All Elite Wrestling held one of its biggest shows of the year Sunday night with their Double or Nothing pay per view taking place in Las Vegas. But as the first match approached, there was way more interest in what was happening outside of the ring rather than between the ropes.

A firestorm of rumors and controversy started on Saturday when one of the company’s brightest young stars, Maxwell Jacob Friedman no-showed a scheduled meet and greet with fans — an appearance which cost up to $100 for those wanting to meet the wrestler. The absence led to speculation that MJF would not show up to the PPV on Sunday, skipping his match all together, ruining part of the show, and demanding his release from the company. Still, others claimed this was all a “work,” old wrestling terminology for making the public believe what the wrestler and promoter wanted them too.

Was this an athlete wanting out amidst a contract dispute, or part of a conceived plan to make the audience believe in backstage drama where there was none? The events that unfolded highlighted the complicated nature of covering professional wrestling, and raised questions whether it’s right to treat wrestling like a traditional combat sport, especially in a medium where fiction and reality are so often blurred.

It’s important to understand just how good MJF is, because he’s central to all of this. Friedman is one of the most exciting professional wrestlers of the last 20 years. Hell, there’s a compelling argument that nobody since the WWE Attitude Era in the late 90s has captured crowds with their promo skills quite like MJF. An AEW original, Friedman was one of the first performers to sign with the burgeoning promotion in February 2019, following a wildly successful start to his career that saw him move from independent bookings, to mid-sized promotions — completing a breakout run with Major League Wrestling that saw MJF evolve into one of the most hated heels (bad guys) in the business.

MJF is an iconoclast in modern wrestling, a throwback to a past era. Never dropping character, he portrays himself as a mixture between Mr. Perfect and the “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase. That’s a reductive way to sum up his character, because there are times he’s shown vulnerability too, discussing antisemitism he endured in high school and blending old school character sensibility with a modern edge. Nobody, and I mean nobody his age is better at holding a crowd in the palm of his hand during a wrestling program, and that’s shined through as he’s gone toe-to-toe on the microphone with the likes of Chris Jericho and C.M. Punk — never getting overwhelmed by the moment against wrestlers who have more experience than years MJF has been alive.

When MJF joined AEW in 2019 on a five-year contract, he was a very different performer. Now he’s a bonafide superstar, and with that comes the desire for a bigger spot, a larger contract and more opportunity. It’s here reports emerged that he was growing unhappy with AEW, particularly in light of a swelling roster that he was starting to feel lost in. As a result he began teasing potentially jumping to WWE when his contract was up, and talking up wrestlers on their roster.

What makes this trickier is that displeasure with AEW has been a fundamental part of MJF’s character since the beginning of 2022. The motivation behind his character has been to portray himself as put upon, or overlooked by AEW owner Tony Khan — while other wrestlers got opportunities he felt he deserved.

This means that as we entered the weekend of Double or Nothing we had a performer who never broke character, who made being upset with AEW a fundamental part of his persona, and a perfect scenario where MJF and AEW could play this up to maximum effect, should they choose to pull the trigger. No-showing a fan event and leaving Las Vegas before the PPV was even complete could be the ultimate “work” to rile up fans, blurring the line between fiction and reality that wrestling so often strives for, but rarely reaches.

In the end, the match took place. MJF was on the card, finished his program against Wardlow — where he got powerbombed into next week, getting stretchered out of the ring, and essentially writing him off TV for a while. We still don’t know whether this is part of a story, or covering for issues behind the scenes.

How should the media react to this? There’s no perfect answer. Wrestling wants to get the attention of journalists, wants to be written about — but doesn’t want to reciprocate when something big occurs. Tony Khan refused to address questions about MJF following Double or Nothing and wrestlers were instructed not to talk about it. This closed system caught the attention of veteran hockey reporter Greg Wyshynski.

Surprised there wasn’t more probing after his “no comment” on MJF situation. In other sports pressers, I think the question gets asked again/rephrased: “Has he wrestled the last match of his contract?” perhaps. TK shut it down. Unless I missed it, the issue wasn’t hit again. 2/3

— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) May 30, 2022

There is an inherent desire to maintain some of the mystique of wrestling. To allow the medium to fool fans and keep them guessing like any good TV show — but where is the line? Do we draw it when an athlete is presented as a malcontent? How about when fans pay good money to meet a star, only to have the opportunity taken away from them? What about when fans are invested in a product, spending their time and energy to support a wrestler and not know whether they’re going to be out of the company or not?

These are the questions that are swirling following AEW’s weekend in Vegas. Now there’s a decision to be made by everyone involved. We can either continue the process of treating wrestling like a pseudo-sport, allowing promotions to control the narrative without media challenge — or we can push further, dig deeper, and demand that when it comes to issues that extend beyond storylines on a show, and into the lives of fans. Those folks who paid to meet MJF deserve to know whether it was an honest falling out, or a planned “work,” turning their investment into an angle.

We are living in a golden age of wrestling. It has never been better to be a wrestling fan who can pick or choose the performers, promotions or styles they like to watch. There is no homogenized product anymore, and it’s incredible to see — but along with this comes a responsibility from those in powerful positions. To respect the fans and not cross a line where “the work” is more important than their investment. We, the media, also need to be strong enough to change the paradigm, so we can serve the people wanting to know the truth — rather than participate in the complicity of letting “the work” exist when it suits a company.

If wrestling wants to be treated like a sport, let’s do it — and that means ruffling feathers along the way.

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