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‘Greatest performer in the business today’: The revival of Randy Orton in a world impacted by COVID-19

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WWE superstar Randy Orton may “hear voices” in his head according to his theme song, but he’s not hearing many in the crowd when he steps into the ring for episodes of Monday Night Raw.

The thousands of fans that the “Legend Killer” is used to seeing in arenas across the country have turned into a smaller group of WWE developmental talent inside of the WWE Performance Center in Florida. Wrestlers have been forced to adjust their speaking styles and movements in the ring to coincide with the company’s new camera set-up, all inside of a plexiglass-protected “stage” of sorts.

Regardless, Orton has maneuvered through this new era in stride and has managed to take the wrestling world by storm over the last few months, even in the first year of his 40s.

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Before fans were forced to start watching from home rather than in-person, Orton was in the early stages of a hot feud with a friend-turned-foe in Edge, known to many by his real name, Adam Copeland.

The two were on a collision course en route to a massive match at WrestleMania 36, and Orton seemed to be back to the former version of himself that had fans tuning in week in and week out for years in the prime of his career. He was back to delivering RKO’s to anyone who got in his way and punish people left and right, whether it was Edge himself or Edge’s wife, Beth Phoenix.

The intensity was building, but like the air being left out of a balloon, it all dissipated when it was announced that WrestleMania 36 would not be able to be held in Tampa, Florida in April, and would instead be taped in front of no fans.

Ensuing promos between Orton and Edge were still as fiery as ever, but the lack of a crowd took away from a few larger-scale moments in the build-up to the “Last Man Standing” match the duo had on Night 2 of WrestleMania 36.

The two took each other to the brim throughout their 36-minute match that spanned almost every part of the WWE Performance Center, and the slow-paced, methodical nature of the match fit everything personality-wise that Orton had built up over the last decade. In the end, Edge took home the victory after a Conchairto on top of a production truck, his first win in a WWE ring since 2011.

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In the long run, however, Orton would turn into the real winner. He and Edge would go on to main event Backlash two months after WrestleMania, with a normal, one-on-one bout that was billed as “The Greatest Wrestling Match Ever.” While many ridiculed the idea, the two put on a clinic in their second tilt of the year, and Orton utilized some dirty tactics to pick up the win and even up the “series” of sorts.

With that victory, the old Orton was back. The maniacal, ruthless “Viper” who lived to see legends die. He started going at his real-life friends like Edge’s former tag team partner Christian and The Big Show, brought back his legendary “Punt” finisher, and was on top of his game both in the ring and on the microphone.

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He dominated social media when needed, going at NXT’s own Tommaso Ciampa and a variety of Twitter trolls over the course of June and July.

He returned to his peak form, which many are comparing to his dominant stretch from late 2008 into 2010 where he was arguably the hottest thing on WWE television. In that span, he debuted a new character and theme song, feuded with the McMahon family, won his first Royal Rumble, and even main-evented WrestleMania 25 in a WWE title match against Triple H. He was on top of the wrestling world then, and he’s back on top now.

Now, he’s performing at his highest level with very few people in attendance to even watch it. Somehow, in a sport so focused on crowd noise and eliciting certain reactions from an audience, Orton seems to be thriving, with the silence actually helping his portrayal of a sadistic character.

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That regained star status led Orton to a familiar opportunity: a WWE title match at SummerSlam, this time against a champion in his first run with the belt: Drew McIntyre.

And, as fans began to wonder if Orton had peaked and was simply being fed to McIntyre due to a lack of heels on the Raw roster, he proved why he should be operating under that massive spotlight. He RKO’d McIntyre out of nowhere after laying down the challenge for their match at SummerSlam, and the two put on a five-star war of words on the subsequent episode of Raw.

One week later, Orton earned a hard-fought victory against Kevin Owens, in a match put together as a result of Orton’s mentor Ric Flair’s eagerness and, in Orton’s phrasing, ego.

So, when Orton noticed that someone close to him was turning into a “liability,” he had to let him know, and had to take action.

He delivered a scathing promo to end the August 10 edition of Raw, labeling Flair as a “whore for the spotlight” and someone who is “washed up and can’t do it anymore.” He even accused Flair of riding Orton’s coattails since Flair viewed him as “the son you wish you had,” referencing the death of Flair’s real-life son, David.

When things got real, Flair brought up a real health scare from his path that had put his life at risk, and the feelings he went through when going through that. He agreed about the need for the spotlight, but also discussed his long history with Orton, the varying moments they had shared together, and their ability to save each other and care for each other when times got tough.

He even gave Orton the ultimate praise, calling him the “greatest performer in the business today,” and admitting that he wanted the “Legend Killer” to be the one to break his record of 16 world championship reigns.

Just like Orton had done numerous times before with a variety of others in recent months, he got Flair to put his guard down after “The Nature Boy” finished his promo, and gave him a hug in the center of the ring. When Flair turned his back, however, “The Viper” struck, delivering a low-blow before “punting” Flair to end the episode.

They say art often imitates reality, and it seems to be the case with Orton. Of course, he isn’t throwing all of his real-life friendships out the window in pursuit of success inside the squared circle, but he’s looking to prove people wrong and exceed expectations as he works his way through his 40s.

“If I didn’t want to be here, then why the hell am I here?” Orton asked McIntyre during their battle on the microphone on August 3, seemingly speaking from the heart. “I’ve made my money. I’m here because I want to be here. I’m here because I enjoy coming down to that ring each and every week hitting RKO’s and punt-kicking heads.”

Both in storyline and in real life, Orton seems to be as motivated as ever. He’s turning into the Tom Brady of WWE, refusing to let his age get the best of him both physically and as far as additions to his resume are concerned. At 40 years old, fans may be seeing the strongest, all-around version of Orton they’ve ever seen, and it could even result in his 14th world title reign after the dust clears at SummerSlam.

Like Orton said in his promo against McIntyre, he’s been the man “then, now and forever,” mimicking WWE’s slogan that is based on the company’s extensive history and reach, and its desire to keep creating those moments in the future.

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Orton was succeeding back in 2004 when he became the youngest world heavyweight champion in WWE history. He kept it going when he dominated the wrestling scene in 2008 with a new character. Even in the downtime of his career from 2010 through 2012, he was adding titles to his resume, and when he got back into the main spotlight in 2013, it was like he never left.

Even seven years after that, Orton, like Tom Brady used to chant during his tenure with the Patriots, is “still here.” And, even when COVID-19 completely changed the landscape of the wrestling world, one thing remained constant: Randy Orton.

So, when wrestling fans sit down and really think of those three words that WWE hammers down throughout its programming, “Then, Now, Forever,” one man will always come to mind: Randy Orton.

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