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AEW’s MJF on simmering CM Punk feud and Long Island ‘homecoming’

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AEW’s MJF on simmering CM Punk feud and Long Island ‘homecoming’

Maxwell Jacob Friedman is coming home and expects a celebratory atmosphere in his honor on Long Island.

The Plainview native and All Elite Wrestling star will be a participant in the Dynamite Diamond battle royale during “AEW Dynamite” at UBS Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. TNT). The last two men standing will then compete in a match for the 24-karat ring. MJF has won the ring twice. The 25-year-old, who is the same person when the cameras are off as he is on TV, is one of the best heels in pro wrestling and is also in the beginnings of a feud with CM Punk.

Before the big event, MJF took time for some Q&A with The Post’s Joseph Staszewski.

(Edited for clarity and length)

Q: Did you go to shows at Nassau Coliseum as a kid and do you have any memories that stand out?

A: Of course I did. I went to The Barn all the time. I saw a lot of the men and women that I work with now, which is pretty interesting. Especially for them because it makes them feel so old and worthless. I most certainly went to The Barn on multiple occasions to watch some pro wrestling.

Q: Is there someone you’re working with now that you remember seeing at one of those shows?

A: I remember seeing Chris Jericho. I remember seeing [Jon] Moxley at one of those shows. Never saw [CM] Punk at The Barn, probably because we only let people with taste inside of Long Island.

MJF, a Long Island Native, will compete in the Dynamite Diamond battle royale on Wednesday at UBS Arena.
AEW

Q: What’s the next biggest venue you’ve worked on Long Island? This is obviously a huge new building in UBS.

A: Probably Create A Pro, which probably only housed 150 (people), maybe.

Q: For you, getting to this moment in your career where you’re going to be home in front of around 8,000 people, that has to feel pretty good.

A: It’s a homecoming and I’m the prom king. I personally feel … are you from Long Island Joe?

Staszewski: I’m from Queens but I just moved to Long Island.

A: Then you know for a fact that if you go to any delicatessen, if you go to any diner, if you go to any barbershop there are stories about my lore and my legend. I am a legend inside of Long Island and I am so excited to be able to wrestle in front of a crowd that deserves to see me do what I do best. I am so excited to be in front of people who get me.

I go to these places in the Bible Belt, I got to places in the south, on the West Coast, in the north, north and they just don’t get me. They boo me. I think they boo me because they don’t know any better. People from Long Island know I’m an upstanding citizen. They know I’m salt of the earth. They know I’m a hero. To me, being a hero or a villain is all about perspective. Everywhere else I’m a villain, but in Long Island I’m perceived as a hero.

Q: So MJF home game on Wednesday?

A: Hundred percent, and everyone’s gonna be chanting my name at the top of their lungs and I’m going to be kissing babies on foreheads and high-fiving everybody because these are my people.

AEW MJF CM Punk
MJF and CM Punk.
AEW

Q: What made you look up to CM Punk as a kid and did you use anything from him when you first got started in the business?

A: Well I’m me 24/7, 365. I’m not a gimmick. I’m not one of these guys that has to portray somebody else in order to feel comfortable and confident when they walk through the curtain. I’m just me and that’s why I make so much goddamn money for my company. But as far as Punk goes, why was I such a fan? I said it in what people are calling one of, if not the greatest verbal joust in the history of the business. I said I was a huge fan of CM Punk in the ring, on the microphone. He was the best in the world, or so I thought. Ever since he’s returned, I’m not feeling the CM Punk of old. I feel like something’s missing there. I also feel like I’m the only person who’s even potentially giving him the spark he needs to give me the CM Punk I grew up on. And he should be thankful for that.

Q: What do you think is missing?

A: Killer instinct. CM Punk would have done whatever it took to get a W and he would have made sure it didn’t take him 12 minutes to beat a schmuck like Lee Moriarty. It’s absolutely nonsensical.

Q: You’ve said you’ve been waiting for that spark from him. Is there something you’ll see that says the old CM Punk is back?

A: I’ve seen the fire behind his eyes a couple of times ever since I’ve gotten in his face. I saw that fire in his eyes when we were in the ring talking back and forth. I saw that fire in his eyes when I said I was going to put his disgusting, flea-ridden mutt (Larry) down last week. I look forward to seeing the fire in his eyes again, but I want that flame to keep running. I think what that’s gonna take is CM Punk to understand that if he wants any shot at getting a match with me I need that flame 24/7, 365 just like the one I have because when I get in the ring with CM Punk, I don’t want any goddamn excuses. I want the best version of CM Punk.

Q: As far as a moment for you in AEW, where did that verbal joust stand for you?

A: I don’t have any weak points (on the mic), neither does Punk and we created a moment that’s gonna go down in the annals of time in our sport and I think that’s special. But what’s gonna be more special is when CM Punk realizes he may be the best in the world, but I’m better than him and he knows it.

Q: Why is the Dynamite Diamond Ring so important to you that you’re going back for it for a third time to make sure it stays on your finger?

A: I personally feel the ring doesn’t make the man, the man makes the ring and I’ve made this ring very special. I’m about to be a three-time Dynamite Diamond Ring champion. To be able to say for three straight years you have won a championship in a row, there is only a handful of gentlemen in the history of sports that could say that they’ve done that and I am most certainly going to be.

Q: What’s up with The Pinnacle right now? You guys are off doing some different things?

A: The Pinnacle’s great baby. It’s really funny to me. We’re not like Dark Order. We’re not like a bunch of weirdos that need to be connected at the hip 24/7. We’re all very passionate. We all have our own beliefs, but at the end of the day we’re all still friends, we’re all still family.

We are an incredible cohesive unit. It’s just the simple fact that since we’re not standing shoulder to shoulder like frickin’ weirdo penguins in the arctic, now all of sudden The Pinnacle is in trouble. We’re great. We’ve never been better and we’re all accomplishing incredible things in our own right.

Q: You and Darby Allin are probably not known to the public as these great technical wrestlers

A: It’s laughable, Joe. It is.

AEW MJF
MJF wrestling Darby Allin at AEW’s “Full Gear” pay-per-view in November.
AEW

Q: Did that make the match that you had at “Full Gear,” the style of it, to pull it off the way that you did, more meaningful to have that technical of a match on a pay-per-view?

A: We have had people on TV for the better part of a decade now, who if you’re really good at talking, you can’t wrestle. If you’re really good at wrestling you can’t talk. And we haven’t had someone like me come around in a very, very, very long time. So, when people see me they immediately in their minds go, ‘This guy is like,’ insert name of guy you can think of. And then I wrestle and they go holy s—t that’s nuts, he’s just as good in the ring as he is on the microphone.

Then you got a guy like Darby Allin. A schmuck, but a talented schmuck. The guy was known for being this hardcore, risk-taking daredevil and people were sleeping on the fact that he’s one of the best wrestlers in the world, just like MJF.

I think what we did is we went out there and we spit in the face of anybody who questioned our in-ring ability. Quite frankly, I’m f—king better than Kenny Omega. I’m better than Adam Cole. I’m better than Bryan Danielson. I’m better than CM Punk. I’m the guy who can grab you by the face when you’re on your couch chomping away at your Doritos and give you no choice but to keep watching me.

Q: What does it mean for AEW to continue to have success in the New York market?

A: It means an awful lot because Tony Khan, while I get upset with him sometimes because I feel like I deserve a little bit more in this company, he’s an incredible businessman. What he’s been able to accomplish in the span of, I don’t even know if it’s been three years, it’s absolutely insane. We’ve beaten a company (WWE) that has monopolized this industry in the key demo (18-49) on more than one occasion. That’s insane. And the fact the people aren’t talking about it like it’s insane is laughable to me. And then people bring up WCW. WCW was around for a long time before it even sniffed ratings that were even remotely close to at the time the WWF.

Q: You have a little bit of a friendship with Taz. How did that come about and why did you guys click?

A: Well me and Taz we both live on the Island. Sometimes we’ll hang out and smoke some cigars and just talk about the biz. Taz is one of the most intelligent minds in the sport today. The man doesn’t get enough credit. He invented a lot of the maneuvers you see in the ring today he doesn’t get a lot of credit for. To top it off, he’s just like me. He’s just incredibly handsome and I think that’s why we get along so well.

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.

Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.

Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.

Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”

Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.

ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”

Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.

Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.

Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.

But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.

“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’

McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.

Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.

Miles McBride
NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.

That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker
USA TODAY Sports

When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.

Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”

Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.

“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.

“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’

The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.

Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.

But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.

“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’

The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.

No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.

“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’

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Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers

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Zach Wilson and Tom Brady

When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.

Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.

This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.

Tom Brady.

The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.

Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.

To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.

There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.

The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.

Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg; AP

Baby steps, though.

Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.

Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.

Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.

Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.

And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.

Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.

Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.

Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.

“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.

On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.

That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.

That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.

It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.

If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.

The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.

“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’

A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.

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