On December 9th 2001, Chris Jericho was crowned the first ever WWE Undisputed Champion at Vengeance, but even the man himself remembers a night of mixed emotions.
WWF Vengeance 2001 was held at the San Diego Sports Arena in San Diego, California. The show did a total of 307,000 pay-per-view buys and was witnessed by a crowd of 11,800 people. Incidentally it was also the last WWF/WWE pay-per-view to be shown free to air on Channel 4 in the UK.
While the company’s traditional December pay-per-view was named Armageddon, the name was temporarily changed in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Armageddon brand would return in 2002, remaining on the calendar until 2008, as Vengeance was moved to July.
The other interesting thing to note heading into the show is the fact that Triple H was featured on the poster for the show, heavily in the advertising ahead of the event, but didn’t appear. In fact, cable spots hyping his return were still being show right up until the day of the show.
Triple H had been absent since May 21st where he tore his quadricep muscle while teaming with Stone Cold Steve Austin against Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit. It had originally been hoped that The Game would be able to compete in San Diego, with the advertising being made accordingly, however, come show time that wasn’t the case. The former World Champion wouldn’t actually be seen on television until January 7th, walking out at Madison Square Garden to a legendary ovation.
The Road To Vengeance Begins With An Invasion
The story of Vengeance can be traced all of the way back to March 2001. As WCW went out of business the WWF (They wouldn’t become WWE until the following May) stepped in to buy their former rival. This led to the company hiring a number of former WCW talents and expanding their roster in way that had arguably never been seen before.
The original plan behind the soon-to-be doomed Invasion storyline was that the WCW brand would be brought back and have existed as a separate ‘company’. The show would have it’s own World Championship, Superstars, crew, announcers and set, much the same way that the brand split began in March 2002.
However, the plan came to a shuddering halt on July 2nd with the match in the main event slot of Monday Night Raw between Booker T and Buff Bagwell. The match was presented under the WCW banner as they had “taken over” the main event slot. The match featured a WCW referee, a different announce team and graphics. But, the match failed to ignite the passion of the live crowd and was badly received by fans.
While the idea of two brands remained, there was never a firm date planned for the split. The end result was that after the WWF had conquered The Alliance at Survivor Series, the company now had two World Champions, a problem that a newly returned Ric Flair proposed should be solved at Vengeance. The WCW legend returned to the WWF as storyline 50% owner of the company alongside a disgusted Vince McMahon.
After some negotiation and one-upmanship between Flair and McMahon, the table was set. Four men would compete in a tournament at Vengeance to crown the first ever Undisputed Champion.
Chris Jericho, WWF’s Nearly Man
Heading into Vengeance, Chris Jericho was considered the outside bet of the four competitors. After all, he was up against the World Champion The Rock, WWF Champion Stone Cold Steve Austin and perennial main event star Kurt Angle.
Despite enjoying plenty of success since joining the WWF in August 1999, there was a feeling that the ‘machine’ wasn’t quite behind Y2J just yet. He was originally planned to be in the main event of WrestleMania 2000, but a returning Mick Foley changed plans. Jericho was even featured on the promotional material for the event. He also had a brief dalliance with the WWF Title in April 2000, before the reversal of a decision from the referee meant he left without the gold.
While Chris Jericho eventually won the World Title at No Mercy in October 2001, he held the belt for only 15 days before losing it back to The Rock. What’s more, in the lead up to Vengeance, Jericho had been left laying in the ring rather than standing tall more often that not.
Interestingly, speaking earlier in 2021, Kurt Angle revealed that he was originally meant to be crowned Undisputed Champion. It was a plan that was in place right up until the week of the show, when McMahon decided to go with Jericho as it would legitimise him further with the audience.
But after the false-starts, unconvincing run into the event and the fact he was up against two of the biggest stars in the history of the industry, there was now way Jericho would win, right?
Four Superstars, Two Matches, One Undisputed Champion
In the first match of the tournament Stone Cold defeated Kurt Angle with a Stunner. The win further played into the idea that the main event would be a another blockbuster clash between Austin and The Rock. Although as everyone knows, nothing is straightforward when it comes to professional wrestling.
In the very next match, Chris Jericho pinned The Rock after interference by Vince McMahon, a low blow, and a Rock Bottom. Not that Y2J had much time to celebrate, with Austin hitting the ring as soon as the bell rang. What followed was a wild brawl featuring ref bumps, more Vince McMahon and some Booker T and Ric Flair thrown in for good measure. But when all was said and done, Chris Jericho stood tall as the first ever Undisputed Champion in front of a stunned live crowd.
Speaking at a sold-out Inside The Ropes live event Jericho recalled the crash back to earth he suffered in the minutes and hours after the show. Although the tone was set in how he found out he was winning the title, just six hours before the show while sat in catering.
“It’s a huge accomplishment. It’s something that I still hang my hat on everyday. Now you would think that because it’s such a big deal I must have known about this for months before hand. It must have been decided with meticulous storytelling and warning so that I could think of what to do, and you would know all of this stuff. No, that’s not how it happened. You know how I found out that I was going to become the first Undisputed Champion?
I was in catering. I was sitting there minding my own beeswax, and right over there was Vince McMahon and The Undertaker. And Vince started talking loudly so he knew I could hear him but he wasn’t talking to me, and he said ‘Hey Taker, You know how you know the business is going down the toilet? Well we’re putting the belt on Jericho!’
That’s how I found out, six hours before the show with a thinly veiled insult.”
Jericho went on to explain how after he won the belt and celebrated in the ring everyone had left. There was no big moment of thanks or celebration in the Gorilla position, even McMahon who had been in the ring with him had left.
It was a night topped off with a cold pizza, an overly strict hotel receptionist and a lost room key. As the man himself quipped, “There was no strippers and blow for Jericho!”
WrestleMania X-8 – A New Game Begins
Chris Jericho held the Undisputed Title for 98 days, which makes him the longest reigning WWE Undisputed Champion in history. Only five other Superstars held the title until it was renamed the WWE Championship in November 2002, and those were Triple H, The Rock, Brock Lesnar, Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker. Illustrious company by any measure.
In the immediate aftermath of his victory at Vengeance, Chris Jericho basked in is new-found superstardom. He defeated The Rock again at the Royal Rumble before chalking up another win over Austin at No Way Out a month later.
Meanwhile, Triple H had returned to action at the Royal Rumble, winning the Royal Rumble match and setting himself on a collision course with the champion. The water was further muddied by the on-screen relationship between The Game and his wife Stephanie McMahon imploding along the way. This led to McMahon aligning herself with Jericho in an effort to get back at her husband. The knock on effect being that Jericho was seen by some as the third person in a two person feud.
Although McMahon did her best, Triple H defeated Chris Jericho in the main event of WrestleMania X-8. A bout with the unfortunate distinction of having to follow (not quite directly) that match between Rock and Hulk Hogan.
However, by no means is this is sad story. While Jericho wouldn’t win another World Championship until 2008, a three year hiatus not withstanding, he steadily built a Hall of Fame worthy career, becoming the master of reinvention along the way. A journey that is still continuing and still evolving in AEW, where he became the company’s first World Champion.
But on December 9th, 2001, the man who would later proclaim himself to be the King of the World, became the undisputed king of the wrestling world. There is only one man who has defeated The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin in the same night to win the World Title, and that man is Chris Jericho.