As rumors swirl about the potential Wrestlemania card, one match will prove hotter than any of other possibilities WWE could produce. The build to the inevitable Chris Jericho/Kevin Owens match has been the best long-term storytelling in the past two years and, in the long run, has arguably produced Jericho’s best creative run in WWE and has left Kevin Owens in a stronger position than he has been since his debut.
When Jericho re-debuted two years ago as the old-timer babyface, the future looked bleak. Jericho, who has proven to have the best ability of any wrestler in decades to read the terrain and reinvent him or her self, noticed this quickly. He leaned into the stale babyface demeanor, exaggeratingly attempting to get phrases like “Rooty-Tooty Booty” over with bored audiences. Whether this was a creative line or his, even in this role, he was slowly building a character – the aging, out-of-touch superstar. He was soon paired with AJ Styles, who while a veteran in TNA and overseas, was the fresh new babyface in WWE.
Chris Jericho and New Day – Rooty-Tooty Booty
Then the heel turn came. His style changed as well. Suddenly, walking to the ring, he had a swagger that combines Mick Jagger with Jack Sparrow. He had a pompous sneer of the rich and famous. He was shirtless with his lighted, studded jacket and a $750 scarf. He resented everyone, especially the talent of Styles and the rest of the younger generation of wrestlers. Jericho, consciously or not, had read the times beautifully: everything was about him; he made declarations that he never meant to follow through on; he talked down to all the “stupid idiots” that surrounded him; he spouting alternative facts about winning matches he, in reality, didn’t in fake towns like “Appleton;” everything anyone said or did against him was a personal insult that needed avenged. He turned himself into “a gift” that his audiences were lucky to see. He would urge them to “drink it in, maaaaaan” and slowly extend his arms to give them a glimpse of his perfection. In short, he was delusional and egotistical, but unlike his real-life counterpart, he was funny.
Backstage interview with Jericho
The pairing of Jericho with Owens last summer just before the brand split seemed both natural and unnatural. Owens was a loner; Jericho disdained everyone. For them to find solace in each other was comical, yet realistic. This is when Jericho’s character kicked into high gear. Two Canadians, one an aging technician who was full of himself, the other a younger bruiser who was full of himself. Owen was the straight man of the two; Jericho was the buffoonish, often embarrassing, old brother. Before they officially became “best friends,” they tagged on Smackdown against Ambrose and Zayn. After their victory, they excitingly raised each other’s’ hands up on the ramp. Owens says, “I beat you. Chris helped, but I beat you!” Jericho responds, uncharacteristically, “It was all you.” Kevin agrees, “It was all me. You’re the GOAT.” Jericho tells him, barely audible, “You’re the fuckin’ donkey.” Owens says, “I don’t care. CANADA!”
Aftermath to Jericho/Owens versus Ambrose/Zayn
The pairing for Owens worked well, even if his booking during the angle did not as much. Owens had debuted with a large push. In NXT, he was the monster loner. On his first night in the brand, he turned on his long-time IRL best friend, Sami Zayn, by power bombing him on the ring apron and injuring his shoulder. He displayed intensity unlike most. Hurting others was like a sexual release for him. The desire to maim built up in him until it reached a boil, and once his opponent was injured, he would close his eyes and exhale deeply as if he had found his release. He came to the main roster as a prizefighter, the NXT Champion, who felt he was too good not to be facing the likes of John Cena. He blew into the show like a storm and quickly got himself over with a believable character and strong heel mic skills, skills that would leave the viewer chuckling, for sure, but never defending his actions.
Kevin Owens wins the NXT Title from Sami Zayn
When Owens was given the Universal Championship, the Owens/Jericho friendship truly blossomed. While Owens had been pushed well on his debut, he was soon regulated to midcard feuds that received less screen time and 50/50 booking that stalled the momentum built with his win against Cena. His partnership with Jericho allowed him to lean into his comedic timing and facial expressions, to humanize the monster a bit. It also afforded him more screen time than he’d had previously. In the storylines, Jericho found a way to help Owens win every blow off match, even violating the sanctity of the Hell in the Cell in a mockery to help Owens retain over Seth Rollins. Owens would react to Jericho’s out-of-touch comments, his alternative facts, his bloviating brags as the jock younger brother who didn’t quite understand the bourgeois midlife crisis his sibling was going through. Nevertheless, like family, Jericho was always there for him. He might be annoying, but he was loyal…and convenient.
In a rare credit to long-term storytelling, the seeds of the breakup where set into play early. In September, Jericho interviewed Sami Zayn on The Highlight Reel where he bragged to Sami about his new best friend, Kevin Owens. Zayn, in an act of kindness, tried to explain that Owens has no friends and he would eventually turn on Jericho too. Jericho scuffed, but the viewer knew that Zayn’s comments would prove true, sooner or later. This lurked in the back of every viewer’s mind every time Owens’s eyes glazed over at a predicament Jericho caused and every eye roll at Jericho’s over-the-top shenanigans.
Zayn tell Jericho that Owens will turn on him
The Festival of Friendship this past week was that moment that Zayn predicted. In recent months, Owens had been showing more and more frustration with Jericho as Jericho overzealously kept putting Owens in bad situations in the name of “having his back.” While some believed this was Jericho intending to turn on Owens, a belief that stemmed from fans wanting to believe that Jericho was still the Lionheart, The Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Rolla; this segment though solidified Jericho’s character. His affection for Owens was genuine the whole time. He legitimately was trying to help Owens all those times; he was just an old klutz now. He was trying to relive his glory years, pretending he was still the same superstar. Unconsciously, he knew he couldn’t, so he had found someone in Owens that he could identify with, a pudgier, younger version of himself in many ways: brash, mean, charismatic, braggadocio. In his most brilliant moment of the Festival, Jericho speaks both as a shoot and in kayfabe when he explains “he’s had a lot of friends and partners” in his career, but none he’s had the chemistry with like Owens. It made the coming betrayal even more painful to watch.
The segment itself will be remembered for many years to come. The comedy of the segment will be remembered – from the “minimalist maximist” art of Guggenheim to the return of the Goldberg spoof, Gillberg, after twenty years, which further illustrates how outdated Jericho is. The heartbreak of the segment will be remembered as Jericho talks from the heart for the first time in two years and the pitiful way he asks, “How come my name is on this list?” before Owens ferociously attacks him. The return of the real Kevin Owens will be remembered, how the frustrated, heavy breathing brute who loves to hurt and has no real friends repeated his favorite maneuver, the power bomb into the apron, mirroring his betrayal of his other bestie, Sami Zayn. The humanity of the segment will be remembered, the way Owens stared at his title for a few seconds too long, as if he’s reminding himself “this is why I’m doing this,” a sign that some regret exists and the humanity he displayed in the past year was real. It will be remembered that the last entry, the last word on The List of Jericho was Friendship, after the name of the failed clown Jericho had hired off Craigslist.
The Festival of Friendship
Owens attacks Jericho during the Festival
Ultimately though, this is more than simply a segment. This is the end of intersection of two careers that thrived creatively when they joined and are in stronger places now that it has ended. Jericho, who will be going to tour with his band in the next few months undoubtedly as rumored, will leave this latest stint on the strongest note of his career. He entertained better than ever, he put over younger talent, and if he was not putting them over, then he was getting them over. His out-of-touch character showed just how out-of-touch he was that he couldn’t even remember what it was like to be his younger self and see Owens’s turn coming a mile away. It serves as the most complete character work of his career. Meanwhile, Owens now returns to his roots. Many main roster fans were unaware of Owens’s selfish, heartless, brutal nature that was displayed in NXT outside of some video packages hyping a match against Sami Zayn. Now, however, they have seen this in action, watched it play out in real-time. He is legitimatized now as a main event-level star and a main event-level heel.
The Wrestlemania card is still sorting itself out. It is unknown who the Undertaker will be fighting, possibly in his last match. Whoever it is, probably Roman Reigns, will be thrown in with five weeks to go, hardly enough time for a proper build. Goldberg’s popularity is already dwindling since his return, and his match with Brock certainly cannot go any more than ten minutes. Orton and Wyatt have a solid story building, but parts have been seemingly rushed. Plus, there is no guarantee that the story will end at Wrestlemania. What is known is that with the heat both men have and can draw, the strong characters they have created in the past year, and the long-term storytelling displayed in this build, the imploded best friendship of Jericho and Owens will, more than any other match, be the heart of this year’s Wrestlemania.