When I think of great heels in professional wrestling, the names that come to mind are a Mount Rushmore of sorts. While the names are instantly recognizable, almost all of them come from days gone by. Performing as a convincing heel, while the idea and process of that act hasn’t changed all that radically in the ring, is very different today than in the past. With near unlimited access to superstars all over the world through various social media platforms, kayfabe is almost completely impossible to keep alive. Our favorites interact daily with us on Twitter, Instagram, and more, all the while building very real barriers between who they are as human beings and who they are as characters on a TV screen.
Nobody blurs the lines anymore. Nobody except one young budding star in All Elite Wrestling. Professional wrestling’s biggest jerk. It’s greatest heel. And perhaps it’s realest legitimate connection to what many call wrestling’s glory days.
Maxwell. Jacob. Friedman.
He won’t be happy that it took me until paragraph three to mention his name. Nor will he be thrilled with my attention to his work in general, whether good or bad. Because Max doesn’t take even a minute in the public eye to back off his character. He is a heel 24/7; chastising fans, children, mothers, pets, and everything in between. It’s the surest way to convey greatness and promise he is the best heel in wrestling, perhaps in decades. He’s the guy who is hated – for perfectly acceptable reasons – the guy who can walk on water because he’s just that committed. And not just that, he’s just that damn good.
It doesn’t even pain me to admit that I hold MJF and the work he does in the highest of esteem in the wrestling world currently (and in recent memory, if I’m being honest). When we talk about commitment to character, commitment to success, and commitment to one’s self, who does it better than MJF? I’ll wait.
Max is able to carry himself the way he does so well, with confidence unwavering from AEW management, because Max is MJF and MJF is Max. We’ve been told numerous times that he isn’t just a jerk for television but that his character is largely just him being himself. When people say that, it would be easy enough to laugh it off in disbelief, but he is so ridiculously good at what he does, that I just don’t know for sure. I’d like to believe he is a good person deep down, and I imagine he is, but there is an equal part of me that almost hopes he is as terrible as he is on screen. It’s not easy to blur the lines I speak of, but he does it so beautifully and painstakingly well.
What makes this all even more impressive – almost impossible to believe, in fact – is that he is just 24 years old. A pup. A child in the landscape of professional wrestling, yet he finds himself sitting atop the mountain like our promised prince. Our promised prince if that prince was an entitled, egotistical, and manipulative dick. I say that with the utmost love and respect. Like Cody has touched on before, it wasn’t that he didn’t know MJF was who he was, it was that he was who he was, but he was Cody’s friend anyway. Of course, we all know how that ended, but that’s the brilliance of MJF.
I can’t imagine there is one fan out there who didn’t expect the MJF turn on Cody Rhodes eventually, right? We all new it was coming. We all saw the breadcrumbs and not only followed them, but eagerly ate each one up as we walked along. Some wanted it sooner, others later, but everyone waited for the magic to happen. What makes that turn – if you can even call it that – so perfect, was that even though it surprised no one, it was still great. From Cody’s utter heartbreak to MJF’s intense hatred, and finally to the glaring smirk after a legendary nutshot to our hero, his evil intentions were finally revealed after a title match that cost Cody any future hope of ever becoming AEW World Champion. You see, it wasn’t that we didn’t know MJF wasn’t awful. WE knew! It was that we DID know, and we still cared so much anyway.
Without Cody, and without that loyalty weighing him down, Max was finally able to spread his heel wings and be the overwhelming, hilarious asshole he was always destined to be. He’s always on his game; eager to alienate fans and send them back to their mother’s basements. When a mic is in his hand, no one is safe. Just like when one is ballsy enough to tag him on Twitter, even to compliment him. Just like when someone has words of criticism or appreciation, whether at a convention or from the crowd. Just like when you literally breath the air around him or look in his general direction. He’s always got us in his sights, and it’s glorious when he locks in a shot.
And when he does…
“That mother of yours who’s basement you live in, she swallows…”
“If I wanted to hear your opinions, I would turn on TLC and watch reruns of My 600 lb Life…”
“We’re not so different, you and I – I used to love videogames. I loved videogames, and then I lost my virginity…”
“I know you’re getting senile with your age, but WCW is dead. And coincidentally, dead is the average age of your fans…”
He has no shame for his victims, which range from the common fan to his opponents, to AEW brass, or to living legends such as DDP or Bret Hart. When his mouth opens, it’s AEW magic hour. It’s no surprise that MJF segments rate near the top of what All Elite Wrestling delivers. At 24, this prodigy is one of the most proven draws in all professional wrestling. Say what you want about how he carries himself or what he has to say, but when he talks, we listen.
Sure, most boo or hate tweet. That’s success all its own. In recent memory, who can you recall who has pulled those very real reactions out of fans so consistently? It just doesn’t happen anymore. It’s a lost art faded by technology, dirt sheets, social media, and fan access. Not for Max though.
In the ring, he’s top notch. He can tell a story with the best of them, aided by his larger-than-life personality and knack for old school wrestling psychology. It would be easy enough for his in-ring work to become lost behind his persona, but it doesn’t. He goes. HARD. What AEW has done with him, and the strategy in how he’s booked, is that a little goes a long way. Old school, once again. When he walks through the tunnel in his trunks, we know it’s special. Whether it’s he and Jungle Boy creating memories that will last a lifetime or he and Mox with the title on the line, when MJF wrestles, it’s important. It matters.
Max hasn’t lost often in AEW. In fact, you can count on one hand the number of times his opponent’s hands have been raised, and even then, it’s not necessarily because he himself was pinned. His character is endlessly protected, much to the horror of his detractors. And he’ll be the first to tell you that he is in fact, undefeated. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t matter, because while he at one time may have been considered the future of AEW, I believe he definitively IS that now. When he does lose, it’s because he has allowed someone to “out MJF” himself. And even then, he learns from it and applies it later. From Mox outsmarting him (or Wardlow letting him down if you ask him) to MJF outsmarting Jericho at HIS own game, he learns and somehow keeps telling even better stories than the ones before.
You know, it’s funny. The way we perceive wrestlers – why we like who we like, and why we hate who we hate – is so fleeting. No one is more polarizing in the sport today as Max is. But, and I say this with so much confidence and pride, I don’t just like him – I admire him. There is so much talk today, from all over the wrestling map, about respect in the business. Whether from one generation to the other, or one style to the other, or one company to the other. There are accusations galore. It all boils down to respect. No one has to agree with everyone about how wrestling should be viewed or consumed. But we should all respect those who came before and have given pieces of themselves to something we all love so much.
The funny thing – if you were wondering if I would ever get to it – is that by showing so much disrespect, there may be no one in the business, past or present, that shows AS MUCH respect to wrestling as Maxwell Jacob Friedman. By doing it HIS way (the old way) he embodies what made wrestling great once upon a time.
We all have that – our “once upon a time” – in the business, whether as a fan or as a talent. For those of us with an appreciation for the past, with an eye for stories, and with wrestling history literally holding onto our hearts, how can one look at what MJF does and not smile? By appreciating his deep respect for those who paved the way and by looking into his eyes and understanding the passion that lives within them, we won’t just remember our “once upon a time” – we’ll see our “happily ever after” as well.
All thanks to him.
Don’t thank him though. He already knows all of this. Salt of the earth, friend, enemy, God, devil, raging sociopath, simple asshole, or all of the above – he’s better than us. That’s all that matters. Instead of hating him for being his shoot self, taking no prisoners, and rising to the top, perhaps it’s time to look in the mirror. So, stand up straight, think about your haters, pull out your favorite shit-eating grin…
And be better than us.
Just so long as you remember you’ll never be better than him.