When Seth Rollins powerbombed Finn Balor into the ringside barricade during their Universal Championship match at SummerSlam, the fabric of WWE’s plans for the future tore open as easily as Balor’s labrum did. Since joining the company back in 2014, Balor has always had superstardom bookmarked for him, and between NXT and his explosive WWE debut, the booking had always followed suit: not only was he the longest reigning NXT champion of all time, but he also earned his spot in the aforementioned Universal Championship match by winning two matches in one night, including a clean defeat of Roman Reigns. So when his shoulder busted open in a freak accident, WWE’s carefully crafted plans for the second part of 2016 (and presumably, the first few months of this year) were thrown into flux.
Now, five months into a “four to six month” recovery period, the Balor Club leader is set to return to action shortly, and he will be returning into a Raw program that desperately needs a double knee-stomp of excitement.
The most pressing question right now is about the actual date of his return. As it is January, it’s customary to think that any big returns will occur at the Royal Rumble, which takes place on January 29th in San Antonio. Given that a good chunk of Balor’s appeal comes from his elaborate Demon King entrances, seeing him return at the Rumble would be a perfect combination of hype and substance. But is he ready? All along in his recovery, Balor has stated that WrestleMania is his realistic goal, and while that might be a swerve to goad fans into thinking he won’t come back at the Alamodome, it is peculiar that Balor hasn’t faded away from the WWE consciousness. Just this past weekend, he made an appearance at the WWE UK Championship tournament, and while suits cover up all sorts of injuries, he didn’t look like someone who was a month or two away from returning. Returning at the Rumble also gives Balor and WWE an organic way to set up his big WrestleMania match, whether it be by getting underhandedly eliminated by his future heel opponent, or by winning the whole damn thing in order to reclaim the Universal Title that he never lost.
The most logical path for a massive Balor return is pretty simple: have Roman Reigns beat Kevin Owens for the Universal Championship at the Royal Rumble, and then have Balor win the titular match for a shot at the belt. This puts the biggest real-life heel in the company (Reigns) up against the fan choice for his true successor as the top storyline babyface. Predicting a Roman Reigns heel turn has become so played out that it’s almost cool again, but having the massive Samoan come face to face with the diminutive Irishman at the biggest show of them all is as good a setup as any. Of course, if that seems too predictable, there are two other options to mull over: a different Samoan and a Deadman.
Samoa Joe has long been rumored to make a massive splash on the main roster, and recent reports state that it might be an even bigger debut than expected. Given WWE’s general acknowledgement of NXT continuity, there might not be a better way to both re-debut Balor and bring up Joe than to have the latter attack the former at either the Royal Rumble or in the buildup to WrestleMania. The two have never had a truly classic match, despite an NXT feud that lasted almost half a year, but there’s definitely potential there. Plus, Samoa Joe is the only person to ever cleanly defeat Balor in his Demon King persona, which opens up the possibility of every outcome. On the other hand, if you truly want to get Balor with casual fans, why not face him off with the Undertaker? Now that word has gotten out that the Deadman will not be facing John Cena at Mania, a plethora of opponents have come into play for him in what surely must be one of his last big matches. Why not use that mystique to give Balor a star power rub, win or lose, that he can carry into a summer of redemption at the head of the Raw brand? Because if there’s one thing Raw needs right now, it’s excitement and direction.
Let’s be blunt: Raw characters are not very likeable. Aside from Sami Zayn – bless his heart – all of the main babyfaces on Raw are either despised (Reigns), part-time (Goldberg) or they just haven’t gotten over the way WWE expected (Seth Rollins). Unlike SmackDown Live, which has strong heels and faces at the top, the most over people on Raw are Kevin Owens, Chris Jericho and Chris Jericho’s list. Enter the Demon King. Balor oozes babyface swagger, and while he’s not the best at doing promos, his entrance and moveset can do most of the work. Not only that, but because the Demon King persona allows him to go tweener when needed, he can really face off with anyone, face or heel.
Given that WWE was already pushing him to the moon prior to his injury and the fact that said injury was a freak accident that wasn’t his fault, it would be shocking if Balor wasn’t immediately elevated to the main event status he was set for in August. Having Balor as the top face on Raw also has a financial benefit for the WWE, as he is a merch machine waiting to be revved up. Face paint and masks for the kids, Balor Club shirts for the adults. It’s a win-win, and if Balor has worked on his mic skills in his time away from the ring, it could be the perfect confluence of right place, right time and right guy. The age of the Demon King is nigh for Raw, and it might just be the tonic that it has needed since the brand split.