One of Maxwell Jacob Friedman's defining characteristics is that he doesn’t care who he insults. Friedman has taken shots at his colleagues, fans, children and, in this case, the writer who is doing a profile on him.
“As long as you’re not making eye contact with me, and you can’t because it’s over the phone, everything is fine,” Friedman quipped after being greeted.
While Friedman’s comment normally would come off as demeaning, there’s no reason to truly take offense, because this is part of Friedman’s job and, actually, the purpose of why we’re on the phone together. Friedman is among the top performers in All Elite Wrestling and, at 25 years old, is one of the best heels in professional wrestling.
One of the remarkable things about Friedman is that he has been wrestling for just six years. In an industry where it usually takes years of work to reach the top of the card in any promotion, Friedman is among AEW’s top drawing stars.
“It is a constant chip on my shoulder because people like to say ‘He’s great for 25,’” Friedman told Yahoo Sports. “Deep down I know that that means. It’s a crutch. Realistically, if I came into this industry and I was 30, or whatever age people deemed ‘normal,’ they’d be saying I was great or even the best. But because of the fact that I am 25, because of ageism, you don’t hear that.”
'They want to see somebody hurt me or shut me up'
Age aside, Friedman’s approach to his craft flies in the face of what comes to mind when most fans think of AEW. Created in 2019, one of AEW’s calling cards is its intense in-ring action, with a focus on high-flying moves aimed at garnering attention from a very specific subset of wrestling fans.
With wrestlers like the Young Bucks, Pac, Pentagon Jr. and Rey Fenix on the roster, there’s no denying that this is true, but Friedman approaches his matches as if he were from a bygone era.
“When I first got into the industry, I was already a student of the game,” Friedman said. “I enjoyed watching the [Nick] Bockwinkels, the [Ric] Flairs, the Tullys [Blanchard] — who I now get to work with every week — do their thing. The smartest thing about them, contrary to what you see now stylistically in professional wrestling, was that they didn’t want to get hit, they didn’t want to mess their bodies up.
“When I watch professional wrestling on AEW Dynamite, I cringe, I want to puke in my mouth a little bit, because I see these guys and they are murdering themselves. They are jumping from the top rope to the floor, they are doing the loopy loops, the twisty turns, the flippity do-das, and they are killing themselves. Some of these people who are younger than me, and I’m already wildly young, might not be able to walk anymore when they get to my age.”
That isn’t to say Friedman can’t “go” when the bell rings. Sure, his approach is different, but the contrast is what makes him such a unique and polarizing figure in wrestling — and of course, it fits with his persona.
As physically demanding as the job is, the psychological aspect of professional wrestling is just as important. The most crucial thing you can do when you are working — whether it’s on the microphone or in the ring — is captivate the audience. A great heel will be cold and calculating when performing, playing to the crowd’s emotions by working in a way that toes a very specific line between frustration and pure anger.
“I genuinely feel that people hating me as much as they say they do, it’s intriguing,” Friedman said. “If people hate me so much, why is it that week after week, I have the highest rated segments in my company? It’s because that hate that they have deep down inside, it’s guttural, it’s visceral, they want to see somebody hurt me or shut me up.”
Another reason behind Friedman’s appeal is that his in-ring matches are somewhat scarce. Despite being with AEW since its inception, Friedman has only wrestled 35 matches. Friedman uses MMA star Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone to explain the approach to his in-ring work. Cerrone has the second-most fights in UFC history with 36 and the most victories with 23.
“Why am I going to try and wrestle every week when I can save my body and then when I do wrestle, it’s more of a main attraction because people want to see it so bad,” Friedman says. “There was a guy in the UFC, his name is Cowboy Cerrone, and the guy would be on almost every single card, his fight camps would be month to two months. Sure, he would win, but his winner’s purse would be so small because he made himself so accessible. Me, I’m a top guy, I’m a superstar, I’m not going to wrestle every week because I want the care for my matches from a fan’s standpoint to be that much larger.”
An 8-month story reaches its Pinnacle
Just because Friedman isn’t wrestling doesn’t mean his impact isn’t seen or felt on television every week. Friedman has been involved in an angle with Chris Jericho for the past eight months. Initially working to gain Jericho’s trust, Friedman became a part of the Inner Circle faction before eventually being thrown out as his plot to destroy the group was exposed.
It’s been arguably the main storyline in AEW for the better part of the past year and one that has brought the company to new heights in both ratings and publicity.
“With these 8 months that Chris and I have been on this wild journey, the fans are foaming at the mouth to see us get physical still,” Friedman said. “We already had a match at a pay-per-view, I beat him on a pay-per-view. When people look back on this and they see that we were conjoined for 8 months, they are going to be pleased with the fact that I was intelligent enough not to strike on him quickly but you got to see incredible television for 8 months. That’s a long time to see home run after home run on a weekly basis.”
Thanks in part to the work Friedman is doing during his feud with Jericho, AEW is making its way into mainstream media. So much so, that Friedman and Jericho’s “Dinner Debonair” segment from last October was named one of the New York Times’ “Best Performances of 2020.”
From a more tangible standpoint, AEW has been able to top one million viewers twice in the past three weeks and, last December, even beat WWE’s flagship program “Monday Night Raw” in the 18-49 demographic.
“There has not been a wrestling show that has been able to even sniff ‘Monday Night Raw’ in decades,” Friedman said. “We’re creeping up every single week in that key demo. If I’m not mistaken, I believe we beat them a few weeks at points on their show in the key demo, which is absolutely insane because we have only been a professional wrestling company on television for a year and a half, two years. It’s unheard of and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Friedman’s long journey with Jericho culminates this week in a “Blood & Guts” match — styled after the traditional War Games match that features two teams, each entering one at a time, into two rings surrounded by a steel cage. It will be quite possibly AEW’s most high-profile match that isn’t on a pay-per-view card and the payoff in a storyline that has come to define the company.
For Friedman, the match will just be the next step in his rise and, if he’s doing his job the right way, another chance to infuriate fans in a way only he can.
“Even the trolls on Twitter have to admit that I’m incredible, they have nothing [at this point],” Friedman said.
“That puts the biggest smile on my face, that warms the black cockles in my heart. It’s going to continue to happen. There are no doubters and everyone knows how great I am. The question is, will I be able to go down as the greatest of all time?”
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