Chris Jericho’s been having a good year.
Even someone like myself, who has gone into great detail about why I don’t count myself much of a Chris Jericho fan on the whole, can see that. The idea behind the Jericho Appreciation Society has been one of Jericho’s most focused and motivated gimmick changes in year. There’s a real solid premise behind it that allows him to branch out and find sticky pieces of content as he always had in his long run.
At the same time, his position in AEW has allowed him to spend the year working with a rotation of all-time talent like Eddie Kingston, Bryan Danielson, and Jon Moxley, as well as up-and-coming talent like Wheeler YUTA. This has produced some of the liveliest matches in his AEW run to date, and once again put the spotlight on the veteran after a hot and cold decade.
That being said, time only moves in a single direction. While Jericho’s found renewed life with the Jericho Appreciation Society, it would be fair to say that his peak days as a performer are likely behind him. And while I might have my own quibbles about his career, to say that he was never a great performer would simply be false.
For most of the 2000s, Chris Jericho was a pretty great worker. Matches against the likes of Chris Benoit, Christian, and John Cena all stand out as in-ring highlights from this time period. It’s also in this time that he did his most celebrated character work. People point to his heel turn in 2008 while feuding with Shawn Michaels, and turning into a cold-blooded, suit-wearing, vocabulary-slinging villain as one of his most successful reinventions.
That feud with Michaels is beloved for good reason. From the shift in character that displayed a new facet of Jericho, to the emotional weight and careful booking that they brought to the feud, Jericho put a lot of care and effort into his run against Michaels. The feud has its limits though, the big one being the PG rating literally turning the rivalry bloodless. Another is that it’s still late-stage Shawn Michaels and all the overdramatic melodrama he brings with him can weigh down some of their matches.
And that’s why Jericho’s actual best work ever is against Rey Mysterio.
Rey Mysterio is one of the wrestlers that we take for granted. He’s been so damn great for so long that it’s only when one steps back to appreciate the breadth of what he’s accomplished that it really becomes clear how amazing the man is. This is a wrestler that been in great matches, innovating styles and pushing forward professional wrestling, for close to thirty years now.
That being said, Rey Mysterio was fucking on one in 2009. He was a regular highlight of Smackdown that year, winning the Intercontinental Championship, and having good matches
regularly on free television. Ever so athletic while also being endearing and sympathetic, Rey Mysterio just felt like the best wrestler going at that time.
Given my thoughts on Mysterio’s year and my general sentiments on Chris Jericho, it might be easy to think that I consider the rivalry they had in 2009 to be a carryjob on Mysterio’s behalf. I can assure you, as someone who is decidedly not a Chris Jericho fan, it was no carryjob.
Although the two have some encounters early in the year such as being opponents in one of that year’s Elimination Chamber matches, the match that really kicks of this rivalry comes at Judgment Day on May 17th.
The Judgment Day match is pretty much a perfect feud opener. Coming into the match, it’s built around a very simple premise. Jericho promises to fully evade Mysterio’s 619, and the match is all about the ways he attempts to make good on this promise. What makes the match even more special is how it seamlessly introduces elements that would become significant in the feud down the line.
While there’s a whole bevy of signature spots that these two would use liberally throughout the rivalry, two stand out more than any other. The first is Jericho’s use of the La Atlantida backbreaker. It’s such a stunning thing when it happens the first time as Jericho catches Mysterio coming off the ropes. Jericho’s rarely the biggest man in a fight, and even his most ardent fans wouldn’t describe him as a powerful wrestler. But the finesse and speed with which he scoops Rey up onto his shoulders and spins him about is amazing to watch. Jericho rarely gets to play a power bully, and given the chance against Rey, he relishes in it.
It’s a great change of pace for Jericho. Letting him throw Rey around allows him to overcome one of the worst aspects of his game: really bland and soft offense. That’s not a problem in these matches when he can instead toss Rey’s entire body out of the ring to splat onto the concrete.
The second significant element comes late in the match when Jericho goes after Rey’s mask. Jericho has Mysterio perched up on the top turnbuckle when he climbs up and starts clawing at the mask. It seemingly comes out of nowhere, and it’s all the more shocking and effective for it. It garners some genuine heat with what a petty and disrespectful act it is.
Neither the Atlantida nor the attack on Mysterio’s mask earn Jericho the victory though. Rey’s able to sling Jericho face-first into the middle turnbuckle and nail a 619 to get the victory.
At Extreme Rules on June 7th, Jericho, both the character and the performer, take the lessons of Judgment Day and apply them to great effect. On the performance end of things, Jericho continues to cut the fat from his routine, leaving only the very best possible stuff behind. He bases and bumps for all of Mysterio’s high speed offense wonderfully. His timing is better than it’s ever been in his career. He fully matches the rhythms of Mysterio’s complicated sequences and is always positioned in the right place to catch Rey and sell for his dazzling offense.
And Rey has a lot of material to work with given the No Holds Barred stipulation. He’s able to incorporate the ringside environment into the match in ways that feel organic and thrilling. Among my favorite moments sees Mysterio flip over the steel steps as Jericho whips him into them, then following up by dropkicking those same steps into Jericho’s knees. That’s the kind of otherworldly spectacle you expect from one of the best fliers ever.
At the same time though, Jericho has refined his strategy against Rey. The La Atlantida backbreaker now becomes an ideal counter to Rey attempting to hit the 619. Again, the maneuver—a very new addition to Jericho’s arsenal—flusters Rey and cuts off his momentum. Meanwhile, Jericho’s attention on Rey’s mask reaches a new apex here as well. His control segments build around him tearing at the mask, all of which leads beautifully to the finish. As Rey once again goes for the 619, Jericho yanks the luchador’s mask off as he swings through the ropes. In the panic of trying to cover his face, Mysterio loses all momentum, allowing Jericho to roll the luchador up to win the Intercontinental Title.
It’s one of the best, most well-executed heel finishes in Jericho’s entire career. Entirely detestable but also, in a sick way, admirable in its cleverness. The timing is impeccable, and visually, it’s shocking and climactic in a way few match finishes really get to be.
The two would have a rematch on the June 15th Raw, that helped to reiterate a lot of the key ideas of the feud. There’s some neat new spots like Jericho catching a diving Rey off the apron and dropping him face first into the announce table. They’re toying with the formula but not anything wild, it’s mostly just new wrinkles on the routine they’ve settled quite nicely into.
Everything else stays much the same. Yet again, the La Atlantida cuts off a 619 attempt. Yet again, Jericho halts Mysterio’s momentum in the finish by going for the mask. This time he blocks a West Coast Pop and adjust Mysterio’s mask to blind him, giving the Jericho the opening to nail a Codebreaker to get the win.
One key contribution comes from outside the ring. In the last two matches, Jim Ross has been putting over the significance of Mysterio’s mask. He does a great job explaining how the mask isn’t simply an aesthetic choice on Mysterio’s part, but rather a connection to his family and to the larger culture of lucha libre as a whole. It’s a perfect way to set up a lucha de apuesta.
The next match gets booked for The Bash on June 28th. On the line, Chris Jericho’s Intercontinental Title against Rey Mysterio’s mask.
It’s the best match in Chris Jericho’s entire career. Without exaggeration, he makes pretty much every right choice here. The violence he’s able to apply by throwing around Mysterio is at its peak with him just ramming Mysterio headfirst into the barricades. His basing for Mysterio’s offense also continues to be fully on point. He’s constantly where he needs to be in the ring to make sure that Rey’s attacks come off as graceful and smooth as possible. It’s a tricky skill that requires the utmost coordination between both participants.
We get some of Mysterio’s wildest dives in this match, stuff that has no trouble holding up over a decade later. Mysterio leaping off the top turnbuckle all the way to the floor for a seated senton onto Jericho is just stunning. There’s more to Rey here than just flash though. Throughout this whole rivalry, he shows a lot of babyface aggression and fire. A nice way he adds to the intensity of things is by throwing really stiff leg kicks in the down time between big spots. It does so much to add substance to these matches and put over the heated nature of their rivalry.
Critically though, this match pays off all the narrative threads that came before it. As Rey charges for a 619, Jericho again scoops him up onto his shoulders for the La Atlantida. This time though, Rey’s prepared and follows the rotation to counter into a DDT. It’s a brilliant moment, the kind that gets you jumping out of your seat. It’s a classic payoff for a babyface to finally overcome a problem that’s been stumping him for months.
Later in the match, Jericho again yanks Rey’s mask off in the finishing stretch only to reveal he luchador had worn a second mask beneath the first. Undistracted by Jericho’s desperation move, Rey’s able to press his advantage and win back the Intercontinental Title.
It’s a perfect match to end a feud. It sees the full growth that one wants from the babyface. After being tormented and humiliated twice in a row, Mysterio becomes the better and smarter wrestler when it matters the most. Seeing Jericho’s careful plan crumble around him as his competition surpasses him is just amazing stuff. It’s such a great way to punish his sins, seeing him realize that all his cleverness finally got outdone in the end.
In a perfect world, things end there but the WWE has a disgusting amount of TV to fill every week so these two rematched again on the July 10th Smackdown. It’s a very good match with a lot of the same flair and style as the ones that came before. But it’s missing that same careful structuring, that steady sense of escalation. It feels like a step back not only in quality but also in character. In the opening act, Rey again falls victim to the La Atlantida backbreaker which borders on cheapening the beauty of him countering it at The Bash.
It’s a shame the WWE can never just let things rest because the match at The Bash is one of those priceless moments that deserves to be preserved at all costs. It’s the apex of Chris Jericho’s in-ring career. He would never again perform on quite the same level. He finally put all the pieces together to reach the tier of the very best in the world. He touched that greatness and saw it slip through his fingers just as fast. Still, it must have been good to feel it on that night, however fleeting it eventually turned out to be.
Rey Mysterio’s one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. And for these four matches, at least, Chris Jericho worked on his level. There’s no taking that away from him.