Keynotes and Keyholds: Dissecting “The Viper” (Randy Orton, Christian, Triple H, Chris Benoit, Shawn Michaels, Edge, Evolution…)

Dissecting “The Viper”

Just who IS this Orton fellow, anyway?

 

This week I will discuss Randy Orton, but in order for me to do so in any meaningful way I must first indulge in a little introspection. I hope that you don’t mind too much.

It’s an oft-stated truism in this business that Randall Keith Orton’s first prominent babyface run in the WWE during the summer of 2004 was an unmitigated failure. I, however, don’t mind admitting that at the beginning of his initial title reign I was well and truly on board the Orton Express. There were several reasons which I found to like Orton as a face. Sure, his entrance music was something of an abomination, and his microphone skills left a lot to be desired, but other than that the man had an awful lot going for him. The inspirational accolade of “youngest champion ever,” good looks, that turnbuckle pose, cool pyrotechnics (I was easily impressed back then), a history of wins over bona-fide legends, a worthy wrestling heritage, and a scintillating finishing manoeuvre. He also delivered in the ring: his matches against Foley, Edge, Benjamin, and Rob Van Dam were extremely good, and his World Championship victory over Benoit was utterly riveting. Furthermore (and this meant a great deal to the slightly-younger me), when Orton won, Benoit put him over like a champ – clean, and with a handshake afterwards. Benoit’s final words to Orton before leaving the new champ alone in the ring? “Be a man.” That moment signalled the beginning of Randy’s first face turn, and made a believer out of me.

Another oft-stated truism is that “hindsight is a wonderful thing,” and, looking back, it is easy to see why Orton’s first reign was doomed to fail. 24-year-old Randy was inexperienced and, while extremely talented, had been carried for a very long time by veterans who had successfully masked his weaknesses. This is not to suggest that my excitement surrounding Orton’s first title win was groundless – far from it. What I do believe, however, is that in terms of lasting impact, my support of Orton’s title reign was based on entirely the wrong things. Perhaps it’s the English spirit in me, but I’ve always relished a good underdog story. Being a ‘smart fan’ (and, readers, we really need to come up with a better, less condescending term to describe ourselves than that), liking the underdog doesn’t mean that I blindly buy into the David and Goliath stories told in the ring, but it does mean that I have a tendency to support the newcomers – the young blood – over the established stars. Whether that’s Brock Lesnar over The Rock, or Daniel Bryan over The Miz, I always love seeing someone fresh and exciting come along and shake things up. I even popped for Gunner when he pinned Sting recently. I can only hope that Blair Douglas isn’t reading this.

Orton’s win over Benoit was a powerful underdog story indeed, but while I supported his reign with a kind of Pavlovian fandom because I liked the story of his ascendance in theory, there really wasn’t much more to it than that. Yes, Orton was (and remains) the product of a rich wrestling heritage, yes he was the good-looking, athletic, well-dressed jock that I could emulate but never be, yes he had cool fireworks and an iconic pose, and yes, his finishing move was exciting, but all of those factors boiled down to one very simple, temporary thing which has been used and abused by folk since the dawn of the entertainment business: novelty. Babyface champion Orton was a fresh and exciting novelty, and one which soon wore off.

Judging by Orton’s rapid fall from grace in the eyes of fans across the board – from the hardcore internet critics to the WWE fanboys – I was not alone in these sentiments. WWE clearly recognised that it had made a mistake because Orton was quickly relieved of his title by Triple H – the latter of whom was cheered by fans in attendance at Unforgiven 2004 despite his role as the heel.

Orton’s kayfabe situation, perhaps, should have cemented his character as more than a flash-in-the-pan novelty. His role as the monster to Triple H’s Dr Frankenstein – an innately good creature who initially intimidates and then turns on the maniacal inventor who created him – is as simple and as powerful a story as it gets. The fans should have been clamouring to see what happened next. And yet once the initial thrill of seeing Orton switch allegiances had worn off, it became clear just how little Orton was able to connect – truly connect – with the WWE fanbase. We knew nothing about Orton other than what was hammered into us by the commentary team: “youngest champ ever!”; “twenty-four years of age!”; “third-generation!” Orton’s promos did not remedy the situation. Gone was the cocky “Legend Killer”; the cheeky young scamp who hosted the 2002 “Randy News Network” was a thing of the past. As a babyface, Randy’s interviews– the greatest tools of professional wrestlers for coaxing audience response – were vapid and bland. No story he was involved in after his victory helped ingratiate him with the audience (not necessarily his own fault), and nothing he did in the ring or on the microphone shed any light on Orton the solo performer. It was as though, removed from the protective fold of Evolution, the fledgling ‘fan-favourite’ Orton simply dissolved in the spotlight. A combination of inexperience and poor narrative construction, then, led to Orton quickly becoming the very definition of a ‘paper champion’: we knew little about him, and cared even less. WWE subsequently waited a few months before attempting the Frankenstein’s Monster story again, with Triple H and Dave Batista, to a much better reception.

The Batista / Triple H story arc reached its peak in March 2005, by which time Orton had been removed to Smackdown! and was firmly established as a heel again. He would remain that way until 2010. Evidently much more at home as a bad guy, Orton’s monotone interviews and slow (what Good Ol’ JR would call “deliberately-paced”) matches worked in his favour, as did his reputation for backstage bullying. Orton discovered, as have many before and since, that it is much easier to be a successful wrestling villain than it is to be a successful babyface, not least of all because as a bog-standard heel one doesn’t need to have a compelling character in order to be effective, one simply needs a compelling babyface foil. As chaps like CM Punk, R-Truth, and Ric Flair have proven, there is much more to being a heel than simply behaving like a villain, but Orton’s showdowns with Rey Mysterio, Shawn Michaels, Undertaker, and John Cena are proof positive that as long as the good guy is someone the audience truly cares for, a villain need not be anything more than generically antithetical. As the consummate amoral heel, Orton was capable of generating a reasonable amount of heat when faced up against most babyface characters, and although it was nothing to write home about, it got the job done.

Ironically, Orton’s heel work only became truly spectacular when he referred back to the genesis of his original babyface turn – his treatment at the hands of Triple H in 2004. The two occasions when he did this – during the short-lived 2006-7 run with Edge as ‘Rated RKO’ and his 2009 Wrestlemania 25 singles feud with Hunter – produced the most memorable moments of his career since defeating Benoit. The latter feud, particularly, introduced us to Orton’s home, his wife, and also introduced us to the Orton we see today – the one who punts people in the head and “hears voices.” At long last, Randy’s character finally started to develop in a meaningful way, and then…

And then nothing much. Orton established the ironically-titled ‘Legacy’ with Ted DiBiase Jr. and Cody Rhodes, a faction the ‘legacy’ of which was ultimately a career setback for everyone involved. Orton feuded with Triple H some more. Then John Cena some more. Then Kofi Kingston (“Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!”). As each feud came and went, we saw nothing of Orton that we hadn’t already seen before. He was re-branded “The Viper” to make him seem quicker and deadlier, but his ring style remained plodding. He still kicked people in the head, but the very frequency of the act blunted its efficacy as a shock tactic. The RKO was still quick and impressive, but while the move remained a crowd-pleaser, it had failed to put Cena and Triple H away on so many occasions that it too had lost its potency. Orton still “heard voices,” apparently, but all the voices appeared to do was insist that he cut promos in the same bland, vacuous manner that he had been for the past five years. The feud with Kingston revealed that Orton quite liked cars, but that knowledge wasn’t going to make fans invest more heavily in him as a bad guy. When ‘Legacy’ finally imploded in 2010, the feud proved the catalyst for his current main event babyface position, and as such should have been a landmark moment in his career. Instead, however, Orton’s about-face did develop him as a character in the slightest.

Today sees Randy Orton once again as the World Heavyweight Champion, enjoying his first run with belt as a babyface since 2004. And in my opinion, there after seven years there is only one difference between this Orton and the “youngest champ ever”: age. Although the very nature of in-ring babyface-work has necessarily quickened his ring style somewhat, and his matches are generally compelling efforts, Orton has failed to develop as a marketable character in any of the ways necessary to successfully carry off being a top-flight good guy. In order to make capitalise on Randy’s natural heelish tendencies, WWE have continued their efforts to surreptitiously mould him into a Steve Austin-type figure – an anti-hero who fans cannot help but cheer for. In practice, however, all this means is that he smiles for the crowd a little more. WWE tells us that he would “RKO his own grandmother” in an effort to make him sound more edgy, but unlike the moneyspinner Austin, babyface Orton doesn’t turn on his tag partners just to prove a point, or admonish authority figures like Austin once did, and he certainly doesn’t cut entertaining promos. Instead, he behaves just like he always has, and we, the fans, are the ones expected to change – expected, presumably, to cheer now for Orton because he smiles and has tenure, rather than because he smiles and has novelty.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Orton. He is a superb athlete and a worthy champion. He is also, like Edge before him, much, much better as a Sith Lord than he ever will be as a Jedi. Babyface Orton is failing once again, and once his intriguing rivalry with Christian – a superb heel who is capable of making any opponent look like a legitimate babyface – is over I believe that the weaknesses in his characterisation will once again be exposed for all to see.

Orton’s feud with Punk demonstrated one thing that 2011 Orton has which his 2004 counterpart didn’t: this time around, Orton does actually have his own Orton Express. In 2011, however, I doubt that I will be getting on board.

 

Class dismissed.

 

*Extra Credit*

 

1)         Guys and girls, seriously, we need to think of a better term for ourselves than ‘smart fans.’ I understand what we mean when the term is used – that we possess knowledge of how professional wrestling works as a business – but all ‘smart’ does is sound pompous and draw up negative comparisons with those who aren’t familiar with ratings, selling, backstage politics and the like. Does anyone have any suggestions? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

2)         TNA’s Bound for Glory Series’ – a point-based ranking system – nary a month after my article suggesting that an identical (ok, similar) idea could be the way forwards. Coincidence? As Miz would say, “you’re welcome.” Just don’t blame me when Crimson wins the darn thing.

3)         While we’re praising TNA for a change, can anyone remember the last time two rivals had a prolonged relationship based around mutual respect? By that, I don’t mean feuds such as the recent one between Christian and Randy Orton, where one man underwent a gradual heel turn. Nor do I mean one in the style of Booker T vs Chris Benoit, Edge vs Cena, or Angle vs Samoa Joe, where a face / heel dynamic was either immediately established or drawn up soon into the rivalry. No, I speak of the team of Alex Shelley and James Storm (a team which, I must reiterate, should REALLY be called “Beer Machine”), which has been a pleasant surprise on all fronts.

Wrestling has certainly seen its fair share of unlikely partners in the past, but I can’t remember the last time that two erstwhile babyface rivals joined forces out of respect for one another and entered into a productive partnership while remaining face. Edge and Jericho, and later JeriShow (2009), were teams comprised of heels destined for an eventual break-up, as was the ‘Two Man Power Trip’ of Austin and Triple H (2000-1). The last time that I recall two babyfaces joining forces for a prolonged arrangement like Shelley and Storm have, it was the ‘Rock and Sock Connection'(1999, sporadic until 2004).

The Shelley and Storm team is probably destined for some kind of hostile end once one or both of their usual tag partners return, but for now TNA should be congratulated for, just this once, taking a sour situation and making lemon cheesecake.

4)         Does anyone care to explain the result(s) of the elimination tag match on this week’s Raw? I was under the impression that, as with Survivor Series matches of yore, disqualifications counted. Thus, when Randy Orton snuck in with a cheeky RKO on Christian after having been eliminated thus acting illegally in full view of the referee, should not Cena have been disqualified due to this de facto interference? Or had WWE’s allotted supply of logic for the night already been spent on CM Punk’s brilliant opening promo?

5)         I say “result(s),” of course, because the stipulation of the elimination tag match was itself a result (allegedly) chosen by “the people” (thus making Cena, for one night only, “the People’s Champ” – something which I am astounded that no one with a microphone that night punned on. It’s a terrible pun, sure, but that’s what Johnny Curtis is for, right? But I digress…). The WWE polling shambles has already been deservedly torn to pieces elsewhere, so I’ll keep this short, but I simply must reiterate how it bothers me so that genuine choices were eschewed in favour of entirely arbitrary options designed to lead the audience into making particular choices. For example, when forced to see Kofi and Ziggler go at it again (you’ll notice that we had no say in that matter!), would you rather see a singles match without the entertaining Vickie Guerrero, a submission match where only one competitor has a (weak) submission manoeuvre, or a rare treat – the two-out-of-three-falls match?

The main event of the night, however, revealed the ridiculous falseness of WWE’s “power to the people” promise for all to see. The winning stipulation was announced with fifteen minutes of Raw to go, even though one of the options given “the people” was a twenty minute time-limit match. Thus, in the unlikely event that the time-limit match been selected, it would have only gone a maximum of fifteen minutes. Which would have made it no different to the third option – the standard ‘one fall to a finish’ match type. In other words, two of the three choices were exactly the same. I despair.

It’s ok, though, because we got to see a fake Barack Obama spend five minutes dancing badly. Exactly.

 

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