Lutz's Blog: The divergent career paths of Randy Orton and John Cena, and their frequent, but largely meaningless, intersections
By Jeffrey Lutz
Randy Orton debuted in WWE in March 2002, and John Cena first appeared about three months later. They emerged from the same class in developmental that included Brock Lesnar and Batista, a group that has carried the company over the last decade. Cena and Orton came from the same place to arrive in WWE and have frequently met along the way for notable matches and memorable feuds. Their destination was always the main event, but how they got there couldn't be much different.
Orton was essentially a top-of-the-card performer from the day he showed up in WWE. The son of WWE legend "Cowboy" Bob Orton and the grandson of another great, Bob Orton Sr., Randy was a can't-miss prospect who was sure to exceed the accomplishments of his related predecessors. Orton was billed as a future star and wasn't derailed by an early shoulder injury, using his downtime to cut unique promos about his eventual return. The verbal ability gave Orton an immediate well-rounded quality since, even as a rookie, there was little doubt about his in-ring skills as a third-generation star.
WWE was more than aware of Orton's potential and surrounded him and Batista with Ric Flair and Triple H, two of the most accomplished and decorated stars of the business, as part of the Horseman-like faction Evolution. That signaled to fans that Batista and, especially, Orton were the future of the company, with numerous WWE and World Heavyweight Championships expected.
Those expectations were realized as Orton became and has remained one of WWE's most popular stars, possibly second behind only Cena. But in placing Orton in a faction to start his career, WWE allowed him to become constantly overshadowed without the true breakout moment he needed to firmly establish himself. Triple H was still in his prime, so instead of supplanting his stable-mate as the company's top star, Orton instead had to compete for that designation, which Triple H wasn't ready to relinquish.
When WWE fans dictated a breakout star within Evolution, it wasn't the one many may had predicted a few months before the lead-up to WrestleMania 21. Instead of Orton, whose run with the WWE Championship was lackluster in a story line mainly focused on Triple H, it was Batista who garnered overwhelming support from the audience. Batista's emergence forced the once-and-for-all breakup of Evolution, but by the time WWE hit the reset button, it was Cena's turn to carry the torch.
At the same WrestleMania where Batista permanently overshadowed Orton, Cena captured the WWE title from JBL and forced Orton into a secondary role. From that point until now, all Orton has managed in comparison to Cena is to serve as an occasional and temporary foil. It's difficult to call theirs a great rivalry, however, because they've never met in a singles match at WrestleMania and never had a signature match anywhere. Cena-Orton is the match WWE goes to when it wants to save fresher bouts for bigger events.
Orton was seemingly the hand-picked future face of WWE because when he debuted, the Attitude Era wasn't completely over. By 2002, WWE was searching for an identity -- with Orton as the top star, an edgier product may have continued, even perhaps including Cena as the slightly dangerous gansta rapper. But WWE either made the decision to go PG with Cena as its headliner, or Cena's willingness to adapt prompted the switch. Cena recognized the need to be repackaged, but Orton stayed true to a character that was an extension of his true personality.
Cena also hasn't had as much to prove as Orton has in WWE. Even though he was brought up in professional wrestling and was naturally made for it, Orton's checkered past and spotty present has kept him from being entrusted with the honor of being called WWE's top star. Before coming to WWE, Orton received a court martial after going AWOL during his stint with the Marines. It didn't get much better in WWE, as locker-room incidents involving Divas are well-documented and the two strikes against him in WWE's wellness policy have him one strike away from being fired.
All Cena has had to prove is that he's a capable wrestler, which he is. A former bodybuilder, he has at least mustered a dedication to his craft that has allowed him to produce matches fit for the main event. Anyway, WWE probably doesn't care about that as much as it does Cena's endless media appearances, charitable contributions and interactions with hundreds of dying children via the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Cena settled his recent divorce with little fanfare and, besides a few as-yet-unfounded performance enhancing drug allegations, has brought no negative press to the company.
Orton is almost as popular as Cena -- and more popular among older audience members -- because of that unwillingness to deviate from his real-life demeanor. It may be a wild comparison, but Orton is almost like The Undertaker without the smoke and mirrors and without the mystique. Orton possesses the same quiet intensity that he can get across with few words and believable facial expressions. His ring work matches his character and features go-to spots, like the RKO from out of nowhere and the punt kick, that have only enhanced his legacy.
With Orton holding the Money in the Bank briefcase and a contract giving him a match for Cena's WWE Championship, it's probable or even likely that the two most well-known stars of the past 10-plus years will have yet another interaction. Like the rest of them, it will be important because it will be a main-event program, but it might not be all that impactful. Orton and Cena have been on separate paths throughout their careers, intersecting for moments that only cement Cena's superiority and Orton's status as second-best. Their next feud will be another chapter in a book that probably doesn't need to be written.
Jeff Lutz has written for the Wichita Eagle newspaper in Kansas for over a decade and debuted with Prowrestling.net on November 4, 2012. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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