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MJF’s AEW Championship Run Begins in Earnest vs. Ricky Starks on ‘Dynamite’

Wednesday night’s match will be the new champion’s first title defense since winning the belt at ‘Full Gear’ last month.’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath-the-surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.

The MJF era begins in match against Ricky Starks

This week on Dynamite, MJF will make his first title defense as AEW champion.

There is a genuine excitement heading into the match, as MJF (Maxwell J. Friedman) is set to wrestle Ricky Starks, another AEW talent on the cusp of breakout stardom. MJF and Starks had a segment last week on Dynamite that was a Promo of the Year candidate, bringing out the best in each other on dueling live microphones.

“People have been waiting for fresh and new,” says Friedman. “They’ve been begging for it. Now, in the main event of AEW Dynamite, the MJF show, you get two homegrown guys wrestling for the most important world title in professional wrestling.”

Witnessing MJF’s inaugural world title run in real time will be fascinating. Although wrestling is a forum where results are manufactured, those who become stars connect organically. Ever since he started with AEW at its very first pay-per-view in 2019, Friedman has always genuinely believed he could garner more reaction from the audience than anyone else. Even when others doubted that belief, he never lost faith that the future of the company would rest on his shoulders.

“People might not remember this, but after my feud with Cody Rhodes [in 2020], I was sat,” says Friedman. “I was sat out. Literally. I had to sit behind the guardrail. I sat beside Shawn Spears and Shawn Dean and Sonny Kiss and all these other people, and I had to sit there and watch the shows. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Are you guys f---ing stupid? I’m literally the biggest star here. What’s happening here?’”

MJF defeated Jon Moxley last month at Full Gear to win the belt, a moment that felt like a long time coming. But this world title run was not preordained. Friedman worked and grinded until there was no other choice; he kept making himself bigger and added value to the show in every program.

“I made myself a star on our very first show, which was a pay-per-view, Double or Nothing,” says Friedman, who is only 26. “I made myself a star that night when I cut a promo on Bret Hart and Sensitive Cowboy [“Hangman” Adam Page]. Then I’m sitting behind the guardrail? I thought I should have been world champion then. So I took every opening I had and hit a home run every time I was on screen. I’m still doing that now.”

A former indie star, Friedman worked his way to the top of AEW with a formula that worked for both Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff in the 1990s: to be different and be better, and be better because you are different. MJF is the rare type of wrestling villain who relishes the boos. He is not singing along with the audience as he repeats a catchphrase, or wearing a new T-shirt to sell each week. His focus is an unrelenting verbal assault on wrestling fans, flourishing as the antagonist.

“Wrestling fans get upset with me for not wrestling more,” Friedman says. “I hear, ‘MJF, you should wrestle more.’ F--- you; you wrestle. It hurts. I’m not a f---ing mark loser like Bryan Danielson where I’m feigning [sic] to get in the ring every week because I’m a wrestling hipster nerd. You know what I care about? Making the most amount of money I can in the shortest amount of time possible, and maintaining my mental and physical health.

“I’m not going to go out and kill my body for people who are fickle. One second, you’re beloved. Then you’re hated. That shows you how fickle, disgusting and putrid mark wrestling fans are. One second, you think MJF is the best thing since sliced bread. The next, you want someone to get the belt off me as soon as possible. And they don’t even realize it. It sickens me.”

AEW is subtly hinting at a program pitting MJF against Danielson. It would be appointment viewing, as though the two are very different performers, they are both masters of the craft on the microphone and in the ring.

While he is less heralded than Danielson, who twice headlined WrestleMania in WWE, Friedman is the total package. He can cut great promos, as well as wrestle outstanding matches that elicit genuine emotion.

“No one is on my level,” says Friedman. “I can give a f--- if people are bothered by that. I’m elevating this wrestling promotion.”

AEW is smart to feature MJF as champion. He is unlike any other star in mainstream pro wrestling. He cannot be compared to anyone in WWE. His prolific use of profanities would make those on the board of that publicly traded media company recoil. Yet that is not an issue in AEW. He is as close to uncensored as you will find in an image-conscious industry, and he delights in playing the role of disruptor.

Friedman was cageside Saturday in Vegas at UFC 282. Instead of handshakes and photo ops, Friedman flipped off the cameras, then mocked Paddy Pimblett for a mediocre performance.

“There is a huge difference between when I’m wrestling and Paddy is fighting,” says Friedman. “When I’m on the marquee, it’s going to be fantastic. You put Paddy the Baddy in the cage, you might get a great fight, or it might be a lump of f---ing coal. I’m consistently perfect. All these MMA guys are prima donnas. They fight once every six months. And then sometimes s--- the bed. Try wrestling multiple times in a week. They won’t be able to handle the miles.”

Friedman can irritate and agitate better than anyone in this era. He does it, seemingly, with ease. But there is an old-fashioned method to his art. There will be a growing momentum by the week to see MJF lose the belt, and he plans to take people on a roller coaster of emotions each time he steps in the ring and takes on their favorite stars.

“Did you see the list I made?” says Friedman, who took a page out of Cody Rhodes’ playbook and crafted a list of opponents he would like to face. “The internet freaked out hoping and wishing that someone knocks me off their throne. Every single Wednesday, you’re going to see me make people. That’s the Friedman rub. It puts people on a different level.”

The Friedman era takes full flight Wednesday night on Dynamite. His match against Starks is a chance to see an altogether different world title presentation from what is on display in other companies.

“This is a chance for people to witness history,” says Friedman. “I’m hearing Ricky Starks is going to be the next big star. That’s interesting. Why are people talking about Ricky Starks? It’s because he got to share a ring with a generational talent. That’s me.”

The (online) week in wrestling

  • Sasha Banks to Wrestle Kingdom? She is a generational star, so this should be very interesting.
  • Five new champions were crowned at Ring of Honor’s Final Battle pay-per-view on Saturday, including The Briscoes defeating FTR in an extremely compelling bout. Following the show, Tony Khan announced the new streaming plans for ROH, primarily that its weekly show will air on the subscription-based HonorClub for $9.99 per month. This was not the desired destination. Khan wanted ROH to air somewhere in the WarnerMedia family, which still remains the long-term plan.
  • After Mandy Rose’s reign of nearly 500 days, there is a new women’s champion in NXT.
  • Rose has reportedly been released.
  • The Acclaimed and FTR worked a fantastic tag match last week on Dynamite. I hope we see more of these teams against one another in 2023.
  • I loved hearing Bray Wyatt single out Michael Todd Laylick for performing CPR on Wyatt’s uncle Barry Windham, which kept him alive.

The Rock shouldn’t be wrestling in the main event of WrestleMania 39

WrestleMania XV was the start of a new era. Headlined by Steve Austin and The Rock, it served as the culmination of the single best story line in the WWE. That is the whole point behind ’Mania, a show that should feature the company’s absolute best.

Somewhere between then and now, however, that strategy changed. The focus became making WrestleMania the biggest event possible, but by bringing back stars from the past on a part-time schedule to headline the event.

WrestleMania 39 should take a page from 24 years ago and have its two biggest stars face off. That will be Roman Reigns against Seth Rollins, Cody Rhodes, Kevin Owens or whoever else gets hot between now and then. Those are performers who have helped carry the company at different points throughout the year. WrestleMania should also include part-time stars, but they are there to add color to the show, not define it.

That all brings us to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. One of WWE’s greatest stars of all time and a certified Hollywood megastar, there is growing interest to see Rock vs. Roman at WrestleMania 39. In terms of box office, it would be magnificent. But is that match realistic?

Johnson worked WrestleMania XXVIII and WrestleMania 29 against John Cena. The intrigue and anticipation were tremendous, but the matches were far from iconic. Johnson struggled to keep up with Cena in the ring, as well as on the microphone. By that point, Cena had evolved into a master of the craft. That is strikingly similar to Reigns right now. Also, Johnson didn’t like getting booed in his program against Cena. It’s hard to blame him—while it is part of life in WWE, it is an odd look for a Hollywood star. But there will certainly be boos if he faces the wildly popular Reigns, especially after so much time away. Returning to WWE would be a major risk for Johnson.

Austin could actually be used as an argument for Johnson to work a match. The legendary “Stone Cold” returned last year at WrestleMania 38 to fight Owens in a brawl, one that was spectacular to watch. But that was a one-off, and Austin purposely kept expectations low before exceeding every single one of them during the match. He also worked against Owens, who played more of a traditional heel. It would have been entirely different had that been a title match, instead of being presented as a special one-off.

The idea of The Rock returning to headline WrestleMania is a reminder that time only moves in one direction. He hasn’t worked an active wrestling schedule (even part-time) in a decade. The idea looks great on paper, but it is fundamentally flawed. His days atop the company have long passed, and the best move for WWE is to focus on the present at WrestleMania. Put Rock on the card, but some place where he can be protected—far away from the main event.

Tweet of the Week

Time will tell if Pretty Deadly can continue to work at the elite rate they did this weekend against The New Day.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.