19 Years On, The Evolution of Chris Jericho

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The year was 1999 and everyone alive was waiting for a once-in-three-generations moment of entering a new millennium. One person, however was waiting for the new millennium for a different reason. That person was Chris Jericho.

Photo: WWE

Throughout the years, Chris Jericho has captivated the imagination of wrestling fans around the world with his exploits in Mexico, Japan, Canada and the US. The master of evolution and reinvention, there is not a trick he came across he didn’t use and no disguise he didn’t put on to ‘work’ the fans. The gift of Jericho (pun most definitely intended) is the gift that keeps on giving.

The Debut

As the countdown to the new century continued, wrestling fans were given an absolute treat on August 9th 1999 as Chris Jericho, after weeks of mysterious countdown clock vignettes, finally made his highly-anticipated debut on WWE programming. Considered to be one of the most underused men on the WCW roster, Jericho was terribly and criminally employed as an undercard talent while ‘the big boys’ took centre stage in the Ted Turner-led promotion. His last televised match in the ill-fated promotion came on on April 5th, 1999, a loss to Booker T in a tournament for the United States Championship. Four months later, Jericho was cutting a fiery promo on The Rock.

It is hardly believable how much Jericho’s debut promo stands to be accurate about WWE programming in 2018. He made his debut as “Y2J” (wordplay on the “Y2K” theory going around at that time), the “Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Rolla”, sporting a crazy, blonde ponytail and his debut entrance already cemented him as a rock star. Jericho would open with talking about how his debut would “change the course of history”. His most significant statements were still to follow.

“A new era is what this once proud and profitable company sorely needs. What was once a captivating, trend-setting programme has now deteriorated into a clichéd, let’s be honest, boring, snooze fest that is in dire need of a knight in shining armour. And that is why I’m here.” Oh how the company could do with the spark a Chris Jericho return would bring right about now. The new millennium had well and truly arrived in the WWE.

Y2J: The Undisputed

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Jericho, the master of reinvention, went with the “Y2J”, “Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Rolla” gimmick longer than any persona he would use in his career, spanning nine years from 1999 to 2008. The spark from his debut didn’t stay alight for long as ‘face’ Chris Jericho had to take a backseat to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock. However, during the infamous Invasion angle of 2001, Jericho turned ‘heel’.

One of Jericho’s best matches ever came on the May 21 edition of RAW as he and Chris Benoit beat the Two-Man Power Trip (Austin and Triple H) in one of the best tag-team matches in RAW’s history – a match that is also synonymous for Triple H carrying on despite having a torn quad.

2001 ended with the crowning achievement of Chris Jericho’s career as he beat the Rock and Stone Cold on the same night (as he so often likes to remind us) at Vengeance in December to become the first ever Undisputed Champion in the post-WCW Invasion WWE. In 2002, Jericho main evented WrestleMania for the first time, losing the Undisputed Championship to the Royal Rumble winner, Triple H.

Facing His Idol

The next year at WrestleMania 19, Chris Jericho told a great story in the build-up to his Mania classic with Shawn Michaels. Michaels and Jericho entered 1 and 2 in the 2003 Royal Rumble with Jericho sneaking up on HBK from behind with a low blow before eliminating him and ending his main event hopes. Michaels would return to the match and give Y2J a receipt, throwing him out of the match.

“I wanted to be a wrestler so I could be Shawn Michaels.” Jericho now wanted to step out of Shawn Michaels’ shadow and show that he was the first Chris Jericho, not Shawn Michaels 2.0. Jericho played the dastardly heel to perfection. HBK got the victory with a roll-up but Y2J’s character development would continue after the match, kicking Shawn downstairs seconds after the two had hugged in the middle of the ring and Jericho, seemingly, had shed a tear. Michaels dropping down into the arms of Jericho and Jericho snobbishly pushing him to the ground is as classic a Chris Jericho moment as it can get.

Rivalry with Christian, Feud with Cena

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Chris Jericho and Christian were on-and-off buddies throughout the end of 2003 and early 2004. It started with a supposedly friendly bet (one Canadian dollar!) over who could bed their own romantic interests first. Jericho would try his luck with Trish Stratus, while Christian pursued Lita. Trish found out and broke things off with Jericho.

Always the gentleman, Jericho, beginning a slow face turn now, felt bad for hurting her and later rescued her from an attack at the hands of Kane. Later, in a mixed tag-team match, Christian put Trish in the Walls of Jericho for which Jericho sought revenge, setting up a match at WrestleMania XX between the two. A stark contrast to the previous year, the showpiece event ended in one of Chris Jericho’s most babyface moments in his entire career. Trish turned heel during the match, slapping Jericho before joining Christian. The devilish duo shared a post-match kiss for the ages at the entrance ramp. A WrestleMania moment in itself.

Christian and Jericho’s rivalry continued through the year including a Ladder match for the Intercontinental title at Unforgiven in September. In the build-up to WrestleMania 21, Jericho would be the (real-life) pioneer of the now iconic Money in the Bank Ladder match, ultimately coming up short in the stipulation’s first outing, a six-man showdown at Mania.

The 2005 draft shook things up in the WWE as the new WWE Champion, John Cena, made his first appearance on Raw as a surprise guest on Jericho’s highlight reel. Jericho, currently playing a cocky face, introduced Cena very enthusiastically before the interaction got interrupted by Jericho’s old foe Christian and his new “problem solver”, Tyson Tomko.

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Jericho would turn heel before a triple-threat match also involving Christian at Vengeance for the WWE Championship, before turning on Cena and aligning with Eric Bischoff. Jericho would go on to challenge Cena for the WWE title at SummerSlam 2005 in a losing effort. The next night on Raw, Jericho would lose a “You’re Fired” match for the WWE Championship against Cena again and be unceremoniously dumped in a dumpster truck on his way out. In reality, Jericho had asked for a break to work with his band Fozzy and concentrate on his music career for the time being.

“Best in the World At What I Do”

Jericho would return in late 2007, returning in similar fashion to his original 1999 debut with vignettes of encrypted codes finally revealing that the “Codebreaker” had arrived. Jericho went until the summer of 2008 as babyface before turning heel on Shawn Michaels to start an epic feud which was voted as the “Feud of the Year” by both the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and Pro Wrestling Illustrated.

Gone were the flashy long locks of Y2J and in was a more serious-looking character. Many of the old Y2J characteristics were now gone as we saw the very first concrete reinvention of Chris Jericho, moving away from everything that initially made him popular post-1999. Jericho would have two incredible pay-per-view matches with HBK in 2008, the first an Unsanctioned match which he lost after being beaten to a pulp by Michaels, getting his comeuppance. However, Jericho would get his heat back in classic heelish fashion by inserting himself in the night’s main event, a Championship scramble for the World Heavyweight Championship, winning the belt for the first time since 2002.

At No Mercy 2008, Jericho successfully defended his World Heavyweight Championship against Michaels in a Ladder Match in one of the best matches of his career. He would go on to exchange the belt once with Dave Batista before eventually losing it to a returning John Cena at Survivor Series 2008.

Jeri-Show, IC Title Record and Main Eventing WrestleMania Again

At Extreme Rules 2009, Jericho would beat Rey Mysterio for the Intercontinental Championship and break his own record by becoming a 9-time Intercontinental Champion – a record that still stands. He would lose the title back to Mysterio at the Great American Bash but win the tag-team titles with partner Edge later on the same show.

An unfortunate injury to Edge forced him to find a new partner and Jericho chose the Big Show, forming an unlikely but entertaining alliance as the two held tag-team gold together up until the TLC PPV in December. The duo had even challenged The Undertaker for the World Heavyweight championship in a triple-threat match at Survivor Series the previous month.

The smarmy heel would find a way back into the main-event picture soon as he ended the Undertaker’s reign as World Heavyweight champion thanks to some unlikely help from old nemesis Shawn Michaels at Elimination Chamber in February. Jericho would then go on to successfully defend his Championship against former partner Edge at WrestleMania 26.

In September 2010, he was written off WWE television again after being on the receiving end of a punt in the head by Randy Orton.

“Straight Edge” Obsession

Jericho would return to the company on the first Raw episode of 2012 as a face but would not speak a word. He would drink in the cheers of the crowd before leaving without saying anything. Jericho was the favourite to win the Royal Rumble match but was unexpectedly eliminated last. He soon turned heel by attacking WWE Champion and fan-favourite CM Punk.

Jericho would soon make things personal and much more brutal with the “straight-edge” messiah, playing mind games by revealing that Punk’s father was an alcoholic and Punk himself was a phony. Punk and Jericho would have one of the matches of the night at WrestleMania 27 and continue their feud post-Mania with Jericho smashing a beer bottle on top of Punk’s head and dowsing the “straight-edge” star with alcohol after his matches. He would, however, be unsuccessful in his quest at winning the world title again, losing a Chicago Street Fight to Punk at Extreme Rules.

Jericho was such a heel at the time that he almost caused an international incident in Brazil. At a WWE live event in Brazil, Jericho kicked a Brazilian flag during a match with CM Punk, causing local police to intervene and threaten Jericho with arrest. Jericho issued an apology to the audience, enabling the event to resume. Soon after, WWE had no choice but to suspend Jericho for 30 days as well as apologize to the people and government of Brazil.

Jeri-KO and the “List of Jericho”

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Arguably one of Chris Jericho’s most entertaining and beloved runs with the WWE was his last one. What started off as a random tag-team thrown together for a SummerSlam 2016 pre-show match turned into something extremely special. “Jeri-KO” was born.

Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens had unreal chemistry together on the mic. Their roast of Tom (Tim? Felipe?) Phillips on the Survivor Series 2016 kick-off show is a must watch. This one final reinvention of Chris Jericho as the goofball who would spit out whatever stupid, random thing crossed his mind was one of his best. 2016 Chris Jericho would wear a scarf, sport a douchebag goatee and cut better promos than anyone else on the roster. Owens and Jericho were absolutely gold on the mic.

Photo: WWE

Apart from the insane chemistry the duo possessed, Jericho managed to get the word “IT” and a piece of paper on top of a cardboard over with the fans in 2016. The “List of Jericho” merchandise was flying off the shelves. This was a pioneer at work. Chris Jericho is a master at working the fans while weaving his magic and painting an exquisite picture on a very limited PG-era canvas at the same time. The “Festival of Friendship” segment on February 13 2017 broke many hearts around the world.

New Japan, “The Alpha” and Manipulating Social Media

It is hard to put into words how different Chris Jericho looked and acted after showing up in New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) in November 2017. He was a sneaky, snobby and very over-the-top heel in his last run with the WWE. However, when Chris Jericho showed up in Japan, it was nothing like anything a WWE fan could recognise.

“The Alpha” was now in town and ready to take the throne from Kenny Omega. Jericho made his first in person appearance on December 2017, absolutely decimating Kenny Omega and anyone who stood in his path. There was a viciousness to Jericho not seen since his feud with Shawn Michaels in 2008. The PG shackles were well and truly off and even the ‘Attitude Era’ Chris Jericho had been surpassed. Jericho would go on unsuccessfully challenge Omega for his IWGP United States Championship at the Tokyo Dome at Wrestle Kingdom 12, however, by the end of his first feud back in NJPW after 20 years, he had left an indelible mark on all of pro-wrestling.

Chris Jericho has changed and evolved his methods with time. While many others try to stick to the tried and tested, Jericho has never been afraid to test out and experiment with different things. It is a testament to his enormous talent that even in 2017-18, Chris Jericho managed to bring an enormous amount of new fans and mainstream attention for New Japan with his appearance and new demeanour. Jericho worked the fans on social media before his arrival, rejecting any rumours of him working in Japan. In today’s day and age, to shock and awe is an ability not many pro wrestlers in the world possess. Chris Jericho has that in his locker and a ton more. He is in a league of his own. A return to WWE now for Chris Jericho would be very interesting to say the least.

As Jericho himself said in his debut promo in 1999, “Television ratings, downward spiral. Pay-per-view buy-rates, plummeting. And reactions of the live crowds, complete and utter silence. Chris Jericho has come to save the WWF(E).”