The Mean 10.21.01: Chris Jericho

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The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that everything in life could be broken down into two extremes: excess and deficiency. He believed that if a person could find the medium or mean between the two extremes in all that they did in life, they would travel down the path to happiness and virtue. With pro wrestling fans, the two extremes are clear: the deficient “mark” enjoys watching wrestling more than anybody but has very little knowledge of anything not on TV, while the excessive “smart” knows every backstage dealing, but as a result can become highly bitter and cynical, losing their ability to enjoy the show. These two extremes view each wrestler differently, often disagreeing with each other. Each week I look at both perspectives and then attempt to find “The Mean” between the two. This week, let’s take a look at Chris Jericho

There’s so many clichés in this business of wrestling and one of my favorites (courtesy of Good Ol’ J.R.) has to be “You can’t make your living off of potential.” There are so many guys who seem like they’re going to be the next big thing and then either blow it altogether and fade into obscurity, or take what seems like forever before finally hitting their stride; in the last couple years, Val Venis and D’Lo Brown are good examples of the former (remember their great match for the Euro title back at SummerSlam 1998? Sorry, neither here nor there, just one of my cult favorites ), Edge and Test, who are only know coming into their own after so many false starts exemplify the latter. But this was not supposed to happen to Chris Jericho; this was the one guy who was not going to have to spend years “making a living off of potential.”

When Chris Jericho jumped to the WWF in 1999, smart fans rejoiced and celebrated the first of many stars who were “liberated” from the gulag of WCW (Benoit and his chums were on the horizon, both literally probably as well as in the minds of most smarts). Jericho was one of the few bright spots for smart fans watching WCW in 1998, as his over-the-top heel act entertained as WCW was in the first stages of its ego-driven self-destruction. However, smart fans screamed foul as Jericho was wasted in the mid-card and would never be elevated to take on the Hogans and the Goldbergs. Fans were sure once Jericho made it to the WWF, where entertainment ruled, he would be a star, a World champion within a year. It’s been two years, no World title. That was a little sample; let’s take a closer look

Chris Irvine, a creative young Canadian with a degree in journalism, athleticism in his blood (his father was an NHL hockey player), and a wild imagination; pro wrestling seemed to be the perfect venue for him. Irvine, who quickly rechristened himself Jericho, enrolled in the legendary Stu Hart’s “Dungeon,” along with distinguished alumni Chris Benoit and Lance Storm. Though Jericho learned to be a great wrestler in the style of the classic chain wrestlers of the past, but Jericho possessed a natural charisma that his peers did not. He might not have had quite the perfect grasp of the science that Benoit or Storm did, but he had enough, and he had superior agility, speed, and personality to boot. From practically the minute he stepped out of the Dungeon, Jericho was pegged as a future World champion.

Jericho never forgot his roots in the depths of the Dungeon, but given his nature, knew that learning the high-flying styles of the Japanese, as well as the colorful style of lucha libre would benefit him greatly in later years. He worked in Mexico as well as in Japan’s WAR promotion (initiating a long, international feud with Gedo), incorporating new elements into an already exciting style. Overseas, Jericho, wrestling in the junior-heavyweight divisions, played (as most foreigners do) the role of the heel, one he felt quite comfortable in. However, when he competed as one half of the Thrillseekers tag team with Storm in Jim Cornette’s SMW promotion back in the States in the mid-nineties, his good looks and flowing blond hair made him a natural fan favorite, giving wrestling’s attitude at the time.

Paul Heyman was the first “big time” promoter to see Jericho’s potential, and signed him away from SMW, bringing him to ECW in late 1995. Again, Jericho was booked as a babyface, and was not initially well-liked by the hardcore ECW fans, who cared little for the blond haired boy more capable of executing a Boston crab or a hurracanrana than swing a chair of put somebody through a table. In one of the most unappreciated accomplishments of his career (something rarely mentioned today), Jericho won over the most fickle fans in the world on pure athletic skill and great matches with Sabu, Taz, 2 Cold Scorpio and others, even winning the TV title for a brief period in the summer of 1996. In retrospect, it serves as a reminder to the critics who today peg Jericho as a guy who can only talk, people who have not followed wrestling for years and have only seen Jericho in his comedy role, that the man is much much more.

It was a three way match between Jericho, Konnan, and Bam Bam Bigelow at 1996’s World Wrestling Peace Festival that earned Jericho the attention of WCW head Eric Bischoff. Constantly looking to augment his Cruiserweight division, Bischoff approached and signed Jericho almost immediately. At the time (still the summer of 1996), the WCW Cruiserweight division consisted of luchadores, Japanese wrestlers, and the methodical Dean Malenko. Though the fans loved the high-flying antics of Rey Misterio Jr. and the like, their language problems always presented a hurdle as far as becoming top babyfaces. Malenko was a great technical wrestler and a decent, if underrated, interview, but was best suited to play the emotionless heel. Guys like Benoit and Eddy Guererro were already competing in the heavyweight division. In Jericho, Bischoff saw the surface: the pretty boy good looks and demeanor, and though he had the perfect cruiserweight babyface for the fans to rally around.

The wrestling business was changing circa-1996, and even Eric Bischoff, the pioneer of the revolutionary nWo concept, could not see it. Virtuous babyfaces, the likes of Bret Hart and Hulk Hogan, were no longer the fan favorites, it was the bad asses like Steve Austin and The Outsiders, who took no crap from anybody who were getting the cheers. Jericho went to the extreme in his babyface role, yelling enthusiastically, backing into the fans prior to matches and letting them pat him on the back, and in his debut match with Alex Wright on Nitro in the fall of 1996, refusing to accept a win when Wright was injured mid-match. The fans appreciated Jericho’s athletic abilities, just as they had in ECW, but the hyped up super-babyface act was too much; Jericho was most definitely not the alpha babyface of the cruiserweight division Bischoff had in mind.

With the fans not accepting him, Jericho fell into the same unfortunate position as so many others in the overpopulated talent pool of the mid-90s WCW: he was placed in the mid-card, on the syndicated programs, and forgotten. Eric Bischoff had at times a very one track mind, and very short memory; he was focused primarily on the nWo angle, and as Jericho had not done what he expected, Bischoff was content to leave the cruiserweights to Misterio and Malenko.

Jericho did at the very least get to showcase his skills on pay per view, albeit in mostly losses. He dropped a fantastic, physical match to Benoit at Fall Brawl ’96 (a preview of things to come far later), and a decent high-flying showdown to Syxx (previously the 1-2-3 Kid and later X-Pac) at Halloween Havoc ’96. Jericho shined briefly in a feud with nWo referee Nick Patrick, culminating with a win over the ref with one arm tied behind his back at World War III ’96, but despite the personality Jericho got to show, he had the stigmas of a brief association with Teddy Long (“the manager of losers”), and the fact that the only guy he could beat was a referee. He was left off of the 1996 Starrcade card and by Souled Out ’97 was getting annihilated by Japanese import Masa Chono.

The winter and spring of 1997 were beyond unmemorable for Jericho as he was trapped on the mid-card treadmill, getting only one pay per view match (a decent match he dropped to U.S. champion Guererro at Superbrawl VII), and actually falling even further out of favor with the fans. Jericho’s schedule for the most part consisted of working the syndicated shows and had to be questioning how his bright future had tanked so quickly. Knowing what we know today of Jericho and his ambition (see 1998 once again), I wouldn’t be surprised if Jericho was already developing a character that would save his career and just waiting for the right time to unleash him.

Apparently Bischoff just had a ten month bout of memory loss (or was just more concerned with keeping certain other, bigger, blond guys happy), but when Cruiserweight champion Syxx was needed for other angles (most notably a feud with Ric Flair), Bischoff went back to his original plan and gave the belt to Jericho in the Summer of ’97. Jericho made the absolute most of the opportunity, using every ounce of athletic ability he possessed to put on spectacular matches with the likes of Guererro, Ultimo Dragon, and Alex Wright (with whom he traded the title back and forth), but this was not ECW; the matches were shorter and the fans though easier to please in some respects, did not appreciate athleticism and were trained for shorter, more spot-filled matches. Jericho’s persona was still dragging him down to depths his athletic ability could not pull him out of and it was time for a big-time change.

Jericho dropped the Cruiserweight title to Guererro at Fall Brawl ’97, and one can only speculate that as he returned to mid-card hell for the next several months, the seeds of development for his new heel character were already in his head, even if Bischoff had no idea. At the very least, the fallout of Jericho’s CW title reign had made him a “former champion” and thus big enough to do jobs on Nitro and Thunder to the likes of Scott Hall and others. This provided Jericho with the stage he needed, and he brought the goods.

The changes were subtle at first, but as Jericho had been complacent to a fault in his year in WCW, they were noticeable. Jericho’s character became a little more unorthodox, wearing his hair in strange ways, delivering interviews in which he intentionally mispronounced the names of his opponents, and other little touches; the backing into the arms of the fans was gone along. The next step was to slowly paint the picture of a man who had taken too much and was on the verge of snapping; following losses to bigger stars (I remember Curt Hennig and Ric Flair most distinctly), Jericho would throw uncharacteristic temper tantrums and on occasion even attack referee David Penzer. What made the character work so well was that the next week, Jericho would always apologize to Penzer and the fans and seemingly go back to being “himself ” until the next loss.

It might have worked so well because it really did mirror reality, but Jericho was doing a great job portraying a man who was trying to be the good guy, but failing and slowly snapping because of it. Even the nWo-centric announcers were amused by Jericho’s funny act and gave it plenty of attention. Bischoff himself took notice and threw Jericho back into the Cruiserweight mix (it should be noted that I am really just speculating that Jericho and not Bischoff came up with the changes to Jericho’s character, the opposite could be true; in likelihood, it was probably Jericho and several others with Bischoff’s approval). Jericho cheated to defeat Juventud Guererra for the right to wrestle Cruiserweight champion Misterio at Souled Out ’98, but completely acted as if he had done nothing wrong and was still a babyface, looking forward to a good scientific contest with Misterio at Souled Out.

The babyface pretense was finally dropped altogether after Jericho beat Misterio for his second Cruiserweight title at Souled Out and then viciously attacked the popular luchador’s knee with a toolbox, putting him out of action. The following month at Superbrawl VIII, Jericho defeated and humiliated Guererra in a title vs mask match. Jericho took to wearing Guererra’s mask during some matches, as well as a Misterio t-shirt. Never did Jericho drop the mentally unbalanced act, still believing himself to be a virtuous hero (referring to himself as a role model and “Paragon of Virtue”) while blatantly cheating and plotting, only reneging once he was caught. Jericho was also tweaking his hair and ring style, and working the mic like a pro. He was by far the most interesting character in an increasingly stale WCW.

The crown jewel of Chris Jericho’s WCW heel career was his spring/summer 1998 feud with Malenko. Jericho cleanly defeated Malenko at Uncensored ’98 and as a result, a frustrated Malenko went on leave from WCW. Jericho used this to showcase his microphone skills as cement himself as the most nefarious of heels. Jericho was verbally relentless, attacking Malenko’s resolve, his courage, and most daringly of all his deceased father the legendary Boris Malenko. Malenko had always straddled the heel/face fence his WCW career, not demonstrating much personality any way, but now every time Jericho even mentioned Malenko’s name on television, the cheers poured in, simply by virtue of Jericho’s interview abilities. Jericho was getting his share of cheers as well from the fans who found him cool and amusing, but he always made sure to throw enough insults into his pre-match spiels to draw the all important boos again by the end of the night, not needing to be a “cool” heel like Scott Hall or Kevin Nash.

The pay-off for the Malenko feud came when Malenko returned after a two month sabbatical under a mask to win a Cruiserweight battle royal at Slamboree ’98 and then immediately afterwards defeat Jericho who after months of scheming had at last been outsmarted. The fans loved it and Malenko was more over than ever. Jericho, however, was even more over, and Bischoff was reluctant to take the Cruiserweight title away from him, and at the same time balked at moving him into the heavyweight division. The title was stripped from Malenko when Jericho brought a loophole to the attention of WCW Commissioner J.J. Dillon (leading to a classic series of vignettes featuring Jericho in the halls of Congress). Jericho won a rematch for the vacant title at the Great American Bash ’98 when Malenko lost his cool and got disqualified.

Jericho and Malenko were scheduled to do battle once more at Bash at the Beach ’98, but Malenko got suspended, bringing in a returning Misterio who beat Jericho with Malenko’s help. The next night, Jericho again got the decision reversed due to Malenko’s interference, and spent the rest of the summer ducking both men. The fans finally got to see Jericho get his after eight months of wreaking havoc at Road Wild ’98 when Malenko refereed a match between Jericho and Guererra, the man whose mask Jericho had taken and embarrassed and helped the luchador get the win. In reality, Bischoff had finally given in to fan reaction and moved Jericho up in the ranks.

The night following Road Wild, Jericho came out of nowhere to defeat the three hundred plus pound Stevie Ray for the Television title. But Jericho had higher aspirations than simply the TV title, as in some of the more amusing segments of fall of ’98 Jericho attempted to bate World champion Bill Goldberg into a match. The ridiculously overmatched Jericho defeated a Goldberg midget, claimed a win by countout when Goldberg wasn’t in the building and continued to promote a non-existent streak of victories over the popular World champion. Fans ate the angle up with a spoon and anxiously awaited the blow off in which Goldberg would take Jericho apart but it never came. Goldberg made it clear backstage that Jericho was too small and he did not want to work an actual match with him. Jericho was more than willing to get completely squashed by Goldberg in order to give the fans what they wanted to see, but Goldberg would have none of it. This was Jericho’s first real taste of backstage politics, and he didn’t like it one bit.

No longer a nobody in WCW, Jericho was now one of the federation’s most popular/reviled stars, and he would not be content to remain in the mid-card forever. WCW was infamous for older, bigger guys dominating the main event while the younger, smaller, more athletic guys inhabited the mid-card, but that wasn’t good enough for Jericho, who had worked hard to build his character and did not have any desire for it to languish in obscurity. Jericho dropped the TV title to Konnan in December of 1998, lost a rematch at Starrcade, and immediately the rumors started flooding the internet that Jericho’s contract was up and he would be leaving for the WWF immediately.

In reality, Jericho’s contract extended until spring of 1999, but following one last memorable feud with Perry Saturn in the early months of the year, Jericho made his intent to jump ship clear. Jericho lucked out somewhat, injuring his ankle in April of ’99 and sitting out the remainder of his contract rather than job out to the entire WCW roster. Smart fans were chomping at the bit as they had suffered through Jericho being held down by WCW right along with him, and knew that if he could break out in the WWF there would be hope and inspiration for all the other WCW “prisoners.”

The anticipation for Jericho’s summer ’99 WWF debut was unprecedented and nobody disappointed. For weeks the WWF had an unexplained “Countdown to the Millennium” counter that would eventually lead to the birth of Jericho’s newest incarnation: Y2J. During an interview with no less than the WWF’s biggest star, The Rock, the countdown concluded, and Jericho made his grand entrance, with an incredible visual display he still uses today giving perhaps the most brilliant interview of his career, starting with the fans clearly on his side, and then in the course of five minutes turning them against him by running down The Rock and the WWF. The Rock got the last word, but the message was clear: unlike WCW, the WWF considered Jericho main event material.

Though they had every intention of putting Jericho in the main event picture eventually, the WWF wanted him to pay his dues first and programmed him in feuds with Road Dogg, Ken Shamrock, and X-Pac that cooled much of his initial heat. A failed attempt at giving him a bodyguard in Curtis Hughes (who between Y2J and HHH was the worst bodyguard record in WWF history) didn’t help either. What can be looked at as either the final nail in the coffin, or the first step to better days, was when Jericho lost to female Intercontinental champion Chyna at Survivor Series ’99. Jericho won over the smart fans even more by basically carrying Chyna through a half-decent match and also got over with the growing number of marks who did not take kindly to having a woman as Intercontinental champion, but at the same time made a very powerful backstage enemy in Chyna’s then real life boyfriend and WWF champion HHH for allegedly working too stiff.

After a short time building Jericho as a crafty “mastermind” heel (he broke Chyna’s thumb with a hammer in a dark room and then played some still unspecified part in turning Al Snow against Mick Foley), the WWF did a 180 and gave into the fans, turning Jericho babyface, and giving him the IC title, as well as Chyna as a valet (this was particularly contrived and explained away with the old “mutual respect” thing). Despite the fact that the WWF had completely mishandled him up to this point with erratic booking all over the place, Jericho was still massively over with both the mark and smart fans. To help get another newcomer, Kurt Angle, over, the WWF had Y2J drop the IC title to him at No Way Out ’00, planning to build to a revenge match at Wrestlemania 2000. Then things took a turn for the worse however, as some old friends of Jericho’s showed up, and he was not exactly pleased to see them.

In January of 2000, Jericho’s old WCW rivals Benoit, Guererro, Malenko, and Saturn all jumped to the WWF following contract disputes with WCW. Though fans rejoiced at these new additions to the WWF, Jericho, among others (most notably Tazz), suffered greatly as the newcomers had to be given a share of the spotlight he had been promised. Benoit was programmed into the Jericho-Angle feud and won the IC title in a three-way match at Wrestlemania. Jericho was given Angle’s European title as consolation in the same match, but dropped it to Guererro the next night on RAW. An intriguing Jericho-Guererro feud, in which Chyna left the former for the latter, played out for several weeks on RAW, but was then dropped.

The WWF decided to give Y2J a shot at the big time, and did it by having him get into a verbal confrontation with Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley, on-screen wife of HHH and daughter of WWF owner Vince McMahon. Y2J’s insults of Stephanie (which continue to this day) led to an impromptu match with HHH on RAW that saw Jericho unexpectedly win the World title. The title change was never meant to be anything more than a test of how over Jericho was, and thus the win was wiped out by the end of the show (and is not recognized by the WWF as having happened), but fan response was tremendous. However, The Rock was still the WWF’s top babyface at the time, and was destined to win the World title from HHH, so Y2J would just have to sit back and wait his turn.

While he was “waiting his turn,” Jericho went out and put on a mind-numbing series of matches with Benoit that proved he still had the athletic skills as well as the personality. At Fully Loaded 2000, Jericho faced a title-less HHH in a Last Man Standing match; the feud had been beautifully built and the match was tremendous, but HHH went over clean, doing little to help Y2J’s standing. The WWF wanted to focus on The Rock, and beyond him HHH, Angle, and the eventually returning Steve Austin; the highly touted pickup of 1999 was being quickly forgotten.

While they didn’t want him in the World title picture, Y2J was still receiving crowd pops too big to ignore, so the WWF put him over X-Pac and Kane in pay per view matches to establish him as “king of the mid-card,” but really all it did was move him further and further away from main event status. At Royal Rumble 2001, Jericho again faced IC champion Benoit in a show-stealing ladder match and won the title, the WWF’s attempt to keep Jericho visible and the fans happy but not giving him the big prize. For the next couple months, Jericho worked programs with Benoit, Guererro, X-Pac, and William Regal, not losing any momentum, but not losing any either, stuck in a state of flux.

Change finally came Y2J’s way in spring of 2001, after he concluded his feud with Regal and dropped the IC title to HHH. Y2J’s loss to HHH was part of a plan to establish HHH and the newly heel turned World champ Austin as the most dominant faction in the WWF, as they won the Tag Team titles soon after. However, with The Rock shooting a movie, and Angle still a heel, the WWF needed some fresh babyface meat to feud with Austin & HHH, and Jericho was finally given his shot. Jericho was actually teamed with his old rival, newly face turned Benoit, and they upset the Austin/HHH team to win the tag titles in May of 2001. Unfortunately, HHH suffered a bad injury during the match, screwing up the booking plans a bit, but Jericho & Benoit proved to be extremely over as underdogs and the fans loved it.

Unfortunately for Y2J and Benoit, though the fans were reacting well to them, the ratings were slipping, and having just made the unprecedented move of buying WCW, Vince McMahon decided that an Austin-Benoit-Jericho three way for the World title at King of the Ring 2001 would simply be filler until he could start the WCW Invasion angle. To make matters worse, Benoit was injured during the match, leaving Y2J without a partner.

In the last few months, Y2J has been one of the WWF’s “big name” players, feuding with Alliance members Rhyno and Rob Van Dam and getting his share of wins. Recently however, the WWF has been playing up Jericho’s “inability to win the big ones” and have moved him into an intense face vs face program with WCW champion The Rock that will culminate at No Mercy 2001. The feud has been fantastic, and it appears Y2J has once again refined himself, losing some of the comedic edge and throwing in a bit more of a man desperate to succeed and prove himself. This may indeed be Jericho’s last shot at making that climb to the next level, but will he succeed at long last? Let’s take a closer look

THE MARK: The WWF marks love Chris Jericho and their continued pops are what have kept him near the top of the WWF his entire run. His flashy persona and look coupled with spectacular entrance always garner him solid pops, and his wit keeps them coming. Jericho is also a solid (if recently repetitive) in-ring performer who knows to draw the fans into his matches. No matter what WCW or the WWF have done to Jericho, the marks have always stood behind him.

THE SMART: Sadly, while smarts tend to be fiercely loyal to their Benoits and Guererros, Jericho seems to have become the forsaken child of the family. At some point whether it was because he became stale and repetitive in their eyes, or because they got tired of waiting for the push to come, the smarts gave up on Chris Jericho. This is especially sad given the level of excitement the internet had back during all of 1998 and 1999, but understandable at the same time. To their credit, the smarts have leapt up and cheered for this latest attempt to do something with Jericho, showing they never forgot about him entirely.

And finally

THE MEAN: This is tough for me to write, especially as Y2J was the first guy since Shawn Michaels I ever called my “favorite wrestler,” but time is running out on Y2J; not because he’s an old man, but because he’s reaching that point where if he doesn’t ascend to the next level soon, he’ going to be stuck forever, and I’m not sure how confident I am. The problem arises from the characters Y2J has played in the past and why none of them can really get him to the main event. The bland babyface was not the real Jericho, so that can be dismissed. The comedic heel was fine for a bit, but no comedy act, no matter how funny, wins World titles. Same thing goes for the comedic babyface. Jericho clearly must learn to be able to play a serious character while keeping the comedic showmanship that has made him a star, something few people outside of The Rock have ever done successfully (HHH more or less dropped the comedy when he became a true star; ditto for HBK). This brings us to the all-important question: face or heel? The consensus seems to be that Jericho always worked best as a heel and has grown stale as a face, so bad is the way to go; I disagree. Jericho was fine as a heel when he was competing against Cruiserweights, but at his size, nobody is going to buy him as a legitimate heel threat to he likes of The Rock and HHH. Y2J has that underdog look about him that a heel simply can’t have; I do not think he will thrive as a heel. A few months back (I think around Wrestlemania), Michael Cole of all people referred to Jericho as a “vigilante,” and for some reason that just struck me as perfect. I think the character that Jericho needs to adapt is one of the guy who is too small to go out there and threaten people, but who picks his shots and isn’t afraid to stand his ground. He needs to be a face with an edge, a character he seems to have been slowly developing since his feud with HHH; it’s time to pull the trigger all the way.

There is no way somebody with the charismatic-athletic skills of Chris Jericho should go his entire career without holding a World title. If there’s one thing you can say about Y2J, it’s that he has not been adverse to change over the course of his career, and is willing to adapt into whatever and whoever will help him succeed. The ball is really in the WWF’s court as they have a tremendous performer who they need to find a place for. The WWF is extremely talent heavy right now, but if his feud with The Rock has shown us anything, it’s that the fans want Y2J to move up, both in the arenas and on the internet. It’s time for Chris Jericho to stop “making a living off of potential” and it’s time for the WWF to help him do it. Is it finally time for the potential to be shed and the star to emerge? We’re going to see very very soon once and for all.

In the mean time, thanks for reading.