From Legend Killer to Apex Predator: The Evolution of Randy Orton
When Randy Orton cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase at SummerSlam last Sunday, two important things transpired—he captured his seventh WWE Championship (tenth world title overall) and realigned himself with original mentor, and longtime rival, HHH. His victory came at the expense of Daniel Bryan, who had defeated John Cena moments earlier for that very championship.
Best heel in the business
Cashing in the briefcase on Bryan would’ve been good enough on its own, but the way everything played out—with HHH’s involvement—made all the difference. It was a stroke of pure creative genius.
With his victory, Orton firmly reestablished himself as the premier heel (bad guy) in all of wrestling.
Alberto Del Rio is a natural heel, but lacks the ruthlessness needed to one of the greats. While Bully Ray is entertaining and an excellent promo, his act seems more comical than serious. Not to take anything away from his body of work in TNA, but I’ve never viewed him as a suitable top heel of a major national promotion. Truthfully, Brock Lesnar is incredible; and while he is perhaps the single most vicious heel around, his schedule is far too infrequent. It’s tough for him to make a lasting impression when he only competes in a handful of matches per year.
With an in-ring style perfectly suited for his new role, along with HHH and the McMahons as corporate backup, Orton has all the tools necessary to be the quintessential heel.
Establishing a legacy
Since debuting on WWE television in 2002, Orton has been a significant player in the company. You’d have to think real hard to remember a period where he wasn’t booked as an upper echelon guy. On the rare occasions where the booking of his character wasn’t at its best, it was often a matter of time before he’d be right back near the top.
Though his work inside the ring may not match the explosiveness of Daniel Bryan or the overall versatility of New Japan’s Hiroshi Tanahashi, Orton has been among the elite workers in the business for a very long time. Having grown up with wrestling in his blood (both his father and grandfather wrestled), Orton possessed a strong sense of ring psychology from day one. If you pay close attention to his matches you will notice his uncanny ability to pull the audience into the story. This level of mastery can only occur when a performer has a complete understanding of their character. Whether he was taking out the industry’s most respected veterans as the “Legend Killer,” or striking any unsuspecting superstar as the “Apex Predator,” he usually does the right thing at precisely the right moment.
While his family ties opened the door for him in WWE, much of his early success came as a result of working with top guys.
From 2003-2004, he teamed alongside HHH, Ric Flair, and Batista as a member of Evolution. It was during this period that he got a firsthand taste of the main event spotlight. Before he had been on the main roster for a full two years he had already engaged in memorable clashes against the likes of Shawn Michaels, Chris Jericho, Flair, Mick Foley, Edge, and Chris Benoit. It’s impossible to not improve by leaps and bounds when working with such a high level of talent. From 2004-2009, he found himself embroiled in an on again, off again feud with HHH.
In his book, “The 50 Greatest Professional Wrestlers of All Time: The Definitive Shoot,” author and former wrestling announcer Larry Matysik ranks Orton in the #50 spot, making him the youngest entrant on the list. One must also remember that the list is populated with such legends as Steve Austin, Ric Flair, and Dwayne “Rock” Johnson. That is some heavy competition. While there is valid reason to debate Orton’s placement, his credentials paint a compelling portrait. When you take into consideration his championship runs, in-ring ability and longevity at the top, he certainly stands out as one of the more important wrestlers of the current era.
Coming full circle
It was nine years ago at SummerSlam that Orton won his first World Heavyweight Championship. At the time many felt he reached the top too soon. Despite some rough bumps along the way, he eventually matured into the role of the major star he was destined to become.
During the closing segment on Raw this past Monday, HHH constantly made reference to Orton as the new face of the company. While much of that was said for storyline purposes, I couldn’t help but think that he is entering into a new phase of an already storied career.