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MJF’s AEW Title Win at ‘Full Gear’ Reignites an Old Wrestling Debate

Organic babyfaces are hard to come by in wrestling, so did AEW make a mistake in ignoring the momentum of the audience?

AEW Full Gear 2022 from the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., was a show where many of the top angles could conceivably have gone a number of different directions, most notably in the main event where MJF challenged Jon Moxley for his AEW world championship.

To fully explain how AEW got here would take far more words than I’d be allotted, but essentially, MJF in story line “walked out of AEW” following Double or Nothing in Las Vegas in May. That same night, CM Punk won the AEW title from “Hangman” Adam Page. Promoter Tony Khan has never gone public with what his original idea was, but I believed it was very likely that MJF would “return” in the summer, challenge Punk for the AEW title, and probably beat him at All Out in September.

None of that happened.

First, CM Punk broke his foot. Because he would be out of action for quite a while, AEW created an interim title, which Jon Moxley won. Punk wasn’t able to return until mid-August, just a few weeks before the PPV, and even then he wasn’t sure he’d be 100% ready to go. Moxley, who was never supposed to be champion, had been an exceptional champion all summer, and for a number of reasons AEW came up with a story line where Moxley beat Punk in a free television match a few weeks before All Out (the story being that Punk wasn’t quite 100% yet), but then Punk managed to make a triumphant return in his hometown, beat Moxley with the GTS and once again stand tall as the undisputed AEW Champion. And then, moments later, who should return but MJF, setting the wheels in motion for the Punk vs. MJF story line that had already been delayed for over three months.

And then that didn’t happen.

CM Punk walked backstage after the match, sat down for a press conference with Khan, launched into a tirade directed at unspecified AEW executive vice presidents (The Young Bucks—Nick and Matt Jackson—and Kenny Omega) regarding rumors that he had something to do with Colt Cabana no longer being on AEW television, and then returned to his locker room. The Jacksons showed up with the AEW head of legal to discuss things with him. Punk immediately punched Matt in the face, and a wild brawl involving biting and chairs being thrown broke out. In the end Punk, the Jacksons, Kenny Omega (the latter three of whom had just won the AEW Trios Titles) and several others were all suspended from AEW indefinitely, and all were stripped of their respective titles.

So now what?

Well, Moxley, who had just lost to Punk on PPV, ended up winning the vacant AEW title. MJF was handed a poker chip in a ladder match he didn’t compete in that allowed him to challenge for the AEW Title whenever he liked.

And something else happened.

MJF, the hottest heel in all of AEW prior to his return, was suddenly a massive babyface.

It seemed obvious this would happen. The story line was that he was an incredibly talented performer who was underpaid, he walked out on the company because he wanted more money, the company owner bowed to his demands and paid him huge money, and he returned. In essence, despite MJF being a heel and Tony Khan always being portrayed as a babyface owner, the fact is that to fans, MJF fought authority and won. He was a babyface.

But he wasn’t supposed to be a babyface. So for a while he would come out before shows and cut heel promos on the fans to “prep” them and make sure they booed him during the show. But it became clearer by the week that fans wanted to cheer him. And so, for a while, he essentially became a babyface. He was still MJF, he’d still throw snide remarks at the fans here and there, but now they loved him for it, and in general he was portrayed as the hero, leading to an angle where he fired the very guys who handed him the poker chip, leading to them beating him down. It came across as a full-on babyface turn.

So going into his title match with Moxley, there were two obvious but totally different potential finishes. During an emotional promo with William Regal, where he told the story about how he had tried out for WWE and Regal had essentially promised him a job, only to email him later and rescind the offer in a not-so-polite manner, he had vowed to prove to Regal what a mistake he had made. He said for the first time in his life he wasn’t going to cheat. He wouldn’t hit Moxley with his Dynamite diamond ring; he’d do it right. So, of course, we had two possibilities—that he’d actually do it right as he’d vowed, win the title clean over Moxley and ascend to the pinnacle as top babyface; or that he wouldn’t use the ring, he’d actually use Regal’s brass knuckles instead, and go back to what had been planned all along: MJF, AEW world champion and top heel.

AEW chose the latter.

MJF poses with the AEW world championship after defeating Jon Moxley

It was controversial. Several in the company said they should have gone all the way with him as a babyface, the argument being that it’s not every day that the crowd organically hands you a massive babyface, and when they do, you should capitalize. If you look back at WWF history, every champion who transformed its business—from Bruno Sammartino to Hulk Hogan, The Rock, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and John Cena—all of them were babyfaces. There were others who had good runs, and there were heels who did big business, but it was the super babyface champions who transformed business. Granted, Roman Reigns and John Cena were both booed by portions of the audience during their runs, but in fact that’s an even stronger argument to get behind someone who the crowd had decided organically was their guy.

But Khan made the final call and went with the heel turn finish. Max still worked the entire match as a babyface. The fans loved him. Moxley worked the entire match as a heel, even though he’d been a babyface for years. The fans hated him. And when MJF won, via cheating, he got an enormous standing ovation from the crowd.

AEW was built on giving the fans what they weren’t getting from WWE, an alternative, and at the time of their rise the fans had lived through a decade of booing top babyface John Cena and several years of booing top babyface Roman Reigns. WWE continued to push them as babyfaces even though they were clearly fighting a losing battle. Watching the finish of Full Gear, it was hard not to think AEW was doing the exact same thing, swimming upstream against the desire of its fanbase, sticking to its plan despite the fans saying they wanted something else. This isn’t to say that MJF’s title reign will be a failure or that he won’t be successful as a top heel. He is, after all, one of the greatest promos in all of professional wrestling. But it might have been a missed opportunity to create a transformative babyface champion and face of AEW’s next era, and opportunities like that do not come around often.

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