Switching gears a little again, time to examine a few more individual stars, three who have made themselves into modern icons, pillars within WWE, in separate but equally enduring ways.
XIV. Randy Orton
This guy was a WWE project seemingly from conception, a generational wrestler whose father had already been fairly famous within recent memory. Okay, so maybe “Ace” Cowboy Bob Orton was better known as a goon than a legitimate competitor, but he was certainly prominent for a few years, especially that persistent cast of his. Still, Randy easily eclipsed his father, almost from the start.
Debuting on Smackdown in 2002, Randy didn’t have much to distinguish himself, but by 2003 was drafted into the Evolution concept, theoretically as the future of the company. Injuries plagued the early period of this project, but Randy soon rebounded, and by the end of that year he’d already laid the groundwork for his future, including a feud with Mick Foley that would come to define his march to the WWE championship in 2004.
Maybe it was a turnaround the company had begun to reconsider, because Randy quickly lost that championship, and never had one of its kind again until the fall of 2007, more than three years later. By the time he was drafted back to Smackdown, once aspirations on Raw were claimed by Batista, he had to prove himself all over again. Few seem to appreciate how easily Randy embraced this phase of his career. He’d lost the chip on his shoulder, but found his star quality. This is where he truly learned how he worked best in the ring. This is where he mastered the RKO. All he needed was the time to earn back the respect of the fans. When the title scene finally opened back up, Randy found himself on Raw again, and in the perfect position when John Cena went out with an injury. He inherited more from Cena than he ever did from his old man.
Ironically, Triple H was far more accommodating this time around, and together they did much more than Batista ever got out of them. This by far the most lucrative period of his career. By the time Cena was back in the title scene, Randy had a legitimate peer to contend with, and he seemed to lose his way. That’s the way I see it. He grew less inspired. He formed Legacy, a knockoff version of Evolution, where every member was patterned after himself. Sure, he was clearly in control, but where did that really lead him, or them? We’re still waiting to find out. He transformed from a heel to a face, and had no idea what to do with that momentum. He spent plenty of times chasing championships with no real inspiration. He spent actual time as champion, with even less inspiration.
What’s the deal with Randy Orton? I think he grows a little too complacent. There always seems to be talk that he’s young enough to main event for decades, but he’s that rare wrestler who does not actually thrive on success. He needs challenges that aren’t so predictable. There was that one feud with Kofi Kingston, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. Unlike a Steve Austin or Rock, if he grows too comfortable with his particular quirks, he relies on them too much. Plenty of people say this works really well for him, but in order for that trance state to mean something, he needs something around it. It’s like he’s thinking about the end of the match the whole time. He’s best when he’s a fury of motion, not when he’s standing there with that possessed look, or coiling and fist-bumping for an RKO. Those things have their worth, but not as much as he seems to think.
Anyway, he does have plenty of time to work with it.
XV. John Cena
The flipside of Randy Orton always seems to be John Cena, who also debuted on Smackdown in 2002, but who seemed to have a whole series of opportunities to prove himself to the WWE faithful, who embraced every opportunity with the same amount of apathy. It was only when the company got solidly behind him that anyone really seemed to care one way or the other. In many ways, the career of John Cena is exactly like Hulk Hogan’s. If Vince McMahon hadn’t molded WWE in Hogan’s image, Hulk would have been just another “Superstar” Billy Graham, or Jesse Ventura. The other thing that Cena and Hogan have in common is the ability to know what works for them. You know a John Cena match like you know what Hogan will do in the ring, if he ever makes that one last comeback (and you know he’s always thinking about it, even during the latest surgery).
Even though I didn’t really care for the lame rap gimmick, I was fan of Cena’s early on. He clearly had a passion for wrestling, and every gift he needed. I kept waiting for him to reach the next level, never dreaming that he would eventually come to dominate it. With all due respect to JBL, but Smackdown belonged to Cena in 2004. It was inevitable that he would be the one to finally end JBL’s championship reign. The only left was for the company to make the commitment. When he was drafted to Raw later in 2005, it was the last thing Cena needed to complete his package. Is it really any wonder that when WWE finally announces a WrestleMania main event a whole year in advance, that match involves John Cena?
Unlike Randy Orton, Cena keeps finding ways to keep himself relevant, and it doesn’t always involve a championship. That was easily the most impressive thing about the Nexus angle last year, that the company didn’t think it was necessary to involve a big gold belt. In fact, it hurt that title more than John Cena, made it less relevant. But that’s just how important Cena is. He’s bigger than a big gold belt. No one else could have made Edge a world champion the way he did. Okay, so maybe a plague of injuries to top Smackdown stars could. If the company had saw fit to put Orton into a WrestleMania match with Cena in, say, 2006 or 2007, he would have a vastly different career today.
At this point, John Cena has nothing left to prove, except that match with The Rock. Anything else he does is icing on the cake. I don’t think he’ll be a world title contender after next year’s WrestleMania. He won’t have to be.
XVI. Rey Mysterio
Never has a more peculiar superstar dominated the imaginations of fans quite like Rey Mysterio. He’s far smaller than anyone could ever have expected from such a star, that’s so obvious that it doesn’t really need repeating. He’s a classic underdog story, but WWE has done the David/Goliath story so many times that it doesn’t even begin to explain him anymore. He is, simply put, one of the most spectacular performers to ever step foot into the squared circle.
His fans know that already, too, naturally. He’s had classic battles with the best wrestlers in the world, and he’s the rare opponent who can create magic by constantly and consistently doing the unexpected. Sure, in later years he’s developed a formula, but that’s only like patenting an invention. Who else could do what he does, anyway? John Morrison has been attempting to replicate this template, but the secret really does seem to lie in Rey’s size. Where Morrison can do amazing things, it’s really because no one else is doing them (or in the case of AJ Styles, not doing them anymore). He defies belief. Fans unconsciously interpret what they seem as unnatural, even though he constantly does it. When Rey does it, he gets away with it because that seems to be exactly what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s the perfect cruiserweight. Where others were exhibiting a style, Rey seems to be doing exactly what comes naturally. Mind you, I’m not actually making the case against John Morrison. That’s my only explanation, for why it works for one wrestler, and why it doesn’t for another.
Many fans today probably won’t realize it, but Rey actually went without the mask for a few years, during the last days of WCW. Kevin Nash, who later did the very same thing in TNA, chose to support the very kind of wrestler he wasn’t, and fans didn’t appreciate it then, either. Rey flew around the ropes with a pair of horns glued onto his head. I swear to god. But yeah, I think the mask is a part of it, too, because he looks so completely natural with it. Masks are a tradition for Mexican wrestlers, so there are plenty of wrestlers who compete with them on. Sin Cara, who was previously known as Mistico, is another in a long line of crossover stars who have proven that not all masks are created equal. Maybe Ultimo Dragon competes with Rey in this regard, but clearly not on equal footing. Rey’s is simple, and yet incredibly versatile. His mask is his charisma, and his ability in the ring, and the fact that when he does speak, he still seems likable, no matter the culture or language you bring with you.
I don’t have to try very hard to make Rey sound good, because he’s been doing it himself for years, and most often without the benefit of what many of the other top stars, whether in WWE or elsewhere, often enjoy. I think the only time he wrestled Shawn Michaels was for one of the Eddie Guerrero tribute shows. Can you imagine? His WrestleMania list of opponents and quality of matches rivals Undertaker’s. If you think about it, you’ll understand exactly what I mean. But the fans love him, and the company loves him. His knees don’t love him, though.