Jericho continuing to evolve 30 years into legendary career

Wednesday night’s edition of All Elite Wrestling Dynamite is slated to be a celebration of Chris Jericho’s 30th anniversary in the wrestling business and a career that has seen him main event WrestleMania, win countless world titles and become one of the biggest stars of the last three decades.

But before he was “Le Champion,” before he was “The Demo God” and before he was even Chris Jericho, he was just Chris Irvine – a kid from Winnipeg who was looking to become a professional wrestler at Calgary’s Hart Brothers’ Wrestling School in 1990.

Another student in that class was Lance Evers and he was having second thoughts about just what he was getting into.

“With wrestling camps, especially back then, you had a lot of people who were dreamers who probably had no business being in wrestling camp and I had met all of them first,” Evers, who would become pro wrestling star Lance Storm, told TSN.ca.

You can catch AEW Dynamite’s 30 Years of Jericho celebration LIVE on Wednesday at 8pm et/5pm pt on TSN2, the TSN app, streaming on TSN Direct and on TSN.ca.

“I was actually second-guessing, thinking of changing my plane ticket and going home and finding a different school and I had walked out onto the fire escape of the hotel we were all staying at to decide what the hell I should do when Chris drove up. I saw another guy who looked like an athlete, a decent-sized guy, who showed up, so I basically ran down to introduce myself to him and we’ve been friends ever since. If not for meeting Chris a day or two before camp started, I might not even have been in that camp.”

Storm and Jericho would not only hit it off as friends, but also in the ring, quickly developing chemistry at the eight-week camp led by Ed Langley. The rapport between the two was evident enough that Jericho and Storm were to work their first ever match against one another – a rarity at the time in the business – in nearby Ponoka, Alta. on the evening of Oct. 2, 1990. Outside of two planned spots the pair had discussed beforehand, the plan was to call the match in the ring.

“I felt there was a ton of pressure – we’d be exposing the business to dozens and dozens of people [if we screwed up],” Storm said with a laugh. “But it was being filmed for cable-access television, so there was a legitimate camera crew there and commentator there. It was a tiny community centre in a small, small town. But it felt big time to us. We had the singles match, as well as – we worked double duty – there was a Royal Rumble main event, so we worked twice, but when we did it and actually got paid for it. It just felt like we’d crossed that line. We were now professional wrestlers. Someone had actually paid to see us, and somebody actually paid us to do the job. So it was a monumental moment, as tiny and insignificant as it seems in hindsight.”

The 130 people in attendance that night got to watch Storm and Jericho work to a 10-minute draw.

“I just remember having the match and just going out there and doing it and having people respond and having people cheer,” Jericho, who turns 50 next month, said. “I remember at one point, I dropped an elbow on Lance’s arm and some kid went ‘Do it again!’ and I said, ‘You want another one?’ and he went ‘Yaaay!’ and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re actually cheering for me.’ It was just kind of that whole feeling of when you get out there and do it for the first time to realize that, hey, I can actually make this happen and didn’t laughed off the stage, so to speak. It was just a really cool moment.”

Then came the professional part of pro wrestling for the pair – the payment.

“There was a white envelope and it had ‘Jericho’ written on it, spelled wrong – ‘Jericho’ – and it had a $20 bill and a $10 bill, Canadian, so a green one and a purple one,” Jericho said. “I couldn’t believe it because I had just come from working eight hours a week at a deli making $5 an hour where my paycheque was $40 and now, after 12 minutes of work, I made $30. I can’t believe it! I’m rich! I’m going to be rich! It was just that pure, innocent feeling of doing something for the first time and getting paid for it, and actually getting a pretty decent reaction made it a pretty cool night.”

Jericho and Storm worked together as a tag team in the early days of their careers, including a memorable trip to work for Frontier Martial Arts in Japan in 1991 – a trip that almost didn’t happen.

“With every trip you get when you first break in, you think it’s going to be your break, right?” Storm recalled. “You’re going to be noticed. You’re going to be a big star. But this was an international tour we were getting booked; we had a contract and we had a plane ticket booked for us…Chris was going to drive in to my place and then my roommate was going to drive us to the airport because we were going to be gone for three weeks. And, as a chronically early person who has to go to the airport for my first real international trip, I wanted to leave early and Chris showed up so damn late. I was literally pacing on the front step like ‘Where is he? Do I have to have to get this guy to drive me and just go by myself? Where the hell is he?’

“Finally, Captain Casual just shows up like, ‘Hey, whatever’ and we got to the airport and I’m fuming the whole way. And I kid you not, we’re jogging to the gate and the woman is closing the door as we scream ‘Hold on! Hold on! Hold on!’ They held the door at the gate to let us in and closed it behind us. Jericho looks at me and says, ‘See? I told you we’d make it.’ I wanted to punch him out right there on the jet bridge.”

While Jericho recognized that international bookings were a sign that things were looking bright and doors were being opened, a trip home early in his career brought him a thrill.

“Obviously, going to Japan was a big deal, going to Mexico for the first time was a big deal,” Jericho said. “Any time you’d go somewhere else, outside of your environment – I remember the first time I went to Winnipeg. I’m from Winnipeg and the promoter, Tony Condello, finally brought me in, probably about 40 matches into my career, I think in like the summer of ’91 when we had started in October of ’90. So that was a big deal to wrestle in front of my friends and family, my mom and my dad. Those days were some of the most exciting in a lot of ways because everything was new and you had your whole future ahead of you, but you didn’t know what the future held. You didn’t know when your next match was coming or when your next paycheque was coming, but I didn’t ever really think about that. I just remember being so excited and so happy to know that I was actually in the wrestling business.”

Coming of age in the wrestling industry in the early ‘90s was not an easy terrain to navigate for wrestlers of a certain size when it came to North America. The tops of the cards in both the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling were dominated by giants like Hulk Hogan, Sid Vicious and Big Van Vader, men who wouldn’t look out of place on NBA courts or NFL gridirons. It was an uphill battle for the likes of men under six feet tall like Jericho and Storm to stand out in a field filled with literal giants…or at least people called one.

“Wrestling is – I don’t even want to say subjective, but you’re at the whim of what someone else sees in you and, as a wrestling fan for a lot of years and throughout wrestling, you realize that the best aren’t always the ones who succeed,” Storm said. “And something, too, that unless you’re an old-time wrestling fan, you might not realize it, but up until we both actually made it, we were always too small to make it. That was always the disclaimer, if you will – and that’s probably one of the reasons why we decided to be a tag team. Maybe you guys could survive as a tag team because you’re small. Because everyone [else] was 6’5 and 280 lbs. So it was always, you’ll have to buck the system.”

Jericho says a stint in Mexico helped him view things through a different lens.

“I knew that as a performer I had something about me that was a little different,” Jericho said. “I always focused more on the charisma of wrestling and the personality. I could never be the biggest guy in the ring, but I could be the most entertaining and the most exciting and that sort of stuff. So I had that mindset all the time. I think when we went to Japan for the first time, not knowing what to expect, and realizing that I fit in there perfectly. But I still think of working part-time as a bouncer and working shows when I can and the first time I went to Mexico, which was in the late fall of ’92, October, November of ’92, and was making full-time money. I was working three or four times a week and living in the country and making $500 or $600 a week or whatever it was and ever since then, I’ve never not had a job in wrestling if I wanted one. That was my first full-time gig and I’ve been full-time ever since – except for the times I decided not to be. But that’s when I realized that I can actually do this because in the States at the time, it was all about the big men – Hulk Hogan, Big Boss Man, Ultimate Warrior – but you could go to Mexico and you could go to Japan and go to Germany and suddenly, I wasn’t so small anymore. It was more about the workrate and the excitement of the matches, rather than just how tall you were or how big your biceps were. That’s when I started realizing there’s a way to make it in the business, even if you don’t necessarily go to the WWF right away, which was always the end game. But keep in mind, it took me nine years to get there and there’s a reason for that.”

It’s been that drive to be different and stand out in a world of larger-than-life personas that has made Jericho so focused on constantly reinventing his. Now three decades into his career, there have been countless iterations of Chris Jericho, with no two versions ever exactly the same.

There was the “Lionheart,” the brash youngster who made waves in Mexico and Japan. He became the flamboyant “Y2J,” the WWF’s “Millennium Man,” after his jump from WCW in 1999. During a bitter feud with Shawn Michaels, “The Best in the World” emerged, a joyless Jericho obsessed with his craft and only that. In 2016, Jericho introduced “The List,” literally carrying around a list of all those who have wronged him, frequently adding more names to it. His second stint in New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2017 saw the debut of “The Painmaker” (the name spoofed from Kazuchika Okada’s “Rainmaker” gimmick), a face paint-wearing, sadistic Jericho who feuded with the likes of Kenny Omega, Tetsuya Naito and EVIL.

The Jericho we see today is yet another new variety, the bon vivant at the helm of the Inner Circle, intent on making AEW his playground.

Jericho credits his continual adaptation and tweaking of his gimmick and presentation for his longevity in the industry.

“I think that’s the reason why I’ve been able to stay on top for so long because whenever I felt like I was getting stale, I completely turned around and changed it,” Jericho said. “I just had the David Bowie mindset of never wanting to do the same thing twice. I started realizing that when we were on TV twice a week, 52 weeks a year with RAW and SmackDown. Like if I just wear the same stuff and look the same 104 times a year, people are going to get bored of me very quickly, so I always focused on having different tights, different hairstyles and different facial hair. Also, I’m a big believer that when you turn from heel to babyface or vice versa or if you disappear for a while, when you come back, there has to be something different about you, so people understand and realize that you’re a different person. And if you don’t change your look up a bit or don’t change your move set or catchphrases or whatever it may be, you’re just doing the same thing over and over again. I have no interest in that at all – zero interest.”

Even though fans clamour for Jericho to bring back beloved gimmicks and phrases from over the years, he has no intention of borrowing from the past.

“It pisses me off when people chant ‘Y2J’ sometimes,” Jericho said. “They don’t really do it much anymore, but like why would you chant that? That’s like 20 years ago. Or people ask, ‘When are you going to bring The List back?’ I would never bring The List back because that was really cool in 2016, but I’ve evolved and changed so much in 2020 that to think about that would be so creatively stifling that I couldn’t even imagine doing that. Other people will do the same thing for 30 years, but that’s never been my mindset and I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m still on top, both from a fan appreciation level and mentally for me. It gives me extra incentive to continue to push myself to try new things and be a different character.”

When asked to suggest a particular match of his for a person unfamiliar with his work to watch to get a feel for him, Jericho also stays current.

“It’s a hard question to ask because you could basically just choose any of them, but I always just say go with my last one,” Jericho said. “The last match I had was against [Private Party’s] Isiah Kassidy, a 22-year-old kid in his first singles match ever on Dynamite last week, and it was as good of a match as I’ve had in the last couple of years. It clicked; it went well. The kid didn’t have a lot of experience, but he rose up to the challenge and a lot of that was the way we structured the match and the advice I gave going into it. That’s what I bring to the table. Always make sure the other guy looks good, always make sure to be creative and always make sure to do things a little bit differently from everybody else.”

Next up for Jericho is a throwback of sorts. On Wednesday night’s Dynamite in his 30th anniversary match, he is set to team up with Inner Circle stablemate Jake Hager to take on the Chaos Project of Serpentico and old foe Dr. Luther, a man Jericho first wrestled in the very nascent days of his career.

“It’s great because I think it’s almost a full-circle moment,” Jericho said of the upcoming match with Luther, an idea he attributes to AEW vice president Tony Khan. “My first match with Luther was April 12, 1991 and here we are on October 7, 2020 in a national company in one of the biggest matches of our careers, more for him than me, but it’s still a big match for me, as well, because of what’s at stake. I think it’s just a really cool full-circle moment.”

The frontman for the band Fozzy, Jericho says he took his cues for his 30th anniversary celebration from a quartet of rock gods.

“I remember I saw Metallica on their 30th anniversary and they did four shows at The Fillmore [in San Francisco], 80 songs total, and all of them were different,” Jericho said. “They had special guests and songs that they never played live and it was just such a cool celebration and that’s something that I want to do for my 30th and we’ve kind of done that with watching my first two matches with Lance on my podcast, doing this book I have coming out called The Complete List of Jericho, which has every match that I’ve ever had – I’ve kept a list of all of them for the last 30 years – and, of course, culminating with the Jericho 30 celebration on live TV.

“It’s just a really cool way to document and celebrate this great career that we’ll probably never see again. Somebody who travelled as much as I did and to be able to continue to be doing this at the highest of levels, you might never see that ever again. But if you don’t, at least we have this 30-year documentation of it.”

As for those 30 years, Storm says he isn’t surprised about his good friend’s lasting success now, but might have been in the past.

“I’m not surprised because we’re here now, but had you asked me a decade ago or 20 years ago, I’d be like ‘Pfffft. That’s not going to happen,’” Storm said. “I always joke with Chris whenever I think back of when he unified the WCW and WWF world titles [in 2001]. When we were dumbass wrestling fans, kids in high school, those were the two biggest championships, the two world titles. Then these two stupid kids went to a wrestling camp in the back of a bowling alley and however many years later, those two titles were unified and became the one, true world champion and it was Chris Jericho, the kid I went to camp with. That, when I think about it, just blows my mind.”

While Jericho still has no plans on slowing down any time soon, he already knows how he’d like to be remembered – as “somebody that was an entertainer.”

“When you saw Chris Jericho, you always got your money’s worth,” Jericho said. “I never phone in anything that I do. I don’t do anything in my heart that I don’t feel is right – and that’s not just inside of wrestling, that’s anything you see I do in music or movies or podcasting or whatever it may be. I was a kid who had not one crazy dream, but two and made them both happen to the highest of levels in a lot of ways and that’s because I believed in myself. I didn’t listen to anybody if they told me I couldn’t do it. So take all of those things and that’s kind of my legacy. If you have a goal or dream, go for it. And if you’ve ever bought a ticket to see Chris Jericho or anything I’ve ever been involved with, I like to think that you got your money’s worth. That’s the biggest vote of thanks I could get when people say they do.”

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