From Legend Killer to Apex Predator: The Evolution of Randy Orton

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Two important things transpired when Randy Orton cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase at SummerSlam—he captured his seventh WWE Championship (tenth world title overall) and realigned himself with original mentor and longtime rival Triple H. 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 on Bryan alone would have been good enough, but the way everything played out—with Triple H’s involvement—made all the difference. It was a stroke of pure creative genius.

With his victory, Orton has firmly reestablished himself as the top heel in 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 for a major promotion. Brock Lesnar is a monster, 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 Triple H and the McMahons’ serving as his corporate backup, Orton has all the tools necessary to succeed.

Establishing a legacy

Orton has been a significant player in the in WWE from the moment he debuted in 2002. You would  have to think really hard to remember a period where he was not booked as an upper echelon guy. On the rare occasions when he did fall from grace it was only a matter of time before he was right back near the top.

A young Orton with Evolution teammate Batista in 2003.

A young Orton with Evolution teammate Batista in 2003.

Though his work inside the ring may not match the explosiveness of Daniel Bryan or the 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 in a wrestling family (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 wrestler 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 initially 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 clashes against the likes of Shawn Michaels, Chris Jericho, Flair, Mick Foley, Edge, and Chris Benoit before he had  been on the roster for a full two years. From 2004-2009, Orton found himself embroiled in a heated feud against Triple H. He is also one of John Cena’s biggest rivals.

Orton celebrates his newly won WWE Championship with HHH.

Orton celebrates his newly won WWE Championship with HHH.

In his book, “The 50 Greatest Professional Wrestlers of All Time: The Definitive Shoot,” author and Larry Matysik ranks Orton in the #50 spot, making him the youngest entrant on the list. That is heavy praise when such legends as Steve Austin, Ric Flair, and Dwayne “Rock” Johnson are on the list as well. While there is valid reason to debate Orton’s placement, his credentials paint a compelling portrait. When you take into account his championship runs, in-ring ability, and longevity at the top, Orton easily stands out as one of the best wrestlers of his generation.

Coming full circle

It was nine years ago at SummerSlam when Orton won his first World Heavyweight Championship. At the time many felt the win came too soon. Despite some rough patches along the way he eventually matured into the role of the star he was destined to become.

Triple H constantly made reference to Orton as being the new face of the WWE during a promo on this week’s episode of Raw. While much of that was said for storyline purposes, I could not  help but think that he is entering into a new phase of an already storied career.

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14 thoughts on “From Legend Killer to Apex Predator: The Evolution of Randy Orton

  1. Great blog. Always liked Orton from day one. More for his work in his ring. I still can’t get into him as a promo guy. I just can’t get into him as a heel or face. The character bores me at times. I still don’t think he should have been in that book at 50. It should have been Edge. When the two paired as Rated RKO, it was obvious that Edge was the better heel. Better talkers, better worker. Not even close. Of course, we all know Orton got away with a lot of stuff because of who he is. Should have gotten a 3rd strike so many times too. I am NOT trying to say everyone who wrestled in WWE is or was a saint. I am just saying that a lower level talent like Kofi had his push stopped because of Orton, but Orton got away with being unprofessional on TV because he was Randy Orton (shouting Stupid Stupid on TV). Just saying.

  2. It’s so refreshing to see The Game, Triple H, as a heel again. It’s been a long time coming. To me, he’s the best heel ever. He’s the only guy in the history of professional wrestling that I’ve loved to hate.

    As for Orton, I’m glad of the character change. The WWE had him as a babyface for far too long. He was getting more and more stale by the minute, but this heel turn was nicely done. It’s definitely an exciting time to be a wrestling fan again.

    • Yes, HHH’s involvement made the angle a success. Had Orton done the turn on his own I don’t think it would’ve had the same effect. Both are natural heels and are on the same page. Good times are ahead.

    • So am I. This is one of the best things I’ve seen in wrestling in a long time (even though 2013 has been an overall strong year for WWE) and Daniel Bryan is the perfect babyface to oppose the corporate machine. For as good as Bryan’s been over the last few months, I think we’re about to see Orton take his game up a notch.

  3. I have to say that for the first time in YEARS, I’m interested in what Randy Orton is doing now. This was really good stuff, and its nice to see the WWE finally turning the creative corner. In 2011, they had a lot of great angles going that for some reason, they destroyed on their own, beginning with Summer of Punk, through the Walkout and Johnny Ace’s managerial role. Good to see them staying strong on their top angles lately. Hope it keeps up.

    • Thanks for reading! I agree that 2011 was a frustrating year in terms of the creative direction. They took Punk, the hottest guy in the company, and brought him back ONE week after he beat Cena and left the company with the belt. He should’ve been kept off of television for at least a month to continue the angle. If you look at WWE from January through the present, it has been a phenomenal year of top-level programs. I’ve been craving an Orton heel turn for months, but I had no idea it would be this well executed.

      • I almost forgot about the gold mine WWE gave away with CM Punk’s premature return. He could’ve been kept off TV til at least Survivor Series. Fill the programming with a long tourney to crown a new WWE Champ (rather than that one-night sham), and then have a big PPV blow-off with Punk. Ladder optional. Meanwhile, Punk could have been popping up on “unofficial” social media, like his Comic Con appearance and famous belt-in-the-fridge tweet. You’d think a social media whore like the Fed…I mean the E… would have been all over that.

        I just don’t want an Evolution or Corporation retread. Elements of those things are great, but a straight rehash would kill this for me. A lot of folks HATE HHH, but I think he’s been doing a good job behind the scenes (well, as far as an outsider with no inside info can tell). There’s a great article up at Grantland where he talks about all sorts of stuff. Its a solid read.

      • Well the good thing about the Corporation rehash is that there hasn’t been anything done like that in such a long time. That was way back in 1998, so it seems completely fresh. Bryan is basically being booked in the Steve Austin role as the guy who sticks it to the establishment.

        The aftermath to the Punk angle in 2011 was one of the worst creative blunders in recent history. Thankfully, Punk was able to recover and go on to become a legit main eventer.

        I just read the Grantland article. Very informative piece of journalism. HHH has a great mind for the business.

  4. For the most part, I agree with your assessment, however I don’t believe that Orton has the ability to draw heat like he was able to during his “Legend Killer” period. This may not be Orton’s fault. Wrestling fans are different than they were at that time. This inability to draw heat may move him from the upper echelon of all-time wrestling heels; however, he is still one of the best heels in the business today. Great post!

    • Good point. Orton is one of the best heels today, but there was a period over the last few months where Triple H really outshone him as the top heel in the Authority. Orton is kind of getting back at that top heel level, but I don’t think he’ll go down as one of the all-time greats either.

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