WWE Payback 2016: How Goes the Rehabilitation of Chris Jericho?


Has Chris Jericho been built back up from his years of jobbing to become a credible opponent for Dean Ambrose at WWE Payback?

Ever since his excellent Wrestlemania XXVIII match for the WWE Championship against CM Punk, Chris Jericho’s WWE character has been adrift. For the following four years, if Chris Jericho made a part-time return to the company in which he set Intercontinental title records and unified World Championships, every WWE fan in the audience and watching at home knew it was to put over a younger talent.

Starting with an ignoble Wrestlemania 29 loss to newcomer Fandango, Jericho began punching far below his weight as a former six-time world champion, dropping feuds to whichever youngster the WWE brass was intent on pushing that week, from Ryback to the then-IC champ Curtis Axel (hey, remember when Curtis Axel was Intercontinental Champion and, even more inexplicably, a Paul Heyman Guy?).

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In 2014, Jericho’s WWE appearances were sporadic, coming in between concert tours by Jericho’s band, Fozzy. But whenever he did show up, WWE fans could rest assured that he’d end the night on his back. What does it say that when thinking back to Jericho’s SummerSlam 2014 match against Bray Wyatt, it can be remembered as one of the last major feuds Wyatt actually won?

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But the tide started to turn a bit for Y2J in Summer 2015, when Jericho was asked to work a match against Neville at the Beast in the East WWE Network special in Japan. Jericho, working tweener for the first time in years, pulled off what could at that point be considered an upset when he managed to defeat the Man that Gravity Forgot. An American viewing audience fully expected Jericho to once again do the honors for a hot young rising talent, and were shocked to see Neville tap out to a Lion Tamer. Neville didn’t lose any juice from dropping a match to the 40-something legend, but Jericho planted the seeds for a serious character rehabilitation. And just in time, as Jericho began to appear more often on WWE television, occasionally showing flashes of the heel character he would eventually re-embrace during his Wrestlemania season feud with AJ Styles.

Suddenly, Chris Jericho was winning matches again, pinning the recently-arrived Styles on an episode of Smackdown and scoring a tainted victory over Sami Zayn. Of course, wrestling fans who can’t be happy immediately ceased mocking Jericho as an old man jobbing to new stars and instead began to accuse him of “burying” younger talent. Jericho’s response on Twitter exemplified his new outlook:

The “Chris Jericho buries young guys” meme apparently appealed to Y2J, as he’s begun a Twitter campaign claiming he’ll “bury” everyone he crosses paths with. It’s a brilliant way to get heat, as the word “bury” is smark nip to internet wrestling fans who have turned it into the most misused wrestling term online.

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This new “BURY EVERYONE” version of Jericho reached a new level of relevance when, as predicted by absolutely no one, he defeated Styles in a hard-fought match at Wrestlemania 32. Even after scoring that Smackdown win, there wasn’t a fan watching that show that suspected that Y2J wouldn’t once again do the honors for a new WWE arrival. Booking Jericho to deny Styles a victory in his first Wrestlemania was an absolutely genius move, as it shattered everything the fans had come to know about Jericho’s booking in the last four years.

So now, Y2J faces the red-hot (despite his loss to Brock Lesnar at that same Wrestlemania) Dean Ambrose this Sunday at WWE Payback, and the outcome isn’t the foregone conclusion it may have been just one year ago. Sure, Ambrose could use a win to gain back some momentum after a disappointing Wrestlemania performance, but the heat that would rain down on Jericho after an upset win over the Lunatic Fringe has to be awfully difficult to pass up in the eyes of WWE booking. A match that would have been a no-brainer a year ago is now an intriguing matchup made even more interesting by some outstanding back and forth between the two men in these last few weeks leading up to Payback.

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With Y2J’s character reinvigorated as a middle-aged heel who thinks he’s a bigger deal than he actually is, delighting in calling people “stupid idiots” and bragging about the price of his clothes, Chris Jericho is in the middle of his most relevant WWE run since perhaps 2007. It’s good to see that one of the all-time greats can still bring it. He might not be challenging for the WWE title again anytime soon, but for now, every Jericho appearance is must-see TV, and for a 45-year-old performer who could just as easily stick to singing with his metal band, that’s quite an impressive achievement.