GUNTHER VS Randy Orton – For The Crown

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WWE’s King of the Ring tournament has undoubtedly seen a gradual decline in its prestige over the years. The event was initially a cornerstone of professional wrestling and one that could launch a wrestler’s career to new heights, however, it’s struggled to maintain its significance and has most recently been used to simply provide midcard talent with the royal gimmick for a period rather than elevate their stock. During its period as a yearly WWE pay-per-view, the tournament was critical platform for wrestlers to showcase their skills and character, often serving as a launching pad for future main event stars, with the likes of Bret Hart (1991, 1993), Stone Cold Steve Austin (1996), Triple H (1997), and Kurt Angle (2000) all having significantly benefitted from the victory. None of course are more iconic than Austin’s 1996 victory, after which he delivered his classic “Austin 3:16” promo that changed the course of the industry forever. Granted there were failures in this era of the competition, namely the wins for Billy Gunn and Mabel, but it wasn’t until the 2010s when winners such as King Barrett (2015) and King Corbin (2019) highlighted the full extent of the shift in how the “King” persona was portrayed, with neither man integrated into higher-profile storylines or given substantial character development as a once prestigious accolade became simply a vehicle to provide a cartoonish and comedic role to the winner.

That era is now seemingly behind us, however, as this year’s edition of the tournament has been built up as the return to form that the event has been crying out for. Looking at the two talents squaring off in the final, it’s hard to imagine a world where the competition’s prestige isn’t elevated following the final.

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On the RAW side of things, former record-setting Intercontinental Champion GUNTHER has picked up exactly where he left off after his historic title reign came to an end at the hands of Sami Zayn at WrestleMania 40. Imperium’s leader announced his entry into the tournament during the April 22nd edition of Monday Night RAW, to which he was greeted in the ring by The New Day’s Xavier Woods and Kofi Kingston, with former winner Woods announcing his own participation as he set his sights on becoming a two-time King of the Ring. GUNTHER declared this his eventual victory would reestablish the image of the tournament, whilst he pointed out that Xavier was just another example of the tournament winner simply parading themselves around as royalty rather than using the accolade to further their careers.

There is certainly no man more equipped for that role on WWE’s roster than the ‘Ring General’. His reign with the Intercontinental Championship elevated the red brand’s secondary prize to a level almost equivalent to a world championship of its own thanks to the way he carried himself as a champion both inside and out of the ring. With his record-setting reign now behind us, the tournament provided GUNTHER with the perfect chance to rebuild his dominant streak before finally gunning for one of the company’s top prizes, and dominant is exactly the word to describe his path towards the final.

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The first round saw GUNTHER reunite his classic rivalry with a returning Sheamus, and as expected, they beat the breaks off one another. After 21 minutes of violence, GUNTHER put an end to their trilogy via submission, thus advancing to the quarter finals. This was not only the perfect way to kickstart GUNTHER’s King of the Ring campaign, but the perfect opener for the tournament overall, as closing out the first round with a bout as noteworthy and hard-hitting immediately made the competition as a whole feel like a much bigger deal, and there was more of that to come.

Next up was Kofi Kingston, who had entered the tournament on his injured partner Xavier Woods’ behalf. This one was shorter than the Sheamus match by a considerable margin, but they still absolutely delivered. The gameplan was clearly to target the back of Kingston, and whilst the former WWE Champion had a number of impressive counters of his own, it was a transition from a devastating powerbomb into a Boston Crab that sealed the deal, making that two matches in a row that GUNTHER had progressed with the same submission.

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The semi-final saw GUNTHER take on Monday Night RAW’s most popular star, ‘Main Event’ Jey Uso. Coming into this one, there was considerable doubt regarding the result, with a potential Jey Uso vs. Tama Tonga final remaining in play as a means to pull the trigger on the impending Bloodline Civil War. Uso had also been lacking any major singles successes despite his immense popularity, and thus, he certainly would’ve fit the bill of a winner that could’ve been propelled towards World Heavyweight Championship contention once again. Nevertheless, it was another submission win here for GUNTHER, although this time via sleeper hold, and so the Austrian’s place in the final was set, but as for his opponent, he’s up against a true legend of the industry.

On the SmackDown side of things, the road to the semi-final was a continuation of the war between Randy Orton and his sidelined ally Kevin Owens and the new-look Bloodline led by Solo Sikoa, with Tama Tonga being the unit’s representative in the tournament. Since his arrival, Tama Tonga has been presented as the unhinged butcher of The Bloodline, with this continuing into the tournament as he dispatched Angelo Dawkins in less than 3 minutes. He’d then be met by LA Knight in the quarter final, but a Solo Sikoa distraction was enough for the former NEVER Openweight Champion to capitalise and progress one step closer to the final. As for Orton, he first defeated AJ Styles in a thrilling bout between two veterans in exceptional form and then went on to best SmackDown’s #1 Draft pick Carmelo Hayes after a fun 10-minute match that saw the former NXT Champion receive a trademark RKO out of nowhere following an attempt to take to the skies.

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And so, the semi-final on the blue brand was set. This one took place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia due to being just one day prior to the King and Queen of the Ring PLE itself, and as has often been the case with WWE’s international shows of late, Orton received a heroes welcome with the crowd singing along to ‘Voices’. Whilst The Bloodline were able to get the better of Orton and Owens at Backlash, ‘The Viper’ had Tama Tonga’s number in singles action, with Solo Sikoa’s attempted interference not being enough to prevent the inevitable RKO. Sikoa would strike after the bell, however, only for a returning Kevin Owens to even the odds as it appears their issues with The Bloodline are far from over.

Thus, we now turn our attention to the final. GUNTHER vs. Randy Orton. ‘The Ring General’ vs. ‘The Viper’. Truth be told, it’s not a match I’d ever previously considered as a “dream match”, but considering the form both are in and the stakes, it certainly feels like one. Stylistically, it’s a fascinating clash. GUNTHER is perhaps the most versatile professional wrestler on the planet in terms of how his matches are structured, particularly when focussing on his choice of finish, which can range from a powerbomb, a lariat, a splash, one of his trademark chops, or a myriad of submission holds. Randy’s choice of finish is a little more obvious, but the magic in this match will be his selling. Orton’s back issues are of course no secret, with the former multi-time WWE Champion’s career almost coming to an end during his most recent absence, and with GUNTHER having picked up two victories thus far in the tournament with the Boston Crab, it looks to be a certainty that the tactical genius of the ‘Ring General’ will see him further weaken that back before locking in the hold for the win. Additionally, Orton has been selling a knee injury throughout the course of the tournament, thus providing the calculated and strategic GUNTHER with another target, and one that would also suffer heavily if the Boston Crab were applied.

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Trying to make a prediction here is tough. Initially, a GUNTHER victory appeared certain in my mind, with Orton seemingly having unfinished business with The Bloodline and Imperium’s leader being the ideal candidate to restore the prestige of the King of the Ring tournament. That all changed, however, when Triple H revealed this week that the winner of both the King and Queen of the Ring tournaments would be receiving world title matches for their respective brands at SummerSlam. With GUNTHER being a RAW Superstar, that would make him a candidate to challenge for the World Heavyweight Championship. Whilst it seems impossible that that title will evade him for much longer, Damian Priest appears likely to face Drew McIntyre for the gold at Clash at the Castle, and with the bout taking place in McIntyre’s home nation, one would suspect that he’ll be emerging victorious. That would then likely set up a clash between McIntyre and a returning CM Punk at SummerSlam, thus ruling out a GUNTHER title challenge.

On the flipside, Randy Orton being a SmackDown Superstar means his victory would result in him challenging for the Undisputed WWE Championship, the title currently held by Cody Rhodes. The story writes itself between the pair, with Orton having mentored Rhodes during his initial WWE run as members of Legacy, and with no clear direction for Rhodes heading into SummerSlam as of writing, an Orton win here could provide WWE with the chance to put together a match between two of their biggest stars. All of that therefore points towards Orton taking the lead as the favourite for this final, but with his Intercontinental Championship defeat still fresh in the minds of many, would WWE pull the trigger on one of their most dominant stars taking yet another defeat so soon? I find it hard to believe they would, and so I’m leaning towards a GUNTHER win despite the stakes suggesting otherwise.

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Regardless of the outcome, this is most definitely the biggest that the tournament has felt in years. The match itself should be sensational. Both are masters of their craft, and with what’s likely to be an electric atmosphere, seeing GUNTHER punishing Orton, who’s selling of late has been impeccable, before mounting a heroic comeback has the potential to be one of, if not the best match of Orton’s illustrious career, and yet another classic under GUNTHER’s belt as he continues to establish himself as one of the greatest in-ring performers in the history of the sport.

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