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Thursday Night Tanders (1/21/16): On Heel Turns and Late-Career Comebacks (Part 2 of 2)



Last week on Thursday Night Tanders, we told you the story of Bob Backlund and his amazing comeback when he was in his 40s—over a decade removed from his last WWF Championship run, he made the very first heel turn of his career and got maximum mileage out of his new crazy old man gimmick. But what about other wrestlers who had once tasted the main event, yet only came back to it at an age where they were among the older talents in the WWF/E, and done so as a bad guy? We promised you Chris Jericho for the second part, and while he shall be joined by a definite late-bloomer in terms of main event pushes, he shall be the main focus as we now welcome you to…

Thursday Night Tanders...Is...JERICHO!!!

[Click here for Part 1]



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Y2J’s First Big Title Reign—Undisputedly Underwhelming (2001-02)


When talk starts up about underwhelming main event title reigns in the WWE, who comes to mind? Typically, people mention The Miz, Rey Mysterio, or for a blast from the past, Diesel and Sycho Sid from the New Generation Era. Unfortunately, since I’ve always been a Y2J fan, these people also mention Chris Jericho’s run as the first-ever Undisputed WWF Champion, a title he earned for winning both WWF and WCW Titles at December 2001’s Vengeance PPV.

Chris Jericho's reign as Undisputed champion—holding both the WWF and WCW titles—had him booked as a weak champion, relying too much on shenanigans for success, even for a heel.
While this should have elevated Jericho to iconic status in the WWF, on the level of a Shawn Michaels or a Stone Cold Steve Austin or The Rock, Y2J’s run as Undisputed Champion left a lot to be desired. (And it bears mentioning that Jericho beat the latter two en route to the Undisputed title in the first place!) On paper, Jericho seemed like a good champ while he held the belts—he won 11 of 14 matches while champ, his reign lasted for 98 days, which was quite long in an era where playing hot potato with championships was still common, and he did successfully defend his title in the next two PPVs. Still, you’ll have to take a look at how he defended the belts.
           
Facing The Rock at Royal Rumble 2002, Jericho was already tapping out when Lance Storm and Christian aided him, distracting the referee. He needed help from a second official, heel referee Nick Patrick, later on in the match, and in the end, he had made use of shenanigans to retain against The Rock—with both of his feet on the ropes. Sure, we get it—Y2J was the heel, and heels are supposed to cheat—but that was quite a bit of overkill. And this match was symbolic of your typical Jericho title match during his Undisputed reign—Y2J retains via over-the-top cheating and interference, and is often lucky to have won the match. But being a “weak” champ is not the only reason why Jericho as Undisputed Champion wasn’t a particularly strong championship run.

What many also have said—and I do tend to agree with this—is that the WWF had Jericho unify the WWF and WCW titles so he could keep the belts warm for Triple H, who beat Jericho cleanly to become Undisputed Champion at WrestleMania X8. And, as Jericho himself implied in his autobiographies, Triple H wasn’t always the biggest Jerichoholic out there; the ensuing feud was, as you may expect, dominated by the Game.

Jericho's feud versus John Cena in 2005 was his last before he took a leave from pro wrestling to attend to his rising heavy metal band Fozzy.
While Jericho didn’t exactly get jobbed out left and right after losing the Undisputed Championship, he was mysteriously missing from the PPV after WrestleMania X8. And from that time until 2005, he was mainly used as a midcard title holder, winning a good few Intercontinental Championships and losing in main event title matches. Many of his feuds were with midcarders like Test, Christian, and Shelton Benjamin. When he feuded with main eventers like Shawn Michaels and Goldberg, he was on the losing end. It wasn’t necessarily a big step down a la Jack Swagger or The Miz post-main event title, but Jericho’s Undisputed reign could have been much better, and he was mostly an also-ran for the big titles when that reign ended. By the summer of 2005, he was out of the WWE, having left to focus on his up-and-coming heavy metal band Fozzy.


Jericho Saves Us from Cookie-Cutter Alpha Heels (2008-09)


After two years focusing on his second career as a rock star, Chris Jericho was back in the WWE in the fall of 2007, receiving a huge babyface ovation upon his return. He went on to win a record eighth Intercontinental Title on March 10, 2008, and by the summer, he had just wrapped up what was ostensibly a quick babyface feud with Shawn Michaels. Jericho, who had idolized the Heartbreak Kid in his younger days, was accusing Michaels of faking an injury to trick Batista and defeat him in their match at Backlash. HBK did admit to faking that injury, and while he and Jericho had seemingly put their differences aside at Judgment Day, Y2J just wouldn’t move on.

That point was made perfectly clear on June 9, 2008, when Jericho spectacularly turned heel on Michaels in his Highlight Reel talk show segment. After pointedly asking HBK why fans still cheered him despite feigning an injury for a psychological edge, while he got booed for doing what was right, Jericho assaulted Michaels and dumped him through the JeriTron 6000, sparking a full-fledged feud between the two. But what was most interesting about that feud was how Jericho transformed his character.


Gone was the funny, fast-talking, wisecracking, long-haired Y2J of old. At the time he first left WWE in 2005, Jericho’s hair was shorter but still a bit on the long side, but this time, he was wearing it shorter and more conservatively than he ever did before. He was soon to trade his tights for a minimalist pair of black trunks. When he wasn't wrestling, he'd cut promos in a suit. And in terms of his gimmick, he had based it highly on Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men—that’s Javier Bardem’s psychotic killer role, the one where he looks more like a 1960s garage rocker than a sadistic hitman. Like Chigurh, the new Jericho was all business, speaking slowly and hardly ever raising his voice. He was all about self-righteous preaching, in terms of the promos he delivered. But while he spoke softly, the 2008 version of heel Jericho was all about carrying the proverbial big stick, launching the coldest and most vicious beatdowns, and taking on all comers, including retired Legends like Ric Flair and Roddy Piper, and even actor Mickey Rourke. Heck, he even slugged Michaels’ wife Rebecca in the face in one angle, though that was an honest-to-goodness accident that somehow made him look more cold and remorseless.

Did he still cheat? Of course he did, but it wasn’t over-the-top. Did he win via outside factors? He still did at times, but he often made it clear that he didn’t need anyone’s help. At the end of the day, what Jericho did as a late-2000s heel was something fresh and innovative, and he was rewarded for it with two quick reigns (at first) as World Heavyweight Champion. That’s not bad for someone who was turning 38 at the time he turned heel on Michaels and was only a borderline main eventer at best after he lost the Undisputed Championship in 2002. By becoming a heel with no catchphrases, no wise-ass remarks, and no conscience, he became someone fans could really hate, instead of “love to hate.”

Chris Jericho won his third and last World Heavyweight title at Elimination Chamber 2010.
After the World Heavyweight title went back-and-forth between Jericho and Batista, Jericho’s next big feud was against Rey Mysterio, and both men would have another back-and-forth swapping of titles, this time for the Intercontinental Championship. (Jericho’s nine IC titles remains a record.) And following a slightly comedic interlude as part of WWE Tag Team Champions Jeri-Show (with The Big Show), Jericho was back to his new-old self, winning a third World Heavyweight title at Elimination Chamber 2010 (last eliminating Undertaker, no less) and feuding with Edge for the belt. Jack Swagger would become a third party in that feud on the April 2, 2010 SmackDown, taking advantage of an Edge spear and cashing in his Money in the Bank contract to become World Heavyweight champ, and that’s arguably the point where Jericho, then six months shy of 40, would ease into his now-familiar role of putting younger stars over. He lost to Edge in their blow-off match at Extreme Rules 2010 and mostly settled into an upper midcard role, where he remains whenever he’s competing in the WWE as a part-time performer.

Some still say that Jericho was at his best during his face Y2J run in the early 2000s, which included classics such as this verbal tirade against a heel Stephanie McMahon, and a Dusty Finish win over Triple H for the WWF Championship in April 2000 that was quickly reversed, and currently not recognized by the WWE. Yes, he was a very compelling babyface around that time, with his smart-alecky personality and the fact he was still young and in his prime. But even then, he was playing second fiddle to Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock in the babyface pecking order. As Jericho said in his second autobiography Undisputed, he was the equivalent of George Harrison in the Beatles if Austin and Rock were Lennon and McCartney.

As a heel in 2008 and 2009, no one was colder, more calculating, or more compelling as Chris Jericho was. It was a brief run as an alpha heel for the man who was then eschewing everything about the Y2J character, but many fans, including myself, consider this his finest, most successful, and most memorable run in the WWE.


Honorable Mention (The Late Bloomer)—JBL Has More Titles Now


Inasmuch as I’d like to have the spotlight solely on Y2J for this second part, it bears mentioning that Bob Backlund and Chris Jericho aren’t the only veteran WWF/E talents who got their main event groove back when they were older competitors. In fact, some only made it to the pantheon of sports entertainment when they were already as old as the Throwback Tito.

Before there was Beer Money, there was the APA—pre-JBL Bradshaw and Ron "Faarooq" Simmons.
As suggested by Smark Henry editors MDJ and “Mr.” Stan Sy, my honorable mention goes to the Wrestling God himself, John Bradshaw Layfield. While not a late-career comeback per se, given that he was never pushed higher than upper midcard in earlier years, JBL also deserves to be mentioned for first becoming a legitimate main event talent at the ripe old age of 37. We won’t get into his early WWF career as Justin “Hawk” Bradshaw, as we had already covered that when talking about occupational wrestlers, but in the late ‘90s to the early 2000s, the man then known simply as Bradshaw was clearly a midcard player, as one-half of The New Blackjacks, and later on as one-half of The Acolytes/Acolytes Protection Agency with former Nation of Domination leader Faarooq.

The APA would then split in 2002 due to the brand extension, but briefly reunited in 2003 to 2004, only to be torn apart in an angle where Faarooq, now more frequently referred to by his real name Ron Simmons, took the pin in a tag team “You’re Fired” match versus erstwhile WWE Tag Team champs Scotty 2 Hotty and Rikishi. As SmackDown General Manager Paul Heyman explained it to the APA, it was only Simmons who was to be fired, as he was the one being directly addressed when Heyman booked the match. Bradshaw, however, would remain because management, in storyline and in real life, still saw potential in him.


Enter John Bradshaw Layfield. Substituting his real middle name with his kayfabe surname, JBL ditched the brawling, beer-guzzling bodyguard gimmick and turned heel in 2004. He began entering the ring with a new attire (suit, tie, cowboy hat), and a new gimmick based on his real-life interests and beliefs. JBL was a rich businessman with conservative leanings, and he drew excellent heel heat for his anti-immigration/jingoistic pro-America promos, his overemphasis on his actual background as a financial analyst, and his overall arrogance and superiority complex over everyone else in the WWF. It was John Charles Layfield turned up to 11, and with his wrestling and promo skills now backed up by a big push, he became the longest-reigning main event champ in about a decade, holding the WWE Title for 280 days and dropping it to John Cena at WrestleMania 21.

For most of 2005 to 2009, JBL would remain in the main event scene—never again would he become WWE Champion, but he did win the United States and Intercontinental titles once each, and he was often a contender for either the WWE or World Heavyweight Championships, depending on which brand the belt was on or which brand he was on.

Given this unusual situation—a 37-year-old man getting his first main event push in his eighth year with the WWF/E, and staying on top or close to the top for the next five years—there may be hope for the likes of Cesaro, who turns 36 in 2016. Dolph Ziggler too (see Part 1), though as I pointed out there, he was ever-so-briefly in the main event. Heck, maybe even Social Outcasts Adam Rose and Curtis Axel, both turning 37 this year, could be pushed into the big-time given the right gimmick change. But as we all know, the WWE can’t push everyone at the same time, as there are so many known and unknown factors that could come into play when deciding if there’s a veteran who’s ready for their first-ever big push.

It may be a longshot, but could 1979 babies Adam Rose (extreme left) and Curtis Axel (extreme right) get their first main event push at 37, like JBL did in 2004? Who knows?
In JBL’s case, the opportunity opened through a lack of main event star power due to recent retirements and sabbaticals, e.g. Austin, Rock, Mick Foley. Right now, the opportunity is perfect, with all the high-profile injuries in the WWE, e.g. John Cena, Seth Rollins, Randy Orton. Many fans are tired of seeing the same old guys getting pushed, so why not roll the dice on an older, yet deserving veteran like Ziggler, Cesaro, et al.?

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Know of anyone else who made a similar late-career comeback, especially if it was as a heel? Which current WWE Superstars do you think could make such a comeback? Or maybe you want certain Superstars over 35 to get a bigger push while still early? Let us know in the comments section!


The Throwback Tito is Enzo Tanos, a freelance writer and the drummer/manager for garage rock band The Myopics, where he hopes to debut his masked lucha drummer persona “Sin Verguenza” in future gigs. A wrestling fan since childhood, he’s old enough to remember watching Outback Jack’s pointless vignettes, and One Man Gang’s transformation to Akeem.

PHOTO CREDITS - Jericho with WWF and WCW title belts c/o Cageside Seats, Jericho vs Cena c/o The John Cena Blog, Jericho at Elimination Chamber 2010 c/o Sportskeeda, APA c/o Pro Wrestling Wikia, Social Outcasts c/o Daily DDT

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