One of the real changes from wrestling's last real boom in the late 1990s compared to now has been the loss of the surprise appearance. More than the crazy angles and doses of T&A, what fans from the Monday Night Wars seem to pine for most (albeit under the guise of pining for violence and sex) is the sense that anything could happen with the wrestlers under a ceaseless bidding war between WCW and the then-WWF.
Indeed, the entire reason there was a war at all was due to surprise appearances by wrestlers on WCW's shows. The New World Order angle which burned so brightly started with the unannounced appearances of Scott Hall and Kevin Nash on WCW's flagship Monday Nitro. That evolved into an ongoing back and forth poaching of talent, as wrestlers would flip promotions as they burned out on one or received better pay at the other. Because the internet was still in its toddler years, most of the debuts were legitimate surprises. Much of the traffic was one way—WCW was playing with Ted Turner's money and they poached everyone from a retired Ted DiBiase to Curt Hennig to Shane Douglas in order to capture buzz and rub the WWF's and ECW's noses in the unfair fight—but every promotion got in on the act. The net effect was that pro wrestling felt wild and unpredictable, and it pretty much was.
Nobody benefited more from the surprise debut craze than Chris Jericho. Jericho in the late 90s was an electric talent in WCW's cruiserweight division. He worked a quasi-comedy gimmick which clashed in all the right ways with how good he was in the ring; his legendary recitation of the 1004 holds he'd mastered is one of the high points of the era and he regularly had matches which tore the house down with men like Dean Malenko and Eddie Guerrero. He wouldn't be the last nimble, technical wrestler to get burned out on WCW and jump to the WWF, though he's been the most successful: Malenko, Guerrero, and Chris Benoit would leave not long after Jericho moved on to varying degrees of success and infamy.
Jericho needed the WWF and the WWF needed him as a marker that it wasn't just WCW who could play the role of talent poacher. In the weeks prior to his debut with the WWF, a countdown clock would mysteriously appear on WWF television, until eventually it counted down during a Rock promo and, with an explosion of pyrotechnics, Jericho stepped out. A smattering of people knew, because information has never been hermetically sealed, but most folks were legitimately floored. The arena erupted with a volume of noise which was at odds with how high up WCW's card he actually was. Jericho would flirt with bigger pushes before capturing the WWF title in 2001, but there's little doubt that the force and manner of his unexpected debut helped buoy him over the years in a promotion which wasn't much kinder to his style of wrestling than WCW was.
The surprises waned over the years as the internet became more ubiquitous and pro wrestlers looser with what they let slip to the public. There are still a few—AJ Styles coming to WWE was a known quantity but we didn't expect his debut to be at the Royal Rumble and Shane McMahon kept his most recent return tightly under wraps—but they're few and far between. WWE has too much clout to need the extra juice of a surprise debutant, along with a fixation on putting new signings through NXT, and the indies are too permeable, with talent switching between smaller promotions all the time.
Which is why when Chris Jericho showed up on a New Japan video screen on Saturday night to challenge Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom, it was such a shock. The two had been jawing at each other over Twitter as a leadup to a proposed match on a cruise hosted by Jericho (this is extremely carnie), but the prospect of Jericho and Omega at NJPW's biggest show was unfathomable and, even better, completely unexpected. It's worth watching to hear the sincere gasps from the crowd; they're legitimately stunned until the ordinarily reserved Japanese crowds break out into "Y2J" chants.
This is a staggering move by both NJPW and Jericho. New Japan, for its part, is itching at doing what expansion it can into the United States. There's a partnership with Ring of Honor, West Coast NJPW shows, and creating a United States championship specifically for Kenny Omega, one of the best wrestlers in the world and one of the promotion's more recognizable faces.
What NJPW has lacked in this expansionary period of the past few years has been a true cross-Pacific star moving from North America to Japan. AJ Styles was, crazily enough, something of an unknown quantity before arriving in that we didn't know just how good he was until he was fully unleashed. Cody Rhodes is surprisingly polarizing. The Young Bucks come closest, but they're a tag team and fall under the same classification as Omega: wrestlers who made their stars in Japan rather than coming over as mega-names.
Jericho is different. He's one of the most recognizable faces in pro wrestling on a global scale. Maybe more than that, he's been a WWE guy for 20 years. The idea that he's heading to NJPW at this moment, when WWE's grip on its talent is loosening and NJPW shows no sign of slowing its current boom, is a big deal. It might not hurt WWE much—Jericho is a part-timer these days and flits in and out of WWE almost at his personal whim—but it stands to help NJPW via buzz, alone.
For Jericho, this is incredibly risky and more than a little ballsy. There's no indication that WWE is sanctioning this appearance. That leaves Jericho in the unenviable position of potentially annoying his long-term employer. It's tough to see an outcome where the relationship between Jericho and McMahon isn't at least a little strained after this.
It's also unclear how good a match this will actually be. It's taking nothing away from Jericho to say the obvious: he will be 47 when Wrestle Kingdom rolls around and while he can still go, he's noticeably slowed. Kenny Omega is, to put it bluntly, an athletic freak of nature who goes full speed pretty much at all times. Omega is going to have to slow down a little bit or Jericho is going to have to speed up. This is all mitigated by the fact that both are, above all, great in-ring storytellers and can lean on that to pick up any slack. Still, it is a risk that the hype will outstrip the reality very quickly.
All of that is hypothetical, however. What we know is what we have: that one of the all-time greats is going to have a match with one of the current greats at a massive show in Japan where they can both cut loose and figure it out. It is undeniably cool that this is happening, even cooler when you realize that arguably the two greatest surprise debuts of a known pro wrestler both belong to Chris Jericho, 20 years apart. We only have a short time left with Jericho as an active pro wrestler. Let's drink in one of the world's most natural pro wrestling dramatists while we still can.