In case you’ve had WWE programming on mute for the past several weeks, WrestleMania 35 is fast upon us, which means it is our eminent duty to periodically roll out excruciatingly detailed previews of each individual match in the month-plus leading up to April 7. It is, to be pointed, The Ringer’s WrestleMania Match Book.
As of this writing, the card for professional wrestling’s biggest night has swelled to feature confirmed clashes in the double digits, a good chunk of which we’ve already covered in depth. And our latest pit stop lands us at the doorstep of a clash between two men who may well be pinching themselves to even be participating: recent cancer survivor Roman Reigns and rejuvenated Scottish Psycopath Drew McIntyre. As has become customary in this series, the following is our finest effort at distilling the participants’ dovetailing fates, deducing why we care and who, in this instance, will prove they are the true “Chosen One.”
WrestleMania Match Book, Chapter 6: Roman Reigns vs. Drew McIntyre
It’s not being billed as such, but this is very much a tale of two odysseys. There’s Drew McIntyre, the so-called “Scottish Psychopath,” who began his wrestling career at the tender age of 15 and first debuted on WWE TV in the fall of 2007 against a young Zack Ryder (then performing under the alias Brett Major).
After toggling between SmackDown and developmental promotion Florida Championship Wrestling (later NXT), McIntyre reemerged on the main roster in late summer ’09 as Vince McMahon’s “Chosen One.” It was a gimmick, but even so, such monikers aren’t handed out willy-nilly. McIntyre was on the path to success. A 150-plus-day reign as Intercontinental Champion ensued, followed by an alliance and tag-title run with Cody Rhodes.
Alas, fortunes rise and fall in WWE, and McIntyre soon got lost in the shuffle of rising antagonist talent like NXT-alum stable the Nexus. Heading into ’12, he was once on and off television, and three years removed from receiving Mr. McMahon’s on-air blessing, McIntyre was ingloriously installed as one-third of comedy squash troupe 3MB alongside fellow castaways Heath Slater and Jinder Mahal.
McIntyre was released from the company in June ’14, nearly seven years after his SmackDown debut. And it was the best thing that ever happened to him. McIntyre—back to going by his given name, Drew Galloway—ran roughshod over indie feds like Evolve, as well as second-tier majors like Impact, earning him a second chance to make a first impression: a contract in WWE developmental territory (and hotbed of wrestling nerddom) NXT, where he and his colossal Claymore Kick finisher creamed the competition en route to a championship.
In April ’18, McIntyre—far more filled out and furious than in his previous WWE tenures—reasserted himself on Raw as Dolph Ziggler’s muscle. Once that partnership (and a tangential, fleeting alliance with Braun Strowman) dissolved, McIntyre dotted around the program, buddying up with other main-event baddies like Baron Corbin and Bobby Lashley, picking on Strowman, Finn Bálor, and just about any babyface in a comparable state of creative limbo. But heading into WrestleMania, a path had cleared, and he was the perfect man left standing to take issue with a returning superstar who literally fought for his life to even make it back to the ring.
Prologue, Part 2
Where to begin with Roman Reigns? Well, it was a damp and humid day (one assumes) in Pensacola, Florida, on May 25, 1985 … but I digress. Let’s begin again in 2006, when Joe Anoa‘i is a highly skilled senior defensive lineman for Georgia Tech—40 tackles and 4.5 sacks!—with an even more impressive family tree of formidable Samoan pro wrestlers (Wild Samoan Sika is his dad; late WWE superstar Rosey was his brother; the Usos are his cousins). So when the NFL didn’t pan out, FCW—the precursor to NXT—came calling. Anoa‘i initially performed as Leakee (oh the days when he and Ricardo Rodriguez shared the same rarefied air). Skip ahead again to late ’12, when in NXT, Leakee has been rechristened Roman Reigns. He’s also far more stoic and sturdy than Leakee was permitted to be, making him the perfect anchor for a threesome featuring himself and NXT colleagues Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins, collectively known as the Shield.
Reigns had barely tried on his new gimmick alter ego for size when the Shield debuted at Survivor Series ’12, which in retrospect may not have been in his best interest. Despite the group’s great popularity from the jump, fans soon soured on Reigns’s quick ascent up the solo ranks, picking up on the faintest whiff of nepotism as Roman—freed from his obligations as Shield enforcer after Rollins betrayed his mates—vaulted into immediate World Heavyweight Championship contention in the summer of 2014. The subsequent several years of his divisive dominance have been documented on this website and in just about every other corner of the online wrestling commentariat. The short version is: WWE loved him, fans hated him, and either way he was money in the bank.
But everything spun to a dead stop on October 22, when Reigns—humbling himself as Joe Anoa‘i—announced that he was suffering from a recurrence of leukemia, an illness most of us had no idea he’d combatted earlier in life. This was no story line. It was actual life-or-death. And in what was truly a miracle—one awesome enough to convert the majority of onlookers into Roman devotees for the long haul—Reigns came back to Raw just over a month ago. He was in remission and ready to transition back from one fight to another, one that may cause some bumps and bruises but ultimately reminds him he’s alive.
The night Reigns returned, McIntyre was in the midst of a typical numbers-game assault, this time on Dean Ambrose. The Lunatic Fringe had spent much of 2019 as a paranoid villain squaring off against Rollins—they were pals until Reigns went out and Ambrose turned on Rollins; it’s a whole thing—but it had since become public knowledge that the real-life Jonathan Good was parting ways with WWE in a matter of weeks. Cut to Reigns and Rollins bailing Ambrose out, the three amigos putting old wounds to rest and reforming the Shield for one last ride at annual Mania warm-up, Fastlane. It was pretty sweet. Although McIntyre, who laid down for the Shield’s victory lap with partners Baron Corbin and Bobby Lashley, was left with a bad taste in his mouth.
Post-Fastlane, Rollins shifted his focus to Mania’s men’s main event, his pursuit of Brock Lesnar’s Universal Championship. That left Ambrose, who’d been getting paid to get guys over since WWE shared word of his imminent departure, as McIntyre’s ideal prey. On the March 11 episode of Raw, McIntyre took out Reigns, compelling Ambrose to challenge Drew to a Falls Count Anywhere clash that same night (cause, ya know, he’s a lunatic). It didn’t go well for Dean, but that made Roman real mad. With that generous assist from Mr. Ambrose, Reigns and McIntyre’s business got really personal.
We can’t act as if Reigns hadn’t “outed” himself as “Joe” five months ago, no more than NXT audiences could black out their memories of the artist known as Leakee six years prior to that. So in the spirit of reusing rather than losing good material, McIntyre cut a promo of promos the past two weeks looking past the facade of Roman Reigns and speaking directly to the survivor Joe Anoa‘i. A challenge was issued for WrestleMania, one Reigns finally accepted after McIntyre took the ill-advised overstep of talking smack about his adversary’s wife and children. (Did we learn nothing from Bray Wyatt?) As of this writing, McIntyre—who Claymore’d Reigns’s lights out once the match was confirmed and ended that evening’s Raw by serving up an encore of his beating to Ambrose—has established himself as the callous, conquering prick he was always chosen to be. And Reigns has appeared unstoppable and prone in equal measure, enduring the believable growing pains of someone climbing back from sickness and improbable odds.
The heat got turned up on this one in a big way since the Shield said their goodbyes coming off of Fastlane. McIntyre needed this more than anyone, lest it appear that—as in his 3MB days—he was only as good (or bad) as the company he kept. It’s not easy to stare into a lens on national television and punch down at someone for having battled cancer and clawed their way back into a Mania moment. And Roman is a true team player for putting his personal struggles out there to help heighten the stakes. Expect a fluid, physical bout that—in all likelihood—has only one realistic outcome (Reigns for the feel-good W), but may not even be the extent of Roman’s Mania presence in particular. It’s never too soon to assume there’ll be some drama with Rollins if he should win the Universal title—and let’s not forget that Rollins intervened in Reigns’s attempt at Lesnar’s belt at WrestleMania 31. I’m sure Reigns hasn’t forgotten.
Meanwhile, we’d all be wise to watch and appreciate the tableau: two Chosen Ones—the current model, slightly dinged up, and the previous generation, with a lot of miles but an engine that purrs—battling for the chance to carry that symbolic mantle into the new era of WWE. It’s an absolutely surreal scene—a once-polarizing figure, freshly recuperated and cancer-free, fending off a concerted threat from a patient veteran who has transcended the indignities of 3MB. Behold Mania’s truest spectacle of second chances.