Last summer, WWE Superstar Finn Balor became the first-ever WWE Universal Champion. After a storied career in Japan and a complete reinvention of his persona upon move to WWE, Balor’s years of hard work were rewarded—he was at the top of the company.
One day later, he relinquished the title due to injury.
“I thought it was very typical of my career for, when I got the top, for the rug to be pulled out from under me and dropped right down to the bottom of the barrel.”
Balor never thought he would reach those heights, he tells me. And he doesn’t even know what he’d do up there.
“My whole career I’ve been climbing, trying to get there, and never quite getting there. When I finally got there—what are you going to do? Are you just going to sit up there and chill?”
In his years in New Japan Pro Wrestling, Balor became the company’s top foreign star, founding the still-hugely popular Bullet Club stable. But coming to the global powerhouse WWE changed him into a different person—and changed what motivated him to wrestle.
“Obviously New Japan was something I was very passionate about at the time. I was fully invested in what I was doing there at the time, and what I felt like I was doing was just for me and no one else.
“Being in WWE—the term ‘WWE Universe’ gets thrown around so much right? But for me that’s a real thing. When we got to Singapore, there’s 20 kids painted as the Demon. I’ve never been to Singapore before. When we go to anywhere—when we go to Germany, or any country we go to, there’s kids that look up to you, that are wearing your face paint, wearing your t-shirts, making signs.”
“The reach that WWE has through its television, its social media, and the WWE Network—that WWE Universe that we speak about—all the fans—that’s what drives me now. Reaching those, and influencing those people, and to give them something to cheer for, in a way.”
It’s a change he welcomes.
“Before I was wrestling for me, but now I feel like I’m wrestling for other people, and I feel like that’s much more important.”
Coming back from injury
Getting back into the ring, Balor has had trouble readjusting to being in the ring, losing some of the instincts that a wrestler needs to thrive.
“From a professional standpoint in the ring, I think just spatial awareness. To put it in relation to other sports, such as soccer or football, people say that when players come back from injury they’re not like match fit? That’s what I felt like. I was fit, I was strong, I was healthy, my shoulder was fine, but I wasn’t, in a sense, aware of everything that was going on around me… I’m focused on my opponent, and I couldn’t see any of my peripheries.
“I was surprised you know? When you ride a bike you can ride a bike, but in that first match back it was like tunnel vision. I couldn’t see where the corners were, where the ropes were, where the referee was, whether there was someone on the apron. These are things that I took for granted, where I could just see everything around me, almost like Neo in the Matrix. That was what that took the longest to come back.”
When Balor joined WWE, he was not the brazen Bullet Club bad guy that he was in Japan. His WWE character was closer to his real personality—he stood in the ring projecting a quiet confidence, a respect for his both fellow wrestler and the audience around him. It was the real him—with one twist. Finn Balor would add a dark side to his personality that he tapped into only when he needed it most. When he wrestled as ‘the Demon’, he was a new man—adorned in red and black body paint, crawling to the ring amid clouds of smoke, holding himself with greater intensity.
There was not, however, a grand plan in how the character would develop.
“Honestly, the first time the Demon came, and it wasn’t referred to as the Demon at that point—I just wanted to use body paint.” says Balor.
“The first time I did that, I said to my best friend [WWE Superstar and fellow NJPW alum] Karl Anderson that I’m going to do this thing. I explained to him what I was doing and he said, ‘do not do that, you’re going to be laughed out of the building.’
“Obviously this didn’t happen. That the whole Demon character was designed for people to hate me more, and to be scared of me, and it kind of backfired in the sense that people kind of like it now. It’s still a learning process for me. People think I have this big master plan of what I’m going to do at SummerSlam and going forward, what I’m going to do at WrestleMania. Obviously I have no idea what I’m going to do at SummerSlam and it’s like—Friday. You think I’m making this up and I’m just saying this for the interview because I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m genuinely telling you that.”
Balor’s creative process is intuitive.
“What happens is, on the morning—it’s like art. You can’t predict how you’re going to paint the painting in advance. If I’m going to draw something, I don’t know the day before what I’m going to draw. It’s just very much an interpretation of how I’m feeling that day, and what I think is the coolest thing in my brain at that very moment. I’ll have a couple concepts here and there, maybe I’ll do this, maybe I’ll do that, but the actual decision won’t come until about 6 o’clock when I sit down and start getting painted.”
I ask him about the plan he has for the Demon moving forward, the risks he’ll have to take with the character, and the many directions things could go. This isn’t a question he’s willing to answer—or able to answer.
“I know I’m kind of meandering away from your question, but Bullet Club was like that, the Demon is like that, my matches are like that, my interviews are like that. Pretty much my life is just called on the fly, and I don’t like committing to any certain situation, or date, or time. If someone says, ‘hey do you want to meet for dinner at 7?’ I’ll say, ‘I don’t know, because I might feel like training at 6 o’clock…then it will be 8 o’clock. That’s pretty much everything in my life.”