Last year, it was easy for the WWE Universe to say that Chris Jericho was enjoying his best run with the company since his 2008 return and subsequent heel turn on Shawn Michaels. His “List of Jericho,” his partnership with Kevin Owens, and the new catchphrases he introduced made critics look like “stupid idiots,” and anyone who doubted how over he was with the fans would have certainly “made the list.” But in as much as we’ve been drinking in the “Gift of Jericho” since his last, extended WWE return, it can now be argued that Jericho’s current run in New Japan Pro Wrestling, which included a memorable classic of a match against Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom 12, represents the best stage in a career that’s lasted almost three decades.
With that said, it’s at this point where we should remind you that Jericho is achieving all this at the age of 47. At his age, most wrestlers are either retired, enjoying a final nostalgia run and gladly putting over younger talents, or struggling with increasing irrelevance in the independent scene. But as Jericho proved when he challenged Omega last year for an IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship match at Wrestle Kingdom 12, he’s not like your average veteran on the wrong side of 40. Jericho vs. Omega at Wrestle Kingdom created so much hype, and so much potential for NJPW to attract fans from other parts of the world. Even with WWE household name-Jericho losing, we can say it’s mission accomplished, as far as spreading the gospel of New Japan and making it more than just a niche product for hardcore fans. That match lived up to expectations, and then some.
Beyond Chris Jericho and Kenny Omega telling an engaging, dramatic story and wrestling a near-flawless match for 34 minutes at Wrestle Kingdom 12, let’s think for a moment – would WWE have allowed Jericho to have so much freedom to do what he did in the buildup to, during, and after the match? We think not. In the micromanaged world of WWE as dictated by Vince McMahon, a 35-minute match between two relatively smaller guys at WrestleMania just doesn’t sound plausible. It’s almost always been about larger-than-life superheroes in the Brock Lesnar, John Cena, or Roman Reigns mold getting top billing (or close to it) at the Showcase of the Immortals, not a couple insanely talented guys who aren’t that much bigger than you and me.
Had all this taken place in the WWE, would Vince have allowed Jericho to pull off some of the spots he pulled off against Omega at Wrestle Kingdom? Probably not. Would he have let “Y2J” add to the tension in so many ways, including throwing a table at Omega at the pre-match press conference, and cussing on live TV? No, on account of the sponsors WWE can ill afford to lose. Would he have let Jericho continue making his presence felt in New Japan by attacking Tetsuya Naito at New Year’s Dash? Perhaps, but with the condition that the run-in be carefully scripted to the last detail.
As a wrestler whose returns to the WWE were mostly dictated by his commitments to his heavy metal band Fozzy, Jericho’s NJPW schedule shouldn’t be much of a hindrance. If anything, it’s going to be much lighter than the usual WWE deal where he has to be on weekly TV shows and live events. At the moment, he has well over two months before his upcoming match against Naito, which may be at Long Beach, California on March 25, at NJPW USA: Strong Style Evolved.
Another good point to make when it comes to Jericho’s unlikely career renaissance at 47-years-old is the fact that he returned to a country where he tried to make his name in the early days of his wrestling career. Jericho wrestled for a few smaller promotions in Japan on-and-off from 1991 to 1996, and in 1997 he had a few NJPW matches as part of the company’s deal with WCW at the time. So in case you didn’t know, it is true – Jericho was a known presence in Japan before he became a household name in the U.S.
Great matches with new opponents, and possibly more to come. Much greater creative freedom without Vince McMahon and/or WWE’s creative team micromanaging every detail. A lighter work schedule that doesn’t interfere with his commitments as Fozzy lead vocalist. Exposure in front of audiences who know him for his work in WWE, and maybe even remember his time in Japan as a young up-and-comer. Chris Jericho’s got everything he needs or wants in his current NJPW run, and while there’s still a very good chance he’ll be back sooner or later in the WWE, we can’t blame him if he chooses to stay a little longer and wreak a little more havoc in New Japan. And we fans will likely continue to keep being better for it.
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