According to Wikipedia, kayfabe is the portrayal of staged events within the industry as “real” or “true.” And in the world of pro wrestling, kayfabe was once sacred. However, in the days of social media, the art of a pro wrestler remaining in character in and out of the ring is scarce, if almost nonexistent. One minute they are playing the role of a vicious heel character and cheating their way to victory and the next they are on Instagram smiling with the very fans that they sought to infuriate just a few hours earlier.
Suffice to say that staying in character is truly a lost art.
But not for Maxwell Jacob Friedman.
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In a business where being larger than life is a requisite, the man who goes by the moniker of MJF checks all the boxes of a potential superstar. He’s young, handsome, physically fit and has a personality that immediately takes hold. He’s easy to hate — really easy — and that makes his value skyrocket.
“I’m better than you,” is the catchphrase that the man born on March 15, 1996, spews at nausea.
The story that Friedman tells is that he initially had some promise as a football player before heading down the path to be a pro wrestler. He was an All-State middle linebacker in New York and was offered several Division 1 scholarship offers before attending an Ivy League school that he says he cannot name legally. However, football was always coming second to the violent theater known as pro wrestling.
His adoration for Rowdy Roddy Piper’s innate ability to incite a crowd and put on a competent match pushed him in the direction to give professional wrestling a try after realizing that football simply wasn’t his calling. With a father whose paleo baked goods business had taken off and a supportive mother, Maxwell Jacob Friedman the athlete died and MJF was born.
Donning a Burberry scarf to enhance his obnoxious arrogance as a wealthy rich kid from the suburbs, Friedman dove headfirst into the wonderful – yet physically taxing – world of professional wrestling
“First of all, wait,” Friedman barks to a room full of wrestlers talking amongst themselves in a backstage area at White Eagle Hall in New Jersey as he prepares to tell his story.
Some are going over their matches while others are greeting people they haven’t seen in a while. MJF isn’t interested in shaking hands with any of the talent. Instead, he’s looking to offer his story to a writer he begrudgingly allowed to tag along with him for the weekend.
“Can we get some quiet, guys, please?” he says. “Kind of a big deal over here. Thanks.”
In a few moments, the doors will open and pro wrestling fans will fill up the performance venue in the Village neighborhood of Downtown Jersey City, New Jersey to watch the first of several Game Changer Wrestling (GCW) shows. It’s all part of WrestleMania weekend in early April, which has gone from the WWE’s Showcase of the Immortals being the focal point for fans of Vincent Kennedy McMahon’s massive sports entertainment promotion to becoming the destination for multiple wrestling promotions to stage shows over the course of several days.
WrestleMania weekend is the time where talent on the independent circuit can perform at multiple shows, exposing themselves to a new audience and working with talent that they may not work with otherwise. In a single weekend, a pro wrestler may compete in anywhere from eight to 12 matches. And while the outcomes are decided beforehand, the wear and tear on the body from the bumps these athletes take is very, very real.
Bones will be broken; blood will be spilled and it’s all done for the enjoyment of the fans.
“Last year I had 13 matches. This year I decided to cut it down a bit to eight,” he says with a smirk.
The product of Plainview, Long Island, New York has only been in this business for four years, but the mark he’s making is undeniable. After being trained by current WWE superstar Curt Hawkins and indie talent Pat Buck, Friedman would make his debut as a 19-year-old in February of 2015. He’s competed for Create A Pro Wrestling Academy, Combat Zone Wrestling, Major League Wrestling and others during this time. His obnoxious preppy personality with a sharp tongue has gone over well enough with fans to gain their attention. And his in-ring work isn’t too shabby, either.
“It was amazing,” he says of his debut. “I recall going into the back, and everybody being like, ‘Man, how many years have you been wrestling?’ I said, ‘That was my first match.’ Everybody was like, ‘Nah, f- off.’
“Nobody believed me. It pumped me because I already knew I was a star in the making from that moment forward. I knew right away. I was like, ‘You think that was good, just you wait until I really grow into my paws.’ And I have. Very quickly.”
At 23 and with only four years in the business, MJF has established himself as one to watch. He has gone through the rigors of WrestleMania weekend before, but this year is different. A month after he completes this circuit of matches, MJF will officially take his talents to All Elite Wrestling – the upstart promotion that will air on TNT this fall and launched by Jacksonville Jaguars co-owner Tony Khan and The Elite (Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega, Matt and Nick Jackson) – and debut at their inaugural pay per view event Double or Nothing at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas during Memorial Day weekend.
“Hurting,” he says of the toll that working many shows in the course of a few days can have on the body. “The one thing that I wish that the fat troll marks on Twitter understood is, I would love for them to get into the ring and let me body slam them one time.”
He pauses, maybe for effect. Maybe. You never really know with MJF because he’s always on point. Any moment where you sense he might be human is broken in half by his followup.
“That’s it. I don’t want to do anything else. Just let me give you a regular, good old-fashioned body slam in the ring,” he says. “You won’t be able to walk for a week. I’m a superman. The fact that I’m able to do what I do is absolutely astonishing. The fact that these fans don’t understand that a ring is comprised of steel, metal beams, wood, and a thin sheet mat, and that’s it.”
That slight bit of vulnerability is slammed to the proverbial canvas as he immediately riffs about his friendship with AEW’s Cody Rhodes and how Tony Khan was enamored to bring him onboard. Obviously, he’s supposed to sell us on the idea that he’s amazing. But he might actually be right.
What makes MJF unique is the variety of ways he can be used in a show and still get a rise from fans. At Family Reunion, he will simply sit ringside and later challenge rival Orange Cassidy to a match before taking a cheap shot and hitting the carefree Cassidy with his body draped piledriver finisher. At another GCF show, MJF will go unselected in a dodgeball match (don’t ask) and at the over the top bonkers Joey Janela’s Spring Break show, MJF will hide in the crowd under a luchador mask in a battle royal match dubbed “The Ultimate Clusterf-.” When MJF clobbers a singing wrestler with a kendo stick and reveals himself, the jeers are deafening.
If part of the battle is drawing a reaction, MJF has that aspect of the game nailed. As for the pro wrestling part, he borrows from the greats of yesteryear and opts for a grounded attack rather than high spots to draw oohs and aahs from fans.
“I’ve always loved old school wrestling: Tully Blanchard, Arn Anderson, Ric Flair, Sting, Hot Stuff Eddie Gilbert,” he says. “To me, that’s the golden age of professional wrestling. That’s the professional wrestling that I love. Not this flippity-do bulls-. That’s why I’m always constantly winning, because these guys are always so concerned with impressing the crowd. I’m concerned with winning.”
With pro wrestling becoming more and more of a display in athleticism, where each match becomes a dare to see who can jump off the highest object, MJF takes great pride in keeping things slow and methodical.
“It makes me sick to my stomach, these fans are so blood thirsty,” he says with a grimace. “They keep wanting more and more, but I’m the one guy that’s looking at them straight in the face, and going, ‘No. I’m going to sit in this headlock. I’m going to sit in this abdominal stretch. If you guys want to see some cool s-, I don’t care. I’m here to get paid, I’m here to win, and I’m here to stay healthy.'”
While the in-ring is significant, it’s the fact that MJF has no “off” switch that makes this personality truly compelling.
After wrapping up several shows, Friedman is found sitting at a table during WrestleCon the following day. In about 30 minutes, wrestling fans will swarm in and seek autographs from their favorite stars of today and yesterday. Rob Van Dam, Eric Bischoff, Koko B. Ware, Vicki Guerrero and Billy Gunn are just a few of the names who participate in this meet and greet. No matter how we remember them inside of the ring, most are gracious to their fans outside of it.
“The fans are disgusting and mindless pigs,” Friedman says. “They think they know more than they actually do. The simple fact that people in our industry think that they have to answer them, is laughable to me. You are mindless marks, and the only thing that you should be concerned with is watching my rise to superstardom.”
While this speak is normal of a heel, what follows during this meet and greet is astounding. Smiling fans approach the table in search of an autograph, piece of MJF memorabilia or a photo of the man himself. What follows is Friedman verbally running down his fans to the point where many are turned off by his actions. He ridicules them or, even worse, ignores them completely. Some enjoy the fact that he remains “in character,” but there are others who aren’t so happy with his antics.
Jokes about body odor, their looks or crass barbs about being overweight follow. There’s some laughter, while others are completely turned off by these antics. One fan, in particular, mumbles expletives as he walks away, clearly unhappy with the man he came to meet. If nothing else, MJF is exactly what a heel is supposed to be. And in this era of constant fourth wall breaking, that should be appreciated.
He’ll go on to wrestle a match with “All Ego” Ethan Page at WrestleCon and win via his signature piledriver followed by using the ropes as leverage to gain the pinfall. Fans are disgusted and lob crude words at the young talent. He takes it all in stride with a smile spread across his face.
The hatred of fans fuels his gas tank and lets him know that he’s doing something right.
Backstage we’re conversing and you begin to wonder how much of MJF’s history is true. Did he really get scholarships to D-1 colleges for football? Did his father really have a successful paleo baking company that pulled them out of poverty? Was he really a natural in the ring like he tries to put on? Like the violent performance art he competes in, the lines are expertly blurred between what is real and what is not.
The one thing that is real is his involvement with All Elite Wrestling and the idea that he’ll play a major role for a promotion that many believe will give the WWE a run for its money unlike any other since the lauded Monday Night Wars when the WWE went head to head with World Championship Wrestling – which, ironically, was on TNT – and yielded the biggest boom period that pro wrestling has ever had.
We’re discussing his involvement in Joey Janela’s Spring Break later that night when one of the wrestlers who performed earlier interrupts.
“Sorry, is there a bathroom open?” the wrestler asks.
“If you interrupt my interview again, we’re going to have a problem, OK? Do you understand me? Say, ‘I understand,'” MJF fires back.
The wrestler is taken back by the comments. Even as a performer himself, he’s unsure if MJF is serious or not. He pauses, scans the room for a smiling face – that he doesn’t find – and responds.
MJF waves him away. The wrestler stares with his mouth agape, turns and exits.
“Sorry. As we were?” Friedman says, without breaking stride. “It’s not your fault. These poor people, they don’t know how to act.”
For the rest of the weekend, he’ll win some matches and lose others. But he’s burned himself into the memories of those watching. And at Double or Nothing, MJF will be one of 21 wrestlers competing in the Casino (Battle) Royale where the winner gets the first crack at the AEW world championship. It appears that MJF just might be the favorite to win, and that could go a long way when the promotion makes its debut on TNT later this year with the 23-year-old in one of the prime positions for the company.
“The future of AEW is Maxwell J. Friedman, without a shadow of a doubt,” he says. “I am going to be the face of this company. At the tender age of 23 … people think I’m great now? They don’t know the half of it. I mean, my career’s only just begun. By the time I hit 30, I genuinely feel people will consider me as being one of the greatest of all time.”
And, like everything else, he’s not joking.
Or, is he?
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