If you've listened to Drew McIntyre speak in recent months, you've heard the Scot reference the "19-year journey" to his current position as challenger for Brock Lesnar's WWE championship at WrestleMania 36. It's a journey that saw a performer once anointed a future world champion by Vince McMahon eventually relegated to a role in comedy stable 3MB before being released from his WWE contract. After redefining himself on the independent scene, McIntyre has battled his way to the top of a WrestleMania card that will take place over two days in an empty WWE Performance Center (Saturday, April 4 and Sunday, April 5) amid a global coronavirus pandemic.
The circumstances of the card are as unlikely as McIntyre's position within it seemed just a few years ago.
Speaking with CBS Sports, McIntyre said WrestleMania has lined up exactly the way he played things out in his head as he was reinventing himself during a world-traveling independent run while trying to fight his way back into the WWE ring.
"My time outside of the company, I used this situation as motivation," McIntyre said. "I've said in a few interviews that I pictured the biggest match possible in my head; the biggest attraction in the world of wrestling is Brock Lesnar and the biggest show is WrestleMania. I always used that as motivation to push myself outside the company and now to push myself inside the company. The fact that what I used as motivation for years is actually happening is just insane."
McIntyre was let go from WWE in 2014, perhaps the ideal time for him to forge ahead as an independent worker. From that point until McIntyre returned in 2017 as a member of the NXT brand, the indies were booming and littered with wrestlers that have since become household names on WWE and AEW television. That time, McIntyre says, taught him the value of "raw presence" and the opportunity to grow into a performer with the emotional maturity to handle being a promotion's top star.
As McIntyre put it, "You can't be trusted in a top position if you're immature."
Meanwhile, time in outfits such as EVOLVE, where McIntyre held the independent promotion's top title, served to force him to step up his game as an in-ring performer while surrounded by some of the world's premier workers.
"The in-ring performers there were so ridiculously good," McIntyre said. "The Roderick Strongs, the Ricochets, the Johnny Garganos. You look at the roster at that time, top to bottom, and it was filled with incredible in-ring performers who I had the chance to get in with and perfect my craft. Being champion, I was last every night. I had to follow all these guys, so the pressure was on to get good and get good quick. The timing couldn't have been better to get my face out there and to really pick things up. If I didn't get them up pretty quick, the crowds would have crapped all over me. Those were some pretty passionate crowds."
McIntyre was shown in the crowd at NXT TakeOver: Orlando on April 1, 2017. By August, he was NXT champion and had achieved a major milestone in his career in becoming a top singles champion for a WWE brand. After losing the title and sitting on the sidelines for a handful of months healing a torn bicep, McIntyre returned to WWE Raw on April 16, 2018.
His career has trended upward consistently since that main-roster return. McIntyre, more serious demeanor in tow, had become a consistent presence on WWE television, and it seemed it was only a matter of time before the promotion pulled the trigger on making him a true main-event player. That trigger was pulled in January when McIntyre ended Lesnar's dominant run in the Royal Rumble before last eliminating Roman Reigns to win the annual 30-man match and punch his ticket to a WrestleMania world title opportunity. Unsurprisingly, McIntyre used his earned title shot to call out Lesnar, and the two are now less than two weeks away from their much-anticipated showdown.
But the one thing that has not played out as McIntyre had pictured in his mind, however, was the global coronavirus pandemic which has moved the bout from a stadium with 70,000 people in attendance to an empty WWE Performance Center.
"It's obviously different and not the way I saw or anybody would have seen it," McIntyre said. "Nobody could have predicted what has happened. I'm proud we're pushing ahead and giving everybody an escape. We're still going to give everyone a version of WrestleMania and I think it's going to be pretty interesting and a fun way because of the way they're planning to tape everything. It's going to be, in my mind -- and I don't know this for sure -- it's going to be like WWE Presents: Mortal Kombat. That's going to be pretty unique. When it comes to the moment, if I pull off the end of my 19-year journey and I do become champion, it's not going to be the big crowd reaction, jumping in the crowd with the fans and with my family ringside. In that sense, it is different.
"I think this sums it up perfectly: people get to be part of that moment after the match, I think the cameras will catch us backstage when we're talking to everybody and there's all the congratulations and the hugs. In the locker room afterward, everyone leaves, and if you're on last, you're the last one out of the building. It's not until you get in that hotel room that the emotions come out. You're by yourself or with your significant other and the tension is off you finally. In this circumstance, it's going to be like that moment in that hotel room because chances are, if I pull it off, I'm going to be by myself in the ring with the title. I think people are going to get to peek behind what happens when you're all alone and those true emotions come out. That's the advice they're giving to anybody on the card: whatever you're feeling afterward, just relax and be in the moment and let the emotions go and let the people feel it through the camera. I know that's what I'm going to be doing."
McIntyre also believes that the bout with Lesnar may even be enhanced in ways without the crowd. Rather than an atmosphere driven by fans responding to the brutality of two huge men battling in a stadium, the camera will be tight on their faces with every strike ringing out.
Ultimately, this is the moment McIntyre has always been preparing for. This is the situation WWE promised when McMahon called a young, immature and unprepared McIntyre a "future champion" in 2009 on an episode of SmackDown television. After all the potential, the missteps and the battling back, McIntyre is one match away from finally being "the man," and he says he's ready for everything that comes with that label.
"I've always said in this 19-year journey, all the ups and downs in the ring and ups and downs outside the ring have prepared me to be the No. 1 guy in the company," McIntyre said. "There's no situation you can present me with that I can't handle. This is a situation that nobody has ever been presented with, and I want to be the guy pulling the wagon. I want to be the guy representing on the show, if that's the PC for now or back in front of the crowd, I want to be the one to inspire people, put smiles on their faces and give them hope.
"Hopefully, the way WWE puts the build-up video for this match together, they'll be able to tell my story and how much I've overcome. Hopefully, we'll give them a happy ending when I raise that title and I hope my story can inspire others. It doesn't have to be in wrestling. Whatever in their life they want to achieve, they'll see if I just put my head down and work hard enough I can do it. Look at Drew and what he's overcome."