Royal Rumble 2001
Chris Benoit vs Chris Jericho – Ladder Match
The 2001 Royal Rumble event is among the most revered in WWE history, not only for featuring arguably the best 30-man Rumble match of all time but also an undercard with several high-quality matches featuring many of the attitude era’s finest superstars.
Among those was an Intercontinental championship classic between two of the finest in-ring performers of all time: Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho. The feud began almost an entire year prior to the 2001 Rumble event when both Jericho and Benoit competed in a triple-threat match at WrestleMania 2000 for Kurt Angle’s Intercontinental and European championships. Jericho and Benoit would each manage to wrestle one title away from the Olympic Gold Medallist and would subsequently transition into a singles program afterwards.
What followed was a series of one-on-one encounters over Benoit’s newly won Intercontinental title throughout the year 2000. The two Canadian grapplers would swap ownership of the championship numerous times in matches across both Raw and Smackdown, as well as pay-per-view showdowns at: Backlash, Judgment Day, and SummerSlam. However, the ladder match looked to finally settle the score and bring a close to the classic series and prove who the rightful champion was once and for all.
The match began at an immediate pace with no wasted motion, by this time both Benoit and Jericho were well acquainted, so it was strictly business from the get-go. The opening exchanges in the ring quickly spilled to ringside with Benoit dealing out punishment to Jericho via strong Irish-whips towards the turnbuckle post and ring steps on the outside before an early ascent up the ladder from Benoit.
After being interrupted by Jericho mid-climb, Benoit would feel the full force of the ladder to his face and mid-section while chants of “Y2J” filled the New Orleans Arena. Jericho’s momentum would not last long, however, following a scary face-first collision into a ladder that left him tumbling to the outside. A hard-hitting bump that would quickly be trounced by Benoit, who attempted a suicide dive, only to be met with a steel chair to the top of his skull on the way diving through the middle rope. A truly brutal-looking spot, that undoubtedly serves as one of the most memorable from the match. It is, however, also a tough one to watch back given the known state of Benoit’s brain by the time of his death six years later.
Nevertheless, the physicality of the match, certainly at the time, added to its entertainment, with every single bump looking and feeling genuinely painful. While Jericho and Benoit’s previous encounters had been better technical wrestling showcases, this time they provided a very different style that was equally impressive and showed further their unquestionable skills. The innovative use of the ladder throughout the action was what made it so special, despite some instances of grappling throughout, almost all of both competitor’s offense revolved around the ladder in some way.
There is no better example of this innovation than the iconic image of Benoit draped over the top of the ladder while Jericho locked in the Walls of Jericho. Truly inventive, and a moment that sent the already raucous New Orleans crowd into a frenzy. The closing stages of the contest saw Benoit attempt a terrifying diving headbutt from the very top of the ladder, while the flashbulbs from cameras all over the arena captured Benoit finding nothing but the hard canvas below.
Benoit would momentarily recover, before being sent from the top of the ladder once more, this time all the way to the ringside area. A tremendous amount of punishment dealt, that would ultimately prove too much as Jericho ascended the ladder and grabbed the Intercontinental Championship gold once and for all.
If it wasn’t for the all-time-great Royal Rumble match later that night, this would have almost certainly been talked about as the highlight of the show. And although WWE would never acknowledge it as such, it undoubtedly deserves a place among the all-time great ladder matches in WWE history; as well as showing the reputation and value that the Intercontinental championship once used to carry.