Now, imagine you’re a young wrestler like MJF. You are brimming with talent. You love nothing more than to insult the fans, their kids, their heroes, and even those who have passed away. Annoyingly, they still cheer for you after being told they are garbage. On the same show, other wrestlers tell them not to cheer for you, but they do it anyway. Why is that? Is it because they love bad guys? Perhaps. Some people prefer villainy in their entertainment. However, there is a key ingredient that continues to hurt those portraying wicked characters in wrestling’s modern era. It’s called respect.
The Ultimate Heel Vs. Modern Day Wrestling
In any form of media, most writers will tell you that the bad guy is (almost) always the more interesting. Heroes are often predictable and tedious. They follow a formula that viewers often see coming a mile away. Villains like Heath Ledger’s Joker, who, while being despicable… are so charismatic and unpredictable that they are admired. You know they are being horrible, but you can gloss over that and respect the performance. The character becomes legendary, and not so much for what it did, but for how the actor worked it. You couldn’t imagine anyone else playing that same character and having anywhere near the same effect.
Modern day professional wrestling has struggled with this concept for a long time. It used to be that if someone was a heel, the fans would recognize that and play along. This changed in the Attitude Era, when anti-heroes like Stone Cold Steve Austin changed the game forever. A cool heel may begin their run being loathed, but over time, smart fans take notice and show respect for what they are doing. This admiration gradually seeps into the pores of the wrestling fandom, to where casual fans take notice of others cheering for somebody being a vile piece of trash.
MJF touched on this subject on this week’s Dynamite, where he pointed out how fickle fans can be. He didn’t mention her, but take Liv Morgan, for example. Fans loved her rise and eventual title victory, but many turned their backs on her because of a booking decision out of her control. They aren’t exact quotes, but I can imagine some saying things like… “She’s not a good enough wrestler to be champion”. “Her offense looks weak”. “She tapped out to Ronda Rousey”. It speaks to the mentality of fans that they love cheering somebody’s road to the top, but as soon as they get there… the resistance kicks in. “Liv Morgan is boring”. “She’s not good enough”. “I want [insert name] to be champion!”.
I’ve seen it many times from a heel’s perspective, too. Fans may cheer for a cool heel to make it to the top, but not long after they get there, the fans clamor for something else. Their attention turns to the next fresh face to go through the same process. It’s pretty rare for most fans to accept somebody being on top for a considerable amount of time. WWE had this same problem, only with baby faces, although that’s a subject (about disrespect) for another day.
I found it interesting that among the names of former World Champions that MJF namedropped; he mentioned JBL and Jeff Jarrett. What do these guys have in common? Indeed, JBL was one of the most despised champions ever. I look back on those dark times and remember how much I hated that run he had on SmackDown. There’s some respect for what he did, but not enough to say that I loved his reign. I wanted nothing more than to see somebody beat him, and who did that? John Cena at WrestleMania. That notorious run ended by making John Cena a star. If you watched WWE back in 2005, you’ll know that everyone wanted John Cena to beat JBL that night. That’s how much heat he had.
Then there’s Jeff Jarrett, who MJF likely mentioned for his TNA run. As the NWA World Heavyweight Champion in the early years of TNA Wrestling, fans were sick and tired of him. Not just because he was booking himself as champion, but because of how he went about his business. Nobody respected Jeff Jarrett, and that heat still resonates today. Despite winning the title six times from 2002 to 2006, he did the company a world of good. Wait, what? How? Why? Consequently… AJ Styles beat Jarrett for the title three times. He put over Christian Cage and Sting. What he did was not only make AJ Styles a star, but he also rejuvenated the careers of Christian and Sting.
A great heel sits on top of the mountain, doing anything and everything to keep someone from rising to knock them off. That’s what Roman Reigns does for WWE, and it’s what MJF is doing for AEW. However, while Reigns and The Bloodline act like tweeners (thanks to Sami Zayn), MJF has resisted going the same way. His character went south the moment he had the falling out with Tony Khan and cut his “shoot” promo. The fans love nothing more than a wrestler spitting the truth. They respected him for cutting one of the best promos in company history. However, what has he done since? Not much else but a lot of talking. That’s his strength. Fans love it when he has a microphone.
The Firm attacked him. His segment with William Regal teased a maturing. He promised not to use the Dynamite Diamond Ring at Full Gear. The signs were pointing to MJF having some morals. Not only that, but having respect for another human being like William Regal. In addition, when MJF and Regal worked together to screw Jon Moxley, that’s what the fans wanted. A baby face MJF doesn’t work, and AEW knows this. They had to get fans to hate MJF again. That wasn’t happening with William Regal managing him, because the fans respect him too much. So, when MJF turned on Regal and knocked him out, I had many thoughts.
MJF is a double-edged sword because he works best as a heel, but his best work gets the fans respect. This means that he, and AEW, have to try harder to lose any respect he gains. MJF uses a ton of cheap heat for a reason, and it’s not because it’s easy. Using cheap heat or garnering ‘go away heat’ (which people often mislabel) is what many heels should aspire to in the modern era. If you’re impressing anyone in the ring… stop it. Tone down the use of your catchphrase if it’s catching on. You don’t want any adulation of any kind. If a heel isn’t getting booed, are they doing their job? I wouldn’t say so.
Heels need that volatile reception for their character to work. If fans respect a heel’s work, they shouldn’t be cheering. I have yet to see MJF in person at a wrestling show, but if I did, I’d boo the hell out of him. He deserves it. I don’t hate him, but his hard work warrants that response. By cheering, the fans are telling the performer they aren’t reaching their potential. If you respect their work, then treat them accordingly, by reacting how they would want you to.
MJF is an enigma in an age where being despised is an almost impossible task. What would it take? Well, I’ll tell you. The only way MJF could be absolutely hated is to be found guilty of an actual crime. He’d have to share a controversial and/or politically incorrect opinion. If he was racist? That could do it. Or perhaps he could pull off a CM Punk by insulting his co-workers for real? The problem lies in that by going too far… that’s risking his career. He already flirts with the fringes of the unacceptable, but he knows how to toe the line. He’s exceptional at getting away with things that others wouldn’t.
Whatever they do, MJF & AEW’s mission to make him hated in the modern era will never end. Sometimes, the booking and MJF’s inappropriate remarks come across as desperate. It’s a never-ending smattering of objectionable content that draws heat with the casual and younger viewers, but the older, smarter viewers see it for what it is. Yes, he’s the present and future of AEW… but let’s face facts. Who are we to cheer a character this reprehensible? The next time you go to an AEW show, remember to jeer the man behind the character if you respect his work. It’s what he deserves.
Some of you may be thinking… who am I to tell anyone what to do? Well, you don’t have to accept what I say. It’s up to you what you do. I won’t lose any sleep If you want to cheer for MJF. However, if even one person realizes how disrespectful it is, not to give the person behind the character the response they are looking for, then my work is done. Let’s give MJF our support with our hate, and perhaps one day he can become the villain he has always aspired to be. A character that William Regal and Roddy Piper would be proud of. Thanks for reading!
PS: I wrote this before the news emerged that William Regal was likely returning to WWE. The timing meant that AEW had to backtrack on their plans, but I still believe it was for the best. Fans respect Regal too much for him to be a mentor to MJF. Having him be turned on so soon is consistent with his character. Hopefully, MJF continues to be the despicable piece of trash we have always loved to hate.