Editor’s note: This article was originally published in August, 2017.
Few people have the chance in life to realize their dream, have it slip away, and then claw all the way back. But if you’re aware of Drew McIntyre and what he stands for, you’ll have a pretty good sense of just how hard he had to work for his second chance in the WWE.
The current No. 1 contender for the NXT championship first debuted in the WWE almost 10 years ago at the age of 22. After a reset and some seasoning in WWE developmental, McIntyre returned to the WWE in 2009 and quickly picked up both an on-air endorsement from Vince McMahon as a future world champion and the moniker “The Chosen One.”
He showed flashes of greatness — most notably during a lengthy Intercontinental title reign and a tag team title run with Cody Rhodes — but by 2011 it was clear something just wasn’t clicking. He switched brands several times and had a notable run as part of “3MB” with Jinder Mahal and Heath Slater, but in June 2014, McIntyre was released from the WWE.
It ended up being one of the best things that could have ever happened to McIntyre. But to get to the point where he is today, in the main event of Saturday’s NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III show, he had to go back to his roots. He had to figure out who Drew Galloway was, and what he was meant to be.
From the WWE’s perspective, it wasn’t goodbye. It was so long, for now.
“When he left,” commented Paul “Triple H” Levesque, executive vice president of talent, live events and creative for WWE, “much like Jinder [Mahal], there was a conversation where it was like, ‘It’s just not the right time. We tried, you tried. You need to go out, find yourself, find your maturity and continue to develop. Don’t forget the things you learned here. Go out to other places, morph to them, and make them morph to you. Accept that role, and when the time is right, you’ll be back here.'”
McIntyre went off on his own but seemingly took those words to heart.
“You live inside the bubble so long, but I had to go away and kind of do things and be away from [my wrestling] home for the first time,” said McIntyre during a recent interview with ESPN.com. “I moved from home in Scotland to home in WWE, and that was the first time being out on my own in my life.”
McIntyre started training in his teens and wrestled in the U.K. for five years before he signed his first WWE contract, but from the time he moved down to Florida, where he resides to this day, McIntyre rarely had the chance to get back.
As he returned to some of those promotions, and some new ones that had popped up over the previous decade in the U.K., McIntyre was able to make up for some lost time.
“It was pretty cool. That was one of the biggest things,” said McIntyre. “I didn’t get home much at all during the eight-year period [I was with WWE]. Simply the nature of the business. I’d see family on the U.K. tours and when they came over here. But it was very difficult. That was the hardest thing, not seeing family, because I was very, very close to my family.”
With an eye toward remaining as competitive and relevant in the wrestling world outside of the WWE, which meant a lot of events in the United States, McIntyre couldn’t commit to moving back to the U.K. In order to make regular appearances on both sides of the Atlantic, McIntyre had to commit to a travel schedule that saw him rack up an impressive number of frequent-flyer miles.
“For the past few years, I was basically back and forth every three weeks for about two and a half years straight, if you can imagine, between the U.K. and St. Petersburg, Florida, where I live,” said McIntyre. “It was pretty wild, the travel schedule I kept. I don’t know how my wife is still with me after everything, just how hard I was pushing and how much I was traveling. I was the busiest wrestler in the world.”
McIntyre’s rigorous schedule, at different points in his three-year WWE hiatus, had him working for EVOLVE, Impact Wrestling and a variety of other independents in the United States, as well as ICW, WhatCulture Pro Wrestling, OTT and a number of other European companies. He got to face the best performers in the world night after night and learn the responsibilities of being a main attraction.
“The coolest thing was, I really got all of that battle time. I got that ring time, and I got to grow up a lot,” said McIntyre. “There’s so much more to being a ‘top guy’ than what you see on screen that I really learned. I evolved as a performer. I evolved as a man. And I come back ready to lead a company.”
McIntyre became a central figure in the world of independent wrestling at a time when business witnessed a major uptick. With the evolution of the distribution systems for pro wrestling, including a number of new streaming networks and far better promotion via social media, companies that put out great content could make stars and bring in huge crowds unlike anything they’d ever seen before.
“I watched the houses grow — that became my focus,” said McIntyre. “For instance, ICW in Scotland. When I came back, we had 1,500 people at the show. Last November we broke the independent attendance record with 8,000. That was through the hard work of everybody, and it was a really cool feeling that I was giving back in the business.”
McIntyre racked up a lot of gold over those three years, including the EVOLVE championship and tag team championship, the ICW heavyweight championship, the TNA championship and Impact Grand championship, and the WCPW world championship, to name a few. He helped to build an audience for each of the companies he worked for, and the wrestlers who worked opposite McIntyre were making names for themselves too.
It reached a point where it made sense to part ways, and the call from WWE couldn’t have come at a better time.
“I don’t think they necessarily needed Drew Galloway anymore. And it was time for Drew McIntyre to come back home and finish what I began.”
McIntyre made a memorable return to the WWE fold at NXT TakeOver: Orlando, as he appeared in the crowd just prior to the main event between Bobby Roode and Shinsuke Nakamura. He was singularly focused on taking everything he’d learned over the course of his three years away and channeling it into bigger and better things this time around in WWE.
But a funny thing happened when he walked into the NXT locker room for the first time. McIntyre saw a lot of the wrestlers he’d spent the past three years going to war with.
“From the first minute of the first day I walked back in, I looked around the locker room at that TakeOver, and I was just laughing to see so many familiar faces,” said McIntyre. “And I thought, ‘Wow, we’re not going to have any trouble building back up and taking it higher than NXT’s ever been.’ Because I know these guys, I know how talented they are, and I know what we can do with this brand.”
There are always dream opponents when you join a new company and people you’d prefer to keep your distance from. But as currently constructed, NXT’s roster presents a dizzying array of possibility in terms of future opponents for McIntyre.
“I hate singling people out because it’s literally everybody. You see guys like Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly coming into the company, which is awesome. Oney Lorcan, who I [already faced], you know I love that physical style. There’s a bunch of us that have that physical style, which makes NXT so unique. Killian Dain and I had a chance to tango before, and we’re going to do it again.
“I’ve been in companies where I’m like, ‘Oh, god, I hope it’s only this guy or this guy.’ But it’s literally, an entire roster of people. Roderick Strong, we’ve had some of my favorite battles. Aleister Black, we’ve battled in the past, across the world. I’ve enjoyed his build, to watch his evolution as well. We’re doing our thing separately, just building up, and hopefully when we come together, it won’t just be the good matches we’ve had, we’ll have great matches. Basically, I’m just going to sum it up by saying this is why I love NXT. Our whole roster is so damn talented, I want to fight them all.”
Four months after making a grand entrance to NXT, McIntyre gets his first crack at the NXT championship against Roode, an opponent he’s only faced a handful of times but who suits him well, stylistically speaking.
“The opportunity to give my first TakeOver on the biggest show of the year, against Bobby Roode for the title, you know, it’s pretty incredible. But everything I’ve done and everything I’ve been through has prepared me for this moment, prepared me for this match.”
“I feel like Drew has finally gotten to a place in his life where he’s willing to work hard enough to be what he should have always been,” said Levesque. “He’s had a look, he’s had charisma, he’s had talent, he’s had all these things, but he’d be the first guy to tell you that it didn’t work out the first time, for a lot of reasons.”
It’s the realization of a moment more than three years in the making or, if you’re looking at the big picture of McIntyre’s wrestling career, far longer.
“I set out with these short-term goals, and I hit them one at a time. What’s about to happen is basically the biggest match I’ve ever had in 17 years of wrestling,” said McIntyre. “[I’ve spent] the past three years building myself up, building my brand, going out in the world, and now I’m returning back home.”
It may not happen on Saturday, but it certainly seems as though the next wave of NXT champions could take over the mantle after such seemingly dominant stretches from Roode, Asuka and the Authors of Pain. That McIntyre could be on the precipice of such a key role in WWE speaks volumes as to how far he’s come in just three years.
“Drew McIntyre is a stud. He works his butt off. He’s here for everybody, not just himself, to put on the best performance for our fan base,” said Levesque. “I couldn’t be happier for him and the spot he’s in. He’s really earned it.”
For those who haven’t followed McIntyre’s career since he left WWE, the past few months have provided a window into just how exciting a competitor he’s become. But given the stage he’s about to take, it appears he’s ready to blow the roof off of the Barclays Center with Roode at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III.
“I promise, I will guarantee everybody an absolute spectacle. They’ll be talking about this match for years. It’s a perfect opponent and the perfect situation for me to come home.”