If there’s one name outside the top tier of WWE you should familiarize yourself with as a future world champion, it’s Drew McIntyre. The 6'5" Scotsman is currently gearing up for a push so big you can feel it when he’s on screen or talked about, and he owes the impending super-push to a tragedy.
The tragedy is Roman Reigns. In late October, Reigns came to the ring on Raw to his regular torrent of boos and announced that his leukemia, in remission for years, had returned and that he was immediately relinquishing the title to begin chemotherapy. It wasn’t a work and few to no people backstage knew he was about to make the announcement. It was heartbreakingly real. He hasn’t been on television since.
In the pro wrestling world—which is a much smaller, less important world than that of Reigns’s family and friends—a void opened up. WWE has spent inordinate amounts of time and energy making Reigns the centerpiece of their programming. Indeed, given ratings and the viscerally negative reactions to Reigns (the character, not Joe Anoa’i, the guy who plays him) throughout his multi-year push, it’s not too much to say that WWE creative has been so consumed with the guy that they’ve actively thrown away money to make it work.
Whether it did or not is immaterial to the fact that he’s gone for the foreseeable future, maybe forever. WWE doesn’t work without a signature babyface and nobody seems to have the McMahons’ trust to fill the gap. Braun Strowman is the obvious answer, but he lost to Brock Lesnar in a poorly commentated squash match at a house show for the vacant Universal title, plus he’s felt largely adrift since a small series of rapid turns. Seth Rollins is another solid choice, but ever since his return from knee surgery, it’s seemed like WWE is gunshy about making him the top guy again.
This is where McIntyre makes his entrance, or more accurately his second entrance. McIntyre was with WWE from 2007 to 2014 before being unceremoniously let go. He’d had a decent career on the independent circuit prior to being picked up by WWE and it was expected that he’d return to a decent career doing the same thing before fizzling out.
That’s not what happened. McIntyre went to the indies and had a good run. He became both ICW and Evolve champion. He entered the first stage of his peak on the indies and it showed: he kept up with the likes of Chris Hero (now Kassius Ohno in NXT, and a legendary indie wrestler) and Johnny Gargano (also now in NXT). To say he was different is probably too much, but he certainly seemed freer.
McIntyre made the move to TNA in 2015, which is where he burst back into WWE’s consciousness. He was still good, but he showed on a bigger stage how good a babyface he could be. There’s a particular promo from that year which illustrates how good a talker he is, something he wasn’t allowed to showcase in WWE. He’s standing in the crowd and very naturally speaks up for the idea that wrestling, as opposed to sports entertainment, is important and that it follows wrestling fans are, too. It’s great stuff, the sort of promo CM Punk in his “voice of the voiceless” years might’ve cut, except more generous to the fans and less self-involved.
McIntyre went back to WWE in 2017, becoming NXT champion before returning to the main roster, and he’s slowly taken up more screen time as 2018 has worn on. He’s been working as Dolph Ziggler’s heelish second in a championship tag team and teaming with Strowman in a feud with the reunited Shield prior to Reigns’s departure.
The shot across the bow that something big is brewing with McIntyre was on the November 5th Raw. In a match with Kurt Angle, McIntyre absolutely destroyed his ex-TNA compatriot before beating up super babyface Finn Balor. The combination of screen time, emphasis, and the unambiguous nature of his badass status signalled Vince McMahon wants to strap a rocket to him.
It should work. McIntyre was mostly an afterthought in his first WWE stint, but after refining his character and wrestling after his release, he proved he has the chops to be a major player in WWE. His look is exactly the sort of thing the McMahons love: tall and muscular, with just enough good looks to be appealing without being distracting. They seem to be building him up as a monster heel before having him turn babyface, probably after Ziggler inevitably betrays him.
A word of caution should come with any prediction, of course. McIntyre’s first run in WWE wasn’t terribly dissimilar from Jinder Mahal’s. His most memorable run was alongside Mahal and Heath Slater as 3MB (short for 3 Man Band), a comedy team of arrogant jobbers whose whole gimmick was that they were blissfully unaware that they sucked. McIntyre lost and lost a lot.
Part of the reason Mahal’s run as WWE champion was so miserable was that he could never entirely shake his former jobber status. Wrestling fans have long memories, and they can be obnoxiously eager to share that fact with wrestlers: as just one example, Attitude Era stalwart Albert reinvented himself as a gaijin badass named Lord Tensai in Japan, returned to feud with John Cena, and quickly became a comedy jobber, in part, because the fans kept chanting “Albert” at him wherever he went.
McIntyre is a lot better in the ring and on the mic than Mahal or Albert/Tensai, which should give him better odds than most at transcending his mediocre first run. But it’s no set thing. Plus, we know that the current timbre of WWE fandom is to loudly reject any push which seems inorganic; McIntyre could get the same reactions Reigns was if Strowman is deemphasized too quickly or the push goes too fast.
Regardless, the push is coming, and soon. It’s not a final prediction, but it wouldn’t at all be surprising to see this culminate in a Royal Rumble win and subsequent WrestleMania main event. The contours will undoubtedly change as McIntyre moves forward, but WWE is on the cusp of anointing him as The Man, and once that push starts it won’t stop any time soon.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.