There’s this feeling that washes over you when you’re witnessing something historic happening right in front of your eyes. It’s this electricity almost — a jolt that runs through your body, forcing you to sit up a little straighter, to lean forward, the moment pulling you in, your attention becoming hyper-focused, as this singular thought runs through your head: “This is something I’ll be telling my grandkids about.” The world of sports is great about producing such a feeling. Think back to last year’s NBA Finals, where Giannis Antetokounmpo turned in a legendary 50-point performance in Game 6 to win his first NBA Championship. In the NFL, there’s the 28-3 comeback in Super Bowl LI, one of the many legendary moments in Tom Brady’s illustrious 7 championship ring career — a feat that’s unlikely to ever be eclipsed. There are countless others from the world of sports and beyond, and you, no doubt, have quite a few such moments locked and loaded in the front of your mind, ready to rattle off exactly where you were and what it was like to be alive during such a time should the topic ever arise in conversation.
This past Wednesday, the world of professional wrestling gave us one of those moments, as generational talent Maxwell Jacob Friedman delivered an all-timer of a promo — the second in his young but already memorable career (the first being his tearful villain origin story which I wrote about here). So in the pantheon of great wrestling promos such as Stone Cold’s “Austin 3:16,” Ric Flair’s “…With a tear in my eye” from Royal Rumble ‘92, Mick Foley’s “Cane Dewey,” which he delivered in ECW as Catcus Jack, Dusty Rhodes’ “Hard Times,” and CM Punk’s “Pipebomb,” we can now add MJF’s “…You Fucking Mark.”
To understand this promo even in the slightest, you need to have an awareness of everything that led up to it, which if you’re any sort of modern-day wrestling fan — meaning one who constantly keeps up with all the dirt sheets and insider info (more on that in a second) — you likely already know the backstory. But in case not, here’s the long and short of it. A few months ago, it was reported MJF was growing disgruntled with his contract as he felt — rightly so — that he had outperformed his initial deal and was worthy of commanding top-tier money, the likes of which guys like Jon Moxley, Bryan Danielson, and CM punk among others were making. The behind-the-scenes drama soon made its way in front of the camera, with MJF making explicit references to his contract and the year 2024, the year his contract is set to expire, during in-ring promos and interviews. And if the reporting is to be believed, the relationship between AEW President Tony Khan and MJF began to sour, with contract negotiations hitting an impasse. Which led us to this past weekend at Double or Nothing, where it was reported MJF no-showed a meet and greet event and even went so far as to book a plane ticket out of Las Vegas, leading to speculation he may, in fact, no show the PPV and ruin one of the company’s longest-running storylines he had going with Wardlow. All of this was much ado about nothing, though. In the end, MJF showed up Sunday night and did the job for his former henchman, taking double-digit powerbombs and helping cement Wardlow as one of the company’s fastest rising stars.
With all that out of the way, let’s dig into what makes MJF’s promo from this past Wednesday an all-timer. As I’ve written here on The Alabama Take before, professional wrestling is at its best when the line between fiction and reality becomes blurred because it’s the only artform operating in such a space. This isn’t an opinion held solely by me but a commonly held belief amongst wrestling fans. And there isn’t a better example of this line blurring in the modern era than MJF, a man who routinely gives media interviews “in character,” a man whose own parents acknowledge he’s a dick, a man who constantly berates fans at meet and greets — because he’s a bad guy and that’s what bad guys do, they’re assholes — and a man who’s gimmick, in essence, is that there is no gimmick. This is truly who he is, or at least, that’s how he’s chosen to portray himself all the time to the outside world. In an era where kayfabe is dead, he’s the last guy who refuses to conform to this new normal. That’s why he’s often described as a throwback, harkening back to the days when wrestling’s heels made people hate them so much they sometimes got stabbed or shot at in the parking lot. So it should come as no surprise that the best “worked-shoot” promo — meaning this blending of kayfabe and reality — since Punk’s star-making “Pipebomb” would get delivered by none other than MJF.
But MJF’s promo starts out in an interesting way. Right off the bat, he ditches the patented Burberry scarf. He tells us it’s Max Friedman talking — a direct and effective way of signaling to the audience we’re moving into “shoot” territory. And over the next few minutes, Friedman goes scorched earth, channeling that intense, frantic energy of greats like Flair and Roddy Piper as he acknowledges the stalled contract talks with Tony Khan and points out (correctly) the fickle, wish-washy nature of wrestling fandom, where the opinions and feelings of fans change at the drop of a hat. While he’s at it, he also manages to throw in a critique of modern-day wrestling, which at times can tend to rely on flashy high-spots and acrobatic moves rather than in-ring psychology and emotional storytelling, which is what the art form was built on. And because he’s a heel — or I would argue because it very well may be true — he proclaims himself to be the best in the world because he’s the only guy in wrestling who makes the audience feel, and he does it without having to do a “bunch of bullshit to get us there” — his words, not mine. After all this, Friedman’s rant zeroes in on Khan himself. He claims Khan hoards his cash for ex-WWE guys and insists that Khan’s rightful place shouldn’t be behind the curtain calling the shots but behind the guardrail with the rest of the fans. And then, in the promo’s wonderful coup-de-grace, Freidman looks straight into the camera and screams, “I WANT YOU TO FIRE ME, YOU FUCKING MARK!” Of course, on the American broadcast, this was censored, and MJF’s mic was cut before we smashed to a commercial break, leaving the fans in the arena to chant MJF’s name and the fans at home wondering what the hell just happened.
I know we tend to engage in hyperbole when it comes to crowning something as great or an all-time classic soon after it happens. We are, after all, prisoners of the moment, so this is bound to happen. But I don’t feel it’s an exaggeration in the slightest to say this is one of the best segments in professional wrestling history and one that will continue to be talked about so long as pro wrestling remains a popular art form. But why? Why has this promo struck a nerve and garnered such critical praise from fans and critics alike? For starters, and this seems rather obvious but nonetheless important to point out, this was great fucking TV. Point blank. This promo was delivered in such a masterful way, with so much passion and vitriol that exploded through the screen that you couldn’t help but be captivated by it. And secondly, and this again is an important distinction to make, Friedman didn’t utter a single lie throughout this promo. Is he a generational talent? Absolutely. Should he be paid the same as guys like Moxley and Danielson and Punk if the criteria is simply performance alone and not on name recognition? Without question. Does he produce moment after moment for the company? Of course. And not just that, this guy has played a pivotal role in two of AEW’s best storylines so far in their young history, those being his feud with CM Punk and his almost two and a half year arc with Wardlow. If we fans perceived MJF as being full of shit, then his whole promo becomes dead on arrival. But instead, it’s legendary in part because it’s all true. And again, there’s the whole “shoot” element to it all, with the reality of Max Friedman’s — the actual person, not the performer — bleeding over onto AEW television.
But of course, as with anything in life, this promo has its detractors, with those claiming this sort of worked-shoot storytelling cheapens and even shatters the suspension of disbelief that is a pre-requisite for enjoying the art of pro wrestling. They claim — quite correctly, I might add — that this sort of storytelling distinguishes between the real — the shoot element — and the fake — everything else on the show. But, as accurate as this may be, is this a legitimate problem? To put it another way, this argument assumes that wrestling fans are incapable and unsophisticated to hold two beliefs inside their head at the same time, which is false. Wrestling fans are completely capable of suspending their disbelief and going with the notion that everything happening on the show is “real,” while at the same time acknowledging that what they’re watching is a scripted performance where the violence portrayed on-screen is actually a choreographed effort between performers in the hope of eliciting an emotional response within the viewer. One idea doesn’t take away from the other. And it’s precisely for this reason why these worked-shoot segments, when done well, turn into some of the most compelling moments in wrestling history. By their very nature, these segments operate in the clashed space between what is real and what is fiction, between what is a part of the script and what isn’t. The rush of energy the viewer receives in watching these segments unfold is mainly due to the viewer attempting to situate the narrative that’s unfolding into its proper space (i.e., is this a part of the show or not?). At it’s core, these worked-shoot elements attempt to push pro wrestling forward in a way that other mediums of storytelling have a rich history of playing in. We have movies and plays and television shows that routinely break the fourth wall. We have novels that engage in various levels of metafiction. What the fourth wall and metafiction are to the movie and novel, the worked-shoot plays the same role in the realm of pro wrestling. And if the artistic boundaries are going to be continually pushed in pro wrestling, we need performers and bookers to continue to experiment in that space.
Keeping on this train of criticism of MJF’s promo, some have even taken the bold stance of comparing this particular promo with the nonsensical fuckery that was Vince Russo’s late-era WCW booking. Even attempting to draw a parallel between the two misses the point entirely. If MJF’s “…You Fucking Mark” and CM Punk’s “Pipebomb” promos are elegant, minor incisions made with a surgeon’s skill on wrestling’s kayfabe — letting in just enough reality while still upholding pro wrestling’s facade — Vince Russo’s booking is a fucking Looney Tunes-style sledgehammer to the head over and over again in which wrestling’s inherent phoniness takes center stage above all else, with non-wrestlers defeating actual wrestlers for world championships and the incessant talk of things like the script and creative control is said explicitly, as in the case in the now infamous Bash at the Beach 2000, where Jeff Jarrett laid down in the middle of the ring for Hulk Hogan only to have Vince Russo prance to the ring and publicly fire Hogan for not following along with his booking plans. One could argue that both MJF and Punk’s famous worked-shoot promos and Russo’s style of booking fundamentally come from the same place, and while that may be true in theory, it’s the execution of those ideas that make all the difference. One is done with an artist’s touch. The other is objectively bad on every level. There is no comparison. It would be like saying my niece’s tee-ball game, where the center fielder is sitting down playing with the grass, and the kid at the plate runs to third after hitting the ball only a few feet from the tee, is somehow the same thing as watching the Atlanta Braves square off against the Mets. Sure, there’s gloves and bats and balls, but it ain’t the same.
The most interesting part of all this, though, is what if this whole ordeal isn’t a worked-shoot at all? What if it’s all been a work since the beginning? How fascinating would it be if all of it, from the reports of MJF and Khan’s strenuous relationship to the no-showed meet and greet and plane ticket out of Las Vegas — was nothing more than an elaborate ploy to get the modern-day wrestling fan, which thanks to the Internet believes in some way they’re “smart” to the business, back into a place of unknowing? If old-school kayfabe was marked by fans believing both the action inside the ring and the animosity between competitors was real, could we be approaching a new era of kayfabe, one in which the narratives of wrestling are not only crafted in front of the camera but behind the scenes and in the dirt sheets as well? I’m not saying this tactic should be employed constantly. You can imagine a scenario where this would grow old very quickly. But leaking out reports to industry insiders in an attempt to add to the narrative opens up an entirely new and modern-day avenue of storytelling that could lead, at least in my humble opinion, to some exciting places (this supposes that these insiders wouldn’t reject this notion entirely on its face, which I suspect they would; but for me, as a fan of wrestling — something in which the stakes are infinitesimally small compared to the grand scheme of things — I’d much rather be entertained than informed).
It’s no doubt that regardless of whether these gripes from MJF are real or not, we’ve certainly ventured into “work” territory now with this storyline. That’s not to say it’s somehow become any less interesting. As of this writing, MJF has been removed from the AEW roster, and his merchandise has been pulled from the store — you gotta admire this level of commitment to the bit, don’t you? What’s also without question is that this story is shaping up to be yet another iconic feather in the young cap for Maxwell Jacob Friedman. And judging by the amount of interest in last Wednesday’s promo, AEW has struck gold, at least early on. Will they capitalize on this momentum, turning this legendary promo into a legendary, months-long story? That remains to be seen. But it wouldn’t surprise me if we are in for several more of these “I remember when” type moments. And if all this helps push pro wrestling forward narratively in a way we haven’t seen before, wouldn’t that be something, too?