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It has been said a million times: If you could build a wrestler from the ground-up, you would build someone like Randy Orton. Orton is on the shortlist of the most naturally talented wrestlers of all-time, and even if he will never have had quite the impact that some other stars have had, such as John Cena, there is still a real argument that Orton was more talented than all of them.
At the same time, Orton has spent a large portion of his career causing fans to want more. He was a tremendously gifted worker who also rarely had great matches. He was a talented speaker on the microphone who mailed-in promos for years. He was one of the most natural, insidious heels of the past 20 years but spent a long period of time as a passionless babyface. It would be a stretch to say that Orton's career has been a disappointment, but he probably hasn't reached his full potential, if only because his potential is so great that even someone as talented as Orton would need to really stretch to reach it.
Orton, like many second and third generation wrestlers, started with a silver spoon. He was immediately signed by WWE after being trained and breezed through developmental before making his main roster appearance two years after he got started in wrestling. He got an immediate push as part of the Evolution stable and was presented as a future star and became the youngest world champion in company history in 2004 when he beat Chris Benoit at SummerSlam.
At that point Orton was still too young and green to be put in that position, even though it was obvious he was a talented kid. He was placed in an unmemorable feud as the babyface against Triple H, even though he was an obvious heel and the babyface push only caused him to drop his title to Triple H less than one month after he won it. He spent some time more as a babyface before starting a long feud with The Undertaker that took him back to being a heel.
The next time Orton would win the world championship, his build was more organic. He had a few years as a solid heel to really sink his teeth into the role without too much pressure to succeed. When John Cena got injured in 2007, Orton was the logical choice to become the new champion and defacto face of the company while Cena recovered. This kicked off the longest and most successful period of Orton's career, and from mid-2007 to WrestleMania 26 in 2010, Orton was easily the top heel in all of wrestling. Whether it was his sadistic team with Edge or his work with Legacy, Orton was a dominant heel figure in WWE and consistently produced entertaining matches and feuds.
However, after Orton turned babyface for WrestleMania 26, his run ended. Although he was just 30, the fact was that Orton's best days were already behind him. He spent years as a babyface, getting pushed often and winning world titles, but he never generated the same kind of interest as he did during his monster heel run. Orton was a natural heel, and despite all his talent, he just wasn't a natural babyface. His promos were worse, his programs were less interesting and his matches, while technically proficient, didn't match up psychologically to his work as a heel. Orton has come out and said that publicly; he prefers to be a heel.
While he would never have a run quite as good or as long as his run from 2007 to 2010, Orton's second career peak would unfold after he turned heel at SummerSlam 2013 when he turned on Daniel Bryan and won the world title that Bryan had just beaten Cena for. The next year would be some of the best work of Orton's career, first working as a foil for Bryan and then later with the young guys in The Shield after Evolution reformed. While Batista and Triple H were special attractions, Orton was the workhorse in the group and contributed to one of the most successful programs of that decade.
By the end of 2014, I named Orton as my Wrestler of the Year. Here is what I wrote:
Orton entered 2014 holding the most important championship in wrestling, and lost it in a spirited fashion in April in a good match, in the main event of the biggest event of the year. After that Orton went on an impressive string of matches, carrying the bulk of the work for the sometimes burdensome Authority storyline. He worked two superb matches against The Shield as a member of Evolution, and that was the MVP of the Six-Man Ladder match that took place for the world title at Money in the Bank. He then spent the rest of the year getting passable matches out of limited workers such as John Cena and Roman Reigns. WWE hasn't had a great 2014, but Orton has been a rock for them, carrying the company in several important spots and always willing to do the job. That is what an MVP needs to do for his company.
So Orton was my top wrestler of 2014, what happened after that? Well, he turned babyface and just like before, he went on a long run of mediocrity that belied his talent. Sure he won titles, worked main events and got big pops when he hit the RKO, but he wasn't as integral as he was in 2014 and just like before, as a babyface his promos were not that interesting and his feuds were often forgettable. It didn't help that Orton had been a consistent TV character in WWE for more than a decade and his act was beginning to wear thin.
Even when Orton became a heel again in 2018, he wasn't the same level of performer. Often times Orton would be in a program that fans expected to be really good, but ended up being just okay. A perfect example of this would be his program with AJ Styles, which led to a match between the two at WrestleMania 35, which was just very solid. Very solid would work for most talents, but since we are well aware of both men's immense talents, very solid doesn't really cut it.
There has been ample criticism about Orton's passion and motivation for a lot of his matches. Orton's skill-set is so great that he is expected to have great matches all the time, but he rarely does. Some fans have criticized Orton for being lazy, but I don't know if that is really fair. You don't last as long in wrestling as Orton has by being lazy, you don't look like Orton if you are lazy, and you can't be that good even with natural gifts, if you are lazy.
Complacent might be a better term. Unlike a lot of wrestlers, Orton has never really been tasked with getting himself over because since day one, WWE has always had an interest in protecting Orton and getting him over. Orton never really had to come up with a new character, or fight for his spot on the card because WWE has always wanted him to be a star. Even someone like Cena was on the verge of being released in 2002 before he developed the Doctor of Thuganomics character. Over the years Orton has never had to evolve, he has made millions in WWE being essentially the same character. That complacency is probably why he never really clicked as a babyface, it ultimately didn't matter if Orton changed at all to make it work, he was getting pushed and getting paid regardless.
Once Orton had his massive heel run in the late 2000s, he was completely made. He was able to coast off of that and still be seen as a big star despite rarely being a part interesting programs, cutting interesting promos, or having memorable matches. In 2014 he had a year to remind everyone how good he really was, and then went dark again.
Some people will tell you that Orton has been great for his entire career, and that he never really dropped off. Orton has always been very talented, but he has long stretches of his career where he was not great. It also isn't because Orton's wrestling style is "different" than other contemporary wrestlers and he doesn't do flips and superkicks or whatever. Orton has had very good matches in his career working his style and he has had very boring matches working his style.
Since his return at the 2020 Royal Rumble Orton has awoken once more and has turned in a banner performance this year, even though a majority of that work has been taking place inside empty arenas. Orton's promos and character work during his feud with Edge have been some of the best things in all of wrestling, and at Backlash he had a really good match to go with it. Once again, people are talking about just how good Orton really is.
The problem is that fans needed to be reminded in the first place. Orton is one of the most naturally talented wrestlers in history, and unlike other talents has never had to deal with being buried or WWE screwing up his momentum. He really shouldn't be a polarizing talent, and yet there will always be debates about his place in wrestling history. Is Orton really one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, or is he just someone who could have been?
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