In wrestling history, most names are positioned in one category or another. Legends are celebrated and their counterparts critiqued, an almost black or white mentality surrounding each individual career. Some names of course divide those variants though, rare stars that split fans with their every move. Well, this Sunday’s WrestleMania will once again highlight the greatest example of that imaginable: Randy Orton, now just days away from his 15th outing at ‘The Grandest Stage of Them All.’ His opponent, a man that bizarrely mirrors and contrasts him all at once: ‘The Phenomenal’ AJ Styles.
One of the absolute greats of his generation, Styles will undeniably be among Orton’s elite foes and that’s a compliment in itself. Fifteen years ago, Orton entered his first WrestleMania and fittingly, he found himself surrounded by legends. Standing alongside his Evolution cohorts Batista and Ric Flair, Orton took on the beloved Rock ‘n’ Sock Connection. That proved just the starting point too, following that effort with an encounter opposite the unparalleled Undertaker. Orton wouldn’t end the then famed streak but his presence on that stage felt telling.
The third-generation star then became a title match regular on the industry’s largest show, clashing with icons such as Kurt Angle, Rey Mysterio, Triple H and John Cena while WWE’s biggest crowns were on the line. Orton wasn’t featured centrally every year but his main event status had been solidified, regularly returning to the mountain top and even entering WrestleMania 30 as WWE Champion. Since then, Orton has logged in yet another major title match on that stage as well, leaving 2017’s event as WWE Champion once more.
That resume is staggering and almost unmatched. With longevity and an impressive body of work on his side, Orton’s place as a legend seems indisputable but right or wrong, his name is still surrounded by immense debate and discussion. Orton’s talent has never been in question but at times, his application has left some underwhelmed. That perception has become almost linked to Orton’s performance, with his smooth, poised style often being criticized as lifeless or formulaic. While simply a matter of opinion, that thought process has certainly become widespread over the years.
In truth though, Orton’s often been a victim of the same circumstances that so many of his peers have shared. His initial in-ring output was excellent, performing beyond his years and remaining consistent as his presence increased. At times, Orton has prioritized a traditional villain approach, emphasizing aggression and spite rather than thrills and excitement. That simply wasn’t his role, instead providing the nasty, blank canvas for his protagonists to shine on. Those matches aren’t for everyone but Orton remained on top of the card, dominating an era that fans critique to this day.
Headlining WWE events is an art-form in itself, an immense height that’ll inevitably result in some falls along the way. Orton was no different but his own struggles seemed multiplied by the direction leading him, particularly a lengthy programme with John Cena that left many analysts disgruntled. It was a clash of two generational greats but its focus furthered a resentment towards both men. They were deemed the chosen ones, the status quo that halted any evolution or progression. As foes, they produced some memorable encounters but that lingering perception didn’t alter regardless.
Either way, Orton’s organic popularity soon led him to the longest babyface stint of his career, most famously allowing for a wonderful series of matches with Christian. Those matches very much encapsulated the brilliance on both men, a fundamental excellence that when combined with effective storytelling, resulted in a quite enthralling PPV affairs. That portion only strengthened Orton’s eventual turn too, with the supposed corporate choice proving to be perfect opposition for the surging Daniel Bryan. In my mind, those showings were the start of Orton’s latest chapter, a consistency that at times, has been squandered by the shifting situations.
2014 was a tremendous year for Orton, following up his WrestleMania outing with a memorable Evolution reunion as well as captivating outings opposite Roman Reigns, Chris Jericho and finally, yet another PPV clash with Cena. That particular match would be inside Hell in a Cell and before long, Orton’s popularity had guided him away from the dark side yet again, unforgettably RKO’ing Seth Rollins at WrestleMania, and continuing to perform well even if under a slightly lesser spotlight. Orton has certainly reached some lulls since then nonetheless but in truth, that makes him no different to his contemporaries.
At times, WWE programmes can take unexpected turns, leading conflicts away from their originally assumed in-ring potential. That was clearer than ever in Orton’s 2017, with his infamous Bray Wyatt feud finding itself swarmed in theatrics that frankly, only damaged the final product. Orton then feuded with Jinder Mahal and while the second of their meetings was particularly strong in my view, the Punjabi Prison match type capped their rivalry off in the worst fashion imaginable. Mahal’s rise had been heavily criticized and Orton was his initial counterpart along the way.
On the other hand, Orton’s next foe had a very different reputation, with Rusev catching fire in the midst of their seemingly unimportant PPV programme. Instead, ‘Rusev Day’ would become one of the product’s most beloved features and when Orton came out the victor, the criticism surrounding him only multiplied. That aforementioned perception was back again, with the alleged chosen one still standing in the way of a potentially rising star. In truth, that feeling was simply a result of two match outcomes but it didn’t temper the resentment either way.
Since then, Orton’s role has naturally steadied, not quite the centerpiece that he once represented but still an effective top player nonetheless. With that new position as well as the constantly evolving talent roster surrounding, Orton didn’t appear in many marquee singles matches during 2018 but even still, he managed to make an impact in my view. Entering Hell in a Cell as a horrific antagonist once more, Orton made magic with Jeff Hardy, a violent battle that I found simply gripping from start to finish.
That basically brings us back to where we began: this Sunday’s WrestleMania, an anticipated match opposite AJ Styles. For some fans, Styles is a stark contrast to Orton. A revered in-ring genius that can thrive opposite any style, a legend that remains one of WWE’s finest. Well, for me that description only brings these two closer together, a pair of performers that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching throughout their storied careers. That’s the beauty of pro wrestling, it’s a subjective form of entertainment that by definition, allows us to perceive every angle and star differently.
There’s a good chance that in this very article, I’ve mentioned matches that are barely a distant memory in your mind. That’s the reality of this genre, not everything is for everyone but in my view, history will be kind to Orton. While the surrounding circumstances have certainly impacted his perception along the way, fans still treat Orton like a star and his body of work remains admirable. It’s not been flawless of course, far from it but then again, how many stars have remained featured in this fashion for so long, a constant that’s remained relevant for well over a decade.
In a vacuum, I think Orton’s performances prove his worth rather well, an example of how his incredible longevity was even possible to begin with. Randy Orton is sublimely skilled and slick, graced with wonderful timing and composure. The result of those talents? Well that’s an answer for you to find yourself but in this writer’s opinion, it’s made Orton one of this era’s most timeless and consistent stars. Thankfully, Styles is no different and at MetLife Stadium, I hope that these two minds are given the time necessary to produce something befitting their talents.
Throughout his various incarnations, Orton has seldom changed much and in that same way, his WrestleMania presence has also rarely wavered. Whether you’ve liked the matches or not, Orton’s longevity remains staggering, a constant in a world that’s seemingly forever in transition. Regardless of the year, a handful of wrestling factors will always exist and opinions aside, the letters RKO are now firmly among them. While the rest is contentious, that much simply isn’t up for debate.