Winning the WWE Championship should be the crowing glory for any wrestler. Arguably the most coveted belt in the industry, the WWE Championship is a badge of honor for those who hold it. It’s a sign that you’ve made it to the pinnacle of your career. Yet with some Superstars, it’s hard to not get the sense that their accumulated mass of Championships only serves to underline just how woeful WWE Creative have become in handling their titles. For Randy Orton in particular, it raises questions about what kind of legacy he’ll leave behind when he hangs up his boots.
This struck me last night, after the WWE Backlash pay-per-view. As Jinder Mahal captured his first piece of gold in WWE, Orton was busy handing over from his thirteenth stint as champion. Perhaps more disappointing, Orton hasn’t actually defended his Championship (on TV) in the six weeks since winning it. It means he cut short Bray Wyatt’s first Championship run, only to hand it off at the first time of asking. Yes house shows are a thing, but to the average wrestling fan who only watches the TV product – they don’t see any of that.
Since January 1st this year, five men have held the WWE Championship; only one of which has defended it successfully on television (Bray Wyatt against Cena and Corbin, if you’re wondering). It also means that five guys have held what should be an illusive belt – all inside five months.
Back in the 1980’s, fans could go months (even years) before seeing a title change hands. Modern fans are lucky if it sticks on one person for the full calendar month. It’s no surprise that a guy like Jinder Mahal winning the belt has caused such a fuss – the Championship has been treated like an accessory more than something fans should care about.
It’s this kind of treatment that makes it staggering to think that Randy Orton is a thirteen time World Champion. When he captured his first World Title at Summerslam 2005, the future seemed bright for him. He had the look of a top Superstar and the ability to hold his own in the ring. Yet since then, I’d be hard pressed to consider any of his Championship runs as particularly memorable. Heck, I’d be even harder pressed to remember where half of them came.
It’s a problem that afflicts guys like Edge and John Cena. WWE’s obsession with hot potatoing their Championships around has left Superstar’s with inflated Championship counts; fatiguing fans to their Championship runs. Yet the difference between Orton and Cena is down to quality. Cena has had prolonged runs with the company’s top Championship belts, runs that you could definitively say were impressive. Orton though hasn’t really had that killer run – which after 13 go-arounds with the World Titles is frankly embarrassing.
It could be argued that his reign as the World Heavyweight Champion in the buildup to Wrestlemania 30 was his crowning achievement – but considering the string of lackluster matches that led into that (Big Show anyone?), I really wouldn’t preach too loudly about that. Orton may have held the Championship for a long period there, but fans were more than happy to see him dropping it to Daniel Bryan.
There’s no denying Randy Orton is a gifted athlete. You don’t remain at the top of WWE for as long as he has without huge pools of talent to back it up. Yet despite this, what kind of legacy will Randy Orton leave behind? What kind of Champion will future generations of fans say Orton was? Sure the number sounds impressive, but prodding beneath the surface reveals a series of short runs, largely forgettable to the audience at large.
And this is ultimately the big problem with this kind of booking. For years WWE has valued numbers over quality. As long as John Cena was drawing money, adding to his tally made sense. Orton is one of his generations greatest – but is he worthy of so many runs with the top belt? I’m sure fans would trade a good number of that 13 runs away to get one hugely enjoyable run.
Sadly for future generations, the likes of Randy Orton and John Cena will be held above them as a benchmark to surpass. Really they’re just a legacy of a booking policy that slapped the belt back on the same people with little regard for the long-term prospects. Will it improve? I hope so.