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CIRCA
The Legend of Cowboy Bob Orton
July 15, 2004

by Denny Burkholder
Courtesy of WrestleLine.com

 

The fans at live WWE events have begun actively cheering "Legend Killer" Randy Orton. As the young blue chipper of Evolution continues to improve as an all-around performer, WWE keeps pushing him, and writers who dislike Randy - "ORTON FEARS JEB," anyone? - have fewer people backing them up on their opinion. As the Evolution of Randy Orton progresses, he's become his own man.

It seems like only yesterday that Randy's only claim to fame was being the son of that famous wrestler from the 1970s and 80s, "Cowboy" Bob Orton, Jr. Of course, he's also the grandson of the equally legendary Bob Orton Sr., but it's safe to say the majority of fans remember the younger Bob more often than the elder Bob. 'Tis a product of passing generations.

Whereas Randy once assumed the risk of being lost in the shadow of his famous father, it now looks possible that the younger Orton will wind up surpassing the legend of his dad. Regardless of whether that happens, Bob Orton Jr. is more than worthy of his spot in wrestling history, with or without his family name. Usually, he doesn't get the credit he deserves for being a very talented technical wrestler. It's very easy to write Bob Orton off as a career midcarder whose greatest claims to fame were the numerous times he was booked as the right-hand man of a bigger name wrestler. While there's a bit of truth to that side of Orton's career, it's not entirely fair, either.

What many wrestling fans remember about Cowboy Bob Orton are the gimmicks he used in the WWF in the mid 1980s. Toadying around with "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and wearing a kilt as "Ace." Donning the pink cowboy hat when his allegiance switched to "Adorable" Adrian Adonis. The overgrown frat boy tag team known as Orton and Don Muraco, sarcastically mocking Roddy Piper by using his bagpipe entrance theme and wearing kilts to the ring after Hot Rod turned babyface.

Let us not forget about the dreaded arm cast. During his days as a henchman for Piper, Orton's forearm was in a plaster cast for what seemed like two or three years. The cast evolved from initial cheap sympathy ploy to get out of wrestling a dangerous opponent to blatant weapon of choice for Orton, who swore he still needed the cast to heal his "injury." In fact, he wore it proudly during matches and used it to smash his opponents into a thin paste for an easy victory. The cast even made a cameo at Wrestlemania I, deciding the finish of the main event as Orton erroneously clobbered Paul "Mr. Wonderful" Orndorff to set up the win for Hulk Hogan and Mr. T. Orton's cast is revered as one of pro wrestling's most famous foreign objects, right up there with The Iron Sheik's "loaded" genie boots, Jim Cornette's tennis racket and Jimmy Hart's megaphone.

Notwithstanding the gimmickery of Bob Orton - which was more a product of the way promoters booked him than anything else - he was indeed an extremely capable mat wrestler. the native of Kansas City, Kansas, followed in his own father's footsteps by entering the wrestling business after dropping out of Missouri University. Bob Orton was trained by some very good hands, including Hiro Matsuda and Eddie Graham. Combined with his natural athletic ability and his family background in the wrestling business, Bob Orton was a top prospect.

And he came out of the gates strong in the early 1970s. Throughout the decade, he would hone his style and become an even better athlete. Eventually, Orton adopted the superplex as a finishing move. Whether or not Orton invented the superplex is highly debatable and probably impossible to prove, but he was highest-profile wrestler to use the move on a regular basis (Scott "Super Destroyer" Irwin began using the superplex a while after Bob Orton, and is often looked to as one of the pioneers of the move).

For the early 1980s, a superplex was a pretty spectacular move. There weren't nearly as many highspots or high impact moves during Bob Orton's day. Wrestling still had its pummelers like Abdullah the Butcher and Andre the Giant, who simply pounded opponents into submission. But the focus on true wrestling ability was more pronounced back then. Wrestling was closer to the proverbial "game of chess" Larry Zbyszko always talks about. Guys like Harley Race and Bob Backlund would often wrestle at a snail's pace and use numerous rest holds, but everything they did made sense. The rest holds weren't viewed as rest holds, nor were they portrayed by the wrestlers as a meaningless move. This was the school of wrestling that Bob Orton Jr. came from, and he was one of the best at this style of match.

That's why he was such a good match with Harley Race during Race's latter days as NWA Champion. If you watch some of the early Ric Flair footage on The Ultimate Ric Flair Collection DVD set, Bob Orton was right there with tag team partner Dick Slater as Harley's henchmen, attacking Flair and serving as the setup feud for babyfaces on their way to a title shot. Orton and Race both had that old school mentality about what constituted a great wrestling match. Race had a better working ability when it came to the charisma side of the business - I guess that comes with being on top of the industry for years - but Orton certainly knew his way around the squared circle.

For a terrific example of Bob Orton at his best, I like to refer people to a match he had with Adrian Adonis in San Antonio in the early 1980s, which was the finals of a title tournament for Southwest Championship Wrestling (the match is available on DVD here, if you're interested). Adonis was about a year away from pairing up with Dick Murdoch and making his jump to the WWF, which began with a tag team title run with Murdoch and ended with Adonis about 75 pounds heavier and wearing a dress. In Orton's case, it was the same general era as his work with Slater and Race, just before he made his own move to New York and became famous worldwide as Roddy Piper's silent-but-deadly cohort.

If that match were to take place in front of a 2004 WWE crowd, the fans would turn on it within three minutes. What are viewed as rest holds today were used very early in the match - arm bars, toe holds, hammerlocks - and they were held for minutes on end. Remember the uproar over the length of Randy Orton's rest hold against Edge at Vengeance? This was easily three times worse. Except for the fact that in that era, those holds were still portrayed as damaging to the victim. Moreover, they made perfect sense. Each man had been through a couple of matches that night prior to the finals. Naturally, they both began by trying to wear on each other's limbs. They were trying to sap a little more strength out of the arms and legs right away, as opposed to launching into a punch, kick, chop fest to start the match (as is done in most modern wrestling matches).

In fact, Neither Adonis nor Bob Orton used A SINGLE STRIKE until 10 full minutes into the match! Not once. Not a single punch or kick. No knees or elbows. No chopping or even open-hand slapping. No headbutts. They locked up, somebody succeeded in getting the other into a wrestling hold (imagine that!), other guy reverses it. The first guy escapes, they lock up again, and they find another wrestling hold. Adonis and Orton weren't FIGHTING each other - at least, not until after the first ten minutes, when Orton began punching Adonis to further damage an existing cut on Adonis' head. They were WRESTLING each other. The fans weren't going nuts for it, but they were watching with interest, and following the story being told in the ring. I honestly don't think a match like that would be well recieved by today's average WWE crowd (as evidenced by the crowd chanting "BORING" at Randy Orton's comparatively mild rest hold usage at Vegeance). But it's still a damn fine example of wrestling.

Where Bob Orton fell a bit short was that he was a 1970s style worker that reached his peak as the 1980s ushered in the "sports entertainment" concept. He was a Harley Race - or a Dory Funk, or a whomever - in the era of Hulk Hogan, Jerry Lawler and Ric Flair. He was probably a better wrestler than most of the guys in the locker room, but he didn't show enough charisma on the microphone. He didn't talk the talk. He went in the ring and took care of business, but he wasn't a fantastic interview. That's why he kept getting paired up with guys like Race, Piper, Muraco and Adonis as their go-to lackey. Those guys could carry an interview on Orton's behalf. Unfortunately, while that worked out well in terms of keeping Bob Orton in the spotlight and giving him storylines to work, it also made sure he remained shunted into the also-ran category as a permanent fixture at the side of the bigger stars of the 1980s.

Orton made it almost entirely on his ability to WRESTLE. That's either a tremendous accomplishment or a dull side note, depending on what kind of fan you are. Old schoolers tend to prefer the Bob Ortons of wrestling history to the Hulk Hogans. "Sports entertainment" fans are probably indifferent to the majority of Bob Orton's work. Everything except for that cast, and a few coincidental supporting roles on Piper's Pit.

Now, we have a different (but also very good) style of pro wrestling. We have more striking and less mat work. We've got a lot more pyro. And we've got a brand new Orton. In thirty years, will Cowboy Bob Orton's legend be as large as his son Randy's?

I'm willing to bet they both hope not.

E-MAIL DENNY
BROWSE THE CIRCA ARCHIVES


  
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