Debating Chris Jericho's Place in the Hierarchy of WWE History

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistMay 26, 2017

Debating Chris Jericho's Place in the Hierarchy of WWE History

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    Credit: WWE.com

    Wrestling fans, I hope you were able to drink it in, man, because Chris Jericho's last critically acclaimed run with WWE may very well have been his last.

    "It’ll be a long time before I go back," Jericho told The Washington Post. "If I ever do go back, if I never go back, it’s fine. If I never wrestle another match, it wouldn’t bother me."

    The interview, conducted in Lancaster, Pennsylvania before Jericho performed with his band, Fozzy, caught some wrestling fans off guard when it was published Thursday.

    After all, the future Hall of Famer was coming off one of the best runs of his entire 20-plus year career, during which he had the opportunity to tell a massive, monumental story with Kevin Owens that resulted in matches at WrestleMania 33, Payback and one last war on the April 2 episode of SmackDown Live.

    While still a long shot given Jericho's history of returning to WWE when least expected, such as the 2013 Royal Rumble match, imagine this was the last go-round for Y2J. One of the most recognizable and influential stars of his generation, where does he land in the hierarchy of WWE history?

    Is he among the Rocks, Steve Austins, Hulk Hogans and John Cenas of the world, or does he fall a level below those industry icons?

In-Ring Work

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    Strictly from an in-ring perspective, few Superstars have entered WWE with an ability to have as many good matches against as varied a crop of workers as Jericho. Over the course of his 18 years with Vince McMahon's company, he has had the opportunity to work with everyone from The Rock to Fandango and, in the process, has delivered truly definitive matches across several eras.

    His bloody Last Man Standing match against Triple H in the summer of 2000 served as proof of his ability to brawl with the best of them.

    Matches against Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit reaffirmed his technical prowess. Matches with Hulk Hogan showcased an ability to wrestle a WWE-style spectacle and his acclaimed series with Shawn Michaels demonstrated the storytelling techniques between the ropes that would become an integral part of his performance as he advanced in years.

    Later in his career, Jericho's work diminished. That happens with Superstars of his age and longevity. Matches with Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns were not as good as they should have been and the Ambrose Asylum match at Extreme Rules was one of 2016's most disappointing.

    Even as he slowed down, his incredible wrestling intellect allowed him to keep up with his peers. He may not be able to match Rollins or Sami Zayn's speed, so he put together a match that was slower in pace until the explosive finish.

    His mind for the art of professional wrestling allowed him, even when his physical performance may not have lived up to expectations, to deliver a smarter match that built on the spots that preceded them and employed an in-ring psychology that is lost on many of his younger contemporaries.

    When one looks back at the depth and variety of his match library under the WWE banner, they will see one of the most adaptive wrestlers of all-time. His ability to work with any Superstar of any background and under any circumstance is his greatest attribute, and when all is said and done, it should warrant inclusion among the best in-ring workers in company history.

Character Work

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    Even more significant to Jericho's legacy in WWE than his in-ring work is his ability to evolve and grow his character.

    When he arrived in WWE as Y2J, he did so promising to save the company from the monotony it had fallen into. Once he finally settled into his role as a babyface, he became one of the most dynamic performers on the roster. From the way he insulted Stephanie McMahon to the rock star-like persona he adopted, Jericho stood out from the rest of his peers.

    Babyface or heel, he was not afraid to be the butt of a joke if it entertained fans. He had an electrifying presence that made audiences sit up, take notice and invest in whatever he was in the middle of.

    In 2007, he returned to WWE after a two-year hiatus but faltered right out of the gate. His character was unchanged and stale. The crowd's reactions to the future Hall of Famer were not as passionate or rabid as they previously were.

    Jericho had the wherewithal to recognize the issues that existed with the stagnant nature of his character and proposed changes. He turned heel and embarked on the greatest run of his career.

    He brutally and unapologetically attacked Michaels, causing an eye injury that jeopardized his career and went as far as to punch his wife at SummerSlam 2008. The series of matches that ensued featured some of Jericho's finest character work, as he viciously and violently brutalized his childhood hero, showing a side of himself to the WWE Universe few imagined he was capable of.

    He was cerebral, unremorseful and more serious than ever. He vowed to unmask Rey Mysterio and berated legendary Superstars such as Jimmy Snuka, Roddy Piper and Ric Flair, diminishing their accomplishments and criticizing them for their inability to get out of the wrestling business.

    Jericho ended his extraordinary run in 2010, solidifying himself as a chameleon of sorts within the wrestling industry.

    Then came his unexpectedly great run of 2016-17, where he took mindless insults like "stupid idiot" and turned them into catchphrases fans chanted during his matches. He also created a gold mine out of The List of Jericho, which became a staple of his act until his last SmackDown Live appearance on May 2.

    Like he had so many times, he stayed one step ahead of the curve, recognizing when his character had run its course and reinventing himself so as not to become stale and insignificant. As adaptable a performer as he was between the ropes, he proved to be a virtuoso whose best work came when he pushed himself to be different and new, fresh and exciting.

    He never settled. Taking into consideration the creative team that oversaw the shows he was performing on became complacent midway through the 2000s, his many phases and personas are a testament to the man behind the character more than anything.

Overall Impact and Place in WWE History

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    Chris Jericho's place in WWE history is an interesting topic.

    He has battled every iconic star to enter (and depart) the promotion since his arrival in 1999. He has been responsible for some of the company's most memorable matches and moments.

    The one issue facing Y2J is star power.

    While he was a big star for WWE at its height of popularity in the Attitude Era, he almost benefited from working alongside The Rock, Triple H, Steve Austin and more rather than being a star capable of carrying things on his own.

    He was the dance partner for the biggest stars rather than being the star himself.

    Even during his more recent runs, beginning with the CM Punk rivalry in 2012, he has mainly been the co-star. His program with Punk further established Punk as the WWE champion. His program with Dean Ambrose ultimately served to put The Lunatic Fringe over ahead of a summertime push that earned the frenetic star the WWE title.

    While he was one of the top babyfaces on Raw during this most recent road to WrestleMania, his rivalry with Kevin Owens was as much about building the star of The Prizefighter as it was highlighting Jericho.

    But therein lies one of the most admirable traits of Y2J.

    Jericho has long possessed the skill to outshine any and every Superstar he shared the ring with. 

    Yes, even The Rock.

    When the Winnipeg native was on, there was not a single soul who could touch him from a performance standpoint. In the ring, on the mic or developing his character, he very much was what he claimed to be: the best in the world at what he did.

    But he did not steal the spotlight. Jericho was a selfless performer who would put over John Morrison one week and cut a promo that garnered himself more heat than he ever generated before one week later. He had, and still has, that ability.

    He put younger stars over in order to ensure the future of the product.

    Look no further than the WrestleMania 29 debacle where he made a star of Fandango on the biggest stage known to sports entertainment.

    Never once in his career did Jericho feel like an equal to The Rock or Steve Austin, primarily because he was never featured as prominently as those men. He was not a tour de force from a merchandising standpoint the way John Cena was, nor did he captivate fans with an unmistakable aura the way The Undertaker did.

    What Jericho was, is and always will be is a master at crowd manipulation and a cerebral in-ring performer who constantly finds new ways to provide a quality match and story. He is not the biggest star in WWE history but he was a marquee performer who fans could count on getting the absolute best out of every night he stepped through the curtain.

    He was his generation's answer to Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, a virtuoso who die-hard wrestling fans will always respect, appreciate and welcome back with open arms.

    Don't agree? Before adding me to The List of Jericho, sound off on your opinion of Jericho's place in WWE history below.