Maybe Max Friedman was destined to make his mark in life performing defiant acts while barely clothed.
“Max would perpetually just come to dinner with no shirt on, just shorts,” his dad, Steven Friedman, said. “And I said, ‘Enough’s enough, kid, you gotta go put some clothes on.’ And he leaves the room, and we’re still here at the table, the four of us, and he’s probably 11 or 12 years old. And he comes back to dinner with nothing [on] but a sock …” (We’ll let you guess where he was wearing it.)
“And that’s Max. He’s a jerk, but he’s funny. He garners attention. And I spit my food out all over the table.”
Plainview’s Friedman, who wrestles as Maxwell Jacob Friedman — or MJF — elicits similar visceral reactions heading to the ring clad in just trunks, boots and his signature snooty Burberry scarf. He’s a star for All Elite Wrestling “Dynamite” on TNT, the most serious would-be market disrupter to WWE in the past 20 years, and has shown off skills at the age of 23 that have made pro wrestling legends take notice. On Feb. 29 he beat Cody Rhodes — son of the late "American Dream" Dusty Rhodes — at the "Revolution" pay-per-view to cement his spot as one of AEW's premier performers.
The MJF experience is a 24/7 multimedia barrage. After you’re done watching him reward a trusted mentor with a kick to the groin or discard spent chewing gum in a ring legend’s hand on “Dynamite,” you can go to his merchandise page and plunk down $39.99 for the “I Can’t Afford a Real Scarf" scarf.
Then it’s off to Twitter — where he has 125,000 followers — and his nuanced response to a member of the Fourth Estate: “You insufferable fat slob behind a keyboard.” On YouTube he’s throwing toast at an interviewer in his hotel room and complaining about the room service attendant's breath. Back on “Dynamite” the 5-foot-11, 216-pound grappler takes the time to rip a fan’s “MJF has one friend on Myspace” sign to ribbons.
His willingness to play the scoundrel extends outside the ring and brings with it some peril. He’s been flipped off while with his parents. He says he once exited a show and found a fan had keyed his truck and was waiting by it with a blade.
“I drop my bag, I look at him, I put my key between my ring finger and my middle finger and I ask him if we’re going to do this,” Friedman says. “And like a complete … loser, he dropped his head down and just ran away.”
The level of vitriol Friedman subjects people to and receives is out of step with today’s blow-dried, corporate pro wrestling landscape and more akin to the sport’s outlaw-infused, barnstorming yesteryear.
WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross, now an announcer and senior adviser for AEW, remembers a Mid-South Wrestling show in Tulsa, Oklahoma, decades ago when a fan punched famed mouthy manager Jim Cornette. Promoter “Cowboy” Bill Watts exacted some frontier justice on the fan in the back — and only regretted he wasn’t wearing his cowboy boots at the time.
It’s an era Friedman wishes he could have experienced, as opposed to today when people flex their Twitter muscles to express displeasure. (He wishes those folks would “Super Glue their fingers in their pockets.”)
“All the greats that I’ve been around in my career, which started in 1974, were intentionally extensions of their own basic personality,” Ross said.
Before Ross offered his iconic play-by-play voice to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s signature moments, he signed him to WWE in his dual role as executive vice president of talent relations, along with the likes of Brock Lesnar and John Cena.
“What I think is that he’s a cocky kid, very self-confident, very self-assured, and he has the skill and talent to back it up,” Ross says of Friedman. “So, he has that defiance that I think is more natural than I think it is contrived by a mile.”
Moments later, the man who has a track record identifying some of pro wrestling most “it factor” icons says that MJF has “it.”
“I have confidence he’s going to be huge,” Ross says. “He’s going to be as huge as he wants to be.”
Ask Friedman what he thinks, and he proclaims, “MJF is bringing real professional wrestling back.”
A ‘Rowdy’ upbringing
Friedman had a less abrasive touch with fame as a 5-year-old, when a video of him singing “You Are My Sunshine” led to an appearance on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.” But a visit to his uncle’s house while wrestling was on the TV had a much bigger effect on his future in entertainment.
“I had never seen it before,” Friedman said. “And I don’t remember who it was, but I looked at my dad. I was like, ‘I need more of this. I need more of this immediately.’”
Steven Friedman took his son to the now-defunct Hollywood Video in Plainview, where young Max grabbed a stack of DVDs. He remembers the first match he watched in full: “this weird zombie-looking dude,” The Undertaker, squaring off in a 1998 Hell in a Cell match against a fellow Long Islander who, like Friedman, was adept at crazy cries for attention such as eating live worms.
In one of wrestling’s most iconic matches, that former Ward Melville lacrosse goalie, Mick Foley — wrestling then as Mankind — was thrown off the top of the cell onto an announcers’ table. He then climbed back up just in time for the Undertaker to chokeslam him through the top of the cell onto the canvas. Foley had a tooth in his nose and a body perforated with thumbtacks by the time it was all over.
In that, Friedman found his life’s calling.
“I was immediately hooked,” Friedman remembers. “And then I just started digging deeper, you go on YouTube, you search the catalogs. I found this guy whose feet were up on the desk, he was chomping on gum real loud, you could tell he was talking to someone that was his boss but he didn’t seem to care.”
“This guy” was “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, who was tapped by WWE chief Vince McMahon to play Hulk Hogan’s loudmouth foil and help the WWF explode in the 1980s.
“Once I saw Roddy Piper I knew exactly what I was going to be doing when I grew up,” explains Friedman, adding that while the Burberry plaid is part homage to the kilt Piper wore to the ring, it’s also because “it looks ridiculously good on me.”
From field to dreams
When WWE Hall of Famer “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels was a kid, he would don a suit and mimic “Nature Boy” Ric Flair interviews, even sticking a bandage on his head to match his hero’s wounds. When MJF is asked if he’s ever done anything similar, he just scoffs.
“Yeah, I’m sure Shawn had to do that, this all came naturally to me,” he said. “I’m sure a lot of people had to practice. I don’t have to practice, I’m just being myself.”
One could dismiss this as canned squared-circle bluster — until you sit down with Steven and Nina Friedman in their Plainview home and hear them rattle off more than enough memories to confirm one thing: They had front-row seats for the authentic MJF experience before anybody else bought a ticket.
“He’s playing in Pee Wee football, and he’s sacking the quarterback play after play after play,” Steven recalls. “And finally the ref comes over to him, and says, ‘Kid, come on, you’ve got to take it easy on the other team.’ And the ref was wearing a knee brace, and Max looks at the ref [and says], ‘Nice knee brace, [expletive].’”
Your turn, Mom…
“He would go on playdates, and parents would call me and crack up, and say, ‘Well, they’re ordering pizza. He would like sushi with extra ginger dressing on the side, and some edamame. And I’d just be like, ‘I’m sorry, just get him his pizza.’ He was just always crazy.”
At Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK High School, Friedman competed on the wrestling team and sang in choir and a cappella. But it was on the football field as a junior in a game at Freeport that the middle linebacker started to embrace the crowd’s scorn.
‘Everybody from that town was there cheering on their hometown, super stoked thinking they were going to absolutely mop the floor with us, and I got 13 tackles that game,” Friedman remembers. “And I enjoyed every second of anger on the crowd’s face. I loved it. It was incredible. And no part of me was nervous, no part of me was pacing. I just knew I was supposed to be there.”
“He put on a show,” Plainview-Old Bethpage head coach Chris Rogler said of Friedman’s time with the Hawks. “He let people know that he was there … And the way he would walk over people after he made tackles. He wasn’t the biggest guy, you know. For a kid that was probably about 5-10, 190 pounds [he would] tackle some of the biggest kids in Nassau County football. And he'd stare at you. He was one of those kids.”
Friedman’s career choice is a far cry from the more conventional college/career choices of his older sisters — Alex Herzog, 30, a fashion designer, and Carlee Herzog, 26, who works in finance.
“Their routes were just normal,” said Nina Friedman, who owns B&S Aircraft Alloys in Syosset with her brother. “Everything was just the way you’re supposed to [do it].”
“He reminds them that he makes more than both of them combined,” adds Steven Friedman, owner of Bedrock Bakers, which makes paleo and gluten-free goods.
They can laugh about it now. But for parents who thought that higher education was the path for career success, it wasn’t as funny when he dropped out of college to become a pro wrestler. He graduated from high school in 2014, went to Hartwick College in upstate Oneonta and began practice with the football team there.
“The head coach looked at me and told me they were thinking about starting me as a freshman, and I did not get excited,” Friedman said. “ And then I had to take a step back and go, ‘What’s going on here? You should be jumping up and down for joy…’ And once I took a step back I realized it was because I didn’t want to waste my time playing football for another four years… So I got in my car, I drove home, got home at like 3:30 or 4 a.m.”
His mom woke up first. It took her a few seconds to realize what was happening before she started crying and ran back into the bedroom.
“My dad just stares at me, and goes, “What the [expletive] are you doing here?” Friedman recalls. “To which my response was, ‘Hey, I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there. I know what I want to be.’ My dad looked at me and said, ‘What do you want to be?’ I said I want to be a pro wrestler.’”
He exhaled, looked down at the ground for a solid three minutes straight, looked up at me and said, ‘Well, if you’re going to do it you’re going to do it right, and you’re not allowed to quit and if you do quit you’re not allowed to live here.’ And he went to bed.”
His parents wound up deciding to give Max the same four years they gave Alex and Carlee for college to try to make it in the wrestling business. They’re glad they did.
“His bar mitzvah was all, you know, MaxMania, that’s what it was,” Nina Friedman says. “His whole life was wrestling, and that is just all that fit him. That was his oxygen, and I think at the beginning, you’re just like, this is cute, when you’re like 5, 6, 7. [At] 10, you’re like, OK, cut it out; 12 you’re like, ‘What is wrong with you? 15 is like… this is not going to work, you’re a white little [Jewish] boy, you can’t be doing this.”
But he did. He enrolled at Create a Pro Wrestling Academy in Hicksville, run by WWE Superstar Curt Hawkins and longtime pro wrestler Pat Buck, now a producer with WWE.
“The first day, when we were done rolling around we had what was they call ‘promo class,’ which to me is just talking,” Friedman says. “And I went up there after six other guys went up there, and they were bumbling and fumbling, and their hands were shaking and saying, ‘When I see you on Friday I’m going to give you a whuppin’. It was brutal.
“And then I went up there, I did my thing, and I’ll never forget, my trainer looked at me, and said, ‘Huh, all right, we’re about to print some money,’ and that was that.”
Taking the good with the bad …
Ross is impressed by what MJF already has accomplished, especially for a guy who makes so many people angry and is far from a huge person by pro wrestling standards.
“The perception is, and sometimes perception becomes reality, that he’s not a big guy, I can whip his ass,” he says. “So he’s got to deal with that, and show restraint, common sense, and professionalism, and essentially turn the other cheek.”
But not everybody objects. Some fans opt to grovel and kiss his ring, as one devotee — dressed as a ninja turtle — did recently on TV.
“I look at it like this: I’m being myself, everybody else in my industry is faking it,” Friedman said. “There’s nothing fake about me. And I think there are some people that appreciate that. Even if they hate me, they appreciate the fact that I’m 100 percent authentically me.”
Like recently, when his dad was in a hospital room following open-heart surgery.
“[The] surgeon walks in, makes eye contact with me, and he goes, ‘MJF, what are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Mind your business.’ And he turned around and he left.
And my dad looked at me. He said, ‘That guy just saved my life, you can’t talk…’ ‘And I’m like, “Dad, whatever.’”
“Well, he is a [jerk], to be honest,” Steven Friedman admits. “Whether he’s good or bad, he’s just, he’s Max. You know, in school, out of school, in the ring, on camera. He knows what he’s all about, and that’s who he is, so love it or leave it, I guess.”