Finn Bálor cares about wrestling, his second run in NXT proves it

Finn Balor on the Oct. 30, 2019 edition of WWE NXT. Photo:
Finn Balor on the Oct. 30, 2019 edition of WWE NXT. Photo: /

“He loves wrestling and wants to wrestle the best.”

Those were the words of Beth Phoenix on commentary during Finn Bálor’s NXT Championship defense against Pete Dunne at NXT TakeOver: Vengeance Day; it might as well be his mission statement.

Bálor — in his second stint in NXT — is on the run of his life. It is the kind of run that will be talked about for years to come, but, according to him, there was uncertainty about what he was there to do and for how long.

About two years ago, Bálor returned to NXT, a brand he helped put on the map from 2014 to 2016. You don’t think he did? Watch and listen to the reaction from the crowd to his surprise reappearance to confront then-NXT Champion Adam Cole. Perhaps that will convince you.

From this point on, Bálor’s forthcoming dominance was certain.

That was a hero’s welcome for the prodigal son that set out on a trepidatious journey to become a superstar on the WWE’s main roster, and for the most part, he did.

I say “trepidatious” because success in NXT doesn’t always translate to the main roster. But Bálor was afforded every opportunity to make the transition seamless. Take one look at him and you’ll understand why he beat Roman Reigns on his first night on Raw and became the first-ever Universal Champion only weeks later; he’s a superstar.

But, initially, some fans — myself included — couldn’t help but view this move as a demotion of sorts. Now that we’re two years in, it’s obvious this was the right move for Bálor, whose mission has remained intact:

Bálor wants to be the best in the world

Last September, Bálor told Justin Barrasso of Sports Illustrated, “… I take the greatest pride in having the best match I can possibly have with the person I’m in the ring with…”

In this current run at NXT alone, Bálor has compiled a catalog of quality, meaningful, matches many wrestlers can only dream of. This is no surprise to anyone who paid attention to his work on Raw and SmackDown. Bálor was and is still determined to have the best match of the night, every night.

Whether it was Elias (I use him as an example of a wrestler not often lauded for his wrestling ability. I do think he is very underappreciated as a wrestler), or AJ Styles, Bálor worked hard to bring the best out of himself and his opponent.

This quality makes him Kurt Angle-esque. Both he and Angle share an unrelenting pursuit to be the best wrestler in the world. Now, I know that’s almost every wrestler’s goal, but, like Angle, part of Bálor’s appeal is that he’s going to wrestle his ass off every chance he gets, no matter how important the match is in the larger context. Though his TV matches on the main roster were consistently entertaining, they were often throwaways because of how little they contributed to his projection and character arch.

His bouts on NXT these past two years have been anything but.

One of Bálor’s earliest statements following his NXT return came on Fox Sports’s WWE Backstage, where he analogized Raw and SmackDown to Hollywood and NXT to Broadway. His point being that in NXT, you can’t hide behind the enhanced pageantry, spectacle, and ridiculousness of the two main roster programs.

Bálor, according to various interviews he has done since going back, is the happiest he’s been in years.

“Happiness consists in activity. It is a running stream, not a stagnant pool.” That’s a quote I found while gathering materials for this piece that I felt perfectly encapsulated the change that led to a legendary and ongoing stretch in Bálor’s career (shout out to John Mason Good).

NXT is bare-bones wrestling. Though the brand has changed a lot recently in correspondence with their move to the USA Network, it is still considered the WWE’s wrestling brand. Sure, that’s an oftentimes insufferable argument, but it cannot be denied that the shows — from the weekly shows to TakeOver events — are structured to allow everyone on the card a chance to have the best match of the night.

Being NXT Champion and the brand’s biggest name is a favorable set of circumstances that lets Bálor excel on any show he wrestles on.

From his first match against Riddle to his most recent battle with Pete Dunne, Bálor’s style has not wavered. It’s a style that — as he recently admitted on WWE’s After The Bell Podcast — has gradually evolved into what it has been since he returned to NXT out of his own pleasure. He told the host, Corey Graves, that in trying to please too many people while he was on Raw and SmackDown, he would work at a faster pace. Now, he doesn’t have to worry about accommodating his style for anyone else but himself. That’s because…

Finn is selfish

But Bálor’s selfishness is unlike yours or mine.

Timothy Thatcher is one hell of a wrestler, Ilja Dragunov is legit, and Damian Priest is going to be a star for years to come. These are all things I believe after watching them all wrestle Bálor in high-profile matches. Bálor is using his status as a “WWE Superstar” to help his opponents push themselves while having the matches he would love to see as a fan.

He’s doing what he wants in the ring and is building his opponents’ credibility in the process.

Bálor may carry a reputation for being a showman, but make no mistake, he is a wrestler at heart.

The conviction he exudes each match with every movement, hold, and sell is beguiling and makes for a captivating viewing experience from bell to bell, not to mention the hard-hitting nature of all his bouts. His transformation into some variation of a mat-based wrestler has been rewarding to watch as a fan, mostly for reasons like him beating Kyle O’Reilly with a grounded abdominal stretch on NXT’s New Year’s Evil special episode. An abdominal stretch? As the finish? In 2021!? I love how absurd that sounds.

It’s more absurd now to think of the night he returned. My knee-jerk reaction, Bálor’s too, was that he would be in NXT for only a few weeks or months to help create buzz for the brand as they transitioned from the WWE Network to USA Network. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.

Bálor has only wrestled in 24 televised matches since his return in 2019, making each one feel like a special attraction. For someone who has accomplished so much in his 20+ year wrestling career, he still treats every match as an opportunity to prove himself. Since becoming a global sensation in the early 2010s, few wrestlers have maintained that same level of excitement for that amount of time quite like Bálor. And the best may still be yet to come.

Next. NXT TakeOver Vengeance Day Results, Grades, and Analysis. dark