Pain and glory: Bobby Roode's 18-year journey to the WWE

After 18 years in the world of professional wrestling, Bobby Roode finally got the chance to sign a WWE contract. Nick Laham for ESPN

Walking out for NXT Takeover: Toronto on Saturday in front of nearly 20,000 people will undoubtedly be the biggest moment of Bobby Roode's professional wrestling career.

"It's been a bit of whirlwind," he told ESPN by phone when asked for his thoughts on a memorable 2016. "But honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way."

An 18-year wrestling veteran, Roode spent the bulk of his career as one of the stars of Total Nonstop Action wrestling, alongside the likes of A.J. Styles, Samoa Joe, Sting, Kurt Angle and a number of other names recognizable to WWE fans, past and present. At 39, Roode finally got his chance to sign a WWE contract, and in June, he debuted at the Download Festival on NXT's UK Tour.

He has since become one of the developmental brand's hottest acts.

"Starting back with WWE over six months ago, it's been an amazing experience," he said. "Being part of Takeover: Brooklyn was pretty cool, thinking back to my very first match in England. Here I am now, just days away from another Takeover, [and now] I'm gonna perform on probably the biggest night of NXT in my hometown at the Air Canada Centre ... It's been great -- better than I ever expected."

One of the biggest reasons Roode's popularity has exploded so quickly in NXT is his theme song, a Queen-inspired operatic, prog-rock epic entitled "Glorious Domination." It was so universally popular that it went to No. 1 on the iTunes chart in August, after Roode's equally grandiose entrance at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn II, where he defeated Andrade "Cien" Almas.

"It's been pretty unbelievable that the song has caught fire across the world," he said. "Being as experienced as I am and having been in this business as long as I have, any time you can add a layer to your character that gets a fan reaction like the Glorious song, it's a huge plus.

"I'm having fun with it. Brooklyn was huge, the first time when it was played, with 15,000 people singing it. I'm really looking forward to being in Toronto, where I grew up a fan in the area, where there are some of [the] greatest wrestling fans anywhere in the world. When that song hits on my entrance, I'm looking forward to hearing the people of Toronto and just having fun."

The moment when he steps out to face Tye Dillinger on the WWE Network live special -- in front of a hometown crowd for both men -- will be all the more incredible, given where Robert Roode Jr. found himself less than 12 months ago.

But he's so much more than a theme song. When I briefly met Roode on Jan. 26 in a pub in North London, he was still contracted to TNA. He was signing autographs and taking pictures at a fan event ahead of TNA's UK tour show that weekend at Wembley Arena.

He had just turned 39 on New Year's Day, so Roode could be forgiven for perhaps thinking the door to WWE was closed.

However, as he told me in our interview this week, "The one thing I've learned in sports entertainment is that nothing is for certain, and you never say never. You have to start somewhere in anything you do."

There had been hope almost a decade earlier. Roode had impressed at a series of tryouts for WWE back in the early 2000s, appearing on bygone shows such as Jakked, Metal, Sunday Night Heat and Velocity, as well as dark matches before Raw and SmackDown.

"That's the goal, right? You want to get a job, get hired, want to be seen," he said. "You go do these dark matches, you network and show your face as much as you can."

But a contract offer never came. Roode eventually signed with TNA in May 2004, but he never fully gave up hope.

"I believe in life that everything happens for a reason," he said. "The timing back then with WWE didn't work out. It passed me by the first time. But there was a reason for it. I made a name for myself."

Sitting alongside him that cold, January evening at Shillibeer's Bar and Grill, around the corner from Caledonian Road underground station, was his longtime tag-team partner, James Storm. Together, the duo were known as Beer Money in TNA, and they had just reunited after five years apart.

Storm had reportedly been offered a deal by WWE after appearing on two NXT tapings in the winter of 2015, but somewhat surprisingly, he re-signed with TNA, claiming they offered him more money.

Beer Money went on to win their sixth TNA world tag team championship after reuniting, but each was an accomplished singles competitor in his own right. Both men held the TNA world heavyweight championship once, with Roode's reign still standing as the longest in TNA history, at 256 days. All in all, Roode won 11 championships in TNA, and Storm won 16.

That weekend at Wembley Arena, Roode wrestled Kurt Angle in one of Angle's three final matches for TNA on a farewell UK tour named in his honor. On this night, Roode seemed a bit more pensive than Storm.

Beer with #BeerMoney #TNA

A photo posted by Nicolas Atkin (@natkinespn) on

Given his mindset at the time, that was understandable.

"I enjoyed 12-plus years in TNA, but in the end, I didn't like being there doing what I was doing. That was my issue," Roode said candidly. "I needed to get away."

In recent months, TNA has become increasingly dogged by financial issues and embroiled in a bitter legal battle over ownership between Dixie Carter and Billy Corgan. That's a far cry from when the two appeared together at those Wembley tapings.

Roode and other TNA talent such as Austin Aries and Eric Young have all since decided it was time to up sticks. All three have found an unexpected home in one of wrestling's hottest brands.

"I obviously wanted to keep wrestling and stay in the business," Roode said. "The opportunity came up with WWE, and it's been an incredible experience."

Roode made his NXT debut in June in the UK, and it was only a couple months later that Storm announced he was finished with his commitments to TNA. A reunion with Roode in NXT seemed possible, but Storm has stuck to wrestling on the independent circuit. Perhaps the WWE bridge was burned when he spurned them to return to TNA.

"I have not spoken a word to James since I left in March," Roode said. "I'm not sure what his plan is. We haven't spoken."

Roode has also been keen to detach himself from the political machinations going on at TNA.

"Honestly, I really haven't been paying much attention. I know they're having some trouble there," he said. "The way I look at it, the more companies out there, the more work for the guys, the better. I have a lot of friends there, and I want the best for them."

One person Roode spoke to before heading to WWE was Styles. It was just two days prior to my brief encounter with Roode in London that his fellow former top guy in TNA debuted in WWE -- to an incredible response.

"A.J. and I are friends," Roode told ESPN. "I speak to him. We stayed in touch for years. You have a core group of people you keep in touch with throughout the business, guys you work with."

Such was the impact of Styles' entrance at the Royal Rumble that the emcee for that TNA fan event in London joked with those in attendance that the topic was off-limits.

As Kurt Angle told me in an interview later that week: "If there are people that didn't think the WWE fans knew who A.J. Styles was, then they're crazy."

Styles turned down a WWE developmental deal in 2002, with his wife in college and TNA offering him more money. He spent more than a decade in TNA, where he won the NWA world heavyweight championship three times and the TNA world heavyweight championship twice.

In a measure of his ability and connection with the fans, Styles became the first TNA-contracted wrestler to be ranked No. 1 on Pro Wrestling Illustrated's annual PWI 500 list in 2010. When his contract expired in 2014, Styles signed with New Japan Pro Wrestling, and he won the IWGP heavyweight championship in his first match with the company and soon reached an entirely different echelon of popularity as the leader of The Bullet Club.

"You can always go to other places and become a star. A.J. is a prime example of that," Roode said. "He went to Japan and become enormous over there, a world champion. He already had a huge fan base in America and Canada."

As excited as Roode was when Styles signed with WWE, he knew better than to expect Styles' signing to mean an open door for every former TNA star looking for a shot.

"I had that confidence in my own ability, but just because A.J. came here and had success didn't mean I would," he said. "I was willing to come here, and I got the opportunity."

It would be fair to assume Roode has plans to emulate his buddy Styles on the main WWE main roster, but for now, he is more than happy to carry the torch as one of the veterans among the Performance Center rookies at NXT.

"When I started here, I didn't really have prior plans. I just wanted to be part of WWE, to get the opportunity to show what I can do," he said. "Whether I stay in NXT or go to the main roster, at this point, I'm just getting my feet wet still. What happens down the road -- who knows?"

For now, Roode is incredibly excited to perform at a hometown venue that should be packed with the most die-hard of wrestling fans.

"Crazy things have happened since day one here," he said. "I never would've been able to tell you, [but] here I am -- days from walking into the Air Canada Centre and performing where I grew up and watched as a fan."

Even if this is as big as it gets and a main roster call-up eludes him, Roode's move to NXT can already be classified as a tremendous success, by any measure.

"Things are unpredictable in this business, but I'm extremely happy to be part of NXT," Roode said. "I think it's the hottest brand under the WWE umbrella. Every show we do is phenomenal. I just love being a part of the locker room. It's incredible."