Exclusive: Drew McIntyre on self-reinvention, calling out complacency, and why teaming with Dolph Ziggler is “for everyone’s own good”
The old saying is that a Superstar’s worst enemy is time off. But there Drew McIntyre was, facing the first extended stint on the shelf of his in-ring career after suffering a torn bicep in an NXT Championship loss to Andrade “Cien” Almas in November 2017. Between grueling rehab sessions, the 6’5” Scottish bruiser did something he’d never really had time to do: Watch the in-ring product. In a way, everything that is about to happen stems completely from that decision, because Drew McIntyre did not like what he saw.
“As good as certain things were, there were certain areas that were lacking massively,” McIntyre observed. “There are a lot of people very sure of themselves that need to be brought back down to Earth. As good as they think they are, they’re really not.”
Those who ask themselves, 'Is he talking about me?' Positive or negative, the answer is probably yes.
He knew what he was looking at the second he saw it: Complacency. According to him, he could see it in the offenders’ eyes. They weren’t pushing themselves. The sight rankled the Scotsman on a personal level, mainly because he had been that guy not long ago, and it had contributed directly to the end of his first stint with WWE.
Some background: As a 21-year-old signee, McIntyre was a champion-in-waiting with a ceiling so high that Mr. McMahon himself dubbed him “The Chosen One.” But initial successes failed to pay main-event dividends, and by 2014, McIntyre was just happy to be there, collecting a decent paycheck and working the Live Event circuit as a member of the cult-favorite comedy act 3MB. It was a comfortable living, and that comfort ultimately cost him his job.
“The truth is, 3MB were on everything at the time,” McIntyre explained about the time of his release. The consistent work had even allowed him the freedom to move into a new place with his wife (then girlfriend).
“We’d been there for three days when I got the call. The guaranteed money isn’t there anymore. That’s a scary situation.”
[Being released] put all the pieces together. It was sink or swim and I swam like no other before me.
What followed was a worldwide tour of forced self-reinvention. McIntyre hit the indies and earned a reputation as one of the most in-demand big men in the industry with the ultimate goal of returning to WWE. He eventually re-signed as an NXT Superstar in 2017 and won the black-and-yellow brand’s top title within a matter of months before suffering the injury that put him out of action. Having fought through every conceivable promotion to make a name that would carry him back into the fold, McIntyre expected a similar sink-or-swim mentality on Raw, which he refers to as the top sports-entertainment show on the planet. Instead, he claims he saw that his peers were committing the same sins of his past with no one to hold them accountable. And then, Drew McIntyre had an epiphany.
“I thought to myself, ‘this place needs the experience I can bring. Maybe they do need Drew McIntyre. Maybe that’s where I need to go.’”
Suffice it to say, the rest of the locker room may soon find that their worst enemy was Drew McIntyre’s time off.
In hindsight, McIntyre says his firing was a “gift” that provided him the all-or-nothing mentality he carries today. Even if he didn’t quite see it that way at the time, he still didn’t hesitate to declare his intentions. McIntyre went on Chris Jericho’s podcast immediately following his 2014 release and promised that he would be back one day — a boast he readily admits was bordering on the audacious. While it’s not unheard of for released Superstars to come back and turn themselves into World Champions after their re-hiring (McIntyre’s former 3MB running mate Jinder Mahal is an example of this), Drew wanted to accomplish the opposite, achieving the kind of success on the indies that would compel WWE to re-sign him as a top-tier talent. (These days, he refers to it as “fulfilling the prophecy” of his initial hiring.)
One problem stood out at the start: Presentation. Aspects of McIntyre’s personality had poked through in The Chosen One and 3MB personas. Instead of whole-cloth reinvention, the former champion decided to anchor his rebrand by betting on himself. Drawing from the knowledge he’d soaked up in WWE and the power of social media, Drew McIntyre became Drew Galloway, “The Personification of Professional Wrestling” and an all-around monster who wrestled for any independent promotion that would have him.
He's someone who doesn't take [his job] for granted because he did have to go away. If you think you don't come back from [being released] with a chip on your shoulder, you're crazy.
By any measure, McIntyre’s stint in the wilderness was a resounding success, one that was as good for business as it was for the soul. McIntyre won championships everywhere he went — one viral photo shows a smirking McIntyre hoisting three heavyweight titles at once. Attendances began to improve as well. McIntyre notes that the Scottish promotion Insane Championship Wrestling grew from around 1,500 attendees to a gate of 7,000 while he was its champion. (He would later be inducted into their Hall of Fame.) And, in a bit of personal vindication, he jumped from No. 400 to No. 10 on the Pro Wrestling Illustrated 500, a position he tied with John Cena.
“Everybody doesn’t live and die by the PWI 500 anymore,” McIntyre admitted, “But to me, that meant a lot.”
As the accolades began to pile up, McIntyre came to two important realizations. The first concerned his WWE release and why he had been let go.
“Once things started to happen and I was succeeding beyond my expectations, [I knew] it was because I was giving everything I had. It was very clear I wasn’t giving my all in the past, not even close,” he explained. “It took a few months of truly being in charge of myself [and] not having a guaranteed check from WWE to realize [that].”
The second realization concerned his return, or rather, whether he truly needed to make one.
“It got to the point where I was really making a difference to the companies I was with. It changed from, ‘I’m definitely going back to WWE,’ to, ‘Wow, maybe I won’t.’”
Given his current mission statement, it seems wild to think that McIntyre flirted with the idea of life on the indies. But at the time, it made a certain amount of business sense. He’d become a valuable talent and in-demand champion as Drew Galloway. Drew McIntyre, however, was still the guy who had gotten let go, and he wasn’t sure WWE saw him as someone they needed back.
When one particular deal fell through, McIntyre was approaching “decision time” and sought advice from William Regal, who he’d been in contact with during his years away. The veteran grappler suggested talking with Triple H before McIntyre made any commitments one way or the other, and what followed was a 30-minute conversation that ended on a simple note: “Time to come home.”
The day before WrestleMania 33, McIntyre was revealed as an NXT signee at TakeOver: Orlando. He made his in-ring debut two weeks later, but it was clear from his style of competition that this was not the Drew McIntyre of old. The cocksureness of The Chosen One was gone, and in its place was the same towering barbarian that had taken the world by storm. The response was beyond positive — McIntyre’s future tag team partner, Dolph Ziggler, was among those taking notice, even if he was only anecdotally aware of McIntyre’s second act.
“[In NXT], you can see someone who’s good at wrestling, or you can see someone who’s gonna be a star and go, ‘Yeah, they’re going to be all right,’” said Ziggler. “And then you can see someone who goes, ‘I am gonna kick everybody’s a-- until they realize they need me on this show … And I saw that from the very few clips I saw down in NXT.”
Once again, McIntyre’s take-no-prisoners mentality paid dividends: Mere months into his NXT stint, McIntyre defeated Bobby Roode to win the NXT Championship at the black-and-yellow brand’s annual flagship show in Brooklyn, N.Y. The victory was the culmination of all his work, a confirmation that he had been right to bet on himself — and, in a way, another validation of WWE’s initial chance to let him go in the first place.
“[Being released] put all the pieces together. It was sink or swim, and I swam like no other before me,” McIntyre said. “That’s what’s crazy about coming back. In NXT, when I initially become champion, I went, ‘Wow. I did this as Drew Galloway, not Drew McIntyre. This is the real me.’ That’s pretty cool.”
There is another old saying that pressure is what turns coal into a diamond, though truth be told, it’s more like scientific fact. In that sense, McIntyre’s vendetta against complacent Superstars is less a personal grudge than a desire to restore the natural order. Getting signed to WWE means you’ve made it to the top, but McIntyre knows the dangers of resting on one’s laurels more than most.
It trickles down from the top to the bottom ... If [Raw] starts to suffer, the rest of the sports-entertainment world starts to suffer.
More to the point, he knows the benefits of refusing to do so. On the indies, he had no choice but to remold himself into a champion. NXT found him surrounded by kindred spirits, each looking to outdo the other and all of whom forced him to make like yet another old saying and “follow that.” But what McIntyre saw on Raw and SmackDown after his injury left him dismayed, and a backstage trip to Team Red only confirmed his suspicions.
“I remember thinking, ‘Man, people are so relaxed now,’ acting like it’s not live Raw,” McIntyre said of his visit to the backstage. “There’s no tension in the air. Everyone is just getting along like we’re at band camp."
He is careful to clarify that he doesn’t think the entire locker room is just happy to be there.
“There are Superstars that deserve to be at the top and do give everything. But unfortunately, a vast majority wouldn’t have survived 11 years ago when I got signed.”
As for the rest of the Superstars, he’ll only offer this: “Those who ask themselves, ‘Is he talking about me?’ Positive or negative, the answer is probably yes.”
McIntyre found his opportunity to restore the balance when he was summoned to Raw instead of NXT after his injury healed, debuting as the surprise tag team partner for Ziggler. Both Superstars are somewhat cagey as to how they got together, but they match up perfectly in terms of mentality: Dolph is a former World Heavyweight Champion who isn’t afraid to call out laziness when he sees it. Given their similar, if not identical, roller-coaster career paths, both Superstars have reached the last shred of their diplomacy.
There are Superstars who deserve to be at the top and do give everything. But unfortunately, a vast majority wouldn't have survived 11 years ago when I got signed.
“[Drew] has made a couple of lines very clear,” Ziggler said. “Some people get complacent here; some people get soft. They know they’re collecting a check. They know they’re not one of the guys who got let go a couple of years ago, whether they should be or not. That’s a slap in the face to a lot of us who are fighting for time on the show and think we’ve been overlooked or think we should be doing something much more important. You forget, or you take it for granted, that you’re in the greatest wrestling/sports-entertainment company in the entire world. Sometimes, someone needs to pinch you or slap you and let you know the deal.”
“Even when we’re next to each other on Raw, you can see the look in his eyes that he’s just waiting to beat the hell out of somebody, and that is so refreshing for me,” said Ziggler. “He’s someone who doesn’t take [his job] for granted because he did have to go away. If you think you don’t come back [from that] with a chip on your shoulder, you’re crazy.”
They’re not only a match in mindset, but experience. McIntyre notes that he and Ziggler have sat under the same learning tree, absorbing knowledge from the likes of Edge and The Undertaker that is fast becoming something of a lost art. He also, surprisingly, claims that their campaign is coming from a place of positivity, at least for him.
“In the end, it trickles down from the top to the bottom. WWE Raw is the No. 1 sports-entertainment show in the world. If it starts to suffer, the rest of the sports-entertainment world starts to suffer,” McIntyre claimed. “Together, we can bring a new era into WWE and lead them into where they need to be.”
In other words, as a man who saw himself cast aside because of a bad attitude, he simply cannot abide the idea of having fought to return to a place that isn’t up to the personal standards he was forced to adapt. So, he’s happy to show everyone the way. By force, true. But his bad intentions are as pure as can be.
“We are truly leading by example, no matter how anyone sees us,” said McIntyre. “This is for everyone’s own good.”