MJF is the best wrestler in the world

Sports

There is no greater heat magnet in wrestling.

There is no greater heat magnet in wrestling.
Screenshot: AEW

“Love to hate” is a term lazily thrown around by media types. It’s generally the only phrase they can come up with to describe someone who is generally hated or taunted, but also attracts a lot of attention. Or it’s used as a cover for not really digging into why someone is loathed by the masses. Trevor Bauer had “love to hate him” stamped on his chubby face by a host of writers and broadcasters who were never inclined to go beyond “quirky” as she enjoyed the fact that Bauer just wasn’t pushing tired clichés to the press. That worked out well for them.

Tom Brady is another. I didn’t like Tom Brady, and almost everyone who wasn’t a fan of the Patriots didn’t like him either. His slimy and empty grin on my TV was nothing but disgust, and even his playing – excellent as it was – wasn’t even that exciting to watch. It was just efficient. I didn’t tune in to watch him lose. I tuned in because it was the playoffs and he just happened to be there all the time. There’s nothing about Brady’s empty barrel persona that kept people hooked on the NFL. It’s the NFL, we were watching anyway, and he just never went away. I’d rather he lose, but that’s not why I looked.

It also applies to theater or TV or movies, and luckily because wrestling lives in this underworld between sports and theater, there’s always a connection at hand. For example, everyone hated Joffrey Baratheon. So visceral. We all wanted him to get his own in the most horrific way. But there was nothing nice about him when he was on screen. You got no happiness from the way he made you feel. I didn’t like it. I hated it. What was the point.

But Maxwell Jacob Friedman, known to AEW fans as MJF, pokes that needle. Fans really love to hate him.

I was at AEW Dynamite last night here in our snow-capped mountain, and let me tell you I don’t think I’ve ever seen a reaction MJF gets. It actually starts before he gets on stage. As soon as the first note hit its theme, an entire arena jumped to their feet and started howling until their lungs bled. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a crowd in unison so fast. They were faster on their feet than strikeouts to end World Series games. Or goals to win World Cup matches. It was a “doll” in every sense of the word.

But part of that rush to get into the game that AEW and MJF created is how much fun it is to captivate him. That his heel character has become so cartoonishly hated, so bizarre, that it’s just awesome to play the normal part of screaming your disapproval of him. You laugh at how much you can’t stand the sight of this man. It’s like watching Naked Gun movies and laughing at yourself because you laugh at jokes that are so obvious and so stupid, and you can’t stop. The cycle just continues. That’s what MJF does, except the first feeling isn’t laughter, it’s disgust.

There isn’t one aspect of a heel character that MJF hasn’t gotten quite right. The withering looks, the self-assured prop as if the booing really makes his blood pump, the occasional direct confrontations with fans, the cowards hiding behind others until there is absolutely no other option, the dismissal of his cohorts, the very rich pram… simply masterful. Has MJF crossed the line with some of its promos? Of course, because sometimes he’s immersed in sexism or other problem areas a little too much. It’s hard to dance that line, like a character like MJF a lot, constantly without falling over. That is no excuse for him, and the hope is that he will stay on the beam permanently. But again, it’s his character, and that character will sometimes say terrible things, as long as it’s not a place where he lives.

MJF can jump back and forth between the usual tearing down of the city he’s in or alternate his sophistication with the barbarity of the mob – a real wrestling chapter – then make some clever and damning comments and observations. And his style, while pompous and hard as can be, is delightful. You can’t look away.

And MJF tops it all off by actually being able to get into the ring. The act would not go on without excellent matches. He is certainly not the best employee in the company, but he is much closer to the top than he gets the credit for. Yes, it’s a slower style, which it should be like a heel. It leaves time for the progress of his role and his stories. It’s a style that’s heavy on strikes and shenanigans, but that’s the way it goes. And when it’s time to kick him into high gear, he’s there with everyone. It’s straight out of classic wrestling from the 70’s and 80’s. You can see this guy in every Ric Flair video from the past. It’s almost cliche without ever being dull or rotten. That classic wrestling heel is channeled through MJF, but not copied. It’s almost a Hollywood image of what wrestling looked like back then, but it’s real.

That’s why he got 40 minutes with CM Punk last night and was the first in AEW to beat him. The company has earned enough trust from its fans to let CM Punk lose in Chicago and not fear the roof collapsing. MJF deserved that.

Because the thing about “loved to be hated” is yes, we all want MJF to collapse his face at some point. It’s the foundation of wrestling – the long chase to finally defeat the bad guy. But the point is, we want to see all the steps to get there. We invest more in this than in the actual, eventual defeat. That’s the point with the misnomer of “love to hate.” Usually we don’t care about the trip. We don’t want the end of the catharsis. We just want that person to leave.

There is no one like him. We see wrestlers all the time trying to turn around with just a simple “YOU PEOPLE…” promotion and/or the occasional cheating. It’s so lazy and predictable. Fans captivate just to stay awake.

MJF makes us want to see the whole thing. We want more from him so we can keep him and he happily raving about us. The ending doesn’t matter as much as how we get there. We must have this unique pleasure.

MJF is truly one of the few people anywhere, in any arena, that fans love to hate.

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