most Improbably Awesome Match of the Year: Survivor Series' Team Angle Vs. Team McMahon
Actual Match of the Year: New Day vs. The Usos
Best Posture: Kurt Angle