(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Randy Orton vs. Mick Foley/Cactus Jack – WWE Backlash 2004
There are some combinations of words or terms that simply do not go together: “Randy Orton” and “5-Star match” is one such combination.
In my opinion, Randy Orton is one of the most paradoxical wrestlers in modern wrestling history. He isn’t really known for his great matches; I sincerely doubt any wrestling fan, critic, or journalist worth his salt would actually put Orton on a list of best matches of all time unless he was trolling. And yet, Orton has achieved a different kind of success. He’s arguably the most accomplished one-trick pony in WWE history. He achieved numerous accolades and became the biggest ‘WWE moments guy’ of the past decade or more by simply doing one move better than anyone else. And that one-trick approach has allowed him to wrestle consistently for over two decades without really having major health problems. WWE’s commentators don’t repeat that ‘you can build a company around Orton’ line ad nauseam for nothing; he’s really that good and doing the same thing on a nightly basis without ever dipping in quality. It might make him bland, but again, at least he’s consistent.
But there was a time when Orton wasn’t just a three-star performer with a five-star finisher. There was a time when Orton actually took risks and competed in different matches to make him stand out as a performer. And one of his matches during that time might be the best match Orton has ever had.
Thus, today we look back to see how well that match holds up. Today we revisit the No Holds Barred match between Orton and Cactus Jack/Mick Foley from WWE Backlash 2004.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
In 2004, Orton had two gimmicks. The first one was that he was the ‘young up-and-coming rookie’ member of Triple H’s Evolution stable. Orton was seen as a big deal simply by association; he shared TV time with RAW’s biggest star (HHH), a certified legend (Ric Flair) and a mountain of muscle (Batista). His second (and more important) gimmick was that of “the legend killer”, which I think is a gimmick that should be used more often. Put simply, Orton beat up legends that were past their primes. It made sense; Orton was young, fresh, and was quickly gaining experience thanks to the veteran teachings of his Evolution stablemates. Orton embarrassing, hurting, and in some cases literally spitting on, veteran WWE superstars was not only a perfect way for him to get a reaction, but it made people want to pay money to see him get his ass kicked.
Orton mowed through legends for a while until he reached a bit of a roadblock: Mick Foley. Foley was nicknamed “the Hardcore Legend” but by 2003, his hardcore days were mostly behind him. Almost a year before this match, Orton, with Flair’s help, threw Foley down a flight of stairs to ruin a celebration of Foley’s achievements that took place earlier that same night. Six months later, Foley refused to wrestle Orton for his Intercontinental Championship. In response, Orton called Foley a coward and spat in his face. The feud between them escalated a month later at the 2004 Royal Rumble when Foley entered the rumble match as a mystery entrant. But Foley didn’t have Triple H or his World Heavyweight Championship in mind; Foley wanted Orton. And Foley got Orton when he eliminated both Orton and himself via Cactus clothesline. That elimination setup a 2-on-3 handicap at WrestleMania XX match featuring Orton and his Evolution buddies Flair and Batista against Foley and the Rock. Orton pinned Foley in that match but Foley wasn’t done. Something in that loss sparked him to unleash his inner monster. And so, Orton was challenged to a No Holds Barred match at Backlash. But it wasn’t Mick Foley that Orton would wrestle; it was going to be Cactus Jack, Foley’s dangerous, unhinged psychopath of an alter-ego with a violence fetish.
Orton beat Foley clean but could he do the same to Jack? Could he land another RKO and secure the victory, or would Cactus Jack tear him to pieces with all the weapons he’d bring down and make use of in this brutal match?
This match originally took place on April 18th, 2004. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and TJR’s John Canton.
This is for Orton’s WWE Intercontinental Championship. Orton comes out first carrying a garbage can full of weapons, included a barbed wire 2×4. Foley comes out carrying his famous barbed wire bat “Barbie” and gets a big pop. The barbed wire on Orton’s 2×4 starts falling off so he bails as Foley enters the ring. The bell rings as Foley smashes Barbie into the garbage can, which Orton’s using as a shield. The match quickly turns into a scene from one of the Friday the 13thmovies, with Foley playing the role of Jason and Orton playing the hapless teenager. Foley goes for a big overhead swing but Orton counters with a drop toehold onto the steel ringsteps. Orton steals Barbie and tries grinding it into Foley’s head but he resists with all his might. Orton overpowers Cactus and almost hits his head with Barbie but Foley knees Orton to send him falling. But before Foley can do anything, Orton whacks his head with the garbage can a few times. Orton goes for a big swing but Foley hits first and then whacks Orton with the can.
Back in the ring, Foley chokes Orton and lands a running kneelift, followed by a Hogan leg drop for a two-count. Then Foley dropkicks Orton to the floor and lands a swinging neckbreaker. He climbs the turnbuckle and teases a Cactus Elbow to the floor but Orton crawls up the entrance ramp to avoid it. Foley goes after Orton but Orton counters and hits a back suplex on the entrance ramp for a two-count. Orton gets another two-count off a backslide onto the ramp and then slams Foley’s head into it for yet another two-count. He slams Foley into the steps, throws him into the ring, and grabs Barbie again. Then he tries pushing Barbie into Foley’s face again but Foley blocks and lands a back low blow. Foley clotheslines Orton down and pulls out Mr. Socko. The crowd goes nuts for Socko but then Foley starts playing to the crowd. He holds up Socko in one hand and Barbie in the other and gauges the fans’ reaction to each. The fans choose Barbie so Foley smashes it/”her” into Orton’s face. Twice.
Blood runs down Orton’s face as Foley lands more punches to Orton’s fresh wound. Foley follows with a corner running knee and more face grinding with Barbie. But Foley isn’t done with the punishment. He places Barbie between Orton’s legs and drops a leg on it. Ouch. Foley reaches under the ring and pulls out a lighter and a gasoline can. Now things are getting really extreme. He goes to set Barbie on fire when out comes Bischoff. Bischoff warns Foley that if he lights Barbie on fire then the fire marshal will stop the show. Foley ponders this new wrinkle in his plans and ultimately throws the lighter and Barbie aside, much to the fans’ collective displeasure. But they get their bloodlust satiated soon afterwards as Foley hits Orton’s head with a baking sheet. Then Foley pulls out a barbed wire board, which gets loud cheers. Fans are chanting ‘Holy s**t’ before that weapon is even used. Foley pulls Orton up and starts landing punches to the head. Orton wobbles but stays on his feet. Foley charges but Orton blinds him with what appears to be Fuji powder. Then Orton picks Foley up and slams him onto the barbed tire board. Orton covers but Foley kicks out.
Orton sets up the board in a corner and goes for an Irish whip but Foley holds onto the rope for dear life. He lands several punches but Foley refuses to let himself get sent into the corner. But eventually Orton’s punches weaken Foley’s resolve enough to get him moving. Irish whip into the corner, Foley reverses and – wait, Orton reverses at the last second. Foley hits the board in the corner. Then he dropkicks Foley back into it for a second dose.
Orton slams the board onto Foley and grabs a velvet bag…containing thumbtacks. Orton pours thousands of tacks onto the mat to create a bed of tacks. Orton lands some punches and sets up the RKO. He runs to get enough momentum (this was before it was done jumping/out of nowhere). RK- NO, Foley blocks. Foley stays standing and sends Orton flying! Orton lands back-first on the tacks! The camera cuts to a shot of dozens of tacks sticking out of Orton’s back! Good God that must suck!
Foley goes for a school boy roll-up cover (which must suck extra hard since Orton has to take a light roll onto his back which is still covered in tacks) but Orton somehow kicks out. Orton appears to be in shock, trembling and staggering as he tries to pull some of the tacks out, including the ones in his hand! Orton tries escaping but Cactus gives chase. Orton flees backstage but is soon chased back out. Foley brawls with him and throws him off the stage onto a pile of equipment. Foley poses as doctors check on Orton. Some referees keep Foley calm and the match appears to be either over or ending at a moment’s notice. But then Foley decides against any peaceful resolution. He punches the referees (imagine that, Foley having a spine and standing up to authority) and lands a Cactus Elbow drop onto Orton below. This is exactly as JR describes it: a human demolition derby. Foley covers Orton. One…two…and thr – NO, Orton kicks out.
Foley drags what’s left of Orton back into the ring. he lands a Double-Arm DDT but only gets a two-count. Foley sets up the barbed wire board in a corner and goes after Orton but Orton hits him with Barbie. Orton swings Barbie into Foley’s stomach and back. Orton prepares a big overhead swing but doesn’t notice Foley grabbing Socko. Orton charges…into a Mandible Claw. Orton sinks down but then he lands a big uppercut and a low blow. Both wrestlers are bleeding as Foley locks in the Claw again. Orton counters into an RKO. One, two, Foley kicks out. Orton lands one more onto Barbie. The referee counts one, two…three! Orton survives and retains his title.
Winner after 23:05: Randy Orton
Though it might not be Orton’s biggest career moment, this was his best overall match by far! This was special; not only was it an entertaining hardcore bloodbath but it was also a great story. It wasn’t just entertaining seeing Foley punish Orton; it was cathartic. It was so satisfying seeing the cocky, arrogant jackass get what he deserved. It was an awesome example of hiding a wrestler’s weaknesses (in this case, Foley’s) by adding gimmickry while also having the other guy take a ton of punishment to get over as iron-willed. By the end of the match, the audience was left with a different feeling about Orton: one of appreciation. It was less about seeing Orton get killed and more about Orton going the extra mile to not only put on a good match but survive utter hell for the fans’ amusement. He really earned respect by taking this match seriously and putting himself through the worst pain imaginable to show that he took wrestling seriously.
The match was intense from the very beginning. Orton’s trademark cockiness disappeared within seconds as Foley charged towards him like a horror movie monster out for blood. Orton was afraid of Foley and his early failed attempts at escape and regaining control showed that. He was out of his element and he knew it. His balls were bigger than his brain for accepting this match, especially since Foley was more experienced and WAY more sadistic here. Foley was so confident here that he allowed himself to play to/with the crowd to see how he was going to mangle Orton. But Foley own sadism worked against him. He relied on Barbie too much and ended up losing control thanks to some perfect last-moment counters from Orton. Sure, Foley went to the extreme to try and destroy Orton and seeing him perform Attitude-Era-style-car-crash bumps was fun as hell.
But the whole legend vs. legend killer ended up working in Orton’s favor. Orton knew he couldn’t out-hardcore Foley so all he had to do was outlast Foley. That seemed like an impossible task at first; Foley was a legend for not just hitting hard but for being able to endure ungodly amounts of punishment. But Orton had another advantage: youth. He was younger and in better physical condition. While being more lithe and less doughy worked against him in terms of absorbing pain, it also gave him better conditioning. Foley had to rely on hardcore gimmicks here because he couldn’t do much of anything else. Just watch when he tries to do something not involving weapons. His brawling was sluggish, he moved slowly, and anything resembling grappling or throws looked weak when Foley did it. Orton did the same stuff better and used the element of surprise better than Foley did.
And yet, this was more about the story and the weapons than anything else. This was a chance to see Foley, who had been disrespected many times, get his revenge on Orton. Foley satisfied his own desire for revenge and satiated the audience who wanted to see Orton get his just desserts bigtime. There are few things better in life than seeing someone you know has wronged you or annoyed you deeply get punished for their arrogance. For most of this match, Foley told that story and took advantage of that feeling of satisfaction while also teasing fans with the possibility of even more extreme carnage. It did get a bit over-the-top at times; Bischoff stopping Barbie from being set on fire was a disappointment and it took a long time for the fan excitement to get back to the same level.
Plus, I think that some of the big spots were in the wrong order. Orton’s fall onto the thumbtacks should’ve switched places with Foley’s stage dive. That latter dive spot has been done many times but, as Chris Jericho once pointed out, you can’t really top a thumbtack spot. That was when the match peaked’ most of what came afterwards failed to match that moment in terms of excitement. Still, Orton deserves a ton of respect for taking one of the most sickening bumps in modern WWE history. I’m sure his reactions were legit and not hammed up; he had countless tacks stuck in his back and in his hand. The pain must’ve been simply excruciating. But he did that bump like a champ and continued wrestling. Even a simple school boy roll-up, which anyone reading this can pull off without effort or risk, was worsened here because Orton had those tacks digging into his back once again.
Final Rating: ****1/2
As much as I hate to parrot other reviewers with the same rating, this is the right score for this match. It hasn’t gotten worse with age, nor has it really improved. It was fantastic when it first happened and there hasn’t been a match like it in WWE since. It’s one of the most unique and interesting matches in WWE history, especially since most people these days might not be accustomed to the idea of Orton doing his same old shtick.
This match is a reminder of a bit of a better time: a time when wrestlers took risks and did things for the sake of the match and the story, instead of having the same copy-and-paste matches night after night. I know it’s ironic to say that given that it’s Randy Orton we’re talking about here, but there really was something better about the early 2000s when shows and the matches on them were a lot more unique and less repetitive than they are today.
It’s a shame; this really was the peak of Orton’s success as an in-ring athlete. Though he’d go on to become a great villain and even reach internet meme status, he has yet to reach these same heights. He has very much become a guy that tells great stories, does great character work, and does a tremendous job building up to big matches. But when it comes to finishing those stories in the ring, he hasn’t been that compelling in years.
So while Orton has become more memorable for his ‘RKO outta nowhere’ meme, it’s important to remember that there was a time when he was more than a one-trick pony. Who knows, maybe he’ll have one more match like this before he retires.
Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.