Check out prior Deep Dives!
5/15/22, Re: MJF's contract dispute
3/14/23, Re: Danielson vs MJF
4/1/23, Re: the Build to Wrestlemania 39
6/4/23, Re: the Future of AEW Rampage?
6/17/23, Re: Anticipating AEW Collision
Deep Dive is an opinion and analysis series where I go RIDICULOUSLY deep (whether that be statistically, or with trope analysis, or with something,) into some pro wrestling issue of the moment—usually relating to All-Elite Wrestling, but sometimes regarding other promotions. The goal is—while it does involve my opinions—to add some value beyond "that's just, like, your opinion, man," by genuinely exploring the issue at hand deeply.
On September 27, AEW cameras cut away from a tense contract-signing main-event segment between Hangman Adam Page and Swerve Strickland to cover a "breaking story"—a crew of four black-clad masked assailants were putting the boots to Switchblade Jay White. But THEN, the camera-view widens enought to see a fifth man, dressed similarly, but—instead of a simple balaclava—covering his face with a familiar Devil mask that we had last seen worn by recently-reformed, self-proclaimed "Devil," Max Friedman, aka MJF.
However, this particular Devil, despite wearing an outfit that obscured most potentially distinguishing features, viewers noticed right away that he had a significantly slimmer build than the rather jacked AEW World Champion... Thus was raised in everyone's minds, (except for Jay White and his Bullet Club allies, we will learn,) the extremely trope-tastic question: "Who is under the mask?"
The Road to "the Devil"
In May of last year, MJF's former bodyguard Michael Wardlow gave his ex-boss one of his very rare career singles losses, in a high-profile, high-stakes match. Within the story, Wardlow, at that time, didn't work for AEW directly, but instead was under contract directly to Friedman, and, if he won the match, he would be released from the MJF contract and be free to sign with AEW directly—whereas, if he lost, he would be barred from ever joining the All-Elite roster. He defeated Friedman in an unusually dominant fashion, and subsequently MJF wouldn't be seen again for several months. In September of last year, we first saw the Devil mask when an unknown (but not hard to guess) competitor came out to the strains of "Sympathy for the Devil" as the last entrant to win a ladder match, (with the help of, you guessed it, a crew of black-clad henchmen,) for a shot at the AEW World Championship...
Later that night, to pretty well nobody's surprise, the Devil revealed himself to be Max Friedman in disguise. The point of the mask evidently having been to be a little dramatic and put off the official reveal of Friedman's return till the main event slot. The screen cut to some old footage, from years ago, of longtime MJF nemesis CM Punk saying (paraphprased) that "the greatest trick the Devil ever played was to convince the world he doesn't exist," and then to "the Devil" having entered at the top of the ramp, who then turned away from the crowd to remove the mask, and officially reveal his identity by donning his trademark Burberry scarf, and then turn back to glare a challenge at Punk, the man who had just won the title that Max had just won a shot at.
But renewing their feud was not to be, because just after this show, Punk got into a real-life backstage fight that led to his real-life suspension, to being stripped of the AEW World title, and eventually, indirectly, to a series of events that got the performer known by the ring name "CM Punk" fired for cause from AEW entirely. But one of the reasons that the Devil storyline seems custom-made for Punk, a man who does not work for AEW anymore, is that it literally was.
With Punk out of the picture, rehabbing an injury and suspended, the Devil mask was put away, and in November, Max won the AEW World Championship that he has held for the full year since then from Jon Moxley at last year's edition of tonight's AEW Full Gear event. The mask came out of the locker just one more time in March of this year, to serve again as a dramatic prop for an entrance, this time leading up to the match that I have argued in a previous Deep Dive was the greatest Iron Man match of all time, versus Bryan Danielson.
Then, the strangest, most unimaginable thing happened—inveterate, incorrigible villain and all-around douche canoe, Maxwell Jacob Friedman... reformed! ... to all appearances, quite genuinely. What led up to this? AEW put together a tournament concept to determine the #1 contender for the AEW World Tag-Team Champions, FTR, (who, let's note, had been MJF's henchmen back in the same time period that Wardlow had been.) It was called the Blind Eliminator Tournament because the teams were paired together randomly, by lottery, (at least, within the storyline.) And, will wonders never cease, the AEW Men's Singles World Champion was paired with his current rival for that title, Adam Cole. Motivated by the desire to—regardless of who ended up holding the singles title between the two of them—win even more gold and potentially be a double champion, both men made a genuine effort to meet in the middle and get to know one another in order to better work together, which, shockingly... worked! Cole came to slowly grow a genuine affection for Friedman—who had, up until this point, been portrayed as a pure, miserably unlikable, jerk-ass villain. And Friedman reciproicated, developing what he described to the audience as his very first actual friendship, which motivated him, with Cole's encouragement, to slowly, gradually, and painfully attempt to genuinely become a better person.
This all leads to the last time we see the Devil mask, before the mystery begins: in August, the odd couple of MJF and Adam Cole fought one more time for the AEW (Singles) World Championship in the main event of one of the biggest wrestling events of all time AEW All In at Wembley Stadium. The Wednesday after, we saw footage of an interview of both men—who had stayed friends through it all, to the delight of the crowd—from right after the match. And in the background was one heck of an Easter Egg:
Does it mean something? And even if it originally had been meant to, perhaps that plan had to be changed? ... seeing as Cole broke his ankle soon after and the recovery time before he can return to action is expected to be lengthy by all reports.
Our Story So Far...
And that leads us up to the beginning of the Devil mystery, the inciting incident being that backstage attack on Jay White almost two months ago that we covered first off. Over the weeks, White and his cohort have continued to assert that the Devil is simply the obvious suspect: MJF. Adam Cole's obsessively jealous friend, Roderick Strong has also made the accusation multiple times. Whether they are experiencing heel blindness, or actually mean to accuse Max of only being the man behind the man and not literally the skinnier man we've actually seen in the mask, or if they actually don't believe it at all and are only claiming it to get under Friedman's skin... remains unspecified. Max explained his side of the story of why someone else would have his mask at all a few days after the first attack, at the big Antonio Inoki tribute show, right before his handicap-match defense of the ROH Tag titles he holds with his injured buddy Adam Cole against the hot new team, the Righteous: logically, enough, according to Friedman, the mask had been stolen from his bag.
Since the first attack there have been several instances where someone cuts into the video feed to show a second or two of someone wearing the Devil mask, but—with the exception of that first attack on Jay White—the Devil has not since been seen in "real time" caught on camera by the AEW camera crews.
The first instance of this video feed interruption occured on Saturday, October 21, right after a Bullet Club match, after which commentary describe Jay White as looking "spooked"—so, perhaps Jay's accusations toward Max are sincere? The next one that Wednesday the 25th came right after an MJF promo toward Bullet Club member Juice Robinson, so the appearances at this point still seem to be aimed toward Bullet Club and/or framing MJF.
But then the following week on November 1, the Devil takes over the feed of Roddy Strong's video call where he had just been accusing Max of being the Devil to Adam Cole, a real case of "Speak of the Devil and he shall appear." Later that night, the AEW Trios Champions, the Acclaimed, join forces with a desperate Max who had been searching all week for three partners to help him take on Bullet Club Gold four on four.
Then the following Wednesday, November 8th, following a fiery promo by MJF on his number-one contender Jay White, the lights go down and we cut to cameras in the back catching up with an ongoing disruption—the Devil's four goons beating down the Acclaimed. Once the Trios title-holders are clearly down for the count, once again the Devil cuts into the feed for a moment, but, unlike the previous instance when his cadre attacked Jay White, this time he is not actually there with them.
Also, this is the first (and only) time we see the Devil direct one of his attacks toward Friedman's allies, seeming to try to isolate him, as opposed to attacking his enemies, evidently to try to frame him. After the video feed takeover, we see Max arrive too late, having run to his ally's aid from the ring. And then, frenemy Samoa Joe—who had been offering to watch Max's back, in return for a rematch for the World title—pulled up to gloat. Friedman being isolated from allies or potential allies is to Joe's advantage after all, making Max that much more likely to take him up on his offer...
All of that brings us to today. At tonight's big show MJF will defend his World title against the Switchblade Jay White, and many have guessed that the big reveal of the Devil might occur also. The possibility that all theories might become moot tonight is certainly why I've been burning the midnight oil to get this piece ready by today! But, equally, depending on what the overall plan is for this storyline, it remains possible that the time is not yet right for a reveal.
SO MANY TROPES!
SPOILER WARNING… This section will be full of spoilers for plot reveals of… all sorts of stories in various media.
When I was first conceiving of this article, I imagined doing a comprehensive list of prior appearances of the “who's under the mask?” trope, from prior instances in pro wrestling, to examples from movies, shows, cartoons, and (especially) comic books. But, in practice, there are just too MANY examples to try to be comprehensive. In comic books alone, the premise “this supposedly new villain is actually someone you already know, try to figure out who” was practically an annual tradition: from the Sin Eater, to the Monarch, to the Scourge of the Underworld, to Onslaught, to Citizen V, to Xorn, to Hush… if I even attempted to be comprehensive, I'm sure I'd miss some! So, instead I will simply bring up apt examples as they become relevant as we go over some subcategories of the trope that have some bearing on possible theories of who the Devil is.
Clockwise from top left: Hush, "Citizen V," The Sin Eater, and the Monarch
The fundamental rule of any whodunnit is fair play: the writer can't just go for cheap surprise by having it be someone who doesn't fit the evidence at all. But the record of sticking to fair play, especially in pro-wrestling stories, isn't so good. This is often due to the original intended outcome being changed in midstream for some reason.
One of my favorite examples of an awful reveal due to editorial meddling is the Monarch, the villain of DC Comics’s Armageddon 2001 crossover event. The primary clue we start with is that the Monarch is a superhero who betrays the others in order to conquer the world (for peace, of course!) and has now returned to the present to stop a new time-traveling hero from his own time, Waverider who is attempting to stop his rise to power before it happens, but doesn't know exactly which hero Monarch had originally been! The writer gave a number of clues which pointed to their intended solution, Captain Atom. But when numerous fans guess the outcome, someone over the original writer’s head decided that wasn't surprising enough and dictated that the solution be changed to Hawk of the hero duo Hawk & Dove, in spite of (in a way, BECAUSE of) the fact that he didn't fit the clues at all
Similarly, the WWE recently did a similar angle with masked mystery attackers, known as Retribution, but didn't use the same people in the set-up segments as they eventually revealed under the masks, a pretty blatant example of unfair play due to different builds and body types. But there has been a Fightful report that sources within AEW confirm, likely to head off worries of a similar cheap trick, that the men in black in the segments we have seen are genuinely the wrestlers who will end up being under the masks. This rules out a number of intriguing suspects due to being the wrong body type or due to being present during a real-time sighting. Wrong body type rules out several who would otherwise be top suspects, such as Samoa Joe, Britt Baker, and... Max Friedman, himself! It should be noted that Joe and MJF are ruled out by not being slim like the Devil, (but note: NOT for being on-scene right after the second attack: don't forget that the Devil wasn't actually physically present that time!)
Mr. Doesn't-Work-Here, or the Impossible Herring
Another great example of a “who's under the mask” that didn't play fair was the Black Scorpion who feuded with our beloved Icon, Sting way back in his early days when he was NWA Champion for WCW back in 1990. The Black Scorpion was a pretty cool mask with a definite mystique, but portrayed by several different performers before finally being revealed as Ric Flair, the least interesting possibility and not at all fitting the story or clues or what the Black Scorpion had looked like in prior appearances.
Black Scorpion before and after: ... Seems Fishy!
The reason I being this example up is that before the let-down of a reveal, they built a lot of intrigue by strongly implying that it was someone from Sting’s past as a bodybuilder, which implied, more than anybody, the World Champion at that moment at their competition, the WWF: the Ultimate Warrior.
Which leads to not one but two perfect but impossible suspects to be the Devil. Not only CM Punk, who the role was literally built for, but also, lest we forget: AEW co-founder, MJF mentor, and WWE current top star: Cody Rhodes!
I mean, really: could it GET more perfect?
Both would be fantastic reveals, but both are truly impossible, not just for fair-play plot reasons, but for genuine real-life stuff.
Mr. Air-Tight Alibi
A classic trope in whodunnits– of the masked sort or not– is for the villain to give himself a seemingly unbreakable alibi by means of some subterfuge. The examples in this case are far too extensive to list. Therefore it may be instructive to pay close attention to those suspects who seem to have been ruled out by actual appearances by the Devil and/or his four black-clad henchmen. The first performers top be ruled out both as the Devil or as ANY of his four henchmen are Hangman Adam Page, Swerve Strickland, and Jay White by being physically present at the time of the first attack, when all five mystery men were seen. In this case, I don't see a way around ruling out all three.
It's a shame, too, I really liked Swerve for it. He doesn't have any personal motive to go after Friedman, but he's ambitious and strategic: I can easily see him deciding he can't afford a two-front war, and so use the Devil mask to keep MJF off balance while remaining incognito until he was finished dealing with Page. But the alibis seem legitimately unbreakable combined with AEW's assurances of fair play, which would rule out a Mandarin-in-Iron-Man-3 type of ploy where Swerve (or Hangman or Switchblade, for that matter!) later reveal that the man behind the mask was just a hireling and HE was truly the man behind the man.
The Mandarin vs Trevor Slattery: in this case the "mask" was simply "acting, my boy!"
Remember that for the second attack, the Devil was not physically present, so it doesn't give an alibi for that role, but it does give us some clues by showing several folks who now can't be among the Devil's four accomplices. Billy Gunn is ruled out as a henchman, as well as his adopted boys, the Acclaimed. as well as his estranged sons by blood and their Bullet Club buddies. Who among these might have been trying some slight of hand hoping we might not notice the Devil's absence? Billy is far too big to be the same man, and Austin is likely too short.
Billy Gunn's youngest, Colten, looks like a reasonable fit for the Devil, physically, but has no specific motive to split off from his current crew and go around attacking people in a mask, and would possibly be the MOST dissapointing possible reveal I have yet to consider, and that's saying a bit. Juice Robinson has a bit of heat with Friedman over mocking his stories of anti-Semitic bullying when he was a teen. But that incident was significantly more recent than the first Devil appearance, so:
The Acclaimed, however, are a very different case. Anthony Bowens has no more motive than any of the others to set up all of this. But Max Caster? He's genuinely a decent suspect. A dark horse for practical reasons, sure: both because he'd be expected to carry a major singles program, and because it would mean breaking up an extremely popular babyface act in the Acclaimed. But Max Caster has history with MJF going back deeper than anyone else on the roster, having trained together under AEW coach Pat Buck at his Create-A-Pro wrestling Academy when they were both in their teens.
"I've literally been beating up Max for my whole career"—MJF
Not to mention that Max has been sexually harrassing Maxwell on social media since long before that aspect of their relationship was ever addressed on screen:
A guy faking an injury to take a rival off guard or to use a mobility device as a weapon is as old of a pro-wrestling trope as they come. Everyone's seen it; from Bob Orton Jr keeping his arm in a cast for years, to any number of competitors revealing that they no longer need the crutch they are using just in time to wail on thier enemy with it.
The trope is also rife in whodunnits, but there is one specific case that is particularly apt: in the first season of the turn-of-the-century set police procedural Murdoch Mysteries, in the episode "Bad Medicine," the doctors at a sanitarium for patients with neurological disorders are being systematically murdered by someone done up to look like the Grim Reaper with a crossbow. (Was a scythe too much of a hassle, I'm guessing?) The mystery has the detective stumped until he discovers that one of the patients had been faking stroke paralysis for years to infiltrate the facility, investigate the cause of his fiancée's untimely death, and then get his revenge.
The Perfect Disguise, (no, I mean the one on the left!)
In AEW there are currently two potential Devil suspects with injuries that could act as alibis and possibly as fake alibis, but they are very different! Roddy Strong is more the typical, obviously, even ostentatiously fake injury we often see from villains in pro wrestling, using a wheelchair and neckbrace, but experiencing miraculous recoveries and relapses whenever is convenient for him.
Meanwhile, Roddy's old ally, lately estranged, Adam Cole... by all accounts has a legitimate broken ankle and has only been seen via video call and it's said he will be out of action for quite a long time. BUT, what if...? COULD he be faking??? I mean, it seems farfetched, but... certainly less far-fetched than the pipe dreams that Punk's firing was a work.
Both men share the common trait of the hidden villain of accusing others: Roddy being the only person outside of Bullet Club seemingly convinced of Friedman's guilt, and Adam, sick of his friend being obviously unfairly maligned, pointing out that all of the accusations are making Roddy sound awfully guilty!
LOL. "No way, bro, don't say that, bro"
Roddy and the Kingdom and probably a returning Kyle O'Reilly and some fifth guy for muscle certainly isn't the most exciting possibility, but he is a solid suspect. Adam, on the other hand, as the man who taught "our scumbag" Max how to friendship would just be a heartbreak, which is both bad and good. I don't WANT it, but at least my emotions would be engaged!
What About the Other Four?
After examining the evidence extremely deeply, AND keeping in mind AEW's reassurances that this won't be like Retribution (or Black Scorpion!) ... that the men who will be revealed are the same who have been protraying them under the masks all along, I believe that the four henchmen that we see on two different ocassions are the best clue of the identity of all five. Where is there a group of four men, who don't have alibis. have a grudge against Max and would work together, and are accustomed to working with a charismatic leader? And then I noticed when re-watching the footage of the attack from ten days ago that one of the men is noticably more muscled than the others... chest-y. And it made me think: what about the Pinnacle?
The tag team: FTR... Bad lieutenant: Shawn Spears... and for Muscle: Wardlow. The Pinnacle were the perfect backup for an aspiring young would-be champion, but Friedman was too immature and too awful a boss to hold them together till he got there. Could a new aspirant to climb the mountain have used their common grudge against their bad ex-boss to forge them into a weapon? The list of guys who could work as the new leader of the Pinnacle is LONG.
Jack Perry, of COURSE
Sammy Guevara? ... Okay, probably not
A new signing? Ospreay? Ziggler?
Max Caster... ? lol
Hell, even Darby Allin
The problem with all of these theories is that I watched the footage again, and I realized that although the one henchman is noticably more muscular than the others, he isn't noticably taller! So that leaves out Michael Wardlow.
So is there another theory that might reasonably account for the body types of all five men. Well, yes.. What about the Elite? On the one hand, neither Adam Page nor Kenny Omega fit the body type of the Devil, and Page has an alibi. But on the other hand, AEW just said that the guys are really the same ones who will be revealed under the mask—they never said that the Devil is actually the leader. That's right, the theory I'm closing with and putting my metaphorical money on, (and thanks to Joe @GoodVsBadGuys,) is that the man under the Devil mask is Brandon Cutler. lol
It wouldn't be his first time under a mask!