On the morning of Nov. 5, Chris Jericho awoke in Newcastle, England, waiting for his phone to blow up. Around 9 AM, in the middle of the night across North America, it happened.
Following a successful defense of his IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship at New Japan Pro Wrestling's Power Struggle event, Kenny Omega had the lights go out on him. Omega was seeking a challenger for his title at Wrestle Kingdom 12 on Jan. 4, New Japan's biggest event of the year, laughing between English and Japanese that there was nobody left who had the guts to take him on.
A screen lit up with a countdown clock, and in an instant, internet speculation and tongue-in-cheek, this-could-never-happen fantasy booking was revealed to be a reality. Through smoke and heavy guitar, Jericho appeared on screen. Smirk breaking through his goateed face, leather collar popped behind him, Jericho tore a photo of the champion lengthwise and laid the challenge down: Jericho vs. Kenny, wrestling's ultimate Alpha against the man they call Omega.
"Dude," Jericho says with excitement, feigning keyboard noises to mimic the online reaction that followed, "it was great. Most people woke up to it, and they were like, 'What?' And then they're like, 'We knew this was gonna be something.'
"You didn't fucking know shit. You didn't know a thing. Nobody knew."
There were hints along the way, seeds that were being planted. Jericho and Omega had been going at each other on social media since June, stoking the flames of a potential rivalry that, to most, seemed possible only if contained within the online world. Jericho is a WWE lifer, after all, a Vince McMahon loyalist who hasn't wrestled in Japan since 1997 or outside of WWE since 1999.
McMahon, it turns out, was one of only a very small handful of people who knew what was coming, a professional courtesy Jericho extended out of respect. The plan had been in the works for months, though, and it was kept entirely under wraps, to the point that New Japan's ace, top champion, and Wrestle Kingdom main-eventer, Kazuchika Okada, found out at the same time as the rest of the world. Outside of Jericho and Omega, who didn't even meet during the planning process, the only people on the inside were Gedo (New Japan's booker and, way back when, a partner of Jericho's), and three other New Japan execs who met with Jericho in shrouded New York secrecy in August to finalize the story.
"I've been following his career. I heard how good he was and I heard all of these great reports, and I was like, that's great," Jericho, who had never seen an Omega match to this point, says. "So when it was pitched to me just as a joke, 'Hey, how about Jericho and Kenny Omega, that's pretty funny?' I was like, I don't know if funny's the word. I think it's kind of interesting. Why don't you kind of see what the reaction was?"
Omega liked it, Jericho liked it, and so started one of the first main-event level feuds borne entirely of a (fake) social media spat, a dream match few would ever actually dare dream about. (Just don’t tell Tetsuya Naito it's a main-event feud.) It comes at a time when Omega is one of the largest foreign stars in the company's history, as NJPW continues to expand its North American footprint, and as the tide of the entire wrestling industry shifts more and more toward viability of non-WWE entities as sustainable major players.
"There are people that can rise above and stand out from kind of what they are, and Jericho has always, no matter where he's gone, no matter where he's been, has been one of those guys," Omega says. "Which is why he has a legit argument for being the best of all time. And that's why this match means so much."
For Jericho, this is just the latest arc in a storied career that has always seen him stay one step ahead of where the industry is going. He was a part of ECW's peak, the breakthrough WCW cruiserweight, and jumped to WWE right as the Monday Night Wars swung for good. In WWE, he teased his first debut with a countdown clock to build speculation and anticipation, returned later with a cryptic code that was early-era message board catnip, and has since entered and exited without warning and, almost always, with great surprise.
It's an incredible rarity in the wrestling world to keep a match as big as Jericho-Omega a secret (his surprise entry in the 2013 Royal Rumble remains one of the best-kept surprises in the event's history). It's even more rare for wrestlers to continuously reinvent themselves, eschewing nostalgia pops to push the envelope with new and fresh ideas.
If there's a defining characteristic of Jericho's sure-fire Hall of Fame career, it's that he's made more returns than any modern wrestler without it once feeling stale. His absences have been just long and just frequent enough, the tweaks to his character just pronounced enough, for the same Jericho to bring a wholly new experience. His toughest reinvention may have been his "silent return," when he turned crowds thirsty to hear him once again, but declined to speak and did so in as over-the-top a manner imaginable. It was as subtle and effective a heel turn as they come.
Even in his most recent WWE run, at an age when most wrestlers are working part-time schedules as the character people best know them as, Jericho was reinventing. The plan called for him to eventually turn heel, but the schedule was pushed back, leaving Jericho to try to hint at the change to come, which some took as him finally growing stale. The seeking of immediate storytelling gratification can be frustrating when there's a longer-term plan in place.
"I started planting seeds that people were getting sick of. Like, the scarf. The scarf, Jericho wearing a scarf, it looks stupid. Now it's the biggest thing in the world," he says. "Or I started this chant one time for New Day, "rootie tootie bootie." I knew it sucked. I knew it was bad. But I was out there giving it my all, trying to get people to say it, and they really weren't. So [they said] 'Jericho's at the end of his rope, he's got no new ideas, he looks like a fool.' Exactly. That's what you're supposed to think, so that when it finally happens, [you think] oh my gosh, this is the greatest thing I've ever seen.
"And it's hard because you have to sit there and read the online comments, 'He's over the hill, he's past his shelf life, he needs to retire, rootie tootie bootie is embarrassing.' Like, I know, I know, just hold on and see what happens."
What happened led to one of Jericho's greatest accomplishments as a wrestler and a performer in general. After an extended run as Kevin Owens' supposed best friend, the pairing was set to split. Jericho had a grand idea for WWE's Festival of Friendship segment on Raw, an elaborate celebration on Jericho's part that would end with Owens turning on him, to everyone’s surprise. Jericho got push-back from some within the company who thought the idea sounded too comedic, and he was adamant that if done correctly, it would be heartbreaking instead.
It's this type of ingenuity that's kept Jericho at the top of his game and the wrestling world at large for decades, making him one of the most unassailable successes of the modern era. It's also extended outside of the wrestling world, where Jericho has dabbled in just about everything. He's written multiple books, hosts a terrific and well-listened to podcast (Talk is Jericho), and is the front man for a successful rock band (Fozzy).
And last week, season two of his (very good) webseries But I’m Chris Jericho premiered on CBC. Since the time he first left WWE in 2005, Jericho has studied acting—improv, most notably—and for eight years tried to sell this fictionalized version of his foray into acting. Several of season one's storylines come directly from his experience, with Jericho borrowing from Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Fawlty Towers to turn this version of him into an unlikable asshole lacking entirely in self-awareness and heavy on Lead Singer’s Disease.
The first season aired in 2013, winning one Canadian Comedy Award and being nominated for four others. It's little surprise that Jericho was at the forefront of an industry he was new to, a little early to the game before Netflix and Amazon and others were buying up any original content for streaming purposes. Even with its success, he said it "didn’t count" if it didn't get a second season. He eventually got that chance, and has the full weight of CBC's promotional arm behind the series.
In one of Jericho’s books, he lays out 20 principles for success, his favorite of which is the David Bowie Principle: Always reinvent yourself. The gist of it is that it would be silly for people to have asked the late Bowie to go back to his Aladdin Sane days, for example, because Bowie had already moved on to the next thing. There's an emptiness to the inherent reward of creativity with rehashing the old, and Jericho applies that outlook to all arms of his career.
"I love constantly thinking of new things and new ideas and new ways to present myself to keep people excited," he says. "That's what I do: I'm an entertainer. I'm not saying I'm a ray of sunshine in people's lives, but if I can do stuff that I think is cool that other people happen to think is cool as well, then it becomes exciting.
"That is part of what charges me and helps me continue to stay at the top of my game, is staying ahead of things rather than behind. Because when you're behind, you're done. If you don't move, you die. To me, I constantly have to be moving creatively."
That means continuing to tour with Fozzy (through Wrestlemania season, no less), growing as an actor in his webseries, and trying something entirely new in wrestling, when it was hard to figure there was anything new left for him to do. He's earned the cache at this point to do what's worked in the past, and to do whatever he wants to do. Those things don't line up, and so he's opting to try something that really didn't seem possible until it came about half-jokingly: An all-Winnipeg, Manitoba, showdown worthy of top billing anywhere in the world more than 27 years after he debuted, with the type of build that has kept the wrestling community buzzing with each passing promo or attack.
"That's why I did it. I knew it was something that nobody expected would ever happen," he says. "It came completely out of the blue. It's a story that you tell. And I'm always about the story. I don't give a shit about good matches, I care about the storyline that gets you to that match. That's the most important thing. It's the old-school way of thinking where it's like this match isn't very good, I got your money kid. You get those people's money to get in there. And then you wanna put on a good match, but that's not as important as the storyline leading to it, for me.
"Those little things, there are enough of those little signposts throughout my career in all these things, season two of this show, that really keep me alive and keep me growing. I don't ever wanna go backwards, ever. Forwards. I never wanna look back, I just wanna continue to look forward and what cool things can I do to keep people guessing and keep people entertained."
What's next for Jericho after the biggest night of Japan's wrestling calendar is anyone's guess, but it's a safe bet it won't be anything you've seen him do before.