Last week’s SmackDown was apparently a must-see program. Brock Lesnar’s opponent for SummerSlam was going to be announced, and it ended up being Randy Orton.
Of all of the pay-per-view matches Lesnar has had since his return to the WWE in 2012, this one, by lightyears, has the least amount of fan excitement attached to it. This is not an indicator that Brock Lesnar is no longer a prized novelty to the WWE fans. Rather, this is an indicator that Randy Orton is not the draw that the WWE thinks he is.
Think about the most memorable WWE Championship or World Heavyweight Championship runs over the last 15 or so years. Surely, CM Punk’s record-breaking reign comes to mind. John Cena’s reigns were filled with matches that were truly meaningful. Even Brock Lesnar’s run with the WWE Championship in 2014 to 2015, despite his lack of appearances, was impactful as it catapulted the career of Seth Rollins.
Since Randy Orton’s Monday Night Raw debut on Sept. 23, 2002, there have been 117 different title reigns when considering all inceptions of the World Heavyweight Championship WWE has used. Twelve of these reigns belong to Randy Orton. Excluding his first World Heavyweight Championship over Chris Benoit at SummerSlam 2003, was there another title reign that truly mattered?
Still, there were 12 title reigns. Why is Randy Orton not considered to be a legend during his era like Undertaker, Triple H, or John Cena? Wouldn’t one think that he would be mentioned in the same breath?
One reason may be is that when he was champion, it was always transitional. Excluding a 203-day run as WWE Champion, he was consistently set up to surrender the belt to either Triple H or John Cena up to 2010. He also held the belt (and exchanged it a few times due to typical professional wresting hijinks) for the crowd-pleasing title win for Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania 30.
The same routine took place as he pursued the World Heavyweight Championship when it was still active. WWE turned Orton face after he was ousted from Evolution after winning the belt instead of Triple H. The fans did not accept Orton as a credible face, and the belt was given back to Trips for yet another title reign for him. He would then exchange the title twice with Christian in a lazily-promoted, yet underrated rivalry at a time when the World Heavyweight Championship was clearly secondary to the WWE Championship. Even his title unification match with John Cena at Tables, Ladders, and Chairs 2013 was underwhelming, as it featured two Superstars fans were clearly sick of seeing receive the main event spot.
One could argue that Orton’s career never received that one defining moment that makes a wrestler’s number of title reigns irrelevant. Shawn Michaels, considered by many to be the greatest wrestler of all time, only had four heavyweight championship reigns. However, his plethora of defining moments makes him a legend. Undertaker, Bret Hart, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and Kurt Angle all have single-digit amount of heavyweight title reigns, yet all of them are arguably held in higher regard than Randy Orton due to all of the legendary moments they have had. When one thinks of wrestling’s defining moments, moments that they can duplicate in their minds incessantly, how many of them include Randy Orton? Most likely, not many.
Randy Orton, quite simply, has had the least impactful legendary career in the history of professional wrestling. This is not due to a lack of talent, boring disposition (although he could be quite dry on the mic at times), or lack of effort. Rather, Randy Orton has been the key offensive lineman for WWE.
Offensive linemen are rarely talked about the in the press. When a football fans think of Super Bowl moments, they recall Lynn Swann’s acrobatics, Tom Brady’s leadership, and Eli Manning to David Tyree; they don’t think of the up-front blocking that allowed the play to develop.
Randy Orton, for over a decade, was a necessary tool needed to allow the play to develop. All forms of WWE’s Heavyweight Championships were meant to be around more impactful waists, but Randy Orton has always had just enough pedigree and in-ring ability to stabilize the title’s image until someone else could increase it. His career has been a quiet one, but it has been necessary for the continuation of the never-ending script of the WWE.