Randy Orton over the last 20 years has enjoyed one of the best careers in WWE history but it was “The Legend Killer” gimmick that truly put him on the map.
Orton has had numerous gimmicks and monikers over the years, from the “The Viper” to “The Apex Predator” but his initial run as “The Legend Killer” is probably the one fans remember him most fondly for, given the sheer number of iconic moments and interactions with legends of the industry.
As the title suggests, the gimmick was that of a young upstart looking to kill the legends of the past, letting them know their time was up and he was the future of wrestling. This was achieved through blatant shows of disrespect both verbally and physically.
The ironic aspect of the gimmick was that it originated at a time when Orton was being mentored by the greatest legend of them all, Ric Flair, as well as Triple H, as part of Evolution. Orton was also a third-generation superstar, the son of “Cowboy” Bob Orton and had grown up in the business.
The contradictory nature of it all made the gimmick all the better, and one perfectly suited to his arrogant, cocky and brash heel character.
The first of many high-profile “Legend vs Legend Killer” feuds was between Orton and Shawn Michaels, who met at Unforgiven 2003. With the help of The Nature Boy, Orton put down Michaels with the RKO – it was around this time the move became Orton’s signature finisher, and one that would become synonymous with him as a performer.
The two met again at Survivor Series, on opposing sides of a traditional 5-on-5 elimination match between “Team Bischoff” and “Team Austin”. With the help of Evolution teammate Batista, Orton pinned Michaels and was the sole survivor.
This resulted in Stone Cold Steve Austin being forced to leave his position as co-General Manager of Raw, another notch on the belt of “The Legend Killer.” This was also the first of three consecutive Survivor Series pay per views where Orton was the sole survivor – which only added to his burgeoning reputation.
Following this, Orton entered the first long-term feud of his career, with the legendary Mick Foley. The seeds for the storyline had been sown in June when Foley was beaten down by Orton and Flair on his own “Career Achievement Night.”
The hardcore legend later pitched the idea that he would be too afraid to face Orton, experiencing a crisis of confidence after three years in retirement. He backed out on the match in December 2003, later being confronted by the young upstart backstage and being called a coward. Orton then spat in Foley’s face, the ultimate show of disrespect.
Foley returned at the Royal Rumble, eliminating both himself and Orton in one fell swoop. This set the scene for a showdown at WrestleMania, which became a 2-on-3 handicap match-up between “The Rock ‘n’ Sock connection” and Orton, Flair and Batista.
Orton continued his rise with the pinfall victory over Foley, adding both him and The Great One to his list of victims.
A singles match was booked between the pair at Backlash 2004 to finally end the feud. But it was not just any singles match. It was a Hardcore match. Foley’s specialty and a serious test of both Orton in storyline and reality.
In the best match and win of his young career, Orton added toughness to his aura and character, earning his stripes in the process. This was another example of Foley’s selflessness, making Orton like he had Triple H in 2000.
Orton recently alluded to this, saying “It’s because of Mick Foley that I became the Legend Killer.”
Orton continued to add legends to his hitlist, namely Harley Race and an 80-year-old Fabulous Moolah, before transitioning into a face character after his World Heavyweight Championship triumph and subsequent dismissal from Evolution.
Despite a steel cage victory over Flair, his face run was a flop with Orton not being ready or suitable for the role at the time. He moved back to “The Legend Killer” gimmick in early 2005 and looked to take down the biggest of them all – The Undertaker at WrestleMania 21.
This was the first year that the streak became a major storyline plot and a secondary main-event match, which continued for the next decade.
Orton added a meaner edge to his character, putting down the legendary Jake “The Snake” Roberts and even RKO’ing his girlfriend Stacy Keibler in the build up to the match. It did not result in a victory over “The Deadman” but it was the closest anyone had come to ending the streak at the time.
The two men’s rivalry resumed in the summer of 2005, when Orton announced his draft move to Smackdown with an RKO on Taker. “The Legend Killer” emerged victorious at Summerslam with the help of his returning father, and again at No Mercy, this time a handicap Casket Match between the Ortons and “The Phenom.”
Following victory, Orton lit the casket on fire, signalling the supposed demise of The Undertaker (for approximately the fifth time his career). This was one of many memorable moments in the six-month long storyline, another being the “killing” of Roddy Piper, his father’s old ally.
Of course, The Undertaker returned at Survivor Series after Orton was the sole survivor in the Smackdown vs Raw elimination match. The feud ended at Armageddon in the way only the best can – inside Hell in a Cell. The Undertaker won, and Orton would drop the gimmick as he again entered the World Title picture.
“The Legend Killer” gimmick was brought back from time to time over the following years, notably in a losing feud with Hulk Hogan at Summerslam 2006 and in the build-up to his WWE title programme with John Cena, where he took down Dusty Rhodes and Rob Van Dam amongst others.
As Orton matured as a man and a character, the gimmick went largely unmentioned through the 2010s. It returned in 2020 when his old Rated-RKO partner, Edge’s, came out of an injury induced retirement at the Royal Rumble.
Orton turned on his “friend”, leading to a feud where Orton looked to end the legend of Edge, as well as others who opposed him like Christian, Shawn Michaels, Ric Flair and The Big Show. Orton again moved away from the character once he entered storylines revolving around the WWE title and with characters closer to his own age.
“The Legend Killer” gimmick has stood the test of time, given Orton has used it at different moments from 2004 until 2020, and likely will once again. It ensures it remains the most memorable gimmick of his career, but the question remains: now Orton is a bona fide legend of the industry, who will look to “kill” the legend of the original “Legend Killer”?