Maxwell Jacob Friedman, better known as MJF, is the hottest heel in wrestling. Source?
Across the internet, they sing his praises and curse his name as he takes on nerds, the poor and even grandmothers. Fans recognize in Friedman a throwback to the old days, when bad guys were bad guys as a full-time job, not villains in the ring and Instagram motivators and merchandise salesmen outside of it, breaking into huge smiles at the thought of selling a $10 T-shirt to the same audience members they'd been mean-mugging just 30 minutes before.
But what if, and work with me here, none of the above is completely true?
What if MJF, the most promising young wrestler in the world, is really the hero of this story? That's the premise he was pitching as I caught up with him on the phone recently, shortly after he'd laid out a series of Herculean challenges for his former friend Cody Rhodes to accomplish before Max would deign to meet him in the ring at AEW Revolution pay-per-view on February 29.
"I thought Cody cared about me," MJF said. "I mean, I will never ever forget in a million years the day that I got invited to a business meeting and he sat me down and he told me that he saw something in me. That he wanted to make me a star. That he believed in me. He said all I had to do, and this is laughable now, is bet on myself.
"And fast forward, me betting on myself apparently included me dressing up in a Star Trek outfit to walk to the ring with him, in his shadow. I don't think he ever had my best interest at heart, which is sad because I thought he did. What he did was manipulate me and that's why, yeah, it is real. Every bit of this, I hate to call it a feud or a rivalry because to me that sounds phony and hokey. Everything about this is real.
"I looked up to this man. I wanted to be like this man. I just didn't realize how crooked he was. And I get so sad when I hear the fans cheer his name because they have no idea how much of a crock of s--t he is in real life."
To the general public, MJF says, Cody is the hero, victim of his protege's wicked ways. But, to Friedman, Rhodes wasn't some altruistic patron, taking a young man under his wing to help him grow into something special. He was a vampire and a leech, a power-mad star desperately looking to attach himself to the most compelling talent around, whether it was the Young Bucks, Kenny Omega or, finally, Friedman himself. Rhodes always made sure to keep his rivals close, biding his time until he could outmaneuver them backstage if he couldn't manage it in the ring.
"He's almost Wizard of Oz-esque," MJF said. "You have this big bad wizard, but when they pulled back the curtain, there was just this tiny little feeble, weak man who was trying to puppeteer everybody's lives for the betterment of his own good and only his own good. That's Cody.
"There's a reason why after I kicked that no good son of a b---h Cody Rhodes in the nuts that there was a huge smile on my face. It's because what happened was a thousand million pounds of weight got completely lifted off my shoulders. Because I had to follow this guy around and be his glorified hype man for way too long.
"And I allowed that to happen because I thought that man cared about me, which he did not. When I broke the chains of slavery and kicked him square in the balls and it felt so good, Jon. Oh my God. It felt so good."
When he lashed out against Cody, Friedman said, it wasn't just a blow to the balls. It was a righteous preemptive assault. When the kick heard round the world landed, he'd just saved Rhodes from a potentially career-ending injury. And his supposed friend couldn't even be bothered to thank him. Sensing the treachery to come, MJF felt there was little he could do but strike first.
"Perhaps the last straw that broke the camel's back for me was when I threw the towel in to literally save my best friend, my mentor," MJF said. "In spite of myself knowing deep down inside he was doing wrong by me. I was still following him. I was still helping him. And I throw this towel in to help him and he wasn't the least bit like positive. He didn't even look at me and say, 'Hey, I know that was a hard decision to make, but thank you.'
"Please watch the footage back. Chris Jericho has never bent somebody that far backward in his entire career. And that's saying something because I believed the man's almost had a 30-year run now in professional wrestling. Cody's spinal cord was going to snap.
"Not only did I save his career, I might have saved the man's life. He could have literally died in the ring. And that's how he showed respect to me? So I had had it. I was done. I was done being his punching bag. I was done playing second fiddle. I was done watching him be the face of the company when I knew damn well the only person that should be the face of the company at AEW is me."
Now, by this point you might be noticing that all of this sounds an awful lot like a pro wrestling storyline. That's because it is. As far as anyone can tell, that's the only reality MJF inhabits.
In a normal pro wrestling interview, the kind I do routinely here at Bleacher Report, you talk to the person behind the character, free to discuss their artistic motivations and even sneak a peek at their real life outside the squared circle.
For MJF, there is no other world, no off switch he can hit and then simply relax. If there's a real person, he's buried so deeply beneath the the surface that his oxygen supply must be perilously low.
No matter how hard you try, Friedman isn't breaking character. Case in point: in a previous interview, he and I had talked about his love of 1980s heel wrestlers. He jotted off a list of his favorites—including Tully Blanchard, now his co-worker in AEW. Sensing an opening, I asked MJF what it was like to have the opportunity to learn from Tully himself, not merely watch him on old videos.
But Max wasn't going to be caught slipping that easily. See, in AEW lore, Blanchard is the manager of Shawn Spears, an early rival despised by MJF. So, any glimpses behind the curtain had to be shrouded in a kayfabe haze.
"I've studied him ad nauseam " Friedman admitted. "It's just such a shame that he's hanging out with such a complete loser like Shawn Spears. I mean what a waste. What a complete and utter waste. I mean look, I would love to walk up to Tully and pick his brain, but there's just no shot because Shawn's going to be nearby. And Jon, I don't know if you ever shared any type of space with Shawn Spears, but you can smell that guy from about a thousand miles. So unfortunately I can't really talk man-to-man with Tully at this juncture of my career."
Then Friedman steered the interview back to the storyline, taking an opportunity to discuss Blanchard's former tag team partner Arn Anderson, now Cody's latest mentor and coach.
"Early Four Horseman is absolutely terrific," he said. "That's why it makes me sick to my stomach that Cody Rhodes has now somehow bamboozled Arn Anderson into wanting to help be a coach of his. It's disgusting.
"He thinks Arn Anderson is going to make him a better professional wrestler. And guess what? He's not wrong, Jon. It will make him a better professional wrestler. Because Arn Anderson is one of the greatest minds in the history of our great sport. However, it's not going to change the fact that I am better than Cody Rhodes and he knows it. And at the end of the day, the world is going to know it too."
There's a certain genius at work here, a commitment to kayfabe so fierce you can't help but be impressed. Wrestling, particularly in AEW, is full of incredibly talented physical performers. But very few people in the history of the sport have been capable of moving a crowd with little more than the power of their personality.
"For some strange reason a lot of people in my age demographic don't want to listen to veterans of this sport," the 23-year-old said. "They'd much rather put on their kick pads and do their moonies and their 450s. They're not trying to learn. They're not trying to get better. They're just trying to be cool. I don't care about being cool, Jon. What I care about is making money. What I care about is making waves. What I care about is going down as one of, if not, the greatest professional wrestlers to have ever lived.
"And the only way that happens is by studying your sport and your craft. I have sat down for hours until my eyes have bled while I studied legends and I still do to this day while these kids are studying gymnastics routines. That's why I'm ahead of the curve."
On Wednesday, Rhodes must face the first of Friedman's stipulations: 10 lashes on his hands and knees. Two weeks later, he'll take on MJF's secret weapon, Wardlow, in a steel cage in Atlanta. For Cody, it's only path to revenge.
"There is nothing more right now on this planet that Cody wants to do than get his hands on me. And that's a fact," MJF said. "The man is freaking out. He had one opportunity and one opportunity only to become a world champion in this great sport known as professional wrestling. And I took that away from him for life. He's panicking.
"This is me handing Cody Rhodes his opportunity to wrestle me on a silver platter, really. I mean, all he has to do is get through these stipulations and then he gets to have the match that he and all of these people around the world are craving to see. And you get to tune in and see it.
"I don't know why you would want to miss that. Personally, I would miss a wedding. I would miss childbirth. I would miss a bar mitzvah just to see me talk at all. But I'm not just talking. You should be tuning in every week for AEW on TNT at Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. because the most gripping human being on planet is live on your TV set. And his name is Maxwell Jacob Friedman."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.