Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt found themselves in the same match on Sunday's No Mercy—two men with impeccable family pedigrees but who have ended up adrift in the world of wrestling, searching for a foothold to climb back to the top.
A few years ago, during their most recent big feud, John Cena told Orton that he was an underachiever despite all of his accomplishments. It was a heavy charge: Orton is a 12-time world champion and, alongside Cena, has defined Generation X's claim on WWE's main-event scene. He has been nearly as ubiquitous as Cena since both men debuted in the early 2000s.
Still, Cena had a point. Orton has felt strangely rudderless for years, a wrestler without an identity beyond "guy who looks like a wrestler." He quickly made a name for himself as a cocky asshole heel, the son of Bob Orton, a semi-legend in WWE and elsewhere in the 1970s and 80s, and grandson of Bob Orton Sr., a barrel-chested tough guy from the 60s.
If you're wondering about the implied relationship between "cocky heel" and familial pro-wrestling pedigree, don't—there's a long history of wrestlers with family connections to the business debuting as squeaky-clean babyfaces, getting booed mercilessly, and then turning on the crowd as they don't get their due respect. It's a dance almost everyone with a pro-wrestling parent or grandparent does: The Rock was once Rocky Maivia; Goldust started as Dustin Rhodes, son of Dusty and heir to one of the greatest babyface legacies in wrestling history. Go down a list of pro-wrestling scions, and you'll see very few exceptions to the dynamic.
So it was that Orton found a niche as the "Legend Killer," a guy who took his own pedigree so seriously that he decided to kick the shit out of every veteran he could find. It was a great heel gimmick, one that had him beating up beloved stars like Mick Foley and Sgt. Slaughter. It was nearly instant heat, and it burned for years.
And then, nothing. The gimmick couldn't last, especially not in a PG era that frowned on blood and kicking other men square in the face in the explicit manner Orton did. Between the fading of the gimmick, the sentimental tendency to force heels of yesteryear into babyface status, and repeated wellness violations, Orton turned into obviously disinterested, aimless filler. Even during his feud with Daniel Bryan over the unified WWE world heavyweight championship in the lead-up to WrestleMania 30, he mostly seemed like a passenger. Twelve titles, and Cena's words still ring true: there should have been more.
For all Orton's family history in pro wrestling, Wyatt's is even better; his ceiling is arguably higher, only for him to feel mostly wasted.
Wyatt (real name Windham Rotunda) is the son of Mike Rotunda (best known for his run as IRS, the wrestling tax man), the nephew of Barry Windham, and the grandson of Blackjack Mulligan. His look is as impressive as it is largely out of style these days: big, beefy, skirting the line between muscle-fat and fat-fat. His mic work is quick and effortless, with few flubbed lines and what we can probably presume is a fair amount of creative control over his vocal output.
Rotunda debuted years ago as Husky Harris, a largely nondescript big guy, before he was sent back down to WWE's development territory to find a new character (ironically, in story terms, he had to leave after getting kicked in the head by Randy Orton). He worked with Dusty Rhodes to develop the Bray Wyatt character, a Hawaiian shirt-wearing swamp cult leader based loosely on Max Cady from Cape Fear.
That description doesn't do justice to just how well Wyatt worked. He had two creepy redneck goons, Luke Harper and ErickRowan, flanking him as the Wyatt Family, and there was a lacing of class anxiety in his promos. Bray Wyatt would ramble on in just the right way about how much he hated everyone because of how the world looked down on poor white trash from Louisiana, his kayfabe home. He and the Wyatt Family were characters from the America left behind by a distinctly modern flight of industry and capital from the between spaces of the country, yet also eternal as the rednecks from Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, and a hundred other movies about just how scary those between spaces are.
And then, once the Wyatts debuted, nothing. The promos, once in the orbit of familial and regional anxieties, became about nothing, a stream of conscious exhibiting the mark of writers and performers who didn't have anything to say. They were fed to John Cena, who beat all of them up handily, and Bray Wyatt couldn't buy a pay-per-view win to save his life.
Both men are still fairly over today; there's an argument to be made that Orton's popularity stems mainly from familiarity, and Wyatt at this point may be reduced to a really popular and legitimately cool entrance.
So it was that the two wrestlers, completely adrift, tried to find some footing in their match with each other this weekend. The match itself was fine. It wasn't good. It wasn't bad. It was two competent wrestlers working a competent match. Bray Wyatt won when the returning Luke Harper distracted Orton. He cackled triumphantly, and then we faded to black.
This isn't to say that there aren't some green shoots there. Perhaps Wyatt can regain some of his lost mystique with this win, and build to a title challenge. Orton recently said that he knew he was going through the motions, but a recent severe shoulder injury made him realize just how much he loved wrestling. The feud is certainly not quite over yet; perhaps Orton can parlay the loss and his renewed interest in wrestling into something more dynamic with Wyatt.
If past is prologue, however, hopes should be tempered. For whatever reason, Orton and Wyatt haven't been what we've imagined or wanted them to be for some time. If they can turn it on, though, it's good for everyone involved, especially us.
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