The first half of 2001 is one of the best periods in WWE history. The company was still firing on all cylinders and had one of the deepest rosters in its existence. Just look at who was on its roster and in different divisions. The main-event scene featured ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, The Rock, The Undertaker, Triple H, and Kurt Angle. The tag team division was defined by the incredible and historic matches that featured The Dudleys, The Hardyz and Edge & Christian. Even their midcard was great thanks to a ton of rising stars, including the two wrestlers we’re looking at today: Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho.
At the time, both of them were rising stars in WWE that were seen as the ‘workhorses’ and the top stars of the future. And they proved how good they could be with this match.
Today we look back at the iconic ladder match between Benoit and Jericho from the 2001 Royal Rumble.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
Benoit and Jericho had been feuding for months leading up to this match. Their feud started almost a year earlier at WrestleMania 2000 and since then both men have traded big wins over each other. Their rivalry reached a fever pitch earlier in January 2001 when Benoit retained his title against Jericho following interference from Benoit’s buddies Perry Saturn and Dean Malenko. Soon after, Jericho teamed with the Hardyz to defeat Benoit, Saturn and Malenko, and pinned Benoit in this match to earn a title shot. He hot to choose the match stipulation and picked a ladder match. It’s simple storytelling grounded in straightforward logic, but it makes sense. And people were delighted to see it because these were two of the most exciting rising stars in WWF/E at the time.
This march originally took place on January 21st, 2001 at the Royal Rumble PPV. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It was rated ****1/2 by TJRWrestling’s John Canton in his Royal Rumble 2021 review as well. With over twenty years of ladder match evolution, let’s see if this classic really does deserve that hype today.
This is for Benoit’s Intercontinental Championship. They brawl right away to start the match. Jericho takes control with some chops and kicks, but Benoit counters an Irish whip into a corner and then a clothesline by going for the Crippler Crossface. He widely targets Jericho’s injured left arm but Jericho fights back and goes for the Walls of Jericho. Benoit escapes and tosses Jericho left-shoulder-first into the ringpost. He lands one standing shoulderbreaker, but Jericho escapes a second one and lands a flying forearm. Jericho goes for a triangle dropkick but Benoit ducks and Jericho flies out of the ring.
Jericho attacks Benoit from behind but Benoit counters another Irish whip and sends Jericho shoulder-first into a different ringpost. Benoit brings the ladder onto the ring apron, sees Jericho charging, and sidesteps, before driving Jericho into the steel ring steps by, you guessed it, his left shoulder. Benoit climbs the ladder for the title but Jericho cuts him off and lands an electric chair suplex. Jericho lands some chops and then uses the ladder as a spear and drives it into Benoit’s head. The fans chant ‘Y2J’ as Jericho rams the ladder into Benoit’s gut and then sets it up in the opposite corner. Jericho goes to whip Benoit into the corner – and therefore the ladder – but Benoit counters it and Jericho eats the ladder instead. Jericho falls out of the ring and Benoit goes for a dive. But just as he reaches the ropes, Jericho whacks him in the head with a steel chair. Christ Almighty, what a sickening shot.
Jericho suplex tosses Benoit stomach-first onto the barricade and grabs the ladder. He goes to use it as a catapult himself onto Benoit but Benoit dodges and Jericho hits the barricade face-and-throat-first. Benoit uses that mistake to his advantage and gets revenge for earlier by smashing the ladder into Jericho’s face. He gets more revenge with a sick chairshot to Jericho’s back and then lands a clothesline in the ring. Benoit continues his control by setting up the ladder in a corner and javelin-tosses Jericho into it. He tries again but Jericho escapes and pushes Benoit into the ladder instead. Jericho places Benoit into the ladder so his legs stick through the gaps and pushes off, causing both men to fall and land hard.
Jericho goes to use the ladder as a weapon but Benoit hits first with a dropkick, sending the ladder into Jericho’s face. Benoit lands a back suplex and tries to whip Jericho into another corner, but this time Jericho reverses it on Benoit and Benoit goes careening face-first into the top of the ladder. Jericho uses the ladder as a see-saw and pushes one end right into Benoit’s face again. He climbs the turnbuckle, tosses the ladder into Benoit, and then dropkicks the ladder. Benoit goes down and looks to be out. Jericho sets up the ladder to climb. He makes it to the third rung. Benoit cuts him off and back suplexes him out of the ring.
Benoit climbs the ladder but Jericho gets back into the ring and tries to cut him off. Unrelenting, Jericho climbs up the ladder from the same side as Benoit. Benoit tries to kick him off but Jericho marches ahead. Then he catches Benoit’s legs. Benoit falls backwards. Jericho applies the Walls of Jericho atop the ladder. That has to be one of the most creative moves in ladder match history. Bernoit falls off and Jericho reaches for the title, but Benoit kicks the ladder hard enough for Jericho to fall. Jericho hits the top rope hard.
Jericho gets up first and hits Benoit with the ladder. He goes to climb but Benoit keeps catching his leg. Frustrated, Jericho goes for a diving attack, but Benoit catches him and locks in the Crippler Crossface. Jericho taps instantly due to the damage in his left arm. He’s completely helpless, even as the fans chant ‘Y2J’ again. Benoit continues his arm onslaught by tossing Jericho shoulder-first into the ringpost yet again. He teases a follow-up suplex but Jericho counters with a flapjack that sends Benoit face-first into the ladder.
Jericho smashes the ladder into Benoit again and sets it up at a corner, with Benoit already in the corner. Both men climb the ladder and brawl at the top. Jericho teases a superplex. Benoit fights out and Jericho falls to the mat. Benoit reaches the top of the ladder. And extends his arms. Diving head-butt from the top of the ladder. Good God, what a crazy dive. But it misses. Jericho rolls out of the way at the last second.
Jericho places the ladder in the middle of the ring with one side on top of Benoit’s throat. Benoit can’t move. Jericho climbs the ladder. Benoit musters his strength and lifts the ladder – and Jericho – up. Jericho hits the top rope throat-first yet again. Jericho falls out of the ring. Benoit climbs the ladder and gets halfway up until Jericho hits him in the back with a steel chair. Jericho pushes the ladder and Benoit falls out of the ring. Jericho starts climbing again but with one arm this time. Benoit starts crawling towards the ring. Benoit tries with all his strength to climb into the ring. But he collapses. Jericho reaches upwards. He grabs the title. Jericho wins the title.
Winner and NEW WWF/E Intercontinental Champion after 18:43: Chris Jericho
Twenty years have passed and this is still one of the best and most exciting ladder matches of all time. it was a rare ladder match in that it wasn’t just a pure demolition derby structured around weapons-based high spots. Instead, there was an underlying story and some solid psychology that, though not perfect, made this match better than most of the ladder matches that came after it.
The story here was that Benoit had an answer or counter for everything Jericho did. Jericho also had an injured/weakened shoulder going into the match, which Benoit targeted almost immediately. It wasn’t long before Jericho found himself fighting from underneath and realized that out-grappling Benoit wasn’t an option. The only way Jericho could win would be to outfox Benoit, which he did by using Benoit’s own moves against him.
Anytime Benoit was in control, Jericho would take over by blocking or countering Benoit’s own attacks. He didn’t really rely on his own moves here and instead made full use of the ladder as a weapon. He also got a critical advantage when he smashed Benoit in the head with a chair to block a suicide dive. That was an exceptionally brutal spot that’s kind of hard to watch now given what happened to Benoit years later. But in the context of the match, it made sense for Jericho to do something to stop Benoit from maintaining his positive momentum.
But most importantly, this was a perfect example of wrestling creativity. There hadn’t been a singles ladder match like this before with such creativity involving the ladder as a weapon. While the match included many spots involving laborious ladder setup, they were justified because they were tense, exciting and helped further the story and add to the match’s tension.
The only thing that prevents this ladder match from being at the same level as TLC II or Shawn/Razor was Jericho’s inconsistent arm selling. Benoit attacked Jericho’s shoulder so much and with such brutality yet Jericho didn’t really incorporate it into the match beyond the finish. He didn’t sell Benoit’s armwork consistently and Benoit’s targeting of that arm seemed inconsequential in comparison to the brutal ladder spots.
Final Rating: ****3/4
A lot has happened in the world of ladder matches since 2001 yet this match still holds up incredibly well. It’s one of the most fast-paced and exciting ladder matches in WWE history thanks to great pacing, awesome ladder spots and exemplary crowd work. Jericho connected with the audience so incredibly well here. If anyone had doubts about Jericho as a star, this match proved them wrong. Benoit was the perfect foil for him and he overcame the odds to win the title. It was terrific.
With so-called modern ladder matches becoming too much like demolition derbies and displays of high-risk and over-choreographed stunt work, it’s nice to see a ladder match in which the ladders are accessories to tell a story instead of the ladders being the centerpiece of the story. That’s what this match brings, which makes it hold up incredibly well after over two decades of increased ladder-centric craziness.