Maxwell Jacob Friedman’s Future Is as (Un)limited as the Wrestling Heel Itself

It has never been harder to be a heel in pro wrestling. Okay, maybe not in terms of life outside the ring — wrestlers no longer regularly deal with fans slashing their tires, throwing urine, and pulling guns on them. But in terms of accomplishing their in-ring job? Getting their entire audience unified in not just hating them, but hating them in a way where they’re entertained and want to pay to see them get theirs? That’s never been tougher. If you need proof, look no further than Maxwell Jacob Friedman.

MJF is one of the most critically acclaimed heels in the business today, maybe even at the very top of that list. By all accounts, he’s a student of the game, someone who respects and studies wrestling history.  You can see that just by tracking his relatively short career, as in the last few years he’s tried some pretty varied approaches to getting heat, drawing from various eras. Yet every single one of them turns off a different subgroup of fans.

On Wednesday’s Dynamite, MJF cut a promo that, on a show full of noteworthy developments, ended up being its most talked-about segment. It appeared to take grievances that every wrestling reporter swears are legitimate and incorporated them into a promo that was clearly planned for and condoned by the person it was railing against.

It was wrestling’s most notable “worked shoot” promo since CM Punk’s “Pipe Bomb” over a decade ago and it’s likely no coincidence that it seemed to heavily borrow from it. Both were about top talents who felt undervalued by their bosses. Both pointed out that some fans were cheering them, and both then went out of their way to call those fans hypocrites. Both ended with their mic getting cut just as they were about to say something too taboo.

Online I’ve seen many people say it was one of the best promos of a generation, but I’ve also seen a bunch of people, some of them normally big MJF fans, say it was cringe-inducingly awful. Some loved the nods to the past, others found them to be shameless unimaginative lifts. Some loved the lengths he went to try to make this seem “real”, like removing his signature scarf and declaring that tonight he was just Max Friedman. Others thought it recalled the worst fourth-wall-breaking promos of the Vince Russo era of wrestling.

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This kind of reaction is not new to Max though. He has tried to get heat from so many angles, and each approach seems to have its own group of fans and critics. Chances are if you’ve followed his entire AEW run MJF has done at least one thing you probably really liked, but he has probably done at least one thing that completely misses for you too.

The Many Moods of MJF

There are a lot of old-school elements to MJF. He wears a lot of those influences on his sleeve — this is a man who named his cat Piper for God’s sake. For some, these throwback elements are their favorite part of MJF, he recalls a kind of character we see far less of these days. But to others it rings hollow, just an imitation of the past, with some people throwing around terms like “cosplayer.” It’s in the eye of the beholder if you think he’s one of the last people keeping old-school wrestling alive or if you think he’s a pale imitation of their childhood.

But if Max has a lot of the 1980s in him, he has shown more than just a few flashes of the late 90s as well. He’s not above the “easy” heat of mocking whatever city he’s in. He is eager to say the “edgy” real-life thing about his opponent that no one else on TV will acknowledge. He’s the guy who talked about Melanie Pillman’s drug problems when he feuded with her son. He’s the guy who talked about the real-life tragic death of Darby Allin’s uncle. He’ll reference WWE — hell, he’ll openly court them. For some, this is their favorite part of MJF, that he’s the guy who is eager to bring reality into stories, who tries to shock, who will say the things no one else is either willing or allowed to say. But for others, this is the element they can’t stand. To them it screams edgelord; it feels cheap or to some, even offensive at times.

In the CM Punk feud, MJF tried on yet another hat, this one being one Mick Foley wore in the mid-90s in ECW, one Punk himself used in mid-00s ROH. In one unique promo, MJF showed real vulnerability, talking about feeling like his childhood hero let him down, referencing abuse and racism he suffered growing up, all while shedding tears. Many people loved the promo, thinking it made MJF a more three-dimensional relatable villain, with real motivations, much like when Foley railed against fans who expected too much from him and invaded his privacy, or when Punk talked about how his aggressive Straight Edge puritanism was informed by an alcoholic father. But even this promo had its detractors, people like Lance Storm, who thought it made Max too sympathetic, undercutting the job of the heel, which is to be hated.

Then there’s the Dinner Debonair. A choreographed old-time song and dance number done with Chris Jericho, it was unlike anything ever seen in AEW. When it happened, I saw it garner attention online from people who normally never paid any mind to AEW, or wrestling as a whole. It got positive press in the New York Times. Yet, I’ve heard it said by people who have seen the minute-to-minute TV ratings of the segment, the audience actually got smaller as the bit went on.

Even outside the ring MJF is a divisive personality. He is one of the only wrestlers in 2022 that tries to stay in character publicly whenever possible. There have been glimpses of the man behind the character, but for the most part, whether it’s on social media, at meet and greets, or in media interviews, MJF is as big an asshole out of the ring as he is in it. I’ve seen people thrilled that MJF was a jerk to them, and I’ve seen people genuinely hurt that they were insulted, expecting to see the real human in real life.

None of this is to say that MJF is a failure — he’s anything but. In his mid-20s he’s carved out a spot for himself that wrestlers ten years his senior would kill for. That’s actually the point. If one of the most critically acclaimed heels of his day can’t find a way to get all the fans pulling in the same direction at the same time, who can?

The Problem with Today’s Heels

The answer appears to be no one. Look at the other top heels today. Is Roman Reign’s current heel run the best thing in wrestling today, or did it run its course months ago and has been as dull as dishwater ever since? Is Will Ospreay’s current heel persona hatable in all the best, most fun ways, or is it a dollar store Conor McGregor knockoff that has you rolling your eyes? Is Dan Lambert the best heel manager wrestling has seen in years, or does he make you want to change the channel?

It feels like these days fans can’t even agree what a good heel even is. I’ve seen people complain that fans don’t truly hate anyone anymore and modern wrestling makes it impossible to do so and I’ve seen others complain that some people hate certain heels TOO MUCH now, to the point of boycotting the promotions they appear for. I used to see people debating about how much heat a heel was getting, now I see debates about if they’re getting the right type of heat. Reaching a consensus about any notable heel, or even what a heel should be today, what lines they can and cannot cross, feels impossible right now.

It wasn’t always this way. Yes, there have been little groups of fans who cheered the heels for decades, and there have been heels that just couldn’t get anyone to hate them, but more often than not, the reaction a heel got was pretty simple and unified. If you were a heel and you were over, 95 percent of the fans or more booed you and were eager to spend money to see you get your ass kicked, with no reservations and few moral qualms. But audiences for all entertainment are more diversified now.

Being a heel used to be simple. More fans believed wrestling was real, and the ones that didn’t did not know nearly as much about how the sausage was made as the average fan does today, which made it much easier to take characters at face value. There were no podcasts or shoot interviews or Twitch channels or Twitter accounts where you got to know the person behind the character. A few decades ago, the character was all you knew.

MJF vs Brian Pillman Jr_2021-09-22 AEW Dynamite 012
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More than that though, what has changed is what some people want from their entertainment. In movies, books, TV, but especially pro wrestling, the game used to be to look at whatever fears the culture had at that time and then create broad characters out of them for the good guys to defeat. Look at the history of wrestling and you’ll see a million of the most negative offensive stereotypes of different nationalities, races, and sexual orientations, all drawing money by inflaming whatever prejudices the general public had at that moment. Roger Ebert famously once called movies “A machine that generates empathy,” with the great ones making us understand and feel sympathy for people different than ourselves. Wrestling, by and large, has been the opposite, a machine that generates animosity. It made a lot of money being that kind of machine.

Some people still want that. For many of us entertainment is escapism and, for some, the escapism comes from all our problems being consolidated down to people from one place, one race, one sexuality, those problems being personified in one person, and that person then getting their ass kicked. In the 1980s you couldn’t solve the Cold War and erase your general fear of it, but you could watch Dusty Rhodes kick the Koloff’s asses. You could address your homophobia, or you could just boo Gorgeous George in the 1950s, or Goldust in the 90s for that matter. Generalizations and cheap hatred make for easy villains, which makes for easy, satisfying answers to all your problems.

But for other people today, escapism is a world where they don’t have to think about the prejudices and conflicts that are constantly in their face the rest of the day. They don’t want a heel that tries to piss them off for real, because they spend too much of the rest of the day being pissed off. They don’t want their emotions manipulated, they don’t want to be called names at a meet and greet or during an online interaction.

You Can’t Please Everyone

That’s why MJF and other heels can’t please everyone today at the same time. Different segments of fans want different things. Some fans want wrestling to be a place to feel real hate in a controlled environment, some want it to be the one place where they can escape it. And even if everyone still just wanted the former, that would be impossible to achieve because of how incredibly our culture is divided right now.

One person’s heel today is another person’s babyface, and vice versa. Some fans want heels to be as complex as characters in a modern drama, others just want the simple comfort of good vs evil. Some people want wrestlers to be mysterious and keep up the facade at all times, they want the lines between real and fake to be blurred, and some people want to really know the people behind the characters, they want to boo them in the ring and then have a friendly conversation with them online while they watch them play Elden Ring.

So what is MJF to do? What are heels to do? What are promoters to do? When I try to think of the answer, I think of pasta sauce.

I’m not a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, but there’s a lecture I heard him give that has always stuck with me. It was about a psychophysicist named Howard Moskowitz. Food companies would hire him to do research to try to fine-tune their products, to find the perfect recipes that would appeal best to everyone. Pepsi hired him, Prego pasta sauce hired him. What Howard found through extensive research is there was not one single product that appeals equally to everyone. Some people liked their Pepsi really sweet, some liked it not that sweet at all, some liked it in the middle. Likewise, there was no one pasta sauce that everyone would love. Some like their sauce smooth, some like it chunky, some like it spicy, some hate it spicy.

The work of Howard and others like him are a major reason why when you go grocery shopping now you have eighteen flavors of mustard and nine types of Reese’s Cups to choose from. Companies learned you could not create one version of any product that would please everyone, but you could create a group of varieties that collectively would. There was no perfect pasta sauce, there were only perfect pasta sauces. There was no perfect Pepsi, there were only perfect Pepsis.

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I think there used to be one perfect heel in wrestling. That’s not the era we’re living in now. There are different segments of the audience that want different things and no one wrestler can please them all. You can’t simultaneously be old school and modern, or keep kayfabe while being approachable outside the ring, or blur the lines between fiction and reality while also not insulting some fan’s intelligence, or draw real hated from some fans while being a complete escape from the same thing for others. But as a promoter you can have a variety of wrestlers that allow you to have something for everyone. Adam Cole and Dan Lambert hit different fanbases (with some crossover), but luckily, you can employ them both. Today there is no perfect heel, there are only perfect heels.

What makes MJF so fascinating is he has more options than most. Most heels have one way of heeling that they can do, that they’re good at, that they feel is the right way to do things. MJF is a Swiss army knife of approaches. I feel like he is the rare wrestler today who can appeal to any demographic of fan he wants to, just not simultaneously.

So what direction will he end up going in? Will he keep alternating what he does, making everyone happy some of the time but no one happy all of the time? Will he eventually settle into just one style that he prefers? Or will he be the person to do what I think is impossible, which is meld them all together in a way that makes everyone happy at the same time? For a guy who seems as concerned will building an all-timer legacy as Max, this is a challenge that will be a hell of a lot more difficult than getting a big raise on his next contract.

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