John Cena, Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar and Batista. The four biggest Superstars of the past decade have 34 World Championship reigns between them, five Royal Rumble Match victories, turns as King of the Ring and Mr. Money in the Bank, and even a mixed martial arts championship. But before all that, they were just four kids in Kentucky, dreaming of bigger things.
For nearly a decade, Ohio Valley Wrestling in Louisville, Ky., was the proving ground for future WWE Superstars. The top prospects of the industry weren’t placed under the bright lights of big cities like New York or Los Angeles, but in the old-school promotion based in the Bluegrass State.
Many hopeful Superstars headed to Derby City with dreams of making it big in sports-entertainment. Only a select few were chosen to become full-time members of the WWE roster, but these four men became bigger than anyone could have imagined.
And now, more than a decade since Cena, Orton, Lesnar and Batista first made an impact on WWE, WWE Classics reveals the untold story of how their paths crossed before they were Superstars.
John Cena was a can’t-miss prospect. After a year of training in California, the bodybuilder was signed to a developmental deal by WWE in 2001 and sent down to Louisville for further seasoning. After his arrival in Ohio Valley Wrestling, Cena joined forces with Rico, who was trying to be a role model for the fans. Rico dubbed the ripped Cena, then known as The Prototype, “The Perfect Man.”
While the people of Kentucky didn’t take to Rico and Cena’s condescension, there was no doubting the pair’s success. They captured the OVW Southern Tag Team Titles and dominated the division for a good portion of 2001.
After Rico left to become the personal stylist to Billy and Chuck, Cena flourished on his own. “The Perfect Man” became the perfect champion, winning the OVW Heavyweight Title in early 2002. But Cena’s reign would be short-lived, as he was called up to WWE’s main roster and went on to lead the company into the next decade.
Before he became The Viper, Randy Orton was a fresh-faced 21-year-old, just out of training with his father, Cowboy Bob Orton, when he arrived in OVW. The rookie lived up to his promise in WWE’s developmental league while gaining invaluable experience. Though Orton would try to capture tag team glory, teaming with “Beautiful” Bobby Eaton in a tournament for the OVW Southern Tag Team Titles, it was in a much different division that he would find the most success.
Orton, foreshadowing his future abilities, proved himself to be a proficient brawler in OVW, braving weapon-filled fights to become the OVW Hardcore Champion on two occasions.
Orton was one of OVW’s most popular stars, and often found himself on a collision course with someone who would become one of his greatest rivals, John Cena. In fact, in his farewell match in OVW, Cena defeated Orton. WWE’s Apex Predator may not have realized it as he prepared for his SmackDown debut in April 2002, but it would not be the last time Orton and Cena would cross paths.
Before he became The Animal, Batista was a different kind of beast. He arrived in OVW with a demonic glare in his eyes and sharp fangs that intimidated anyone in his path. It was easy to see why the monster then called Leviathan had the nicknames “Demon of the Deep” and “Guardian of the Gates of Hell.”
No OVW wrestler could fell the giant. Leviathan went undefeated from the moment he entered an OVW ring until he encountered Kane at OVW’s Christmas Chaos event in January 2001. Even then, it took two Chokeslams from The Big Red Monster, as well as a Stunner from “Stone Cold” Steve Austin to put the “Demon of The Deep” down for the three-count.
Leviathan regrouped from the end of his undefeated streak and won the OVW Heavyweight Championship that November. He dominated until he collided with The Prototype (aka John Cena) in February 2002. After he was dethroned, Leviathan ditched his demonic persona, joining up with Reverend D-Von’s ministry in WWE. The rechristened Deacon Batista took up the collection box for a short time before breaking out on his own, turning his animalistic tendencies into a rage that brought him the World Heavyweight Title.
Before he became the bulldozer that tore through WWE, Brock Lesnar was … a slightly younger bulldozer that tore through OVW. Lesnar came to Ohio Valley after a stellar amateur wrestling career at the University of Minnesota, which included the 2000 NCAA national championship in the heavyweight division.
With no prior pro wrestling experience, the freak athlete made a surprisingly seamless transition to the squared circle. Lesnar dominated OVW’s tag team ranks with his college roommate, Shelton Benjamin. The duo known as The Minnesota Stretching Crew was a perfect mix of power and agility. Though Brock was the team’s muscle, he left fans speechless when he climbed to the top rope to finish opponents off with a Shooting Star Press that a 270-pound man should not have been able to pull off.
Lesnar and Benjamin captured the OVW Southern Tag Team Titles on three occasions. They even got to win one of those on a bigger stage, defeating John Cena and Rico in a bout before Monday Night Raw went on the air in November 2001.
It may have been during that match that Lesnar caught the eye of Paul Heyman, who soon took the monstrous Superstar under his wing and turned him into “The Next Big Thing” that dominated WWE several months later.