Orton taps bad side to raise upside

A lot of the bad guys of pro wrestling aren't really bad guys at all. They just play them on TV.

World Wrestling Entertainment champion Randy Orton, however, says the arrogant jerk that he portrays on WWE television shows has never been that much of a stretch for him.

"I'd say there's a lot of me in that character," says Orton, one of the top stars in the scripted genre known as sports entertainment. "I've always kind of been to myself. I wouldn't say I'm a complete [jerk] in real life, but on the show I just turn the volume up."

Orton, who will wrestle in the main event of WWE's Backlash pay-per-view show tonight at 1st Mariner Arena, not only expects the sold-out crowd to shower him with jeers and vulgarities, he also welcomes it. If the fans are booing, that means he's doing a good job of being a wrestling "heel."

But as much as he embraces being a villain and loves to incite a crowd, Orton says that he does have a softer side.

Having gained a reputation - which he says is well deserved - in wrestling circles for his immaturity and attitude problems when the cameras aren't rolling, WWE's bad boy says he has settled down in the past year.

Orton, 28, got married in September. He and his wife, Samantha, are expecting the couple's first child, a daughter, in July.

"It's definitely changed me," he says of starting a family. "I have a wonderful wife that wouldn't hurt a fly, and I think a lot of that has rubbed off on me. I can't wait to be a dad, and the fact that I'm going to have a little girl - I jumped through the roof when we were at the doctor's office and he said that we were going to have a daughter."

Since getting his act together in his personal life, Orton has achieved his greatest professional success.

He has held the WWE title - the same championship that has been held by the likes of Hulk Hogan and Dwayne " The Rock" Johnson - since October, and last month he was in one of the featured matches at WrestleMania XXIV before nearly 75,000 people at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla., and millions watching on pay-per-view.

His bumpy road to wrestling stardom reads like an episode of VH1's Behind The Music, complete with trashed hotel rooms, disciplinary suspensions and even a brief stay behind bars.

Before following in his father and grandfather's footsteps by embarking on a wrestling career, Orton enlisted in the Marines. He ended up being dishonorably discharged and serving 38 days in a military prison for going AWOL on two occasions.

Orton signed with WWE when he was 20. After spending time in one of WWE's minor league federations, he debuted on WWE television shortly after turning 22.

At 24, he became the youngest WWE champion. However, his immature behavior on the road - which included allegations of harassment by female WWE co-workers - led WWE to gradually diminish his role.

"I definitely had a big head, and I'll be the first to admit that I made some bad decisions," Orton says. "But back when I was making those decisions, in my head I was doing no wrong. I was forced, more or less, to go to anger management. I was either going to make myself and everyone around me miserable, or I was going to realize that there's more than one person on this Earth. It definitely has made me a better person."

Because of injuries to several of WWE's top performers last year, the company - mostly out of necessity - gave Orton another opportunity to be the main man.

He realized he was running out of chances, and he hasn't given WWE any reason to regret its decision.

"I think I let a few people down when I was having my problems," he says. "I heard, 'Randy, pull your head out of your [butt]' a few times from Vince [McMahon, WWE chairman]. I think I finally have, and I think that's why I'm successful right now. I'm where I'm at because I'm happy."

Despite his newfound maturity and happiness, Orton says he still has no problem channeling his inner jerk when performing, which he plans to do tonight.

"Getting under the fans' skin and [ticking] them off is what I do best," he says. "If I can get them throwing things at me, then I know I've got them."