A Booking Masterclass | MJF vs. Bryan Danielson
Updated: Mar 19
When Bryan Danielson and MJF begun feuding three and a half months ago their roles and characters were somewhat different. MJF was a heel getting babyface pops and cheers, whilst Danielson, despite wrestling predominantly against heels, was himself leaning into a traditionally heel-ish persona.
Many people were worried that this feud wouldn't work when it first became clear that was the direction. Yet they were also the same characters as they are now. So, what exactly did change? We've not seen any drastic changes, but rather a subtle shift in the framing of these characters to get them to the position where two things are achieved:
1) The drama peaks at the right time for the match.
2) As a result of that the audience want to see the match so badly that we'll pay for it.
My goal with this article isn't to patronise you and pretend this is the greatest story ever. It's a very good one, not just in the story being told, but also in how they told it. What I want to demonstrate is just how expertly crafted this story has been.
And how that was accomplished with not just the use of traditional pro-wrestling tropes, which absolutely have their place. They are timeless for a reason. But this was also achieved through some subtle and nuanced decisions that make this feud a true booking masterclass
Every great story starts with a motivation, and this one starts after MJF has been crowned as AEW World Champion at Full Gear in November 2022. A match which William Regal turned his back on the Blackpool Combat Club to help MJF defeat BCC's Jon Moxley.
Moxley demands an explanation from Regal and threatens physical violence. But Bryan Danielson intervenes, showing that, despite the betrayal, this man, William Regal, still means too much to Bryan. It's his mentor, but not just that. Someone who Danielson looks to as a father figure.
So, when MJF hits Regal in the back of the head, Bryan is quite literally 'called to action'. Obviously there is the motive of wanting to be world champion for Danielson which becomes obvious later. But there's a more personal motive for 'The American Dragon' here in the beginning.
This acts as a hook to invest the audience in the story. Because whilst "I want the title" is a perfectly good motivation, it wouldn't make this title feud unique from any other.
MJF's motivation for doing this specific despicable action were laid out before Full Gear. MJF was dropped by WWE and Regal sent an email to Max to keep sending tapes, before eventually contact was lost on WWE's end. MJF saw this as a direct attack on himself, as he often does in his world of self-victimisation.
MJF felt used by WWE and by William Regal. So when the opportunity presented itself, he used Regal and spat him out the same way he felt spat out by WWE. MJF will usually squeeze every bit of juice out of people he aligns himself with. But with Regal this was more personal.
(Also, Regal was leaving the company, so had to be written off TV. But even in the kayfabe world this made sense, despite a lot of people on Twitter pretending it didn't).
So, MJF's actions as the villain are explained and Bryan Danielson has a call to action. But then came...
MJF doesn't just give out title shots to people who ask for them. Ricky Starks, for example, had to win a tournament and the Dynamite Dozen Battle Royale to face Max, and it was after MJF defeated Starks that Bryan Danielson literally chased Friedman.
However, Bryan had a lot to do to prove himself worthy of a title shot in MJF's eyes. After all, despite winning three matches in a row, Danielson was coming off losing a best-of-three series to Chris Jericho. It was hard to make a kayfabe argument that Danielson deserved a title shot.
MJF announced that Bryan would have to win another five matches in a row to earn a match with Max. And these five matches is where the booking really impressed me, because they told a story within themselves.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, these characters were viewed differently at the start of this feud to how they're currently viewed going into Revolution. Part of that shift was achieved with their motives and their actions. Bryan has a relatable and sympathetic motivation whilst MJF has done despicable things. Not just to the beloved William Regal, but in cheating to beat Ricky Starks in his hometown.
The other shift in re-framing these characters came in this series of five matches with Bryan Danielson. These matches can be put into three categories:
1) Bangers to remind us why we love Bryan Danielson.
2) A match with a monster to gain sympathy, and give MJF an advantage.
3) Gruelling matches to weaken Danielson further.
The bangers came against Konosuke Takeshita and Bandido. These were both great matches that reminded fans that Bryan is one of the best wrestlers in the world. Not just in his technical ability but in how exciting he is to watch. One of the best ways to get over with fans is simply to entertain.
The only potential issue with these matches is that Takeshita and Bandido are also great, and the worry might be that fans could resent Danielson for holding these talents back. Or that they might get over more than Bryan in these matches. Neither of these happened, but that is also why these matches had to come first. They're the least dramatically impactful.
Now that the audience were reminded how much they love Danielson, we got the first proper obstacle. A match with a monster in Brian Cage. The bout itself fell a little flat for many people. But the post-match angle where MJF and Cage injured Bryan's shoulder served as a key moment in the story.
Especially as up next MJF had Timothy Thatcher. A submission specialist who likes to focus on the arms and shoulders of his opponents. This match truly was gruelling for Danielson. In part because of how monstrous Thatcher comes across in his wrestling. But also because Bryan is one of the best sellers in the world.
Sometimes the story can just be in the actual wrestling, and this feud gave us a lot of that. Danielson escaped that match, just, but then had to face Rush. Now, this match caught people off guard, but that's the genius of it.
See, Rush is the most similar to MJF out of all these opponents, he'll cut the same corners. Whilst MJF would have loved Cage or Thatcher to get the win, it became clear that the order of opponents were as much about setting up the next opponent to gain an advantage as they were trying to get each individual opponent to end Bryan's quest to be number one contender.
Maxwell saved Rush for last because that is who he's identified as the person who will win at all costs. He believes that you can have all the skills and muscles in the world. But if you're not willing to do anything to win then someone will always be a step ahead of you. Because of course he thinks that, it's exactly what he's done his entire career.
And that is why Rush is the one MJF offered the case of cash to, as opposed to the usual envelope slip. However, of course, Danielson overcomes Rush and that mentality, despite a brutal, yet fantastic match. Overcoming the exact mentality MJF holds dear, with his own ideology of how wrestling should be done. Sheer grit and determination. Fighting for his dream. And that is the core of this story...
Know Your Role
Conflict creates drama, and conflicted is created primarily through an opposition of ideologies. Bryan Danielson and Maxwell Jacob Friedman could not be more different. In their personalities, their wrestling methodology and how they act.
The way they presented this is whilst Bryan Danielson was getting down to work, going through gruelling matches literally every week, MJF was running his mouth. On commentary, in promos or backstage segments. Some of this wasn't even particularly related to Danielson himself, it's just MJF being himself. Although being the pro he is, MJF always related it back to the story at hand.
His infamous 'car crash' promo is the best example of this. Because whilst he did relate it back to Danielson and how Bryan's way of doing things is, in his mind, the "wrong way", it was ultimately MJF getting off on showing how much of an awful human being he is.
And it showed that whilst Bryan Danielson will overlook betrayal for those he loves, MJF will happily throw those he claims to "love" under the bus to benefit himself.
It's simple, but over weeks and weeks as Danielson was out in the ring reminding us why we should love, MJF was on the mic reminding us why we shouldn't. Talk about utilising the strengths of your talents!
That wasn't all though. MJF's mouth did get him into trouble as did his actions. Bryan earned Takeshita's respect in their match and took it on his shoulders to stop MJF from interfering, in the absence of BCC. And that last point about BCC I will leave as just something to think about.
Ultimately, a lot of MJF's work over this period was just a "heel being a heel". But his match with Takeshita was another stroke of booking genius. MJF reminded everyone that, whilst he is despicable and cuts every corner he can, that he is also an elite wrestler as he beat Takeshita relatively clean, and easier than Bryan had. MJF is still a threat and a challenge for Danielson to overcome outside of simply cheating and saying bad words.
Both Max and Bryan defined their characters perfectly in the run-up to this match. But there was still one more thing to do before the match itself...
Raise the Stakes
Just as the story needed to peak exactly when it did from a dramatic perspective, with the match set for Revolution, MJF is now trying everything he can to throw Bryan off his game.
MJF is always insulting, but now he's desperate and resorts to paying one of Danielson's oldest friends, Christopher Daniels, to come out and publicly rundown Bryan. However, 'The Fallen Angel' sees what MJF is doing and exposes him.
This raises the stakes for MJF because he's been embarrassed and found out. Forcing him to go as personal as he possibly can. Now, this was already a fairly personal feud. Max had hospitalised Bryan's mentor and spoken about his mother and injury problems. But that hadn't drawn much of a reaction from Danielson except to motivate him further.
MJF cuts a promo explaining why he "hates" Bryan Danielson, and it ties in perfectly with his "origin story". MJF sees the world as his enemy and he wants to inflict the pain he feels onto others. Not just physically, but mentally.
Deep down all any human wants is to feel loved. The real-life villains are no different. If you look into the childhoods of most serial killers, you will find a reason for how they became what they are. Nothing justifies that, of course. But these real-life explanations for real-life villains are the standards that should apply to every villain in fiction.
Some people incorrectly see these promos as sympathetic in their intent. They are not. MJF doesn't just stop being a bad person because bad things have happened to him. It is his projection of that pain onto others which makes him a villain.
So, MJF sees the fact that Danielson has the "perfect life," yet continues to risk it to so he can wrestle, as selfish. Max then proceeds to speak directly to Bryan's kids through the camera and shortly after a brawl ensues.
Danielson gets the better of MJF in the brawl, but Max will see that as a win as he's finally cracked Bryan. However, the next week Danielson levels the score.
MJF interrupts Bryan's promo, but the 'American Dragon' tells Max to shut up and gives a fantastic retort in which he tells Friedman that he deserved to be left by his fiancée. This causes Max to take his jacket off and storm to the ring, until Bryan says he's ready to fight anytime and he composes himself.
Bryan then goes on to focus on himself and references his iconic "fight for your dreams" promo. This one acts as a sort of sequel to that, as Danielson explains how he fought poverty, depression, head injuries, retirement and the authority (in WWE). Then saying how he came to AEW to fight for his "new dream", to be AEW World Champion.
Now, this is the first time Danielson really mentions the title. He had mentioned it before, of course. But this is the first time he mentions it as a real "dream" of his. The first time he spoke about it in the context of a motivation.
Some people may say he should have mentioned it earlier. But saving this promo for the go-home show allowed the drama to peak just at the right time. Having shown us everything I've mentioned already, Bryan explicitly stated all the reasons we should invest in him and then added on some extra motivation without making it feel like an afterthought.
This functions as a promo to sell the pay-per-view, which it is. But it also functions as a narrative device to raise the stakes to the absolute max (pardon the pun) allowing the drama to peak at the perfect time. And that time is...
This entire story has been building towards the match. A real dream match that most fans would have paid $50 after the match graphic alone. Not only is this a tantalising prospect, as the ultimate babyface of the last generation goes up against the most despicable heel of the rising one. But also as two genuinely great technical wrestlers go at it for an entire hour.
The fun for the fans now comes in fantasy booking spots and the potential result. I won't go down that rabbit hole, but I've seen suggestions for a draw (with reference to Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels), for Danielson to win and of course for MJF to retain.
For me the real genius of the booking is that I think the result is fairly obvious. MJF will and should retain (in some form), in my personal opinion. But I and many others are desperate to see this match. Not just to see a technical classic, but to see the climax of this story.
It's peaked at the perfect time, and Bryan's line telling Max that he's going to get his "f*cking head kicked in" was the perfect note to lead into this match.