“Love to hate” is a term that gets lazily thrown around by media types. It’s generally the only phrase they can come up with to describe someone who is generally hated or reviled but also pulls in huge attention. Or it’s used as a cover for not actually digging into why someone is loathed by the masses. Trevor Bauer had “love to hate him” attached to his bulbous face by a host of writers and broadcasters who were never inclined to go beyond “quirky” when reveling in the fact that Bauer just didn’t push out tired cliches to the press. That worked out well for them.
Tom Brady is another. I didn’t love anything about Tom Brady, and most everyone who wasn’t a Patriots fan didn’t love him either. His slimy and empty grin on my TV didn’t generate anything but distaste, and even his play — as excellent as it was — wasn’t even all that exciting to watch. It was just efficient. I didn’t tune in to watch him lose. I tuned in because it was the playoffs and he just happened to always be there. There is nothing about the empty-vessel persona of Brady that kept people glued to the NFL. It’s the NFL, we were watching anyway, and he just never went away. I preferred he would lose, but that’s not why I was watching.
It applies to theater or TV or movies as well, and thankfully because wrestling inhabits this netherworld between sports and theater, there’s always a connection at hand. For instance, everyone hated Joffrey Baratheon. Viscerally so. We all wanted to see him get his in the most gruesome way possible. But there was nothing enjoyable about him when he was on screen. You didn’t glean happiness from the way he made you feel. I didn’t “love” it. I hated it. Which was the point.
But Maxwell Jacob Friedman, known to AEW fans as MJF, threads that needle. Fans do genuinely “love to hate” him.
I was at AEW Dynamite last night here in our snow-covered berg, and let me tell you I don’t think I’ve ever seen a reaction that MJF gets. It actually starts before he’s even on the stage. As soon as the first note of his theme hits, an entire arena leapt to their feet and started booing until their lungs bled. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a crowd in unison so quickly. They were on their feet quicker than strikeouts to end World Series games. Or goals to clinch World Cup games. It was a “pop” in every sense of the word.
But part of that rush to play into the game that AEW and MJF has created is just how much fun it is to boo him. That his heel character has become so cartoonishly hated, so outlandish, that partaking in the normal role of shouting your disapproval of him is just a blast. You laugh at how much you can’t stand the sight of this guy. It’s like watching Naked Gun movies and you laugh at yourself for laughing at jokes that are just so obvious and so dumb, and you can’t stop. The cycle just keeps continuing. That’s what MJF does, except the initial feeling isn’t laughter but disgust.
There isn’t one aspect of a heel character that MJF hasn’t gotten absolutely right. The withering looks, the confident strut as if the boos actually make his blood pump, the occasional direct confrontations with fans, the cowardly hiding behind others until there is absolutely no other way, the dismissal of his cohorts, the whole rich kid carriage…it’s just masterful. Has MJF crossed the line with some of his promos? Of course, as he’s dipped a little too much into sexism or other problem areas at times. It’s hard to dance that line, as a character like MJF much, constantly without falling over it. That’s not to excuse him, and the hope is that he’ll stay on the beam permanently. Then again, it is his character, and that character is going to say awful things at times, as long as it’s not a place he lives.
MJF can bounce between the usual tearing down of whatever city he’s in or riffing on his sophistication versus the crowd’s barbarism — a true wrestling staple — and then get into some clever and withering remarks and observations. And his style, while pompous and blowhard as can be, is enrapturing. You can’t look away.
And MJF tops it off with being able to really go in the ring. The act wouldn’t be grounded without excellent matches. He is certainly not the company’s best worker but he is far closer to the top end than he gets credit for. Yeah, it’s a slower style, which it should be as a heel. It leaves time for the advancement of his role and his stories. It’s a style heavy on strikes and shenanigans, but that’s how this goes. And when it’s time to kick it into high gear, he’s right there with anyone. It’s straight out of classic wrestling from the 1970s and 1980s. You can see this guy in every Ric Flair video from the past. It’s almost cliche without ever being boring or rote. That classic wrestling heel is channeled through MJF but not copied. It’s almost a Hollywood depiction of what wrestling looked like then, but it’s real.
Which is why he was given 40 minutes with CM Punk last night, and why he was the first in AEW to beat him. The company has earned enough trust with its fans to have CM Punk lose in Chicago and not fear the roof collapsing. MJF has earned that.
Because the thing about “loved to be hated,” is that yes, we all do want to see MJF get his face caved in at some point. It is the bedrock of wrestling — the long chase to finally see the villain be defeated. But the thing is we want to see all the steps to get there. We’re more invested in that than we are about the actual, eventual defeat. That’s the thing about the misnomer of “love to hate.” Most of the time, we don’t care about the journey. We don’t want the ending for the catharsis. We just want that person to go away.
There is no one like him. We see wrestlers all the time try and turn heel with just a simple, “YOU PEOPLE…” promo and/or the occasional cheating. It’s so lazy and predictable. Fans boo just to keep themselves awake.
MJF makes us want to see the whole thing. We want more of him, so we can continue to gleefully razz him and he us. The end doesn’t matter as much as how we get there. We have to have this unique pleasure.
MJF truly is one of the few people anywhere, in any arena, that fans love hating.