One year ago, Randy Orton entered SummerSlam in a familiar position. The challenger in yet another world title tilt, Orton faced Kofi Kingston, a champion that’s career had been transformed at WrestleMania. In terms of sheer positioning, little has changed. A rare constant, Orton now looks to dethrone Drew McIntyre, the latest addition to WWE’s main event scene. McIntyre closed this year’s WrestleMania, slaying Brock Lesnar and beginning a dominant title reign. On the surface, SummerSlam appears to be a simple scenario, but the product itself paints a very different picture.
Randy Orton’s longevity can be a blessing and a curse. Historically, it makes him a unique piece of the WWE puzzle, allowing a nearly unprecedented resume of headline feats. Orton’s career isn’t without critiques, but the sustained success is undeniable, placing Orton among the greats almost by default. That same staying power has also rendered Orton stagnant at times though, the tried and true option on a roster filled with potential. Last year’s program with Kingston very much encapsulated that trend. With a marquee position available, Orton was the logical, safe choice that frankly, never threatened to become much more.
On credentials alone, Orton belonged in that role, with his skill-set still commanding respect too. The intrigue stopped there though, almost capped by the audience’s underlying doubt that world titles remained in Orton’s future. It was a story worth telling nonetheless, even if last year’s SummerSlam match reached a frustrating count-out conclusion. That only delayed the inevitable anyway, as Kingston continued to retain his WWE Title as expected. That decision wasn’t a controversial one either, always appearing to be the logical outcome of a mostly forgettable feud. Considering the circumstances, that felt like a suitable use of Orton’s talent.
Clearly, the 13-time world champion still had lots to offer but with so many seeking their route to main event status, Orton now felt like a natural fit to assist them along the way. With that in mind, Orton was then drafted to RAW, becoming one of the brand’s leading veterans as they hoped to enter a new era. A utility player of the highest order, Orton was an established contender to be relied upon while others searched for their spot. It seemed like a rational approach but in truth: we’d all forgotten the defining trait of Orton’s career.
Regardless of age and history, there was no greater potential on the RAW roster than Orton himself. For over a decade, Orton’s body of work has come with a disclaimer of sorts, an asterisk in almost complete contrast to the achievements themselves. It’s the lingering belief that Orton can be more, the feeling that even after all of this excellence, he’s still yet to truly maximize his potential. That perception has often been spotlighted by Orton’s peers too, with his contemporaries’ admiration telling its own tale. Orton may not have peaked but thus far, he hadn’t really needed to either.
After a few steady months though, Orton was ready to change that, just as everyone’s focus headed elsewhere. The obvious antagonist for Edge’s triumphant Royal Rumble return, Orton found himself in a more glamorous version of where he’d been at SummerSlam. Though not one of the dream matches that came with Edge’s in-ring clearance, Orton was once again the logical, safe option. This appeared to be Edge’s story, Orton was just a seamless vehicle to tell it with, utilizing their past ties and star power to create a WrestleMania-worthy match.
Within one segment though, it was obvious that Orton had other intentions. Refusing to be just the opponent, Orton matched Edge’s commitment and energy, transforming a predictable angle into one of the most striking segments in recent memory. Orton isn’t charismatic in a loud or flashy way but there’s a rich physical presence in his performance. An innate gift to hook crowds with one sudden shift or snap. That skill never left Orton, but its impact had faded somewhat, being limited to one move rather than encompassing the whole ‘Viper’ persona.
As Orton pondered his next vile act that night though, he’d seldom been more captivating. His raw ability gelled with veteran experience to make magic, blazing with intensity, enthusiasm even. Orton projected his character’s internal battle masterfully, manipulating the audience with ease and ensuring that this would be much, much more than just Edge’s comeback match. That set the pace and Orton hasn’t fell behind since, finding a balance that’s completely altered his career trajectory. As cold and vicious as ever, Orton can now emote with consistency, exposing a vulnerability that only enhances the character’s spiteful edge.
If before, Orton’s performance came with consensus critiques that stood in conflict with his success, it’s now the opposite. In 2020, Randy Orton appears to be a wrestler very much worthy of every achievement tied to his name. There’s a very real argument that Orton is the finest element of WWE’s year, a feat that didn’t appear particularly likely as the decade began. Fans don’t have to look far to find the result of Orton’s efforts either, as he stands opposite McIntyre as a very different challenger than the one that faced Kingston a year ago.
After all these years, all those title reigns and championship matches, Randy Orton enters SummerSlam feeling almost unbeatable. He’s managed to build himself to a height that makes this whole match enticing. McIntyre is the new face of Monday Night RAW, he’s the dominant champion that with each passing week, appears more at home. He won an unforgettable Royal Rumble, destroyed Brock Lesnar and yet, it feels foolish to dismiss the notion that against Orton, his time as champion should end. Thankfully, that decision looms over others but its mere existence is a credit to Orton.
This isn’t a reinvention; this isn’t the result of a return or repacking. This is much simpler than that, it’s one of wrestling’s greatest talents deciding that somehow, he’s still not satisfied. Right now, Randy Orton is erasing asterisks, finally fulfilling the potential that had become synonymous with his work. If Orton can maintain this momentum, both on Sunday and beyond, he can enter a chapter in which even the cynics are silenced. Orton’s success speaks for itself, his peers’ respect telling. That’s a legacy to be proud of, but this story isn’t complete. Not yet anyway.
Just as the book began to close, Orton provided an extension. If before, Orton was the status quo in a promotion of possibilities, he’s now become an irreplaceable constant. The narrative has been put on hold, doubters reconsidering their conclusion. Randy Orton isn’t done yet. In fact, he could be just days away from yet another world title reign. Sixteen years ago, SummerSlam played host to Orton’s first win of that ilk, doing so twice since as well. It’s on this stage that Orton’s battled The Undertaker, Hulk Hogan, John Cena, and Brock Lesnar.
Those memories are worth considering, a glance at the titans that Orton’s both outlasted and stood alongside. Nothing much seems to change for the man himself though. He looks, sounds and mostly at least, act the same but yet, this couldn’t feel less like just another SummerSlam for Orton. There’s a palpable excitement here, an indescribable spark that transcends the performance itself. Orton’s natural brilliance was always the root of onlookers’ frustration, his impressive longevity the cause of his divisive nature. That conversation’s been had enough though and now more than ever, Orton appears ready to shed those contradictions.
Just as Orton’s standing seemed set in stone, just as he seemed content to decline, the opposite has come to fruition. Instead, Orton is now unlocking the mystical ceiling that for so long, he was supposedly satisfied to leave locked. At SummerSlam, Randy Orton could very well become world champion again. The response? Likely one ranging from glowing adoration to at the very least, nodding acknowledgment. In truth, that alone tells this story better than I ever could.