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Next Up to Challenge for Roman Reigns’s Title: The Rejuvenated Finn Bálor

Five years after an untimely injury cost him the universal title, Bálor returns to try to take it back.

Twenty-one years of blood, toil and sacrifice have brought Finn Bálor to a rarefied standing in pro wrestling.

The wrestling prodigy (whose name is Fergal Devitt to those who know him best) is performing at a level where few others in the industry currently reside. And he is now entrenched in the most highly sought-after position in WWE, working across from Roman Reigns.

Lost in the shuffle of John Cena’s WWE summer vacation, overshadowed by the returns of Becky Lynch and Brock Lesnar, Bálor’s move to SmackDown in July was a genuine game-changer. After another career-defining run in NXT, it is mystifying that Bálor was not placed on Raw, a brand in desperate need of someone with his presence and in-ring ability. Yet he is back on SmackDown, and with a point to prove.

“I wasn’t born into this business,” says Bálor, who wrestles Reigns on Friday night on SmackDown. “I’m not from a wrestling family—I’m from a family of railroad workers. I had to work for everything, not only in this business, but in life.

“I’m 5' 11" in a big man’s industry. Before I got to WWE, you wouldn’t believe how often I got told, ‘You’re not what they’re looking for.’ I’m proving those people wrong. Everything that’s been said about me, I’ve heard it. ‘He’s too small.’ ‘He can’t cut a promo.’ ‘He always gets hurt.’ Yet, 21 years later, I’m still here. I’m still in the main event; I’m still in the title picture. And I still have something to prove.”

The chance to work with Reigns has placed a bright spotlight on opponents, highlighting the brilliance of Kevin Owens and Cesaro, as well as Cena, Daniel Bryan, Rey Mysterio and Edge. But this is not just an opportunity for Bálor to work a program with Reigns. It is also a chance for Reigns to work with the best professional wrestler in the world, pushing toward greatness in a new manner with a man who crafts and executes matches that are captivating, compelling and unlike anyone else’s in the entire business.

Bálor is coming off a 212-day reign as NXT champion, his second run with the title and perhaps his most significant accomplishment yet. Despite being repeatedly overlooked in the past when it came to choosing the face of the brand on SmackDown and Raw, Bálor transformed every match in NXT over the last two years into a moment worth watching. His TakeOver bouts against Kyle O’Reilly and Pete Dunne were unique, differing greatly from the traditional WWE style of match, and Bálor is now ready to paint his masterpiece in the main event against Reigns.

“I know I’m really, really good at what I do,” says Bálor, who also made Karrion Kross look unbeatable as he was exiting NXT in the spring, a huge honor that was bound to go a long way until the Raw booking team completely revamped Kross’s character. “I can honestly say that the last two years in NXT have been the best work of my career so far, and I’m only improving. I understand that I’m in the business of sports entertainment, but I am a professional wrestler.

“If I am afforded the time to professionally wrestle, I know that no one can do it like I can. Some people will do it differently, and one way isn’t necessarily better than the other, but I know I have my own unique formula and presence in the ring. My story and my history and my career is not similar to anyone else, and my matches are not similar to anyone else. I’m very proud of what I’ve done the last two years in NXT, especially because I was afforded the time to do what I do in the ring.

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“If I get time to execute a match the way I want to execute it, the results are going to be similar to what you’ve seen over the last two years, if not better.”

During his training, Bálor is fueled by people’s doubts about whether he can be the single, stand-alone star for WWE. So he plans to do what he always does, which is to work—tirelessly, endlessly, unmercifully—until achieving what he has set out to do.

“It would be nice to be champion again,” Bálor says. “I’ve been asked for the past five years, ‘What would have happened if you didn’t get hurt [in the universal title match against Seth Rollins at SummerSlam in 2016]?’ It would have been nice. But that’s not my story. I fight. I fought to get here, just like I’m fighting now. I’m fighting for those who believed in me, and I’m fighting against those that doubted me. I’m still proving them wrong. Teachers doubted me. Football coaches doubted me. I remember getting asked, ‘When are you going to quit that wrestling s---?’ People told me this was ridiculous.

“But I never stopped believing I could do this. If I don’t believe in myself, who the f--- is going to believe in me? I know that I’m always going to show up to fight, and I’m going to do it with dignity and honor.”

Bálor’s NXT run helped redefine what a champion can and should be in professional wrestling. He now sets off on a new course to recreate and reestablish the meaning of a WWE world title by chasing the universal belt that was taken away from him a half decade ago.

“I want to address five years ago, when I first locked up with Roman Reigns,” says Bálor, who defeated Reigns in a 2016 match on Raw in the inaugural universal title tournament. “The world was talking s--- about Roman and his abilities and his performances. From the first moment we locked up, I knew he was something special. He was operating on a different level that people didn’t quite fully understand. Now people are learning he is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Roman’s proven that over and again, and the masses have accepted and acknowledged that ability and growth. His presence is just unimaginable right now.

“I remember fighting in an Extreme Rules main event in 2017. I’d done my entrance, Samoa Joe did his entrance, a few others did their entrance, and then Roman did his entrance. I remember getting goosebumps as the energy just changed. It’s more raw than the Cena reaction. The Cena reaction is one-of-a-kind, but there is something uniquely different about when Roman steps into the arena.”

Starting on Friday night, Bálor is ready for his chance to dance with wrestling’s most talented quartet—Paul Heyman, Jimmy and Jey Uso and the leader of The Bloodline, Reigns.

“I’ve admired Paul since I was a kid watching him in ECW,” Bálor says. “He motivated me all the way in Ireland on the couch watching TV watching his speeches. The Usos are two of my favorite people to be around, and seeing them take it to the next level has really been inspiring. Roman, he’s operating on a whole other level.

“The four of those guys are a complete package, and I can’t wait to prove myself against them.”

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