Last summer, WWE made a splash when it signed a trio of wrestlers to its nascent developmental promotion, NXT. One was Kevin Steen, a former Ring of Honor champion who would go on to make a serious impact as Kevin Owens. The second was Japanese legend KENTA, who would move up the ladder – even competing at WrestleMania – as Hideo Itami. The third was Fergal Devitt, an international star who was worshiped by diehards, but remained a mystery to most WWE fans.
Devitt would become Finn Bálor, and in many ways, his rise has mirrored NXT’s leap in status. With his hard-hitting style, theatrical entrances and preternatural polish, he’s had fans buzzing about a “wrestling renaissance,” just like the promotion he currently sits atop as champion.
He earned that title after defeating Owens in an acclaimed match at WWE’s Beast in the East, a Network special that aired live from Tokyo – a fitting coronation for a man who made his reputation wrestling in Japan. He’s now a major part the WWE Universe, even getting involved in their charity efforts, and will defend his NXT Championship against Owens on Saturday at TakeOver: Brooklyn, the promotion’s biggest event to date. As he prepares for the rematch, Rolling Stone spoke to Bálor about coming to the U.S., witnessing the growth of NXT and why he’s perfectly happy not to be called up to the main roster.
Let’s start with you winning the NXT title at Beast in the East. What was that moment like for you?
To sum up that night is really difficult for me. That was the culmination of 15 years of my career coming together in one night. Obviously I had been in Japan for eight years prior to NXT. It was a very difficult decision to leave Japan in the first place. It had become my second home. I had a lot of friends there that had become so close that they were like family. To come to WWE was a difficult decision. To be able to return a year later – and to return to the building where I had my last match for New Japan – was amazing. What made it even better was facing someone I had come into NXT with in Kevin Owens, someone that faced the same difficulties I did in adapting to a new work environment and new culture. We went through a lot together, and to face him in front of the Japanese fans, live on the WWE Network, it was like every part of my life coming together. It was a surreal moment. I haven’t really had a chance to sit back and think about it yet, but it’s definitely one of the crowning achievements in my career.
But if I had to put you on the spot, where would you rank it in terms of your career accomplishments?
2010 was an incredible year for me. I won the Best of the Super Juniors, and went on to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title. That was an unbelievable achievement. I’ve won the CMLL [Historic] Middleweight Championship in Mexico; that was an unbelievable achievement. I won the IWGP Junior Tag Team titles and three IWGP Junior titles. For some reason, winning the NXT Championship in Japan, against someone I had become close friends with, felt like the perfect storm of everything that happened in my life to that point. As important as all those other things are, I think that one night stands out more. Everything else I’ve done is still very important to me. But winning the NXT Championship was a bigger achievement, personally.
You talked about what a difficult decision it was to come to WWE and NXT. What went into that decision, and why did you eventually sign with WWE?
I was very comfortable in Japan. I had a lot of friends there. I had a great job. I was working with an incredible company that was supporting me and gave me a lot of creative freedom. It was a company that I loved. I helped them a lot, and they helped me a lot. I never had any intention of leaving there. I was really happy to work there and I saw myself finishing my career there. There was always that lingering doubt though, about whether I could make it in the big time – in WWE. I never wanted to look back on my career and ask, “What if I had gone to WWE? What if I had taken that opportunity?”
A couple opportunities had come up in the past couple years and I never felt like it was the right time. I always felt that there was more to do, and more to achieve in Japan or on the independent circuit. When the opportunity came up last year, I couldn’t turn it down anymore. I knew it was now or never. It just felt like it was the time to do it. There were no guarantees. There were a lot of doubts, and a lot of questions. I can say a year later that it was without a doubt the best decision I’ve ever made. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, but looking back at it only a year later, I ask myself how I ever questioned it. It was the most obvious decision I’ve ever made. I’ve had the most incredible year. It’s amazing how well it’s turned out.
When you were weighing your options, did the increased attention NXT was receiving help sway you at all?
There was a lot of buzz around NXT at the time. Adrian Neville, who is a close friend of mine, was already here and he was tearing the house down. Sami Zayn was putting on great shows. I felt like I wanted to be a part of that. I felt like I could help it. That definitely was a factor, without a shadow of a doubt. To be able to come in at the same time as Hideo and Kevin obviously generated a lot of buzz around the Internet. The guys who were here already were killing it. It was a perfect storm. It was a really exciting time in pro wrestling.
One of the things you’re famous for is your “war paint.” You wore the paint prior to NXT, but who had the idea to make “The Demon” almost a separate character from Finn Bálor?
The paint was always my thing. I always wanted to have sort of an alter ego. I always feel like if you do something too often, it’s going to become the norm, and I didn’t want it to become the norm. I wanted it to be saved for special occasions. I knew I was on to something, but I didn’t realize until I came to WWE exactly what I had. I talked to Hunter and with [head NXT trainer] Matt Bloom and they really helped me figure out exactly what I was doing with it. They helped make it something tangible. Before, I was doing it just for the sake of it, whenever I wanted to. When I came here, they helped me figure out why I do it. And that was an important thing. The company has bent over backwards to help me figure out why I do things, and when. I have a million crazy things going on in my head, and they help me channel them. They help figure out what we can do and what we can’t, and why I would do it. Being able to work with all the people here, who are so professional, it’s amazing. That’s not just in the ring, it’s also the backstage workers. Everyone from the cameramen to the lighting tech to the production crew that’s involved with the entrances. It’s amazing how much work and how many people are there to back you up and go to bat for you to help with the show.
Is it an odd to have this cool alter ego, while still being a pretty introverted guy?
Here’s the thing: I’m really shy. People won’t believe this, but I don’t really like being the center of attention. I don’t like when everyone is looking at me. I don’t do well in social environments. I could never understand how I could perform in front of people, but still be this shy, introverted person. When I started using the paint, I felt that it was almost a way to hide my true identity. It gave me more confidence to be myself and let go and live in the moment. That really is what the paint is to me. It helps me just forget about Fergal, the guy I really am, and lets me turn into Finn. It lets me flow in the moment and be creative and artistic and open. It lets me be free in the ring. That’s what “The Demon” does for me.
Before we get to TakeOver: Brooklyn, I did want to discuss one more thing from your past. You started the Bullet Club in 2013. Did you ever see it taking off the way it has?
I knew that we were on to something. The Bullet Club was originally four people. It was to be myself, King Fale as my bouncer, Karl Anderson as my backup and Tama Tonga as the trooper. It was a real-life thing. We lived together, traveled together, ate together, talked business and personal lives together. It was four best buddies that brought what was going on in real life into the ring. It felt like, at the time, we were trying harder to hide who we truly were when we were in the ring. Then the opportunity came for me to turn heel and create a faction. It was a moment in time that kind of summed up everything that was going on in our personal lives. It was a perfect storm of friends coming together. Professionally all of us were starting to peak too, and we helped each other get to the next level. We didn’t know what kind of reach it would have. What I did know was that it was cool. The moment we stood in the ring together, I knew it was cool. I knew we had something, but I didn’t know it would still be going strong two years later, with me gone for a year. All credit goes to the guys who are in it now. It was definitely a moment in time that I will never forget.
TakeOver is set for Saturday at the sold-out Barclays Center in Brooklyn. I know you’ve wrestled in front of big crowds overseas, but this will be the biggest American crowd you’ve worked in front of. How excited are you?
I’m really excited. Obviously I’ve worked in front of big crowds internationally, but to do it in Brooklyn, with NXT, for the title, against Kevin Owens, it’s an understatement to say I’m excited. I’m not surprised at all that we sold out, to be honest with you. I knew when the venue was announced, with the road shows that we’ve been doing, that we would sell it out. Big Colin Cassady is a personal friend of mine down here, and we were chatting a few weeks back. He knows the venue really well and he was telling me what a big arena it is. I guaranteed him that we would sell out. The brand is strong, and the selling point isn’t one person, it’s the whole team. The brand is the selling point. It’s cool right now and people want to be a part of it. I really believe that it can change the business.
You’re competing in a ladder match against Kevin Owens. I looked and I couldn’t find any record of you being in one before. Is this your first, and if so, where are you looking for inspiration?
Believe it or not, in my 15-year career, this is my first ladder match. I’m kind of going into this one a little blind. I’ve been talking to Neville, he had the NXT Championship ladder match against Bo Dallas, and I’ve been talking to him and watching that match. He’s a good friend of mine, so I’ve been getting some pointers from him. Some of the most memorable matches of my childhood were the ladder matches between Razor Ramon and Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania and SummerSlam. Shawn Michaels coming off the top of the ladder is one of my most lasting memories as a teenager. Whether I’ll be able to recreate that, I don’t know, but I’m definitely looking forward to the match.
Is there any aspect of the match that you’re nervous about?
I wouldn’t say nervous, but I’m a bit apprehensive. I know that Kevin is very experienced in these matches, so I’m sure he’ll know what he’s doing. I’m not nervous, I’m excited, and hopefully I’ll have a few tricks up my sleeve. Hopefully we can redefine what is already such an iconic match.
Looking beyond Saturday, it seems that every time John Cena has a US Open Challenge on Raw, Twitter starts buzzing, hoping you’ll show up. If you had the ability to create your own debut on the main roster, how would you do it?
That’s a difficult question to answer. Obviously, I get a lot of those tweets and see those questions. To be honest with you, the way I feel right now is that NXT is strong. A lot of us in NXT believe that this is the main roster. This is very much a brand to itself. It’s something that’s growing and it’s something that’s on everyone’s mind as far as what it’s going to do next. I want to be one of the guys leading the charge of the wrestling renaissance here at NXT. I’m not in any rush to make it to the “main roster.” I want to be here at NXT, leading the charge and creating something completely different.
To that end, what do you think the future holds for NXT?
I believe that in ten years time, people will look back at this moment in NXT and it’ll be viewed in the same light that the heyday of ECW is viewed. A redefining time in wrestling. Something that changed the business for the better. I believe that NXT will be strong moving forward and will develop into its own brand, and we’ll be another alternative for wrestling fans.