It was only 10 months ago that know-it-alls like myself saw the writing on the wall of Chris Jericho’s eminent obsolescence after his latest rote return at Royal Rumble and subsequent program as the gracious elder statesman alongside new signee A.J. Styles. He was aglow with bedazzled Lite-Brite jackets and best-sportsman enthusiasm, never at a loss for rubber-bullet playground insults and PG put-downs. It was quintessential goodwill Y2J. But by mid-March, whether because a lengthy contract had been cemented or Jericho just got tired of going through the thankless motions of ambassadorship, the six-time heavyweight champ did his umpteenth about-face, initiating one of the great third acts in sports-entertainment memory.
Not that it’s always been easy to watch, but such transformations rarely are in the high wire, real-time theater that is pro wrestling. Think about our 2015 Wrestler(s) of the Year appointees, The New Day, who wriggled their way out of a go-nowhere gimmick, eventually inspiring healthy antagonism with coordinated arrogance. It’s a metamorphosis in the most exacting sense, and one Jericho – who turned 46 this week – may have understandably had no itch to endure. But duty called, and soon enough he was sauntering around, imploring audiences and opponents like Dean Ambrose to marvel at the “gift of Jericho” and “drink it in, maaaan,” a would-be mantra that, when delivered with shamanistic nonchalance, felt more than a bit derived from polar opposite Bray Wyatt. (And, tellingly, he poked fun at it on this week’s Raw while bequeathing Seth Rollins with the “scarf of Jericho.”) It wasn’t until Jericho put his body on the line by taking dozens of tacks to his bloodied back, salvaging a lackluster “Asylum Match” against Ambrose at Extreme Rules, that the veteran’s year – which most of us thought would have wound down and ceded ground to another Fozzy tour by this point – began in earnest.
Since that time, he’s been both in a creative zone and in the thick of storylines on Raw, ceremoniously passing the mic to Enzo Amore, making Sami Zayn look like he belonged and stepping up as Universal Champion Kevin Owens’ partner and “best friend,” ensuring KO doesn’t suffer from overexposure after filling Finn Bálor vacant title spot. During JeriKO’s tenuous but somehow Teflon several-month run, Jericho’s shone without stealing Owens’ spotlight, and turned the simplicity of berating colleagues as “stupid idiots,” adding them to his eponymous shit list (itself a clever reboot oft the classic, WCW-era “list of 1,004 holds“), tormenting poor Tom Phillips and threatening those in his way with the dreaded “it” into the kind of uncomplicated comedy that can elevate segments and bail out bad chemistry. Between the flowing scarves, salty goatee and prima donna petulance, he’s sent up his persona as larger-than-life future Hall of Famer and sometime rock star while lowering – and invariably exceeding – our expectations for what he can still do in the ring. And whatever “it” is, he’s still got plenty of it.
There’s a case to be made that the self-proclaimed Ayatollah’s lauded late-career heel run has ultimately resonated because, as a nation, we’ve spent the past year and a half taking sides in a stormy presidential election campaign, berating each other as know-nothings and keeping score of candidates’ transgressions. Or perhaps as WWE gingerly transitions into its latest post-brand split era while weathering A-list injuries and trial-and-error experimentation with NXT and cruiserweight call-ups, Jericho has been essentially reassuring. Assuming it’s a combination of the above and something more elusive, it’s not too early to declare that the proud Manitoban has been by turns the most consistently entertaining presence on wrestling television in 2016, and also the year’s most satisfying to watch evolve and – yes – drink in.