It’s not WWE’s fault that Finn Bálor was seriously injured the night he became Universal Champion. It is, however, hard to fathom how they summarily dropped the ball on hijacking all that Bullet Club mojo. Maybe the outlaw stable, which is most associated with New Japan and Ring of Honor but whose members move fluidly among several promotions, wouldn’t have seemed so outsized under Vince McMahon’s singular big tent. Or, it’s possible that separating AJ Styles from Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson amid last summer’s roster split – regardless of who advocated for the fresh starts – was a calculated risk with mixed results. Though even if Bálor had stayed healthy, perhaps the plan was simply to continue winking at he, Styles, Gallows and Anderson’s former crew with clever merchandise and cryptic Tweets. Four Horsemen notwithstanding, rare is the group whose charisma can simply move across corporate lines. Just ask Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash.
But with Bálor ready to reemerge on Raw, Styles in storyline hell opposite Shane McMahon, and Gallows and Anderson dutifully manning the Monday night tag division’s merry-go-round, it’s worth noting that Bullet Club has weathered all the aforementioned defections and only grown mightier over the last several months. The brains and talent behind pro wrestling’s nimblest faction have learned well from watching nWo’s DOA debut in WWE and TNA’s Aces & Eights fail to find the plot. It’s neither inaccurate nor trite to observe that this nearly four-year-old gimmick has, indeed, appeared bullet proof – it’s simply aura affirming.
By way of a primer, Bullet Club fired its first shot in April 2013 when Bálor – then going by Prince Devitt and working for New Japan – turned on babyface partner Ryusuke Taguchi. Devitt and his bodyguard Bad Luck Fale were to become a terrorizing twosome, but before long a more ambitious concept was hatched to pair the duo with Anderson and Tama Tonga, the son of WWE legend Haku. Devitt conjured the foursome’s name and oversaw its early aesthetic, which was largely influenced by comic-book villainy and – ironically – the cocky entrances and schoolyard-bully antagonism (not to mention literal gestures and signature phrases) of vintage nWo.
Soon after, more Western antagonists were initiated, including dynamic Ring of Honor tag outfit the Young Bucks and Gallows, though Yujiro Takahashi would eventually give the entourage an Eastern heel presence. Devitt departed for WWE in 2014, allowing ex-TNA mainstay AJ Styles to fill the leadership void, a platform he seized as a launching pad into WWE by 2015, making room for current figurehead Kenny Omega to claim supremacy. Over the past year, former Ring of Honor champ Adam Cole and WWE ex-pat Cody Rhodes (aka “Cody”) have been among those to fill the vacuum created by high-profile departures, and Bullet Club has evolved into an international phenomenon with no fixed address.
That rootlessness has been its greatest asset. Hat tips to their heroes aside, Bullet Club’s never been guided by any particular raison d’être. For all of WWE misfire League of Nations‘ overt multiculturalism, its execution betrayed a condescending expectation that people would gravitate to a bunch of bad guys just because they were from somewhere else. And while Bullet Club came to life as a foreign invasion of Japanese turf, it quickly took on the mystique of something far more sinister and modern: an unquantifiable, viral menace that wasn’t borne of – and can’t be conquered by – conventional defense. They’re like ancient Mongols going from territory to territory armed with real muscle and a slippery un-knowableness. And in the context of sports entertainment, they’re disrupting the old word order.
But even the Mongols met their end, albeit thanks in part to the Bubonic Plague. In Bullet Club’s case, the man who essentially ushered in wrestling’s most popular collective in generations, Finn Bálor, could well be the same person to leave it outgunned. Revisiting the notion of what WWE had in mind this time last year, a likely two-step explanation is they hoped to: 1. Soft-introduce the stable to their broader fan base (not to mention make good with the marks) via a fleeting, pre-draft reunion of Styles, Anderson and Gallows as “The Club” before… 2. Slapping the belt on Bálor at SummerSlam, scaling up his eponymous Bálor Club and doing what WWE does best – remaking the phenomenal in its own, spectacular image.
If that’s in fact the strategy, and launch was merely delayed, it’d be a good opportunity to pause and reassess. WWE’s enemy is no longer WCW or their trial-and-error success ratio – it’s a multiplicity of competition with no obvious locus, typified by the insurgent Bullet Club’s regenerative might.