Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Giving The Devil His Due: The AEW Championship Reign of MJF

A photo of MJF as AEW World Champion.

As time passes, history becomes easier to review. Maxwell Jacob Friedman’s 406-day AEW World Champion reign will be remembered with great fondness and respect. It was more than a championship reign.

Through a tumultuous period and many controversies, MJF has been AEW’s stability in 2023. MJF has been a champion as the bloom came off the rose.

This wasn’t his fault, but some fans have tried to correlate his character change as symbolic of AEW’s “death” despite it being their most successful financial year. No different from past champions, when domestic attendance was down and creativity was not inconsistent, the champion became both a lightning rod for criticism and the key pillar holding up the sky.

History will be kinder, pointing out the sky never fell. AEW wasn’t dying. The threads holding together the patchwork of MJF’s championship reign (the good, bad, and controversial) still weaved a narrative that, while completely flipped 180 degrees, told a cohesive character arch.

The type for which AEW has become renowned. Like how “Hangman,” Adam Page overcame anxiety to be the world champion.

From the ultimate heel, the devil who could destroy AEW’s future, to the babyface company savior, MJF, as a character and wrestler, has been the lynchpin during AEW’s least perfect year.

Both Nirvana and Purgatory  

AEW in 2023 has been paradoxical. The wrestling has been nirvana. Yet inconsistencies in story arches and character development created a purgatory. The Elite’s inconsistent “Putrid year” stemmed from a lack of character development that fans were accustomed to. In 2023, The Elite were not the main characters of AEW. Instead, MJF became the main character by necessity.

Like The Elite, MJF had awe-inspiring matches in the ring. MJF’s quest to have the best-ever Ironman match, four-way, bromance, and comeback could, as isolated case studies, be true. The former three were arguably revolutionary. Yet creative missteps have meant the journey was not as smooth as the destination.

Bumps in the Booking

Discussing AEW’s 2023 tournaments, I touched on how the build to facing Bryan Danielson at Revolution repeated (for the fourth time) the trope of MJF putting babyfaces through a trial of opponents. Double or Nothing’s Fatal Four was an incredible display for all the pillars. However, the build exposed weaknesses in the other three. They were not on the level of the devil.

Some of the bookings create a disparity between progressing MJF’s character arch at the expense of others and the company itself. Jay White at Full Gear couldn’t beat a one-legged man, which made the former IWGP Heavyweight Champion look weak.

While the angle allowed MJF to out-babyface the purest babyface, the timing was wrong. Possibly conceived as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the Attitude Era antics of Steve Austin or the resilience of Superman John Cena, it clashed with a desire from many fans to have a sports-orientated product rather than sports-entertainment shtick.

The high bar of expectations AEW has set for itself in terms of quality, both in the ring and in storylines, and many fans hold the company accountable.

Yet MJF’s credibility remains intact. How many 27-year-olds have successively handled the proverbial sink-or-swim situation, week after week, on an international TV show?

How many have been able to adapt to mistakes, both their own and things beyond their control? All while maintaining the façade of kayfabe? As MJF himself described in his Players Tribune article, things beyond his control could have cursed his achievements.

Never Snake Bitten

Bad luck and bad timing have hindered many wrestlers’ careers. Looking at the checklist of events that dampened MJF’s biggest moments and their impact on fan perception of AEW. MJF, as a character, has survived the venom.

Brawl Out overshadowed MJF’s grand return at All Out 2022. Jon Moxley, rather than CM Punk, passed the torch to start MJF’s run at Full Gear. The dream match conclusion to their feud of the year 2022  is gone. Later, it was kicked out of reality after All In. Punk’s behavior again stole attention from an epic main event. Punk’s actions taint my memory of being at All In.

The white-hot storyline with Adam Cole was derailed by injury at Grand Slam, taking the focus away from MJF’s match with Samoa Joe. At Full Gear, besides the divisive main event angle, MJF was injured. World’s End, the title foreshadowing the end of MJF’s title reign, was clouded by online allegations.

Despite controversy, injury, and criticism for his character changes, how many other talents could not only survive a world championship run like this? How many could rise to the challenge? As a character and performer, MJF proved his hyperbole: he’s a generational talent.

Inevitability of Change

Fans who clamor for the MJF of old, the devil who called his boss a “F’ing mark,” praised Jolly Saint Nick Khan and was excited about how he would leave AEW, miss that the game changed.

First, the storyline took inspiration from CM Punk’s Ring of Honor World Championship run, where he threatened to take the belt to Connecticut.

With speculation Punk would return to WWE, carrying this thread could only make the company look second-rate. Likewise, MJF could bash the company when the company was hot. It helped reinforce MJF as the heel and how AEW was different from WWE when WWE was still under Vince McMahon. WWE changed. Also, with the perception of AEW changing, drawing attention to the flaws would be detrimental.

AEW needed the face of the company. So, MJF’s TV time increased, running the risk of overexposure and overreliance. This contrasts his presentation being limited when his screen time was kept at a premium.

Increasingly, MJF became the flagbearer for AEW. His X post featuring a picture of himself with AEW’s young talent seemed a direct shot at criticism that AEW became a retirement home for old wrestlers.

Like Seth Rollins in 2019, a time of fan dissatisfaction when WWE was in its own creative purgatory, the champion can be a target for criticism. The fog of war that is wrestling tribalism clouds how well a character, MJF, was able to play the hero while, at his core, remaining the same scumbag.

180 Degree Turn

The modern phenomenon that fans cheer the bad guy because we know he is so good, and that makes the cool is ironic. Fans were already cheering MJF as he became the world champion.

Friendship became the vehicle that bridged the gap between MJF’s tragic villain origin story and allowing himself to believe things could be different. What might have been without Adam Cole’s ankle injury is unknown. Yet, at the time, the feeling of a nuance created in the bromance storyline between Cole and MJF on the road to All In rivaled WWE’s The Bloodline storyline.

The friendship arch mixed childish (male) humor and masculine bonding activities (from the gym to video games to eating steaks and getting drunk) in a way that reflects how real male friendships are formed.

It evolved with aspects of modern masculinity, with grown men talking about their feelings. Cole is uncertain if he could wrestle due to his concussion, and MJF about his issues. Like real friends, they showed they could tolerate each other’s differences. MJF learned how friendship worked.

This Isn’t Over

Remember, MJF has been playing the good guy. He copied the homework of other good guys from Hulk HoganBret Hart, and beyond, yet with his own twist. Although the character is more and more committed to being a hero, at his core, MJF is still the devil. Like in great TV shows like Breaking Bad, we have been conditioned to like the anti-hero. He has remained a heel at heart.  Think about his first victory over Samoa Joe.

The story changed. Rather than about who is going to save AEW from MJF, it became the story of how far MJF can change before he questions whether it is worth being the good guy.  It’s the premise of Breaking Bad’s spinoff, Better Call Saul. Those fans who preferred MJF before, isn’t that part of the point? The waiting for the mask to slip? For the real devil to return?

That may come to pass. It’s not only the American Rollercoaster with a story to finish this year.

More From LWOS Pro Wrestling

Header photo – AEW – Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world. As well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world.  You can catch AEW Dynamite on Wednesday nights at 8 PM ET on TBS. AEW Rampage airs on TNT at 10 PM EST every Friday night. AEW Collision airs Saturday at 8pm Eastern on TNT. More AEW content available on their YouTube

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