2017 has been one of the worst years of Randy Orton's career. Despite winning his second Royal Rumble and going on to capture his 13th world championship, Orton's year has been a disappointing run with one of the worst string of performances of his career, particularly at major pay-per-views.
While his matches have been noticeably bad, from his WrestleMania bout with Bray Wyatt to his Punjabi Prison debacle against Jinder Mahal, it is his presentation and character that have made him fall into the background on SmackDown Live, even while he still remains a top contender on the brand for the WWE Championship.
The 15-year veteran has had many great feuds and stories to tell over the years, but excitement surrounding his appearances has steadily decreased over the years. It is hard to deny his talent due to the quality of matches in the past and his obvious athletic ability, but Orton's current performances hardly come off as the work of a future Hall of Famer.
Since becoming The Viper in 2007, Orton has steadily seemed to grow less charismatic by the year. He has committed to playing up a dry predatory figure that is reminiscent of the original conception of Steve Austin's Stone Cold gimmick before he became the legendary rowdy beer-drinker that took over the company.
While the idea of an uncaring sociopath as a wrestler is enticing on its own, it does not have a long shelf life in WWE, a brand focused on bombastic personalities. The character should have never lasted a decade and has given Orton too much freedom to slack as a performer. Orton's interpretation of the character has led to a slow-paced offense dominated by stomps and promos completely lacking in feeling.
Orton is too athletically gifted and impressively fluid in the ring to hide behind a gimmick that draws out each move too long, particularly in a time when even the biggest heavyweights are shockingly fast behemoths. Orton's promos are similarly too slow and calculated to garner much excitement; they are only saved when Orton is selling his anger in a feud.
Orton's feud with Wyatt had potential for a while due to its slow-building nature that should have made their ultimate clashes enthralling wars. However, odd visual work at 'Mania and the botched writing of the House of Horrors match were coupled with lethargic performances from both men, who never showed how much they hated each other as they fought.
His feud with Mahal started out strong with a surprisingly heated match at Backlash, but its limited nature was a sign of things to come as it quickly became clear both had too shallow a move set to put on multiple strong matches together. The Punjabi Prison was supposed to help by giving them an environment to work around, but Orton looked like he was just going through the motions throughout.
It is always hard for a longtime veteran to fundamentally change his character, as everyone knows him for a particular style that has made him successful. However, Orton must make a change right away in order to return to prominence; otherwise, he will be letting himself down as well as the company.
There are so many different ways Orton could reshape his character to help him once more showcase his ability, and any would make for a better fit than what he is currently doing.
The Refusal to Dive
Back in May, a sudden Twitter argument broke out about the presentation of professional wrestling. The Apex Predator was the most high-profile voice to weigh in on the issue, showing his disdain for those who have made professional wrestling a sport for their athletic showcase.
Whether anyone agrees with the comments or not, the point is that it caused serious buzz and brought up an interesting idea that has potential weight in WWE. Orton has been limiting his offense for a long time without a real reason behind it. If he were to shift his character and make clear he intentionally limits himself, it would make for a fascinating change of pace.
Some wrestlers have teased this idea in the past. Neville has often avoided flying unless he is starting to feel desperate. Cesaro and Sheamus have refused to extend their signature moves so as not to give the crowd something to chant to. However, none of them have come out and declared their disdain for moves that seem to only serve to pop the crowd beyond Drew Gulak on 205 Live, who has been largely ignored.
By having Orton take up his "dive" mantra on live television, he would be able to add more storytelling weight to how he acts. He could more easily play to the crowd and play off a roster that has more high-flyers than ever before. It would be an easy way to make Orton a heel that would translate as a reason to boo him for both casual and hardcore fans.
Orton has always been a better heel than face, even though his last heel run was let down by writing that made him look bad in comparison to The Authority. He has a more natural charisma in the role, looking more comfortable talking down his opponents. He would not have to completely return to his old animated personality, but he could more easily slip into an inherently cocky and derogatory tone.
The Stepping Stone
This may come off as gimmick infringement on John Cena, but the idea of the veteran who refuses to let the new generation step past him is an idea that can work with more than one wrestler—in particular for a veteran with just as much experience in Orton. Often it feels like The Viper underplays just how long he has dominated the business, and it is to his detriment.
With Cena, the main annoyance was that WWE would try to sell him as an underdog in every scenario, which made his evolution into admitting he was the Face That Runs The Place refreshing. Orton could easily do the same, touting his accomplishments and importance to the business that should not be undervalued.
This would also allow Orton to incorporate more of his old personas into his gimmick. He could feel freer to speak with the same brazen confidence he once had as the Legend Killer, making him more of a tweener than he has been in years. He could step up to both faces and heels who considered themselves the future of the business.
This would also more naturally sell his measured in-ring style, showing more personality in the quiet moments of his matches as he tries to test his opponents. Much as with Cena, he might also add more moves to his arsenal just to prove he can stick around with the best young talent the business has to offer.
The One-Hit RKO
WWE clearly loves the attention the RKO has gotten in recent years, with Orton becoming a social media meme rivaling even Cena. His RKO Out of Nowhere has always been the most exciting and interesting part of Orton's repertoire and often feels like it is completely out of place with the rest of his slow style.
Maybe it is time to fully embrace the RKO for Orton. Instead of using a collection of paint-by-numbers offensive moves, Orton could simply go with a few of his most fluid and effective offensive maneuvers and focus on them, with the RKO as his potential instant victory move. Brock Lesnar has shown how a wrestler can make only a few moves an attraction in a match for years now.
This could also play for Orton as a character. Much as his offense would be explosive but limited; the same would be true of his promos. He could say little and let his actions speak for themselves. When he did speak, he would get to the point quickly and never miss an opportunity to stop talking to land an RKO.
This could be a dangerous proposition as it would limit him in longer matches, but it would certainly make sure his shorter television matches were an explosive memorable flash. That would also make wins like the one he had against Rusev at SummerSlam feel less like a burial and more as a potential against anyone, putting over just how effective the RKO can be.
These are not the only options nor are any of them perfect, but they all have a clear running thread that is important for Orton, who has become far too stale for a wrestler of his caliber. No matter what Orton does, he must add back more personality and flair to his work because the business is driven by those traits.
The Apex Predator is so much better than what he has been presented as this past year, and he has had far too many bad moments for the talent he clearly possesses. Everyone must evolve over time even if it is in subtle ways, and Orton has gone longer than almost anyone in the business as the same character.
While there have been some respites and hints of other ways Orton could be presented, nothing has stuck for long, and it is time to change that. In this new era when WWE is growing larger than ever before with more talent than perhaps any time in its history, Orton may be on the edge of being forgotten if he does not find a way to improve soon.