After years of drowning in mediocrity, Randy Orton has finally reclaimed his place at the top of the totem pole on SmackDown Live as one of the show's most compelling characters.
Since the start of Orton's WWE career, he has been much more comfortable as a heel than as a babyface. His days as The Legend Killer in 2004 and then as The Apex Predator in 2009 were better than anything he accomplished during his various babyface stints in the years that followed.
His most recent run as a face largely underwhelmed, specifically once he broke away from The Wyatt Family in early 2017. Unlike his subsequent feuds with Bray Wyatt, Jinder Mahal and Rusev, Orton now has something substantial to sink his teeth into with Jeff Hardy.
After taking time off from television in May to undergo surgery for an injured knee, Orton had the opportunity to return with a bang. It would have been easy for WWE to bring him back as the same stagnant babyface he has been since 2015, when his surprise RKOs were the only thing about him that excited the audience.
Instead, The Viper delivered a low blow to the former United States champion upon his unexpected return at Extreme Rules and planted the seeds for a heel turn. His status was cemented two days later on SmackDown when he viciously attacked Hardy and sent him spiraling over the announce table.
Orton's actions were enough to pique the interest of fans, but it wasn't until he explained his actions the following week on SmackDown that he showed signs of growth as a character for the first time in seemingly forever.
While he has never been the most captivating talker, Orton did an exceptional job of establishing his motivations for turning his back on the WWE Universe during his promo on Tuesday night. He also made it quite clear he has his sights set on every other babyface on the blue brand.
Orton will be returning to his roots as The Legend Killer, except at this stage of his career, he will be taking aim at SmackDown's most beloved babyfaces. It's a simple character trait, but having him announce his intentions will cause crowds to care about him that much more.
His brutal assault of Hardy at the end of the July 17 edition of SmackDown Live merely scratched the surface of what he will capable of in his role moving forward.
Hardy is a logical return feud for Orton considering they have a decade-long history and have worked well together every time they've done battle in the ring. Since The Charismatic Enigma is such a fan favorite, it won't take much effort from The Viper to get himself hated by fans.
Throwing Shinsuke Nakamura and the United States Championship into the mix at SummerSlam also brings a sense of freshness to the feud. Their likely Triple Threat match at the August 19 pay-per-view has the potential to steal the show as well as continue Orton's hot heel run.
From there, he could rekindle his rivalry from years ago with Daniel Bryan or even feud with a new opponent, such as AJ Styles. Either way, it will be must-see TV.
From Orton to Samoa Joe to The Miz, SmackDown currently has a strong crop of heels. That's in addition to up-and-comers such as Andrade "Cien" Almas and Nakamura, though Orton has proved that any angle in which he is involved is sure to take top priority.
As a former 13-time world champion, Orton has arguably overstayed his welcome as a fixture in the main-event scene. Despite that, similar to seasoned veteran Chris Jericho, The Viper consistently finds ways to reinvent himself and remain relevant, with his latest heel turn a prime example of that.
SmackDown has a handful of storylines worth investing in at the moment, but the evolution of Orton will be especially fun to follow as SummerSlam approaches.
Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, is an Endicott College alumnus and aspiring journalist. Visit his website, Next Era Wrestling, and "like" his official Facebook page to continue the conversation on all things wrestling.