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He's one of the great villains on TV. He insists it's not an act

What you see is what you get with Maxwell Jacob Friedman, according to the pro wrestling champion and his fiancée.
Maxwell Jacob Friedman wins AEW World Championship at "Full Gear"
Maxwell Jacob Friedman, 26, won the AEW World Championship at the "Full Gear" event on Nov. 19.Courtesy AEW
/ Source: TODAY

Ask Maxwell Jacob Friedman, the brash new AEW World Champion who has been known to pick a fight or two or 10,000 with wrestlers in the ring and with fans on social media, whether it’s ever exhausting being him, and he will answer with his characteristic bluntness.

“I’m constantly exhausted by my own greatness,” he tells TODAY.com over Zoom while wearing his usual Burberry scarf around his neck and with the AEW World Championship belt on his lap.

Subtlety is not his strong suit. Friedman, also known as MJF, calls himself a generational talent, the salt of the earth. His perspective on life is summed up neatly in his catchphrase: “I’m better than you, and you know it.”

Friedman, as you may have guessed, is presented in AEW — All Elite Wrestling, a rival company of WWE — as a villain, a character whom fans are meant to jeer, despise. Only, Friedman and those close to him insist he’s not playing a character. Each week on AEW programming, he is playing himself, they say.

“Whether you love or you hate him, he shows who he is very clearly, and that’s what you’re going to get,” says his fiancée, Naomi Rosenblum.

The way the 26-year-old carries himself on AEW programming is the same way he carries himself on Twitter and in interviews, including his conversation with TODAY.com. Is this the real MJF, or is it all a performance, a deep commitment to his craft? The mystery is what makes him one of the most compelling personalities not only in professional wrestling, but all of television.

Maxwell Jacob Friedman
MJF, whose real name is Max Friedman, does not lack in confidence: "There are so many people who would love to be in my position, but just aren't as talented or as handsome as I am to get there."Courtesy AEW

‘This is me 100% of the time’

Friedman’s ascent to his current position as champion was a slow build since AEW premiered its first episode of its flagship cable TV series, “Dynamite,” in 2019. An extended storyline and rivalry with former WWE star Chris Jericho raised his profile and allowed him to show what he is capable of as a wrestler. He taunted Jericho, he defeated Jericho in matches, he tossed Jericho off of a cage. Improbably, he even sang with Jericho in a Vegas show-style sketch. (Or perhaps not improbably — he sang in the choir in high school and, before that, on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” as a 5-year-old, where he told the host he wanted to be a professional wrestler someday).

Friedman captured the AEW World Championship for the first time last month in a match against Jon Moxley at the “Full Gear” pay-per-view event at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, a little more than an hour’s drive from where he grew up in the Long Island town of Plainview. True to his status as a heel (the wrestling term for a villain), he cheated his way to victory.

When asked what makes Friedman the right choice to hold the company’s top title, Tony Khan, CEO of AEW and its head of creative, tells TODAY.com, “MJF, I think, is one of the most charismatic and intelligent pro wrestlers on the planet. And there are fans worldwide compelled by his actions and take notice every time he speaks.”

MJF’s ability with a microphone in his hand goes well beyond trash talk, although he can certainly trash talk at a high level. There are times when he takes fans on an emotional roller coaster; in one intense speech to the crowd earlier this year, he recalled being bullied in school and his burning desire to become a wrestler, his voice cracking, tears in his eyes.

And then there are times when he takes delight in trolling the fans, as he did in September during a “Dynamite” appearance in Philadelphia. Wearing a New York Mets jersey, he mocked the crowd by calling Philadelphia “the place you live if you can’t afford to live in New York.”

It’s often said in the wrestling world that the best performers are those who exaggerate their real-life personalities. Khan says that is not the case with Friedman, that “what you see is what you get with MJF.”

From Friedman’s perspective, he’s just being honest and authentic.

“This is me 100% of the time, 365 days a year. It doesn’t change. You can ask people in my industry — and people have — and then fans are like, ‘Oh, these other people are just keeping up the ruse.’ This is me,” he says.

This is me 100% of the time, 365 days a year. It doesn’t change.

maxwell jacob friedman

“My own experiences dealing with him, I’ve found him to be more difficult in some ways off camera, if that’s even possible,” Khan says with a laugh. (It’s worth noting that Friedman went on a monthslong hiatus from AEW programming after scathing comments on “Dynamite” in early June in which he begged Khan to fire him.)

MJF is an equal-opportunity antagonizer. In a 2020 interview with Long Island’s Newsday, his parents, while proud of their son, playfully described him as a “jerk”; in a recent Q&A with the same outlet, he called his mother an expletive and a “glory hog.” He can be similarly brusque with Rosenblum, his fiancée, though she’s demonstrated that she can dish it back, too.

Rosenblum, an artist who dated Friedman for three years before his recent proposal, says she tries to take some of the things he says with a grain of salt.

“I don’t think of him as MJF. I think of him as Max and my fiancé, but there’s really no difference between who he is online and on TV versus how he is in person. It’s just him through and through,” she says. 

Rosenblum does help feed into the MJF persona: After saying he has opened doors for her as an artist, she adds, “Fortunately for me, he brings the people around him up with him, and that’s something that you need in a real champion. That’s something that you need and someone you can look up to.”

If recent “Dynamite” episodes are any indication, he will remain a heel on AEW programming for the foreseeable future, though Friedman rejects that term, saying “a star is a star.” However, there are a not-insignificant number of fans who have cheered for him at shows when his entrance music starts playing, or recite his “better than you” catchphrase along with him. It’s a show of appreciation for who he is as a performer, but it also signals an opportunity for AEW to eventually cast him in storylines as a good guy, or a “babyface.”

Of course, that would require some tweaking to his role — you can’t make fun of the paying customers too much as a babyface — while not messing too much with the formula that has made MJF a success. For his part, Friedman says he doesn’t care how the crowd reacts to him: “However people view me — if I was an inherently good person or an inherently bad person — I can care less about. All I care about is that when the AEW faithful put their heads on their pillows, there’s only one person, one face, one name they’re thinking about. And it’s MJF.”

Fighting back against antisemitism: ‘It’s a human issue’

Friedman occasionally makes references to his Jewish faith on AEW programming and on social media — enough to warrant an MJF “My Hanukkah is better than yours” sweatshirt in AEW’s online shop.

At a time when antisemitism is on the rise in the U.S., Friedman has also addressed in interviews his experiences as a Jewish person living in the public eye. During his pre-AEW wrestling career, his car was keyed and a swastika was drawn on his bag, he tells TODAY.com.

Friedman says that since he won the AEW World Championship, people have called him anti-Jewish slurs or have made references to the Holocaust and Hitler in his social media DMs.

“How much of that is deep-rooted in antisemitism and how much of that is deep-rooted in jealousy and wishing that these people were in the position I’m in? I don’t know. But what I do know is it doesn’t make it OK,” he says.

It’s important to him to call attention to the issue of antisemitism because, he says, it’s not discussed often enough.

“It’s just very funny to me that now all of a sudden the conversations being started because Kanye West decided to speak out on the underbelly of society — antisemitism has always been there, always, always, always. The Holocaust was not a very long time ago. And I think that’s something that people just love to forget or love to not admit.

“So, no, I’m not afraid to be a flag bearer as a Jewish athlete.”

Maxwell Jacob Friedman wearing Jewish-inspired suit
Friedman takes pride in his Jewish heritage and has made references to it on AEW programming.Courtesy AEW

Rosenblum, noting that she was raised Jewish and has faced several instances of antisemitism in her own life, praises Friedman for showing people that being Jewish is “not something to be ashamed of” and that “it’s something you can be proud of.”

“I think we need to have more people like him, because there is a stereotype when you think of a Jew, and I think he’s breaking that mold as am I as are so many other people,” she continues. “So the fact that he’s able to step out of that role of, you know, like, a stereotypical Jew — I think it’s wonderful. And I think it’s necessary.”

Friedman says he hasn’t felt reluctance to speak out on antisemitism, despite his portrayal as a heel on AEW television, because “it’s a human issue. It’s not a Jewish issue.”

He then makes a comment that’s in line with the MJF whom viewers see each week on “Dynamite”: “I hate everyone equally. And I just wish that’s the way everybody went about life: hate everyone equally. We all suck.”

What the future has in store for MJF

In an industry where it’s not uncommon for stars to perform in their 40s and 50s, it’s easy to envision Friedman having a long, impactful career as a wrestler. Given his talent, it’s also easy to envision him branching out into other forms of entertainment, a la wrestlers-turned-actors Dwayne Johnson and John Cena. In fact, he already has — he is set to appear in “The Iron Claw,” a feature film based on wrestling’s legendary Von Erich family, joining a cast that includes Zac Efron and “The Bear” actor Jeremy Allen White.

Friedman has been vocal in stating that his AEW contract expires at the start of 2024, and has openly flirted with the idea of jumping to WWE. There’s little doubt he’d relish the opportunity to one day go face to face with the Undisputed WWE Universal Champion, Roman Reigns, the one wrestler he believes is on his level when it comes to who fans are “fawning and melting over.”

Khan, the AEW CEO, is reluctant to discuss the specifics of Friedman’s current contract, but he says Friedman is “well aware” of his desire to extend the deal.

“It’s certainly something he knows is a priority for AEW and me personally,” Khan says.

Friedman’s priorities, according to him, are making money and building a legacy.

“If with the trajectory that I’m on right now as the World Heavyweight Champion, if I continue to create incredible moments for wrestling fans up until 2024, I feel even if I left them at the tender age of 27, I will have left an everlasting legacy in the history of this business, and you’re welcome,” he says.

Maxwell Jacob Friedman on the microphone
Friedman has been hyping what he calls the "bidding war of 2024," the year his AEW contract expires.Courtesy AEW

Friedman, who will defend his championship in a match against Ricky Starks on the Dec. 14 episode of “Dynamite” on TBS, may be embellishing a little. He has often expressed how much the wrestling business means to him, going back to that appearance on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” all those years ago. And he’s clearly enjoying his status as AEW World Champion, both on television and at home.

“He wears the belt all the time around the house. I don’t blame him, I would do the same,” Rosenblum shares. “He lives, breathes wrestling. And there are times when it does feel like it’s a little bit much, because he’ll ask me to call him champion of the world. And I kind of roll my eyes and I’m like, ‘OK, Max, really? Like, come on. Do you really need me to call you champion of the world?’ And he just says, ‘Yeah, yeah, I am the champion of the world.’

“And when he does that, I’m like, you know what, f--- it. I’ll call him the champion of the world and I’ll let him wear the belt. … Whatever makes him happy makes me happy.”

TODAY.com asked Friedman himself if he’s happy. His response: “How couldn’t I be? I am in a spot that everyone is envious (of). I am the AEW World Champion and I’m a generational talent and I’m literally the most talked about name in professional wrestling today. And I’ve managed to do that in a company that’s only three years old.”

He adds, “I’m feeling good, man. And the best thing is — is we'll see how much longer I feel like being a part of this circus.”