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Posted in: Requesting Flyby
REQUESTING FLYBY: The Quest To Restore Glory To The Intercontinental Championship (Part 1)
By Maverick
Apr 7, 2015 - 2:12:53 PM

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The Quest To Restore Glory To The Intercontinental Championship
Part 1: Randy Orton, 14th December 2003 to 11th July 2004

Ever since the infamous “Snowed In Raw” the night after this year’s fateful Royal Rumble, at which Dean Ambrose discovered the “Wall of Champions” and became obsessed with possessing that piece of history, there has been a lot of talk about restoring glory to the fabled Intercontinental Championship, a belt created by the WWF almost four months before this columnist was even born, when Pat Patterson’s North American Heavyweight Championship was renamed after a fictional tournament in Brazil. With alleged victories on North and South American soil, the new Intercontinental Championship was born, and it has been the company’s second strap more or less ever since, aside from one dark period where it was “merged” with Triple H’s World Heavyweight Championship and another where the big gold belt moved into the “worker’s title” position traditionally held by the Intercontinental Championship. Truthfully, the idea of restoring glory to this piece of gold is not a new one; although Daniel Bryan’s win at Wrestlemania XXXI is the most recent attempt to bring the title back to prominence, the past decade and a half has seen plenty of others. With Bryan’s reign off to one hell of a start with his matches against Dolph Ziggler and Sheamus, it seemed timely to bring you a historical series looking at previous reigns that restored some prestige to the belt. I chose to start from 2003, as the title coming back from “retirement” seemed an obvious jumping off point, as really, it was starting from rock bottom at that time.

With the preamble over, we move to our first candidate for improving the standing of the Intercontinental Championship over the past twelve years: the youthful Legend Killer, the crown jewel of Evolution and son of the Ace Cowboy, Randy Orton.

Evolution Is A Mystery

Coming off the huge rub of pinning Shawn Michaels to send Steve Austin packing from Raw at Survivor Series 2003, Orton interfered in the business of replacement Co-GM Mick Foley and the Intercontinental Champion Rob Van Dam. Consequently, Orton got his shot at Mr Monday Night’s belt, but with the caveat that Foley would be the guest referee. This was genius on a couple of levels, as it added Mick’s storytelling acumen to the title match and also set in motion the feud that would take Randy to new levels. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

If there’s one thing brand exclusive pay-per-views did well, it was giving significant time to midcard feuds. There’s no doubt that the uber-popular champ against the cocky third generation star was a great mix, and the two were given almost eighteen minutes to tear it up. The storyline device of Orton coming out to get in Foley’s face, only for the Co-GM to respond by bringing the title match forwards plays into the opening, as The Legend Killer hams up not being ready mentally by bailing out of the ring and backing off the martial arts kicks of Van Dam. However, the developing cerebral smarts of Orton are sold when he shoves the high flier off the top turnbuckle all the way to the floor. Randall’s offense is measured, methodical and impactful, showing the viciousness that would become a career trademark. The arrogant posing and nonchalant covers are by no means new tactics, but they certainly show an acute understanding of heel psychology, and that goes for his selling too, which is classically exaggerated in order to emphasise the way Van Dam’s unorthodox style presents a unique challenge. What’s most striking though is how The Legend Killer wins 100% clean with the RKO, even at this point being sold by the announcers as coming “out of nowhere”, and how the twenty-three-year-old new champion gazes lovingly at the gold to sell its importance to him. Randy Orton was one of the company’s fastest rising stars, and this win marked the end of the first stage of his push. The next would unfold over the next few months.

Killing A Legend

At the Royal Rumble in January 2004, Orton drew number two and faced off with Chris Benoit who had been forced into the number one spot by Paul Heyman. Benoit was the most over man in wrestling at the time, and it gave the young Intercontinental Champion valuable time with a ring general of the highest order. However, the impressive thirty three minute sojourn in the Rumble was really only a set up for the storyline return of Foley, who had been humiliated after Armageddon, walking out of Raw rather than facing the upstart midcard champ in the ring. A quick pair of feather in the cap eliminations by Randy- Rikishi and Booker T- were followed by the youngster also tossing Shelton Benjamin, Ernest Miller and Rico, before the reveal of Foley replacing Test as the number 21 entrant. As the music hits and The Hardcore Legend rushes the ring, the crowd pop like crazy, and the bombs exchanged truly seem to have semantic value, before the inevitable signature clothesline over the top that sends both men tumbling the floor to brawl their way to the back and a signature ‘Mania season feud.

The Wrestlemania XX handicap tag might not have had the title at stake, but I don’t think anyone can deny that rubbing shoulders with The Rock and Mick Foley at Madison Square Garden enhanced the standing of the Intercontinental Champion and the title he carried. Orton’s early selling of Foley’s right hands was another sign that Randy had his heel schtick down pat, as was his vicious instincts when he finally got his hands on a weakened Mrs Foley’s baby boy in the midpoint of the match. As the match breaks down towards its conclusion, it seems that The Rock and Sock have things firmly under control, with Mr Socko waiting for Orton to turn around and taste the Mandible Claw, but the young stud strikes first with an RKO to take the huge ‘Mania victory for his team.

Ultimately though, RKO would need a signature singles performance to cement his status as the company’s fastest rising star, and put a sense of legitimacy onto the midcard title he carried, and the title match under hardcore rules at Backlash 2004 finally gave Mick the time and space he needed to give Randy the kind of rub that sent The Rock and Triple H into the stratosphere at the turn of the millennium. Orton entirely shed any tinges of green that remained to stand toe to toe with wrestling’s greatest proponent of the brawl and crafted an undisputed Intercontinental Championship classic for the ages. I love the way that the Legend Killer walks confidently to the ring with a trash can full of weapons as if he’s not afraid to take Foley on at his own game, only to then cower in the corner, using the bin for protection as Mick rains down blows with a baseball bat upon him; it’s classic heel territory that helps heat up the crowd for the battle to come. Like any grappling villain, the strategic time out is used to sneakily take the reins of the match, with Orton using a smart drop toe hold to ground Foley and assault him with garbage can shots to the head, which are delivered with conviction; Randall takes full advantage of Foley’s legendary bumping ability and willingness to embrace punishment to get his opponent over.

Also notable is the Legend Killer’s willingness to involve himself in the kind of war this match type demands; he does not spare himself nasty bumps, no sir. Seeing RKO take a neckbreaker on the concrete, a low blow with a baseball bat and barbed wire to the face (Orton does a pretty epic juice job in this one) does wonders for audience perception of his toughness, indeed, they go wild for this the torture of the pretty boy champ, and yet you can almost feel the respect for him growing as the bout builds. An important aspect of any hardcore match type is the way the momentum needs to swing back and forth, and this is the case to brilliant effect here; just as Orton seems down and out, he flings salt in the eyes of Foley in a mark-out moment for yours truly (Mr Fuji for the win) and backdrops the legend onto a table covered with barbed wire, going to use said piece of furniture to punish Foley further. When the tide flows back to Cactus, the spots just get more brutal, particularly the bump the brash young upstart takes off the stage through tables followed by taking the trademark Foley flying elbow. Lawler asks what more the Legend Killer can possibly take, which is exactly the kind of kayfabe reaction one desires from a hardcore match.

In a match designed to get him over as a big time star, the finish is beautifully judged to achieve just that aim, Orton cunningly escaping two Mandible Claw attempts to hit consecutive RKOs, the second on the bat. An epic conclusion to an epic encounter. Despite disposing of Foley, the Intercontinental Champion would have no shortage of dangerous challengers as the spring turned to summer.

Stopping Shelton, Dropping To Edge

A highly competitive feud with Shelton Benjamin was next on Orton’s agenda, with the former tag star beating him with the T-Bone two weeks in a row on Raw, prompting a rant from the champion in front of the live crowd at Bad Blood where he asserted his accomplishments in epically entertaining fashion; anyone who thinks Orton is boring on the mic just hasn’t seen him motivated like he was here. He’s a fantastic antagonist when he’s on song. Go back and watch the promo; he stalks through the crowd, raving about his greatness in the most animated fashion this side of 1999 Triple H, and that’s before he’s even wrestled the fantastic match he wrestled with Shelton that evening. The fact that the title reign is six months old is very much a feature of the hype for the match, and the way that Orton’s posturing leads to Benjamin coming out to get the contest started right there and then plays into the hubris of the champ; from there, the story is all about whether he can back up that overweening pride. The chemistry the two youngsters have with each other is clear for everybody to see, and the confidence Randy gained from his tussles with Foley seems to ooze from every pore; there can be no doubt about what a polished performer Orton has become by now, in fact he has become a veritable ring general, controlling the direction of the match with the incredible but spot dependent Shelton. What the match does very well, in common with a lot of very good midcard title matches over the years, is build gradually to an exciting crescendo in very believable fashion. In this case, intervention from manager Ric Flair and a tights assisted roll up- both classic heel champion retention tactics- saw Orton through the challenge of the talented former Team Angle member.

By the time we got to Vengeance 2004, Orton had held the belt for over seven months, and was targeted by the returning Edge, a four time Intercontinental Champion at that time himself, who decided that Evolution’s dominance was too much for him to stomach. The resulting match was something of a minor classic, with a feature length run time and a notably old school feel to it; in many ways, it was a Bret Hart type of match, making potent use of psychology and building the drama in an almost imperceptible fashion until the audience was utterly hooked. Orton is continually outsmarted by the returning babyface, and even when he attempts to take his title and get counted out, Edge is a step ahead of him, stopping him in his tracks. However, fascinatingly, Orton’s enjoyable title reign and Edge’s white bread booking actually lead to the fans getting behind the long time champion, particularly when the spear is countered and Randy goes on the offensive. The Legend Killer goes into his usual routine through that title reign, wearing his opponent down with high impact manoeuvres to targeted body parts and wear down holds such as body scissors and a reverse chinlock that he would perhaps come to rely on rather too much over the next couple of years. My colleague on LOP, The Doc is fond of saying that matches involving Edge often had some of the most exciting closing sequences in wrestling lore, and that certainly holds true here, as increasingly heart stopping back and forth near falls get ever more desperate until an exposed turnbuckle and a spear finally see Orton taste defeat on pay-per-view, but by now, the belt and the booking had done its job. Randy Orton was established as a star and that summer, he would challenge Chris Benoit for the World Heavyweight Title...and win.

Vital Statistics

Orton’s 210 day reign was the longest in seven years, going back to The Rock’s 265 day reign between December 1997 and August 1998. The next closest contender was way back on 125 days (Ken Shamrock) and after that the 72 days of Chris Jericho in early 2001. Therefore, in pure longevity terms, there’s no denying how much Randy Orton did to raise the prestige of the title. When we factor in that he beat one of the more prominent midcarders of recent times for the belt and defended against all time greats like Edge and Mick Foley, it was certainly one hell of a title reign. If there is a slight black mark against this run, it’s the fact that he didn’t defend the thing between December and April, but as he was involved in a huge Wrestlemania match, you kind of have to forgive that, as the title belt was prominent within the narrative of the build. Did Randy Orton bring prominence to the Intercontinental Championship? You bet he did.

What did you think of Randy Orton’s seven month run with the second strap? And what do you think of the current attempt to rehabilitate the belt under the auspices of Daniel Bryan? Be sure to let me know below or you can tweet me here:

I will be back with part 2 of this series soon enough: can you guess the identity of the next Intercontinental Champion I will be discussing?

Until then, this is Maverick, requesting flyby!