Were an intrepid wrestling expert to compile a…let’s say, list…ranking performers with designated tiers, the upper echelon would feature some consensus nominees: Ric Flair, Andre The Giant, The Rock, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
As he stars in arguably the biggest program in wrestling at the moment, one that spans two sides of the globe, I suggest another name belongs among the top tier of professional wrestlers: Chris Jericho.
No wrestler has ever reinvented himself as consistently nor as successfully as Chris Jericho. He opens 2018 in the semi-main event of what has blossomed into arguably the second-most prominent wrestling card on the calendar, and certainly the most significant non-WWE show.
Jericho’s NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 12 match against Kenny Omega marks the culmination of the most stunning debut since, I posit, Chris Jericho showed up on Monday Night Raw.
Chris Jericho interrupting The Rock remains the most shocking moment I can remember in my time watching wrestling. The internet’s reach in 1999 was a fraction of what it became even just a year or two later, thus spoilers for such a surprising moment never found their way to me.
Surprises of that magnitude simply don’t exist 18 years later — and yet, somehow, Jericho appearing on the video monitor at NJPW Power Struggle to answer Kenny Omega’s open challenge completely blindsided me. I felt the same giddiness in 2017 as I did in 1999.
Each surprise debut also demonstrated similarly remarkable confidence in Jericho, albeit for different reasons. The “Y2J Problem” debuted opposite The Rock, the then-WWF’s clear No. 2 star (who became the No. 1 star just a few months later), in a head-to-head battle of wits on the microphone.
The Rock already established himself as one of the most entertaining talkers in wrestling history by that point in 1999. Chris Jericho debuted in the ultimate sink-or-swim situation, and he unquestionably swam.
Nearly two full decades later, “The Best in the World” debuts in NJPW against a wrestler in Kenny Omega who has established himself as perhaps the premier in-ring talent of the era.
For NJPW brass to position Chris Jericho, with nearly a quarter-century of mileage, against one of the most intense performers wrestling’s ever seen, demonstrates an equal confidence in Jericho’s ability to hold his own.
Come January 4 at the Tokyo Dome, I suspect NJPW’s confidence will be vindicated.
The defining traits of those consensus top-tier wrestlers mentioned in the intro vary. Kayfabe accomplishments are important, and Jericho is a multiple-time World champion — not to mention the first Undisputed Champion.
His reign was not written particularly well, but that visual of him holding both the WWF Championship and WCW World Heavyweight Championship can never be replicated.
Flair, Austin and Rock are all celebrated for their promos and memorable lines. Jericho checks those boxes.
His debut in WWF qualifies, but the 1,004 Holds promo from WCW might be the benchmark from that era of the Jericho character.
The career renaissance Jericho experienced in the past year introduced memorable lines such as, “Drink it in, man!” and, “You just made The LIst!” in reference to the infamous List of Jericho.
Of course, delivering in the ring is often as important as performing on the microphone, and Chris Jericho boasts a lengthy resume of outstanding matches. Just a sampling of some of my favorites:
- WCW Fall Brawl vs. Chris Benoit
- WCW Bash at the Beach vs. Ultimo Dragon
- WCW Fall Brawl vs. Eddie Guerrero
- WCW Slamboree vs. Dean Malenko
- WWF Raw with The Rock vs. Triple H & Chris Benoit
- WWF Judgment Day, Submission Match vs. Chris Benoit
- WWF Fully Loaded, Last Man Standing vs. Triple H
- WWF Royal Rumble, Ladder Match vs. Chris Benoit
- WWF Raw with Chris Benoit vs. Triple H & Steve Austin (*****)
- WWF No Mercy vs. The Rock (*****)
- WWF Armageddon vs. The Rock
- WWF Armageddon vs. Steve Austin
- WWE Wrestlemania XIX vs. Shawn Michaels
- WWE Raw with Edge and Chris Benoit vs. Evolution
- WWE Wrestlemania XXI, Money in the Bank Ladder Match
- WWE Unforgiven, Non-Sanctioned Street Fight vs. Shawn Michaels
- WWE Raw, Steel Cage vs. Batista
- WWE Great American Bash, Title-Mask vs. Rey Misterio
- WWE Wrestlemania XXVI vs. Edge
- WWE Wrestlemania XXVIII vs. CM Punk
- WWE Extreme Rules, Chicago Street Fight vs. CM Punk
- WWE Beast in the East vs. Neville
- WWE Fast Lane vs. A.J. Styles
- WWE Payback vs. Kevin Owens
But it’s not just great matches, nor even the combination of great matches and great promos, that elevates a wrestler to the top tier. Having a quality that separates him from all others is essential. Andre had his size; Flair’s aura made him a pop culture icon that remains relevant today. The Rock’s charisma successful transitioned to Hollywood. Steven Austin conveyed the frustrations of the Everyman.
The quality that separates Jericho, makes him worthy of distinction at the pinnacle of wrestling, is that he has debuted and returned throughout the last two decades with different gimmicks that proved equally effective.
It cannot be overstated how difficult this is; it’s the reason Hulk Hogan continues to wear a ‘do-rag with hair extensions and a fu manchu 30 years after Hulkamania reached its peak, or that Ric Flair remained the limousine-ridin’ son-of-a-gun into the 21st Century. Even The Rock, whose new career requires he portray different roles from project to project, returns to WWE every so often depicting the same Rock that electrified sports entertainment in the days of 28.8K modems.
Chris Jericho arrived in WWF with a variation of the hilarious Jericholic/Ayatollah of Rock-n-Rolla character he cultivated in WCW, albeit with more refinement.
His return from a two-year layoff in 2008 introduced a completely different spin on Chris Jericho. With short hair, trading in his glam-rock duds for Armani suits, and speaking in a condescending, elitist tone, Jericho shined in a whole new role. He also excelled in an increasingly difficult capacity: depicting a universally disliked heel.
The late 1990s ushered in the era of “cool heels,” bad guys whose indifference connected them with fans. Jericho’s late 2000s character reintroduced classic heel characteristics to a new audience, and he succeeded at being hated.
His next turn as “The Best in the World” was not as memorable, but did lead to some excellent matches with C.M. Punk. The new return in 2016, however, seals Chris Jericho as a top-tier professional wrestler for me.
I was initial luke-warm on Jericho coming back in the 2016 Royal Rumble. His 2014 feud with Bray Wyatt was nothing spectacular, and I was unsure how much more he had left to give 161/2 years removed from his WWF/E debut.
Oh, how wrong I was to doubt Jericho.
His feud with A.J. Styles out of the gate proved Jericho could still deliver in the ring, but it was the evolution of his scarf-wearing, List-carrying character that year that elevated Jericho as an all-performer to unparalleled heights.
Jericho succeeded in making the goofiest catchphrases popular. His mere presence greatly enhanced matches — most notably, hanging above the ring in a shark cage at the Royal Rumble, and later hanging around the Rumble itself for over an hour with cowardly tactics.
2017’s Festival of Friendship is a segment destined to go down in wrestling lore with such moments as The Rock: This Is Your Life and Steve Austin showering the ring with beer from a delivery truck.
We’re less than 365 days removed from the Festival of Friendship — still in the same calendar year, even! — and Chris Jericho has again reinvented himself with his appearances for NJPW.
Wrestle Kingdom 12 is bittersweet for me as a fan. I realize his match with Kenny Omega will be among the last Gifts of Jericho bestowed upon wrestling fans, hence the unique circumstances making this dream match a reality. At the same time, I have gained a new-found appreciation for just how remarkable Chris Jericho’s career has been. He is truly one of the best in the world to ever have done it.