Though it may leave the purists feeling sad, outraged and occasionally lachrymose, there remains only one way to define absolute success in professional wrestling. Super-worker Curt Hennig never became a world champion (of note) for this very reason. Conversely, noted hack John Cena will always be a champion of some description for the simple fact that he remains on the prosperous side of life’s most prevalent pursuit: the acquisition of wealth. The undeniable ability to put bums on seats and shift oodles of disposable nylon garbage – bearing your employer’s logo – is what separates Hennig and Cena. It is also the only way a champion’s true worth can be gauged.
Here in ladies and gentlemen, lies my fundamental lack of trust in Chris Jericho. Though an occasionally brilliant performer, Jericho has never, EEEVVVERRR, been a box-office draw. Jericho has always been his own loudest fan, and if you happen to listen to him you’d conclude he was an all-time great who blazed a trail for smaller heavyweights everywhere. Naturally, the truth is altogether more complicated than that.
Chris Jericho first got himself over – as a wrestler – in ECW in 1996. A capable, young and dynamic performer, Jericho displayed flashes of his hitherto undiscovered personality in matches against the likes of 2 Cold Scorpio, Cactus Jack and Taz (well, sort of), and his burgeoning skills saw him headhunted by an occasionally prescient Eric Bischoff and World championship Wrestling. In WCW, Jericho was just another smiling babyface, until a spate of unedifying tantrums became the platform for his This Is Spinal Tap! inspired transformation into the preening heel character that saw him labelled a “future star”.
WCW undoubtedly squandered Jericho’s potential. At a time when new, exciting characters were desperately required, Lionheart was allowed to repeatedly bang his pineapple-shaped cranium against the NWO/Goldberg-flavoured glass ceiling. Ironically, a Jericho ratings triumph occurred in this period. WCW Nitro enjoyed a very high quarter for a segment featuring the brash and cowardly Jericho receiving his spear-assisted comeuppance from an irate Goldberg after weeks of goading. Though a positively electrifying segment, WCW declined to explore the possibility of a Goldberg/Jericho feud, and a disheartened Jericho quit WCW (for the WWF) a year later.
Jericho’s eleven-year association with WWF/WWE has yielded numerous peaks, some hefty troughs and a two-year layoff that only served to underline Jericho’s lack of mainstream credibility. Upon his initial arrival he took a considerable while to formulate any momentum. The WWF enjoyed a company banner year in two-thousand, and the exciting, massively popular Y2J was a useful component in the continued successes of the Attitude boom. Alas, Vince McMahon was at least partially correct in his initial assessment of Jericho. The usual height and weight-based misgivings notwithstanding, Vince felt Jericho was an inconsistent and occasionally clumsy performer and, as a character, lacked a genuine edge.
Throughout his celebrated 2000-01 babyface run, Jericho maintained immense popularity and was – more often than not – excellent in the ring when sufficiently motivated. The problem was Jericho became lodged in something of a creative rut. His ring attire, haircut, mannerisms and wrestling style remained essentially unchanged from the end of 1997 right through to his first WWE exit in 2005. That is an incredibly long time to be portraying a character that was in the first place based on a dated 80’s reference. As the pops waned or the jeers lessened, the man behind the character refused to evolve. Though his in-ring contributions remained very consistent, his character became repetitive and boring.
Supporters of Jericho (and the man himself) have long claimed Jericho is a major star, more often than not denied the right to prosper in the true main event environment. Prior to his elevation to the world title, Jericho had been given the opportunity to shine against the big boys, and to his personal credit he invariably rose to the occasion. However, Jericho’s propensity for inconsistency diluted the impact of his work. The two sides of Chris Jericho were neatly encapsulated by two performances in October and November of 2001. Against the Rock at No Mercy, Jericho entered a world class performance en route to capturing the WCW world crown. The following month at Survivor Series, he was a total liability in a match featuring Steve Austin, Kurt Angle and Rob Van Dam amongst his opponents. Watch Angle waffle Jericho with a hard clothesline after one screw-up too many…
Ultimately, the collected history of Chris Jericho in WWE is unimportant. He remains popular and trustworthy in the ring, and his much-needed character overhaul in 2008 was extremely engaging and added much needed layers (and vitality) to a dated, two dimensional persona. However, the crux of the issue is found in the feelings of surprise and bewilderment that greeted Jericho’s surprise elevation to champion in September of that year. The booking was not the problem. On the contrary: his becoming champion was a pleasant and altogether logical development; the aforementioned surprise being felt by those familiar with the numbers during Jericho’s reign as Undisputed Champion from December 2001 to March 2002.
Here in lies the Chris Jericho conundrum. When given the ball, he’s always fumbled. Though the failure of the Invasion saga (and the fans subsequent dissatisfaction) must shoulder much of the blame, Chris Jericho was a monumental failure as world champion. Every aspect of business went into decline during his title reign. Wrestlemania XVIII (X-8) was the poorest drawing ‘Mania in years and ratings for Raw and Smackdown began what was to be an inexorable slide. Most damningly of all, Jericho’s in-ring performances became wildly inconsistent. Buckling under the pressure of being champion, Jericho floundered and lost all perspective on his character. He started to resemble a screeching human pantomime, and by the time Mr & Mrs HHH were finished with him, he wouldn’t be trusted with a world title for another six years.
To those reading, please do not see this piece as a capricious assault on Chris Jericho’s record. He was (and is) a valuable, passionate and loyal performer with many – albeit self-indulgent – strings to his, um, guitar. I merely seek to infer Jericho’s worth as a consummate example of moneymaking dominating all other considerations in wrestling. It doesn’t matter that he’s participated in scores of excellent matches or paid a lifetime’s worth of dues; his financial track record simply does not stand up to scrutiny. His short, transitional title reign in late 2008 was another washout. As Jericho cut yet another monotonous promo utilising the word “parasite” ad nauseam, fans switched off in droves. Raw would go on to draw some of its lowest ratings in years with Jericho on top.
If Jericho and his supporters want to enquire as to why Chris has only managed such a meagre number of title reigns, the reason is very, very simple: he is box-office poison, and judging from the rapid decline in ratings for his Downfall game show, that little holiday he’s apparently planning to take when his contract expires shortly might be just that: a holiday. Oh well. When he calls time on his latest mainstream incarnation as America’s answer to Bradley Walsh (after trying to reinvent himself at various times as an author, radio host and rock star) there will always be that third, monstrous entrance pop from grateful wrestling fans. Except, he won’t be saving us. We’ll be saving him.
Daniel R. Browne.