When Drew McIntyre and Bobby Lashley clash for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania on Saturday, they do so as rivals. But at the same time, they are journeymen whose paths to the top of the sports-entertainment industry are far more similar than you may realize.
From heightened expectations to early departures, Impact Wrestling to WWE's top prize, they have traveled the same roads ahead of their titanic battle on wrestling's grandest stage and, in doing so, have taught WWE that sometimes it's best play is the long game.
Bobby Lashley exploded on to the scene in WWE in 2005, and within a year and a half, he was a focal point in the WrestleMania 23 main event. Donald Trump's hand-picked representative, he defeated Vince McMahon's Umaga before joining the future President of the United States and special referee "Stone Cold" Steve Austin in shaving McMahon's head.
On that night, in the midst of a major mainstream moment, it appeared as though Lashley was on the fast track to sports-entertainment dominance. Within 10 months, he would be gone from the company.
Two years later, Drew McIntyre was introduced to the WWE Universe as Vince McMahon's chosen one. He was a can't-miss prospect with all the potential in the world to one day be the face of the company.
Early success gave way to utter disappointment, though, as McIntyre fell out of favor, descending from prized young star to undercard comedy act as one-third of 3MB. While he was still on the show every week, it became clear his future was not as bright as it once was. And by 2014, he was released from his contract and left at a career crossroads.
Both competitors were groomed for excellence early but their stars burned out before they had the chance to shine, with WWE management's inability to play the long game and a lack of patience on its part to properly develop them leading to their departures.
Making an Impact
For Lashley and McIntyre, the only way to grow and evolve into the performers they needed to be in order to achieve their goals, they needed to go away. They needed to get far away from the overproduced nature of WWE and the lofty expectations set by its management and develop.
McIntyre traveled the world and competed against the best independent talent around, many of whom are now under contract with WWE. Lashley would turn to MMA, competing for Bellator, where he amassed a 5-0 record between 2014 and 2016.
It was not until they arrived in Impact Wrestling at roughly the same time that the world had the opportunity to see the wrestlers they had become.
McIntyre had expanded the skill set that earned him the Chosen One label, and Lashley had discovered his in-ring confidence while battling in the cages of Bellator. Both men were more polished than they were in WWE, and their star power from having competed in McMahon's promotion allowed them to achieve immediate success.
Within a year of his Impact debut, McIntyre had defeated Matt Hardy for the world title. Lashley needed less time, winning his first title with the company within two months of his debut. Their paths would intersect for the first time with the company, with Lashley getting the best of McIntyre to win his third title.
For all the success they had with the promotion and the confidence and exposure they acquired, though, it was always a launching pad for bigger and better things. Those things would be achieved in the company they once called home under much different circumstances.
McIntyre and Lashley returned to WWE after signing major free-agent deals with the company. The former put in time as part of the NXT brand before a main roster call-up in 2018 as part of the post-WrestleMania episode of Raw. Apropos, Lashley debuted the same night.
Both arrived with heightened expectations, this time on the part of the fans who were familiar with what they accomplished elsewhere and expected them to emerge as prominent forces in WWE right off the bat.
They did to varying degrees, but both endured stumbling blocks. McIntyre became a sidekick for Shane McMahon, while Lashley found himself stuck in the midcard and overshadowed by mouthpiece Lio Rush.
But things would get better.
McIntyre won the 2020 men's Royal Rumble and embarked on a Road to WrestleMania that would see him emerge as the heavy favorite in his WWE Championship feud with Brock Lesnar. Lashley overcame horrendous booking and a potentially career-derailing storyline with Lana to find rejuvenation as the CEO of The Hurt Business.
The Scot's title win propelled him to the top of the industry, while Lashley's slower rise earned him respect. His title win over The Miz, whom he helped defeat McIntyre, set the familiar foes on a collision course for WrestleMania 37.
Their battle may be one of the marquee matches on the card, but it is also a representation of the grind that it takes to achieve excellence in WWE. Some emerge from developmental, and management has grand plans for them that, come hell or high water, manifest in a major push and multiple title wins.
Others take longer to develop and grow into their roles. For every John Cena, Batista or Randy Orton there is a Lashley or a McIntyre, who had major expectations heaped on them but needed to break free of the WWE machine to find themselves as performers.
They did, working different styles against a variety of opponents before finally achieving what so many expected of them earlier in their careers.
Both men arrive at WrestleMania as titans in their field, the success stories they were meant to be, with the spotlight shining brightly on them as they compete for the top prize in the industry. After a long and arduous journey, it is up to them to thrive on the grandest stage they will ever compete on.