“Y’know, it’s interesting. I think they should show MJF a little bit more on the split screen. I don’t think we got the full idea that he was watching this match. My God, can we put the subtlety hammer away? This was very WWE-like. Where you have to spoonfeed your viewers, because, y’know. Half of them are children and the other half are senior citizens. 

And lemme tell you something. If they’re gonna treat this thing like a cash-in, I’m gonna destroy that. And get outta my way. This is gonna be the rant to end all rants, this is gonna be like that Dynamite at the end of 2019, if MJF cashes this thing in WWE Money in the Bank Style. And that would fit MJF’s character to a T, but I don’t want that shit in my non-WWE wrestling. I’m tired of that trope over there, with a company I don’t give a shit about, where they’ve already shit on all of their titles for years and years and years. Don’t drag that bullshit into the wrestling I like watching, please. Tony Khan was very vague on that subject when asked. MJF was very vague on that subject. And Tony Khan sure made it sound like this chip can be cashed in at any time. If it’s some impromptu thing, I am gonna rage. I’m gonna tell you right now – that’s gonna hurt my enjoyment of this company, if that’s how he wins the title. I GOT NO TIME FOR IT, I GOT NO USE FOR IT, TONY. I’m warnin’ you now! 

….as if he cares what I think.”

-Joe Lanza, The Flagship Wrestling Podcast (September 22)

Never let it be said that Tony Khan doesn’t understand his fans.

When MJF stood at the top of the ramp at the end of All Out 2022 with the poker chip he’d won in the Casino Ladder Match, if you asked most people when he was going to get his title shot, they would’ve said it would probably be at Dynamite Grand Slam, AEW’s biggest episode of TV of the year that was happening in about two weeks. Fast forward a couple days to when the world title was vacated and a tournament without MJF in it to crown a new world champion would be the main event of Grand Slam instead, they might have changed that answer to another special episode of TV, or in fact, Full Gear, AEW’s next pay per view. In fact, if you watched the in-ring segment that opened the September 7 episode of Dynamite, it would be easy to come away with the conclusion that it was obviously building to a main event of MJF challenging Jon Moxley for the world championship at either a special episode of TV or Full Gear.

Moxley would win the tournament and the championship, then they would lock in the date of MJF’s challenge. This is how it’s always worked with AEW’s casino (or Face of the Revolution, specifically where the TNT title is concerned) matches in the past: Adam Page, Brian Cage, Lance Archer, Jungle Boy, Adam Page…again, Nyla Rose, Ruby Soho, Death Triangle, the Young Bucks, Scorpio Sky, Wardlow, in every case, the result was the same. The winner gets the chip or the big gold Sonic ring or they toss the last competitor out of the ring and you know exactly when they’re going to challenge, usually as soon as the next episode of Dynamite. They couldn’t do that in this case for one obvious reason: There was no world champion to challenge yet, the title had been vacated following All Out. So, okay, easy solution. Have MJF talk about how he can get a title shot any time he wants for a couple weeks to give him something to do for the couple weeks that the tournament was playing out, then when Moxley wins the tournament, you announce when he’s challenging and you start building the match. Nice and simple.

Except then something strange happened.

Moxley won the world title at Grand Slam, and they didn’t announce when MJF would be challenging. MJF just kept talking about how he could challenge for the title any time he wants, and Tony Khan…wasn’t contradicting him! The promoter and MJF both gave concerningly vague explanations in interviews that essentially amounted to “MJF has to tell Khan when he wants the match, Khan will sanction the match, but MJF’s opponent doesn’t have to know that the match is happening until it’s about to happen.” Which, if you had to guess how WWE’s Money in the Bank gimmick would sound if ran through a Tony Khan Logic filter, that would probably be pretty close. The longer MJF kept saying that and Tony Khan didn’t say otherwise and the longer they didn’t announce a date for MJF’s challenge, the likelier it looked that yes, they were going to do this. At some point, Jon Moxley was going to wrestle a match, barely win it, be dead on the mat and then MJF would come sprinting down to the ring, emphatically hopping up and down and shoving his poker chip into the ref’s hands, demanding the ref ring the bell, immediately run in and hit one move to win the championship in about 30 seconds. It’s easy to picture, because we’ve seen it about 30 times in WWE since they came up with the concept in 2005.

We can argue how many of those times have actually been good or went anywhere. I personally will always have a soft spot for FKA Dean Ambrose smacking Seth Rollins upside the head with the briefcase to win the world championship, finally getting his revenge on the man who betrayed him with the same tool that more or less represented Rollins’ betrayal of the Shield and descent into nasal-laugh villainy, but the title reign that followed for Ambrose was pretty uninspired. We can argue how effective of a tool it is for getting heat for heels to vulture the world championship away from a valiant, fighting babyface. There have certainly been at least a couple of instances of that, Randy Orton in 2013 being one that readily comes to mind, although again, the follow-up there was spotty at best, even if WWE would have you believe that Bryan’s triumph at WrestleMania 30 had been the plan all along (check out The Yes Movement by Rich Kraetsch on FlagshipPatreon.com for the real story!). We can argue that the concept as a whole reached its ultimate nadir this year when fan-favorite Big E, as a SmackDown wrestler, won the briefcase, proceeded to do nothing for two months, never crossed paths with the champion of his brand, then randomly tweeted one day that he would be cashing in on the champion of the other brand that night and as the heroic babyface, cashed in on an injured Bobby Lashley who had already wrestled a match to win the championship. He then proceeded to lose on TV a bunch of times, lose to the champion of the other brand at Survivor Series, then lose the title to Brock Lesnar in January, otherwise known in WWE as the time when all of your favorites that you root for all year are unceremoniously moved out of the way to make room for the real stars. But that’s all up for debate. Maybe you liked Ambrose’s title reign for the way it played the former members of The Shield against each other. Maybe you don’t care about what happened between Orton’s cash-in and Bryan’s win at WrestleMania, the destination made the journey worth it. Maybe seeing Big E hold up the championship to a jubilant crowd reaction was enough to justify the shaky before and after. This can all be argued by reasonable people. What’s harder to argue is how overwhelmingly tired the concept of Money in the Bank is in 2022 and more to the point, how much long-term damage it’s done to WWE’s world titles, one ineffectively booked briefcase holder at a time, one poorly booked title reign at a time. It’s a perfect representation of the problems with the way WWE presents wrestling. Short-term excitement, inconsistent follow-up. They don’t tell stories, they make moments.

The idea of that trope, that kind of storytelling, making its way into AEW, the “pro wrestling as sport” promotion, the promotion of long, layered, multi-year storylines, the promotion where the journey is just as important as the destination, the promotion where above all else, the sanctity of the world title is protected (depending on your feelings on interim titles, anyway) is a terrifying one. Surely, this couldn’t be how Khan was going to pay off MJF’s multi-year quest to win the world title, with Excalibur screaming, “HE’S CASHING IN, HE’S CASHING IN!” and some one move, 30-second match on a random episode of TV? No way was Khan going to give this kind of WWE-style storytelling to his positively-sick-to-death-of-WWE-style-storytelling fans whose long term ennui with that promotion was the reason his promotion existed in the first place, right?

Except, the problem is, it kinda fits.

The easiest way to get heat in AEW is to be like WWE. Just look at Chris Jericho, whose current gimmick is “be a goofy, broad, over-the-top WWE-style heel in AEW,” and it’s working like gangbusters right now. But Jericho’s gimmick at least employs the barest layer of subtlety. He plays the big-timing Sports Entertainer who sneers and looks down at the pro wrestlers who can only make it in the minor leagues of AEW and ROH, but he never specifically mentions his former promotion, he just alludes to it. MJF, as “the AEW wrestler who openly loves WWE”, employs no such subtlety. He expresses admiration for men who are the biggest villains to AEW fans, like Bruce Prichard. He’s practically counting down the days until his contract expires by constantly mentioning the “bidding war of 2024”. He wastes no opportunity to tell people, “hey, remember when Cody left this company and debuted at WrestleMania? Guess what I’m gonna do that too.”

Unlike Jericho, MJF isn’t the WWE sports entertainer in AEW. He’s the AEW wrestler who covets becoming a WWE sports entertainer because that’s where the real money is, that’s where the real stars are, that’s where the real men who actually know wrestling and aren’t fucking marks are. He needles AEW fans about the company being second best to WWE constantly and makes it clear in no uncertain terms that that is why he’s going to leave in 2024: because AEW is second best and MJF doesn’t do second best. What better way for a man like that to win the world title than to do it in the most WWE way possible, cashing in his big goofy lookin’ gimmick on some poor schmuck that’s already wrestled a match? Would it be unsatisfying? Would it irreversibly damage the lineage of the AEW World Championship? Would it shake fan confidence in Tony Khan’s ability to book his promotion in a way that hadn’t been seen since he took the creative reins in January of 2020? Of course, it would. It would do and be all of those things. Which is why the idea was equal parts plausible and terrifying.

Never let it be said that Tony Khan doesn’t understand his fans.

There’s been something about MJF this year. Particularly since All Out 2022, but really this started at the June 1 Dynamite after MJF gave a passionate promo that ended with him calling Tony Khan a fucking mark. But really, this started all the way back at the February 3 Dynamite, when MJF gave a different passionate promo about his life as a “dumb, 5-foot nothing, ADD-riddled Jew Boy” who idolized and was then irrevocably disappointed by CM Punk.

The important thing about that promo is that even if he may have used it to get CM Punk’s guard down so he could bloody him and beat the crap out of him, it wasn’t a lie. That was really MJF’s life. The fans picked up on that, the fans realized hey, there’s a human being underneath this privileged, cheating, WWE-loving asshole and there’s few things wrestling fans love more than a passionate wrestler who argues for themselves from a place of honesty, be they a good guy or a bad guy. What’s really compelling to people aren’t necessarily characters that are good, but characters that are driven.

On February 3, MJF was driven.

On June 1, MJF was driven.

On September 7, with the top of the company in shambles, titles vacated, uncertainty abound, MJF was the anchor. MJF was the guy who’d been there since day one. MJF was beloved. MJF was, above all else, a star. The star. It no longer mattered how many people he’d screwed, how many backs he’d strapped, how many balls he’d kicked, how many faces he’d left with a diamond ring imprint, people didn’t care, they wanted to cheer for MJF. Problem is, driven as he was, MJF was still the bad guy.

In his last match, he had literally paid six people to come in and ruin the match so he could win it without expending any effort, which again, is WWE heeling to a tee. Remember Brock Lesnar sashaying his way down the ramp, tipping over one ladder and then sashaying his way back up, briefcase in hand? Remember how much that pissed everybody off? How do you get from that to letting your fans do what they want and cheering MJF while still having it make sense for your story?

Well, Tony Khan took William Regal and Stokely Hathaway and he planted them right on MJF to be the angel and the devil on his shoulders. Wheeler Yuta offers MJF a handshake. MJF looks like he’s thinking about accepting it, but Stokely Hathaway ruins it by attacking Yuta, before Regal, brass knuckles in hand, runs the bad guys off. Stokely Hathaway represents the road MJF has gone down thus far. Take the easy way out. Cheat. Use money and numbers to solve all your problems. William Regal, on the other hand as the patriarch of the Blackpool Combat Club, might as well be the purest embodiment of tough love you can find in wrestling. He doesn’t rebuke or insult or belittle MJF like everybody else, he doesn’t even open himself up and show MJF the acceptance he thinks he needs the way CM Punk did and walk right into a trap in doing so, because both of those things just confirm the worldview that MJF already has and uses as justification for everything he does: nice guys finish last, so be the baddest guy there is. Regal instead exposes MJF’s insecurity and self-loathing with little more than a look, he shatters MJF’s excuses for being who he is by telling him, “you’ve had it easy, sunshine”. He tells him, if you want to be the bad guy, fine, be the bad guy, but stop doing it because you’re too weak to do it the right way, stop doing it because it’s the easy way out, stop blaming other people for every bad thing that’s ever happened to you and every bad thing you’ve ever done, stop taking shortcuts and be the bad guy because you want to be.

And when Regal offered MJF just that, the chance to be the bad guy and deck William Regal with his ring, MJF couldn’t do it.

And when MJF showed up to cash in his chip later that night, with a beaten, bloodied, but still standing, still defiant Jon Moxley ready to face him, Regal dared MJF to get in there and take the shortcut, MJF couldn’t do that either.

MJF says he wants Moxley at 110%. He makes the challenge and it’s official and it’s the date you might have guessed way back on September 7. After all the twists and turns, MJF’s challenge will be at Full Gear, November 19.

Surprise!

There was never going to be an impromptu cash-in. It was always going to lead to a scheduled title match at a scheduled time. The “cash in at any time” stipulation was there to, A) Kill time for a couple of months and give MJF something to talk about, but more importantly, B) Start the first real movement towards what an MJF babyface turn might look like. Because remember, on February 3, June 1 and October 18, MJF was driven, but he was not heroic. He’s still fighting for angry, spiteful, selfish reasons. But he’s doing it in an honorable way. He’s challenging the right way, he’s saying he won’t use the ring, and he’ll win cleanly (well, “clean for MJF” in his own words, so there may still be some expensive wrestling boots splitting Jon Moxley’s uprights in the near future). This is the first time since he turned on Cody that MJF has shown signs of acting as an honorable wrestler and an honorable world champion. There’s two ways this can go, of course. One is that MJF, either on November 19 or some time in the future, finds a way to discard all of his self-loathing and insecurity and just trust his own skills and be a good guy and eventually, earn the world championship the right way. If that’s the story, Full Gear should probably be his “Okada cries like a baby while Tanahashi berates him from the ring” moment and he probably shouldn’t actually win the title for like two more years, but that’s another discussion entirely. The alternative is that he doesn’t stay the bad guy he is right now, but takes William Regal’s advice and is the bad guy, not because he has to be, but because he wants to be. He stops punching mirrors and hating himself and just lets himself enjoy being an unrepentant prick. We’ve seen MJF go from a man who panicked and shriveled up at the sight of his own blood the first time he faced Jon Moxley to a violent psychopath that calls himself the Devil and hangs CM Punk from the ring with a dog collar. His next evolution may not be into one of honor, but into further violence and depravity.

One gets the feeling William Regal will be proud of him either way.

MJF’s evolution in 2022 has been a long, winding one, that has taken full advantage of his real-life contract status and danced back and forth between fictional pro wrestling and the real world, with plane tickets, no-shows, worked shoot promos, insights into the genuinely conflicted, pained human he is underneath all of the money and status and along the way, the entire, exceptional pro wrestling storytelling.

It’s become a running joke that every promo MJF cuts is the new greatest promo of his life, because the guy just can’t stop topping himself. Of course, the devil on MJF’s shoulder, Stokely Hathaway, didn’t take too kindly to MJF rejecting the easy way out and turned on him, adding another new wrinkle to this storyline. Is the Firm’s betrayal going to push MJF further towards a face turn? Will they screw MJF out of the championship at Full Gear to try and cheat it away from Moxley themselves? Ethan Page has already declared for the annual Eliminator Tournament that culminates at Full Gear and started building matches with both MJF and Moxley. Remember, some form of this storyline was originally going to be between MJF and CM Punk and a lot of people thought there was a double turn in the future for the two of them.

If William Regal has made one thing very clear, it’s that MJF has a long way to go, not to become a world champion, but to become a proper villain. Will he choose MJF over the Blackpool Combat Club and take his role in making MJF become that proper villain? MJF said he wouldn’t use the diamond ring – nobody said anything about him not using a pair of brass knuckles that just so happen to find their way into his hands. Jon Moxley himself was circling around a heel turn of his own just about this time a year ago before his personal issues derailed that plan and instead sent him on a path to become the hero of AEW that he is today, is it time to come back to that story?

There’s a lot of different, entirely valid directions this story can go, all of them infinitely more interesting and exciting than MJF cashing in a giant poker chip to win the title with one move in 30 seconds. But laying out that possibility in the first place and then having MJF firmly reject it is what led us to this unpredictable, exciting, compelling place for both the story and his character.

I for one am glad that Tony Khan successfully tricked me into thinking he was going to do something very, very stupid with his top star and his world title, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

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