Featured image by Scott Lesh

Here’s the frustrating thing about MJF. Based on the things he says, and the creative output he’s had since winning the AEW World Championship, there’s a lot of things that I agree with him on in theory. MJF’s been a pretty vocal advocate of some traditional maxims about pro wrestling that are sure to warm the hearts of many a critic and fan.

He believes that bombast isn’t necessary to make great matches, that getting more out of less is not only more creatively impressive but also physically practical for performers. He demonstrates this by getting a fairly simple–and silly, let’s be honest–move in the Kangaroo Kick over as a major part of his arsenal.

MJF believes that there’s value in working outside of a set formula, trying to keep every major match up unique and memorable in its own way. In this reign alone, he’s done a 60-minute Iron Man match, a big stadium morality tale about competition conflicting with friendship, and now a real classic face vs. heel title match only this time with him on the hero’s side. He also clearly believes in taking big swings creatively, that’s why we get something like the bait and switch booking of tonight’s title match, or perhaps more controversially, his involvement in angle that utilized antisemitism to garner heel heat.

MJF’s a student of the game. He’s on the record constantly about his constant revisiting of pro wrestling’s past–specifically North American TV wrestling–and this comes through in his act which takes clear influence from the likes of names like Flair, Piper, even The Rock. Even in the angles he produces, something like tonight’s story built around a leg injury pulls from something like Clash of the Champions XVII with a big heroic return in a commandeered vehicle recalls some peak Attitude Era WWF shenanigans.

MJF sees the importance in selling as one of the most essential tools in a pro wrestler’s arsenal. That’s why against Jay White, he spends the vast majority of it selling his leg in order to gain the sympathy of the LA crowd.

Talking purely broad strokes, ideologically, all these things that MJF seems to value as a performer are good and correct things. They’re things that I look for when evaluating the work of wrestlers past and present. Yet in the attempted application of all these generally good ideals, there just seems to be a major disconnect such that none of it ever gels quite right for me. I’ve not been a fan of any of the matches MJF’s had since winning the title, and all of them continue to just baffle me with the choices being made.

Again, let’s zero in on the match at hand.

Enough people have rightfully mocked the convoluted and nonsensical story that runs through the Full Gear PPV. It makes no sense, it’s deeply stupid, and it’s the kind of thing that’s complicated for the sake of being complicated. Let’s set all that aside because that much is already clear. All those twists and turns aside, what we end up having is a very simple story: a hobbled babyface champion against a cunning heel with goons backing him up at ringside.

Everyone involved clearly understands the inherent drama in this but have seemingly no perspective on how to structure their bout around how to achieve its maximum effect. Sure, they do things that on the surface feel correct: MJF spends the whole match (mostly) selling his leg and Jay White’s incredibly focused on targeting the bad limb as well. If you look at the individual pieces, they all seem right. But one just needs to sit back and look at the bigger picture to understand how flawed this is from concept alone.

This match goes a few second shy of half an hour. The match books MJF into this ridiculous corner where he both has to have a lame leg for the entirety of a match but also believably make a big comeback across a 30 minute time period. I’m not saying this is an impossible task, but I don’t feel MJF or White thread that needle here. The longer it goes, the more MJF’s survival with this brutal injury that nearly led to him vacating the championship on order of his bosses feels less and less believable. All of that’s not helped by Max’s approach to the leg selling either. For someone who preaches the benefits of minimalism in wrestling, MJF goes full hog to let us know that his leg hurts. Oh we get all the greatest hits of leg selling here–reaching for it, massaging it, limping, knee crumbles. Again, individual elements that could and have worked for others before, but just battered in to the point of becoming meaningless. He’s howling in pain every time he has to put weight on it. His leg’s almost falling off, but he can still charge towards the ropes and leap up into a flying cutter to the floor 20 minutes or so into this title match.

It’s overdone selling to the point of parody. I would compare it to Shawn Michaels at SummerSlam ’05, but even Michaels knew that he was making a farce of his selling. MJF’s attempts here seem entirely earnest but just so wildly off the mark.

The whole match is like this, choices and actions that seem right at a glance but just don’t feel right where they are. If I’m being generous, I like some of the ideas MJF has about firing up as a babyface. When he’s hung upside down in the tree of woe and punches the mat to get himself amped to rise back up, it’s a decent visual in the moment and does the trick of bringing the fans with him too. But even something like that gets spoiled when I zoom out even further.

The thing is, I just don’t buy MJF’s character as a face. Why should I? Because he didn’t turn on Adam Cole? That’s the big thing meant to overcome the years and years of being consistently depicted as the worst scum of the earth trashbag traitor in the entire company. Everything’s different because MJF did some shtick-filled skits with the Baybay guy? I don’t get it, and maybe that’s just me, but I’m not changing my mind any time soon about it.

And at the core of it, that’s what’s so upsetting with a vast majority of the matches MJF’s amassed across this now year-long title reign. MJF talks a big game, and I do not deny that he’s likely trying to make a best effort to embody all the things he values both as a wrestler and likely as a fan of pro wrestling. He wants drama, big emotion, things rooted in selling, and exciting stories, things punctuated by a patience before busting out big moves to make them mean even more than if he senselessly threw them out there. And it’s sort of working, isn’t it? The crowds are with him, he’s World Champion of a top company, he’s making the money he wants and is poised to make even more as his contract approaches its end. MJF has no real, practical reason to switch up his game, because it must feel like it’s working absolutely fine, better than fine, things are going great.

That’s all great in theory. But being a student of the game doesn’t make you a great pro wrestler, otherwise any one of a dozen Twitter mutuals of mine would be World Champion by now. Believing things intellectually does not always translate to practical execution.

This match with Jay White is a strange mix of good and interesting ideas shaped into the entirely wrong fashion. It’s an unwieldy uncanny valley kind of creation–all the elements of “good” wrestling are there but in the wrong order, mutated and warped into an ugly whole. Everything about it feels discordant, unpleasant to behold.

MJF knows all the words, but not the music.

Rating: No thanks

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