NXT champion Finn Bálor discusses his journey to the WWE
Vince McMahon has always left an impression on Finn Bálor – this past March, Bálor left one on McMahon.
“The first official meeting I had with Vince McMahon was in San Jose two days before WrestleMania,” said Bálor. “I was wrestling against Neville in the main for NXT San Jose. Neville had just got to the ring, and I was standing behind the curtain ready to make my entrance. I could hear Neville’s music tapering off, and I heard a call, ‘Finn! Finn!’ I turned around and it was Hunter. He said, ‘Have you met Vince?’
“So I went over and Vince’s head popped out from behind the curtain and said, ‘How are you doing, son?’ I said, ‘Hello, sir,’ and shook his hand. As I shook his hand, the heartbeat of my music started and I started, ‘That’s my cue, gotta go.’”
Bálor, the reigning NXT champion, is part of WWE’s “Answer the Call” campaign to raise funds for the families of fallen heroes from the New York City Police and Fire Departments.
“I’m from a small town in Ireland,” said Bálor. “I grew up in a town where we didn’t even have a full time police department, so to be able to help the families of fallen heroes is really an incredibly humbling experience for me. I’m just glad to be a part of the program.”
Though his meeting with McMahon was memorable, Bálor will always be a “Paul Levesque Guy.” Levesque immediately took a personal interest in Bálor, and is grooming him to become the WWE’s next major superstar.
“With regards to what you see on TV, you’re really only seeing the tip of the iceberg with Paul Levesque,” said Bálor about the man better known to wrestling fans as Triple H. “He has been an incredible leader here for the people at NXT, and not just for me, but he has time for everyone. He motivates people and inspires. He’s someone that is very approachable, very down to earth, and full of new and alternative ideas. He’s helped me adapt to my situation, which has been very different with learning the working style of WWE and life here in America.”
The 34-year-old Bálor–whose real name is Fergal Devitt–has wrestled across the globe. He learned different styles of wrestling in the United Kingdom, Mexico, and made himself an international superstar as “Prince Devitt” in New Japan Pro Wrestling as the leader of the “Bullet Club.” Yet, despite nearly fifteen years of experience wrestling, Bálor is still adapting to the WWE’s style, which is more than just wrestling.
“Everywhere is very different,” said Bálor. “Back when I started in England, it was very technically sound. Spent time in Mexico, it’s very high-flying. I spent a lot of time in Japan, and it’s very hard-hitting. WWE is a hybrid of all the different styles from around the world put together. Obviously they have the production values on top of that, and it’s really the total package of wrestling from all around the world.”
The biggest knock on Bálor from his coaches at the WWE Performance Center is his lack of verbal skills–or, as the late Dusty Rhodes referred to it, his communication.
“Dusty would say, ‘Finn, your work in the ring is up here, but you’re talking is down here – you’ve got to balance them out,’” said Bálor. “He was always very straight to the point, and we had a great relationship together. I remember him saying one time, ‘Prince, you know I heard them talking about you before you came in here, and goddamn, I thought Lou Thesz was gonna walk in that door the way they talk about your work.’ I’ll never forget that, and I was very lucky to work with Dusty. He helped me incredibly with my communication, as he called it, and I learned a lot of lessons with him. ‘The Dream’ was someone who filled me with confidence the first time I walked in the door.”
Bálor signed with WWE in 2014. He moved from Japan to Florida so he could train daily at the Performance Center, and the WWE made him a feature attraction for the blossoming NXT–which was a long way, both literally and figuratively, from headlining shows in Japan.
“I struggled with WWE a couple years previous to this,” explained Bálor. “I never felt like it was the right time to make the jump. I was very happy with my career in Japan, and I still felt like I was honing my craft and wasn’t quite ready to make the jump. But last year, the opportunity came up again, and I said, ‘It’s now or never.’ I didn’t believe one hundred percent that it was the right decision. But I felt like, if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it, so I’ll at least give it a try.
“I can honestly say, even though I had a lot of doubt and insecurities about making the jump, it was, without a doubt, the best decision I’ve made in my life. The timing was perfect, the location was perfect, and even the opponents that came in with me [Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Hideo Itami] have been perfect, as well. A lot of guys had gone to developmental and disappeared for a year, but it’s been non-stop for me. I’ve been back to Japan already, been to Europe and Australia. NXT sold out the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, we’ve actually been in a video game, and we’re involved with this incredible charity, so it’s been a really unbelievable year with this company.”
Bálor has helped catapult NXT into its position as the second best wrestling company in the world. For Bálor–who said there are no current plans to move him to the main roster–he believes NXT is currently the WWE’s best product.
“Right now, NXT is the main roster,” he said. “NXT is the hottest thing in wrestling. I’m not in any hurry to go anywhere else but take NXT to the next level.”
A pivotal moment for Bálor occurred during the Fourth of July “Beast of the East” special on the WWE Network. Bálor dethroned Kevin Owens of the NXT championship to begin his own reign as champion.
“That whole night was memorable for much more than winning the NXT championship.” Said Bálor. “Japan was a place that became my second home. That venue [Sumo Hall] is where I watched my first New Japan show and wrestled my last New Japan match. It was a year after I said goodbye to so many friends, and the fans were almost like family there, and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see them again.
“To come back with WWE a year later to wrestle in the NXT championship match in a sold-out Sumo Hall against Kevin Owens, who came into NXT at almost the same time as me–and we became very close, experienced a lot of the same struggles–live on the WWE Network, the story couldn’t have been written any better. Right now, I haven’t had a chance to sit back and grasp how monumental a night in my career that was, but in the future, I think I’ll look back on that as one of the crowning moments of my career.”
Bálor spoke highly of Owens’ work, and even included him in who he considers to be the best three wrestlers in the world.
“The three best wrestlers in the world have some very different styles,” said Bálor. “But I’d pick Zack Sabre, Jr., Shinsuke Nakamura, and Kevin Owens.”
Bálor refused to name himself as one of the best in the world, but his work–and unique look–in the ring are unlike any other wrestler. The WWE often times offers a parody of wrestling, but Bálor’s matches are real and authentic.
“I take what I do very, very seriously,” said Bálor. “I can’t really describe what I do or how I do it. I stay true to what I believe in. If it feels right to me, then that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve been fortunate to have some great coaches, especially at the Performance Center. I’ve learned completely different styles all around the world, and I’m just trying to put it all together and see what feels right for me. If that comes across well for the fans, then that’s all that matters for me.”
Pro wrestling runs through Bálor’s veins, but his look in the ring–covered in dark, frightening body paint–also combines wrestling with his love of comics.
“I was into art as a child,” said Bálor. “Art and drawing were my only really good subjects in high school. Besides wrestling, it was the only other thing I contemplated pursuing in life. When I was eighteen and finished school, I applied to an art college, but that took second place to applying to wrestling school, which I committed to fully.
“Art is something I set aside in my life for a long time, and then two years ago I was able to combine the two and combine my love of art with my love of wrestling, and it’s snowballed since. I’m a big comic book fan. I’m not so much a fan of certain characters, I’m a fan of body language. They’re very similar–American wrestling is like a real life comic book.”
Bálor mentioned that dealing with the hot Floridian weather is a big adjustment in his life since moving to the United States, but he is still also getting a feel for what the WWE offers its wrestlers.
“I’ve been wrestling for over fourteen years,” said Bálor. “You kind of get trapped in your own little bubble and think you’re doing your wrestler for yourself and your small core group of fans from the independent circuit or New Japan. I’ve been in WWE for a year now, and just the sheer reach this company has is mind-blowing. The WWE is known nationally and internationally, and I don’t think the company gets enough credit for how much is does. Regardless of in-ring, or in the arena, or on TV, the stuff that people don’t hear about is mind-blowing.”
Bálor admitted he is not one to set long-term goals, but was willing to make an exception. A dream of his is to headline WrestleMania as many times as possible.
“I started wrestling fifteen years ago, and my goal was to have just one match,” said Bálor. “I had one match, and then I wanted to have two. Then I wanted to wrestle in Japan, and I wrestled in Japan for eight years. Then I wanted to wrestle in WWE. Here I am, a year later, as NXT champ. So I don’t set long-term goals. The next goal is Brooklyn [against Kevin Owens at NXT Takeover]. But it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to think, in another fifteen years time, the odds are highly stacked in my favor about WrestleMania some day.”