By Mike Mooneyham

Aug. 29, 2004

Once in a blue moon, a performer with all the right stuff emerges. Not only does he captivate the audience, he single-handedly creates a renewed interest in the product and generates an upturn in business.

World Wrestling Entertainment has built its biggest boom periods around such performers as Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin and The Rock. The company hopes Randy Orton can join that elite group.

Orton officially was coronated when he became the youngest world champion in WWE history after defeating Chris Benoit for the title two weeks ago at Summer Slam. Unlike Benoit, who was a credible champion yet not a flagship for the company, the 24-year-old Orton is being positioned to carry WWE on his shoulders into the future. And that’s a tall order for anyone.

The landscape of the business has changed dramatically since the days Hogan, Austin and Rock ruled the roost. The competition has basically disappeared, and along with it, part of the audience. Hogan and Austin were in their 30s during their heydays, while The Rock was in his late 20s before he became the most electrifying performer in sports entertainment.

Randy Orton

Randy Orton

The WWE office demonstrated their faith in Orton by aligning him with Evolution early in his career. It was the greatest education Orton could have received at his stage of the game.

“I’m in great company,” Orton said in an interview last year. “I learn so much from those guys, not only in the ring but the locker room. Just being at dinner and traveling with those guys makes you realize how professional they are. It’s all business.”

Orton enjoys the benefit of having the powerful WWE machine fully behind him. Equally important, his ascension is bolstered by the added blessing of Triple H, a power-broker who wields considerable influence behind the scenes. No less than Ric Flair describes Orton as “the future” of the business. Ultimately, though, the fans and the ratings will determine whether or not Orton lives up to those lofty expectations.

Like Dwayne Johnson (The Rock), Orton is a third-generation wrestler who comes by his talent honestly. His dad, Cowboy Bob Orton Jr., is a respected veteran who taught his son the basics and gave him a keen insight into the business. His grandfather, “The Big O” Bob Orton, was a main-event star who toured this territory as the Southern heavyweight champion during the 1960s.

Randy Orton, who made his WWE television debut at the age of 22, quickly established himself as the “Legend Killer,” turning back the likes of Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley and Steve Austin and handing out licks to veterans such as Harley Race, Sgt. Slaughter, The Fabulous Moolah and Mae Young. Some critics, however, have questioned the timing of his babyface turn, arguing that the eventual Orton-Triple H showdown should have been built up by teasing dissension in Evolution over a period of months and could have even set the stage for next year’s Wrestlemania. Some speculate that the company may have hurried Orton’s push to erase the departed Brock Lesnar’s legacy as the youngest champion in WWE history.

Perhaps closer to the truth is the fact that ratings have slumped in recent weeks, and with ABC’s Monday Night Football on the horizon, Vince McMahon needed a boost to shore up his flagship Monday night program. The upcoming weeks could be crucial to Orton’s development not only as a credible world champion, but one in which the company can built its promotion around.

While WWE would be wise to serve up Orton in small doses initially and not risk overexposing him, it will require more than just walking out, spitting in someone’s face and taking a powder, as Orton did last week in an exchange with Triple H, to get his character over as the next pro wrestling icon.

– WWE’s search for a new Rock or Stone Cold won’t end with Randy Orton.

“We are looking for someone to be the next Rock or Triple H, someone with a great look, physical strength and charisma, who’s interested in becoming a WWE superstar,” Vince McMahon said last week after announcing that the company was bringing back Tough Enough.

The reality program that drew top ratings for MTV on Thursday nights will be a special part of Smackdown, and this time WWE will award someone a WWE talent contract worth up to $1 million.

– Steve Austin, who is currently living with Diamond Dallas Page in the Los Angeles area while filming “The Longest Yard,” and Sean “X-Pac” Waltman were backstage at last week’s Raw at Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, Calif. Both talked briefly with Vince McMahon.

Austin, who left the company in April because of a dispute regarding use of the “Stone Cold” moniker, was said to be much more relaxed than in the past. There was no discussion, however, of him returning to the company.

Waltman recently completed drug treatment (funded by McMahon) at an Atlanta rehab clinic, but is not expected to be immediately returning to the ring. His on-again, off-again love interest, Joanie Laurer (the former Chyna), recently announced on the Howard Stern show that she was looking into peddling a sex tape with her ex-fiancé that was shot in a Los Angeles area apartment where the two were living earlier this year.

Waltman, who has since moved to Florida to be closer to his two children, responded on his Web site that he still loves Laurer despite scathing comments she has made concerning him.

“I only want to make her happy. As far as the this sex tape is concerned. I personally could care less if people see the tape in question. It is something I refuse to be ashamed of. It is actually very funny and in no way obscene. It is something I could never be ashamed of because it is a product of true love. So if anyone has a problem with it, then I can only say that is their problem.

“I will say that I think it was wrong of Joanie to publicize the fact that I am in treatment at this time. I am in no way ashamed of being here. Paul Levesque (Triple H) and Vince McMahon care about me enough that they have paid for me to be here … I have not worked for WWE in two years so the company can’t pay for it, thus they are paying for it out of their own pocket. This they are doing for me with no expectation that I will actually return to the ring.”

Laurer, who was once engaged to Triple H, left WWE in 2001 when contract negotiations between the wrestler and the company broke down She subsequently was barred from appearing as Chyna (a trademark of the WWE) when she posed for the January 2002 issue of Playboy.

– Even an appearance by the wildly entertaining Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson couldn’t save the rapidly sinking Diva Search last week on Raw. And give Glen Jacobs major credit for salvaging the Kane-Lita wedding storyline. The final quarter-hour featuring the nuptials drew a 4.0, with the overrun posting an impressive 4.9, which means we probably haven’t seen the last of that angle. Don’t expect it, however, to translate into renewed drawing power for Kane or Lita, or future pay-per-view buy rate bumps.

– It’s still mind-boggling to see Ric Flair, at age 55, working lengthy matches on Raw yet not be allowed to do what he does best at this stage of the game, and that’s talk. While William Regal is a solid hand, he’s not likely to be headlining six months down the road, and having the Nature Boy put him over makes little business sense. Flair means more money to the company now, and he’ll mean more money to the company a year from now.

While Evolution supposedly has been patterned after the Four Horsemen, the major difference is that all the Horsemen talked and commanded strong individual presence. Needless to say, it’s quite different with Evolution, whose senior member is universally regarded as one of the greatest talkers in the history of the business. The WWE writers’ argument that no one can follow him on the mic flies in the face of logic. The creative staff, though, apparently feels that youth should be served at all costs despite the fact that youth doesn’t seem to be producing results that would warrant not taking a gamble and going back to what worked in the past.

– It now appears that former WWE champ Brock Lesnar has no chance to make the Minnesota Vikings’ active roster, survive the first cut Tuesday or even be added to the eight-man practice squad on Sept. 6.

“I definitely was upset at first, but the thing about Brock is he flat-out earned my respect the past four weeks,” Vikings defensive line coach Brian Baker told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last week. “I don’t know how else to put it.”

Although Lesnar has worked very hard in training camp on the defensive line, the speed of the game has blown past him, and his nine-year layoff from football and lack of college experience have proved impossible to overcome in one training camp.