Daniel Garcia’s resume over the past two or three years is staggering. Barely in his 20s, he developed a reputation as an in-ring prodigy, drawing comparisons to world-class technical wrestlers. By his last year on the indies, he was the most hyped prospect on the scene and rarely failed to live up to it. Shortly after arriving in AEW, he was wrestling the likes of CM Punk and Jon Moxley in front of sold-out rooms.
Then Chris Jericho happened.
In March, Garcia became a member of the newly formed Jericho Appreciation Society, and everything changed. As Jericho’s star pupil, Garcia could flex his muscle as a compelling promo and television personality — as a sports entertainer. No longer the burgeoning paragon of mat wrestling, Garcia traded wristlocks for bloody crowd brawls. Audiences noticed, and his star grew (along with his screen time).
Over the past six months, Garcia’s strayed from all the tenets he’d built his name on, giving him his breakout moment. Still, even after all the range he’s already shown us, I’m most excited for the role Garcia will play this Sunday at AEW’s ALL OUT: an observer.
Garcia will be ringside when Bryan Danielson, his hero and the man he based his career on, goes head-to-head with Garcia’s mentor, “Lionheart” Chris Jericho.
It makes sense that Garcia would look up to a guy like Chris Jericho. Jericho’s legacy is built on his versatility and the resulting longevity. He has reinvented himself so many times, fit himself into so many pivotal moments in history; he’s practically pro wrestling’s Forrest Gump.
Today, Jericho is something like a veteran indie rock group. He spent time as a critical darling, his more commercial material grated on some fans, he experimented with new sounds as the scene evolved, and with the help of a few lineup changes, he’s remained relevant. Now, with a huge back catalog to pull from, he’ll still surprise you with a deep cut.
Recently, he’s brought his old Lionheart gimmick back to the setlist — the persona that carried him through Arena Mexico, his breakout matches against Ultimo Dragon in Japan, and all the way to the ECW arena.
He’s dusted off his old Lionheart gear to hearken back to a time when he, too, drew attention for his work in the ring. He got rave reviews for his title match against Jon Moxley three weeks ago, where he tried to grind the champ down with offense culled from his WCW days.
This is the version of Chris Jericho that Daniel Garcia wants. It’s a Jericho that more closely resembles his heroes.
But Chris Jericho’s greatest role has always been the villain. From ripping off David Penzer’s tuxedo jacket to clocking Shawn Michaels’ wife in the face, few have played the punchable dipshit as well as Chris Jericho.
The feud between Jericho and Danielson has revolved around Garcia. The whole thing’s been pretty on the nose: Garcia’s hero, Danielson, wants him to be a “wrestler.” His mentor Jericho wants him to be a “sports entertainer.” This week, Garcia reaffirmed his loyalty to Jericho, adding, “I know you don’t need to cheat, you don’t need to attack someone from behind their back, you don’t need any distractions. All you need to do is be the best version of yourself, because I believe in you.”
Jericho casually agreed but then turned to the camera like Dick Dastardly himself and said, “But until then, all’s fair in wrestling and romance, Danielson.”
— All Elite Wrestling (@AEW) September 1, 2022
Villains cheat so that we know to boo them. This is so concrete an idea that when a wrestler isn’t being explicitly villainous, aging podcast and Twitter personalities rant about how they don’t understand what’s happening. But it’s kind of ridiculous, right?
Think about it. We, and the entire fictional governing body, watch the same villains cheat in the same way every single night, and nothing about the “sport” ever changes. Everyone idly stands by while the integrity of this competition is compromised, while referee after referee is assaulted on the clock. When it’s all said and done, it’s hardly acknowledged at all.
So when Garcia, a fellow heel, more or less asks, “Why are you cheating? Why don’t you just beat him?” the record scratches a little. Why doesn’t one of the company’s most decorated competitors just show us that he’s as good as Bryan Danielson, the consensus best technical wrestler in the world? It’s the sort of thing you’re just not supposed to ask. It’s Truman sailing to the wall of the dome. It’s questioning everything we’ve been taught to believe!
OK, that’s a lot, but it’s at least a little interesting.
We’ve watched generation after generation of cowardly, sniveling heel. The sort of villain that can hardly defend themself, so you just know the hero will crush them — if only they could get their hands on them in a fair fight. Dusty Rhodes would chase Flair up and down the territory, Flair always begging for mercy and always narrowly escaping with his title. The Honky Tonk Man held the WWF Intercontinental title for 454 days. The Miz will probably still be on WWE television long after all of us are dead.
What’s become more interesting to me though, is when a cheating villain uses the biggest spotlight to reveal their most nefarious secret of all: they could have beaten you anyway.
In 2020, in the main event of Dragongate’s Memorial Gate, Naruki Doi defended his Open the Dream Gate Title against Eita, the heel challenger. Doi has long been one of the tentpole figures of Dragongate, and here, he was in the midst of his first title in over a decade. Doi had taken the title from a then-fearsome Ben-K and was booked like a world beater in his defenses.
Eita was the leader of RED, otherwise known as the bad guy faction. At the time, if you were wrestling Eita, you were also fighting eight of his rowdy, armed friends. At Memorial Gate though, something changed. In the opening minutes, the members of RED slunk up onto the apron like a pack of hyenas, but Eita called them off. He was doing this by himself, perhaps just to show that he could. That night Eita knocked off Naruki Doi to become the Open the Dream Gate champ in one of the best matches of 2020 in any company.
In 2018, over in New Japan Pro Wrestling, a young, evil Kiwi named Jay White was taking part in his first G1 Climax. Folks who followed the tournament that year will recall that it wasn’t always fun to watch. The G1 is renowned for top-quality wrestling matches, but “Switchblade” was grinding everything to a halt to bend the rules wherever possible. Regardless of the level of his opponent, White took the same approach to each of his nine matches.
The opportunities continued to roll in. The following January, at Wrestle Kingdom 13, he found himself in a singles match with the NJPW’s untouchable icon, Kazuchika Okada. He sucked all the air out of the room when he pinned Okada in only 15 minutes at the end of a fairly contested match. One month later, at New Beginning in Osaka, White followed up by toppling the generational ace Hiroshi Tanahashi to claim his first IWGP championship. Again, he did it clean as a sheet.
In both cases, having proven their points, both Eita and White immediately returned to their old ways. Talk about assholes.
Nowadays, when we have constant access to the discourse from our fellow frothing-at-the-mouth wrestling fans, it’s difficult not to view matches and storylines from a meta-perspective. In a sense, villains like Eita and Jay White capitalize on that.
It’s not just how — in storyline — they’re perfectly capable of winning on their own and they choose not to. They’ve also shown us that they’re capable of a match-of-the-year-caliber classic on any given night. They make us want to see them do it again.
And they choose not to.
Jericho’s opponent, Bryan Danielson, has long been a multi-faceted talent in his own right. But, especially since coming to AEW and reclaiming the American Dragon moniker, his primary trait is being the best professional wrestler on the planet. When the character Bryan Danielson says he’s the best in the world, he’s being a boastful competitor. When Bryan Danielson, the performer, says it, we know he’s just telling the truth.
Many had pegged Garcia to be Danielson’s successor — the new benchmark of professional wrestling as an art form. Under Jericho, he became something else entirely. That’s what makes his role so compelling as a ringside onlooker. It’s the most relatable he’s ever been.
Sure, Daniel Garcia is a tremendous athlete and one of the most impressive young up-and-comers we’ve seen in a long time. But, for once, this Sunday, while we’re all hunched in front of the TV inhaling Doritos, he’ll just be one of us: a fan who wants to see a good ass wrestling match.