MJF and Regal Steal the Show | AEWeekly Review #39
Welcome to the #AEWeekly review discussion where PWM contributors reflect on the highlights of the last week in AEW. The week runs Friday to Friday covering Rampage and Dynamite.
This week’s contributors are Joe[@GoodVsBadGuys] covering match of the week, Sergei [@SergeiAlderman] covering promos, Gareth [@Gareth_EW] exploring a key story beat Peter [@PeterEdge7] with the moment of the week and Trish [@TrishSpeirs48] giving us the MVP of the week.
The match with the most good moves in it was the Trios Championship match between Death Triangle and Best Friends. The match with the most memorable moments in it was Dalton Castle vs Chris Jericho.
It started with an AMAZING entrance for Dalton Castle, that was more grandiose than most entrances for main event talents at AEW Pay-Per-View events. If this was your first night watching AEW, you would think that Dalton Castle was one of their top stars, on the level of Macho Man for the WWF in the late 80s and early 90s. You would have thought that, until the crowd didn’t react for his entrance, but that made the fact that Dalton won them over during the match all the more impressive.
Before the Ring Of Honor World Championship match begins, Chris Jericho extends his hand to show respect for the Code Of Honor that is important to ROH history. The problem here is, Dalton Castle might act silly but he is no fool, and he knows that Jericho is not to be trusted after his long history of “systematic cheating” as Tony Schiavone reminds AEW fans on a weekly basis. So when Jericho extended that hand, Castle shoved his hand down into his crotch, then whipped it out to extend a middle finger to Jericho. Normally, this kind of action would have established Castle as the heel, but with the background knowledge of the dastardly bastardly man that Jericho is, the crowd realized Chris was getting a taste of his own medicine.
The next inventive choice to catch my attention was the brilliant psych up spot (I don’t want to call these “Hulk Ups” anymore) where after getting dumped to the floor, Castle was revitalized by getting fanned by his boys - PAMPER POWER!
After all that personality, Castle revealed he wasn’t all show, he could also go, with a series of duplexes and gut wrenches that displayed Dalton’s amateur wrestling prowess and brute strength. Then it was back to the creativity and invention with Dalton Castle using his boys as weapons, firing them through the ropes at Jake Hager like tiny tasselled torpedoes. After levelling the playing field with the help of some friends, Castle lost his momentum following a failed flying knee attempt and fall to the floor.
Castle wouldn’t stay down for long, rallying with a suicide dive and his fun and creative ring around the rosey rana from the ring apron. This softened Jericho up to the point where Castle was able to lock on the Julie Newar submission (what a great name), but Jericho was able to escape. Jericho went for his trademark Lionsault, but Castle intercepted and hoisted Chris over his head with a German suplex into a pin cover. Once again Jericho escaped, but Castle caught Chris with his Bang-A-Rang finisher, but Jericho escaped defeat YET AGAIN. Castle had thrown everything at Chris and he was still standing. Whether Castle was worn down by frustration or exhaustion after blocking a Jericho strike, Castle whiffed on his own, and left himself defenceless to the Judas Effect and the uno, dos, tres for The Ocho, Chris Jericho. Dalton Castle didn’t win the match, or the title, but he won over this crowd, and likely won over many new fans watching at home.
There are many reasons that Max Friedman is, as he regularly reminds us, “a generational talent.” Because he is a villain and therefore tends to win matches with excitement-deflating shortcuts and avoids flashy moves that would pump up a crowd, it’s easy to underrate how important an aspect his in-ring is. And the truth is, as acclaimed as he is on the mic, a lot of the time he goes for easy shock value. But every once in a while he will cut a promo that reminds you just how very good he really is. Not just “good at provoking boos and playing the limited but important role of foil to whomever is currently the hero of the story.” But “one of the best to ever do this thing” good.
One example of that was the amazing promo that he cut against CM Punk where he bared his soul and childhood traumas to his childhood hero so convincingly that just this once you understood why Charlie Brown might try to kick the football one more time. Only to have Max say “SIKE” and pull the ball away like Lucy VanPelt the following week.
Friedman is at his best working with someone who is on his level on the mic (a big ask already!) and who he has some kind of real-world history with to draw on. If it weren’t for The Incident, he would almost certainly still be working a program with CM Punk now. Figuring out a replacement that might at all be equally compelling was undoubtedly a scramble, but they found the right guy in Regal. Obviously an all-timer on the mic, but as far as shared history with MJF? When the Punk feud was first spinning up, all of us “very online” wrestling fans had seen the picture of Friedman meeting Punk as a fan that made the rounds, so we had a good idea what the feud would be founded on, for us to build anticipation–anticipation that they delivered on perfectly.
But with Friedman and Regal, I know that what old history might lay between them was a mystery to me at least. But with his first few words to Regal Wednesday, Maxwell starts us anticipating that tea: “whether you realize it or not, you owe me that.”
He went on to tell a story that linked the two of them in a way we probably should have anticipated. After all, most fans have seen the clip where Max plays the role of a security guy who gets shoved by Samoa Joe. And we all remember that William Regal was the man running things in NXT back when that happened.
From here, Maxwell doesn’t just cut a promo, he tells a story. At first it sounds like the typical show business trope, one of the oldest stories: Stage Door or A Star Is Born. The rookie who wants to break into the business and the veteran who sees something special in them and promises to help, but over time the younger star sees that the older one was only ever using them.
But after listening to the promo again for this piece, I realized that they were telling another story entirely:
"Son, this world is rough
And if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough
And I knew I wouldn't be there to help you along
So I give you that name and I said goodbye
I knew you'd have to get tough or die
And it's that name that helped to make you strong"
The Shel Silverstein penned “A Boy Named Sue” is a great trope to use in your story, and they handle it subtly enough that there is reasonable question who is in the right and who is manipulating whom. But the story, (as Regal’s character claims it played out,) is that he never actually gave up on Maxwell’s potential, but rather sent him a letter claiming that purely to light a fire of resentment under MJF that he believed was just the motivation he would need to achieve the potential that Regal saw in him.
What’s great about this as a story is that it opens up every possible path that the story could follow, down the road: it could lead to the two of them as allies or enemies with any combination of alignments depending on who is revealed later to have been genuine in what they revealed in this moment.
And what truly makes Friedman the generational talent he claims to be is that his performance successfully captures all of that ambiguity, allowing us to hold the ultimate resolution in suspense. His performance of the inciting incident holds all of those contradictory possibilities for the future together in one moment from which any possible future could convincingly flow.
There were a good few developments this week across AEW programming. But the one which intrigued me the most was in Renee Paquette's interview with Bryan Danielson and Wheeler Yuta.
Bryan was asked about Daniel Garcia and 'The American Dragon' was glowing with praise. Even saying how Garcia could be the best wrestler in the world, even outdoing his own iconic legacy. And he said all this whilst sitting next to the Blackpool Combat Club's own young rising star, Wheeler Yuta. Yuta, understandably, then questions Bryan, tells him how Garcia used him and storms out.
And this caught me by surprise, because where does this lead? To Danielson properly turning heel on the BCC? Developing his own stable, perhaps the Danielson Dojo, where he does finally win over Daniel Garcia?
Or perhaps the BCC turn on Danielson over his lack of loyalty and disrespect, maybe leading to the trilogy match between Moxley and Bryan?
I don't know exactly why they did this or where it's heading. It's too early to know for sure. I could speculate for ages. But this is definitely something to keep an eye on. Because AEW wouldn't drive a wedge of tension between Bryan and Yuta for no reason.
There has been a lot of praise for the MJF/William Regal segment on this week's Dynamite. Me repeating the praise of Sergei and Trish would feel repetitive for you the reader so I'm going to look as per my mandate at a particular moment in the segment which says a lot about the future.
To use a quote from William Regal, both he and Eugene were "born naughty". Regal himself prides himself on that trait enough that he uses the term "Gentleman Villain" as a marketing tool for his endeavours since his departure from WWE. While with MJF, his naughtiness may not have been in him since Day 1 as heard in his "origin story" promo in the feud with CM Punk and the Undesirable to Undeniable segment with Cody Rhodes aired in early days of AEW on Dark when Dark was actually unmissable. MJF is full of rage about the obstacles that he has suffered in his life. Whether being told to come back another time by Regal provoked the appropriate reaction by MJF is a discussion for another time and while Regal's reaction had the hallmark of "it was better in my day" which has made certain podcasts unlistenable it was when things came full circle to the present that my Moment of the Week happened.
When Regal turned his back on MJF and asked him to prove to him that he was the devil but not take a shortcut in the process he knew exactly what he was doing. MJF in AEW has a history of taking shortcuts when adversaries have had their back turned. Remember "kick to the dick" in the Wardlow 10 lashes segment in May? So why didn't MJF take his shot? People who follow AEW online have told of their theories but we'll only know when MJF tells his truth and that in itself is the story of MJF. In his time in AEW he has done dastardly things but when he's had the mic in his hand, he has told his truth repeatedly but on this occasion when he had the diamond ring on his finger with the man who told him to come back another time in front of him with his back turned, MJF didn't know his own truth. He didn't know what person he actually is deep down. Maybe he wanted to impress the man that he needed to gain the eye of six years previously and failed to do so for reasons out of his control or maybe he realised his old tactics that worked for him in the early days of AEW don't work anymore in the new landscape of All Elite Wrestling. Later in the night was evidence of that with Maxwell not taking the shortcut that he probably would have taken a year back and calling his shot for Full Gear all because of a mind game played by Regal earlier in the show. A stat for you guys regarding MJF. Since crowds have been back to live wrestling events MJF is 1-3 in 1vs1 matches in PPV.
Sometimes the best villains don't beat you with their fists but with their mind.
MJF at his best isn't when he's trading middle school insults or deploying shock lines, nor is it when he's insulting the local town or the sports team, rather; when Max truly excels are those moments where he adds depth to his story. During the later part of the CM Punk feud and since his return at All Out his character has taken on an emotional depth that it did not have in the early years of AEW. In essence, it's almost thrashing out his villain origin story as he confronts various figures from his past. Such tales have become incredibly lucrative across popular culture in recent years, with the likes of Wandavision, The Avengers, Joker, Game of Thrones and countless others all highlighting the traumatic experiences that helped each protagonist to generate into their current form. These stories are no longer straightforward, instead they highlight how In life everyone makes choices that lead them to where they currently stand and that there is often reasoning in such decisions; however flawed.
The key to peeling back the layers to MJF this past Wednesday were the abilities of Friedman as well as the person standing opposite. For Max's part, his acting ability, facial expressions, impassioned delivery (that only increased when met by Regal's bemusement) were all top tier. For a man who has performance ambitions outside of wrestling and is already well liked by the network and their parent company, this was somewhat of a very successful audition.
None of this works, though, without William Regal.
Regal, a man who has often been asked to play comedic villains in his past, can also offer a depth in his performance that sometimes goes unacknowledged. He is not a man to shy away from his life experiences or his mistakes and freely admits to the shortcuts used during his journey. He made reference to a number of these themes during his retort. Perhaps the cleverest thing about the BCC mentor though is his ability to tell a story through just his facial expressions. The smile he wore for the first part of their segment on Wednesday night was calm; at times maybe proud, at others almost sinister. You could even argue in some moments there were tinges of regret in his eyes. It wasn't overacting in any way but it meant that he wasn't passive during this period- giving MJF something to feed off and build momentum with. The exchange had a palpable energy to it.
Regal has explored similar themes to Max in the later years of his career, sometimes under the radar - such as in his riveting feud with Jon Moxley back in FCW. He has never had the opportunity to do so to the level that MJF has currently but he holds no bitterness over it. His commitment here was only to push Max's development rather then throwing a spotlight on himself. It's a standout reason why his signing, alongside Dsnielson, was one of the most important in the last 18 months when considered in regard to the long term health of the company.
MJF has labelled himself in recent weeks as a "generational talent" and there could well be an absolute truth to that statement. This isn't achieved though by being a "cool heel" with a theme that gets cheers or a catchphrase, but by the modernisation of the "heel" role. It represents how American Wrestling is finally catching up with other creative industries in the displaying of characters with depth outside of traditional presentations.
In an age where great matches are in abundance , it is the ability to make you feel that can help wrestlers to differentiate themselves from other competitors. The last two weeks have platformed the best of AEW's young talent to do just that. The reason it has been so successful is because both had the right person standing opposite.