Thousands of words have been written in recent months from any corner of the internet about a WWE star whose run on top has been submarined by bad writing, bad booking and a perceived lack of faith from within the company almost entirely based on what we see on-screen.
I’m going to write some more of those words today, but as you probably figured out from the headline, they won’t be about Daniel Bryan.
It’s hard to make a strong case that one should feel bad for Randy Orton. He was born into the business and earmarked for success before he even hit the main roster. He’s never really drawn significant money but has maintained a lofty spot near the top, if not at it, for 10 years now. He was dreadfully boring in the ring in his first turn as a main event heel even if his character was mildly interesting. He was dull as dishwater- albeit very over with most live crowds- as a top babyface from 2010 to 2013 even if his ringwork was generally proficient in this period. Not only that, but if they followed their own drug testing rules to a tee, he’d have been long ago unemployed. (Allegedly, along with many other backstage miscreant behavior he’s been accused of.)
It’s not the kind of career Daniel Bryan, CM Punk or most other wrestlers would ever have been afforded the opportunity to have, or more accurately have continue past….any number of points, really. And that’s only if we stick to what we know (never drawn money) and leave out what we think we know (the backstage misbehavior) and what we perceive (i.e., any opinion of him as a performer).
Thus, it’s a difficult exercise to even imagine Orton as any sort of sympathy case. In the long view, he’s certainly not one.
But in the here and now, it’s hard to imagine a champion getting any shorter shrift heading into Wrestlemania.
In the beginning, Orton as the flunky avatar for what the Authority wanted to be the ideal WWE champion was a great hook: it was a nifty twist on the old corporate heel champion bit that’s been done so many times. But something strange happened that made the perplexing booking that ensued so much worse: he was terrific in the role. As this piece is more a dissection of everything that’s been wrong with how Orton has been booked in the last seven months, and less an paean to Orton, I’ll direct you to the Masked Man’s excellent Grantland piece from two months ago if such an ode is your thing.
From vacillating between dominant corporate champ and the Authority’s underachieving whipping boy to cleanly jobbing to almost the entire Elimination Chamber lineup leading up to that show, his on-screen portrayal has been uneven at best, and not meritocratic in the least based on his actual work in recent months.
But in the so-called “Reality Era” of WWE that we now not only view but actively participate in, that’s never the whole story, is it?
The tumult surrounding the Wrestlemania build is, of course, well-documented: crowds are becoming more agitated every week that Daniel Bryan is kept out of the main event. CM Punk quit. A very audible fart in church would be received better than Batista’s return and instant placement into Wrestlemania’s main event has been.
Caught in the middle of this, quietly continuing to do the best he can with what he’s been given, is Randy Orton. If you can’t get past his background, maybe this is another example to you of Orton being handed something he doesn’t deserve. And maybe you’re right. But let’s say an audible is called for, say, Batista or even Lesnar as the corporate “face of the WWE” to face underdog Bryan at Wrestlemania, a cool-sounding idea that many floated. The part-time star usurping the spot of the guy who’s been here every week, doing as he’s asked and having good matches pretty much every time out.
Aren’t these the circumstances that made CM Punk quit?
Maybe he should be closer to the midcard than the main event in the first place, but we can’t blame Randy Orton for Daniel Bryan not being in the WWE title match. We can’t blame him for Batista’s return, or how poorly he’s been received since. Nothing in life takes place in a vacuum, though, and Randy Orton has long ago used up whatever goodwill would have engendered a sympathetic reaction to how shoddily he’s been booked since Summerslam.
I guess if there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that even an asshole with a spot he never earned in the first place can be unfairly jerked around in professional wrestling. Even if it’s all the way to the bank.