Chris Jericho made his debut on WWE television 20 years ago today. In the process, he changed the pro wrestling business and how new talents are debuted forever.
It was the late 90s, and the internet was just coming into its own as a tool for spoiling entertainment events.
Fans who followed the business of wrestling knew it was coming. And it was still arguably the single biggest event in a year full of big events.
And this was 1999. The main event of WrestleMania was “Stone Cold” Steve Austin vs. The Rock. Monday nights were still a pro wrestling battle ground between WWE’s Raw Is War and WCW’s Monday Nitro. The Big Show made his WWE debut just seven months earlier.
So what made Jericho’s jump such a big deal? After all, at the time, he was just a promising cruiserweight with a decent promo.
As with all things in pro wrestling, it was the right place and the right time. Let’s dig into the details.
Talent Development Is Jericho
Fans and industry experts alike have been studying the differences between WWE and WCW during the Monday Night Wars for more than 20 years.
At the time, the difference between the two was pretty clear. WCW was where old men went to wind down. WWE was where young men went to be built up.
As we mentioned earlier, Big Show (formerly WCW’s Giant) debuted in WWE that same February. And he arguably had greater star power than Jericho at the time. Hell, it isn’t even arguable. Big Show was definitely the bigger star.
The reason Jericho’s debut had such impact was precisely because he wasn’t a “legend.” Fans had seen legends jump back-and-forth between the two mega promotions for years. Lex Luger alone jumped from WCW to WWE and back all within the span of about four years.
Chris Jericho making the move to WWE cemented Vince McMahon’s home territory as the place to be if you wanted to make a name for yourself. It was the place to be if you wanted to grow as a talent.
Those were the days, weren’t they?
Internet Is Jericho
Ah, the internet. It’s just awful, isn’t it?
You kids at home might not remember this, but there used to be these things called message boards. It was a place where you would go and talk about various topics. And pro wrestling was a business with a ridiculous number of message boards.
Chris Jericho, whether he knew it or not, was the internet darling of his time. He was the, “Man, if they would only push this guy, they would make billions” of the 90s.
Think Cesaro with long hair and about 250 pounds lighter.
Throughout 1998, Jericho perfected his character all on his own. His feuds with Rey Misterio and Dean Malenko developed his promo to the point that no one in the business could touch him for sheer, unscripted creativity.
Think CM Punk with long hair and about 100 pounds heavier.
Wrestling has always been a business with “insider” darlings since time eternal. At one time they were the darlings of the newsletter scene. They were the ones that Dave Meltzer or Brian Alverez said you had to see.
Jericho was that for the 90s, but the buzz about him came strictly from the fans. And WWE was listening. Vince McMahon may not know a motherboard from his mother- you get it. He heard buzz, his lieutenants made him aware, and he listened.
Chris Jericho may well be the first pro wrestling star that the internet “made.”
Boy, those were the days, weren’t they?
Trailblazing Is Jericho
In the grand scheme of things, Chris Jericho is unquestionably a legend in pro wrestling. The guy cuts through the crowd and makes a name for himself wherever he goes.
So it’s easy to forget that his initial run in WWE sucked.
By his own admission in his first biography, A Lion’s Tale, Jericho was trying to simply port his WCW promos into the WWE program. And it just didn’t click.
Excitement about Jericho waned, which is saying something considering he interrupted the Rock on his first night on WWE television. WWE programmed him in a lame feud against Road Dogg and then paired him up with a manager, Mr. Hughes.
By the fall of 1999, just a few months after his debut, he was losing matches to Chyna. And it was this failure to resonate with the fans that lit a fire under Jericho.
Jericho played a game of trial and error for the next six months, and by the following April, he scored one of the biggest moments in Raw history when he picked up a fluke WWE title win over Triple H.
It was a fast count, so the referee immediately reversed the decision. But for one moment in time, Jericho was a legitimate main event player. He had the attention of the fans and was a credible, made man from that point forward.
And if nothing else, Jericho’s first year in WWE is a testament to the fact that WWE wrestlers can become huge stars. He developed his own character and was creative with his own promos. He built on what the fans responded to and jettisoned the stuff they didn’t.
WWE didn’t give Chris Jericho the ball, but when he wrestled it away from them, they let him run with it.
Those were the days, weren’t they?
At the end of this month, Chris Jericho will compete for the right to become the first-ever AEW World Champion at All Out.
He holds the record for the most WWE Intercontinental Championship reigns ever. Jericho is a former IWGP Intercontinental Champion. He is a multi-time former world champion. In fact, any time you like he’ll remind you that he’s the first-ever WWE Undisputed Champion.
However, all of the titles won and pay-per-views headlined pale in comparison to Chris Jericho’s true legacy. When all’s said and done, he may well be the last self-made WWE superstar ever.
And it all started with a countdown and an unscripted promo. Those really were the days.
All images courtesy of WWE.