In case you’ve had WWE programming on mute for the past several weeks, WrestleMania 35 is fast upon us, which means it is our eminent duty to periodically roll out excruciatingly detailed previews of each individual match in the month-plus leading up to April 7. It is, to be pointed, The Ringer’s WrestleMania Match Book.
As of this writing, and with Fastlane in the rear view, the card for professional wrestling’s biggest night has swelled to feature several confirmed clashes, a good chunk of which we’ve already covered in depth. And our latest pit stop lands us at the doorstep of a clash between two big names who got to WWE supremacy in radically different ways: third-generation legend Randy Orton and indie-bred SmackDown figurehead AJ Styles. As has become customary in this series, the following is our finest effort at distilling the participants’ dovetailing fates, deducing why we care, and who, in this instance, will lay claim to building the foundation for Tuesday nights.
WrestleMania Match Book, Chapter 5: AJ Styles vs. Randy Orton
If ever a WrestleMania story wrote itself, this would be it. In one corner, we have Randy Orton, who will have just turned 39 heading into the April 7 extravaganza. As he reminded everyone in a face-to-face with his opponent on a recent SmackDown, the Viper has been stalking prey and piling up championships in WWE for 17 years. It’s his divine birthright, after all, as son of Hall of Famer and inaugural Mania participant Bob Orton Jr.--not to mention grandson of onetime WWWF championship contender Bob Orton Sr. (His uncle, Barry, also wrestled occasionally under the thinly veiled alias Barry O, though he was most notorious for squaring off against Vince McMahon on Donahue regarding sexual harassment in the industry.)
Orton enlisted in the Marines after high school but was discharged for bad conduct in 1999 (hence no starring role in The Marine for him). With that ill-advised detour behind him, Orton took the path well traveled and laced up for training as a pro wrestler, learning the ropes from local St. Louis fixtures like Ron Powers and Gary Jackson at the city’s storied South Broadway Athletic Club. By 2001, he was signed to WWE’s developmental arm, Ohio Valley Wrestling, and as of spring 2002, Orton was called up to Raw and appearing both in introductory backstage vignettes and high-profile matches against senior talent. Much of Orton’s immediate trajectory was covered in this previous Match Book entry on his former Evolution stablemates Triple H and Batista, but to be brief: Orton became WWE’s youngest World Champion to that point in 2004, the first of 13 such title wins over the course of his career. He was, at various junctures, an indiscriminate Legend Killer, leader of a gang of second-generation phenoms, lone-warrior Apex Predator, assassin for the Cerebral Assassin, and even a Wyatt family member. As of 2019, the prodigal son has evolved into an institution in his own right, and as WWE’s longest-tenured full-time performer, he’s out to protect his legacy.
Prologue, Part 2
Coming into this bout, AJ Styles is being presented as the counterpoint to Orton’s magical carpet ride of a career. In that same SmackDown promo from a few weeks back, Styles leaned into his reputation as former king of the indies, who made a surprise sidestep into WWE on the back nine of his career and—perhaps unexpectedly—rocketed up its totem pole. It is true that Styles, from Gainesville, Georgia (born Allen Jones and delivered, ironically, on a military base while his father served in the Marines), first exploded onto WWE’s big stage at the relatively ripe age of 38, and at 41 (turning 42 in June), has apparently only just begun authoring his complete story in the major leagues.
Although way back in 2001, while Orton was honing his skills in OVW, Styles did get a one-off shot at joining Vince McMahon’s army. Styles had actually signed on with WCW shortly before they were bought out by WWE, appearing on TV in early 2001 as part of the high-flying duo Air Raid. Post-buyout, Styles was offered a nontelevised Raw dark match against journeyman Rick Michaels (who is, incidentally, still at it).
Alas, WWE opted to let Styles go, but the athletic midsize standout—who had already toiled with obscure promotions for three years before his break in WCW—dutifully returned to his roots. In 2002, Styles hit his stride in earnest, performing regularly (and at times concurrently) for fledgling brands TNA (now Impact) and Ring of Honor. (In fact, in his first match in 2002 for TNA, he teamed with Jerry Lynn, who, not long before, was pitted against Orton in OVW, which—in a fully circular coincidence—is now Impact’s developmental auxiliary.) Styles, along with peers including CM Punk, Samoa Joe, and Daniel Bryan, defined an era in opposition to WWE, which had more or less monopolized mainstream attention to the sport after swallowing WCW whole.
After a decade-plus of dominance, particularly during his peak period atop TNA/Impact, Styles made a strategic leap overseas and joined New Japan Pro Wrestling (and, in doing so, came home to ROH, which has long been allied and shared rosters with NJPW). And from 2014 to 2016, at an age when other big names would be dialing down their time on the road, Styles caught fire internationally like never before, spearheading NJPW’s supergroup The Bullet Club and tasting gold twice as IWGP World (no small feat, pun intended, for a comparatively undersized Westerner in Japan). By winter 2015, word had materialized that Styles was Stamford-bound, and so it was that on January 24, 2016, at the Royal Rumble, the once-rejected prospect blew minds with his entrance at No. 3. In his three-plus years since staring down Roman Reigns atop that Rumble ramp, Styles has held court as two-time WWE Champion, two-time U.S. Champion, and the self-proclaimed successor for John Cena—whom he defeated several times—as SmackDown’s “Face That Runs the Place.” He has made himself synonymous with WWE’s Tuesday show like no other since the Rock, the very man whose catchphrase coined its title (now there’s a dream match).
If we’ve consented to collective amnesia about Orton’s woeful wanderlust into the Wyatt family compound, then we’ve almost certainly forgotten that’s where the helix detailing Orton and Styles’s shared story-line DNA first truly entwined. (They had, previously, participated in multiman mosh pits.) Orton had won 2017’s Royal Rumble match and earned a WrestleMania title match while still seemingly under Bray Wyatt’s spell. But before you could say, “Holy house of horrors,” he pulled a “gotcha!” on the bayou bogeyman (who won his first WWE Championship at Elimination Chamber in mid-February), burning his whole damn residence down, thereby executing one more heroic face turn. One snag: Orton had already relinquished his title opportunity rather than threaten Wyatt’s reign (all part of the slow ruse, you see). No biggie. Randy simply had to surmount none other than AJ Styles—who was in the final leg of his last heel stretch to date—in a number-one-contender match on SmackDown that March to regain his Mania slot, placing Wyatt right back in his crosshairs. Genius! Orton won clean, took down Wyatt at Mania and captured his 13th (and, very possibly, last) world title, while Styles played antagonist-turned-graceful-winner against prodigal son Shane McMahon. As of mid-April 2017, Orton and Styles were SmackDown’s two preeminent good guys, on parallel but distinct tracks.
You can’t keep a good heel down for long, and by the middle of 2018, Orton had effectively been rebooted as Legend Killer 2.0, so it only followed that he’d seek to sully the reputation of an elusive, once-in-a-generation peer. And it just so happened that Styles’s 371-day second tenure with the WWE title had concluded in November via a Daniel Bryan blow to the balls. In the aftermath of that loss, and a subsequent defeat to Bryan at this year’s Royal Rumble, Styles was somewhat creatively exposed, in need of a nemesis who could measure up to his popularity and help carry a feud built on pride and passion rather than another shiny object around one of their waists. His and Orton’s fates had finally intersected.
It’s easy to overlook that Styles only qualified for his Rumble rematch by pinning Orton in a SmackDown fatal five-way on New Year’s Day. Naturally, that moving part was far from lost on Orton, who launched his campaign of comeuppance against Styles with an absolutely awesome RKO at Elimination Chamber (neither man would win the titular cage bout). They remained peripherally in each other’s orbits until the final SmackDown of February, when Orton outright put Styles on blast (or, more accurately, brazenly dismissed him) for—in his view—misapprehending his place in the Tuesday-night pecking order. Styles could tolerate that, but no so much when Orton doubled down and questioned his backbone. So at Fastlane that Sunday, Randy tasted a flying forearm—outta nowhere. Cut to the aforementioned, heated promo work running down each man’s credentials and contrasting goalposts on the way to greatness. It is, in Styles’s own words (or those of whoever wrote them), a showdown between “first-round pick” Randy and “walk-on” AJ. By midnight on April 8, we’ll know decisively who calls the shots.
This is a great look for both guys, a legends match between two fully active A-listers who genuinely could not have had more disparate experiences from their first steps inside a wrestling ring to this first-ever singles slugfest. As Styles has pointed out in his interviews of late, Orton is no less looming and lithe than he was as a snot-nosed rookie in Evolution. And as everyone now understands, timing and circumstance are all that prolonged Styles’s pole position as an undisputed all-time great. A respectful handshake no matter who triumphs isn’t hard to picture, but anticipating which man’s arm will be raised is where things get satisfyingly hard to predict. With Styles having publicly cheered his new contract, a win and renewed push toward top-tier championship status (maybe on Raw as an Intercontinental threat?) makes perfectly good sense. And as a 13-time world champ, Orton needn’t do much more than show his face and come off as committed to meet expectations. But there’s every reason to believe this long-in-the-making match we didn’t even realize we needed will exceed them.