It was midway through AEW Dynamite that it struck me — I’d never seen a build to a match this brilliant. There have been the culmination of great rivalries before, Hogan vs. Andre at WrestleMania III, Rock vs. Austin at WrestleMania 17, but nothing feels quite as perfect for its time, place, and standing as what CM Punk and Maxwell Jacob Friedman have been crafting in the lead up to Revolution, the company’s next pay per view.
A large part of this is the more relaxed AEW schedule. This isn’t intended to be a knock on WWE, though it’ll sound like one, but only having one big PPV a quarter lets stories live, breathe and build to a crescendo that simply isn’t possible under an every-month grind. The story of Punk vs. MJF began in mid November, kicking off with trash talking and face-to-face promos, as all wrestling storylines do.
It would have been fine to leave it here. Punk and MJF could have ran with this formula all the way to the PPV. Both are gifted enough talkers that there was no shortage of fodder for them to call each other all manner of names, but instead what’s happened over the last three weeks of programming has turned a standard rivalry, and elevated it into performance art.
All it took was a single photo from both wrestlers’ collective pasts.
February 20, 2022
This one image has launched the rivalry into the stratosphere in the best possible way. It’s CM Punk, posing at the height of his fame, with a young Maxwell Jacob Friedman. It was a photo-op, a fun moment from the past, but through skill and storytelling the performers have escalated this image into the crux of their rivalry. A young boy, whose world revolved around meeting his idol — and the wrestler who didn’t remember it at all, calling it “just another Friday,” in an attempt to anger his opponent.
There’s nothing inherently special with the well-worn trope of “never meet your heroes,” but the use of the photo as a MacGuffin has given the audience a touchstone to keep going back to. It highlights the difference in age between the wrestlers, the shifting environment in which they find themselves, and even managed to make the audience question who is really good and who is bad in this story.
That all culminated last week on Dynamite, when MJF gave, what can only be described as a masterpiece.
There’s so much this speech touched on. It wasn’t just the portrait of a struggle against self-doubt and racism. This was MJF, blurring the line between fiction and reality, bearing his soul and making a crowd feel for him, despite being the most hated wrestler in all of AEW. It was the origin story of a villain, the bully admitting his bravado comes from insecurity, all woven together with the thread of abandonment.
For eight minutes MJF had the audience in the palm of his hand, as he took them on a ride through his formative years. When it was over it was difficult to even process what we’d witnessed. Only 10 days removed from the PPV match months in the making, with Punk established as the hero and MJF as the villain, here was an audience who no longer knew who they were supposed to cheer for. Die-hard CM Punk fans could relate, they also felt abandoned when Punk walked away from the business in 2014. Anyone who has been marginalized could relate. Anyone let down by their idols could relate.
Following a promo like this was always going to be impossible, but this week the duo found a way to reestablish the dichotomy of this match. The veteran who has conquered his demons, desperately wanting to stop someone following in his footsteps, and the youngster, too mired in his own darkness to accept another path.
And it all started from a hug, not one of equals, but where MJF pressed his head into Punk’s chest, like a child wanting reassurance from a parent — only to kick him between the legs and demolish his hero.
The bloody beatdown is back to the roots of pro wrestling, especially one ending in a brutal “dog collar match” this weekend, where Punk and MJF will be attached with chains so neither can escape. At this point though, the match is secondary — it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Sure, both wrestlers will want to tear the house down and give everyone a five-star match to remember, but the lasting effect of this match will be the story that built up to it.
Wrestling is at its best when the line between fiction and reality is indistinguishable. No wrestling fan has some weird disillusion that what we’re seeing is real, but that’s the line that’s been walked so beautifully in the lead up to this match. It’s been a build that has absolutely achieved its goal of giving everyone another CM Punk match, and elevating MJF to be his equal.
It’s impossible not to feel something after watching how this story has developed, and that’s what makes it so beautiful.