Chris Jericho defends his All Elite Wrestling world title this Saturday against Cody Rhodes at the “Full Gear” pay-per-view in Baltimore.
Jericho has provided name value and exposure to the AEW brand, capitalizing on his notoriety. He has worked to put a spotlight on new talent in the company, including the members of his “Inner Circle” stable, specifically Sammy Guevara, as well as with some of the challengers for his title, like Darby Allin.
Jericho spoke with Sports Illustrated one day before Full Gear to share his philosophy on the business, He discussed whether there are any connections between his heel faction and the NWO, what separates AEW from WWE, and shared his respect for Cody Rhodes, who has excelled in his role as lead babyface for the company.
Justin Barrasso: Outward confidence has never been an issue for you in wrestling. Key parts of your success are being able to connect with the audience, a skill you have harnessed for decades across top promotions in the United States, Mexico, and Japan. But, until now, you never had the opportunity to build a major company from its origin.
You have done a tremendous job building AEW. You’re 48 years old today, turning 49 tomorrow. Were you at all cautious about leading a new promotion, and did you encounter any doubts along the way?
Chris Jericho: I never had any doubts. I know who I am as a performer. Whether you’re 29, 39, 49, or anywhere in between, you either know what you’re doing or you don’t. You need to adapt and evolve, which is what I’ve done to stay on top. Chris Jericho in 2019 might be the biggest in name value and in prominence that I’ve been. That’s because I was smart enough to evolve when the time was right.
Whenever I thought something was getting stale, I changed. Sometimes I’d change before it grew stale. When I left WWE in 2017 right after working with Kevin Owens, people asked, ‘Why would you leave? You’re so popular.’ But I could see the writing on the wall. Two, three months from that point, I’d just be another guy. And ‘The List’ would just be another thing. I could see that happening before it happened, so I wasn’t worried about my role in AEW.
I knew I’d need to be a bridge to get people to watch the show. Outside of the bubble of hardcore wrestling fans, you have a whole country full of people who hadn’t seen the Young Bucks on TV or Kenny Omega. They didn’t know Adam “Hangman” Page, and they hadn’t seen the new-and-improved Cody Rhodes. The last time some people saw him was when he was Stardust. But they knew Chris Jericho and appreciate the work that I’ve done, so they were willing to check out AEW. Now they get to see this entire roster of great performers. That was my vision. I knew I needed to get new guys over and make stars very quickly. We’ve had new stars emerging in the first three weeks, especially with Cody, who is now the top babyface in the company. I think that surprised a lot of people that now love him.
You can’t teach experience, you can’t teach moxie. So I knew, and still know, my job: continue to bring AEW to the masses. The best way to do that, at this time, is by having Chris Jericho as champion. Obviously, that might be different a few months from now, but it’s the right decision for the company right now. Everything has worked out exactly the way it had to make AEW where we are today, which is the hottest wrestling promotion and the coolest wrestling promotion in the world today.
JB: The crowd reactions at the weekly Dynamite shows are incredibly loud, especially during your segments with Cody Rhodes. Few in this business have ever been better at working the crowd than Hulk Hogan, who you saw lead the NWO in WCW. You’re currently leading wrestling’s hottest heel faction; are you using lessons you learned from “Hollywood” Hogan?
CJ: The NWO worked because Hogan was the catalyst, but the original crux of NWO was made of big name, legit stars. You had Hall and Nash, who were huge stars in their own right, and Hogan, who, at the time, was the biggest name in the business. The difference with us in The Inner Circle is, it’s Jericho and four young guys that haven’t yet reached their potential as main event stars. Now they are. Hulk definitely played the heel, as I do, but the difference is I can still have great matches, too. Any given night, a Jericho match can be considered the best match of the night. So that’s another difference—Hogan was never known as a great performer in the ring; he knew how to get the audience. He was a great worker. Jericho is a great worker and a great wrestler, combined with knowing how to get that heat and get guys over.
There is some NWO in there, which happens any time you put together a heel faction. Any comparisons between Jericho and Hulk Hogan in the NWO begin and end with knowing how to get heel heat. In the ring, it’s a different story. That was one of the things that was great, and not so great, about WCW. The NWO was so huge and made so much money, but whenever it came down to the actual matches in the ring, they were never that great. I think everyone could see that, even Hogan and Piper and the other guys, as well. We can go out there and have great matches, and get the heat—and get guys over. It’s very beneficial for the company to have The Inner Circle. It’s something we discussed, but you never know how it’s going to turn out. But from the formation to now, every guy has gone above and beyond to become a bigger star. The look of the Circle is exactly what I wanted. The names are exactly who I wanted, and the attitude is exactly what I wanted. The vision came together perfectly, which doesn’t always happen.
JB: You mentioned the Hogan-Piper storyline, which people cared about so intensely because of the audience was so invested in those two performers. Cody Rhodes and Chris Jericho now have that same task on Saturday at the Full Gear pay-per-view, but the great unknown was how Cody would fare as the promotion’s top babyface. I know his promo this week was outstanding, but so has the build to this match. You’ve accomplished this in six weeks, which is remarkable.
You’ve worked atop the card as both a heel and a babyface. What has impressed you most about Cody’s work in the build to Full Gear?
CJ: Cody, like myself, we both walked away from WWE. It wasn’t a bitter way or a sad way, but it offered a chance to do more. For me, following my WWE run in 2017 with Kevin Owens, that was one of the best moments of my career. So to be put on second at WrestleMania, that told me I had to leave. I couldn’t stay. We had the best story on the show and we went second. I’d rather go first. Second is a throwaway position, so it didn’t matter what I did there, but I knew I could do more. So I went to New Japan and became their top draw, and taking that to AEW was the next natural step. I walked away from WWE knowing I could do more in the main event, money-drawing role.
Cody walked away from WWE to do more than what he was doing. He was not happy just being there. To see his growth and how he’s embraced his character, inside and out of the ring, connecting with the audience, he’s really stealing the show. He’s now becoming what he always thought he could be—a major player. I appreciate that and I respect it.
One thing I love about the whole AEW roster, this isn’t a bunch of WWE castoffs. Guys chose to leave and chose not to go. Jake Hager did the same, he walked away. Jon Moxley walked away. The Young Bucks, Kenny, Hangman, they never went to WWE even though they were offered great deals. They knew they could do better outside of that system, and that’s why people are relating to AEW. People are believing in themselves, and that’s the attitude that has permeated throughout the whole company and with the fans, too.
When you think about the Full Gear match between Jericho against Cody, you have a great babyface that people believe in. You can believe in Cody. He is genuine, there is a lineage, the family connections, and he’s up against a great heel that knows how to get under people’s skin. Maybe I’m entertaining, but people still want me to lose.
You can’t beat the story or the build we’ve done the past six weeks to Jericho-Rhodes. It’s one of the best storylines I’ve ever been in. Every week we’ve done something different that stood out and was classic. Now it’s the fun part of having the match, and nobody knows who’s going to win. You might say, ‘Well, no one knows who’s going to win any of the matches,’ but as a fan, you know. There is a lot at stake here.
JB: You have an unreal track record, especially recently, to create trends and popular catchphrases in wrestling. “Le Champion” and “A little bit of the bubbly” have echoed throughout the business since you delivered the phrases. Are you surprised that you’re still able to connect so well with the audience?
CJ: Nothing surprises me at this point. You just never know what people are going to connect with. The thing that I’m good about is seeing the lightning get caught in a bottle. When I said “A little bit of the bubbly,” it was a throwaway line. I never once thought anyone would say it again or think about it. It’s a Dumb and Dumber line from Jim Carrey that always made me laugh, that he says right before they kill the owl with the champagne bottle cork when they’re wearing the orange and blue tuxedos. I just thought that would be funny.
The idea was to walk into the dressing room after I won the title and enjoy the spread they had for me, and it was like the worst spread ever. It was a deli tray and one bottle of champagne. It was so stupid that I had to acknowledge it and make a joke of it or else it would look really dumb, so I did a Spinal Tap bit with the olive and then ‘A little bit of the bubbly,’ and then moved on. Now someone made a video of ‘Mambo Number 5’ and replaced it with ‘a little bit of the bubbly.’ So I reposted it, because when there’s smoke, there’s fire. People made all these super creative, amazing gifs and memes. It became viral and something no one ever expected. We had the highest selling tee in Pro Wrestling Tees history. So when you see it coming, you embrace it.
Now we have a new catchphrase, and I love it. Thankfully, people don’t ask me about ‘The List’ anymore—they ask me about the bubbly.
JB: Does it matter if you and Cody close the show with your match at Full Gear, or is going last not what makes a match the headliner?
CJ: It doesn’t matter to me if we go last. I learned this with my Hangman Page match [at “All Out”]. We had a great match, but it was on after the Lucha Bros. and Young Bucks had this crazy ladder match. I can follow any match in the world, I’m not worried about that, but let’s give every match its due. When you have a stunt show match and then go on for a classic world title match, maybe that wasn’t the right way to do it. Maybe the ladder match should have been on first.
With Moxley and Kenny doing the lights-out, barbed wire broom, and all this other stuff, I’m not sure if they’re going to put us on last or before that match. Either way, it’s going to be great, but when you have a match with all those props and weapons, it might be better for us to go on right before it.
It doesn’t matter. It’s a double main event. And this is the match people are paying to see, so let’s put it on when people have the most focus and before they’re burnt out from table bumps and barbed wire brooms. Either way, I’m cool with it, but it’s something we’ll decide when we get to the venue tomorrow.
JB: Looking forward, you have a Wrestle Kingdom match against Hiroshi Tanahashi as well coming up in January with NJPW. Should we expect the AEW world title to follow you wherever you go?
CJ: That’s the idea, right? I don’t plan on losing it any time soon. You never know what’s going to happen or what stories we’re going to tell, but whether I have the title or not, I’m still ‘Le Champion.’ It was a smart move to put the belt on Chris Jericho right off the bat, and it will be a smart move for me to keep it. I’m still the biggest star in the company. I’m still the best performer in the company. And there are a lot of surprises and bumps and bits along the way.