Karrion Kross and Finn Bálor put on a showcase last week at NXT TakeOver: Stand & Deliver, a match that ended with Kross reclaiming a title he had never lost.
Initially, the title coronation for Kross had been planned for last summer. He ended Keith Lee’s reign as champ in August at TakeOver XXX, a moment that signaled Lee’s farewell in NXT and the start of the Kross era. But plans were derailed when Kross separated his shoulder during that match.
“I tried to shove it back in and hoped no one would see it,” says Kross, the 35-year-old Kevin Kesar. “But as soon as I heard the referee ask, ‘Are you O.K.?,’ I knew that wasn’t going to be the case.”
Although they still finished the match, which Kross won, he was forced to relinquish the belt three days later due to the severity of the injury. So instead of celebrating the most momentous occasion of his career, reflecting back on hardships overcome while charting out the future, Kross was left to ponder whether, like his shoulder, his future had been torn apart.
That same August evening, Finn Bálor emerged victorious in a physical TakeOver bout against Timothy Thatcher. Bálor, who had just turned 39 and already starred across the globe for both WWE and New Japan Pro-Wrestling, took immediate notice of Kross’s injury. He could relate in a manner unlike few others, having experienced precisely the same misfortune.
Bálor sustained a shoulder injury in his SummerSlam match with Seth Rollins in 2016. Within an instant, his future as the first universal champion was lost.
Although their relationship consisted only of shared casualties, Bálor called Kross and shared words of wisdom and support that helped ease Kross’s recovery.
“He addressed the conversation from a psychological point of view and addressed where I was mentally,” Kross says. “He knew all about it. You go from the top of the mountain to fading away into oblivion.”
Two weeks later, Bálor was called upon to provide stability atop NXT as its men’s champ. He put together an otherworldly run, defending the title in classics against Adam Cole, Kyle O’Reilly and Pete Dunne before dropping it to Kross.
“I really appreciated that he reached out to me,” Kross says. “Before that, we were just acquaintances. This was beyond professional, and it made a big difference. Then, months later, we’re in the ring trying to kill each other. It’s funny how the universe works.”
Bálor did the honors for Kross at Stand & Deliver, dropping only his second decision in 18 TakeOver matches. The finish saw an unrelenting Kross pummel Bálor into defeat, which was symbolic of the journey through his recovery from injury.
“I could not have asked for a better person to work with in that match,” Kross says. “Finn is one of the best of all time to ever step in the ring.”
Kross imposed his will in that match, reestablishing the on-screen narrative that he is the unstoppable force ready to wreak havoc in NXT.
“The injury blindsided me,” Kross says. “This isn’t something I wanted to be too public about because I didn’t want people to be too removed from what I was doing. Psychologically, I had to recover, even back in the ring.
“As a performer, I did something so comfortably for so long. Then that accident happened, and I had to get past those doubts in the back of my mind. The physical part, rebuilding and retraining my shoulder, that was one thing. There was a lot more, too. At first, I couldn’t get dressed. I couldn’t put on my socks. It felt like everything was affected.”
In his time of need, Kross was carried by Scarlett , who is his manager in NXT. Scarlett (29-year-old Elizabeth Chihaia) is also Kross’s life partner away from the world of wrestling, and he was overwhelmed by the love and care she put into his recovery.
“While WWE medical was treating me the night I got hurt, she was already researching a recovery course I could start immediately the night it happened,” Kross says. “She drove me to pick up a very specific machine from the Performance Center that helped ice the injury, and she helped me in the initial stages of rehab later that very night.”
Before driving to pick up the apparatus that served as the first piece of Kross’s physical rehabilitation, the couple unexpectedly added levity to the moment by stopping on the road for a quick dinner.
“She asked me if I needed to go to the hospital and I said, ‘No, I need to go to Wendy’s and grab a Baconator,’ ” Kross says, his hardened voice softening at the memory. “She’s the love of my life. A lot of people don’t know we’re a couple in real life, but we are. She helped me through this entire process, psychologically and physically.
“She helped me with everything. People love to be invincible on television, but no one really is. I was periodically concerned I wouldn’t come back in the same shape or how my body would respond to hitting the canvas. She was there for me every step of the way, telling me what I needed to hear and not what I wanted to hear.”
Kross was given three options for his recovery, which featured different timetables. Two would have sidelined him for six to eight months, while the other option was expected to take eight to 12 months. He opted out of surgery yet was so diligent about his rehab that he possessed full range and strength within six weeks. Even though he was eager to return even sooner, he was cleared to return at four months.
When Kross returned in December, he had a successful program with Damian Priest, then found his comfort zone in February when he was paired against Santos Escobar.
“The mental part, that was very difficult at first,” says Kross, who retrained his shoulder, chest and back to operate without certain ligaments in his shoulder. “That night with Santos, that’s when I felt like I’d got past all of that.”
During the recovery and the subsequent return, one thought fueled Kross. He was not content to return to where he was skills-wise. After strengthening his body and mind, he focused entirely on surpassing where he was and cementing himself as a force unlike any other in NXT history. With the victory over Bálor and the title in hand, Kross now has that elusive opportunity, one he once thought had been seized from his grasp.
“Nothing has ever come easy to me,” Kross says. “I’m so grateful for that. Challenges have given me opportunities to improve my character and strengthen my work ethic, so people now get to see a different side of me.
“Going into the match with Finn, I felt like I was going to be the best version of me. After what I went through, I was so at ease in terms of my speed, pace, and timing. And in terms of eliciting an emotional response in a match, we think very similarly—and it felt so good to hear a crowd.”
Kross’s future has no ceiling. His work has even caught the attention of Hollywood star John Cena—who knows a thing or two about success in WWE—as the two traded Instagram posts over the weekend.
“As for John Cena, I haven’t met him yet but a fan online had suggested that his last match be against me,” Kross says. “I would certainly never suggest that, but I would very much like to work with him before he hangs it up.
“He’s a person who improved our industry through authenticity and hard work, which in return gave us all greater opportunities to pursue this as a dream job. He raised the bar for future generations and he’s someone we should all want to work with. I hope he comes back full-time at some point. When I was injured, I remembered people calling him Super Cena because of how fast he recovered from injuries. That was also a bit of inspiration to me as well—that if there was a way to do this, he figured it out, and I would, too.”
There are no certainties in pro wrestling, but the Karrion Kross character is set up for success. There is considerable character development and exploration as champion, as Kross prepares for a run as champ that he plans to make more compelling than any other stretch in his career.
“We have a lot in store,” Kross says. “I have different layers people haven’t seen, ones I’ve been deliberating saving for the right time and the right moment.
“There are so many stories to be told. Light versus dark, good versus evil, and I’m going to take you there. I have a lot more to prove. Stay tuned.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.