Not that long ago, I was chatting with some wrestling fans who were wondering if MJF was really a heel because he got cheered (I wondered how they felt about Roman Reigns, seeing as how he’s cheered quite a lot, but I digress). I asked them: “Well, what do you want to do when you see him?” Their response was that they didn’t know because the audience didn’t react the way it should.
I know, it’s quite the mental contortion, but it nonetheless struck a chord with me, because I have never perceived MJF as anything other than a heel. Even when he’s trying to be relatable, there’s a backbone of villainy that taints everything he does.
One of the things that made MJF so unique from the get-go was how he unrepentantly adopted the heel cloak. He never (or, at least, extremely seldom) “breaks character” as many wrestlers are wont to do, particularly when it comes to fan interactions or their social media presence. If we consider fans are “in on it” and kayfabe nowadays is just a name you put in end credits to get a laugh, the fact he decided to go all-in made him unique. He was embraced as a novelty by newer fans, a welcomed revival by older ones.
It’s not as if cheering for heels is a new thing. I feel wrestling fans will vociferously support compelling and interesting work from a wrestler, regardless. We cheered for The Outsiders back in ‘96 because we loved the exciting freshness of this groundbreaking terrain they were opening up. Or the original DX for their anti-authority and controversial antics.
For MJF, there’s a strong case to be made that people cheer for him because they like his work. In a wrestling environment where the real lives of wrestlers are no longer protected by an omerta of sorts, fans appreciate the unmitigated commitment and top-tier execution of a standard abandoned long ago.
So, coming back to my original premise, with my audience-confused wrestling chums, the question is: If MJF is such a good heel, why isn’t he booed more? Why isn’t he universally reviled? The answer is simple: we don’t let him.
Let’s tell the tale of two MJFs, if you may.
In 2020, he ran an angle where he was Candidate Friedman, a presidential election gimmick used in the buildup to his first world title run against then-champion Jon Moxley. His promos and appearances were built to resemble a campaign trail. It was a safe and ultimately harmless angle that preyed upon America’s exhaustion at an election cycle. Safe. Caricatural. A shared, common experience from all walks of life. A simple and easy target of scorn everyone could agree on. No feathers to ruffle.
Was it a successful angle? It will always be difficult to tell. Since it ran in front of empty arenas during the pandemic, we’ll never truly know what a full crowd reaction to this would have been like. But, for the sake of the argument, let’s consider it worked.
Nowadays, the current MJF is a manipulator and a gaslighter. He will tell a sincere tale of personal injustice only to sucker the audience into feeling bad for him and get a mental edge over his opponent. He hypocritically preys off prejudice to make fun of foreigners and people’s appearance. He makes light of people’s economic status. He recounts stories with crass amounts of detail. He belittles his coworkers disrespectfully. This MJF makes people uncomfortable when he pushes the boundaries by partaking in odious behavior.
This MJF generates pushback from fans: He goes too far. He says things in poor taste. Granted, I cannot fault a portion of fans who find his behavior vile and outright offensive. Recent actions saw him labeled as being racist, sexist, and classist. There is absolutely a case to be made in regards to glorifying poor behavior and engaging in it should be called out. While I feel there are lines even MJF wouldn’t cross, this feels normal for him. He is committed to being a heel, he absolutely wants you to hate him. He refers to himself as the devil and a scumbag and acts accordingly. If anything, we should expect this kind of stuff to happen. Yet we recoil when that squirming feeling starts climbing up our back.
And this is the spot where I have trouble connecting: We want bad guys, but we don’t want them to be too nasty? We want to appreciate the heel work but not hate the guy? Are fans too much “in on it” now? Is part of it that we’re so terrified of getting worked that we prefer to appreciate the hustle more than the product? It’s like going to a restaurant to admire the cooking technique of the chef rather than to enjoy the meal.
In all great stories of good and evil, the best villains are a reflection of their era. Perhaps MJF is the villain our 21st-century world created: one who channels all the ugliness that divides us, the passé insults of decades ago, the divisive rhetoric that permeates our modern times. If we sit around and applaud the technique, we’ll miss the substance, and, ultimately, the point. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to go all in and accept MJF as the villain, this carefully constructed and unabashedly over-the-top bad guy who only demands that you hate him.
So go ahead. Hate him. That’s what you should do.
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