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Wrestling

From the Ring to the Screen: MJF Becomes a Von Erich, Sort Of

Maxwell Jacob Friedman, the 27-year-old pro wrestling world champion, played Lance Von Erich and held an executive producer role in The Iron Claw. He's not afraid to speak his mind about the man he portrayed.
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Maxwell Jacob Friedman, otherwise known as MJF, was playing a part close to home in The Iron Claw. Photo courtesy of All Elite Wrestling.

The big screen debut of Maxwell Jacob Friedman, the fake fake Von Erich, did not play out quite like he imagined.

His moment on screen portraying Lance Von Erich, the famous wrestling family’s storyline cousin, amounts to around 10 seconds of action, during which he pummels two opponents while wearing a blonde wig. Zac Efron, playing Kevin Von Erich, looks on in frustration, awaiting a tag that never comes.

Lance Von Erich is never introduced and doesn’t speak a word. He’s not even a Von Erich in The Iron Claw universe; Friedman is credited as Lance, no surname attached. If you weren’t looking for him, you’d never know he was there.

“But man,” Friedman says before letting out a cackle, “do I look badass in that fucking wig.”

At first blush, the 27-year-old was an unusual choice to play Lance, whose story I told in our December issue. (Friedman was unavailable to comment before press time due to the then-ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike.)

William Kevin Vaughan, the man who wrestled under the name Lance Von Erich from late 1985 through mid-1987 in the Von Erich-owned World Class Championship Wrestling, was a 6-foot-2 hulk who, by his own admission, was no natural as a talker. Friedman is considerably smaller: chiseled, yet hardly colossal. But the performer better known as MJF crackles on the microphone as one of the best promos in all of wrestling, which begins to explain why he’s been the world champion of All Elite Wrestling (AEW), the country’s second-largest wrestling company, for more than a year.

Then there are the temperaments. When I asked people who worked with Vaughan how they’d describe him, “nice” was a descriptor I heard over and over again. What you saw was what you got. Friedman, on the other hand, is endearingly smug, an obvious vestige of the charismatic asshole from Long Island that he plays on cable television each week. But it’s a testament to how well he blurs the lines between performative and authentic that even in an interview setting, it’s difficult telling where the character ends and the man begins. (Case in point: when I acknowledge how hard he lapses into character-based self-promotion in our conversation, he laughs and replies, “If I don’t see ‘world champion’ and ‘AEW’ in this thing at least three times, I fucked up.”)

But none of that stood in the way of Friedman earning the part after his agent got him an audition. Aside from 29-year ring veteran Chavo Guerrero Jr., who handled the in-ring choreography and also plays The Shiek in the film, no man on set was better qualified to portray a professional wrestler. And though Friedman was born four years after WCCW’s final show, he’s studied more than enough old matches to develop a reverence for the Dallas promotion.

“It just felt real—everything felt so real and sincere,” he says. “And when you’re watching it, you have no choice but to be grabbed by it completely and entirely. It’s a sports-based presentation. And to me, that’s the way pro wrestling should feel and make you feel. It should draw on your most archaic emotions humanly possible.”

His climactic moment in the film was a scene with Efron and Holt McCallany (who plays family patriarch Fritz Von Erich), in which Lance Von Erich demanded a raise. It was a climactic moment in the real Lance Von Erich’s career, too: Fritz turning him down led to Vaughan walking out of the promotion, which in turn begat the family’s decision to reveal the truth about Vaughan’s false lineage to the WCCW audience, a move that accelerated the decline of the promotion.

But as postproduction crept along, Friedman girded himself for the scene to be cut. He’s at peace with it; acting was only part of his involvement in the film. He’s also an executive producer—one of his fondest memories on set was chatting in his trailer with director Sean Durkin about Rowdy Roddy Piper, Friedman’s all-time favorite wrestler—and as a result, he says, “I care deeply about this project, and I just want it to flourish.”

Hence the directive he says he gave Durkin: “If you think [the scene] takes away from the overall story of telling the story about these brothers, and it’s a distraction and a plot-C thing, I’m okay with going on the cutting-room floor.”

That’s not to say Friedman doesn’t have feelings about the character he’s portraying—and they weren’t all positive, either. He prepared for the role by reading Vaughan’s book as well as talking to wrestlers who worked with him in the mid-80s (he won’t name names), and was taken aback by Vaughan’s demand for more money. Wrestlers live by a code, and paying dues is part of it. When I profiled wrestling legend (and Waxahachie resident) Sting in January,  we discussed how he and his first tag team partner, future WWE headliner The Ultimate Warrior, started off so broke that they sometimes stole rotisserie chicken from the deli counter and ate in the store to avoid paying for it. Friedman brings up the oft-repeated anecdote about Stone Cold Steve Austin, who once subsisted on cans of tuna fish and potatoes.

In Friedman’s case it was stretching one Chipotle bowl out across three meals per day while living in Greenwood, Indiana, earning as little as $20 a show—far less than the $150 Lance Von Erich made back in the 80s as a headliner in a major promotion. The thought of Vaughan asking for more with less than two years of wrestling under his belt rankles him.

“If somebody’s willing to pay me to do this—let’s face it, it’s a dream job,” he says. “And then for me to turn around and literally try to overhaul everything just because maybe you didn’t treat me nice? I don’t know, man. There’s other ways to do business. If you were unhappy, you most certainly could have handled it a different way.”

Except Friedman made his in-ring debut at 18 years old, and by virtue of spending his entire adulthood in the business is well versed in the ways “wrestlers are pirates and scavengers, liars and cheats and carnies.” This is the business he’s chosen, has been ever since he famously appeared on the Rosie O’Donnell show at five years old and declared professional wrestling to be his future.

Vaughan was coaxed into the business through promises of fame and riches that exceeded the lucrative career he was making in real estate, neither of which were delivered upon. And it isn’t lost on Friedman how ripe those differing contexts can be for misunderstanding.

“I thought to myself, ‘Okay, this is a guy who is an athlete that doesn’t necessarily understand how the sport works and isn’t privy to the inner workings of it,’” Friedman says. “So he thinks he’s asking something that’s harmless, when in reality it’s sleazy.

Friedman’s acting won’t stop with The Iron Claw. He’s already filmed a part in an upcoming Seth Green film called Floaters, the next stage in a medium he’s beginning to adore as much as wrestling. But for the foreseeable future, his most important work will continue to happen inside the ring. Recently that took him through North Texas, after AEW ran shows last week at UT-Arlington and the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland. Smartly, the company booked Kevin Von Erich and his sons, Ross and Marshall, to appear on two of those cards. But according to Friedman, the Von Erichs themselves need not be in the building for the spirit of WCCW to live on wrestling crowds in and around the city.

“When you work in Dallas, Texas, you feel—again, it’s this sense of this archaic, almost caveman aura,” he says. “And I’m saying this in the most positive way. Fans here aren’t afraid to get invested. They’re not afraid to get loud. They’re not afraid to love, or to hate, or to boo, or to cheer.

“You go elsewhere, there are certain towns where this might be like pulling teeth. You know, ‘I’m gonna get these people out of their shell.’ You don’t need to get anybody out of their shell. And that’s why I’ve always adored wrestling in Dallas.”

Now audiences around the globe will watch him wrestle in Dallas’ greatest wrestling story, too. Just keep an eye out for the guy in the blonde wig.

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Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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