From the time that 205 Live launched as a brand in November 2016, the in-ring performances were the centerpieces, and the biggest challenges were finding characters and performers who resonated with the audience.
After running through several Cruiserweight Classic alumni as the "top guy" to varying levels of success, the effort to make 205 Live a more well-rounded show turned to the outside. The next wave of champions and top contenders had gotten the time to develop their characters and act on Raw, SmackDown and NXT, like Neville, Austin Aries, Kalisto, Akira Tozawa and current cruiserweight champion Enzo Amore.
Although the search for the cruiserweight's division had largely become external, a funny thing happened along the way: While most of the 205 Live roster had changed in subtle ways over the course of the first year, went from being a good guy to a bad guy or vice versa, or even walked away entirely, one man in particular completely redefined himself.
In going from a no-nonsense, mean-looking technical bruiser to a smooth-talking, clean-shaven, suit-wearing, sign-carrying bureaucrat lobbying for a better 205 Live, Drew Gulak became the unlikely star that 205 Live was looking for all along
Despite being a character that was designed to antagonize fans in every way, Gulak's pleas for 205 Live to become a "No Fly Zone", along with his masterful use of PowerPoint and full dedication to the character, quickly caught on and made him one of the most popular characters on the show.
Although the change in approach and appearance is new to the WWE audience, Gulak is returning to elements of a character and presentation that helped him get a foothold as he rose up through the ranks of independent wrestling more than a decade ago. Whether it's his lack of self-awareness, or his full commitment and loyalty to Amore and the Zo Train despite their difference in character and approach, Gulak has become one of the primary reasons to tune into 205 Live every Tuesday night.
"It's been really surreal," Gulak said of his recent success in an interview with ESPN.com. "I'm basically getting the chance to revisit old creative stuff that I was able to experiment with at a different point in my career, and I'm able to see what that's like under the banner of WWE. Now I have a whole new set of resources to kind of grow things and try things out."
Although many of the changes Gulak made have come from his own life and experiences, he's been able to take his character to new heights in the WWE because he's had a support system he never could have dreamed of before signing with the company.
"You're asked to bring certain things to the table, but at the same time you have to absolutely be collaborative," said Gulak. "It's been a wonderful learning experience, and I'm just very lucky that people are connecting with it, giving it a chance to grow and having fun with it."
Gulak's connection with the WWE audience is the payoff to all of the work he's put into his career over the past 13 years. But even as recently as a couple of years ago, it was easy to see Gulak becoming an independent wrestling lifer -- solidly successful outside of the WWE, having had plenty of matches to hang his hat on and a future helping to train future generations of stars once it was time to hang up his boots.
"Up until a couple years ago, I never even thought this whole thing was a possibility. [But] I'm the kind of guy that wanted to make the most out of every situation," said Gulak. "I love professional wrestling."
Even as he found success with companies like Combat Zone Wrestling, CHIKARA and a variety of other companies in the Northeast in North America, Gulak struggled to make the kind of splash that would catch the eye of the WWE until he made a concerted effort to figure out what he could do differently.
"I had been way outside WWE's radar for the longest time. I didn't know how to get in touch with the company, and I didn't even know if that was a goal of mine," said Gulak. "Then, a few years ago, I was able to start learning about the system, and did some extra work.
"Just by chance, based on my work on the independent scene and what I was doing with promotions like EVOLVE and Pro Wrestling Guerilla, William Regal reached out to me while I was overseas in England and mentioned that there would be a tryout happening," Gulak said.
That was in 2015, as a handful of stars that currently make up part of the backbone of NXT were ready to break out in their own right.
"It was about a year prior to the Cruiserweight Classic, and I was invited down with a few of my colleagues -- Johnny Gargano, Tommaso Ciampa, Oney Lorcan, TM61 and Chuck Taylor were all at that same tryout event."
While that wasn't yet the moment for Gulak to step up, there was no denying he was on the radar of some important people within the WWE system. As the calendar turned to 2016, Gulak finally got the call to step up as part of the first ever Cruiserweight Classic. At that point he still wasn't a full-time, contracted talent with the WWE, but he had the platform and the opportunity.
He even got to qualify for the tournament against a longtime friend, tag team partner and then-fellow EVOLVE tag team champion.
"A year later, I got to do a qualifying match at EVOLVE in New York against a friend of mine, Tracey Williams, and that earned me the opportunity to participate in the Cruiserweight Classic. Everything came together pretty quickly and suddenly -- I wasn't expecting anything like that to happen and dude, it was awesome."
With a handful of major tournaments including the Mae Young Classic having taken place since, it's easy to forget how revolutionary a concept the Cruiserweight Classic was. A mix of WWE and non-WWE talent, including international superstars like Kota Ibushi and Zack Sabre Jr.
"It was such a cool experience; you had this huge group of guys, these journeyman wrestlers from all different corners of the world, and we got to be on stage at WWE featured in a solo tournament," said Gulak. "The first of its kind, with a special on the WWE that led to huge opportunities for everyone involved."
After losing to Sabre in the second round, Gulak was among the performers who got the call to come back once the cruiserweight division was officially established. His style at that point seemed to fit -- short hair, beard, no knee pads and a no-nonsense in-ring style made Gulak stand out in some ways.
But as time rolled on, and other superstars became champions or top contenders, Gulak was often left to be the solo or tag team performer those top guys had to beat in order to reach the next level.
It took a few major changes over time, but the results began to speak for themselves. It started with Gulak putting on a suit, growing out his hair and shaving his beard. He took on aspects of a slimy politician looking to sell people on ideas that were generally bad for them, but tried to make them sound good.
Gulak worked against crucial foils like Akira Tozawa and Mustafa Ali, allowing him to go full-bore into his effort to make 205 a "No Fly Zone" instead of a brand ruled by acrobatics. It all came together over a couple of weeks as Gulak presented his arguments via PowerPoint, which quickly became a signature hook.
But Gulak really caught on with the introduction of the most unlikely of compatriots -- the bombastic, over-the-top loudmouth Enzo Amore.
"If you could picture a nice lake, clean water, real clear, some fish in there. There's seaweed, kelp, maybe even some coral. Then picture taking a bomb and dropping it into the middle of that and setting it off. That's kinda what it's like with Enzo. He's the bomb. He's such a crazy personality, and you can't help but react to him.
"For us, we've had a couple guys come through who had a noticeably different fan base, a noticeably different set of production or time spent on [building them up] beforehand and being added to our group," said Gulak, "Getting someone like a Neville, an Austin Aries or a Kalisto come in here. Enzo is like a neon version of those guys."
As part of the Zo Train, Gulak has played the fish out of water to perfection. Between correcting the grammar on Amore's promos, his disjointed version of Amore's signature shuffle and his earnest dedication beyond all rhyme and reason, Gulak has become the sidekick seemingly poised to dethrone the king somewhere down the line.
When and if he ever does get that shot, Gulak would embrace the spotlight that the cruiserweight title could bring -- and it's closer for him than it's ever been.
"It would mean that I'd have the largest audience [in our business] getting the chance to watch me do what I do. They're very high-pressure circumstances, and that's the coolest thing an in-ring performer could hope for."
Ever the realist, though, Gulak is simply enjoying this journey every step of the way. He's sharing locker rooms with superstars like Cesaro, Dean Ambrose, Luke Harper and many others who he came up with in the world of independent wrestling, and living out his dream on international TV every week. Even when the cameras are off, Gulak's sense of humor and personality shines through.
Even if it all ends tomorrow, and he as to pack up his picket signs, megaphones and campaign buttons, Gulak will cherish having had this opportunity for the rest of his life.
"Nothing ever lasts forever, so I don't have my personal feelings attached to anything for too long," said Gulak. "I don't get my hopes up about certain things -- I'm just that kind of a person -- but I am having a wonderful time. It's been a lot of fun getting to tell people what to do -- and look very clean-cut while doing so."