High on ambition, Maxwell Jacob Friedman does not solely intend to play a supporting role in his program with CM Punk.
He intends to be the star of it.
“The truth is scary,” Friedman says. “There’s no Batman without Joker. Punk needs me more than I need him.”
Best known as MJF, the 25-year-old Friedman has had a plethora of top-tier programs in AEW. He has shared the ring and owned moments with a veritable potpourri of stars that include Chris Jericho, Cody Rhodes and Jon Moxley. Yet there is a distinct cachet in working with Punk, whose contributions to pro wrestling were so genuine and meaningful that he remained a superstar even during his seven-year absence from performing. Outside of winning the world title, there is not a more substantive win in AEW than being the first to defeat Punk.
“It doesn’t get bigger than that,” Friedman says. “I’m well aware of it. Pinning his shoulders to the mat would be the biggest highlight of my career.”
Over the past three weeks, Friedman and Punk have yet to have a physical confrontation. Their work together has been so captivating that they haven’t needed one, instead building to the moment when they violently collide. The first interaction saw Punk interrupt Friedman on Dynamite, then refuse to shake his hand. Then came their pièce de résistance two weeks ago, a verbal confrontation that served as a reminder why the wrestling world is a far better place with AEW involved.
The preparation began a week before, when Friedman had no doubt that he could be every bit Punk’s equal on the microphone, if not even better.
“I thought about it in the comfort of my home,” Friedman says. “Then I had the balls to go up and say it all right to his face.”
Like Punk, Friedman was afforded star treatment in the segment, allowed to work without time restraints. The result was equal parts riveting and unpredictable.
“Here are the facts,” Friedman says. “We didn’t have a script. We didn’t have a time limit. Me and Punk were in that ring, just talking, on Thanksgiving Eve. That should have drawn, maximum, 700,000 viewers, and I’m being generous. That’s the greatest night to go out with your friends. It’s not a night to stay in. You’re with friends or you’re with family. But when we were in the ring, over a million people were watching.”
The feud continued to intensify on last week’s Dynamite. After nonstop praise from the Thanksgiving Eve confrontation, Friedman dealt with criticism over the past week for unsavory comments he made about women’s champion Britt Baker and Punk’s dog Larry. Yet that disapproval only emboldened Friedman.
“There is no line,” Friedman says. “People tell me I’m a habitual line-stepper. I don’t care. My job is to make you dislike me, to make you so mad that you pray someone will shut me up.
“The fans don’t dictate what I say and do. There are people in my industry who care far too much about what people think of them, so they’re too afraid to push that envelope. They’re too afraid that someone will make an angry post about them on social media. I think that’s bulls---. I dictate what I do.”
This week’s Dynamite presents the potential of becoming a significant outlier. The show takes place at UBS Arena in Elmont, N.Y., roughly 30 minutes from Friedman’s Long Island home. Even if it would be akin to the Big Bad Wolf’s getting an ovation for blowing down the house of the Three Little Pigs, there is a distinct possibility that MJF is cheered like a fan favorite on Dynamite while Punk is treated like the villain.
“Long Island is the most magical place in the world,” Friedman says. “That’s reality. I’ve had multiple chances to move other places, but nothing calls to me like home. I grew up in Nassau County. I’m the kid who raised his hand in class and said, ‘I’m going to be a pro wrestler.’ I’m becoming a god on the water in this little slice of Americana.
“And just wait until Dynamite. At a minimum, 70% of that audience is going to be chanting my name at the top of their lungs.”
Friedman is signed with AEW through Jan. 1, 2024. Weekly viewers have witnessed Friedman evolve into one of wrestling’s elite, and the program with Punk is a chance to further elevate himself in a rare echelon of performers. Equally skilled on the microphone and in the ring, his journey from the indies just three years ago is remarkable.
A genuine buzz builds every time Friedman holds a mike in his hand, which has even drawn attention from peers across the industry. Alluding to Punk’s calling MJF a “less famous Miz,” the legendary Edge even referenced the MJF-Punk promo last week on WWE’s Monday Night Raw, which Friedman certainly noticed.
“They’re just trying to make their show the best they possibly can,” Friedman says. “I’m not mad, I completely understand it. And who knows, I might be working with those two guys in 2024.
“And that line by Punk about me being a ‘less famous Miz,’ that resonated because people used to actually think that. But I’m smart enough to know better. My match last month at Full Gear against Darby Allin proved otherwise. I am equally as outstanding in the ring as I am on the stick. That match with Darby proved I’m anything but one-dimensional.”
Whether he is cheered or booed out of the building in Long Island, Friedman’s appearance will be must-see television Wednesday. He is wrestling in the Dynamite Diamond Battle Royale, which he has won the previous two years. And just like Michael Jordan in the spring of 1993, he plans to deliver his first three-peat on Dynamite.
“For the first time in my AEW career, I’m going to be wrestling in front of my hometown,” Friedman says. “When my music hits, it’s going to be one of the loudest reactions in the history of this company. It’s going to be the 2021 version of a ‘Road Warrior pop.’ I can’t wait until people experience it.”
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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.