Chris Jericho Opens Up About Joining AEW: ‘If This Didn’t Work, I Was Leaving Behind a Lifelong Career in WWE’

Chris Jericho took a chance by joining AEW, but the creative freedom afforded to him was well worth the risk.
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Chris Jericho meets Jon Moxley in the AEW world title match at this Saturday’s Revolution pay-per-view.

The storyline has been logical, layered, and well-told since its inception four months ago. After a program together in WWE, their work in AEW has still felt fresh and authentic. Moxley has his sights set on Jericho’s belt, but the enterprising champion is taking every measure possible to hold onto his spot.

Following years of contract signings, Wednesday’s championship weigh-in on Dynamite delivered a unique, innovative presentation, providing viewers with one final taste of what Jericho and Moxley will bring to Saturday’s pay-per-view. The scene was intense, bloody, and ended with Jericho standing tall as champion, which may no longer be the case following Revolution.

Jericho connected with Sports Illustrated to discuss his upcoming match with Moxley, AEW’s organic growth, a few highlights of his career, and the ways in which he has contributed behind the scenes.

Justin Barrasso: Changing territories was long embedded in the wrestling culture until WWE monopolized control of the industry. But like the Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes, and Kenny Omega, you made the decision to create something new in AEW.

Chris Jericho: The difference between myself and the names you just mentioned is that I left WWE to come here. Even though I wasn’t signed at the time, I worked there, then I worked three matches in Japan and then signed with AEW. It was much more of a risk because if this didn’t work, I was leaving behind a lifelong career in WWE.

Having said that, it’s also a certain style and a certain way that they do things there that you just have to go with, and it was starting to get to the point where I didn’t want to do that anymore. When I went to Japan, I realized wrestling can be fun again. Not that it wasn’t fun, but the creative freedom I had there was one of the reasons I came to AEW.

The money’s great, everything’s great, but the creative elements and the fact that we’re starting something from scratch at the highest of levels. There’s never been a wrestling company ever that started as big as AEW. Our very first show was on one of the biggest cable networks in the world in front of 14,000 people at a sold-out arena in Washington, D.C. It doesn’t get any bigger than that. It’s not that we built our way up, or that someone bought the company from someone else or it was a family business that morphed over the years. This was a big deal, the big leagues right from the start, and that was very scary, cool, and exciting.

Now we’re in the Wild West. A weekly TV show is not easy to do, and we have a whole lot of people that have never done one. But everyone hit the ground running and made it a success.

JB: There are many different elements to becoming a great wrestler, but becoming a great television wrestler is an entirely different challenge. You might get 25 minutes for a match in Osaka, but on television, you might be told you have 12—until it’s changed to only eight.

CJ: My first match in WCW, I had seven minutes. Straight out of Japan. Seven minutes? Normally I wouldn’t even be in the ring yet. So my matches were terrible. I didn’t know what to f---ing do in seven minutes. Now, seven minutes? That’s enough time for a decent match. But at the time, I didn’t know.

Everybody here has done such a good job of adapting. Some slower than others, but that’s how it goes. As far as making time cues, and there have been a few little glitches here and there, but overall, everyone has done a great job of adapting almost instantly because, once again, you’re thrown into the deep end. This is national TV, there are a million people watching and a million critics watching.

You only get a few chances. If we didn’t do great out of the gate with awesome shows, all it takes is one or two times for people to make up their mind and then you’re done.

JB: Once you lose the viewer’s faith, you won’t be put in that situation again.

CJ: That can happen in one night. So that was scary, especially when we had NXT, which had all the goodwill of their fans. But we built a whole fan base that doesn’t care about that. I think some people are making a decision, but others are, ‘NXT, what’s that? I like AEW.’ Once again, people came into this from the ground floor, which has never been done.

NXT is different. They work in Largo, Florida [ed. note: actually Winter Park, Fla.], in front of 300 people for the most part. We’re playing arenas right out of the gate.

Much like when I became a Metallica fan in 1985 right after they started, as the band got more popular, we grew up together. I feel like I had stake in this band because I was there at the start. It almost sounds a little arrogant, but when I hear someone say they were there for the Black Album, I immediately say I was there for Ride the Lightning. It’s a badge of honor, and our fans were proud to be there right out of the gate and call this their company.

Last of all, this is not a bunch of WWE castoffs. This is a bunch of people that made a decision to not go there. That’s a big deal, too. We have very few guys here from WWE, and that is by design. And the fact is that no one’s getting out of there anyways because they’re signing everyone so they don’t come here.

JB: It does feel as though there has been a proliferation of five-year deals coming from WWE.

CJ: It reminds me of when Bobby Hull signed with the WHA in 1972 after he was the top star in the NHL. He signed with the WHA for a million dollars. The next day, everybody in the NHL got a raise to not go to the WHA, my dad included. He went from $35,000 to $100,00 overnight because of Bobby Hull. Fast-forward almost 50 years, his son, Chris Jericho, is now the new Bobby Hull. The moment I signed with AEW, everybody in WWE got a raise.

Point being, it’s like we’ve become the enemy. It’s not on our end. We’re not competition, we’re an alternative. We provide an option.

JB: I’ve always felt AEW is more of the answer to WWE than the alternative. If you’re frustrated with the WWE product, then AEW is an answer in the way storylines and talent are presented.

CJ: We’re not the alternative, we’re an option. If you don’t like what you’re seeing on one side of the street, now, for the first time in 20 years, there is something happening on the other side of the street. You can make a choice. We didn’t come into this with the mentality of, ‘We’re gonna crush ‘em!’ They did, and they’re getting their asses kicked every week. It’s probably embarrassing for them.

JB: You think the WWE talent felt that way, or as a whole as a corporate entity when you say they wanted to crush AEW?

CJ: Vince, Hunter. That’s why they specifically put their show up against ours. That’s fine. And I’ve heard they watch our show in tandem while they’re doing their thing. We don’t care. We focus on our show, our product, and making sure our fans are happy and growing our fan base. Whatever anybody else is doing is really none of our business.

JB: And look at Adam Copeland. If AEW did not exist, I don’t know if we would see Edge returning to wrestle this year at WrestleMania.

CJ: There are quite a few examples of that. There are guys making $500,000 there that, if they were working the indies, they wouldn’t make $50. I’m not even kidding. I don’t have to mention any names, just go through the roster and ask, ‘If this guy was on his own, who would pay to see him?’ But that’s fine. AEW’s existence is better for the fans and it’s better for the talent, and that’s great.

JB: What is the biggest difference for you in AEW? The creative freedom?

CJ: You can say anything you want about Jericho, but don’t say I’m out of ideas. I take umbrage to that, it’s the one thing I’ve always had nothing but. If I went back to the WWE, I know what I’d be doing: ‘You just made ‘The List!’ That seems so f---ing archaic and outdated at this point in time. If you look at my career since I left WWE in 2017, it’s been nothing but new ideas. Painmaker, everything I’ve done in Japan, and AEW.

There’s no bookers, no writers. I’m coming up with these ideas and bouncing them off of a couple guys. These are all our ideas.

Also, it’s not like I’m coming up with every single thing. But the basic skeletons, like, ‘Here’s what I’ve got for the first six weeks for Jericho-Moxley.’ Then each week we tighten it up and focus it. I’ve never been in that position before.

In WWE, I was in a position where every Sunday night I’d get a call from whichever writer was my guy saying, ‘Here’s what you’re doing on Raw tomorrow.’ If I liked it, I did it. If I didn’t, then I’d have to go sit outside Vince’s office for three hours and explain why it would work better another way. We don’t have that. All that stress is gone. It’s fun, it’s creative freedom.

I love WWE, I loved working there. There is a system they use, and if you sign on that dotted line, you understand you’re doing it Vince’s way. I don’t want to do it Vince’s way anymore. I want to do it Chris’s way. So far, over the past six months, it’s been f---ing working. You know why? Because after 30 years of being in this business, I actually have some ideas and I know what I’m doing.

JB: Jon Moxley also took a massive risk by leaving WWE. Just because he left didn’t automatically mean he was going to be a success outside WWE. What has impressed you most about his evolution?

CJ: I recruited him. I don’t even think he knew what AEW was at that point. He is a guy that I knew would be big for us, but I never expected he would be this different, and I mean that in a good way. This is not the guy who was Dean Ambrose. Dean Ambrose is a f---ing nothing compared to this guy. There is a fire inside of him, a creativity, he’s free.

This is my job as champion. I make stars. I’m already a star. Mox is a star. This company may have started on my back, but six months later it’s now on a bunch of backs, and that was the idea.

JB: Some key moments since the beginning of Dynamite have included you—working with Darby Allin in week three, the match against Jungle Boy.

CJ: Jungle Boy. Scorpio Sky. MJF’s promo against Jericho. I heard, ‘MJF held his own! He might have even been better than Jericho!’ Gee, you think so? Who wanted it that way? Cody is another guy who’s been a completely different performer. I had nothing to do with this one, but look at Hangman from when we worked in August until now. He’s a totally different guy. That, to me, is why this is working so well. Everybody is starting to grow.

It’s the first time this has ever been my position, and I’m enjoying it. If you ask Darby who is behind the scenes orchestrating his rise, it’s me. The lights out, the lights on. He didn’t want to skateboard, and I said, ‘You’re riding the f---ing skateboard down every night.’

‘Well, the skateboard people...’ Listen, I don’t give a f--- about the skateboard people. The wrestling people are going to love it. And they do.

Everything we do is designed to build stars. Look at The Inner Circle. They’re way more popular than they ever were before.

JB: Jake Hager is a really interesting case. WWE no longer had a role for him, but without saying a word, he’s played an important role for AEW.

CJ: Jake is a star and I always knew he was a star. I wanted him to be my guy like this 10 years ago. They didn’t. Oh, he’s got a lisp? Who gives a f---? He’s a legitimate bad ass. When we were putting together The Inner Circle, we needed a big guy and I said we have to get Hager. He’s a great wrestler, and I expect him to have a great match with Dustin [Rhodes, at Revolution]. But to rebuild him, I didn’t want him to talk or wrestle. I just wanted him to beat people up. And that’s what he’s been doing for six months, and look at the position he’s in.

JB: Was it your idea for Hager to knee his opponent in the groin during his last Bellator fight?

CJ: [Laughs] I was a fan of him doing it in AEW after it happened, but I wasn’t a fan of him doing it in his fight. But hey, use it. Take a negative and turn it into a positive.

All of this, it’s very exciting. Hogan called about a month ago and said, ‘You’re taking guys that no one has ever heard of, putting them in the main event, and making people think they can beat you.’ We did the six-man match a couple weeks ago against Private Party, and we did the false finish where people thought Isiah Kassidy was going to beat Chris Jericho.

JB: And it legitimately looked like it was going to happen.

CJ: That’s the point. I’m very proud of the job we’re doing to make this company as big as it is as fast as it has. The product is hot, and people want to be part of it. Did you think we’d have action figures this quick? Or a video game in the works? F---ing Excalibur condoms, or whatever they’re working on, there is going to be marketing and licensing. And that really shut up a lot of people who didn’t think we’d last two months or two years. We already re-signed with TNT for hundreds of millions of dollars. That shut everyone up, and it’s a feather in our cap.

JB: Unfortunately, it probably disappointed some people who weren’t all in on AEW’s success.

CJ: Don’t ever bet against Jericho when it comes to this sort of thing. As soon as I realized we were the enemy in certain people’s eyes, I knew I’d take every single trick I ever learned from Vince McMahon and use it against him. And that’s what I’m doing, in a good way.

JB: You’ve ended the card as champion on many occasions, including your infamous title match against Triple H at WrestleMania 18 that followed the iconic Hogan-Rock battle. You have closed out AEW shows, and you were also in the spot right before the main event in your Full Gear title match against Cody Rhodes in November. To me, a great match is a great match, like Cody-Dustin, and it will live on in wrestling. Does it matter where your match with Moxley takes place on the card at Revolution?

CJ: The championship match should always go on last unless of very special circumstances. That’s why we went on last at WrestleMania 18. In retrospect, I wanted to go on before then. Hunter was adamant that the championship go on last. Fine.

JB: And the Omega-Moxley “Unsanctioned Match” belonged last on the card at Full Gear.

CJ: You can’t follow something like that. Plus, it was a double main event, like the last few [Tokyo] Dome shows I did. Was I on last-last? No. But my match was one of the focused upon matches. And if you talk about WrestleMania 18, where we were on last but no one remembers it, the very next year at WrestleMania 19 was my match against Shawn Michaels. That was, what, fifth on the show? But it was the best match.

Chris Jericho and Shawn Michaels wrestle in the ring during WrestleMania 19

JB: To get off-track for a quick moment, was your kick to Michaels’ groin after the match spur of the moment or planned out?

CJ: It was discussed. I wanted something more than just Shawn to beat me. I wanted to know, where are we going from this? And it was either Vince or Pat Patterson had that idea and Shawn was all for it. I think Pat suggested I win that match but Vince wanted Shawn to, but he wanted something extra at the end. In a match like that, both guys are winners. There is especially nothing wrong with being a heel and losing.

JB: Where does Jericho-Moxley belong on the card at Revolution?

CJ: Jericho-Moxley should go on last. As good of a story as Cody-MJF is, it doesn’t have stakes as high without the world title. A story we’ve told that’s really stood out is Jericho-Mox. The story is where it needs to be in the fans’ eyes. I would have no problem going on first if I thought that were the case, but this one should be last.

JB: You can still craft an incredible story in the ring. Are we in for a show on Saturday?

CJ: It’s funny, I was just saying to Jerry Lynn, who is one of our producers, ‘Remember the days when we were the high flyers?’ I was never the highest of flyers. I can do the same flip now I did then, the Lionsault. My style is pretty much the same as it’s always been. It’s the story. That’s what counts the most.

When you’re in there with a guy like a Mox, it’s going to be a fight. You saw Moxley versus [Minoru] Suzuki, now it’s going to be Jericho versus Moxley, just fighting, beating each other up. That fits our story. This is not going to be a pretty match. Is it going to be a classic match? Yes. Is it going to be a great match? Yes. Is it going to be a match that has everyone talking the next day? Yes. Is it going to be your typical five-star, high-spot-o-rama? I would be very surprised if that’s the case.

Storyline-wise, it’s going to be excellent. Most importantly, the timing of the match is perfect. This is hitting its peak at the exact right moments, and it’s going to be another great pay-per-view from AEW. There are about 10 other matches I want to see that I won’t be able to watch until later because I’ll be too busy working on my own.

JB: Get the bubbly ready?

CJ: Always have the bubbly ready. Win, lose, or draw, Le Champion is Le Champion.

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