Nearly a decade after John Cena, Randy Orton, and Batista were anointed as the future kings of the WWE, questions still remain in its aftermath.
On the Monday Night Raw episode after the Money in the Bank pay-per-view, WWE Champion John Cena was given the chance to choose his next opponent for Summer Slam, who turned out to be the up-and-coming Daniel Bryan. Before the choice could be made, Randy Orton, a familiar face during Cena’s reign atop the WWE, appeared after winning the Money in the Bank briefcase one night earlier not for a fight but a reminder. Regardless of what happened to Cena at Summer Slam, the WWE Championship would eventually be Orton’s to take when the time was right and the briefcase was cashed in. Although Cena has played the underdog role against superstars like The Rock and Triple H and dueled in fantastic segments with the likes of Edge and CM Punk, there was a sense of trepidation very different from all of Cena’s other rivals as Orton stepped into the ring with him, briefcase in hand, and fired his warning shot.
It is easy to mistake Cena’s visible trepidation for superficiality, but what I saw was tremendous respect. It does not surprise me that Cena likely has deeper respect for Orton than he does for any other wrestler on the WWE roster. It was not a coincidence that when Cena cherry picked the names of greats he had defeated for the WWE Title in a Raw segment with Daniel Bryan, he made certain that he mentioned his two brothers in elevation a decade earlier: Orton and Batista. Orton and Cena are best friends in real life and go all the way back to the very beginning when the two were still cutting their teeth as developmental wrestlers at Ohio Valley Wrestling. It should not shock anyone that Orton’s last OVW match before moving up to the WWF was against the Prototype himself.
Batista was, at the same time, a promising prospect at OVW named Leviathan to go along with another heavyweight hybrid in Brock Lesnar, whom he wrestled several times down there before they both got the call. If you compare the four WWF youngsters to the musical band The Eagles, then Lesnar was Don Henley as he shot straight to the top of the company ladder by the end of the summer. As Vince McMahon set course with a new set of stars in mid-2002 to find what he called “ruthless aggression” in the newly renamed WWE, Orton and Batista had just recently debuted on Smackdown. Orton was a fiery energetic baby face while Batista was a muscular “Deacon” who supported Reverend D-Von (Interestingly, Batista’s first WWE match was a pin fall victory against Orton). In June, it was Cena’s turn, as he stepped up to Vince’s pep talk and challenged Kurt Angle in a memorable star-making debut.
But by the end of 2002, the directions for all four guys were all uniquely different. As Lesnar became the new face of Smackdown, Cena struggled with his role as a lower card act there before finding his voice with, of all things, cold-blooded rapping skills. Orton and Batista both moved over to the Raw brand, suffered major injuries before they could find their footing, then aligned themselves with Triple H and Ric Flair to create the heel stable Evolution. By the end of 2003, you could see the wheels finally burning rubber on the road for Cena, Orton, and Batista in their eventual race to the top. Cena was teaching basic courses in Thuganomics and quickly gaining popularity on Smackdown while Orton was the Intercontinental Champion and Batista had won the World Tag Team Titles with Flair. Orton, in particular, was a made man as he embarked on a memorable feud with Mick Foley in 2004 and started calling himself the Legend Killer.
The true turning point for the three up-and-comers was WrestleMania XX at Madison Square Garden. The show is best remembered for its final image as former WCW mid card veterans Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit celebrated together as WWE and World Heavyweight Champions. But underneath that triumph was a catastrophic fall that WWE never expected. After losing to Goldberg in the middle of the show, Lesnar selfishly bailed on the company and would not come back for another eight years. The young man whom they had built their future around had just walked out on them. Now, for Vince and the future of the WWE as we knew it, Cena, Orton, and Batista were the next ones in line for superstardom, and it showed at WrestleMania. Cena won the U.S. Title from The Big Show in the opening match while Orton and Batista teamed with Flair to defeat The Rock and Foley in an entertaining handicap tag match, which ended with Orton himself pinning the Hardcore Legend. If that wasn’t enough, Foley went on to really put Orton over with a phenomenal, violent brawl at Backlash a month later in which Orton bravely crashed into a pile of thumbtacks.
If the main event breakthroughs of Benoit and Guerrero, the mercurial rise and fall of Lesnar, and the consistent greatness of Kurt Angle all represented Generation Ruthless Aggression, then the ascendance of Cena, Orton, and Batista in 2004 and 2005 could be called Generation Plan B. Many fans, both realistic and cynical, would have claimed that the “B” in Plan B stood for “Bad” or “Bullshit.” If their former minor league ally Lesnar was the ultimate bad cop of the WWE, then the three new stars were treated by many critics as the Other Guys. Smackdown in particular took the loss of Lesnar hard as they struggled to find a fresh face for the blue brand in his absence, bouncing from Guerrero to Rey Mysterio to conservative mogul bad guy JBL to the oft-injured Angle, all while Cena slowly built himself up in the undercard. But by the time we got to WrestleMania 21 in Los Angeles, Cena won his first WWE Title from JBL. One match later, in that show’s main event, Batista pinned his former mentor Triple H to win the World Heavyweight Title on the Raw brand.
What I always found ironic about the eventual title wins for Batista and Cena at WrestleMania was the fact that it was Orton, not the other two, who grabbed the brass ring first. After his star-making rivalry with Foley, Orton was handpicked by Vince to end Benoit’s reign on Raw and become the youngest World Heavyweight Champion ever at age 24, outdoing Lesnar by one year. But with that sudden perch as the top guy on Raw came with it a lot of hard knocks, as Orton lost the belt a month later to Triple H after Evolution turned on him. Orton was forced to become a pandering face on Raw in his feud with Evolution, and you could tell that not only was Orton uncomfortable in the role but he was losing votes of confidence backstage to be “The Man” in this compromising position. By the time we got to the 2005 Royal Rumble, Orton had lost again to Triple H and Batista and Cena were the last two participants in the annual battle royal with a WrestleMania title shot on the line. While the Animal and the Doctor of Thuganomics stood tall at the end of the night at the biggest show of the year, the Legend Killer suffered a close loss to The Undertaker before going on the shelf with another shoulder injury.
Even though Vince was dead set on turning Batista and Cena into the next stars of the company in the wake of WrestleMania 21, there were rounds of critics throwing darts at the decision, and with good reason. Although the undercard for WrestleMania 21 was legendary, the last two matches of the show involving Cena and Batista were debased by many as deflating, run-of-the-mill, and predictable. Ironically, in a show where Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin both appeared to the cheers of the L.A. crowd, the new regime of the Cena/Batista Era was not as openly welcomed. In a somewhat brilliant swerve, Vince used the fictional WWE Draft to switch the titles to the other brand as Cena shocked the world by debuting, new spinner belt in hand, as the top dog on Raw. A couple weeks later, Batista completed the trade as he solidified himself as the World Heavyweight Champion on Smackdown. At the same time, the newly heel Orton switched from Raw to Smackdown as he continued his feud with The Undertaker.
It was clear in the early going that the build-up on Smackdown was leading to an eventual battle of former Evolution teammates, Orton and Batista, at WrestleMania 22 for the World Heavyweight Title with Guerrero somehow in the mix. But after Guerrero’s untimely death and Batista suffering an injury in late 2005, Smackdown was thrown into another whirlwind of makeshift booking and thrown-together storylines to keep the brand somewhat strong. Orton still had a spot in the World Title match, but he lost to Mysterio in a triple threat match for the gold and was infamously suspended for two months shortly thereafter for “unprofessional conduct.” While Batista returned from injury and eventually won the World Title back in 2006, Cena was going through growing pains of his own. On the WWE’s premier show, Cena had become more known for polarizing fans with venomous hatred for his character and his position as Vince McMahon’s chosen successor to the likes of Hogan, Michaels, Austin, and Rock. Even after Triple H stunned everyone by tapping out clean to Cena’s submission move in the main event of WrestleMania 22, fans still were not coming around yet. It took an epic feud with Edge and Lita to give Cena the evil rival that Vince had been looking for to build up Cena’s superhero-like status.
While Cena was struggling with his role at the top of the WWE, Batista was also at a crossroads with what part to play on the blue brand. He lost the World Title to The Undertaker in a clash of the titans at WrestleMania 23 after not finding any true rival on Smackdown since his feud with Triple H. While his punishing bouts with The Undertaker changed a lot of people’s minds about Batista’s questionable work rate, he was always treated as the next step down from the Dead Man, who had re-asserted himself in 2007 and 2008 as the top draw on Smackdown along with Edge. Cena had held the WWE Title for over a year when he finally embarked on a feud with best friend Orton. A rivalry was certainly in the making as Orton punted Cena’s father in the head to set off what looked to be easy money for the next few months on WWE television. But again, bad timing got in the way as Cena tore his pectoral muscle six days before they were to wrestle in a Last Man Standing match at No Mercy 2007. Cena was out for three months while Orton won the WWE Title from Triple H at that event. Cena won the Royal Rumble match in his return three months later, but the WWE strangely decided to give away the Cena/Orton WWE Title grudge match at No Way Out 2008 instead of WrestleMania XXIV. When Orton’s seven-month reign as champion ended, it was not by a natural rival like Cena but by (guess who?) Triple H.
When Orton broke his collarbone in a match in June of 2008, Batista switched over to Raw and began a short feud with Cena that also involved both of them winning the tag team titles. After their solid match at Summer Slam in which Batista pinned Cena, their first in the WWE against one another, Cena went on the shelf again for neck surgery. Batista, in that same match, tore his hamstring and eventually had to take time off himself while Orton returned to Raw and refined his character as a sinister, psychopathic viper who was ready to strike at the drop of a dime. Every time Cena, Batista, and Orton tried to do the duties against each other in the ring, even when they were on the same program, the stars seemed to never align correctly for them. But it was in 2009 and 2010, when all three wrestlers were around their primes, that the three finally started to feud with one another as top guys in the WWE, five years after many had hastily dismissed them. Orton feuded with Batista for the WWE Title in early 2009 until Batista tore his left biceps. Then Orton turned his attention to Cena in a rivalry that did not wow audiences but did produce good matches for at least four months.
Cena aggravated a lot of older fans with a promo in October of 2009 that purported his feud with Orton as “The Rivalry” of the recently ushered PG era in the WWE. As many times as I rolled my eyes when I first heard that, the message was in the right place. Never would most people think about Cena vs. Orton in the same vein that they would think of Austin vs. Vince, Sting vs. Flair, Hogan vs. Andre, or Bret vs. Shawn, but it was the effort with which the WWE was stamping their approvals on two guys who fought their way to the top together that made the rivalry matter more than grizzled cynics would like to think. After a poorly booked ending to their title bout at Summer Slam, Cena and Orton had three very different but equally entertaining title matches in which the WWE Championship changed hands each time: An “I Quit” match, a Hell in a Cell match, and, to settle the score, a 60-miute Iron Man match. I personally really liked the Iron Man match at Bragging Rights in which Cena conquered the Viper for the top prize in the company, but fans were still indifferent to the two’s history together even after months of matches against one another.
Then in 2010, it was the Animal’s turn to be the Kryptonite to Cena’s Superman. After turning heel on Rey Mysterio at the same Bragging Rights show in which Cena and Orton settled their feud, Batista surprised fans by defeating John Cena at Elimination Chamber for the WWE Title in an impromptu match ordered by Mr. McMahon. After battling Orton for months over the WWE Title, Cena now had to get through the third “Chosen One” at WrestleMania XXVI in order to win the title back. Although Cena’s win was predetermined by many, it was fun to finally see a comparable adversary of his that not only rose to the top of the heap alongside him but also had his number in a way. Sadly, only a few months before leaving the company, Batista finally found his calling as a spotlight-loving, bling-wearing big man who was as comically dismissive on the microphone as he was in the ring. How insane is it that among these three, it was the not-so-verbose Batista who spoke out the synopsis for how Cena was preferred among the three to lead the WWE into the future while the other two had to ride shotgun?
After defeating Batista at WrestleMania, five years after they ushered in a reluctantly accepted era of WWE superstardom together, Cena would win two more pay-per-view matches against the Animal to formally end their feud and complete the trinity of sorts. Batista in storyline terms quit the company in one of the show’s funnier moments while the truth was already out for a while that Dave was moving on from wrestling to try his hand at other projects. Again, bad timing made a victim out of the WWE’s earlier version of the “Big Three.” Outside of the main event title defenses by Cena, all three guys have had to take a back seat to the pre-existing Hall of Famers. The wrestlers who had routinely held back Orton and Batista from sharing the top spots with Cena on a continuous basis were holdovers from the Attitude Era like Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Edge, The Undertaker, and Chris Jericho. Only a few months after Batista left the company, almost all of the guys I just mentioned had either retired, left the company, or settled for limited, part-time schedules.
When Cena, Orton, and Triple H wrestled for the WWE Title at WrestleMania XXIV, it was Edge and The Undertaker who went on last. Orton and Cena both wrestled the last two matches in WrestleMania XXV, but the show was already stolen by The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels before they went on. Cena’s win over Batista at WrestleMania XXVI had historic value, but the last match was Shawn’s retirement rematch against The Undertaker. By the time we reached the road to WrestleMania XXVII when The Rock triumphantly returned, Cena and Orton, the two superstars who stuck it out, were clearly at the head of the class in the youthfully infused WWE, and the future stars like Punk, Bryan, Sheamus, and Alberto Del Rio still had not found their way yet. Had Batista stayed with the company into 2011, he probably would have been the go-to superstar that he complained about not becoming in that scathing promo on Raw. With that exit comes the never-say-never chance that Batista returns to seal the potholes that his wrestling career constantly rolled into. Dave is pretty busy right now with a different career, so maybe that is wishful thinking. But then again, we said the same thing about The Rock and Brock Lesnar back in 2005.
What seems even crueler than Batista’s ill timing is the fact that even after transitioning from being the “Legend Killer” to a legend himself, Orton’s personal infractions over the course of his tenure with the WWE have held him back from being the main man. In the summer of 2012, Orton was suspended 60 days for a second violation of the company’s Wellness Policy for testing positive for marijuana and an anabolic steroid. He had failed a test back in 2006 along with his post-WrestleMania suspension and having his named listed in the Signature Pharmacy scandal back in 2007. The WWE institutes a three-strike policy, meaning that Orton’s next drug violation will be his last one. It is understandable for WWE heads like Vince, his daughter Stephanie, and C.O.O. Triple H to be hesitant to put Orton in the championship picture given his permanently shaky status with the company. You can never deny Orton’s talent and seniority, but if there is one way that Orton has clearly set himself apart from Cena in terms of company loyalty, it is his disobedience leading to long-term backstage mistrust. For a wrestler whose character thrives on the fearfulness that he could strike at any moment, Randy Orton’s career also hangs in the balance as one more strike on his record can bring him down for good. It almost seemed at times like Batista was better off walking out on his own terms while Orton struggled to convince WWE officials that he is a changed man and the WWE Title is safe in his hands.
However, after the recent weeks of Orton’s foreshadowing and a shocking unveiling of epic proportions at the end of Summer Slam, it seems that Vince, Triple H and Orton have turned a new leaf in their relationship and put Orton’s sketchy history behind them. After Bryan won the WWE Championship in a phenomenally hard fought match and the confetti had not even touched the ground yet, Orton popped in on Bryan and the screw was turned as Triple H Pedigreed Bryan and Orton cashed in his title shot for an effortless and manipulative title win. It is such a strange twist of fate that nearly nine years to the day that HHH infamously gave Randy Orton the thumbs down after his World Title victory that ignited a long feud, it is Triple H of all people who turns the thumb back upwards and declares Orton as his vision of the ideal WWE Champion. The speech in which Triple H called Orton “the coal that will be squeezed into the next diamond” at the advent of Evolution in early 2003 came completely full circle this past Monday in a stroke of genius in terms of storyline continuity. On a coronation segment the night after Summer Slam, the current C.O.O. of the company declared that “the coal has now become a diamond.” You can call it Corporation 2.0, the Corporate Evolution, or any other stable nickname you’d like, but it is an elaborate way of the WWE granting Orton the opportunity to be the company’s go-to titleholder for the remainder of the year while Cena recovers from a torn triceps injury.
Although the current storyline paints Orton as a corporate puppet who does not deserve the WWE Title after it was unfairly stolen from Bryan, there is legitimate reason for handing the ball to the Viper this time around. As the year has gone along, Orton has put on matches against opponents both young and old that might suggest that he is doing better work in the ring now than he has ever done in his career. For the company to grant such an alpha male spot to Orton not only shows that they believe he can carry the WWE Title in the same way he did back in 2009, but also that in the process he will be able to produce some of the best matches of his career against Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, and perhaps his partner in grappling since the birth of their WWE careers, John Cena. After pairing up the likes of Rock and Lesnar with Cena and Punk, maybe Orton is back in the company’s graces well enough to be next in line to hook up with the Brahma Bull and the Beast Incarnate. When Cena and Orton first hooked up in the ring after years of training, they still had to let names like Michaels, Triple H, and The Undertaker feast on the fans’ attention before they could get their bite at the table. Now the tables have turned. As new names enter the fray, it is Orton who will occupy the final match, the one that matters the most. It came years after his recruiting class was thrown away and not too long after the so-called end of a different era, but it’s better late than never.
As I watched Orton and Cena last month plant the seed for what could be a revamping of a rivalry that many found forgettable and incomplete in their earlier years at the top of WWE, I began to wonder what influence those two and Batista wound up having in the long run for the company. Clearly, as you have already read, there is more than enough history between the three to suffice what you could call a triumvirate of wrestling royalty. Their ultimate accomplishment at the end of the day might be seen by fans as a slightly effective bridge between the dangling remnants of the Attitude Era and the loaded, high-upside, full-throttle level of talent that the WWE currently enjoys in this all-available digital age. It would seem easy in that case to liken the runs of Cena, Orton, and Batista with the less heralded mid-90’s run of Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, and The Undertaker, who helped bridge Rock ‘N Wrestling to the Attitude Era. The difference, however, is that in the 90’s and hopefully in today’s more open WWE environment, wrestlers like Bret, Shawn, Diesel, and Owen Hart who were on the cusp of greatness got every opportunity possible from Vince McMahon to make it to the top because the openings were there. Cena made the most of his chances and proved himself to be above the other Chosen Ones, but he did not enjoy his most contentious opponents in the eyes of many until he faced The Rock and CM Punk. Those opportunities were squandered and closed shut on Orton and Batista almost as often as they were given in today’s hyperactive approach to WWE storyline planning.
If the early to mid-90’s was the WWF’s New Generation, then the peak era of Cena, Orton, and Batista in the late 00’s was the WWE’s Lost Generation, an era that gave you something to enjoy and lot more to hypothesize about while fans hoped for brighter days. Certainly, days do seem a little bit brighter lately in the WWE if you compare it to the shape that it was in after the exits of Austin, Rock, Lesnar, and Angle along with the untimely deaths of Guerrero and Benoit. As so many beloved superstars from the Attitude Era left the company one by one, the pressure began to mount so highly for Cena, Orton, and Batista to run with the ball that the WWE was never comfortable with ditching their Hall of Fame veterans in favor of keeping those three at the top for years to come. Some of those missed opportunities are definitely Orton’s and Batista’s own doings in some ways, but you have to think sometimes that more could have been done by the WWE to put them in a better position to succeed than what they offered back then. CM Punk and Daniel Bryan made names for themselves by proclaiming their singularity as exceptions to the sports entertainment norm and the fans embraced them going forward into this new WWE era. Orton and Batista did not do the same until it was too late.
You heard the same complaint from two recently returned legends, The Rock and Brock Lesnar, about how John Cena was not deserving of his position as the top guy in the WWE and lowered the standards of elitism. Lesnar claimed that if he had never left the company, Cena would be carrying his bags. Although that was uttered in a taped segment, the putdown had a pinch of truthiness to it. The Rock took much joy in lambasting Cena’s quirky catchphrases and trademarks as “hot garbage” compared to the path that he, Austin, and Hogan had paved the way for Cena to ride. I saw this in the early 00’s in the NBA when Michael Jordan retired and so many players aspired to be the next Jordan that they had already set themselves up to fail before they could even establish themselves. They were called “Air Apparents” or “Jordanaires,” from Allen Iverson to Vince Carter to Tracy McGrady. Ironically, the player who set himself apart from the rest of the “Jordanaires” and became a Hall of Fame player was the one who was more obsessed with being “Like Mike” than anyone else: Kobe Bryant.
What saves Orton and Batista from being completely forgotten, as much as older fans will visibly groan at this, is their parallel bond with a generational superstar like Cena who has continued the path for the next great WWE Champion that The Rock and Steve Austin paved for him and Brock Lesnar conveniently escaped. Orton and Batista might not glide through the pearly gates of all-time greatness that Cena will eventually enjoy when his career is over, but there is a lot more to respect about Orton’s and Batista’s services than many would like to consider. If you saw the look on his face that Monday night while Randy Orton stared him down, John Cena knows that all too well. Evolution is a mystery, as the entrance theme goes, but we had a pretty big mystery finally solved on Sunday when Orton was given the WWE Title to help carry the company in Cena’s absence and long after Batista’s departure. Orton has already earned the respect of his peers and his bosses in the WWE. Whether or not the fans will respect Orton’s revitalized legacy by year’s end, however, is a mystery that is still yet to be solved.