#RandyOrtonWeek: Essential Viewing, Part Two

It’s #RandyOrtonWeek, the 20th installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week series. It’s time for Part Two of the finer points of the Randall Keith Orton oeuvre with some Essential Viewing. 

In Part 1 of this week’s Essential Viewing, we traced the journey of Randy Orton form generic babyface midcarder to made star and World Heavyweight Champion. That journey would make a phenomenal career for any professional wrestler, but for Orton, it was just the first lap of the grand prix.

Just a year after winning his first World Title, Orton found himself across the ring from The Undertaker at Wrestlemania XXI. Now, wrestling the Undertaker at Wrestlemania a decade ago was only fifty percent as prestigious as it is now, but still, it was a huge stage for Orton. His run in Evolution had tied Orton to the lineage of the great stars of the 80s as embodied by Ric Flair as well as the the era of WWE domination in the early 2000s, as embodied by Triple H, but a dance with the Undertaker tied him directly to the height of the Attitude Era.

As was the case in the Brock Lesnar match featured in Part 1 of E.V., Orton’s ability to take a beating from a bigger man was on display in this match. However, Orton’s talent for selling was even more evident in this match, as he was bumping for an older wrestler with a long history of major injuries, not a young, bull strong monster in his physical prime. The match that resulted was a worthy a chapter in either the “Undertaker at Wrestlemania” history or the emerging “Randy Orton as One of the Top Performers in WWE history” book.

To this point, we’ve talked about Randy Orton as a singles competitor and a member of a faction. During his run in Evolution, Orton was the hungry young gun, getting rubs from better-established stars and finding himself in the ring as a major cog in the wheel. By the next time Orton was part of a faction, though, he had grown and evolved to the level of equal partner. He wasn’t one step below the top guys anymore, he was being portrayed as part of an equal partnership of top guys: Rated RKO.

Rated RKO, the partnership of Orton (RKO) and Edge (The Rated R Superstar) really worked because both men were great heels who could match the degree of mean-spirited humor level of in-ring workmanship that a young Hunter and a prime-years Michaels brought in the late ‘90s. The similarities to DX were no accident, though! In some ways, Rated RKO was a blatant recreation of Degeneration X that was designed to make DX seem important again by feuding with them. To a cynic, Rated RKO was less a push for Orton and Edge than it was a way for Triple H and Shawn Michaels to remind people of the rebellious, young run they had 15 years prior. Either way, though, the resulting feud made Edge and Orton seem like big stars, even though they weren’t close to the Heavyweight Title at the time.

Rated RKO was an entertaining diversion for Randy Orton. In many ways, the team was a Bob Hope-Bing Crosby project for he and Edge: it was fun and made money, but far from a great contribution to the business. When Rated RKO’s run in 2007 ended, though, Orton hit the big, big time.

From 2007 through 2010, Orton was one of the big four of the WWE. Orton, John Cena, Triple H, and Batista held down the main event with a near-historic syndicate that saw all of them face off against each other more times than anybody really wanted to see. With that said, Orton (along with Cena) became an era-defining superstar in during these years.

The secret ingredients that made Randy Orton the most delicious dish in professional wrestling were viciousness and desperation. Orton’s character, always brooding and calculating, truly came into full bloom when his desire to be right bubbled outside the boundaries of good sportsmanship and common decency. He began slapping refs to hold down titles on DQs, kicking defenseless people in the head as hard as he could, and using every dirty trick in the book to maintain his position on top.

Consider this “match” against Shawn Michaels from Judgement Day 2007 as a sign of Orton’s canny, evil heelishness. In what was an anticipated match (I remember because this show was in the middle of a streak during which Nick and I watched every single pay per view together for two years…), Orton wound up cheapshotting Michaels, socking him in his injured eye at the bell (the injury had been played up with suggestions that Michaels’ sight was in danger). Watching the video now, it’s clearly a very safe worked punch, but given the angle and both men’s wrestling acting chops, the exchange really comes across as vicious and calculating.

Having reached his apex as the WWE’s top heel, Orton once again found himself in a faction. If Evolution was Orton’s infancy and Rated RKO his rebellious teenage years, his third faction, Legacy represented Orton’s ascendency to manhood, and not just any manhood, the manhood of a king. The Legacy worked on many levels: it gave TV time to Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase at a time when younger stars were not heavily featured, gave both of them the rub of being featured alongside a top champion, and most importantly to our story, made Orton seem like a wrestling Bond (as in James, not Nick) villain, surrounded by eager henchmen willing to do his evil bidding.

This match from a 2009 episode of Monday Night Raw perfectly displays what Legacy did for Orton: it allowed him to (with a little help) feud with two of the strongest and most powerful wrestlers of the era. With Cody and Ted doing a lot of the selling for him, Orton is permitted to look like a world class wrestler (in a kayfabe manner, of course) as well as an evil mastermind coordinating the strategy of a group.

After the Legacy breakup, Randy Orton lost his way — or rather, WWE lost their way with pushing Randy Orton. Rumors of attitude problems and various unsavory habits flooded dirtsheets, and Orton’s push, which had been a given for nearly a decade, seemed to diminish as he was drafted to B-show Smackdown. However, after a few years seeming diminished, Randy Orton reasserted himself as a top-level star through a memorable feud with Christian on Smackdown.

Were he a head higher on the totem pole, Christian might have been the all-time opponent for Randy Orton. Christian’s height and weight are such that he looks like a tall, strong wrestler while also making Orton look like an incredibly tall, incredibly strong wrestler. More importantly, Christian’s command of ring psychology, selling skills, and ability to pop the crowd made him the ideal foil to the mean, calculating, methodical heel Orton. Christian and Orton had many memorable matches, but this one from Summerslam 2011 stands out as especially exciting:

The shift to Smackdown and the softer push after a long run on top of Raw could have diminished the long-term star power of many wrestlers, but it did not for Orton. Orton rode his feud with Christian back to top star relevance, which has only continued to grow in the last two years.

In 2013, Randy Orton returned to the ranks of true top star. While his character isn’t as vicious and authoritative as it was at his very peak (his current kowtowing to the Authority/childish rebelling against them aren’t exactly alpha male behavior…), Orton is a better psychologist and in-ring performer than ever. While his best pushes may be behind him, Randy Orton still has the ability to have great matches and create fantastic memories now and into the future, as this match against Daniel Bryan from last June shows: