Photo: All Elite Wrestling
In the world of professional wrestling, shoot is a term for a performer going off script — usually in a very bad way. When CM Punk, star of three-year-old wrestling promotion AEW, decided to start hurling insults at AEW management during a press conference in September and followed it up with a very real locker-room altercation, it was a shoot — one that would get Punk indefinitely suspended and his AEW World Championship title vacated. This kicked off a tournament to crown a new face of the promotion, during which one of the company’s biggest villains, Maxwell Jacob Friedman (a.k.a. MJF) has emerged as its biggest hero.
Friedman’s persona in the ring is, to put it bluntly, that of an asshole. He wears a Burberry scarf all the time. His tag line is “I’m better than you, and you know it.” He calls people “poors.” He constantly refers to himself as a “generational talent” and “the devil” (his fans are “devil worshippers”). And perhaps worst of all, he’s proudly from Long Island. Parents bring their children to gleefully be insulted by him, fans wait in line for him to scowl in photos and call them names, and people deliberately troll him and bring him homemade gifts to ruin. (In one video, after he drops a fan’s autograph sheet and storms off, the fan yells out, “That’s better than an autograph, bro. You’re the man!”)
Like Statler and Waldorf, Oscar the Grouch, or Friedman’s own favorite comedian, Don Rickles, Friedman’s persona is so easy to hate that he’s impossible not to love. As fellow AEW wrestler Chris Jericho put it recently, “It’s easier to make people hate you than it is to make them like you, but once they start hating you, that’s when they really start liking you.” And as an objectively rough year of pro wrestling draws to a close, fans have turned to MJF as their newest baby face (that’s the wrestling term for “good guy”), thanks in part to his ability to unify the crowd — even if it’s just in collective outrage.
Now MJF is entering the title match on Saturday, November 19, against highly respected industry veteran Jon Moxley, as the unlikely fan favorite at AEW’s Full Gear pay-per-view. Should the 26-year-old Friedman win, he’d become the new face of the WWE’s biggest rival at a time when the industry is still figuring out what a post–Vince McMahon wrestling world looks like.
When Friedman agreed to chat over Zoom about his process as a performer, I was warned that while he can “tone it down,” he is never fully out of character. Indeed, much of the MJF backstory mines his real personal history, largely blurring the line between whoever he may be offstage and the persona we see in the ring. When he was 5 years old, a tape of him singing “You Are My Sunshine” landed him a guest spot on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, where he absolutely reads as a miniature version of the man we see today.
During our conversation, Friedman made it clear that he doesn’t see himself as a “gimmick” but as a confident, talented person providing a breath of fresh air to a generation riddled with anxiety over how it’s perceived. It’s an interesting, modern approach to traditional wrestling kayfabe: Is anyone ever not performing nowadays?
How important is it for you to be funny?
I think people gravitate toward me, because I’m completely, 110 percent authentic. If that makes people laugh, cool. If that makes people cry, cool. If that makes people angry, cool. I’m really just in it for the money.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews being inspired by Don Rickles.
Yeah, Mr. Rickles is, in my opinion, one of the greatest insult comics probably of all time — if not the greatest comic.
Are you a fan of any other stand-ups?
Love Bill Burr. I think Kevin Hart is a riot. My favorite is Tom Segura.
Did you ever consider going into stand-up?
There is more of a relationship between stand-up comics and professional wrestlers than most people would think, because the life of a stand-up comedian is going to small towns for not very much money, trying to make a name for yourself, and performing and busting your ass just trying to get a visceral reaction from a crowd. I think there are huge overlaps there for anybody that understands what trying to make it in the pro-wrestling world is, and the landscape when you’re on the independent circuit is the same exact thing. You’re driving to all these places — it could be five hours away, it could be 15 hours away — and you’re doing it for $20 in front of a bunch of people that probably don’t appreciate what you’re doing as much as they should. It’s just a grind, and it sucks until it doesn’t suck and you make it.
I want to talk about the origins of MJF. Early in your career, you were known as Pete Lightning, but watching one of those old matches, I noticed there wasn’t much difference between him and the MJF of today. Was there any change?
There was no difference. I used to wrestle five times a week when I was on the independent circuit — I would get in a car with some of the other guys at Create a Pro, and we would drive to Blackwood, New Jersey, for Dojo Wars to wrestle in front of five people with five teeth among all of them.
The promoter at the time told me that he wanted to change my name to Pete Lightning. I told him to blow me. He told me, “Do it, or I won’t consider you to be on the main CZW [Combat Zone Wrestling] shows.” I was like, “Whatever,” so I did it. I changed nothing about myself — I was just MJF, but they decided to call me Pete Lightning, and I drove to that part of New Jersey and wrestled every single Wednesday for, I think, a full calendar year. Then I was brought up to the main roster of CZW, which when I look back at it now was a fucking joke, because I was better than all of them on day one, but unfortunately, I had to prove my stock by being Pete Lightning.
That’s very enlightening, because when I was watching the match, I thought, Well, he’s just MJF. It’s the same guy.
Always been. I’ve been me since birth — for better or worse.
You’ve never been tempted to take on any other kind of gimmick?
That’s the thing. I’m not one. There’s so many people that are gimmicks — and I’m not just talking about in the wrestling industry. I’m talking about in the real world. Politicians are gimmicks, man. Some actors are. Some athletes are. Football players. Baseball players. UFC fighters. Like I said, I think the reason that I have such an animalistic magnetism to wrestling fans is because it’s very obviously me.
Yeah, and going off of that, because you are so mean sometimes …
I think I’m honest. I use the word honest.
Well, do you ever worry about being too honest? Is there a line that you won’t cross?
No. Not even a little bit. I think the reason why I’m so freaking cool and super-humble and super-rad and super-beloved by everyone that comes across my path is because, right now, we live in an era in 2022 where everybody is terrified to speak their mind. I think the biggest mistake anybody can make is putting stock in what people have to say that you wouldn’t go to for an opinion. I’m not calling the guy who has an egg profile on Twitter that just tweeted out, “Oh, I don’t think I like the way MJF wears his scarfs.” There’s no part of me that’s like, Damn, I need to call @WetWillie6969 and ask him his opinion on my scarves.
I think that’s a big issue with my generation. If I read every single positive thing people had to say about me, I would be the most egotistical person in the world, because people are nonstop talking about how I’m the greatest professional wrestler of all time, so you just have to walk away from your phone every now and then.
Even though you’re being honest in a way that might hurt people, are you conscious of how the audience loves that?
Again, I just think people love authenticity, and I think the name of the game is authenticity. In a fake world, people want to see real people, and there’s nobody realer than me.
Do you see a difference between the way you talk to people in the ring and, for instance, what CM Punk said in the infamous scrum?
I don’t know. I think that’s up to the interpretation of the fan base. That’s my honest answer. Loving or hating somebody is a visceral thing that happens internally in our body, heart, mind, and soul. It’s up to the viewer who beholds the person to decide how they feel about them. I can’t control how people feel about me. I can’t control the fact that with all of the craziness that has been going on in the world of professional wrestling, I’m still able to overcome it and people can’t stop talking about me.
One of the things I was eager to ask you about was your “better than Moses” promo. That felt really historic, because it seemed like this horrible thing happened that broke people’s hearts and upset a lot of fans, then in walks “the devil” who rallies everybody. Did you see that at the time as Here’s an opening for me. Here’s a way for me to get in there as a real big-time hero?
No. I think sometimes people just have sympathy for the devil. What I would say is this, genuinely and wholeheartedly: Every time, as a talent, you walk through the curtain, your only goal should be to steal the show. Your only goal should be to be the No. 1 thing people are talking about. There have been times in my career where I have taken it as a legitimate personal slight when people look at our show and the first thing they don’t mention is me. It is your job as a performer to make everyone who’s worried about the bullshit focus on you and only you.
By the way, I hate that word promo. I prefer “oratory exhibition.” The amount of classic oratory exhibitions that I have — I take great pride in that.
Do you ever find yourself winging it in the oratory exhibitions? Or are you fully prepped when you go out?
No, I’m always shooting from the hip. Because to me, I think it’s so brutally and painfully obvious when … Let’s use this example: You’re in a board meeting over at “Vulture,” right? Did I say that right?
Yes, you did. Thank you.
A guy’s standing in front of you guys, and he’s talking, and you just feel like he’s clearly practiced this over and over and over again. There is no emotion in his voice. There is no feeling in his voice, in his tone. You get fucking bored. I don’t want to listen to this robot, man. I’ve never been interested in that, and I never will be.
I’m curious how you see yourself as an actor. I mean, you’ve compared yourself to the Rock, John Cena, Batista. The John Cena one interests me, because he’s so willing to humiliate himself on-camera. Would you be willing to humiliate yourself?
Yeah, man, listen. Wrestlers are a different breed. I’m not saying a lot of actors are like this. I’m just saying that there are certain actors that have a cred of being prima donnas. They’ll show up late to set, whatever. Pro wrestlers are used to hot dogs and handshakes as a thank you. And we’re very coachable. If I have a vision of how I want to perform a scene and I do it and I believe in it and the director looks at me and he goes, “Hey, Max, that was dope, but that’s not what I’m looking for,” all right, what do you want? Tell me, then I’ll do it, and I’ll knock it out of the fucking park, because that’s what wrestlers do.
Would you call yourself an artist?
Huh, that’s an interesting one. Feels too pretentious for me. I’m not into it. What I would say is I’m a star. I think you could use the term artist when it comes to acting, but I hate the term artist when it comes to professional wrestling. Artists don’t sit down on a chair and paint with the potential of being paralyzed from the neck down. That doesn’t happen with art. Rarely, if ever, will you hear about that happening on a movie set.
I wish more fans understood that every time we step through those ropes, we’re risking our lives. That’s not dramatic. It’s really not. We’ve seen multiple people die in the ring. We’ve seen multiple people paralyzed in the ring.
Yeah, I was delighted to see you send words of encouragement to Adam Page when he was injured. That was really sweet of you.
I took it right back when I found out he was fine. It really offended me. It hurt for me to fucking tweet that. Then when I found out that he was just fine, I was like, Who am I?!
Speaking of Twitter …
What a dumpster fire that place is.
Do you think you’ll stay on it?
Yeah. Oh my God, all these wussies running around and running away — who gives a shit what some billionaire is saying? If you have fun on the app, have fun on the app. If you’re not having fun on the app, I don’t need to read a three-fucking-page essay about why you’re leaving. Shut up. Nobody cares. You’re not important. Stop thinking you are. Just leave.
You commented on the rise of antisemitism that’s been happening. I’m curious, because you constantly say that you’re just out for you. You’re interested in taking care of yourself.
Well, that is my heritage, my culture, and my religion.
But do you feel a wider responsibility at all to be a role model for people who might feel hurt by this?
I do, because I feel with the way that Jews have been portrayed in the media, we’re either one of two things: We’re either a fat, out-of-shape guy, big nose, balding, wearing a big, thick Abraham Lincoln black hat or a tiny scrawny guy who’s afraid of his own shadow. For me, the fact that I get to stand in front of the camera, be jacked out of my mind, and be a superhuman, it reminds people, like, Oh, okay, all Jews aren’t the way that they’ve been portrayed in the media for decades.
I read the things that Kanye or Kyrie write, and in a twisted way, I’m really thankful for them, because antisemitism is not the hip thing to talk about as far as cultures that are being oppressed or held down or being ravaged and ransacked. The fact of the matter is the Holocaust was not very long ago. People to this day are actually getting harassed in New York City over decisions that a government we don’t belong to — in Israel — is making. Our temples are constantly being desecrated with swastikas or other Nazi symbols. So when you see Kanye and Kyrie make these statements, then you see how many people liked, retweeted, commented, and agreed, I love it, because now antisemitism’s at the forefront. I think that’s really important for change. I think the reason there hasn’t been much of a change with antisemites is because they’re really good at hiding.
It can be kind of subtle and microaggression-y, yeah?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. When you’re traveling as a professional wrestler and an athlete and you go to these small towns, you’ll hear people scream out “kike,” you’ll have wrestlers key your cars and think it’s funny to draw a Nazi symbol on your bags. It wasn’t cool for me to talk about it. “Oh, whatever dude, you’re not going through it. You’re a rich white guy.” I’m not white to a Klansman. I’m not white to an antisemite.
The next thing I wanted to ask you about was this Saturday. You said it yourself: It’s the potential crowning of the next face of the next generation of professional wrestling. I’m curious what you want to do for that generation.
Look who I’m talking to right now. Anne, this is my power. I’m talking to Vulture right now — a place that I think is fair to say doesn’t do much commentary on my sport. I went on Pardon My Take, the No. 1 sports podcast in the world. I’m about to be in a major motion picture.
I think what you’re going to see is stability with the AEW World Championship if I win it. I think we are in the dawning of a new era. It’s the MJF era. We have the era of the Ric Flairs, the Dusty Rhodes, the Hulk Hogans, the Stone Colds, the Rocks, the Cenas. It’s my time. I say that with gumption and with honesty. It’s my time, and it’s my turn to make everybody talk about pro wrestling and make it the cultural Zeitgeist again in the world, because at one point it was, and pro wrestling is bubbling again, and we’re getting real close. All we need is a leader, and I’m ready to be that guy. I am ready to usurp anyone and everyone that thinks they’re up next, because guess what? No, you ain’t. I am. I am ready to do more for this business than anyone has in a decade.
That’s exciting. Well, thank you very much. That’s all the time I have with you, but I really appreciate you taking this time and sharing your thoughts with me.
Anne, I’ve been holding in my piss. I’m going to roll up now. You’re very welcome for this interview. You’ll never have a better one. Good day.
This interview has been edited and condensed.