As Randy Orton celebrates 20 years on WWE’s main roster, we take a look back at two devastating decades of The Viper.
On episode number 141 of SmackDown, Randy Orton wrestled on WWE television for the first time. The show was filmed on April 23rd 2002 and was broadcast two days later on April 25th.
Although the 8,350 people in attendance on that night in Peoria, Illinois, weren’t aware of it at the time, they were witnessing history.
In a match lasting a little under three minutes, the barely 22-year-old Orton defeated Hardcore Holly with an Oklahoma Roll “Outta nowhere!” to the delight of Taz on commentary.
Elsewhere on the show, Chris Jericho defeated Triple H to become the number one contender to Hulk Hogan’s Undisputed Championship. Hogan would eventually lose the title to The Undertaker at Judgement Day the following month, bringing to an end the final World Championship run of his career.
The Family Business
Although it may not have always looked that way, Randal Keith Orton was destined to become a professional wrestler. His grandfather Bob Orton wrestled throughout the NWA territory system in the 1960’s, once squaring off against Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden for the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship. The title that would become the WWE Championship his grandson would hold four decades later.
Not only that, Orton’s father is “Cowboy” Bob Orton Jr, who began his own lengthy career in 1972. It was a career that would take him through the NWA, the WWF and eventually to New Japan Pro Wrestling.
However, despite the universe seemingly pulling him towards the family business, by his own admission, outside of wrestling in high school, Orton had little interest in stepping inside the ropes himself.
After leaving high school, Orton enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, although it was a union that wasn’t meant to last. After going AWOL in an attempt to get fired, the would-be wrestling star finally got his wish in 1999 when he was given a bad conduct discharge.
Finding himself back at his parents home, it was at this moment that Orton decided it might be time to follow in his illustrious family’s footsteps. After briefly appearing on the St Louis independent scene, Orton signed with WWE in 2001, before being sent to Ohio Valley Wrestling, better known as OVW.
Over the following 12 months, Orton established himself in the feeder promotion, forming part of arguably the most successful batch of WWE hopefuls in history. The famed ‘OVW Class of 2002’ produced Brock Lesnar, Batista and John Cena, as well as Orton himself among others.
Injury Hit Beginnings
After making his debut on SmackDown, Orton continued to appear on the blue brand, landing himself a match with new Undisputed Champion The Undertaker in just his fifth televised bout.
During an appearance on the Broken Skull Sessions in 2021, Orton recalled this match, expressing his gratitude to The Deadman for giving him so much offence. In the match the rookie traded arm drags, and went toe-to-toe with the man already regarded as a legend, much to the displeasure of WWE Chairman Vince McMahon.
As a result, much of Orton’s offence was edited out of the final broadcast, but the fact that The Undertaker went to bat with McMahon for him over the match, set the tone backstage.
A move to Monday Night Raw followed in September, but the young star’s momentum was brought to a shuddering halt before the month was out. Orton suffered the first of what would become a number of serious shoulder injuries which would pop up throughout the next two decades.
The injury kept Orton out of action until the following February, although he remained a regular presence on WWE television, with a series of “Randy News Network” vignettes.
However, when he stepped back into the ring, his career changed forever.
Evolution To World Champion
After getting cleared to return to action, Orton was spotted working out before a show by non-other than Triple H. During this work-out, Orton was lying on the floor selling a Figure Four Leglock which caught the eye of the World Champion. After discovering that the young man on the floor was the son of “Cowboy” Bob Orton, Triple H decided to take him under his wing. This led to Orton becoming part of the group which became known as Evolution.
With the young star now positioned in the most powerful faction in the company, his ascent to the top of the card came quickly. Orton won the Intercontinental Championship from Rob Van Dam in December 2003 at Armageddon, while he began referring to himself as the “Legend Killer” for the first time.
This famously led to a blood-soaked, thumbtack and barbed wire-laden Hardcore Match at Backlash 2004 against Mick Foley. It was a match that proved to the WWE faithful that not only was Orton a clean cut rising star who could wrestle, he was a badass who knew how to fight when the occasion called for it. The “Legend Killer” has always been full of praise for Mick Foley for his part in the match, commenting that “Mick Foley made me” on more than one occasion.
Despite this career high point, bigger things were to come just a few months later as Orton defeated Chris Benoit at SummerSlam to become the youngest World Champion in WWE history. However, his victory led to his banishment from Evolution, while Orton later conceded that he wasn’t ready to be the top man in the company. Something which perhaps led to him losing the title to Triple H just a month later.
The Downward Spiral
As 2005 rolled around, Randy Orton’s career appeared to be flourishing. Although he was no longer World Champion he was scheduled to face The Undertaker at WrestleMania. Despite being defeated by The Phenom on the ‘Grandest Stage of them All,’ the pair continued to feud all of the way to the end of the year. As the rivalry came to an end, the “Legend Killer” competed for the World Title at WrestleMania 22, later joining with Edge to become Rated RKO and win tag team gold, before beginning his lengthy rivalry with John Cena.
However, behind the scenes, all was not well with the star. During this period, Orton became as well known for partying as he did wrestling, something which led him to miss a rehearsal for his match with Undertaker at WrestleMania 21.
Meanwhile, he was suspended for 60 days in April 2006 for “unprofessional conduct.” He even managed to court controversy in the ring in the months leading up to his suspension, as he feuded with Rey Mysterio. As their battle intensified, it was here where he delivered the infamous “Eddie’s in hell” promo, about Mysterio’s late friend Eddie Guerrero.
The segment wasn’t popular with a number of people backstage, and was even less popular with fans, with many feeling WWE had gone too far.
Although Orton stated that his suspension was related to marijuana use, he later admitted he was in a dark place for the best part of a two years, only emerging from his state of self-destruction around 2007.
Legacy Leads To The Authority
After two more runs with the World Championship, Orton found himself injured in June 2008 after breaking his collarbone at ECW One Night Stand in a match with Triple H. However, despite getting cleared to return, Orton was involved in a motorbike accident which set his return date back even further.
The Viper finally returned to Raw on September 1st, delivering a promo where he lambasted the show’s current champions. This led to tag champions, Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase Jr to try and earn his respect, the end result, along with the addition of Manu was, The Legacy. A faction headed by Orton, as he took on something similar to the ‘Triple H role’ that his mentor had held in Evolution almost six years previously.
As the head of his new faction, Orton went on to wage war with Triple H and the McMahon family, revealing that he had been waiting for this moment since being kicked out of Evolution back in 2004. One of the major flashpoints of the storyline came when Orton hit an RKO on Stephanie McMahon as a way of getting to his hated rival.
Eventually The Viper and The Game went their separate ways, and the former spending the next three years racking up World Championship wins, feuding with the likes of CM Punk, The New Nexus, Wade Barrett, Christian and Mark Henry.
However, like a couple who just can’t quit each other, Orton and Triple H continued their knack of finding their way back together. At SummerSlam in 2013, Orton cashed in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE Championship from Daniel Bryan, who had been attacked by none other than Special Guest Referee, Triple H.
The following night, Orton was heralded as the “face of the company” and The Authority was born. The final form of The Corporation and the McMahon – Helmsley faction of the Attitude Era, found the McMahon family, and Randy Orton standing tall over WWE once more.
This eventually led to Daniel Bryan’s most famous triumph at WrestleMania 30, where he defeated Triple H and then Batista and Orton in the main event to win the World Championship.
Over the course of the following two years, Orton split from The Authority via a short Evolution reunion in an attempt to take down The Shield. During this run, The Viper remain prominently featured, clashing with old rival Cena, as well as newer stars such as Seth Rollins. His match with Rollins at WrestleMania 31, where he memorably reversed a Curb Stomp into an RKO.
The Wyatt Family Becomes Home
In September 2015, Randy Orton was attacked by The Wyatt Family, however, the burgeoning feud was placed on the backburner after Orton suffered another shoulder injury. However, back in action and fresh off being brutally demolished by Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam in 2016, Orton and Wyatt’s paths crossed once more.
What followed was a lengthy story which saw Orton briefly join the mythical group, where he won the SmackDown Tag Team Titles. Despite this, the alliance fell apart, as is usually the case in professional wrestling and Randy Orton turned on his master, setting up a match at WrestleMania 33. At the event in Orlando, Florida, The Viper defeated the cult leader to claim his 13th World Championship.
Despite now being recognised as one of the most decorated stars in the company, the win actually saw Orton’s career head into the wilderness. He lost the WWE Championship to Jinder Mahal at Backlash, in a feud which culminated in a loss to the Indian star in a widely criticised Punjabi Prison Match.
Although Orton attempted to once again become number one contender for the World Championship, he lacked clear direction, with not even a United States Championship win stopping the malaise.
After taking time off due to knee surgery, “The Legend Killer” returned with a vengeance, feuding with Jeff Hardy and then AJ Styles. Orton’s career was fully reignited with the return to action of Edge in the 2020 Royal Rumble, with the pair engaging in a lengthy rivalry during the start of the “Pandemic Era.”
Orton credits the return of Edge with giving his career a new lease of life, and signalling the moment he became the all-round performer he is today. During this period, Orton also attacked Christian, Big Show and Shawn Michaels, later turning on Ric Flair, as he eventually won his 14th World Championship by defeating Drew McIntyre.
However, Orton’s career then took on the strangest turn yet, as he once again found himself at odds with Bray Wyatt and later his wicked-witch of destruction, Alexa Bliss. For months, the competitive fire raged between the two sides, sometimes literally, with Orton setting The Fiend on fire at TLC. The bizarre feud came to an end at WrestleMania 37, in what currently stands as Wyatt’s last match to date.
Riding High With RK-Bro
As Orton took on the role of grizzled veteran, he was accosted by Riddle who suggested that the pair form a tag team. Although The Viper initially resisted, he was worn down by his would-be partner and RK-Bro was born.
While not always as enthusiastic about the team as his partner, the pair racked up the wins and eventually won the Raw Tag Team Championships. As the uneasy team flourished, and Orton came to love Riddle like a little brother, the popularity of the pair soared.
Orton has frequently commented on how he is having arguably the most fun of his career, and this in turn has led many fans to suggest that the star is producing some of his best work in years.
Although many of his contemporaries such as Lesnar and Cena have drifted off to pastures new before occasionally returning to WWE, Randy Orton has made it his mission to wrestle for another decade. The 42-year-old freely commenting that he never sees himself doing anything else, and with a CV as strong as his, why would he?
Accolades and Championship wins
- World Champion – 14
- World Tag Team Champion – 4
- Intercontinental Champion – 1
- United States Champion – 1
- Royal Rumble – 2
- Money In The Bank – 2
- Triple Crown Champion
- Grand Slam Champion
It’s a list of accomplishments that can be matched by only a select few. It’s often said that wrestling came so naturally to Orton when he eventually stepped into the ring, that he spent portions of his career cruising and going through the motions. To his credit, the sure-fire WWE Hall of Famer has admitted as much in recent years.
However, the simple fact remains that if a love of the industry, and the art of professional wrestling didn’t exist, Orton wouldn’t be performing at the level that he is today.
There aren’t many second and third generation stars who go on to reach heights that their illustrious family members could ever dream of, but Randal Keith Orton is certainly one of them. Not bad for a man who only donned a pair of wrestling boots when it seemed all other options were exhausted.