Monday, May 8, 2017

Phantom on Chris Jericho - The Greatest of All Time: WCW

Note: I just finished reading Jericho’s second book, Undisputed, and immediately grabbed his third book, Best in the World. As with most things here on Needless Things, I am writing about my memories. I’ll try to keep Jericho’s personal reminiscences from shading my own too much, but it’s bound to happen a bit.

As you may know if you’re a longtime reader, I don’t have a tremendous capability for recall. I am not the guy that’s going to say things like, “On March 27th, 1998, Chris Jericho defeated El Dandy to become the WCW Mexamerican Champion”. I mean, I might say that, but it’s a complete lie. There is no Meximerican Championship and El Dandy never held a title in WCW. But who am I to doubt El Dandy?

This post will consist of my favorite memories of Jericho in World Championship Wrestling and the reasons why I think he’s great, not a list of matches and accomplishments. In the future there should be two more posts in this series explaining why Jericho is truly the Greatest Of All Time.

The first time I remember seeing Chris Jericho, he was a roody-poo whitemeat babyface. I wasn’t really invested in him, but he definitely had a rock n’ roll energy and a loud charisma that made him stand out amongst the rest of WCW’s lower card good guys. The Lionheart was solid in the ring and had fan support, but he was a little too shiny and cheesy for me.

My conversion to Jerichoholism began with his work as a heel in WCW. And, oddly enough, with him beating up masked guys.

Luchadores were the cornerstone of the opening hour of Monday Nitro at the time, with Mexican superheroes like Silver King, Super Calo, and Psicosis putting on matches the likes of which had never been seen in the United States. Rey Misterio, Jr. and Juventud Guerrera were two of the standouts. They were young and had boundless charisma that was connecting with the audience more than anything the other luchadors were doing.

So when Chris Jericho attacked Misterio after defeating him for the WCW Cruiserweight Championship, people were shocked. This was when Jericho really got the mic time to show us all how good he was.

After defeating Misterio Jericho targeted Juvi; or, more specifically, Juvi’s mask. In a career-making move of diabolism, Jericho stripped Juventud of his mask after winning a title versus mask match and started wearing and carrying Guerrera’s mask to the ring with him like a trophy. Knowing a good thing when he saw it, Jericho started collecting trophies from other wrestlers he defeated.

While the nWo was doing their thing in the Main Event (and I’m not going to knock that because I was definitely into it at the time; everyone was except for Noel), Chris Jericho was busy being an actual heel within his section of the roster.

By this time we all knew Jericho was very good in the ring, but he had been going up against guys that, while athletic and talented, were visibly young and fresh. It was a feud with Dean Malenko that made Jericho a legitimate in-ring threat. And also led to one of his many (many) trademark moments – the original “list”. As in, the list of 1,004 holds. Which Jericho read aloud on an episode of Nitro.

Dean Malenko was a Very Serious Man. I see him as one of the greatest technical wrestlers of all time (and an underrated promo). Even back then, with much less understanding of the business than I have now, Malenko stood out to me as a guy that represented excellence. He was known as “The Man of 1,000 Holds” and I don’t think that was hyperbole.

So of course, when Jericho started feuding with Malenko, he started referring to himself as “The Man of 1,004 Holds”. It was utterly infantile nonsense and it totally worked.

The feud with Malenko also led to Jericho’s ridiculous conspiracy theory gimmick, where he pursued legal recourse after losing the title to the masked wrestler Ciclope in a Crusierweight Battle Royal. Ciclope was actually a disguised Malenko and that reveal is one of my favorite moments in wrestling. Afterward Jericho filmed a number of segments claiming that he was the victim of a huge conspiracy that went “all the way to the top”.

Chris Jericho is never content. It seems like once he gets his newest gimmick or angle over, he’s on to something else. From collecting trophies to claiming technical greatness to conspiracy theories to Jericho’s Personal Security Team, he has always changed his heel tactics before they were able to really settle in and be cool; before the fans started cheering them.

Jericho eventually moved on from the cruiserweight division to capture the Television Title and compete amongst that division, which was slightly above the cruiserweights but below the US Championship.

I remember the night he first called out Bill Goldberg (Greenberg). It was crazy because for the most part the class system in WCW was very strict. The upper card would often beat up the lower card, but the lower card didn’t speak to the Main Event unless spoken to. But there was the Ayatollah of Rocknrolla calling out WCW’s hottest and most dominant force. We didn’t know what to make of it.

Unfortunately, neither did WCW.

Week in and week out the group of people I watched wrestling with (Nitro live, then RAW off of the VHS tape that I would re-record over every week until it wore out) would wait for Goldberg – or anyone – to respond to Jericho’s antics. These would range from simply calling the undefeated monster out to actually staging matches with fake Goldbergs to winning matches via count out when Goldberg no-showed.

Nothing ever came of this. To Jerichoholics, it looked like WCW didn’t care about one of our favorite wrestlers. The lack of response didn’t make Jericho look unworthy, it made WCW look ignorant.

After the non-feud with Goldberg, Jericho continued to entertain but seemed somewhat directionless. His upward momentum simply ceased and we all started to worry that he would never be the Main Event performer we knew he should be. Heck, even if he did make it to the Main Event, he’d suffer one of two boring fates – he’d be crushed by the nWo or he’d join them and dilute his own, personal brand.

And then, in August of 1999, Jericho’s brand got a massive revival when he debuted on Monday Night RAW to cut a promo against WWF’s biggest star, The Rock.

We all knew it was coming, but we (and the live crowd in Chicago) all went bonkers when the countdown clock that had been teasing someone’s debut ran out about three months early and Jericho emerged from backstage to verbally joust with the best smack talker the WWF had to offer. He said he was there to save the WWF, but what got saved was his career.

Well, eventually.

Jericho’s first months in the WWF were tough. As a fan, I was seeing a guy that I thought was one of the best wrestlers in the world seem to fail. He was having sloppy matches, his once clever and hilarious mic work seemed somehow out of place, and he just wasn’t fitting in to what was already a much more dynamic and vital environment than WCW.

Looking back, Y2J’s initial year was an excellent indicator of the difference between WCW and the WWF. Down South, he had stood out amongst a vast sea of performers – some great, some middling, most interchangeable – as a magnificent talent. But once he got to New York where everyone had a shot and the talent was hungry, he wasn’t able to stand out as easily. The competition was tougher because the product was better and constantly evolving. The boys there had to keep up with the program or get left behind and as a result they had all developed skills that much of the comfortable WCW roster never did. In short, everyone in WWF had the same drive that had made Chris Jericho special in WCW. He was going to have to work a lot harder to stand out while also adapting to the many simpler differences between the companies like ring construction (ask my testicles how much the height and tautness of the ropes can affect your performance in the ring).

Jericho adapted. And thrived. While to those of us watching from home it seemed like he was fighting a constant uphill battle against management (and it turns out that many times he was), he eventually got comfortable in the new environment and was able to settle in to the work of getting over.

To be continued...

Phantom Troublemaker has drawn money without ever being listed on a card, taken bumps without ever being booked in a match, and has worked in the business without ever receiving a check. He was the announcer for Monstrosity Championship Wrestling, Platinum Championship Wrestling, and is the current Voice of Dragon Con Wrestling. None of that makes him right, but it is nice to see at the bottom of a post about wrestling.

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