The reaction last week to Randy Orton’s match with AJ Styles at Wrestlemania being made official on Smackdown was interesting to me, mostly because I was surprised by how many people seemed to think it was a great idea. Foreshadowed for a couple of weeks by Randy Orton interrupting Styles backstage interviews with snide comments, progressed by a ludicrous segment at Fast Lane where Styles anticipated a surprise attack (how?), instead hitting his own finisher on Orton, and finally made official by a clichéd promo battle of “WWE Guy vs Indy Guy” that we’ve seen too many times before, I think it’s fair to say that the set up was clumsy at best. Most of all though, I was taken aback that so many seem to think that Randy Orton is still a guy you can trust in a big spot to have a great match, because he hasn’t been that guy in a very long time now. Casting one’s mind back, the last great match The Viper had was at Wrestlemania XXXI with Seth Rollins, which might as well be another lifetime ago. And yet, even sober minded commenters have praised the booking and seem to anticipate a classic between the pair come ‘Mania, which got me thinking: if we were to sit down and evaluate Randy Orton’s career as it stands, what would we say? And does the Styles match loom so large in the smart fan imagination because its success would do so much for Orton’s in-ring legacy?
Randy Orton and I are the exact same age, and I have to admit, it’s been fascinating to watch the first wrestler of my own generation to be signed by WWF/E make his way in the company over the past seventeen years. And the complexity of evaluating his stint with the ‘E is partially created by the fact that he was so damned young when he came into the business, achieved so much – in kayfabe terms – so quickly, and with Cena, dominated the main event scene for a decade or more, that his stagnant last half decade stands out all the more starkly. For context, when Randy Orton was sent to OVW, I was graduating from university. When he became the youngest World Champion in company history, I was in my second full year as a qualified teacher. Yes, he had genealogy on his side, being the Ace Cowboy’s son, and yes, he had powerful allies with stroke like Triple H and Ric Flair, but he was also a massive home run for the fledgling developmental system, a very good professional wrestler very early in his career, and so it was no wonder really that WWE backed him to the hilt once Lesnar flew the nest. And yet, despite this, and despite a sneaky great back catalogue of matches, don’t you think it’s kind of hard to evaluate Orton’s career without thinking that he should have done even more with the talent that he had?
Part of this, of course, comes down to our old favourite, WWE booking and writing. The 24 year old Orton was royally screwed coming out of that fantastic title win against Chris Benoit at Summerslam 2004. Turning him babyface might have seemed like a good idea, given that he had started already to gain some traction with the fans, but the turn was premature and rushed, and Triple H, as ever in this era, was positioned far too strongly. The feud bombed, the matches were largely mediocre, and WWE had to basically have a do-over with Batista for ‘Mania season, which they got spot on. Meanwhile, Orton was swiftly turned back heel and had a career saving feud with The Deadman. However, as great as his work with The Undertaker was, it’s hard not to imagine what might have been in store for Orton as a babyface had WWE been more patient in the summer of 2004.
The other thing that held Orton back in his early days was his own behaviour; he was suspended for “unprofessional conduct” in April 2006, and there were numerous instances of his petulant actions leaked backstage. It’s fair to say that most men in their mid-20s are idiots (I know I was) but Randal rather took it to the extreme, and it certainly stopped WWE from treating him as a bona fide main eventer for a good while after. Rated RKO was fun, of course, but it was largely a case of keeping Orton and Edge busy, as is often the case with upper midcarders who are out of top title challenge rotation. By the time the summer of 2007 rolled around though, WWE leaned into Orton as their top heel for perhaps the first time, and his lengthy rivalry with John Cena began in earnest. It made sense of course; both men were stand outs from OVW, called to the main roster at around the same time. One was a blue chipper with a family history in the business, one a hard hat and lunch pail guy willing to work harder than anyone. On paper it was the perfect clash of styles and personalities. Sadly, it never quite turned out that way; in fact, one of the biggest gripes held against The Legend Killer is that WWE put so many resources into making Orton vs Cena an epic rivalry, but the two men themselves could just never deliver on that. In 2007, 2008 and 2009, long series of matches between the two took place over the WWE Title, but of those matches, only the Ironman Match at Bragging Rights 2009 could really be considered a marginal classic, and in 2014 an attempted retread of the rivalry was hilariously booed out of the building at the Royal Rumble in Pittsburgh. It was the same with Triple H, the other great rival of his prime; so many mediocre to bad matches, including a stinker in the main event of Wrestlemania XXV, with only the No Mercy 2007 one night story hitting our expectations of what such gifted technicians should have been able to do together in the ring.
It’s a cruel irony that the two most significant rivalries of Orton’s career were with two men that he seemed to have the least chemistry with (and indeed that WWE continually bled those rivalries dry so they became dreaded by fans) because over his career, Orton could on occasion hit heights that few performers ever reach. His epic, career best performance in the magnificent Royal Rumble match of 2009 is a masterpiece in brooding, Machiavellian character work, and that Viper character in the build to Wrestlemania XXV was probably the man’s most complete achievement. His series against Christian in the spring and summer of 2011 is about as great a series of professional wrestling matches as you could hope to see. During a slightly odd Wellness Policy second strike de-push period on Smackdown in 2012, he worked magic with Dolph Ziggler, Cody Rhodes, Wade Barrett and Alberto Del Rio. In June 2013, he had a pair of the greatest TV matches of the decade with Daniel Bryan, and let us not forget his role as one of the primary antagonists in Bryan’s Road To Wrestlemania XXX. There’s no doubt that Orton has been a very good professional wrestler for a very long time; perhaps he isn’t given enough credit for the work he has done down the years. He entered the company amidst charges of nepotism and a slight veil of internet negativity has kind of followed him around ever since really; familiarity breeds contempt, and Orton and Cena were at the top together for so long that fans could not help but be bored of seeing them. With The Viper, that view is only exacerbated by what has happened since that last great match he had with Seth Rollins after the break up of The Authority.
WWE seemed to want Orton to go back to his 2012 role as a kind of roving upper mid carder who could have a great match with anyone. Orton himself seemed to still see himself as a top guy, and unlike Cena, he didn’t seem to embrace the role of working with new and exciting talents coming through the ranks. Word leaked out that The Apex Predator was seeking a part time schedule, but then he was bizarrely booked to win the 2017 Royal Rumble, having joined the Wyatt Family at exactly the point when the group’s star was at its lowest. A terribly executed “mole” feud with Bray followed, culminating in a dreadful match at Wrestlemania XXXIII where Kevin Dunn felt the need to project maggots onto the canvas, and a House of Horrors gimmick match, which was comedy gold, but that was perhaps not what WWE were going for. A much hyped showdown with the man he replaced as WWE’s youngest champion, Brock Lesnar, followed, but this was the height of lazy Brock, and the match was horrible, marred by an ill-conceived ending where Orton was busted open the hard way by Lesnar’s elbows. Since then, The Viper has just been making up the numbers and doing nothing of note, reminding me of the NFL’s term for a league average starter who is ok at his job but stops young players coming through: he’s a progress stopper.
So can we really expect Randy Orton to roll back the years and put on a classic with AJ Styles? Part of the problem in terms of Orton’s match quality seems to have been his motivation, because physically he hasn’t lost much at all (though he is “thicker” since the last shoulder surgery), so maybe the prospect of a marquee match with Styles will wake him up and bring out that last great performance. I’m certainly delighted that WWE have, for the first time in a good while, put a prominent non-title upper midcard match on the card, what I always like to call the “Christian/Y2J” spot, and there’s no question they could deliver, and the worst case scenario is likely something like Kane vs Orton from Wrestlemania XXVIII, an early card show enhancing match. However, if they do manage to put on a critically acclaimed bout, I think it would certainly have a huge impact on Orton’s legacy, no pun intended, because these last four years of his career have been an expanse of nothingness, to be brutally honest about it, and they have felt like a stain on the resume he put together from, say, 2003-2015. There’s no doubt that Randy Orton is a future hall of famer; he’s secured that much. But for us to see him once again as one of the premier sports entertainers in the world, I think he needs to absolutely nail it come show time in New Jersey on April 7th.
This is Maverick, requesting flyby!
What do YOU make of Randy Orton’s career, taken as a whole? And do you think he needs a home run at Wrestlemania XXXV to force a re-assessment of his late career run? Let me know in the comments below, or tweet me @Neil_Pollock79