Heading into All Elite Wrestling’s Double or Nothing pay-per-view last May, nobody really knew what to make of its main event – a match called “Stadium Stampede,” contested between the team of Matt Hardy and The Elite (Kenny Omega, “Hangman” Adam Page, Nick Jackson and Matt Jackson) and the Inner Circle (Chris Jericho, Jake Hager, Sammy Guevara, Santana and Ortiz), at TIAA Bank Field, the home of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Because of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the show would be held without fans. So all that was known about the match prior to its start was that 10 men were going to be wrestling in an empty NFL stadium and not much more.

What Stadium Stampede ended up being was a ridiculous spectacle of a cinematic match. A ring was constructed at the 50-yard line. Page rode his horse threw the concourse before engaging in a bar fight with Hager. Matt Jackson gave Guevara a series of rolling Northern Lights suplexes that went the length of the field. Hardy moonsaulted off of the uprights. Jericho hit Jaxson de Ville, the Jaguars mascot, with his Judas Effect finishing move. A golf cart chase ensued. Omega finally ended the match by hitting his One-Winged Angel finisher on Guevara from the seats through a platform tens of feet below. The Elite celebrated their victory with a Gatorade shower.

The match was well-paced and the match was funny, but most importantly, the match was simply fun as hell. Stadium Stampede was widely lauded for the creativity and sense of humour that carried its 34 minutes.

For Jericho, that was mission accomplished.

“I think you hafta remember what was going on in the world last May,” Jericho told TSN.ca. “Stadium Stampede was a direct result of the lockdown. We had that pay-per-view that we ran last year in front of no people and it was a very uncertain time. It was a little bit scary and I think Stadium Stampede was created specifically to make people smile and give them something entertaining that we’d never done before. I’ll never forget showing up at the stadium last year and thinking, ‘What the hell are we gonna do?’ There’s nothing here. There’s just one big, empty field and then we create this magical world with some comedy, some intensity, some amazing stunts and everything in between. But most importantly, I think it was very entertaining and I think it was exactly what people needed to take their minds off of what was going on in the world.”

At this Sunday’s 2021 edition of Double or Nothing, AEW is running it back with Stadium Stampede, but the circumstances are very different. From a practical perspective, unlike last year, this is a ticketed show with fans. Nearly 5,000 fans are expected at Daily’s Place, the venue adjacent to TIAA Bank Field where AEW has called home for the duration of the pandemic. From a storyline perspective, the once-hated Inner Circle, heels in last year’s match, are now the babyfaces as they up the ante in their blood feud with Maxwell Jacob Friedman and The Pinnacle (Wardlow, Shawn Spears, Dax Harwood and Cash Wheeler).

Jericho says it’s quite obvious that simply doing a repeat of 2020’s match isn’t an option.

“Stadium Stampede as a concept is just as valid [as it was last year], but the story that we’ve told is different,” Jericho explained. “And people will think ‘Oh, watch out – it’s going to be all comedy.’ Well, of course it’s not going to be all comedy. It’s a different story that we’re telling. It’s more violent and intense. I think it’s going to be much more like an action movie. There might be moments of comedy like you’d see in any great action movie, but I think it’s going to be much more intense, much more about the fight and the creativity of what we can do. That’s the thing I loved about the Stadium Stampede last year when we first walked into that building and [thought] there’s nothing but a giant, empty stadium and there’s nothing to do there, but then we realized there’s a lot we can do there. When we started thinking about this year’s version, there’s a lot of stuff we can do that wasn’t done last year.”

Being a babyface isn’t anything new for Jericho, but it’s the first time in that role for him in AEW and he says this version of his character isn’t like those in his past.

“I always say that it’s easier to make people hate you than it is to make people like you,” Jericho said. “Once they start hating you, then they start liking you. There’s always a way to play heel, but sometimes it just can’t go as long [as it used to]. For example, 10 years ago, I was a heel for two and a half years. I don’t think that can ever happen again at this point. But it is kind of fun to be a babyface and working this style and really embracing these kinds of intense babyface promos. That’s something that I haven’t really done before. It’s very exciting and it’s a lot of fun because if you know my career, I’m all about evolving and changing and moving and never doing the same thing. I’ve done kind of the super entertaining babyface thing before, but there’s almost an early ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin intensity [now] and it’s believable. And then having The Pinnacle as these perfect foils, there’s nothing better as a babyface than having a great heel. I think we’ve been able to play off each other very well. The two teams are very well matched.”

While the Inner Circle-Pinnacle program kicked off in earnest with the formation of MJF’s heel stable on the Mar. 10 edition of Dynamite, the genesis of the storyline itself dates back to last fall when Friedman (and Wardlow) looked to join the Inner Circle. Gaining membership to the group last November, MJF began to sow discord in the group by encouraging infighting and ostracizing Guevara in service of his goal to usurp Jericho’s leadership. Just as Friedman’s plan was about to come to fruition on that episode of Dynamite earlier in the spring, the Inner Circle revealed that they were onto him all along and prepared to give MJF his just desserts. But before Friedman would get his richly deserved comeuppance, he outed himself as the mastermind after all, divulging his ultimate plan of ridding AEW of the Inner Circle for good through his creation of The Pinnacle in secret. 

Since then, the two groups have engaged in a vicious war that began with the May 5 Blood and Guts cage match in which Jericho ended up dislocating his elbow in taking a bump from the top of the cage – “It was probably a combination of how I fell, the speed with which I fell, the height and all those sorts of things,” Jericho said of the injury. “Thankfully, it wasn’t too bad, but it was enough where I had to treat it with therapy and that sort of thing” – and leads to Sunday’s PPV match.

Jericho, a seven-time world champion, concedes that beginning the physical part of the feud with a WarGames-style match is an unconventional choice to make (normally that kind of match would blow off a feud), but he’s been pleased with the way the program is unfolding and promises that they know where they’re going with it.

“I love when people always [say stuff like] ‘Well, they’re starting with Blood and Guts, where are they going to go from here?’ or ‘Stadium Stampede? How’s that going to be?’ as if we haven’t thought of all of those things and had it all planned out,” Jericho said. “I know what I’m doing for the next three months and I’ve known what I’m doing up until now three months ago. It’s all very planned out because that’s how you tell a story. We have very much put a lot of time into making sure that the story is told right, that the story is told properly and, as a result, I think we have the hottest angle, feud, whatever you want to call it in AEW today – and it’s really, in a lot of ways, just beginning.”

A refreshing aspect of the feud has been the logic applied to it that is rare in the world of pro wrestling. Yes, you are watching characters on a television show, but they exist outside of the two-hour window you see them every Wednesday night and are well aware that they’re on a TV show.

“Wrestling is a combination of fantasy and reality and…I think with us, we do use common sense,” Jericho said. “We established very early on that the characters on Dynamite watch Dynamite. We can obviously see what’s going on on the show because we’re on the show. I think that kind of changes the dynamic a lot and that was a [AEW president and booker] Tony Khan edict from the beginning. But it’s worked out quite well. We’ve said that we talk to each other during the week. We know what’s going on… We want to be different from the wrestling tropes and establish more realism.”

But Jericho acknowledges that, at times, you’re still going to have to suspend your disbelief as you would when you’re consuming most kinds of narrative TV or movies.

“Sometimes people bag on us like, ‘Well, you said it was going to be like a real sports product,’” Jericho said. “This is pro wrestling. [Naturally], it’s quite ridiculous. Listen, if I threw you against the ropes, you probably wouldn’t bounce back and run into my clothesline. There is an element of, ‘This is wrestling and you know what you’re getting.’ Much like if you go see a Marvel movie and it’s really well written and the storyline is great, but come on, how the hell can Iron Man fly? That’s bulls---. So you have to have an element of  ‘This is wrestling,’ so let’s not get too carried away with the realism aspect, but we do make it more common sense-based. Like if MJF does something behind my back, but it’s on TV, why wouldn’t I be able to see that? It’s on TV. I’m watching my own show as you should be.”

At the heart of the feud between the two groups is the clash of personalities between their respective leaders, Jericho and MJF. Both silver-tongued and quick with a cutting barb, there is a natural chemistry between Jericho and Friedman on the mic. The key, Jericho says, to getting fans to buy into a feud is to establish your opponent’s credibility before cutting them down.

“I learned a long time ago that the best way to do a promo about somebody is you put them over,” Jericho said. “Before you bury them, you have to explain how great the guy is you’re wrestling because if you don’t and you beat him, well then, who did you beat? And heaven forbid if you lose, you just lost to somebody that you didn’t think was all that good. So I think we both know how great MJF is, how great Jericho is and how great both factions are, but we are at war. I liken it to Game of Thrones. I really enjoyed watching that because there were a lot of wrestling-style elements to it. We both know what we’re up against. There’s a very formidable army on either side and I think the best way to promote that, to get people interested in it, is that people don’t really know who’s going to win for sure.

“That’s what wrestling’s all about and doesn’t happen quite a lot these days, but I think with this Pinnacle-Inner Circle story, people will buy it if we win and if we lose and have to break up, well, the Inner Circle has to end at some point and I think that’s a very believable way to do it. And that’s because of the story we’ve told and the rivalry between these guys. All of that stuff, we think about that when we’re coming up with storylines and ideas, to make it as real and believable as possible within the realm of this pro wrestling world because that’s what really gets people excited about it and makes them want to see the matches and show that you’re doing.”

Another thing that’s exciting fans these days is the opening of the so-called “Forbidden Door” with major promotions establishing working relationships with one another in a way that hasn’t been seen in years.  On top of being the AEW World Champion, Kenny Omega also holds the top titles in both Impact Wrestling and Mexico’s AAA. In the past several weeks alone, New Japan Pro-Wrestling talents KENTA, Yuji Nagata, Ren Narita and Rocky Romero have all appeared on AEW programming. Jericho has worked in New Japan in the past – including defeating Tetsuya Naito for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship before dropping it back to him – and hopes to once again work with the company in the future.

“There’s a lot of unfinished business for me in New Japan,” Jericho said. “Jay White is one [potential opponent], [Minoru] Suzuki is another one that would draw big money. Kota Ibushi and [Will] Ospreay, those four guys I’d love to work with. I’d love to do a ‘Golden Jets’ team – Kenny and Jericho – versus [Kazuchika] Okada and Ibushi or [Hiroshi] Tanahashi and Okada or Tanahashi and Ibushi. I think that’s a Tokyo Dome main event right there. So there’s a lot of stuff I’d still like to do in New Japan and as soon as we can start going over there again, I’m more than agreeable to doing more work there. I really enjoyed the six matches that I had there in 2018 and 2019 and think there’s plenty of room for more.”

On top of his wrestling career, Jericho has a number of other irons in the fire. His Talk Is Jericho podcast is currently in its ninth year of production and his band, Fozzy, is getting set to release their eighth album with the first single “Sane” released this past Friday.

“I think one of the things about not being able to tour for the past year and change is that everybody is probably working on new music or at least you hope they are,” Jericho said. “There’s going to be a lot of great records coming out in the next six months or so. We started this record prior to the pandemic and then had to take a break because of it. We’re laughing and calling this Chinese Fozzocracy because it seems like it’s taking 15 years to do it like the Guns N’ Roses record did, but we’re super excited. The songs are amazing. We’re ready to get back out there and play. We did do some shows last year, but now we’re ready to go all out and I think ‘Sane’ is the perfect kind of reintroduction to Fozzy, the same way that ‘Judas’ was the perfect reintroduction when it was released. We did a video that’s never been done before, which was on a roller coaster and it was insane – no pun intended. So there’s this combination of a great banging riff for the summer, a great banger summer song, combined with this really cool video. We’re hoping this is our first No. 1 song. ‘Judas’ went to No. 5, ‘Painless’ went to No. 7, but we think this has what it takes to go to No. 1.”

Jericho has also continued his role as the narrator for Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring with its third season currently airing on Crave in Canada. He says he continues to be impressed by the quality of each episode.

“They’re produced by legit fans, who put a lot of time in getting the right people to comment on what’s going on,” Jericho said. “I saw some of the A&E [WWE] documentaries and I really enjoyed a couple of them, but I didn’t enjoy the other ones because there were people on there talking and I’m like ‘Why the hell is this person here?’ I think Dark Side of the Ring has really gone above and beyond to get the right guests, to get people who haven’t spoken on camera before [about the topic]. You look at the Owen Hart episode and having Martha and Owen’s kids or having me and Chavo [Guerrero Jr.] talking about [Chris] Benoit or having Vickie [Guerrero] talking about Eddie [Guerrero] and Benoit – none of us had ever done that publicly before. I think the [Brian] Pillman show was the perfect example of that in having Steve Austin on there, Brian’s wife and his kids. They go that extra mile and they’ve got the reputation for doing that. I’m very proud to be involved as the narrator and I love watching the shows, not just as a fan, but as somebody who knows a little bit of the stories, but not all of them. It’s really great stuff.”

Also of great interest to Jericho right now is his beloved hometown Winnipeg Jets, fresh off their first-round sweep of the Edmonton Oilers.

“I think there’s so much emphasis put on Connor McDavid, but when it comes down to it, I guess he hasn’t won a lot of playoff rounds and these Jets have,” Jericho said. “They went to the final four [in 2018], before they lost to Vegas. That was the reason [they beat Edmonton] because they had a really great foundation. They lost a couple of guys, no more [Dustin] Byfuglien, et cetera, but [Nikolaj] Ehlers came out ablaze and it was just fun to watch because Winnipeg is such a kind of a kicked dog team, especially as a fan.”

Jericho says the win over the Oilers was extra special for longtime Jets fans.

“We think back to 1990 when the Jets blew a 3-1 lead to the Oilers [in the Campbell Conference first round] and ended up losing the series,” Jericho said. “I think if they had beaten the Oilers that year, they would have been a great contender for the Stanley Cup. So any time the Jets win a series, it’s a huge victory for Winnipeg and it’s very exciting. So I love that the Jets won, but it’s a drag there still aren’t any fans [in the arena], but hopefully we’re getting over that, as well. But from a team standpoint, I’m really excited and we know that a Canadian team is at least going to the final four and it might as well be the Jets.”