When All Elite Wrestling launched in 2019, there was no question about who its biggest star was. Chris Jericho, the first AEW World Champion, was already a wrestling legend and mainstream celebrity when he signed up with the brand new company, with a career that saw him become a star everywhere he went, from WWE and WCW to Mexico and Japan. Right alongside him were the wrestlers who made up the Elite, the stable that gave the company its name; Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks were the top foreigners in New Japan, Cody Rhodes was a member of wrestling royalty who became a bigger star outside WWE than he ever was in it, and Hangman Adam Page was the young, charismatic workhorse considered the future of the company. From AEW’s very first press conference, these six were expected to dominate the young promotion, and that’s almost exactly what has happened.
Almost. There’s been a very prominent, very vocal, very contemptuous fly in the ointment from AEW’s very first show—an exciting, unusually talented young wrestler who was been commandeering the spotlight from the start. His name is Maxwell Jacob Friedman—MJF for short—and from his first appearance in AEW the then-23-year-old has made it clear he’s out for nothing less than the company’s top spot.
Now, two years later, after cozying up first to Cody Rhodes and then Chris Jericho, using them to enhance his profile and learn from their experience before brutally turning on them, MJF is ready for that top spot. Always considered one of the best from a character and interview standpoint, MJF has proven his top-notch in-ring skills in a series of great pay-per-view matches against the likes of Rhodes, Jungle Boy, and Jon Moxley. His tenure in Jericho’s gang, the Inner Circle, was brief but crucial, as the young star did his best to undermine the bonds that made Jericho’s stable so formidable. MJF used what he learned from that time to form his own stable, the Pinnacle, featuring former AEW tag champs FTR (Dax Hardwood and Cash Wheeler), another former friend of Cody in the form of Shawn Spears, MJF’s longtime bodyguard Wardlow, and, as adviser, legendary wrestler and former Four Horsemen member Tully Blanchard. Together their goal is to dominate all of AEW—but first they have to put the matter of the Inner Circle to bed.
After a back-and-forth-series of beatdowns that left first the Inner Circle and then the Pinnacle broken and bruised, the two finally settle their score in the ring this Wednesday night on AEW Dynamite on TNT. Only it’s not just one ring: Blood & Guts is a particularly brutal type of match that will see two rings enclosed in a giant steel cage, with each team sending in one new member every few minutes—giving one team a regular advantage throughout the match. If this sounds familiar, that’s because the basic concept was created by Dusty Rhodes back in the ‘80s, where it was known as WarGames: The Match Beyond and was an annual highlight for the NWA and then WCW. (The very first WarGames match was held at the Omni in Atlanta in 1987, just two or three blocks away from Paste’s studio and office in the heart of Atlanta before the pandemic.) The name WarGames is now owned by another wrestling company, but it’s still the same kind of cruel and vicious war under any other name. Blood & Guts is a great alternative, because that’s exactly what fans can expect from it.
MJF talked to Paste recently about the unforgiving Blood & Guts match, his hatred for Jericho and the Inner Circle, and what the rest of 2021 might have in store for him and the Pinnacle. If he and his partners can back their words up with action, the Inner Circle has one hell of a fight in store for them.
Paste: You’ve got Blood & Guts coming up this Wednesday. It’s the first time we’ve seen this match in AEW, but it has a long history elsewhere. It’s particularly brutal. How do you prepare mentally and physically for something like that?
MJF: I’ve been prepared, man. I’m a student of the game. I’ve watched a lot of Blood & Guts matches, if you will, although I know this will be AEW’s own spin on it. And I can say right now I’ve taken every single measurement and tactic and option available to me. I have Tully Blanchard, a man who has been in Blood & Guts matches as a coach with the Pinnacle. I feel more prepared than ever for this match. I’m fully aware that it’s probably going to go down as one of if not the most barbaric matches in the history of All Elite Wrestling, but in a way I almost have a sense of calm with that because I know I have the stronger soldiers going into this battle.
Paste: What can fans who maybe aren’t familiar with the history of this kind of match expect from Blood & Guts?
MJF: It’s just going to be brutal. I mean, it’s called Blood & Guts for a reason. We don’t like them, they don’t like us, and it’s for good reason. I think Chris Jericho is a crook. I think he has been using his GOAT status as a crutch almost, and I’m just excited to get him and all his friends pretty much out of the way and stake our claim as the top of the mountain in All Elite Wrestling.
Paste: When you were putting together the Pinnacle, why did you pick this specific combination of wrestlers?
MJF: Dax [Harwood] and Cash [Wheeler]—FTR—are the greatest tag team on God’s Green Earth. Shawn Spears is a guy who has been one of the best professional wrestlers in the world, best in-ring technicians in the world, it’s just he’s never had the proper spotlight put on him in all of his 19 year career. And now here we are in 2021, the spotlight is on Shawn Spears, and I’m loving every week the more and more people who are saying “oh my God, where has this guy been?” He’s been here all along. He’s always been great. He just didn’t have the proper spotlight, and as MJF that’s something I can bring to the table. Wardlow’s been with me since day one, pretty much. He is the best insurance policy money has to offer. And then there’s Tully Blanchard, a guy who probably will go down as the greatest mind in professional wrestling history.
Paste: There’s that moment from early in the pandemic era of you and Tully and Spears placing bets from ringside during an episode of Dynamite. Was that your first real experience hanging out with Tully at that time?
MJF: The start of it all, unfortunately we were on opposite ends of the field when Spears and Cody [Rhodes] were rivals at one point, and at that time I had not fully seen through Cody’s fake BS, if you will. So I wasn’t a fan of Spears and Tully. But once I got to sit down with them and we got to speak, it started to hit me. I said, okay. Down the road, if I ever need backup, this is the guy in Shawn Spears. And down the road, if I feel like, for whatever reason, I need advice or tutelage, when you go into matches like a Blood & Guts, this is the guy in Tully Blanchard. They’ve been just exactly that. They’ve been two very, very hardcore key components in the Pinnacle’s success, and they will be key components in our success on May 5.
Paste: Obviously with Tully involved, with the imagery of y’all in suits and riding personal jets, there’s a lot of Four Horsemen influence on the Pinnacle. What can wrestlers today learn from the Horsemen and their peak from 30 plus years ago?
MJF: Well, not just the Horsemen, but old school wrestling as a whole. I feel the reason why I stand out so much in my generation, why FTR stands out, Spears, Wardlow, is because we’re not doing the same thing stylistically everybody is doing in this modern era. Everybody else is basically trying to kill themselves for fan acceptance. Guys like us, guys like the Horsemen, guys of that bygone era, all they cared about was getting the winner’s purse. They didn’t care about being flashy. All they cared about was proving they were the best, the cream of the crop. And that’s something the Pinnacle does every single time we go out there. We’re not doing it by trying to cater to you with flips, or phony baloney hardcore crap. We’re just really good professional wrestlers.
Paste: You have a pretty different background from the FTR guys. You’re younger, you’re from New York while they’re from North Carolina. Have they been able to teach you anything about wrestling or wrestling history that you’ve been able to incorporate into your body of work?
MJF: I think we’ve all been able to teach each other. Just because I’m 25 doesn’t mean I don’t have the same wrestling IQ as these guys. But as far as tag team wrestling goes I have learned a lot from them. I am not a guy who has ever been a tag team wrestler, or a multi-man wrestler. I’ve always been the standout megastar that I am. But I’ve learned a lot from them about how to work as a cohesive unit when we find ourselves in that multiman situation—when your back’s against the wall, but you have brothers in arms next to you.
Paste: Speaking of which, have you been keeping tabs on your former Dynasty teammates Richard Holliday and Alexander Hammerstone down in Major League Wrestling?
MJF: Oh, I love the Dynasty, baby, of course I have. It saddens me… when I left I felt like I was leaving afloat on a raft, almost, in treacherous waters. But I think I underestimated them. They’re huge stars in MLW, as if they weren’t already huge stars before. Alexander Hammerstone is, in my opinion, easily the biggest star they have there in that promotion, and Richard Holliday isn’t far behind. He’s a guy that you can really put in the ring with anyone, in my opinion, and he’s going to have an incredible match, and he’s going to get the fans invested. Those two guys are great dudes. I love ‘em, I’m still Dynasty for life. And you know, who’s to say we won’t see those two guys again on a different program? You never know.
Paste: Cool. So looking back on it, you were with the Inner Circle for months. Was there anything you actually enjoyed about that time, and is there anything that you miss about it today?
MJF: Absolutely not. I will say this: although deep down in my heart of hearts I understood the reason I was doing what I was doing was to be a fox in the henhouse, and to almost be a cancer of sorts inside the Inner Circle—kill it from the inside and rot it. That way I could make sure when I create the Pinnacle, we are the top. We are the cream of the crop. We are the pinnacle—it’s in the name. But, being able to sit under the Chris Jericho learning tree, I was able to find some gems under all of his BS. And I’ve used it already to this point. I learned how to lead men. I learned how to be amongst other men and keep morale high and put out fires. And so that, I’ll say I’m thankful for. As much as I hate Chris Jericho—and trust me, I really do—I am a gigantic fan of Chris Jericho as a professional wrestler and as a professional wrestling mind. I would be a fool to say I didn’t learn a thing or two from him. During my time in the Inner Circle.
Paste: What happens if the Pinnacle loses at Blood & Guts?
MJF: That’s a dumb question. Next question.
Paste: So most wrestlers seem excited to have fans starting to come back to shows as the pandemic gets under control. How important is a live audience for you?
MJF: I’m mad. I’m mad about it. I hate it. I’ve literally been in my happy place every single time I come to work I almost feel like I’m in footie pajamas. I’m just relaxed and comfy. And now all of these disgusting, smelly poors are all going to fill up these arenas again and everybody else is going to be excited except for me. I’m going to be miserable. I don’t like looking at these people. Everybody else was calling it a pandemic, I was calling it a vacation.
Paste: Okay. Final question: what are your goals for the rest of 2021?
MJF: The goal is most certainly I need to secure my spot at the top of the promotion. I already feel that I’ve come very close to doing that, but the only person that is in my way is Chris Jericho. Once I’m able to take that “greatest of all time” spot—once I’m able to take his crown, his throne—from thereforth it’s time for the Pinancle’s conquest towards gold. It’s time for Dax and Cash to win their tag championships back. It’s time for Spears to go for a TNT belt, or an FTW title. Same thing goes for Wardlow. And it’s time for me to win the title that I should already have if Jon Moxley didn’t cheat. Which he did. And that I am very excited for. But none of that can happen until we get rid of the disgusting fluff that is Chris Jericho and the Inner Circle.
Paste: Actually that brings up one last thing I want to ask about before you go. Now that Moxley has lost the title—it’s around Kenny Omega’s waist, along with three titles—what do you see happening if the Pinnacle goes up against Kenny and the Young Bucks and the Good Brothers, now that they’re all together again?
MJF: They should have eyes on the back and sides of their heads. They’re not safe. And I think they know that. But right now, like I said, my main objective is destroying Chris Jericho and the Inner Circle, and claiming my spot in his throne. After that? I don’t care if the title’s on Kenny Omega, I don’t care if it’s on Jon Moxley, I don’t care if it’s on Rey Fenix, I don’t care if it’s on El Dandy, I don’t care if it’s on the homeless guy in the street: I’m going to beat the shit out of them and I’m going to claim the spot that’s rightfully mine as the AEW World Champion. A spot I should have already, except Dictator Jon decided to cheat. It’s nothing personal with Kenny Omega. Kenny Omega is obviously one of the greatest wrestlers of our generation, if not THE greatest wrestler of our generation. But if you have that title, and I’m in the hunt, I’m sorry: it’s mine now. It’s that simple.
Blood & Guts airs on AEW Dynamite on TNT at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday, May 5.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.