Finn Bálor Makes Long-Awaited Return to NXT After Recovering From Broken Jaw

The Week in Wrestling: Finn Bálor on his arduous recovery from a broken jaw, AEW’s tribute to Brodie Lee and more.
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Finn Bálor on his jaw injury: “The migraines, the headaches … I can’t explain how difficult of a recovery it’s been”

For the first time since Oct. 4, Finn Bálor will step into a wrestling ring on Wednesday night and defend the NXT championship.

Bálor meets Kyle O’Reilly in the main event of NXT’s New Year’s Evil special, which is a rematch of the main event from NXT TakeOver 31 in October. Bálor won that hard-hitting, 28-minute bout. It was a statement performance from O’Reilly, who is hungry to succeed in singles competition, as well as a fantastic title defense for Bálor. But there was a price to pay for that brilliance.

Toward the end of the match, O’Reilly’s knee caught Bálor flush in the chin, causing two separate fractures to his jaw.

One of the fractures was to the right of his chin, with the other right under his left cheek bone. That fracture actually went through the socket of Bálor’s wisdom tooth, so doctors had to insert three plates to repair the fractures in addition to removing the tooth. The surgery was performed orally through the inside of his mouth, leaving incisions, stitches and scars in a viciously painful recovery process.

“The migraines, the headaches, the oral pain, the neckaches, I can’t explain how difficult of a recovery it’s been,” Bálor says. “No lights on, no TV, no cellphone, no computer. It was just lay down, rest, and grind through the pain.”

Bálor is 39-year-old Fergal Devitt, a wrestling superstar from Ireland who rarely admits he is in pain, which only amplifies the arduous nature of this recovery. And while Bálor is cleared to wrestle, eagerly anticipating a chance to return to his vocation in the ring, he’s still not fully recovered from the injury.

“After the surgery, I lost feeling in my lower lip all the way down as far as my chin,” Bálor says. “There is no guarantee that ever comes back.

“I’ve gotten about 20% of that feeling back, but it’s still kind of numb. They said that might come back within six months. That’s my window. There has been a little improvement, but I’ll still be drinking a protein shake and it will be dribbling down my lips, and my wife will be like, ‘Dude, you’ve got protein all over your face.’ I’ll have no idea because I can’t feel it.”

Bálor expressed gratitude for the love and support of his wife, which certainly has been a positive factor in his recovery. But as he sat in the darkness, dealing with the nonstop pain and inability to live his life, Bálor also received an immense boost from his new favorite tag team—a pair of chihuahuas named Tito and Polo.

“My wife is an animal lover,” Bálor says. “Our schedules are so uncertain that we can’t really have our own pets, but we foster pets that are sick and need medicine for a month at a time. Right around the time I got hurt, we fostered these two 10-year-old chihuahuas. One had a broken jaw, and both had been neglected. They were malnourished and underweight, and we ended up having them for two months because they were so sick.”

The two dogs were going through their own recovery at the same time Bálor was going through his, and for two months, they kept one another company.

“I could see that they were hurting, so my focus needed to be on them,” Bálor says. “They went back last month, and that was heartbreaking. I still miss them every day.

“It’s incredible the love that an animal can give you. Once their tail starts wagging, and they’re eating again, it was such a beautiful feeling. I’m super grateful to Tito and Polo for spending two months with me. They were a huge emotional lift, a light in a dark time.”

Part of the beauty of pro wrestling is the suspension of disbelief. Bálor will return to his old self on screen tonight. Once the bell rings, the injury will be a distant memory to viewers, and he plans on hastening that process by wrestling the same physical style that has made him into one of the top performers in the world across every promotion. And Bálor was also quick to note that his injury was not the result of a certain style or move, but rather just an inevitable in-ring accident.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and freak accidents happen, and that’s all this was,” Bálor says. “It wasn’t a result of how we work or how we hit, and there was no mistake made or style to blame. This was just a byproduct of what we do in the ring. You step in that ring, you’re always risking injury. Every performer accepts that. My only regret is that the injury overshadowed the match.”

There is a tremendous amount at stake in Bálor’s match against O’Reilly. There is the need to grab the attention of viewers, especially while going head-to-head against AEW’s New Year’s Smash special, but NXT holds an ace with Bálor because he is so gifted in the ring. Another important piece of this match is the trajectory of O’Reilly, who has the tools and potential to become the face of the brand—which will be even more visible with another breathtaking performance against Bálor.

“Kyle is an incredible performer, and that match at TakeOver was the first we ever had together,” Bálor says. “We had chemistry from the first lockup, which is the moment I know all about my opponents.

“I’d heard a lot of hype about Kyle over the years, but there is no place to hide once that bell rings. You either have it or you don’t, and as soon as we locked up, Kyle was cool, smooth and confident. We gelled well together, which you never really know until you lock up with someone. We had that from the very first lockup, and I’m excited to see how this develops at New Year’s Evil.”

Bálor and O’Reilly squared off in a promo last week, with each performer displaying an edge and grit that should make this return bout even more compelling.

“Maybe in the past I’ve been guilty of sticking to the proven formula,” Bálor says. “I knew what was going to work and I stuck to that plan. Recently I’ve been more abstract in the way I approach matches, and every match should be slightly different. The match at TakeOver 31 got a lot of praise, but I want to create something different at New Year’s Evil. There are even more expectations for this match, and for Kyle to remain at this level. That’s what he’ll have to do here.”

Only six days into the new year, there has already been an outrageous amount of outstanding pro wrestling. Drew McIntyre and Keith Lee combined for a memorable match on Raw, and there was a plethora of unforgettable moments that took place in the Tokyo Dome at New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom 15 show. Bálor is a former New Japan star, and served as leader of its iconic Bullet Club before his arrival in WWE. And despite posting a photo on social media with former New Japan icon Shinsuke Nakamura, which instantly led to speculation that they were watching the show together, Bálor says that was not the case.

“People are going to think that this is the character speaking, but this is me speaking, and I haven’t watched one New Japan show since I left there six years ago,” Bálor says. “The way I feel is I don’t want to be influenced by anything, consciously or subconsciously, by watching. I want to perform the way I want to perform, and I don’t want to be influenced by any other styles.

“I know those guys are out there doing great things. Some of my best friends are there, and I’ve seen one or two GIFs pop up on Twitter of spots that were absolutely incredible. I’m sure there will be a point in my life where I start watching with a close eye, but right now I’m very focused on what I’m doing in the ring with as few distractions as possible.”

Finally, after a torturous 90 days away from the ring, Bálor now has the opportunity to step through the ropes and show the world that there is no other performer in wrestling quite like him. In an industry filled with larger-than-life stars at the top of the game, Bálor intends on dramatically, emphatically, and immediately reminding the wrestling world why he is the NXT Champion.

“I’m coming in hungry,” Bálor says. “I need to win this as much as Kyle. He needs to beat me for the title, but I need to win for my reputation. I’m going to beat him, and I won’t be out for three months after I do it.”

The (online) week in wrestling

Bill Goldberg returned at the end of Monday’s Raw and challenged Drew McIntyre for a title shot at the Royal Rumble. Goldberg’s allure fades with each passing year, especially considering that even at his peak he was limited in the ring, but this could be a fantastic way to help make McIntyre’s title reign stand out. The older stars should highlight the current ones, so if that is the case, there is potential here for a short program. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8A_niIW2Lc

  • Before Goldberg arrived, McIntyre and Keith Lee put together a fantastic match—and hopefully Lee doesn’t stray too far from the main event picture. It will be very interesting to see how he is positioned entering the Royal Rumble match and then into WrestleMania
  • WWE is clearly seeking higher TV ratings for Monday Night Raw, but the lack of unpredictability is a serious issue. Instead of on Raw Talk, Mustafa Ali should be given the chance to take risks like this on Raw
  • If you’re WWE, how do you not bring in Cardi B for an appearance? 
  • Roman Reigns, Paul Heyman, Kevin Owens and Jey Uso continue to make magic on SmackDown
  • As great of a team as FTR is in the ring, they also make their work even more meaningful by the respect they share for the people that make up the wrestling industry. 
  • In a move that took too long to announce, Ring of Honor confirmed that it has mutually agreed to part ways with Marty Scurll. 
  • “We’re to help the less fortunate” was a nice jab from Tony Khan in his video on Impact last night with Tony Schiavone. 
  • Tuesday night saw the latest chapter in the Impact–AEW partnership, with Kenny Omega and the Good Brothers laying out Rich Swann and the Motor City Machine Guns. 
  • New Japan’s announcement of a television deal in the US and UK is imminent. 
  • Though he was not in-person at Wrestle Kingdom, a promo from IWGP United States champion Jon Moxley did air. 
  • The promo of the week goes to New Japan’s Jay White, who was giving off shades of Terry Funk after his loss to Kota Ibushi on the second night of Wrestle Kingdom 15
  • If you’re a fan of the Edge-Christian dynamic, you’ll enjoy this. 

Brodie Lee Memorial show brings out the best in pro wrestling

AEW’s Dynamite returns on Wednesday night for a massive show.

Led by Kenny Omega defending the AEW championship against Fénix, the show offers a little bit of everything, including a cameo from Snoop Dogg. The AEW women’s championship is also on the line, as Hikaru Shida defends against Abadon. The eight-man tag with the Young Bucks and SCU should also provide another opportunity for the Acclaimed and TH2 to shine, and Sting will also make an appearance.

Even with the loaded lineup, all I can think about is last week.

AEW aired a brilliant, heartfelt, and heartbreaking tribute to Jon Huber, who starred in their ring as Mr. Brodie Lee and in WWE as Luke Harper. Despite the perpetual well of sadness surrounding the tribute, there was so much to celebrate. It was fitting that the Dark Order—a group that followed Lee to find true success—won each of their matches. A surprise appearance by Joseph Ruud, who was fellow Wyatt Family member Erick Rowan in WWE, was also wonderful to see, though it was impossible not to feel the pain when the larger-than-life man broke down during his tribute to Lee.

A show as heavy as this needed some levity, which was found in the form of MJF refusing to break character. Chris Jericho in the broadcast booth also added a lot to the show, as Jericho and Jim Ross have a real nice chemistry. And somehow, despite existing in a constant state of grieving, the talent from AEW created a lasting memory of Brodie Lee with such a meaningful tribute, and the moment between Tony Khan and Huber’s oldest son was also incredibly emotional.

It is impossible to capture the essence of someone’s life in a video package, but somehow that AEW video team did just that. Jon Huber’s absence continues to leave a massive void in the world of pro wrestling.

Tweet of the Week

How have 22 years passed since this took place? Also, make sure you check out the response from Tony Schiavone.

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