January 4, 2018
Omega vs Jericho
When Chris Jericho announced that he was coming to New Japan Pro Wrestling and that he was going to wrestle Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom, a new era in wrestling was almost instantly created. Perhaps All Elite Wrestling is formed without this match, and perhaps NJPW would still have been able to grow its international fan base without Jericho’s name value, but Jericho’s decision to depart WWE to perform elsewhere was a key turning point in the ability for non-WWE promotions to garner mainstream attention.
Before Jericho left WWE, WWE had almost a complete monopoly on top names in wrestling. Sure, names like Hulk Hogan, Kurt Angle and Jeff Hardy had left WWE for TNA years earlier, but Hogan was not an active wrestler when he left WWE and Angle and Hardy were essentially let go from their contracts due to personal issues. With the exception of Rey Mysterio, who did leave the company on his own in 2015 to work for AAA, no real major star had left WWE for another promotion without any form of controversy.
Jericho taking the plunge was groundbreaking, he was a legitimate major name in wrestling, someone who was not only a big star to current fans, but due to his notoriety during the Attitude Era and the Monday Night Wars, was a name that was recognized by former fans or casual fans. While Cody Rhodes and later, Jon Moxley were known names to contemporary WWE fans, Jericho’s fame was on a different level and his name value was very high, even among non-wrestling fans.
Of course, it was fitting for Jericho to be the name to do it. While a major star for sure in WWE, Jericho had a world-wide experience in wrestling, including fond memories working for promotions in Japan, including a run with NJPW in the 90s. It was Mexico of all places that Jericho actually teamed with the Japanese tag team of Jado and Gedo, who not-so-coincidentally would end up being the booking team for NJPW when Jericho arrived in 2017.
More important than his global experience prior to WWE was Jericho’s consistent drive to perform at a high level. Jericho didn’t leave WWE because he thought he wasn’t being paid enough, like Hogan had, he left because he wanted to creatively challenge himself in wrestling. WWE is a fine place for an aging legend to work a few matches and cash a paycheck, but historically Vince McMahon has been reluctant to allow older wrestlers to occupy main event positions and be pushed as top guys, unless they are Triple H or The Undertaker. Jericho would say in interviews that he thought he was capable of still being a main event performer and he wasn’t going to get that opportunity in WWE, so he had to go elsewhere.
New Japan Pro Wrestling had been steadily gaining momentum in the United States since the start of the decade. The promotion got a big boost when AJ Styles, probably the biggest name in US wrestling this millennium to have never worked for WWE, left TNA to come to NJPW in 2014. However, it wasn’t until Styles left for WWE in early 2016 that NJPW would really flourish in the US, pushing Kenny Omega in his place as the leader of Bullet Club. The creation of New Japan World also allowed easy access to all of NJPW’s major events, regardless of where fans lived.
Jericho departing WWE and starting his feud with Omega took NJPW to a whole new level. Mainstream media sources, such as Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports, who had just begun dipping their toes into wrestling coverage, began giving publicity to the Japanese promotion. Jericho going to NJPW took NJPW from a promotion that hardcore wrestling fans were aware of, to a promotion that was on the radar for casual or lapsed fans. Not all of those fans would be turned into rapid NJPW fans, but it certainly got the promotions name out there.
The match would also be an affirmation of Omega’s individual star power. Who exactly was this Canadian wrestler that Jericho turned down WWE money to go face in Japan? Omega was already a superstar for NJPW, but Jericho could have worked a program with any wrestler in the world and he chose Omega. Omega had been hyped as the best wrestler in the world for his outstanding performances in NJPW, and now he was going to face one of the biggest active names in wrestling, someone who had been with WWE for nearly two decades but had left that cocoon to face him. Omega vs Jericho was the first legitimate dream match for US audiences to take place outside of WWE in over 20 years.
With Jericho aboard NJPW would see a surge in business, especially outside of Japan and New Japan World subscriptions would see a tremendous increase for Jericho vs Omega. Not only did fans get to see Jericho, they were also introduced to an excellent Wrestle Kingdom card, undoubtedly converting some first time viewers into serious NJPW fans. Despite the promotions domestic success, NJPW was definitely seen as minor league to some foreign viewers, but the acquisition of Jericho would further legitimize the promotion. It isn’t a coincidence that a year later, NJPW would sell out Madison Square Garden without Jericho even being advertised for the show.
The match itself was very good, not the best match of the year but very satisfying for the fans who tuned in. It is possible that if things had gone poorly, Jericho would have abandoned his foreign excursion and returned to the familiar arms of WWE. With the match being a success, it further justified Jericho’s rationale for leaving WWE; he could still be a major, main event star if given the opportunity.
With the emergence of All Elite Wrestling at the start of 2019, Jericho wouldn’t have to rely on just NJPW to satisfy his creative appetite. Jericho would emerge as the face of the new company, a marketable name who had been a cable TV star in the US for the last 20 years. Jericho is the perfect cornerstone for the upstart promotion, a legend in the business but a talent that is aware enough to know how to leverage his star power to help younger wrestlers get over.
AEW has had its ups and downs, but there can be no denying that Jericho has been tremendous in his role as the heel champion. While the promotion was founded on the backs of Cody, Omega and The Young Bucks, Jericho is the heart and soul of the promotion one year into it. He is absolutely irreplaceable and is about to be showered with Wrestler of the Year awards at age 49. He is probably the most important wrestler of the last five years, and that all began with his first match with Omega at Wrestle Kingdom.
Jericho vs Omega was not the biggest drawing match of the decade, that would be The Rock vs John Cena, but it was probably the most important. It was the first time a promotion outside of WWE had captured mainstream attention for a program since the closure of WCW, and reshaped the way a lot of fans thought about wrestling outside WWE. It legitimized both NJPW and later AEW, as well as the stars that Jericho would make while working his various programs. His charisma and knowledge of how to get over and how to make money in the wrestling business has been invaluable not only for himself but for the promotions he has worked. He is probably the smartest man in professional wrestling at this very moment, and even as he gets older it is unlikely that is going to change.
This article is the eighth in a series of articles discussing the most significant moments in wrestling over the past ten years. Make sure to check back on Thursday for the next installment in the series
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