On April 25, 2002, the WWE Universe was introduced to Randy Keith Orton. This day marked the WWE television debut of the 6'4'', 245-pound, third-generation babyface. His undeveloped personality and ring psychology were a seemingly perfect match to his disheveled hair.
We were introduced to a wrestler that the commentators constantly referred to as a blue chipper, a rookie with great potential. Sources within WWE knew that Orton would one day become a WWE megastar.
While Orton’s raw talent was definite, many questioned if his focus and maturity would allow him to align with his destiny. After suffering and healing from a shoulder injury, Randy Orton returned to the WWE as a narcissistic, self-absorbed heel. He aligned himself alongside HHH, Ric Flair, and Batista in the stable known as Evolution.
Though fans saw a considerable development of Orton’s on-screen persona, they also witnessed a slew of controversy surrounding Orton backstage as Diva search contestants accused him of harassment. While the accusations never materialized into formal charges against Orton, Orton’s bad boy image was cemented.
As a member of Evolution, Orton morphed into “The Legend Killer,” as he singled out WWE’s legends and systematically destroyed them one by one. It was during this time that he developed his finishing maneuver, the RKO. He went on to have a successful reign as WWE Intercontinental champion from December 2003 to July 2004.
After losing the Intercontinental title to Edge at Vengeance, Orton entered the World Heavyweight Title scene. After becoming the number one contender, Randy Orton went on defeat Chris Benoit and become the youngest World Heavyweight Champion in WWE history at SummerSlam 2004.
His time with Evolution allowed Orton to grow and gain experience by working alongside some of the business' top performers of all time. Arguably, Evolution helped Orton focus and gave him a sense of purpose.
Summerslam 2004 marked a turning point for Orton, who had successfully managed to gain support and admiration from the fans. However, the very next night on Raw, a jealous HHH attacked Orton and kicked him out of Evolution.
A month later, he would lose his title and continue feuding with HHH, which would culminate in an unsuccessful bid for the title at the 2005 Royal Rumble. However, his time feuding with HHH would further his development and cement his spot as a top star.
Orton continued his face image by entering in an on-screen relationship with Stacy Keibler. However, Keibler served as Orton’s stepping stone, as he ended up hitting Keibler with an RKO in March 2005 to turn heel again.
This was eerily reminiscent of the harassment accusations, and some felt the storyline was distasteful.
Randy channeled the energy of outraged fans by taunting the Undertaker into a match at Wrestlemania 21 in an attempt to end Undertaker’s undefeated streak. Unfortunately for Orton, he was unable to defeat the Undertaker, even with the interference of his father.
After being drafted to Smackdown, Orton entered a nine-monthlong feud with The Undertaker. With the help of Bob Orton Sr., Orton ended up defeating Undertaker at Summerslam 2005. Bob Orton Sr. would further cement Orton’s importance to the industry by consistently reminding fans of Randy Orton’s privileged third-generation superstar status.
He would go on to defeat Undertaker in a handicap casket match, which caused Undertaker’s sudden disappearance. He led team Smackdown! to victory by defeating team Raw’s final member, Shawn Michaels, at Survivor Series, only for the Undertaker to appear from a flaming casket.
Orton would feud with Undertaker for the remainder of 2005, culminating in Orton and his father’s loss in a Hell in a Cell match at Armageddon. Though he could not oust the Undertaker, he gained invaluable experience working in a focused storyline with one of the most well-respected ring veterans in WWE history.
With Bob Orton Sr. out of the picture, Orton changed his focus from the Undertaker to the World title. After an unsuccessful bid in the 2006 Royal Rumble, Orton challenged Rumble winner Rey Mysterio for his World Heavyweight Title shot.
Orton went on to make rude comments about Eddie Guerrero’s death to incite Rey to accept the challenge, which many fans felt was unnecessary and distasteful. Mysterio accepted Orton’s challenge, and Orton won the shot at the title at No Way Out, only for Theodore Long to reinstate Mysterio in the match and set up a triple threat with Orton, Mysterio and Angle and Wrestlemania 22.
Mysterio ended up winning the match, and Orton’s behavior was called into question once again when he was suspended two days later for unprofessional conduct.
Orton admitted in an interview later that his unprofessional conduct was related to him smoking marijuana backstage. This led many inside and outside the industry to question Orton’s future in the business and the sort of example that he is setting.
However, due to his strong ties with HHH, many presumed this would not be a factor and that he would return stronger than ever.
When Orton returned from his suspension to the Raw Brand, he started a feud with Hulk Hogan, playing off his “womanizer” image and targeting Brooke Hogan. The feud ended at SummerSlam, where Hogan beat Orton. Throughout the end of 2006, Orton would go on to team up with Edge as Rated RKO to feud with HHH and Shawn Michaels of D-Generation X.
As Edge’s tag team partner, Randy continued to grow in the ring as a competitor. When HHH was sidelined with an injury, Orton and Edge parted ways after both had aspirations to go for the WWE Title.
The first half of 2007 marked the first time we began to see a different, more volatile and malevolent side of Orton. This came around the same time that Orton’s name was announced in a Sports Illustrated article that listed the names of suspected performance-enhancing drug users in professional wresting.
Orton began feuding with Shawn Michaels, concluding with a knockout win at Judgment Day 2007. Orton continued as “Legend Killer” with a sadistic twist. Orton had a shift in character in that instead of just beating his opponents to prove their legend was defeated, he was more interested in putting them out of action.
He went from killing his opponent’s legendary status with a win to killing the opponent's ability to stand in a WWE ring. It was around this time that he began using his now famous “Punt to the Head” to put people out of action.
This newfound focus catapulted Orton to the top, which led to his number one contendership to the WWE Championship against John Cena at SummerSlam 2007.
Although Orton lost, he continued his top-level feud against Cena by attacking Cena’s father, punting him in the head to incite Cena’s anger. Although he was unsuccessful in repeat bouts for the title, John Cena got injured and Orton was awarded the title by Vince McMahon at No Mercy 2007.
However, Orton went on to lose the title to HHH in the opening match of No Mercy, only to win it back again against HHH later on in the night. Orton went on to stay at the top of the WWE by defeating Jeff Hardy to retain his title. He ended up beating John Cena at No Way Out 2008, then retained his title in a triple threat match at Wrestlemania 24. Orton would later lose the title in a fatal four way match to HHH at Backlash.
A feud between Orton and HHH ensued. However, Orton was unsuccessful in his rematches for the title at Judgement Day and One Night Stand, where he legitimately broke his collarbone and was put out of action. Just as he was set to return, he suffered a motorcycle accident in which his collarbone was re-injured.
Orton finally made his return in September 2008, and after making them prove their worth, he aligned himself with Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase. Orton picked up steam, as he became more focused than ever before. With Rhodes and DiBiase at his side, he now had two henchmen that could do his bidding. Randy Orton was now a man truly possessed and ready to take everyone out so that he could be number one.
After winning the Royal Rumble in 2009, Orton went on to feud with HHH, producing arguably some of WWE’s best television moments in years.
The feud drew on elements of both superstars’ personal lives, with Orton attacking, and punting, HHH’s family members. HHH, enraged by Orton’s actions, accepted his challenge for the title at Wrestlemania 25. Although Orton was unable to defeat HHH at Wrestlemania 25, he managed to win the title in a six-man tag match at Backlash.
At Extreme Rules 2009, Orton lost the title to former Evolution stablemate Batista. The following night, Legacy attacked Batista, injuring him and forcing him to vacate the title. On the June 15 episode of Raw, Orton managed to beat Triple H, John Cena, and The Big Show in a fatal four way match to regain the title.
The true secret to Randy Orton’s success lies in his current control and focus over his character.
Orton’s journey has lead him to the mastery of the sadist. Orton is a savage predator who enjoys cruelty for its own sake. Orton treats violence and psychological brutality as games, and his character takes immense pleasure out of destroying the lives of others. No one is safe from Orton’s reign of terror.
Not a woman, not even a McMahon.
However, it is not just evil for evil’s sake. Orton’s true mastery is in his exit: what unfolds after he has done the deed. He is constantly evaluating the consequences, surveying his environment with a watchful eye.
He is constantly evaluating his fight or flight response, and everything that he does in and out of the ring is done with great purpose and tactical prowess. Orton wants to be the top performer in and out of character, and thus his personality and character have aligned to make a truly compelling character.
What separates Orton now from his past is that he is now extremely focused in and out of the ring, a performer so intense that even though you hate him, you can’t help but watch him and admire what he is accomplishing.
Orton has indeed become what is required of all megastars in the WWE. He has become an amped up version of himself, a self that, unlike previous versions of Randy Orton, is dedicated to doing the best he can do in and out of the ring.
Randy Orton has evolved into a wrestler that evaluates and calculates every movement he makes, every facial expression he portrays, every move he executes in the ring, and his reaction to every fall that he takes.
And Randy’s character is in alignment with the man.
Thus, a true evolution of Randy Orton has occurred. An evolution that has created a man possessed by the will to perform to his potential.
As long as Randy can keep his drive, his passion, and his will to be the best in and out of the ring, in life and in wrestling, Randy will continue to reign over the WWE and be one of the most valued performers for years to come.
This truly is the Age of Orton.