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While AEW was built on the backs of The Elite, as well as a pair of big acquisitions in Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley, the promotion has also been focused on building new stars; talent in their 20s that will theoretically take over for the Moxleys and the Jerichos.
Out of that group, which includes Darby Allin, Sammy Guevara and Jungle Boy, no star has shined brighter than MJF. At just 24 years of age, MJF has established himself as one of the best speakers in wrestling, and plays an arrogant, almost retro-era heel role that has largely been absent from mainstream wrestling for years. Fans who might be turned off by the modern product get a kick out of MJF, who is right out of the Roddy Piper mold thanks to his quick wit and boundless self-confidence.
Before AEW, MJF had just spent a year breaking through on the independents, wrestling on some of the larger indies company such as GCW and Beyond Wrestling. He had also spent time working in MLW and appearing on Fusion, in a midcard role that didn’t exactly highlight him as a must-see talent.
It wasn’t until he became involved in AEW, did his stock really start to rise. Paired with Cody Rhodes in a long storyline that ultimately would end with MJF predictably turning on Cody, which led to the biggest and most successful feud of his young career. After beating Cody, it became evident that MJF, while a prospect in 2019, would be a featured player in 2020 and the AEW World Championship was going to be his sooner than when most people originally thought.
The problem is that as a wrestler gets closer and closer to becoming that kind of business-altering star, the chances for failure increase. Plenty of wrestlers flash the potential to become a game-changing star, but few actually end up reaching that elusive goal. MJF looks like the future of the business right now, but what needs to happen between now and then?
The reason MJF stands out today is his speaking and heel charisma. People like to use vague expressions like “That guy has IT!” like it is impossible to describe why he appeals to viewers. To me, the reason MJF has stood out on Dynamite is because he is a really good talker and exudes confidence in his character and personality in this promos. You don’t get the sense that MJF is playing a character, leaning on basic insults to get cheap heat, you get the sense that Maxwell Jacob Friedman is a rich, arrogant jerk in real life.
So how does MJF, and by extension, AEW, take that talent and get the most out of it? I think a key point would be that MJF needs to be sold more as a physical threat. If he is going to challenge Moxley for the title at some point, fans need to buy that MJF could actually beat him in a match, not just entertain them with witty promos. He’s already a pretty good worker, and even though his mouth is always going to be his biggest strength, he will need to perform at a certain level in the ring if he wants to be a main event star.
Something that I think derailed The Miz’s career, something that knocked him out of being a major main event wrestler and into a career mid-card guy, was that even though he had a lot of charisma and was a very good talker, fans never bought that he was a credible threat to beating John Cena, or Randy Orton. Whether that was because he just wasn’t a convincing enough worker or he wasn’t booked strong enough is hard to say, but the onus will be on MJF and AEW to make sure that fans buy MJF as a real threat and not just a cowardly heel who can’t do anything on his own.
That aspect was key to making guys like Ric Flair, or perhaps a better comparison is Ted DiBiase, work. When DiBiase did the “Million Dollar Man” gimmick it was similar to MJF, he was an arrogant rich guy who hid behind a bodyguard and took cheap shots at everyone. However, whenever DiBiase was in the ring he was always portrayed as dangerous, with the announcers putting over his technical skills and that once he slapped on The Million Dollar Dream, it was over.
So when DiBiase actually got in the ring with someone like Hulk Hogan, fans actually believed that DiBiase could beat Hogan. That adds to the stakes of the matches and helps the babyface. What worked with Ric Flair is that if the babyface was able to deal with the Four Horseman and put up with Flair’s antics, they still had the obstacle of pinning or submitting Ric Flair, who was presented as a genius, unbeatable wrestler. That meant that when a guy like Dusty Rhodes managed to actually beat Flair for the title, it was a momentous occasion because he had to overcome so many obstacles, the final boss being Flair himself.
Another peril for someone like MJF is that at the end of the day, a heel’s job is to help get the babyface over. In modern wrestling, babyfaces draw. Fans want to cheer for wrestlers, and they eventually want those good guys to end up on top. This can be a problem because booking babyfaces, particularly in WWE, is a big challenge in 2020. Fans won’t respond to just any babyface, they have to think they are cool and want to believe in them. That is a problem because oftentimes, the heels are booked to look cooler, smarter and more believable than the babyfaces. That creates a broken dynamic where the heels are often cheered and the babyfaces are often booed, and once that happens any attempts at traditional storytelling have to be thrown out the window.
For someone as talented as MJF, this can be a challenge, because with his charisma and mic skills, MJF is often going to come across as the most entertaining guy in the feud. The solution is that AEW, and whatever babyfaces do have major programs with MJF, need to actually be over and have a connection with the audience, otherwise MJF’s star presence will swallow them. That isn’t a problem when MJF is working with guys like Cody and Moxley, but if the idea is he will be an anchor for the future, it means like future top babyfaces need to be at that same level.
Ultimately, MJF is exciting not just because he is good right now, but because of his age and experience level, the potential for him to be so much better is tantalizing. He is the Ronald Acuna, Zion Williamson or Kylian Mbappe of wrestling. But him reaching that potential isn’t a guarantee, he still needs to get better in different aspects of the business and the company he works for needs to know how to book him and present his character for him to get the maximum out of his abilities.
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