Yesterday, MJF no-showed AEW’s Double or Nothing Fan Fest. This marked the beginning of a sprawling network of good reporting, fan and wrestling journalist speculation, complaints that MJF had deprived fans of a promised opportunity for an autograph, too many tweets about whether or not this was a work or a shoot, and, like when Sasha Banks and Naomi walked out on Monday Night Raw two weeks ago, a chorus of folks sounding off as to whether or not what MJF was doing was unprofessional.
All of this is difficult to comment on, since, despite the thriller-like nature of the details Fightful‘s Sean Ross Sapp managed to dig up last night are just as meaty as they are vague. The timeline of last night’s events are as follows: MJF no-showed the Fan Fest, a reliable informant told Sapp that there was a flight in MJF’s name at the airport, booked at some cost, and, ultimately, MJF not getting on the plane. Coupled with reports that MJF is unsatisfied with some aspect of his AEW contract, most frequently speculated to be pay, but seemingly unwilling to negotiate, every single angle is somewhat plausible, but without AEW or MJF’s direct comment on the issue at hand, the only thing anybody can say is that anything is possible.
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Except this: what’s happening between MJF and AEW is absolutely not a work. Sapp has said so, but given how many people thought (and still think) that the Banks/Naomi walkout on Raw was a work, it is worth debunking this notion. The question is this: who benefits from this being a work? Not AEW, who aren’t typically in the business of intentionally pissing fans off. Not Wardlow, whose white hot run over the past month has been eclipsed by Saturday’s saga. And certainly not MJF, who will either be pilloried as unprofessional regardless of how things go.
The only thing supporting the idea that AEW and MJF would go to this kind of trouble risking potential catastrophe to add something to a match that only needs one Wardlow powerbomb to be one of the company’s most successful angles is how MJF has a history of blurring the line between reality and kayfabe, including at least a year’s worth of allusions to “the bidding war of 2024” between AEW and WWE over his services. To which I’ll say that reading the tea leaves of a wrestler’s in-character promos and tweets about ratings is a fool’s errand.
Besides which, if yesterday was a worked angle, why wouldn’t Max be at the Fan Fest looking over his shoulder the whole time, wondering if Wardlow would hit him at an advertised appearance before bailing halfway through? Wrestling fans, generally speaking, like to feel like they’re part of an angle. They do not, generally speaking, enjoy being ripped off (anymore than wrestling’s extant allowance to rip fans off via booking allows). This is an Occam’s razor deal, like Sasha and Naomi: the simplest explanation, that this is not a work, is likely the explanation.
The only problem is that the rest of the solutions appear to be somewhat equally plausible. What if it is money? What if he wants out of his contract? There’s a lot of speculation on this front, none of which, thankfully, suggests that the issue is not wanting to job to Wardlow. The general consensus is that this isn’t about the money anymore, which, checking the temperature of replies to Sapp and other journalists, has fans under the belief that MJF is looking to get out of his contract.
But all of that is conjecture, and I’d rather not speculate. What I’d like to do instead is reduce this down to the simplest terms possible before theorizing on the weight of a wrestler taking an action like walking off on the job.
The dispute between MJF and AEW is a dispute between management and labor.
That’s it. First, I’ll acknowledge the fact that disputes between management and labor often cause collateral damage. In fact, both parties in a labor dispute rely on that. When factory workers go on strike, they often ask consumers not to buy the goods they produce as a means of hitting companies where it hurts. Companies, in turn, release PR statements meant to assure consumers that they played fair with their workers and that everybody is happy to be back at processing chicken or making potato chips. This year, Major League Baseball owners enacted a lockout when they could not come to terms with players on a new collective bargaining agreement. A strategy used during lockouts by owners is to leverage fan anger at the prospect of cancelled games and the oft-expressed idea that players make too much to play a game into making the issue about who loves the game more, the 30 owners whose ambitions are, let’s say, a little less wholesome than enjoying a ball game, or the 900 or so people they might have to give more money to if negotiations tip their way.
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Obviously, wrestling does not have a union. It may never have a union. In order for there to be a union at WWE or AEW, a majority of the shop would have to be in favor of it. There are a lot of things working against this goal. A lot of wrestlers are Republicans, for one, and the ones who aren’t have grown up in a culture that has long derided and weakened union power. There is also the issue of how pay structure works. Guys at the top of the card would have to be in on a unionization effort, but main event money and accommodations are, perhaps more than satisfying the main event guy, meant to be something for everybody else in the locker room to chase. Forget briefcases or titles, this is the brass ring. What nobody points out is that what a brass ring gets you is another ride on the carousel. You make more money, but you put in more time.
With all of that working against a true unionization of professional wrestling, in an unresolved dispute between management and labor, the only tool the laborer has is individual action. In professional wrestling, the biggest individual action a wrestler can take is to cease providing their services to their employer.
In other words, they can walk out.
Casting aside any judgement on whether or not walking out is unprofessional, the discomfort one causes in doing so is caused intentionally. Some collateral damage — like what changes to Wardlow’s story might have to be made on the fly — is unfortunate, but pissing off the promoter and fans is 100% the intent of a walkout, otherwise it’d have no power. It’s like shooting a flare — the attention from all parties involved is the point.
What happens tonight? What happens this week? What happens with MJF for the duration of his contract? His career?
Nobody knows. That’s the most obvious thing to say about this issue, but what happens next depends entirely on whether or not anything was said between MJF and Tony Khan, what was said, and how the two parties left the discussion. Given the number of times Sean Ross Sapp and others have said that nobody in AEW or MJF’s camp is willing to speak on the walkout, I am willing to bet that the only way we’ll know the outcome is MJF’s continued presence on AEW programming.
If there was/is a dialog between the two, MJF’s individual action worked. That is not contingent upon his being at Double or Nothing. If the point of a walkout is to show how dissatisfied one is with their situation at work, showing up to the job is not evidence of a resolved issue. It is thus entirely possible that the full story of MJF’s actions this weekend will never come to light, that everybody not immediately involved will have to be satisfied with rumors.
As far as MJF’s potential absence being a “mere” inconvenience, here’s some things to mull over:
- Any refunds or lost revenue AEW suffers as a consequence of MJF walking out affects AEW and AEW alone.
- It sucks that Wardlow won’t get to powerbomb MJF after a two year will-he-or-won’t-he storyline, but Wardlow will be fine. Literally nothing can derail his train at the moment.
- Wardlow will do something tonight, with or without MJF.
- Double or Nothing has as many matches as a 1980s WrestleMania card. The lack of its hottest match hurts, but the other matches can be stretched out, and the walkout may inspire the kind of “let’s put on a show” attitude that’ll make Double or Nothing a show worth remembering for more than just this incident.
- AEW is yet to put on a bum pay-per-view.
- The only person who gets to decide whether or not walking off the job was the right move is MJF.
Does it suck? Absolutely. MJF vs. Wardlow is one of two matches I am genuinely looking forward to tonight, and if it doesn’t happen, it will diminish my enjoyment of Double or Nothing quite a bit given that I’m ambivalent about most of the card. But what can anybody outside of those who have a professional stake in this match do outside of not watching the show? The funny thing about refunds and lost revenue is this: it proves MJF’s value to the company, even if the issue at hand isn’t compensation. It’s leverage, and in a profession that isn’t exactly known for the fair treatment of labor, walking off may be the best weapon a worker has. Weighed against the inconvenience to me, I’m okay letting MJF do whatever he thinks is best for himself. In this scenario, what I wan’t doesn’t matter. In a dispute between labor and management, I stick with labor, even if it hurts to do so.