Originally published on Fanbyte on November 29, 2021

I’m disappointed in MJF.

Honestly, I feel that way about half the time that I’m watching any MJF promo. It’s clear to see that there’s a spark of talent there that could be great. He has a baseline ability to deliver his lines in a way that’s clear, expressive, and articulate. He’s a good public speaker on an American wrestling TV show, so of course he’s going to get some praise.

Delivery is rarely enough though. In professional wrestling history, there have only been a handful of workers that could get away with saying any damn thing because of the overwhelming power of their natural charisma. Perhaps the most famous example of this would be The Rock, a man who could say the dumbest thing you’ve heard in your life and sound like the coolest person in the world doing it.

MJF is not one of the blessed few. It’s strange because there’s a decidedly theatrical nature to the way he delivers promos. I mean that in the most literal sense. His delivery style reminds me of watching an actor on Broadway, he plays to the nosebleeds. While this means that he’s almost always competent at delivering promos, it does place a ceiling on them. His promos often exist in an uncanny valley of quality. They look and sound just close enough to what a “good promo” should be but just miss the mark. In a business where authenticity is the most valuable commodity, every MJF promo comes across as meticulous and artificial.

MJF feels fake.

I do think that to a certain extent, this is by design. Perhaps the best evidence to this would be the “Making MJF (Maxwell Jacob Friendman) // A Real Documentary” video created by Kenny Johnson. Published in 2018 as MJF neared the end of his indie run, the documentary seeks to further blur the lines between kayfabe and reality as MJF is wont to do.

The documentary tells the story of Maxwell Jacob Friedman, the performer behind the wrestling character, and his oppressive need to control his public image. By the end, the character of MJF, real-world pro wrestler, gets exposed as a master manipulator carefully crafting the image he projects out onto the world. He wants to appear like a swell guy from a humble upbringing when really, he’s a litigious monster wielding his wealth to further his dastardly deeds.

I think MJF’s performance in this documentary far beyond anything he’s done in TV because it requires a certain level of restraint. There’s a complex human truth at the core of this documentary—the rich and powerful use their wealth to shape the narrative around them.

He’s not going to win any Oscars for it but there’s a very real balancing act that MJF pulls off in this documentary. He’s able to overcome his more theatrical urges because the character itself calls for restraint. The character is repressing the worst parts of himself and it makes the glimpses of his awful behavior all the more powerful. At the same time, it provides purpose to the artificial vibe that permeates his delivery. He is a deeply insecure man whose entire public persona is, in fact, artificial.

Hell, this is a lesson that he even carries into some portions of his AEW career. As Cody’s sycophantic friend, always teetering between loyalty and a potential heel turn, MJF utilized that same skillset to similar results. It’s probably the most fulfilling his character ever felt in AEW. Even as a full-fledged heel, he again got to thread that needle as a saboteur within the ranks of the Inner Circle.

But now, with MJF having burned his bridges, and fully exposing himself as the baddest, most evil heel anywhere on the planet, all that subtlety and complexity is gone. And yet, the awkward sheen of unreality still covers everything that he does. MJF as we see him now on AEW’s weekly television should be who he truly is—the embodiment of the worst impulses of the privileged and powerful.

And still, nothing about him feels real in the slightest.

It also doesn’t help that in recent months, MJF’s go-to tactic has been to aim for the cheapest heat possible. It’s something that he clearly takes pride in, looking for just the right amount of classlessness to aim for without getting himself legitimately suspended. What this results in is a lot of cliched anti-hometown sentiments and a constant struggle to make every encounter as emotionally driven and personally motivated as possible. Perhaps the worst example of this was MJF going out of his way to make callous remarks about the late Brian Pillman and his family to work a mini-feud with AEW Dark mainstay Brian Pillman Jr.

I don’t dislike it because I find it offensive. I dislike it because it’s lazy.

When every feud is the most personal, emotional one ever, they all start to bleed together and mean nothing. When MJF talks about Darby Allin’s uncle passing away in a car crash, it doesn’t shock because that’s just what MJF does these days. He’s actually found a way to water down personal attacks to the point of near meaninglessness.

This brings me to the November 24th, 2021 edition of AEW Dynamite. The show opens with a mic battle between CM Punk and MJF. This segment goes for twenty full minutes, the longest promo segment on any of AEW’s programming since the company’s inception. It also might just be my least favorite MJF promo since coming to AEW.

It’s important to note that outside of MJF’s own work here, there’s a few things working against him. Perhaps the most notable circumstance here is that MJF is Punk’s latest rival after Eddie Kingston. The Eddie Kingston vs. CM Punk rivalry is most famous for the scorcher of a promo segment they did on the November 5th edition of Rampage. That was a promo segment that represented the boiling over of a decade plus of deeply personal resentment and shared history. It’s also a segment of television featuring the two best talkers on wrestling TV today. On the other hand, MJF and CM Punk have no real historical ties between them and this segment has to do the heavy lifting of creating that animosity.

Even on just a visual level, the production on the MJF and Punk segment draws parallels to the Kingston and Punk promo. Both segments start with the participants standing in opposite corners of the ring, Punk firmly stationed on the upper right corner from the hard cam, MJF and Kingston starting in the lower left. Both MJF and Kingston are filmed from an isometric angle to get a view of their faces without them having to constantly turn towards the hard camera.

It’s almost unfair for AEW to set MJF up in this way. Visually comparing MJF and Eddie Kingston is just a destined failure for MJF. Both in and out of kayfabe, MJF just lacks any of the authenticity and charisma that Eddie Kingston brings. That’s a comparison that most wrestlers lose out on but it’s exacerbated by just how lame MJF’s opening salvos are.

To set the tone, MJF opens with a “Punky Brewster” pun, somehow trying to communicate to this young crowd of wrestling fans by referencing a sitcom that stopped airing in 1988. It’s also the kind of limp, flaccid name-based pun that one might find in a late 1990s Chris Jericho routine, a man that MJF spent the last year working in close proximity with. MJF also whips out his leftover material about the Pillman family by comparing Punk to a meth addict. There’s an obligatory joke about Punk’s UFC career, that’s fine enough. It takes minutes before MJF gets to the core of the conflict—he’s insulted that Punk never mentioned him as a potential opponent in AEW. MJF has misconstrued that silence as fear on Punk’s part and warns that instead of pipebombs, MJF “drops nukes.”

The look of indifferent embarrassment on Punk’s face says it all. Within seconds, Punk eviscerates the entire MJF persona. He points out that MJF’s insults are cheap and hack, he belittles MJF by dismissing him as nothing more than a jealous fan, then harshest of all, he compares MJF to The Miz. In almost half the time, Punk cuts MJF down to size, and also creates a far more personal and heated environment than any of MJF’s lines did.

MJF is dead in the water before he can even speak again.

It’s clear that MJF just doesn’t have much left in the tank after that. His comeback features the most inorganic transition possible, harping on the phrase “almost what I wanted.” For a moment, it seems like he might actually hit on something when he berates Punk for struggling to defeat opponents far lower on the ladder than him—a problem that comes back into play later that night even!—but then quickly swerves away from that idea to make a lame bad breath joke about Punk “kissing ass.” The less said about the Robot Punk bit after that, the better. MJF will be thankful if no one ever brings up that line again.

MJF reaches for the easiest possible crutch afterwards. He makes WWE jokes. Greats like Punk and Danielson use WWE allusions to punctuate important points of theirs. When talking down Hangman, Danielson does it to cement his character’s turn to a much more heelish persona; in this segment, Punk compares MJF to The Miz to belittle the man’s entire existence. Later on, Punk utilizes another Triple H reference as callback to MJF’s own, as well as to doom MJF’s entire career.

MJF wields his WWE references with all the finesse and subtlety of a Cody Rhodes entrance. In the midst of tired John Cena puns, MJF stumbles into another good piece of emotional truth. He points out Punk’s insecurity, a character flaw that has defined so much of Punk’s career both in and out of the ring. But it’s buried beneath the “PG Punk” nickname as well as a “King of Kings” namedrop that draws a half-hearted pop from the crowd. It’s stunning to see the concept of diminishing returns in wrestling be illustrated so clearly.

It’s actually tough to summarize anything MJF says in this promo because he runs through so much material with only the thinnest possible connective tissue between ideas. It’s part of the reason that when I’m not giving my full attention to this segment, most everything MJF says just kind of flies out of my memory. I’ve watched this thing three times now in the process of writing this piece but I still struggle to pin down anything MJF’s actually trying to say beyond cracking quips about CM Punk I could dig up on a 2010s message board.

Even MJF’s physicality betrays him in this segment. For a good chunk of it, he’s shuffling about in the ring, head tilted down with his eyes on the canvas. It belies his nervousness and discomfort in the moment and zaps away so much of the energy he’s trying to create with his barbs.

It’s so difficult to watch. It’s painful how hard MJF’s trying, flailing about in his attempt to get on Punk’s level. Punk only ever looks half-interested at anything MJF says, he’s not even firing off any top shelf material here but he is destroying MJF in this segment. The disparity between their abilities has never been clearer, and I can only assume that that’s a failure on the company’s part.

It’s clear that AEW wanted this to be a big moment for MJF. Just look at the time they allotted this, a full twenty minutes of Dynamite. A majority of that twenty minutes is spent on MJF talking, Punk only retorts with a fraction of the runtime. In the aftermath, AEW stoked the social media fires, clipping some of MJF’s more provocative lines on Twitter with captions like “.@The_MJF just went there.” The main image they try to leave in the viewer’s mind is that of MJF face-to-face with Punk, two titans of the pro wrestling promo clashing at last.

There’s still time to course correct, of course. AEW can talk about how MJF got destroyed by CM Punk on the mic and how that might fuel his vengeful drive. I doubt that though. I picture the company happily trying to pass on the idea that these two are on the same level. AEW’s a company that wants to invest in their young stars and MJF’s someone they’ve clearly had high hopes for from the beginning. They’ll clip this promo and show its highlights and bandy it about for years to come.

But the reality of it is so different. MJF talked himself into circles, his head meekly bowed to stare at the mat, as one of the greatest talkers in the industry broke him down with ease.

Quite simply, Punk is better than MJF.

And MJF knows it.

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