In a few short days, what started as a fascinating example of a worker making dramatic use of leverage he earned has completely transformed into just another pro wrestling storyline. And not a particularly good one, at that.
At the center of it is the AEW star Maxwell Jacob Friedman, or MJF. He’s been with the upstart company since its first PPV in 2019, and even at just 26 years old he’s already established himself as one of the best and most singular wrestlers in the world. With his frat-douche gimmick that stays on even outside of AEW programming, his coarse promos, his punchable face, and his willingness to be humiliated on TV, he is the only villain in the business popular enough to be a main-event guy yet also repellent enough to still get drowned in boos everywhere he goes (except his home territory of Long Island). He is both a throwback to the days when heels didn’t try to be cool and a new kind of magnetic, boundary-pushing TV performer that would have been difficult to imagine without AEW breaking through the monopoly of PG, formulaic WWE.
MJF has stayed a cornerstone of the company even as its founder and leader, Tony Khan, has signed more and more prominent ex-WWE names to the roster, and his feud with CM Punk this year saw his character explored in a deeper and more multi-faceted way than ever. But in the past few months, after Cody Rhodes successfully returned to WWE after helping start AEW, there have been rumblings that MJF is frustrated with his contract, which runs out at the end of 2023. (That he will be the hottest free agent in pro wrestling in 2024 and spark a bidding war between the two companies is something MJF has referenced both on and off screen.)
Those rumblings became loud claps of thunder on Saturday, the day before AEW’s Double or Nothing PPV in Las Vegas. MJF no-showed the AEW Fan Fest that day, forcing the company to offer fans who had paid for a meet-and-greet refunds and exchanges. Before the end of the day, Sean Ross Sapp of the site Fightful—a kind of Woj or Shams-esque figure in the pro wrestling business—broke the news that MJF had a flight booked to leave town before the pay-per-view, where he had been scheduled to lose a match that would put over his very popular former-henchman-turned-rival, Wardlow, as a newly minted star.
Obviously, in pro wrestling, it’s reasonable to assume that any dramatic behind-the-scenes story could be fake, but in this case that would require AEW deliberately inconveniencing and lying to some of its most devoted fans while making many more believe that there was a chance it wouldn’t deliver the conclusion of its hottest storyline at the PPV. If this indeed was a work from the start, it was both out-of-character for the company and extraordinarily stupid, so I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt.
But after a very odd and frustrating day of complete silence from AEW about whether or not the previously advertised match would take place, Double or Nothing opened with MJF making his entrance and doing his job to perfection in a very, very fun squash match with Wardlow. In under eight minutes, the hero was made to look completely invulnerable while MJF desperately tried a number of dirty tricks before succumbing to 10 power bombs and being carried out of the building on a stretcher. It was a cathartic finale to a long story that the company has told, and the crowd went absolutely wild for Wardlow. Adding to the speculation, however, is that this kind of debilitating loss is traditionally what a wrestling company does to a performer when they’re writing him off of TV.
Such a possibility lasted all of two days before any doubt was removed as to MJF’s future with AEW, at least in the short term. On Wednesday, ahead of a massive follow-up Dynamite show that also served as AEW’s debut in Los Angeles at a sold-out Forum, the company announced that MJF would, surprisingly enough, be on the show. And in the episode’s second segment, he came out to talk on the microphone.
The idea behind this segment is that there are important TV execs at this show that AEW is trying to impress, and MJF is looking to screw with things by airing his supposedly real grievances live on TV, cussing a bunch, all but acknowledging the scripted nature of the show, and demanding that Tony Khan fire him. While it is certainly a memorable promo, delivered with MJF’s signature intensity, and it got lots and lots of people talking and even cheering him as a hero, I really did not like it. You can check it out before I go further:
As “pro wrestling,” which is how I judge my pro wrestling shows, it’s an obvious failure right from the get-go. MJF indirectly makes Wardlow look like an insignificant chump by refusing to sell any of his storyline damage from that match, and then he proceeds to lessen the impact of everything else on Dynamite by pointing out how it’s all phony bullshit. While the fact that it’s a clear homage to Punk (the new champion) and his “pipebomb” segment during his time with WWE could mean interesting developments for their rivalry—it’s also telling that MJF’s attack on the proliferation of ex-WWE guys in AEW got the biggest positive crowd response—it’s pretty difficult to suspend the rules of wrestling for one segment and then try to resume them again for the rest. It’s Oz voluntarily stepping out from behind the curtain, explaining how his machine works, and then retreating to try and still demand Dorothy and her friends cower in fear as if nothing has happened. I know the hot boys doing flips are fictional. Just let me enjoy them. (Incidentally, I missed the finish to the main-event match on my DVR recording because after three years AEW still hasn’t figured out how to properly time its shows.)
Taken it on its own terms, as the fake reality TV it was trying to emulate, the segment wasn’t much better. The premise alone that AEW would just give its most volatile and unhappy superstar a live mic at a crucial moment is unbelievable, but it also lacked fresh or compelling ideas throughout. Cutting MJF’s mic, crudely blanketing him with bleeps, and pretending to rush to commercial when he got out of control all felt like stale, predictable tropes put to better use at the Oscars this year. And the reasons MJF gives for being so valuable—that he doesn’t drop people on their heads when he works, that he is “the second best minute-for-minute draw in the company”—were both tricky to unravel and ultimately underwhelming. Its only real dramatic thrust is “Is MJF saying this for real?” and when he is so obviously collaborating with the company, that’s not a very compelling question. As the Deadpool movies proved, simply noting that the fourth wall exists is not an adequate replacement for good or interesting writing.
Whether you liked or disliked the segment, though, I can’t help but find it a little sad that MJF’s rebellion has been so swiftly swallowed, repackaged, and resold as entertainment by the very machine he was rebelling against. In an industry with essentially no labor protections, whose workers’ revenue share is dwarfed by pro sports, this past month was a buzzy one for labor rights across all three of the biggest wrestling companies in the world. In WWE, Sasha Banks and Naomi walked out of a live RAW show due to unhappiness with their characters’ directions, and subsequently got both indefinitely suspended and prominently shit-talked by their employer. In New Japan Pro Wrestling, top star Kota Ibushi has been restlessly agitating for his release via Twitter by making public his issues with the company. And in AEW, Max Friedman presented a challenge to a promotion that has built a devoted fanbase by always portraying themselves as on the fans’ side, forcing Khan to either relent or publicly become the kind of ruthlessly competitive Vince McMahon figure he has always tried to rebuke.
If Friedman’s apparent brief holdout was a little annoying for fans weighing the purchase of a PPV, it was invigorating for the way it threatened to overturn wrestling’s status quo, where management has all the power. Here was a performer who had worked his ass off building some of the most memorable moments in AEW’s history, who had been built as a future franchise player and world champion, seemingly using all his hard-earned leverage right before he was to create a brand-new star in order to try and extract better conditions from the rich son of an NFL owner.
We don’t yet know what happened between Friedman’s no-show and his clear agreement to continue working for AEW—maybe he did get a better deal! But given the similarities between Wednesday’s promo and what played out between Punk and WWE over a decade ago, it’s impossible to say the status quo has changed. It’s almost uncanny, actually, how expertly the company has repositioned this PR hiccup into a potentially lucrative new story, absorbing the entire controversy within its own fictional universe while Khan keeps his lips tight about the real situation that inspired it. Now, if you’re like the fans in L.A. who were won over by MJF and rooting for him to get one over on Tony Khan, you’re doing so because Khan wants you to. That’s an impressive ability to control the narrative.
But Max, if you actually want to quit your job that you’re unhappy at, and do so in a way that rubs your employer’s face in it, reach out to me. I may have some helpful experience to share with you.