This Sunday night at WrestleMania, after eight months of build-up Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens finally meet in a match that stands apart from the rest of the eclectic and bloated match card. As has been proven so many times over, in pro wrestling story and character can be just as important as technical skill and athleticism. There’s a lot of spectacular in-ring performers on the WWE roster right now but at times it feels as though there’s a lack of meaning behind the moves, a lack of relatability and story. That’s not a knock on the current crop’s psychology either, unfortunately there’s just so much content to fill that it’s rare that any story gets a chance to really breathe and grow organically.
I think it’s fair to say that some of Sunday’s WrestleMania matches have fallen victim to this issue but the Jericho Owens clash feels very, very different. It was late May when we first saw Jericho and Owens interact in a comedic backstage skit, both men linked in the build-up for the annual Money in the Bank Ladder match. At the time Jericho was fresh off of a feud with Dean Ambrose in which he seemed to really hit his stride once again as a character. He and AJ Styles had put on some strong matches before that but it was the interactions with Ambrose that really highlighted the subtleties of ‘Y2J’s newest character. He was deluded to a comical degree but with a believable sense of bitterness as his key motivation, oh and he was also armed with a whole litany of new catchphrases.
Meanwhile Owens was still embroiled in his storied feud with forever rival Sami Zayn, a man he had fought with and against for over a decade. The shenanigan filled skits between Owens and Jericho continued sporadically but neither would win the Money in the Bank contract. However, both were drafted to Monday Night Raw in the brand split and after Owens wrapped up his Zayn conflict, both men also needed a new direction heading into Summerslam. On August 1st that direction would become clearer when in a unique opening segment Jericho aligned himself with Charlotte against Sasha Banks, this would then lead to the introduction of Enzo Amore to even things up.
As the mixed tag match took place though, Owens would join the commentary team and suddenly, an alliance seemed on the horizon. Later that night a backstage segment would confirm the pairing, their chemistry was undeniable and seemed sure to provide some great entertainment, even if not something to the degree we now have a whole eight months later. The feud with Enzo and Cass made for some fun television and culminated in a Summerslam victory for the newly formed ‘Jeri-KO’ unit. An injury to the newly crowned Universal champion Finn Balor would leave the RAW brand in need of quick changes though and just one week later, Owens won the vacant title via the help of a returning Triple H.
With his new ‘best friend’ Owens now tied up in title feuds, it only made sense for Jericho to battle Kevin’s nemesis Zayn, who questioned the friendship due to his own prior experiences with ‘The Prizefighter’. Jericho would defeat Zayn in September and Owens maintained his grip on the title whilst the pair’s comedic antics frankly carried what seemed to be a struggling RAW brand. Hampered by three hours and an injury to their newest star, RAW relied heavily on both men in the ring and particularly on the microphone. Jericho’s momentum in particular seemed to be growing every week and on September 19th, he introduced the now beloved ‘List of Jericho’, a list he would use to write down everyone and everything that irritated him.
It’s obscene to think that a concept so simple and basic would become more popular than most of the roster but it did and that’s a credit to Jericho’s incredible charisma and commitment to his material. Don’t underestimate Owens’ part either. Whilst it may have been Jericho that shined often, depending on the segment Owens could either aid the humor or accentuate his counterpart’s antics by being a confused and befuddled straight man. The theme throughout though seemed to be that Owens simply wanted to keep Jericho happy as he was stronger with him than without and that showed as ‘Y2J’ continued to help him stay Universal Champion. The friendship’s implosion was inevitable but fans had become attached to their dynamic and both grew in popularity every week.
It seemed that the split had finally come in December when Owens became frustrated that his partner’s interferences were taking the glow off of his championship reign. The friendship wasn’t over just yet though and Jericho continued to help Owens, now in matches with Roman Reigns. Eventually Jericho would take the United States title from Reigns before being hung above the ring ‘like a sexy piñata’ (his words not mine) at the Royal Rumble in order to stop his interference. Jericho’s absolute fear of the shark cage was preposterous but it didn’t matter, he simply couldn’t do no wrong and created great television as he tried to protest desperately. Even if not due to him, Owens would still retain the belt at the Rumble and the friendship lived on.
For all of the over the top shenanigans though, there was something endearing and relatable about Jericho’s character development. His intentions were genuine and that coupled with his legend status made him an unintentional fan favorite. His actions were almost completely heelish but it didn’t matter because people loved him and that made the anticipation for a split all the greater. Owens on the other hand clearly had selfish intentions and his cold, calculated past and nature made it all the more effective. Either way, when Jericho booked Owens in a title defense against Goldberg it was clear that the end was near, especially with Wrestlemania just around the corner.
First though would come the Festival of Friendship, an event Jericho created as a celebration of his time with Owens. With joy on his face and excitement in his voice, Jericho introduced the Universal Champion who reluctantly followed on as ‘Y2J’ waltzed down the ramp. It had it all, an underwhelming $7000 sculpture, a hapless magician, the outrageous ‘Creation of Kevin’ and even Gillberg. Yes, Gillberg. Understandably, Owens was rather disappointed but Jericho didn’t want his original message to be lost. “I did all this for you. I apologize if it wasn’t what you were expecting it to be but I really wanted to do something to show everybody honestly how much you mean to me as a friend,” Jericho told Owens.
“For the last year . . . I’ve had such a great time working with you, being your partner, it’s made this last year in the WWE one of my favorite years of my entire career and a lot of that’s because of you. It really is. I’ve had a lot of friends in this business and a lot of partners but I haven’t had the chemistry with any of them like I have with you. It’s been a joy. You’ve made my job here and my time here in the WWE a better place and I wanted to thank you for that.” Jericho then reassured Owens that he would be there to help against Goldberg before punctuating his speech by saying “You’re my best friend, even more so you’re my brother and I love you man, honestly I really do.”
It was an incredible change of tone from Jericho. After ten minutes of nonsense and wackiness, suddenly Jericho just became a real and relatable person. It’s that ability to flip the switch that makes Jericho so special. He can play such a variety of roles and that’s what has kept him relevant for over twenty years. In this case everything he said seemed genuine and honest too, he really did seem to be enjoying this most recent run and every word had sincerity behind it. For every bad thing he’d done for Owens, it was all done purely to please his friend and that’s a human thing that everyone can relate to, even if it’s taking place in a world so weird and wild.
Luckily Owens would have a gift for Jericho too and next handed his countryman a box. I think we all expected a new list and that’s exactly what it would be but this in fact wasn’t the list of Jericho. With confusion in his voice Jericho pondered “how come my name’s on this” before the angle revealed that this was actually the list of KO. There was a sense of genuine shock and anxiety in the crowd as we got a close up of Owens cold and callous stare. The crowd’s response represented all the work put in, as obscene as it may sound they really were hurt to see this on-screen friendship come to an end and that’s real emotion, a rare thing in wrestling nowadays.
That sound would only heighten when Owens attacked his supposed best friend too, eventually throwing him into the ‘Jeritron’ in a moment reminiscent of Jericho’s betrayal of Shawn Michaels almost a decade earlier. We all knew that a turn was likely coming soon in order to set up a WrestleMania match but not only was this before Fast Lane but the audience was so emotionally engrossed after Jericho’s speech that it felt like it came out of nowhere. We had let our guard down and that made Owens’ actions all the more villainous. It's a segment that I honestly believe will stand the test of time and it's climax was a legitimately iconic Raw moment. After being absent for the next couple of weeks, Jericho would get some redemption, costing Owens the Universal belt to set up this WrestleMania match for the United States title.
Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens are big enough stars to have a marquee match at Wrestlemania without any backstory but the time and effort that’s gone into building this story has given the audience a whole new layer of emotional investment. It’s really been a very simple story but its execution has been so stellar that for me it stands above every other match on the card as far as anticipation. I know many prefer a more serious Owens than the one featured throughout much of this angle but it’s that variety and versatility that will make him a mainstay for years to come. For Jericho, this run has highlighted everything that’s made him so special and added a lot of depth to the argument that he really is one of the greatest pro wrestling performers of all time. Either way, it’s been an absolute pleasure to watch and Sunday, on the biggest stage possible, we see what will likely be the final chapter of this engrossing, engaging and entertaining saga of friends to foes.