Sunday night, Randy Orton beat John Cena at the TLC pay-per-view to unify the WWE and World Heavyweight Championships. It was an excellent match, in which Orton and Cena battered each other in and around the ring with — as one might expect — tables, ladders, and chairs. Orton won after he handcuffed Cena to a turnbuckle and then, once Cena managed to detach said turnbuckle, launched him from a ladder in the center of the ring into a table in the corner.1 While everyone was expecting some sort of McMahonigans to end the night, the show instead ended with Orton standing tall. He was now the sole world champion of the biggest wrestling company in the world, a company that once seemed happy to hide him on its Friday-night show — he was a big star, to be sure, but he was several time zones away from the Raw main event.
Into but not through; Cena landed a foot or two short of crashing through it as was certainly intended.
Orton followed TLC with a match Monday night against Daniel Bryan — his primary foe of the preceding several months — and the two put on a legitimately amazing match. It ended abruptly when Orton racked Bryan just as Bryan seemed poised to win. That reversal was a mild disappointment; it made sense, given the prevalence of oddball endings on Raw, but the match was so good it felt like it deserved an epic ending. Part of me was ecstatic to be enjoying WWE so much. A bigger part of me was stunned that so much enjoyment could have come from Randy Orton.
The conventional wisdom on Orton is that he’s a silver-spoon guy, a third-generation wrestler with a good look and the unwarranted unwavering favor of Vince McMahon. He’s a pretty good wrestler who’s not terribly motivated — he can have top-notch matches with talented opponents like Bryan, CM Punk, and Christian and supremely boring matches with less-skilled guys. He’s a mediocre talker, prone to mispronunciation and forgetting his lines, and his facial expressions range from inscrutable to constipated. Backstage rumors attached to Orton include getting people fired, shitting in coworkers’ gym bags, and using HGH and steroids.
All that could be true. But it doesn’t matter to the current Randy Orton. Right now, Randy Orton is the best thing going in WWE. He’s the unified champion, and I couldn’t think of a better man for the job.
OK, I’m trolling here, but just a little bit. Orton doesn’t have Daniel Bryan’s ring skills or CM Punk’s ability on the microphone or John Cena’s merchandise numbers. I’m not Orton’s biggest fan (I’d assume that title would go to one of these folks). His main presence in my columns prior to Survivor Series could be summed up with a big, snarky eye roll. But over the past few months, culminating in Sunday’s big win and Monday’s amazing match, Orton has transformed into a bona fide great. On the episode of Monday-night Raw before TLC, Cena prodded Orton by saying he’d been handed everything he ever got in life and that he just wanted to win the unified title so he could finally be what he was supposed to have been 10 years ago. They were cutting words, but they also happened to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Wrestling fans have spent the past decade hearing every WWE announcer on every show proclaim Orton to be the future of the wrestling business. It was an inevitability that every wrestling fan seemed to dread. It wasn’t the future; it was a postapocalyptic wasteland.
And then it happened. Orton won, and it was hard not to see Cena’s dis as prophetic. Suddenly Orton had become what he was supposed to be all along.
What has made Orton suddenly so good? Why was he so loathsome before and so impressive now? To find out, I decided to ask the people who know Orton best — those who liked him all along. I talked to a bunch of Orton fans this week, and by far the most common refrain was, “I don’t like Orton, but my wife thinks he’s hot.” I know your reaction to this: Really? You think that d-bag with the blank expression and the Fisher Price My First Tattoo kit is attractive? Hard truth, fellas: Yes, Randy Orton is very attractive. If it makes you feel better, it’s likely that Orton’s emptiness is part of what women like about him, just like some guys lust after plastic bimbos.
Don’t underestimate the significance of this. If your girlfriend or wife or mom or sister thinks a wrestler is hot enough to merit her watching the show, that’s your ticket to unlimited WWE viewing and dropping $50 a month on PPVs. Reader Mike told me: “My wife considers Orton her ‘WWE boyfriend,’ as she finds him to be the most attractive wrestler in the WWE. She understands his character is usually a giant douche, but that doesn’t lessen his level of attractiveness to her.” Just like Daniel Bryan might legitimize Raw for indie wrestling fans, Orton legitimizes it for many women. It doesn’t matter if male fans like him as long as the women in their lives see Orton onscreen and say, “OK, I guess we can leave this on.” He softens the sport even as he’s kicking people in the head.
This is bigger than just a beefcake thing, though. Announcer JBL is fond of saying about Orton, “If you build a sports entertainer from the ground up, it looks like this man.” Sure, that’s a heel announcer slobbering over a heel wrestler, but it’s also an unavoidably true statement. And it matters now more than ever before. Think about it — the wrestling physiques that blew fans’ minds back in the ’80s aren’t that special anymore. Professional athletes of all varieties are now as jacked as “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff was in 1985. Once upon a time, Hulk Hogan was a novelty. He’d go on talk shows and female hosts would rub his biceps, visibly drooling. Now every defensive end in the NFL has 24-inch pythons. Orton, physically, is one of those holy-shit athletes — his physique is to wrestling what LeBron James’s is to basketball. The growth of mixed martial arts and the considerable overlap between the WWE and UFC audiences has also taught wrestling fans exactly what top-flight hand-to-hand combatants look like. And more often than not, they look like Randy Orton.
Speaking of top-flight combat: Despite what you may have heard, Orton is actually very good in the ring. Is he a Daniel Bryan–level technician? No. Does he have the match-calling instincts of Ric Flair or Shawn Michaels? No. But to call him anything other than a borderline-great wrestler is to misunderstand what wrestling is all about. Sure, he got pushed into the main event way too early, but that was 10 years ago. So what if he can’t carry the Big Show to a 30-minute main event classic? Hardly anybody can do that.
Orton is a physical freak. I’m not just talking about how he looks. It’s what he does. I know: Wrestling is a fake sport. But wrestling fans love real athletes — Brock Lesnar’s MMA run, Mark Henry’s strongman championships, Haku’s bar fights. Orton’s athleticism ranks with the best of them. Just look at his RKO — it’s a thing of beauty. A midair RKO against a flipping Evan Bourne doesn’t just perform itself. The swaggering ease with which he tosses his opponents across the middle rope for the hangman DDT is really something. Literally every time he does his snap scoop powerslam I wonder how he pulled it off. That superplex he did to Daniel Bryan on Monday? That might have been the most beautiful superplex ever. Look how Orton climbs the ropes in the corner and balances effortlessly, extends Bryan to the highest point possible, and then bends his knees to cradle Bryan backward onto the mat. If he has underachieved — if he still does at times — that doesn’t disqualify his physical abilities from being next-level. We should talk about Orton the way sports fans talk about Jabari Parker or Jadeveon Clowney. He can do things nobody else can. In fact, one of the weird tics about Orton is that he was obsessed with doing crazy aerial maneuvers early in his career, but Arn Anderson told him to stop because he didn’t need those moves to get over. Arn was right — he doesn’t. But the fact that he can do them? Wow.
And he does the little things well. The way Orton stalks to the ring, the way he poses on the ropes, the way he pounds the mat when he’s angling for his finisher — it all works. Even his limited vocabulary of facial expressions — soulless, murderous, petulant — is deployed in appropriate measure. Orton’s ring psychology is off the charts. As Arune Singh, Orton fan and executive director of television communications at Marvel Entertainment, points out: “I don’t think all these chinlocks (‘Rest holds’ seems needlessly pejorative) are accidental. He doesn’t want you cheering for his athleticism. He’s not the guy you show to your friends to explain why wrestling is like a superhero story brought to life. He’s ruthless and efficient in all his moves. Notice that as he’s become a heel again, he’s not slamming the mat the same way before an RKO and there’s not the same flow to his ‘Five Moves of Doom.’ That’s smart.”
There’s no question that Orton is an exceptional heel and an uninspiring babyface. He’s not even a particularly watchable tweener, a role in which WWE has tried to cast him a few times. Elliot from Iowa adds: “Where he’s been allowed to be a true heel, he has excelled. When he DDT’d Stephanie and kissed her, that was inspired stuff. Stone Cold famously says the best characters are just that guy’s personality with the volume turned up. There is no question that Randy Orton is doing exactly that. I once talked to a bus driver for WWE, and he had kind words to say about everyone, but his only negative comments were reserved for Orton. His exact quote: ‘That guy is an entitled prick.’ Thus, Orton is clearly a jerk playing an even jerkier jerk on TV. I’m into that.”
Riddle solved: Orton looks and acts like a prick because he’s really a prick. I think we can all take solace in that reality. He’s not trying to get himself over by being insufferable and smug — he’s just dropping pipe bombs. But here’s a thought: Is it feasible that Orton’s heel nature — what makes him such a potent villain — is exactly what made him so difficult for us to like through the rest of his career? In an era in which we treasure reality, when our favorite heels aren’t the wrestlers who make us angriest but the cool guys who play their characters with the most sneering self-awareness, maybe Randy Orton deserves more credit for his nuclear anti-charm. It’s not X-Pac heat — even his loudest critics would admit that Orton’s too good to want off the air entirely. It’s old-school, legitimate hatred — and I mean that in a good way.
Orton started his career on the fast track to stardom, joining the Evolution faction with Triple H and Ric Flair. It was too much too soon, sure, but a pretty good story line. He segued into his own troupe made up of generational wrestlers called Legacy, and then fell down a rabbit hole of Wellness Policy violations. For years, Orton’s detractors found solace in the assumption that with two strikes for using banned substances, he’d never be trusted with the title again. He became a ruthless hero, a rebel without a case for a championship match, and a half-assed badass. He was a sort of CM Punk for Middle America, a Stone Cold Steve Austin for guys who wear Affliction shirts. Let’s not overlook this, either. Fans like me are quick to give John Cena credit for having lots of supporters, even if we disagree with them. With Orton, we disqualify his core constituency too quickly because, well, they’re guys we dislike as much as Randy. But they’re there. Those fans might have thrilled for Orton’s middling run on Smackdown the past couple of years, but what Orton really needed to succeed more broadly was a chance at the main event. WWE afforded him that opportunity when they passed the so-called Orton Rule, which allowed for the negation of strikes and functionally jump-started Orton’s second act.
Writer Andrew Shaffer has this to say about Orton’s magnetism: “Last time I saw him live, he was chewing gum for the first few minutes of his match against Daniel Bryan. He spit it 10 feet in the air and it landed on the mat. Five minutes later, he found the gum, picked it up, and popped it back in his mouth. When Bryan clocked Orton later in the match, the gum went flying again — and landed on the ground between me and some 6-year-old kid. He got to the gum first. I’d never been so disappointed in my life. When I found myself scrambling for gum on the floor, I thought, damn, maybe I do like Orton. Then he stared at me taking his picture from the top rope. The look in his eyes says it all. ‘Are you taking pictures of me in my underwear? You’re a grown-ass dude. Put the camera down.’ That’s when I knew I was a total mark for Orton.”
Since Orton joined forces with Triple H and formally incorporated his spoiled-brat reputation as part of his character, he has become not just tolerable but captivating. Then, when his onscreen union with the WWE front office started to wane and he became conspiratorial, in a stuttering, dim-witted way, Orton became wholly magnetic. He’s probably the only performer in WWE who can yell something like “I don’t have to listen to all these idiots sitting in the stands!” and make it sound like a legitimate gripe from a despicable man instead of an ironic old-school heel gesture.
Here’s how Arune Singh describes the Orton appeal: “A powder keg of anger and mistrust for a world that’s not worth his time. He’s a perfectly cynical character for the world we live in. Betrayed by everyone he’s ever trusted — HHH, Batista, Edge — he has a somewhat righteous case against the world but he takes it too far. He’s like the best Marvel Super Villains.” But unlike Punk, who plays a heel with a sort of deliciousness wrestling fans all appreciate, Orton is really hated. He’s the perfect modern bad guy — a genuine villain.
Could this be the beginning of a widespread Orton appreciation movement? There is something rather rebellious about singing his praises — and now that Punk and Bryan have brought the indie into the mainstream, could cheering for Orton be the new way to be subversive? Orton fan Adam Mowry says: “CM Punk is clearly better than him in nearly every way and Daniel Bryan is obviously superior in the ring, but I like Orton because I think he gets far too much hate and I have a tendency to love things that don’t get enough respect — like pro wrestling itself. He doesn’t feel like a ‘Reality Era’ star to me at all. It’s dumb pro wrestling fun and I think people can get a little too highbrow about it. I think people just need to forget that they hate Randy Orton for a second and realize he’s doing a pretty good job.”
That’s good advice. Maybe we can all take a step back and realize that the anti-Orton complaints are somewhat dated. For one thing, he’s better in the ring than half the guys smart fans (myself included) salivate over. He has morphed into a consistent and sometimes very compelling talker — that syncopated speech that once came off as confusion now seems powerfully deliberate, almost Walken-esque in its oddity. Everything that was once grating about Orton has been subsumed into this self-entitled-prick role that fits him so well. Sure, he was bred to be a wrestler and WWE’s immediate enthusiasm for him turned fans against him and probably contributed to his unlikable attitude. But even though the WWE roster is full of second- and third-generation stars, the history of pro wrestling isn’t particularly kind to the children of wrestlers who follow in their father’s footsteps. The history is particularly ugly for those like Orton, who were handed a lot in their careers. He has better longevity than Curt Hennig did, more charisma than Bret Hart, and he’s more of a specimen than either Ted DiBiase Sr. or Jr. The very fact that we’re talking about him in the same league as these guys is meaningful. A year ago you might compare him to a lesser Von Erich, and now it’s not a stretch to compare him to somebody like Terry Funk. This is how far Orton has come.
Does Orton still come off as insufferable sometimes? Of course he does. That’s what makes him great. On Monday night, Raw opened with Orton in the ring with Triple H and Stephanie as they introduced him as the new unified champion. The rest of the WWE roster watched from the stage. “Where you’re standing is appropriate,” Orton said, “and where I’m standing is appropriate.” For the first time in Orton’s career, I found myself nodding my head.