Most of MJF’s major stories are retells of one ultimate point he’s been trying to drive home for years now. From Cody and the stipulations to Jericho and the Five Labors to Wardlow and the Giants (and even, to a certain extent, the first beats of the CM Punk feud); MJF puts his rivals through his “conditions,” which involve beating an assembly line of mercenaries in a clean sweep, one week after another, just to get to the singles match with MJF. All of this meticulous, if not redundant, pageantry exists to let us all know that he is the biggest prize in AEW and not anyone or anything else.
But with his alliances running out and our third annual “MJF and the Conditions” set to conclude with Wardlow on Dynamite, the question of how long MJF can continue to play this game has to be asked. Let’s take a look at MJF’s signature gauntlet throughout the years and see how much incentive he has to keep it going and who’s left to dance.
The First Iteration: Cody Rhodes
The first iteration saw MJF buddy up to EVP Cody Rhodes in order for MJF to leverage his company standing in time for the launch of Dynamite in October 2019. He would come to the aid of Rhodes when the latter was attacked and publicly refer to him as his best friend; until Full Gear 2019, when Rhodes gave his word that he would never challenge for the World Championship again if he lost his first title shot against inaugural champion Chris Jericho. MJF took the most opportune time to eliminate the threat that Cody Rhodes posed and threw in the towel on Rhodes’ behalf before adding insult to injury by kicking him below the (non-title) belt.
MJF would then force a furious Rhodes (who still saw himself as a mentor of sorts to the former, despite the ugly fallout) to adhere to three stipulations for Rhodes to fight him in a singles match at Revolution 2020:
- Rhodes cannot put his hands on MJF until said match,
- Rhodes must face MJF’s contracted bodyguard, Wardlow, in a cage match, and,
- Rhodes must be whipped ten times with a leather belt by MJF.
Then, months after putting Rhodes through the wringer and the coast clear of singles wrestlers with pristine win-loss records, MJF would set his sights on the World title for the first time.
The Second Iteration: Chris Jericho
But MJF hasn’t always been singularly driven by World Championship aspirations. The following year, the second iteration saw MJF gain the trust of Chris Jericho by praising him as a fellow ratings draw and expressing interest in joining the Jericho-lead Inner Circle, only to be revealed that it was his plan to destroy the group from within. Out of the ruse partnership, MJF got to score a win over Jericho to earn a spot in the group; a World Tag Team title match; a Tony Award-level performance; and to plant the first seeds of dissension in the group by voicing out what other members were perhaps too hesitant to say out loud: that Jericho didn’t care for his guys at all.
On the shards of the Inner Circle, MJF built his own faction, the Pinnacle, with members Wardlow, FTR, Shawn Spears, and manager Tully Blanchard. With the Pinnacle beating the Inner Circle in a 5-on-5 Blood and Guts match, MJF would force Jericho to beat his “Five Labors,” if Jericho wanted to get him again one-on-one:
- Shawn Spears, but only Spears can legally use a steel chair,
- Nick Gage, in a deathmatch,
- Juventud Guerrera, but the winning move has to be off the top rope,
- Wardlow, and,
Jericho would fail to beat the Five Labors at the fifth and final stop, and MJF, who now held two singles victories over Jericho, would not stop gloating about it. Jericho, at this point desperate for a sliver of revenge and one more chance to save face and beat MJF once, wagered his in-ring career at All Out 2021 to face MJF one more time. And though MJF would go on to lose this third match, he would also get what he ultimately wanted, with the Inner Circle imploding less than a year later.
The Third Iteration: Wardlow
This brings us to the third iteration, Wardlow; the man that MJF sends his rivals’ way so MJF won’t have to wrestle them at 100%; the man that time and again saw MJF run into trouble only to scurry away behind him; and the man that MJF assigned as the scapegoat for his failures. In March 2021, when MJF formally introduced the Pinnacle on Dynamite, he described Wardlow as “278 pounds of sheer force and dominance,” and “the best big man in professional wrestling.” Fast forward to March 2022, and after months of being on the receiving end of escalating taunts and abuse, Wardlow would simply be known to MJF as “pig,” after the former finally got his measure of revenge by costing MJF his most personal, high-pressure bout thus far: a Dog Collar match opposite his childhood hero, CM Punk.
In the weeks that followed, MJF announced he was going to pay Wardlow to “sit home” until his contract expired, which, of course, Wardlow would not adhere to. Wardlow showed up to every Dynamite taping (on MJF’s dime), demanding for his employer to release him from his contract, only to get stopped by dozens upon dozens of arena security. But MJF would eventually get tired of this threat showing up to hunt him down every week. And so, once again, MJF whipped out an assembly line, this time with giants:
- The Butcher,
- Lance Archer, and,
- W. Morrissey.
But the games wouldn’t end there. On top of the giant mercenaries, MJF whipped out his “conditions” (at a contract-signing, no less) for Wardlow to face him at Double or Nothing 2022, and the chance to be released from his contract should he win:
- Wardlow must be whipped ten times with a belt by MJF,
- Wardlow must beat Shawn Spears in a cage match, with MJF as guest referee, and,
- Wardlow can never sign a contract with AEW, should he lose to MJF at Double or Nothing.
When we look at what these three iterations have in common, it’s plain to see that these are all stories of people MJF chooses to align with, and people he sees as threats. With every foe vanquished and bled dry, MJF inhales clearer air: ‘One less EVP to worry about in the main event scene,’ or ‘top faction gone and replaced with the Pinnacle.’ MJF’s entire relationship with Wardlow was to make Wardlow look like an unconquerable beast, so that when he and his “potential” couldn’t get the job done and beat MJF’s rivals (something Wardlow was never sent out to do), MJF stepped in to do just that, and make himself look that much better. In the end, every one of his foes needed retribution, just one more drop of MJF’s blood, and he used that against them to make himself; a vile, disgusting snake in the grass; a most coveted, diabolical trophy that only gets shinier and shinier the more it is clawed at.
Tensions have been bubbling between MJF and his Pinnacle stablemates FTR, and should Dax Harwood and Cash Wheeler decide to cut ties with MJF, a tag classic could be awaiting us. The door to revisiting past rivalries (such as with CM Punk or Jon Moxley) is always open, but, at this point, for MJF to circle right back to someone seems ill-fitting and out of character. Maybe one day he feels differently about Shawn Spears, or maybe one day he tries to take another swipe at Shawn Dean. From Eddie Kingston to Samoa Joe to Kenny Omega, the list of intriguing, inevitable clashes for MJF on a roster this stacked is still plump as ever; however, the next logical step for MJF is to challenge for and win the World Championship. A wonky win-loss record can be set straight with a short but meaningful winning streak, or a Casino match victory. But what cannot be righted as easily is to opt not to strike while the iron is hot, and for many, many months, MJF has been a top Dynamite and pay-per-view highlight.
But we know MJF will play the MJF game, so who’s to say when he stops it? Maybe a hard-fought win streak or a qualifying match is never in the cards, even if a World title was on the other end of it. Maybe the plan is to rebuild the wall of talent around him in the Pinnacle whenever it cracks and for these retellings to continue. Maybe the plan is to keep bringing up the intention to win the World title, so it is always on our minds, but to do as little as possible to attain it; and, in the spirit of his favorite wrestler, Roddy Piper, never win it—not because he doesn’t truly want to, but because he knows of a prize that is much better, and you know it.