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Chris Jericho left the WWE behind. He might be bigger than ever.

From his Tampa Bay home, the rock star, podcaster and face of All Elite Wrestling is pulling strings inside and outside the ring.
Wrestler Chris Jericho poses for a portrait at his home in Odessa.
Wrestler Chris Jericho poses for a portrait at his home in Odessa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Apr. 1, 2020
Updated Apr. 1, 2020

ODESSA — Chris Jericho bounces barefoot in the converted gym in his garage, Ozzy blasting overhead and a trainer in pads barking orders in his face.

Jab! Kick! Jab! Burst! Thirty seconds left! Beat that clock!

Jericho’s sweating. His jaw is locked in a grimace; his long, graying mane bunched in a bun. Gone is Y2J, the Lionheart, the Ayatollah of Rock 'n' Rolla, the Man of 1,004 Holds, even his latest wrestling persona, Le Champion. Gone is Chris Jericho the author, the actor, the rock star, the podcaster, the chameleonic raconteur from Best Week Ever and Dancing With the Stars.

Here in his home off Lake Keystone, he’s simply Christopher Irvine, 49-year-old father of three, sweating through his Bret Hart tank top, bare feet splotched pink from kickboxing.

A year ago, Jericho, a Tampa Bay resident of more than two decades, signed on as the marquee star of All Elite Wrestling, an upstart company funded by the deep-pocketed owners of the Jacksonville Jaguars. That places him squarely in competition with the WWE, his off-and-on employer since 1999.

And it means that when the WWE stages its signature annual event this weekend in WrestleMania, Jericho — the WWE’s first undisputed champion, a 13-time WrestleMania veteran and by most accounts one of the best all-around pro wrestlers ever — will be nowhere near it.

Judas! the trainer snaps.

Jericho plants his left foot and spins backward into Le Champion's latest finisher, the Judas Effect. He smacks a blind right elbow into the trainer's pad with a loud pop that cracks through the Ozzy. Unlike his old finisher, the Walls of Jericho, this one looks like it could do real damage.

“I wanted something that had never been done before, that I’d never seen before,” he says at round’s end. “Not just a whole move, but a whole new story that I can tell.”

He flashes a wily Hollywood grin.

“No one’s ever kicked out of the Judas,” he says. “No one ever will. And if they do, it’ll be a big f--king deal.”

Wrestler Chris Jericho, left, works out in a kickboxing session with his trainer Ty Brett at his home in Odessa.
Wrestler Chris Jericho, left, works out in a kickboxing session with his trainer Ty Brett at his home in Odessa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

*****

This is not about the WWE. Not entirely. Jericho has too much history with Vince McMahon to let it get personal. And he’s too smart to drag AEW into it.

But it’s also not not about the WWE. That’s a real story line here, and if there’s one thing Jericho can smell, it’s a story. He’s too smart to let one as juicy as a rift with his former company slip by — even if he knows the WWE isn’t likely to join in.

“They’ll probably never mention me again,” he says. “I don’t blame them. Why would they promote me in any way, shape or form, when I’m the head of this opposing army, in their opinion, that’s stealing money out of their pockets?”

Is Jericho just playing a heel, as he has so many times before? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s notable that he’s still doing it this well so deep into his wrestling career.

“He’s a natural born marketer. He’ll be selling something until he dies,” says veteran wrestling announcer Jim Ross, who recruited Jericho into the WWE, and now calls his matches with AEW. “He’s a student of this whole process. He’s not a dumb guy. He is his own business.”

Sometimes literally.

When Jericho and his family moved out of a different home in Odessa last year, he held a yard sale to get rid of old junk, from furniture and fishing poles to signed books and life-size cutouts. And in the grand tradition of pro wrestling, he hyped it with a promo video.

“The next thing I know,” he says, “people are showing up in droves, buying my underwear.”

Jericho has a knack for this sort of thing, for pitching hooks that at first sound ludicrous, but as often as not pay off. Like dubbing himself “Y2J” at the peak of Y2K hysteria, or unveiling a gimmick where he’d dramatically scribble foes’ names on a notepad in the ring, shouting “You just made the list!” as fans went crazy.

“He’s got a little Ric Flair in him,” Ross says. “Flamboyant. Always doing something to catch someone’s eye.”

Chris Jericho, shown in this undated file photo, wrestled for the WWE off and on between 1999 and 2017.
Chris Jericho, shown in this undated file photo, wrestled for the WWE off and on between 1999 and 2017. [ WWE ]

In the WWE, Jericho was a reliable performer who usually had McMahon’s ear. He would sometimes walk his pitches past the company’s writers and go straight to the boss, believing “my ideas are better than most, and nine times out of 10, I think I’m right.”

Did that make him a difficult employee? For the briefest of moments, the question gives him pause.

“Am I hard to work with? Maybe to somebody who’s used to working with yes men, and people that just want to get along, yes," he says. "If you’re looking for somebody that’s going to do his utmost best to get the job done right, to put on the best possible program and best possible story line at the risk of hurting people’s feelings? Then yes, I’m hard to deal with.”

Still: “I earned Vince’s trust. And it takes a long time to get his real trust. Moneymaking trust. ... He’s never told me this, but indirectly, I think he regrets losing me, because I was one of his generals. I’m not always right, but f--k if I’m not close 80 percent of the time.”

*****

The son of NHL player Ted Irvine, Jericho grew up in Winnipeg, part of a long and distinguished line of wrestling greats from the Canadian prairies. Even as a child, he says, “all I wanted to do was be in a rock 'n’ roll band and be a wrestler, and here I am 30 years later, doing both at the highest of levels.”

It’s bravado, sure. It’s also hard to argue.

As a wrestler, Jericho was a champion in Japan, Mexico and various American circuits before 1999, when he made his WWE debut interrupting a monologue by the Rock. He was slightly undersized, but a great promo artist and in-ring storyteller. He could play the heel or the babyface with equal ease, and make his opponents look like champions in the process. And he reinvented his style so often that fans started calling him pro wrestling’s David Bowie.

Speaking of music, there’s Fozzy. What started in 1999 as Jericho’s goofy metal cover band became, over the years, a legitimate success. In 2017, they scored their first Top 10 single on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart in Judas, which Jericho still uses for his ring entrance music. Two subsequent singles have also gone top 10, and the band has opened for Iron Maiden and Kiss, among other heroes. When Guns N’ Roses plays Tampa in August, Jericho says, “I’m going to invite Slash and Duff over for a barbecue the night before.”

Singer Chris Jericho and Fozzy perform at 98 Rockfest at Amalie Arena in Tampa on April 25, 2014.
Singer Chris Jericho and Fozzy perform at 98 Rockfest at Amalie Arena in Tampa on April 25, 2014. [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

And there’s more. His talent for spinning anecdotes has led to several bestselling memoirs. His comic timing and pop-culture sponge of a mind led to performances with L.A.'s Groundlings comedy troupe and roles in films like Magruber and Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. He tangoed with Cheryl Burke on Dancing With the Stars. He’s the namesake of Chris Jericho’s Rock 'n' Wrestling Rager at Sea, a cruise line that in 2019 turned a profit.

And then there’s his podcast, Talk Is Jericho. Launched in 2013, the show has featured dozens of wrestlers and industry players going deep on the business, as well as movie, music and political stars. (Donald Trump Jr. was a guest last fall.) Most episodes get around 100,000 downloads; an episode featuring AEW rival Jon Moxley netted 1.5 million.

It’s a diversified resume that few wrestlers can match outside the ring. Which has kept him a commodity inside the ring, too.

******

Chris Jericho grabs the hair of Jungle Boy during an All Elite Wrestling match in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Chris Jericho grabs the hair of Jungle Boy during an All Elite Wrestling match in Corpus Christi, Texas. [ All Elite Wrestling ]

All Elite Wrestling was founded by several wrestlers, including Cody (son of Dusty) Rhodes; and Tony Khan, son of billionaire Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan. The younger Khan had been a Jericho fan since the ’90s. And with the wrestler no longer under contract with the WWE, they offered him “more money than I ever made in my career,” Jericho says.

Jericho doesn’t have a stake in the company (“Believe me, I asked”), but his star power did grease the wheels on AEW’s TV contract with TNT. He came in as the heel face of the company, sneering his way to a title belt. Viewers tuned in, and later listened to Talk Is Jericho for behind-the-scenes scoops. As usual, Jericho kept saying and doing things to keep them coming back.

Here’s one example. After winning the AEW championship last fall, Jericho stormed ceremoniously into a sad-looking backstage buffet. He lambasted the cheap spread of olives and salami before spotting a bottle of Champagne — or, as he called it in a growly purr, “a little bit of the bubbly.”

It was a half-second ad lib, an old quote from Dumb and Dumber. That’s it. But social media ran with it, remixing the clip into songs and memes, taking the phrase “a little bit of the bubbly" viral.

Jericho’s light bulb went off. Within weeks, he had partnered with a Washington state vineyard on A Little Bit of the Bubbly sparkling wine. They produced 30,000 bottles, needing to sell 10,000 to break even. They sold 25,000.

A bottle of Chris Jericho's sparkling wine, A Little Bit of the Bubbly, sits behind his desk at his home in Odessa.
A bottle of Chris Jericho's sparkling wine, A Little Bit of the Bubbly, sits behind his desk at his home in Odessa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Behind the scenes at AEW, however, Jericho fulfills a role that’s harder to define. He uses words like “director, manipulator in a good way, pulling the strings.” Ross calls him a “producer,” “coach,” “road agent,” even “father figure.”

Like a lot of WWE alternatives, AEW is populated with performers from alternative circuits. Some don’t look or perform like traditional, hulking WWE SuperStars — the wiry, acrobatic Jungle Boy; the irony-soaked enigma Orange Cassidy; the face-painting skateboarder Darby Allin; even transgender women’s champ Nyla Rose. Coming from the WWE, Jericho didn’t initially understand their appeal, either.

But part of his job was to build them up, helping AEW seed a crop of future stars — “putting them over,” wrestlers call it. Which, as it happens, is yet another thing Jericho always did well. So he pushed Allen to lean into the skateboarding gimmick, went a fierce 10 minutes in the ring with Jungle Boy, asked Cassidy for tapes so he could study his skills and perhaps book a match. He had Rose on Talk Is Jericho, where the host — admitting he knew little about trans issues — delved into her life as a trans woman.

“We’re not a one-man show, which Chris I’m sure would say as well,” Ross says. “But to say that we would be as far along as we are right now, getting an extension from TNT, coming off a very successful pay-per-view — I would say we would not be this far along without Chris Jericho. He added instant credibility.”

Chris Jericho, right, squares off against Darby Allin during a match in Cleveland on Jan. 29, 2020.
Chris Jericho, right, squares off against Darby Allin during a match in Cleveland on Jan. 29, 2020. [ All Elite Wrestling ]

*****

Even before the coronavirus forced the WWE to move WrestleMania out of Tampa and over to its training center in Orlando, Jericho wanted no part of it. Outside of one (now-canceled) autograph signing at a non-WWE convention, he would’ve laid low at home with his family.

Instead, he’s kept doing Chris Jericho things in AEW.

When the coronavirus forced AEW to tape shows in March with no audience, Jericho stood in an empty ring and talked enthusiastic smack to a drone. (Deadspin, the next day, called it “the greatest piece of television this year, and quite possibly the last decade.”) When social distancing became a cultural norm, Jericho live-streamed a hang sesh from his home office on Facebook. Nearly 160,000 fans tuned in.

While Jericho tends to downplay the AEW-versus-WWE angle, he does say his new employer allows more “creative freedom” than his old one.

“After 30 years, I actually know what I’m doing,” he says. “In WWE I had that freedom, but there’s a process you have to go through there. There’s a lot of approvals and different heads of state that you have to go through before the idea is approved.”

He says he’s had good talks with McMahon, and that McMahon even offered to counter his deal with AEW (although by that time, Jericho had already signed). But he also knows that as long as he’s with AEW, some doors will stay shut behind him.

And for now, he’s okay with that.

“If I continue to work for the Khan family for the rest of my life, I’ll never go into the WWE Hall of Fame,” he says. “Does that bother me? No. I mean, the Sex Pistols didn’t show up for theirs. I always kind of liked that.

“I’m a hall of famer in the minds of the people who want me to be in the hall of fame,” he adds. “I’m a hall of famer in my mind. That’s all that matters.”

Wrestler Chris Jericho warms up while preparing for a kickboxing session with his trainer Ty Brett at his home in Odessa.
Wrestler Chris Jericho warms up while preparing for a kickboxing session with his trainer Ty Brett at his home in Odessa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]