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Since he returned to the main roster Drew McIntyre has always been protected. Not only did he rarely lose matches on television, he rarely even lost any physical confrontations he did have. Clearly, whether it was Paul Heyman, Vince McMahon and now Bruce Prtichard, whoever the decision makers were in WWE, they see Drew McIntyre as a star.
There is a good reason for that, as it has been said plenty of times over the last few years, McIntyre checks all of the boxes. Tall, good body, good promo, good worker, all of the things you would want in a wrestling star are there. Believing that Drew McIntyre should be pushed and protected isn't a groundbreaking idea, but rather common sense.
So now that McIntyre has beaten Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship and has had a few months as the dominant world champion, how has he fared? Getting his first crack as the biggest babyface in WWE during the empty-arena era has certainly made it more difficult to assess McIntyre, as fan reactions that are normally relied on to determine how "over" someone is, are non-existent. In some ways, McIntyre really hasn't had a chance to get over as the champion because he has no crowd to perform in front of. Given he was getting strong reactions leading up to WrestleMania when fans were still in arenas, I think it is reasonable to believe he would still be a big fan favorite right now.
From a viewership perspective, McIntyre hasn't fared well at all. Some people would point to the record-low ratings RAW has generated during McIntyre's run and label him a failure, but that is pretty unfair. The empty-arena setting has hurt WWE across the board, and even pre-Covid, WWE was consistently seeing a decline in viewership year-over-year, no matter who was on top. Blaming McIntyre for not being able to stop that slide in the empty-arena era is harsh and also ignorant to all of the issues that plague WWE when it comes to generating interest.
While it may be unfair to blame McIntyre for the slide in viewership, it is rational to say that McIntyre, while popular, has not been a big enough star to stop any decline in WWE viewership. Right now, McIntyre isn't the kind of business-altering star that WWE has been searching for since John Cena stopped wrestling full-time. McIntyre is a believable main event star, which is good because you can never have too many of those, but he isn't the giant mega-star WWE really needs to turn things around.
Despite the fact that he has been protected in his booking and he does check all those boxes, more needs to be done to get McIntyre to that next level. You can't really complain about his booking because unlike so many WWE babyfaces, he isn't made to look stupid or weak at any point. Like Steve Austin or Hulk Hogan or John Cena, McIntyre almost always gets the better of his opponents each week. This isn't really the case of WWE submarining the potential of a top guy.
To me, to get McIntyre to that next level he needs something more to his character and his persona that resonates with fans. Think about it, what is Drew McIntyre's character? He is a big tough guy, sure, but is there anything else to him? Honestly it might be something as simple as a new nickname or a catchphrase that catches on, that would give him a stronger connection to fans. He checks all the boxes, but I don't think his character currently showcases enough of his charisma, whether on promos or in the ring, to really take him up a level.
Some people won't like this because they don't like comparing AEW to WWE, but I think about Adam Page, and how when he first challenged Chris Jericho for the AEW World Championship, he wasn't a big enough star. Like McIntyre, most observers would agree that Page was a guy who checked a lot of boxes and was going to be a future star, but he just wasn't there yet last September. He was missing something in his character and fans, while supportive of him, didn't rally behind him and in a lot of ways, Page was swallowed up by the bigger, established star in Jericho.
Fast forward to now and Page, by hitting on the drunk cowboy stuff, a minor addition to his character that has connected with fans in a new way, and he feels like a real top star. If he were to face Jericho, or now Moxley for the world title, he would not be overshadowed by their star power, on the contrary I think fans would be fully in support of him and he would be favored in those matches. If McIntyre can hit on something like that, he could see himself jump up in popularity in star power. He needs that extra bit of connection with the audience to go from being a competent world champion, to a real massive star in WWE.
Part of the problem for McIntyre since beating Lesnar is that his opponents have been up-and-down. Seth Rollins was a fine first challenger, but he was working on getting over a new character and it wasn't the best feud. Bobby Lashley was okay, but was also more in a storyline with Lana than with McIntyre. Dolph Ziggler had no credibility, and pairing McIntyre, who for years was buried in WWE with another guy who hasn't been a real main event star, isn't a good look if you are trying to get the world title over.
That sets the stage for his feud with Randy Orton. Orton is having one of the best years of his career and is a real, top-level heel that fans will buy actually being able to beat McIntyre for the title. This gives McIntyre an opponent at his level and an opportunity to really show his talent as a babyface because Orton has been a great heel. This isn't Ziggler or even Rollins, and if McIntyre is really going to show-off how good of a babyface he can be, he couldn't ask for a better opponent than Orton.
Part of me does wonder if SummerSlam were to take place in front of a normal audience of 15,000 fans, would those fans cheer for Orton? Even if they like McIntyre, fans today normally cheer for whoever they find the most interesting, not necessarily the heel or the babyface. While McIntyre has been protected, Orton has been far more intriguing and his character and promos during his feud with Edge have made him probably the most interesting person in the company, much more interesting than McIntyre feuding with Ziggler. Plus, fans already see Orton as a top star in the company because he has been there for years and years, to some of them McIntyre hasn't done quite enough in WWE to justify being on Orton's level.
This will remain a challenge for McIntyre, especially because it looks like we are still a ways away from fans coming back into the arena. McIntyre has gotten a push and has the skills, but there is still substantial work to be done for him to reach his potential as a giant babyface for WWE. The opportunity for McIntyre to be a big star hasn't been wasted, but it hasn't quite been seized yet either.