WWE NXT preview: Finn Balor seeks to regain championship - Sports Illustrated

Finn Bálor Seeks to Reclaim NXT’s Top Spot: ‘I’ve Grown More in the Past 11 Months Than I Ever Have’

Since returning to NXT, Finn Bálor has mostly be positioned in the middle of the card, being used to elevate fresh faces. But the time could be right for him to capture the NXT championship and lead the brand again.
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If you set your DVR for this Tuesday’s edition of NXT, you will record history repeating itself.

The NXT championship is vacant following a shoulder injury suffered by the new champ that forced him to relinquish the title on his first night on television with the belt. But there is no time to lament that loss, as the company is already moving forward with a four-way to crown a new champion.

Sound familiar?

After toiling on the indie circuit in different promotions across the globe, Karrion Kross experienced one of the most triumphant moments of his career when he defeated Keith Lee for the NXT championship at last week’s TakeOver XXX. In the course of that victory, Kross separated his shoulder, ending his reign before it could ever really begin.

If that does sound familiar, you are likely to recall the eerily similar fate that befell Finn Bálor four summers ago.

In August 2016, Bálor seized his opportunity. He first generated genuine buzz with a clean victory over Roman Reigns on Raw that July, then prevailed in a tournament to become the first-ever universal champion by defeating Seth Rollins at SummerSlam. Long before that title was defined by lengthy runs and disappearing acts from Brock Lesnar, the initial goal was to build it around Bálor. Few in the world are better at the craft of professional wrestling than Fergal Devitt (aka Finn Bálor), who starred around the world, most notably in New Japan Pro Wrestling, before his arrival in NXT and subsequent push on the main roster.

But the fairy tale took a peculiar turn when Bálor hurt his shoulder in the match with Rollins, requiring him to immediately relinquish the belt in order for WWE to move forward with active story lines. A four-way match was booked to determine a new champion, and Bálor has yet to wear the universal championship belt again.

“When I was in that moment, I felt like it was the worst thing in the world,” says Bálor. “I felt like I let all these people down, and there were all these expectations that couldn’t be fulfilled. Looking back, I now realize it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I had a 16-year climb to the top, which ended in beating Roman, Seth and raising the title. I spent so much time climbing up that mountain, but I never turned around and assessed the view. I needed to rebuild my shoulder, but I also needed to take stock of what I had already accomplished.

“I grew up a lot during that period. Those eight months took me away from wrestling and helped me reconnect with a lot of people and grow as a person. I’d pushed a lot of things aside in this tireless pursuit of my dream. When I came back to wrestling, I was a lot more rounded of a human being, and I knew exactly what I wanted in wrestling. For Karrion, it’s a s----- situation right now. In a few months, I hope he can look back and realize the experience made him a better person and performer.”

Bálor will now compete in a four-way bout on Tuesday night to determine the NXT champion, wrestling a 60-minute Iron Man match against Adam Cole, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa to crown a new champ after Kross’s unfortunate injury derailed his run.

“The situations are almost identical,” says Bálor. “Karrion is someone I’ve had very little interaction with, but I was devastated when I heard what happened. My heart broke for him, to be honest.”

Bálor returned to NXT in October for the first time since 2016. While it initially appeared he was destined to return to the world title picture, the former NXT champion has primarily bolstered the middle of the card. He is undefeated at the four TakeOver specials since his return, more recently serving as a gatekeeper of sorts for NXT in breakout matches for Damian Priest and Timothy Thatcher. But real life once again interfered with well-made wrestling plans, as Kross’s injury has propelled Bálor back into the main event.

NXT has a roster full of talent, yet finds itself at a crossroads without Kross, who was booked as a top draw since his on-screen debut five months ago. The man he defeated for the title, Keith Lee, was just moved to Raw. Adam Cole recently wrapped the longest world title reign in NXT history, surpassing Bálor’s time with the belt. And while it is possible Cole’s reign could be reignited, or that Ciampa or Gargano could be elevated back atop the NXT hierarchy, the best fit is the 39-year-old Bálor, who is quietly crafting one of the best runs of his career. He is precisely the talent who gives NXT an edge every time he appears in the head-to-head fight for viewers on Wednesday nights against AEW.

“I’m incredibly competitive, and I’m competitive in every nature, but I take the greatest pride in having the best match I can possibly have with the person I’m in the ring with,” says Bálor. “That’s my goal. I’m not into relying on a formula or doing the same stuff that I already know works. I want it to feel organic and be a little different. For lack of a better expression, I don’t want to rely on the same old s---. I want to push the boundaries of what we’re doing.

“If the ratings are good, then great, but that’s not my job. My job is to go out there and have a good match. In the past, my main fault was trying to keep too many people happy. Since I came back to NXT, I’ve focused on doing what I felt was right. If people like it, cool. If you don’t, I really don’t care. Some people say they do this for the fans, or for the ratings, or the money, but I do this because I feel alive when the bell rings.”

Bálor’s current run in NXT is approaching a year, and he believes that it has pushed him further and tested him as a professional more than any other point in his career.

“Very few people realize this about my current run, but this is the first time I’ve wrestled Johnny, Ciampa, Matt Riddle, Priest and Thatcher,” says Bálor. “No indie matches, no house matches, just big TV and TakeOver matches. That feeling of rawness, the unknown element of how they move and the nuances of their mannerisms, that’s challenged me more over the past 11 months than I’ve been challenged in five years at WWE.

“That’s not to downplay what I’ve accomplished in WWE, but by the time you saw my matches on TV, whether it was my first run in NXT or Raw or SmackDown, I’d done those matches on the road and I knew those opponents. This run, it’s been one match, then onto the next. That’s pushed me more than I’ve ever been pushed in my career. I’ve grown more in the past 11 months than I ever have, just by sheer virtue of adapting with an opponent on live television. If you want to be the best in the world, you’ve got to be on top of your game and tailor your style to all these different opponents. You can’t hide, especially in NXT.”

The beauty of wrestling is in the match for Bálor. If he wins the title—or, for that matter, if he doesn’t—his post-match plans are already in place.

“After NXT, I’ll get in my car, still in my gear, and drive home,” says Bálor. “Once I’m home, I’ll take my gear off, cut my tape, shower, then sit on the couch with a few doughnuts and a couple beers. I’ll watch a couple episodes of Money Heist, which is a Netflix series based in Spain about a bank robbery, then I’ll pass out. Wednesday morning, I’ll go back to business.

“People talk about winning the title or winning ratings wars. For me, the victory is getting in the ring and performing the best that I can, then going home and being able to spend time with my wife. Over the last couple years, I’ve celebrated life instead of solely celebrating wrestling. When I go to work, I take it very, very seriously. And when I go home, I take it very easy.”

Despite his healthy detachment when away from wrestling, Bálor still embraces every opportunity to step through the ropes and perform. Longer matches have struggled in the empty-arena, pandemic era of wrestling, but Bálor sees only the potential for beauty in a 60-minute Iron Man match, a chance to perform his art on the NXT canvas alongside three of the industry’s elite in Gargano, Ciampa and Cole. Four years after a shoulder injury removed Bálor from the title picture, it is the same ailment that has now placed him in this four-way title bout.

“I’m being presented this opportunity to do something I love on live TV against three great talents,” says Bálor. “When I was 15, standing outside the NEC in Birmingham [England], I’d watch the wrestlers arrive at the building in complete amazement. At one point in my life, I was the biggest WWE fan in the world. Now I’m handed an opportunity by WWE to wrestle for an hour for the title on one of their flagship shows, and I’ll never take that for granted.”

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.