Chris Jericho’s Constant Evolution Has Him Back at the Tokyo Dome for Wrestle Kingdom

The Week in Wrestling: Chris Jericho explains the thinking behind his ever-changing personae. “If you like something I do, you better enjoy it. When it’s done, it’s done.”
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Back in 1972, in his “Garden Party” song, popular musician Ricky Nelson sang the famed lyrics, “But if memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck.”

Nearly 50 years after the release of Nelson’s hit, the message still resonates with Chris Jericho.

Jericho, the ultimate rock and roll front man in the world of pro wrestling, has amassed an entire album full of classics, yet he refuses to make a living off playing his greatest hits.

“I have a great list of hits, but a lot of those will never be played again because I’m too busy concentrating on new hits and performing at the highest level,” said Jericho. “It’s hard to leave all the old gimmicks and catchphrases, and take a chance, but if you don’t do that, it’s like DX coming to the ring in 2019 and yelling ‘Suck it!’ It looks like a relic from the past, and I never wanted to be that.”

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Jericho’s creative passion has been revitalized in his time away from WWE, which is where he cemented his status as a worldwide entity. Yet his drive to succeed is not out of bitterness or anger toward Vince McMahon, but rather a chance to apply what he learned with the most powerful promotion in the world and continue to trend across a genre that he has dominated for the past three decades.

“If I was still in the WWE, I would still have to be doing ‘The List’ and it would feel so old,” said Jericho. “I love all the great stuff I did in the past, but to go out there and say ‘Raw is Jericho’ or ‘I’m the Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Rolla’ would really feel like a rock and roll band that tours that never puts on a new record and tours every summer.

“I always appreciate when bands play new songs, because I’ve been playing new songs, too. Otherwise, for me, there’s no reason to continue on.”

Musical legend David Bowie is an inspiration to Jericho, as the late musician evolved throughout the span of a 50-year career creating music. It is a fitting parallel, as the 49-year-old Jericho is currently in Tokyo, Japan preparing for his match against New Japan legend Hiroshi Tanahashi. The two meet at Wrestle Kingdom on January 4, with Jericho adding even more anticipation to the match by offering Tanahashi a shot at the All Elite Wrestling world title if he wins their bout at the Tokyo Dome.

Tanahashi will now take his place among a long and distinguished list of Jericho’s opponents, and the two have the chance to top wrestling’s Billboard with a spectacular match at Japan’s most influential wrestling show.

“I’ve wrote great songs, shall we say, with a lot of people,” reminisced Jericho. “Lance Storm, especially early in my career, Ultimo Dragon, Rey Mysterio, The Rock, teaming with Big Show, Shawn Michaels, and more. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, so now to have a match that I haven’t had before against a guy with a similar stature, it’s very rare for me.”

While many of his peers no longer perform on this stage, Jericho remains hungry to, once again, top the charts.

“I’m really excited for the opportunity,” said Jericho. “Tanahashi is one of the biggest stars in the business ever.”

The two almost faced off at last year’s Wrestle Kingdom, but New Japan booker Gedo preferred that Jericho first work against another New Japan star, Tetsuya Naito, before his showdown with the legendary Tanahashi.

“I wanted to work with Tanahashi last year,” said Jericho. “When I attacked Naito in Korakuen Hall, I wanted to attack Tanahashi, but Gedo wanted it to be Naito, which turned out to be great. This is a main-event, money match, and there is a lot of buzz about it. I just watched the match Tanahashi had with Kenny from last year in the Tokyo Dome, and it was amazing.”

Despite his lucrative spot with the All Elite Wrestling belt, Jericho will not wrestle this match as “Le Champion” at the Tokyo Dome and he certainly will not be seen backstage popping a little bit of the bubbly. When Jericho enters Japan, he becomes “The Painmaker,” a different layer of his character not as frequently on display in the United States.

“This fits where I’m at right now,” said Jericho. “Maybe a year from now I won’t do it anymore, but right now, I love ‘The Painmaker’ character and the whole concept behind it.”

Jericho wrestled Kenny Omega in the co-main event of Wrestle Kingdom in 2018, which is the same stretch of time when he was hit with an epiphany regarding his future in Japan. The Japanese wrestling landscape is just as passionate as that of the United States, but the fandom is far more entrenched in the fighting spirit of wrestling as a sport. Jericho realized that this was his opportunity to evolve into a meaner, psychotic character.

“I originally went into that Omega match thinking I’d be the same guy from WWE,” said Jericho. “But I was really into Bruiser Brody at the time–I think it was the 30 anniversary of his death–and watching him just beat the sh-- out of people. In Japan, people are still intimidated by that and they kind of like it. I really liked the lunacy of the character I played building up to and during the Kenny match, so when I went back for Naito, I didn’t want to wear sparkly tights and light-up jackets. It didn’t feel right. I felt crazier, and I decided that some paint needed to be worn.”

The paint was soon enhanced by a fedora, slick black gloves, and a jacket covered in spikes. Then, by chance, “The Painmaker” was born.

“I was working with Okada, who is ‘The Rainmaker,’ so I said I was ‘The Painmaker,” said Jericho. “It just happened. Now it’s a whole other side of Jericho that could extend my career for another ten years if I wanted it to. I’m a huge fanatic and disciple of the band KISS and the way they market themselves, and I’m surprised it took me this long to wear some paint. I want to use it in certain cases. That’s why I used the paint against Darby Allin on Dynamite. I want to do this character like how the Great Muta did it.”

Jericho’s willingness to evolve is a byproduct of his musical instinct–what musician doesn’t want to record another hit?–and he has showcased his ability to connect with wrestling fandom through a number of different characters, catchphrases, and an overall cutting edge that gives his work an air of coolness.

A long way removed from his list of 1,004 holds (four more, of course, than longtime nemesis Dean Malenko), Jericho enters 2020 as one of the business’ strongest acts, with the rare ability to capture an audience’s attention and keep them wanting more.

“There is a lot of evolving in this character, as there has also been in my own life since I started wrestling,” said Jericho, who projected a star aura even before he was a star. “David Bowie, that’s the one for me who has been an inspiration. He always changed, and he had so much longevity. The Beatles were around for 10 years, and The Beatles did so much changing in 10 years, it’s ridiculous, but Bowie took that to the next level by doing it for 50 years. I always appreciated and admired that.

“I feel the same way about my career. Y2J feels like a lifetime ago. There are still people that chant it sometimes, but to me, it’s like going to a Johnny Depp movie and he’s playing Captain Jack Sparrow, but you’re chanting for 21 Jump Street. It’s two completely different characters, played by the same guy, but one character is old and one is new.

“‘The List’ was massively popular, and now I’m ‘Le Champion.’ If you like something I do, you better enjoy it. When it’s done, it’s done.”

As Jericho enters his fourth decade working in Japan–his first tour in the country took place in 1991 as a junior heavyweight–he is placing immense pressure upon himself to deliver in his match with Tanahashi. He already presents the biggest character and most personality, and now comes the time when he can show why he still belongs in the discussion of wrestling’s top all-around performers. He also speculated whether this match is his farewell, at least for now, to Japan.

“I came to work with Omega, Naito, Okada, and Tanahashi,” said Jericho. “Will I come back after the Tana match? I don’t know. I’d love to work with Ospreay and Ibushi. It might be mission accomplished after this, it might not, but it’s really cool to go back as a main event heavyweight after being a junior heavyweight.

The return to New Japan has increased Jericho’s legacy, and was one of the catalysts for him to land in AEW.

“This is where I met all those guys [Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks] and rediscovered the creativity of wrestling,” said Jericho. “I always had that, but the WWE is a different style. There would never be a ‘Painmaker’ in the WWE because I’m sure they wouldn’t allow it. There are a lot of approvals needed and that’s the way Vince runs his show and it’s great, but to be completely on my own was an awakening, and that happened in Japan.”

Returning to Japan allowed Jericho to rediscover his creative side and the fearlessness to try anything. Now, on the precipice of a marquee match at New Japan’s signature show, Jericho looks to prove there is still no one better at delivering a mesmerizing performance–not in New Japan, not in AEW, and certainly not in WWE. Jericho’s match with Tanahashi represents a chance to show that, as the calendar shifts to 2020, he remains atop the business for his ability to entertain in a fashion that no one else can.

Following the match, questions still exist about the future. If Jericho loses, will he actually defend his AEW title against Tanahashi? If Jericho wins, does that mean he will be taking a sabbatical from his sojourns to Japan? Would he ever make another run at the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, one of the most prestigious honors in the business and a title that has eluded him? Only he knows, and the questions begin to get answered–and, knowing Jericho’s fearlessness and desire to innovate, undoubtedly multiply–after creating a new classic in his Wrestle Kingdom match against Tanahashi.

“What’s going to happen next?” Jericho asked. “How much longer am I going to wrestle? I have no f------ idea. I just go day by day, month by month, and whatever I feel, the instinct is usually correct.

“That’s the direction I’m going. And, right now, headlining the Tokyo Dome for the third year in a row is a pretty special spot to be in.”

Three Wishes for the New Year

If I were granted three wishes for pro wrestling storylines in 2020, they would be to elevate the status of current talent into bona fide stars. Starting with…

1. A run with the WWE title for Big E.

Honestly, what is WWE waiting for? Yes, Big E is tremendous in The New Day and there are few better ambassadors in and out of the ring to represent the company as tag team champion. But Big E is a rare babyface that the crowd genuinely supports, and his style and power would make him a believable champion.

Brock Lesnar is a phenomenal attraction for WWE, but his absence on weekly programming is a disaster for Raw. This isn’t 1988–the world champ needs to have a presence on the show. WWE would benefit from taking the title off Lesnar and treating the world title like it currently does with the United States belt. With three different champions on the three brands, this is an opportune time to hotshot (but careful: don’t play hot potato) the title to a few different stars.

A babyface vs. babyface match for the title between Big E and Kofi Kingston at SummerSlam has the potential to be spectacular. Is it too much to ask to build a storyline over the next eight months that leads to a collision course between Big E and Kingston? The story would make sense–who is better? And like Bret Hart-Davey Boy Smith from SummerSlam ‘92, the match could end in a handshake and benefit both stars.

2. My second wish is for Kris Statlander to have a prolonged run with the AEW Women’s Championship.

AEW’s acquisition of Statlander has the potential to be massive. Her alien character is unique and identifiable, and she is spectacular in the ring.

Statlander would be the perfect champion for AEW, especially as a babyface. There are a number of heels for her to work with, including Brandi Rhodes’ faction. And if Dr. Britt Baker turns heel, then a title match against Statlander at the Revolution pay per view in February has the potential to be amazing.

If Statlander is given the time on television to succeed, she will become one of AEW’s biggest stars.

3. My final wish for wrestling storylines in 2020 is for Rusev and Liv Morgan to each win a world title.

This past Monday’s Lana-Bobby Lashley wedding on Raw was certainly chaotic, but I love the idea of using the angle to propel both Rusev and Liv Morgan up the card and into the main event.

Before the Lana-Lashley pairing, neither Rusev nor Morgan had any real direction in terms of their creative path for 2020. But both are vastly underrated wrestlers, and a title run–the world title for Rusev and the Raw women’s belt for Morgan–would add so much more meaning to the current storyline.

If the goal is to keep producing new stars, then this is the perfect time to give a major push to both Morgan and Rusev.

The (Online) Week in Wrestling

· CM Punk offered his assessment of the Lana-Bobby Lashley wedding from Monday’s Raw.

· On the subject of weddings, Charlotte Flair and Andrade announced their New Year’s Eve engagement.

· Kayfabe News kicked off 2020 with a tremendous start in this story: Lesnar makes new year’s resolution to work less hectic WWE schedule in 2020

· The Cody Rhodes-Darby Allin match on Dynamite was excellent (and Arn Anderson played a subtle but important role in the execution of the finish), and the show was the best episode since the premiere in October.

· If you are a fan of either Jon Moxley or Orange Cassidy, then their moment in the ring together on Wednesday night’s Dynamite was perfect.

· If Matt Hardy becomes a free agent in 2020, the only outcome I see is that he will become a major singles star (again) for either Impact, the NWA, or, most likely, AEW.

· If Kofi Kingston can outdo his 2019 in 2020, wrestling is in store for a wonderful year.

· Jimmy Hart celebrated his 77th birthday on New Year’s Day–is “The Mouth of the South” the greatest living manager?

· An outstanding 30-year history of the Royal Rumble.

· And here is this week’s appreciation of Dean Malenko and Shinjiro Otani.

Chad Gable’s goal for 2020 is to win the Intercontinental title

Chad Gable has his resolution in mind for the New Year.

“I want to start some chasing titles,” Gable told Sports Illustrated. “The IC belt is that workhorse title, and more than anything, winning the title at WrestleMania would be my crowning moment.”

Gable, who is wrestling as Shorty G, received a singles push this past summer during the King of the Ring tournament, but it has stalled lately amid a very competitive landscape on the SmackDown brand. A tremendous wrestler, Gable has worked successfully in a tag team–he was partners with Bobby Roode, but far better known for his run in NXT with Jason Jordan in American Alpha–and he is far more substance than merely style in the ring.

“People got a taste of what I could do in American Alpha, but I think people wanted to see more,” said Gable. “This whole journey led people to wanting to see more and more of me. I had some great singles matches with AJ and Rusev, but it wasn’t until the King of the Ring where I was given the opportunity.”

Gable challenging Shinsuke Nakamura for the Intercontinental title could lead to a series of exciting matches, and Gable will be ready if he receives that opportunity.

“Regardless of how long that takes, my past has taught me to be a patient man,” said Gable. “I’m not in any rush, but I’ll never get complacent and I’ll stay on my hustle.”

Something tells me this stat will read much differently in 2020.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.