By Mike Mooneyham
Oct. 28, 2007
Chris Jericho wasn’t sure if he would ever wrestle again after abruptly leaving the business two years ago to pursue other interests. That, however, was before he wrote “A Lion’s Tale: Around the World in Spandex,” which was released Thursday and already is climbing the charts at breakneck speed.
Writing the book reignited his passion for wrestling. Having time to reflect on his globe-trotting career and putting it all down on paper made the 36-year-old Jericho realize just how much he really did love wrestling and couldn’t stay away from it.
“When I left wrestling, I never said I was retiring, and that wasn’t the intention,” Jericho said last week. “I just needed to take a break. I was very mentally burned out. Physically I was fine, but mentally I had burnout and didn’t really want to wrestle anymore. If you’re not 100 percent mentally committed to this sport, you better get out, because you’re going to hurt yourself or you’re going to hurt somebody else, and it’s not going to be good for anybody.”
The first year out of the business, says Jericho, he didn’t even watch wrestling.
“It’s like eating pizza. I love pizza, but too much pizza and you get sick of it. You don’t want to look at it, you don’t want to smell it, you don’t want to see it. That’s how it was about wrestling. I needed to get away and let the chips fall where they may. I was very fortunate that I didn’t have any chains financially or creatively. I had done everything I wanted to do. I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to get the money to pay the rent. It was easy for me to just walk away.”
The time off allowed him to spend more time at home with his wife of seven years, Jessica, and their three young children.
“I decided to take a step back and work on some of these other things I had going on, and spend a little time at home.”
One of those projects was an offer from Warner Brothers to do a book.
“It was very organic. I spent a lot of time going through this and remembering the old days when I was a kid and all the things I went through. When I was done, I first thought how cool it was to have had this dream and actually attain it, and second of all, I remembered how much I actually loved and enjoyed wrestling. I thought I could come back to this. When the time was right, I’d come back and be better than ever, and I’d do what I always did and do it at a higher level. Right now the landscape is wide open because the experience level is so much lower. The bar is so much lower. Experience is the one thing you can’t teach.”
From his humble beginnings in the business working for hot dogs and orange juice, to the pinnacle of the profession as the first WWF undisputed heavyweight champion in 2001, Jericho may be the very last of a breed of wrestler who honed his skills around the world before taking it to the highest level.
“I was telling Bret Hart a couple of weeks ago that it’s almost like we’re the last of the Mohicans in a lot of ways,” Jericho said last week. “It’s funny that Bret’s book came out the same time mine did. I think our books are the last to tell this type of a tale. People should enjoy it because there’s not going to be any more wrestling books like this. This is years and years of experience.”
Those experiences, he says, helped him develop a real respect for the job. “Every little thing that I got to achieve became such a really huge deal. I never, ever took anything for granted. I never sat back and got lazy or waited for someone to tell me what to do. That’s not how the business works. You better take the bull by the horns and go out there and do it, and be different from everybody else.”
While all the territories, with the exception of Smoky Mountain, were closed when Jericho was coming up through the ranks, he was forced to go to other places to hone his skills. But it was always the same concept: “Go and learn your craft, and find out what it is you can do and what it is you can’t do.”
“I was never the biggest guy, but I worked on having the biggest personality,” says Jercho. “I learned early on that wrestling was about show business. I don’t think a lot of guys realize that the show business aspect is the most important thing in wrestling. I’ll debate anybody anywhere on that.”
While the book covers most of that time period, it ends with Jericho’s dramatic 1999 debut in the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment), which just happens to be the company where his greatest achievements occurred. But that’s OK from a book standpoint, since with 412 pages of great reading at one’s disposal, it just makes for an ideal place for a sequel to begin.
“The buzz on this book is very good and people really seem into it, so I think it would be a no-brainer to go do the second one very soon,” say Jericho.
And, if Jericho has his way, there’s plenty left in the tank and more mountains to climb in the wrestling business. While he’s not at liberty to divulge any confidential information, it’s no secret that he’s been negotiating with WWE about a return that could take place anytime. Jericho has a book signing scheduled Monday in Philadelphia. Raw will hold a show in that city later that night. The next day, Jericho will be signing books in Long Island, which just happens to be where Smackdown will be taping.
Nothing has been finalized, he says, but it all depends on what’s being offered. “On my terms, I’m all ears. On someone else’s terms, I’m not interested to play that game anymore.”
Jericho knows his value on the free-agent market.
“Who is left in the world – anywhere – who could come back at a huge level and tip the scales and make a difference? I’m not saying I could do that, but if I can’t do it, I don’t think there’s anybody who we’ve seen before who can.”
It’s an interesting spot to be in. It would have to be a return under the right circumstances, says Jericho, and on his terms. “Specifically just to go back and enjoy the business again like I used to, and use some of this experience to my advantage and also to the business’s advantage. There’s really not many guys out there like me anymore.”
Jericho says it doesn’t matter if he returns to wrestling as a babyface or a heel.
“I think I’m one of the few guys who can play both roles very well. It honestly doesn’t matter to me. I understand what to do on either side of the coin no matter who I’m put in the ring with. I know what to do. Once you get that confidence, you can’t be stopped. Nobody can bring you down.”
Unlike many self-serving memoirs penned by pro wrestlers, this one is a skillfully crafted tome that highlights Jericho’s light, humorous touch, adeptly navigated and kept on course by collaborator Pete Fornatale. With Mick Foley’s books setting the bar for wrestler-authored autobiographies, this volume gives them a run for the money.
“The book is a funny, fast-paced romp that is as honest as any book written by anybody else in the know,” writes Bret Hart.
Even Foley heaped praise on the candid and witty narrative.
“I was really enjoying this book, empathizing with Chris’s plight as an aspiring wrestler, laughing out loud at many of the dead-on depictions of some of the more colorful characters in our business. Suddenly, all that enjoyment stopped as a wave of momentary panic crashed right into my literary ego. ‘Oh no,’ I thought. ‘What if this book is better than mine?'”
“This is a follow-your-dreams, stranger in a strange land, coming of age story,” says Jericho. “If you want to do something, no matter how unattainable it may seem, you can go out there and do it. You just have to believe in yourself and believe in your abilities. That’s the subplot of the book right there.”
Jericho possesses an abundance of admirable qualities. In addition to being a top-notch athlete with a flair for the dramatic inside the ring, he’s witty, personable and intelligent. He emerges as a natural storyteller, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed his career as a multifaceted performer. His knack for comedy has landed him regular appearances on the VH-1 and E! cable networks as well as a number of other shows.
Perhaps his greatest attribute is supreme confidence. The brash, blond-haired wrestler – also known as Y2J, the King of Bling Bling and the Ayatollah of Rock ‘n Rolla – was once called the biggest Manitoba export since the renowned Canadian rock band The Guess Who. He’s extremely good at what he does, and he knows it. But he’s no overnight sensation, and he comes by his confidence honestly.
His favorite part of the book, which took him 18 months to complete, was the early days of his career and his journey to stardom through some of the more obscure places – in Japan, where the local mob wanted to cut off his hand, and outside Mexico City, where he was left for dead.
“It was the stuff that people never knew. They knew Jericho worked in Japan or Jericho worked in Mexico, but I don’t think they ever really knew any of the real stories of being there. There was a lot of stuff that people didn’t know. I don’t think there’s one person who will read this book who will be disappointed by the stories I tell and the journey of getting to WWE in the first place. That’s the beauty of this. The stories are so forgotten. No one will know them. And that’s why I thought it was great to bring them to life and let people see who Chris Jericho is and what he went through to get to WWE.”
“Dreams do come true. Happy endings still exist. This book proves it,” Jim Ross writes in the book’s foreword.
Jericho’s love of wrestling began at a young age. He was only 7 years old when he began watching wrestling in his grandmother’s Winnipeg basement. “She was a quiet lady but whenever the AWA was on TV, she would freak out and start yelling and screaming.” The two cheered fan favorites such as Hulk Hogan and jeered bad guys like Jesse Ventura.
Eventually his dad, former NHL player Ted Irvine, would take Chris to the matches at the Winnipeg Arena, where the youngster’s love for the sport would grow even more.
From the moment the 16-year-old Jericho saw a match featuring the late Owen Hart in 1987, he knew he wanted to be a wrestler. Failure was not an option for Jericho. There was no turning back and no safety net. Jericho always knew he was going to be a wrestler. Even when he took other part-time jobs, such as a bouncer, he was always a wrestler first and foremost. “Even if I had one match in a period of months, I was still a professional wrestler.”
Jericho, who started wrestling professionally in 1990 after attending the Hart Brothers Pro Wrestling Camp in Calgary, followed his dream, and the journey took him from Canada to Germany, Mexico and Japan, to the Jim Cornette-run Smoky Mountain Wrestling in Tennessee, to Paul Heyman’s Extreme Championship Wrestling and to the Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling.
Everywhere he went, though, he made it a point to be original and to be remembered. Even WCW was a positive experience for Jericho despite the many trials and tribulations he encountered there.
“Even in WCW when I was getting crappy angles and little TV time and nobody cared, I still took what they gave me and made it good. And once you get good at that, you better watch out, because you’re an unstoppable force. You become bullet-proof. It’s very dangerous for a performer to get to that point, because it doesn’t matter what they want you to do or what they give you to do. You can always take it and make it good. You would think that’s what the promoters want, too, but sometimes you never know what’s going to happen.”
His most trying times in the company revolved around his rocky relationship with WCW boss Eric Bischoff and the heavy-handed political games played by the likes of Hulk Hogan and Kevin Nash. Jericho, though, persevered through it all.
“In the end I won. I didn’t want to write the book with a bitter slant. I didn’t do anything maliciously. Bischoff and I didn’t get along toward the end of my run, but I thanked him for the opportunity.” It was, after all, Bischoff who gave him his break with WCW based on the sterling recommendations of Chris Benoit and Jimmy Hart.
“He gave me a shot when Vince didn’t really know who I was,” says Jericho. “And that’s what enabled me to get to WWE in the first place. So I have to thank Bischoff for that. Actually when he came to WWE, he was a much different guy. I found a lot of people in that company (WCW) were very much a product of their environment. All these guys who went over to WWE were nice guys, and that wasn’t necessarily the case in WCW, but things were different.”
Jericho’s penchant for coming up with amusing, off-the-wall storylines is perhaps best reflected by a hilarious gimmick in which he employed an overweight, balding, gap-toothed WCW ring hand named Ralphus as his bodyguard.
“He had, shall we say, a very unique look,” Jericho writes in his book. “His hairline receded to his neck and he sported a massive gut. He frequently flashed a friendly smile that accentuated his missing front teeth and a pair of fang-like incisors that protruded out of each side of his mouth. He had a face only a mother could love and Mother Jericho wanted him for a bodyguard.”
The angle was a spoof on Bill Goldberg’s security squad that routinely escorted him to the ring, although behind the scenes Goldberg never fully appreciated Jericho’s brand of humor.
The audience, however, did, and catapulted Ralphus, whose real name was John Riker, into near-star status. So much, in fact, that the overweight “security specialist” was letting the attention go to his head. It was getting to the point, says Jericho, where Ralphus “was standing in the corner putting baby oil on his stomach and his arms, putting water on his hair, and he was talking about getting a lawyer and a contract offer. And basically he was just a guy who drove the lighting rig around who looked funny, and I thought he would be perfect to be my bodyguard.”
It also proved to Jericho just how far removed WCW was from what its performers were doing. And Jericho loved working outside the box. It was being goofy, he admits, but it also was entertaining and part of what Jericho loved about being a showman.
“Once again nobody cared what I was doing. I had carte blanche. I was so far under the radar that I would actually have a bodyguard walk out with me, and not even ask permission. Nobody cared. If you tried to do that in Vince’s world … you’d be shot. You’d get fired.”
As for Ralphus, says Jericho, “He didn’t know any better. He was great.”
“When the Ralphus Rats started sitting in the front row, I was sickened to know that he had more groupies than I did. Even worse, he would spend all his time talking to the girls and not paying any attention to the match,” according to Jericho. “The monster was loose.”
Jericho called a halt to the gimmick when Barry Windham and the late Bobby Duncum Jr. planned an angle where they would hog-tie Ralphus. “I told them they couldn’t do that … they might kill him. They tried it anyway, the finish got messed up and I was angry. After I left, they started putting him in hardcore matches with Norman Smiley. They had a great cult character with him. Once again they let it slip through their fingers. If you had the audacity to actually go out and get over on your own, you’d be punished for it.”
Pompous attitudes ran rampant in the WCW locker room. Jericho recalls meeting Lex Luger for the first time and asking about his gym. Luger, he says, looked at him with an annoyed face and said, “Who are you again?”
Unlike other wrestling autobiographies, where the authors seize the opportunity to take verbal shots at some of their enemies in the business, Jericho is relatively tame with his criticisms of fellow performers. It’s clear, though, that his experiences with Vampiro in Mexico weren’t pleasant ones, and that he didn’t appreciate Scott Hall’s bully tactics in WCW. Hall and his NWO cohorts were massive prima donnas, writes Jericho, with poor attitudes to boot, as exemplified by Hall asking Bret Hart one night in Huntsville, Ala., “Why do you care so much about this match? It’s just a house show.”
Hall did allow Jericho to score a pinfall on him once with a small package. Although Hall had 10 more years of experience than Jericho, it was Jericho who had to teach him how to execute the basic hold in the dressing room before the match. After the bout, though, Hall got his heat back by thoroughly pummeling Jericho and leaving him lying in a pool of his “lost credibility.”
On the flip side, notes Jericho, there were respected veterans like Ric Flair, who after overhearing booker Kevin Sullivan tell Jericho that nobody else cared about his match and why should he, took the youngster aside and told him: “Don’t ever stop caring about your work. Around here a good match is all you have. It’s the only thing that makes you rise above the BS.”
When Jericho realized there would be no way to fight the glass ceiling in WCW, he opted not to sign a big-money contract renewal offered by Bischoff. He also took a sizable pay cut when he left WCW for New York.
“I knew I was risking a lot, especially from a financial standpoint, but the whole point was to make it to the WWF. That was my point when I left my house in 1990, driving from Winnipeg to Calgary. Toward the end they bucked up and offered a lot of money, but by that point it was too late. I was too close to getting the dream. If I would have stayed in WCW for the next 10 years and made $17 million a year and been the world champion 15 times, it still wouldn’t have been as good as working in the WWF, because that’s all I wanted to do. That was my dream.
“I felt like I was giving something up, but I knew that what I was getting in return of just getting this crown of this pot of gold that I had been searching for was worth it and I was willing to take the chance. Plus, by that point, after all the years of being in all these different places, I knew that I could do it.”
Jericho also knew going in that he had something to prove. He never envisioned a cakewalk. In the WWE, he says, one had to earn his spot. But he had been doing that his entire career.
“Even when I first came to WWE, it wasn’t smooth sailing at all. There were a lot of issues, a lot of animosity, but you keep working and you keep rising above. Had I just gotten to WWE with no prior experience, I would have been gone within six months. But because I had been through this so many different times, I knew how to get through it and keep going and forge ahead, and that’s what I did.”
The book has its share of poignant moments, not the least of which are the passages written by Jericho reflecting on the losses of many of his “brothers” who left this life far too early. He laments that “a lot of the brothers talked about in this book will never read it.” He dedicates his tales to those who left “before the party was over.” Among them are some of his closest friends – Eddie Guerrero, to whom the book is dedicated; Art Barr, whose room in Mexico City he had been staying at when he heard the tragic news of his friend’s sudden death at the age of 28; and Owen Hart, his inspiration and whose family he considered himself a surrogate member of.
The late Chris Benoit was one of Jericho’s closest friends in the business, and he doesn’t hide the fact in his book. It’s certainly not the same Benoit who killed his wife and son last June, but it’s a man who was a mentor and friend for many years prior to that dark weekend in late June.
The book, says Jericho, was basically done when the tragedy occurred. He went back and made some last-minute changes, but kept a photo of himself with Benoit, wife Nancy and Stu Hart that was taken the day of Owen Hart’s funeral.
To essentially erase Chris and Nancy from existence through the photo’s omission wouldn’t have been the right thing to do, although he admits he changed his mind a dozen times. Jericho finally reconciled that the man who perpetrated his private horror in the family home was not the man he admired and respected. He ultimately kept Benoit in the book and wrote in the preface, “The man I knew and loved exists within these pages, not the man that existed in the final days of his life.”
“In the end, I felt that to pull this picture would suggest that Chris and Nancy never existed,” he says. “But they did exist and they loved each other and I loved them. So it stayed.”
“Some of the stories weren’t as funny as they used to be,” adds Jericho. “There were just some words that weren’t appropriate, and I just didn’t feel right about it. So I changed some things, but there’s a lot of things that I just left because this was the guy that I knew through the course of these years. He was very influential and very much a big brother and a good friend. This is the way it was, and he was the guy that I knew.”
The next chapter
“Lion Heart” Chris Jericho the wrestler is merely an amped-up extension of Chris Irvine the person. Both versions are confident and funny, yet both can be self-effacing.
“The best personalities in wrestling are the normal, natural personalities taken to the tenth degree. You just turn up the volume of your real personality. That pretty much sums up what I am as Chris Jericho throughout my entire career. Chris Jericho is very entertaining, charismatic, sarcastic, comedic or whatever it may be. But I think there’s a lot of who I am.”
There is, says Jericho, a major difference.
“I’m also playing a part. Anthony Hopkins wasn’t really a cannibal in ‘Silence of the Lambs’ – he was just playing a part. Wrestling is acting, and you’re playing a role. Chris Jericho is very schizophrenic, because Chris Jericho is my name and it’s also a character, and some people don’t know the difference between the two. I often equate it with Seinfeld. Jerry Seinfeld played Jerry Seinfeld on the ‘Seinfeld’ show. A lot of the real Seinfeld was in there, but there was also a lot of the character Seinfeld. That’s what Chris Jericho is when he’s on stage.”
Above all, though, Chris Jericho is a master showman, whether in the role of wrestler, actor, radio host or rock musician.
He’s been plenty busy over the past couple of years. He hosted an XM satellite radio show titled “Rock of Jericho” and sang alongside the likes of Lee Ann Womack and Peter Frampton in the Fox series “Celebrity Duets.” He’s gained acclaim as the leader of the rock band Fozzy, about whom he also wrote and directed a short comedy film for MTV titled “Unleashed, Uncensored, Unknown.”
But Jericho, who turns 37 next month, is looking forward to the next part of his career. The second coming of Y2J is imminent, and he’s looking forward to going back to the business and finding another “good sparring partner” such as The Rock.
“You’re only as good as the guy you’re working with,” says Jericho.
He’s financially set, and he makes it clear that wrestling’s not something he has to do. “I left at 34 on my own terms and my own time. I wouldn’t want to work as long as Ric (Flair) is working. To me that’s just not what I’m really wired to do. Having said that, you could be talking to me 20 years from now and I might be telling you that I just want one more run. You just never know what’s going to happen. All I know is that I’ve been very smart with everything that I’ve done. I saved money and my compensation ever since I got paid a hot dog and a glass of orange juice. I put a quarter of the hotdog in the bank. I came into the business on my own terms, and I left the first time on my own terms. I’ll come back the same way, and I’ll leave the same way.”
Jericho admits there’s been a number of projects thrown at him just in the past few weeks. They involve music, books, films and, of course, wrestling.
“Acting is a lot like wrestling when you first start out. You get a gig, you don’t get anything for a while. Then you get a couple of movies, and then you have to wait until the next one comes. Then you meet somebody who knows somebody. Acting was a lot of fun for me, too, and I wouldn’t mind doing that. Obviously there’s only one Rock at the level he’s gotten to, and that’s very rare. But I wouldn’t mind doing them the way Roddy Piper’s done … just do the ones you’re interested in and have fun with it.”
His next book – and there surely will be a next one – will pick up where the first left off. It’s his memorable debut in the WWF and the culmination of his dream. He puts his hair into a Gene Simmons topknot, combs the billy goat beard he had grown for the occasion, looks in the mirror and gives himself a Billy Idol sneer, while his soon-to-be adversary, The Rock, cuts one of his memorable promos in the middle of the ring. The Countdown Clock for Y2J appears and the crowd explodes. Chris Jericho’s dream come true had arrived.
For more on Chris Jericho and his new book, visit Mike Mooneyham’s pro wrestling page on www.charleston.net.
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