Chris Jericho vs. Kenny Omega: Old School Meets New Era in WWE/NJPW Dream Match

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterJanuary 3, 2018

Credit: WWE.com

Claiming to be the best in the world is a pro wrestling cliche at this point.

That expression was long CM Punk's nickname. Roman Reigns declared he was exactly that, too. On many a night, Chris Jericho has told the audience he's the best in the world at what he does. 

And today that phrase has regularly come up in discussions about IWGP United States heavyweight champ Kenny Omega.

In his case, it may not be hyperbole. Omega is a first-rate performer. The 34-year-old Winnipeg native with wild, polychromatic hair has a commanding presence, a frontman's flair. Energy crackles around him as he flies out of the ring, as he dishes out his creative array of suplexes.

The Cleaner has spent the past two years putting together a string of violent masterpieces in the ring including a masterful trilogy against Kazuchika Okada. And as combat sports journalist and Fightul editor Sean Ross Sapp noted, Omega has outdone even the loftiest of expectations.

"I remember when many questioned if Omega was the right person to slide into the spot that was vacated by AJ Styles," Sapp told Bleacher Report. "It was a giant void, and I knew Omega would do great at it, but I don't know if anyone could have expected the buzz that he's helped create to be quite what it has been."

Omega's next great performance may now be on its way. On Jan. 4 at New Japan Pro Wrestling Wrestle Kingdom 12, inside the famed Tokyo Dome, Omega will collide with Jericho in an IWGP U.S. title bout built around personal animosity and a battle to be called wrestling's best. It's a simple, tried-and-true story colored by both a throwback build and a clever use of modern marketing means.

It was a match that was supposed to only exists in fans' imaginations.

Jericho was a part-time WWE star loyal to Vince McMahon's sports entertainment circus. Omega, meanwhile, seemed intent on remaining with New Japan as a centerpiece to its attempted expansion into the United States market. They appeared destined to only cross paths in fantasy booking scenarios.

But then the teasing began. Jericho and Omega began to interact online, trading snarky blows via social media.

That didn't necessarily mean anything. The Young Bucks of Ring of Honor and NJPW have taken shots at WWE's smashmouth duo The Revival. SmackDown general manager Daniel Bryan has called out former ROH world champ Cody Rhodes without it leading anywhere. 

Jericho, though, was not idly stirring up buzz. He and The Cleaner were laying the framework for an in-ring clash that will become reality in just days.

During the NJPW Power Struggle pay-per-view in November, a scowling Y2J appeared on the big screen disdainfully holding up a photo of Omega. He spoke of being the apex of the wrestling world before challenging his fellow Canadian.

And with that, a marquee match was born.

WWE vs. NJPW. Alpha vs. Omega. A future Hall of Famer vs. a man quickly charging his way up the all-time ranks. 

The two showmen will give Wrestle Kingdom a second main event alongside Okada and Tetsuya Naito's world title tilt.

This is the type of super match that we saw when WWE didn't have as much of a monopoly on the business and world champions crossed territory boundaries and oceans to deliver marquee contests. Jericho recognizes that. He spoke about the throwback feel to this clash on Sirius XM's Busted Open in November.

"It's an old-school, something that you would Hogan or Flair or Bockwinkel or somebody do back in the '80s when they would do a big shot in Japan just because it meant something," he said. "It pushes everybody to think more, and to be more clever and creative, and to work harder."

Wrestle Kingdom will mark the first time Jericho will work for NJPW since a stint in the late '90s. When he wrapped up that Japanese tour, Omega was still a teenager. Now, Jericho is firmly in the twilight of his career, extending it courtesy of frequent hiatuses to tour with his band Fozzy. These breaks allow his body a reprieve from the pounding wrestling doles out.

The path to their no disqualification showdown has felt like a trip back to wrestling yesteryear.

In December, Jericho emerged at the World Tag League finals in Fukuoka, Japan, and ambushed the U.S. titleholder. He scraped Omega's face with the championship. He tagged with him right hands until he bled. A grinning predator then proudly held his motionless prey by the hair.

The scene looked like something straight out of Memphis Wrestling in the early '80s. 

This was an attack Austin Idol would perpetrate on Jerry Lawler. This was echoes of Eddie Gilbert vs. Jerry Jarrett.

"This old-school approach is almost like it's new again," former WWE referee Jimmy Korderas said. "Old guys like myself remember that sort of thing when we were younger. It's reminiscent of that and stuff that resonates with the old-school fan, but at the same time, it will captivate the newer fan because it's something different from what they are used to seeing. It's very engaging."

But while the blood and savagery screamed old school, there was a clear modern air to it all. Not long after he left his rival lying, Jericho bragged about the attack in an Instagram post:

Social media has allowed images of their feud to spread like a virus. It has shortened the distance between the U.S. and Japan in a way. 

The animosity continued to boil over as the Wrestle Kingdom match drew nearer. Jericho was in the midst of a speech at a press conference for the event when a bandaged Omega pounced on him. In the ensuing brawl, Y2J threw a table at his foe.

Freed from the creative constraints he had at WWE and no longer hindered by a PG-TV rating, Jericho has looked energized throughout the build. This is a darker, predatory version of the nine-time intercontinental champion. Paired with an all-world talent and allowed to roam in a fresh environment, Jericho has been aglow, at the top of his game once more.

This is no surprise. Jericho has refused to grow stale throughout his career.

From invoking Nick Bockwinkel during a 2008 heel run to his scarf-wearing braggart act of his most recent WWE stretch, Y2J has transformed time and again.

"What Jericho's been able to do over the years is evolve himself in different ways, but still keeping that core Chris Jericho persona," Korderas explained. "Just little tweaks and little differences that have been able to engage the audience. And it's been working for him. That's a testament to him."

Jericho's latest self-reinvention comes at 47 years old as a free agent wrestler, as a special attraction for NJPW. 

His foray into Japan has spotlighted how good his instincts and timing are. Just when you think you know what's ahead for Jericho, he finds a way to deliver the unexpected.

"He's turned into the king of surprises," Sapp said of Y2J. "He's so good at keeping secrets, from Royal Rumble appearances, SmackDown one-offs, and he's carried it over to New Japan with his debut and attack on Omega."

His Wrestle Kingdom opponent has a mind for the business, as well. Rather than head to WWE and face the uncertainty of how that company will treat him, Omega has chosen to stick with NJPW, to be a key piece in its ongoing growth. There's no telling whether Omega would be pushed into the shadows of the midcard as an underappreciated talent in McMahon's regime. In Japan, though, he has been a headliner, a centerpiece, a beloved gaijin.

Aside from a brief stint in WWE's developmental system from 2005 to 2006, Omega has grown his star outside of the sports entertainment giant's reach. 

That will continue at NJPW's version of WrestleMania. Jericho doesn't represent his most talented foe. Instead, Y2J is the biggest name outside of Japan he's faced. The infusion of a WWE talent into the NJPW realm will presumably bring in curious casual fans and give them a chance to fall in love with the stellar promotion.

Omega has the highest of hopes for the bout.

"I really want this match to be a wake-up call to New Japan and WWE," he told Justin Barraso of Sports Illustrated in a recent interview. "This match is going to open up a lot of eyes, and it's going to invoke a feeling you've never felt when watching a wrestling match. It's a clash of unique worlds, and the match we’re going to show with aggression, violence, and disdain is going to evoke a new kind of emotion from people watching."

History says The Cleaner will pour every drop of himself into the contest. And it will leave fans talking afterward, just as they have en route to Wrestle Kingdom.

If Omega vs. Jericho is half as fun as the journey to the match has been, we're all in for something special.

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Jimmy Korderas was a WWE referee for over 20 years. He now co-hosts Aftermath TV on SN360Sean Ross Sapp is the managing editor of Fightful.com.

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