Drew McIntyre made his WWE debut in 2007 at the age of 21. He was eventually dubbed the "chosen one" by Vince McMahon. But during his first run with the company, he was never fully able to tap into his deep well of potential. McIntyre won the Intercontinental championship and had a tag team title reign along the way, but after sliding into an entertaining lower-card act in 3MB, he was fired in 2014.
McIntyre headed back to the independent wrestling scene and thrived, rebuilding his career along the way. In 2017, he returned to the WWE fold. After a run in NXT and a two-year stretch on the Raw roster, McIntyre finally reached the apex after beating Brock Lesnar on Sunday night at WrestleMania 36.
McIntyre is now the WWE champion.
It didn't happen under typical WrestleMania circumstances as scheduled at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, but as McIntyre soaked in the moment in a WWE Performance Center devoid of fans, it was a different type of experience -- but no less sweet.
"Hopefully, the images spoke for themselves," McIntyre told ESPN on Monday. "The way I reacted is exactly the same as I would've reacted if there were 80,000 people in the building screaming. That's 19 years of ups and downs -- sacrifices for myself, my family, my wife -- all being made worth it when I beat Brock Lesnar and raised the WWE title.
"I had a very personal moment with myself -- the environment presented that opportunity where instead of the crowd going crazy, and playing off the crowd, I sat and I looked at the title and I was just in my own little moment. And then I remembered, 'Oh yeah, there's millions of people watching right now.'"
McIntyre broke one of the key tenets of WWE production, as he reached toward a camera outside of the ring and symbolically reached out to the fans enjoying the show the only way they could, from their homes.
"One of our rules in WWE is that you don't look down the camera and break the fourth wall, like you wouldn't do in a movie," McIntyre said. "But I couldn't help myself. In that moment, I just wanted to thank everybody for supporting me, for supporting WWE during this time and choosing WWE to take your mind off these difficult times. I wanted to let everyone know how I felt, and I'm so glad we kept that in the show. I wasn't sure if it would be edited, because I really meant it."
The match, which was pre-taped as WWE did its best to guarantee it could get its biggest show of the year done amid ever-changing restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, put the superstars in a unique circumstance when WrestleMania weekend arrived.
After wrapping up production, McIntyre took the WWE title and brought it home. He locked it up in a room until the match aired on the WWE Network and pay-per-view.
"Things are not official until they happen," McIntyre said. "So just like everybody else, I sat on the couch and watched both days of WrestleMania. I enjoyed the show. It took my mind off of things.
"Watching myself was very crazy, being on the couch -- watching it just like everyone else, wondering what was going to happen. I kind of pushed out of my head what had happened."
Even though he was in his living room and not in the ring, McIntyre's instincts and excitement kicked in as the match played out on his screen.
"I was reacting to it like I was in the match. My wife had to move away from me, because I was darting from side to side with every F-5, with every Claymore," said McIntyre. Then came his chance to celebrate.
"Finally, when I had won the title, I saw the emotion and remembered how real it was to me. In that moment, it was real again as I was watching it. I went upstairs, I opened the door and I took the title out, now that it was official. I had another moment with my wife in the house, and with my family on Zoom. I had my whole family on there."
McIntyre begins his reign as WWE champion in a time of great uncertainty, both for the company and the world at large. This week's Monday Night Raw is already in the can, but with the ever-shifting restrictions on large gatherings, it's unclear how many challenges lie ahead in terms of producing weekly television shows.
For his part, McIntyre takes the responsibility of being the champion very seriously.
"The champion has to lead by example. ... I'm not ready to be one of the top guys, I'm ready to be the top guy. I've been through so much, and there's nothing that you can hit me with that I'm not ready for. The world didn't expect what has happened right now, but I feel exactly the same [about myself]. I'm the guy to push forward, and carry the company forward.
"As long as we can bring content to everybody -- we've got our closed sets, we're following the CDC guidelines -- as long as we can keep pushing forward safely, bringing everyone original content to take their mind off things, I want to be the guy leading the charge. And when everything gets back to normal, and we get fans into the building, they're going to be rabid. They're going to be crazy. That's going to be a very big moment for me -- to walk out there with the title, in front of the fans, raise it up and say, 'I had my moment at WrestleMania, but this is our freaking wrestling moment.'"
While McIntyre admits it's tough to set concrete, tangible goals in the current environment, he's typically someone who tends to tackle things in the short-term. But that doesn't mean he's looking to simply put his head down and bluster forward.
"I already etched my name in history as the first-ever British [WWE] champion, but I want to be one of the greatest champions of all time," McIntyre said. "[I want] people to remember that when the chips were down in the world, Drew really stepped up for himself, WWE and the fans."
McIntyre's victory puts a bow on a tremendous run by performers who originally hail from Scotland. Nikki Cross won the women's tag team championships (alongside Alexa Bliss) on Saturday, while Kay Lee Ray is the NXT U.K. women's champion, and the Glaswegian faction Gallus holds the NXT U.K. tag team titles.
"It's wild to think there are so many champions in WWE from Scotland. I was the first-ever Scotsman signed," said McIntyre. "We don't have a big country, there's only 5 million people in the country, [but] we have such an incredible history.
"There was a thread of people from Scotland who were thanking me for everything I've done for the U.K. [wrestling] scene and inspiring people in Scotland to follow their dreams, which is just really crazy and humbling. ... I'm very proud of every single one of them."
McIntyre doesn't intend to lose sight of how he was able to reach this point in his career, from the early struggles through the last few months spent opposite Lesnar and Paul Heyman. From the Royal Rumble through Sunday night, even through unprecedented circumstances, McIntyre was set up perfectly to knock the ball out of the court in large part because of who he was positioned against.
"There's nobody with minds like Paul Heyman and Brock Lesnar," McIntyre said. "There's no other athlete like Brock Lesnar, and probably never will be again. But it was such a unique build for a Brock Lesnar match. Generally, Paul Heyman talks up the opponent, Brock slaughters the opponent every step of the way, and when you get to the match, the opponent may eke out a victory, but generally Brock defeats them.
"When we got to the match, he gave me four F-5s, I kicked out at one, gave him three more Claymores and defeated Brock Lesnar within five minutes. ... He's a private, personal person, so I don't want to give away too much of his real-life traits, but that whole program and last night really made Drew McIntyre and showed, 'Wow, this guy has arrived.'"