Professional wrestling’s greatest performers imbue the annals of WWE. When you think of the Mt. Rushmore of the WWE, you probably think about the guys who headlined Wrestlemania year in and year out. You think about the guys whose merchandise could barely stay on shelves. We’re talking about guys like Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and John Cena. But, in every major era of wrestling, there’s been an undertone of guys just as talented.
Hogan and Randy Savage always had a Rowdy Roddy Piper or Ted DiBiase to supplement their place on the card. The beer-drinking, pie-eating, middle finger-laden overall content of the Attitude Era gets a lot of credit. But, that doesn’t discount the sales and pay-per-view main events Austin and The Rock produced. Still, men like Mick Foley and Triple H always enhanced the card further. Cena had Edge and Randy Orton in similar positions.
And, of course, there’s the one guy who managed such a role through all three eras: The Undertaker. The Dead Man is the perfect example of this principle. His matches have always been among the best, but he’s never truly been the focal point of the WWE. The runs Shawn Michaels and Ric Flair had are the only two that can rival The Undertaker’s prolonged stay.
My argument is that Orton is approaching that status in the WWE’s history.
Really, the only difference between these two categories of superstars is the perception of casual fans. But, the people that follow the WWE regularly do understand how all of these characters intertwine to form our favorite form of entertainment. Where your average Joe on the street may say Hogan is the greatest of all time, the diehard is likely to answer with Flair or Michaels.
Cena gets a lot of credit for his sustained success over the last 15 years. I won’t argue that. No one in WWE history has worked harder. Austin and The Rock sold a lot of merchandise, but both of them had a prime of less than five years. In Hogan’s time, the WWE wasn’t the global phenomenon that it is today. Cena flies all over the world in a day’s time.
All the while, Orton has put together one of the greatest resumes in WWE history. Maybe he isn’t doing all of the public appearances, but he’s been around, performing at a high level, for just as long as Cena. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest he’s a better wrestler than Cena.
The Piper comparison is the most accurate. Piper was instrumental in getting Hulkamania over, he was one of the most reliable promos in the business, and could accomplish whatever the WWE needed him to. From main eventing Wrestlemania I and embarking on a legendary feud with Mr. T to Wrestlemania VIII, putting over an ascending Bret Hart and the Intercontinental Championship, Hot Rod was a veritable Swiss Army Knife.
Look at Orton’s career, and it reads similarly, but over a much larger trajectory. And, where Piper never won the WWE Championship, Orton has 12 of them. He won two Royal Rumbles, a Money in the Bank briefcase, a couple of Tag Team Championships, and a memorable run as Intercontinental Champion. He’s put on matches with Cena, Edge, Michaels, Foley, Chris Benoit, and the Undertaker that are some of the era’s greatest contests.
Sure, he has the championship count. Orton certainly has a long history of wrestling five-star matches, too. But, some of his greatest contributions to wrestling aren’t measurable.
As early in his career as 2004, Orton was beginning to accumulate such accolades. After defeating Rob Van Dam and adopting the Legend Killer persona, he elevated the the prestige of the Intercontinental Championship. His feud with Mick Foley was legendary.
Once established as a main event superstar, Orton reinvented the role of a true heel. He deepened the term, taking it to a more psychologically disturbing level. His promos weren’t shouting rants. They were calm monologues with ominous undertones. When he ultimately snapped, he conveyed chaos of the mind like no one else in WWE history. It was like watching the illegitimate son of Jake Roberts and Bray Wyatt, and it was masterful.
Orton has also done wonders to help put other guys over. Shelton Benjamin, Kofi Kingston, Cody Rhodes, Daniel Bryan, and Seth Rollins all come to mind as guys who benefitted from a program with Orton.
As needed, Orton could reinvent himself seamlessly. From the Legend Killer to the “The Viper” and all the baby face runs in between, Orton could adapt as well as anyone. It is a Triple H level of versatility. If he began to grow stale on his own, he rejuvenated himself in factions – Evolution, Rated RKO, The Legacy, The Authority, The Wyatt Family. Each led to some quality programs and kept The Viper fresh in the WWE landscape.
Stop and really think about all Orton has done in his 15-year WWE run. As far as overall superstars go (the guys that exceptionally bridge the gap between “worker” and “entertainer”), Orton has entered the top-10 discussion.