A journey of over 2,000 miles has taken 16 years for Bray native Finn Bálor to conquer the wrestling world.
This was to be the crowning moment for Finn Bálor, aka Fergal Devitt, the moment where the secret that some of us had for a long time became a worldwide known. But to understand the meaning of Sunday night and the main event of Summerslam (where Finn defeated Seth Rollins to become the inaugural Universal Champion and win his first world title), you have to start the journey at the beginning.
Finn was a hardcore wrestling fan, before hardcore was even a word used in wrestling or Google searches.
Like a few of us, he saw an ad at the back of an English wrestling magazine (Powerslam), and took the journey over to Andre Baker’s wrestling school in Kent. It was Finn and the other father of Irish wrestling, Paul Tracey, that made the trip. They were both hooked, and some of us followed in their footsteps to Baker’s school.
The eventual next step was for Finn and Paul to open up their own wrestling school, which they duly did. In the sports hall of St Andrews primary school in Bray, County Wicklow, this later moved to St Brendan’s school in Bray, and then to its current home. That first class had a few standouts. Aside from Finn and Paul, there was also Rebecca Knox and her brother (one of the best I have ever seen) along with Sean Brennan, who is currently competing in Japan.
First ever WWE Universal Champion pic.twitter.com/jVdKwQjjHG
— Finn Bálor (@FinnBalor) August 22, 2016
A lot of us that have competed all over the world that came from that initial class, and the reason for that is Paul and Finn. They took their training from Andre and mixed it with how they thought it should be. The standard, therefore, was very high. One phrase that has been doing the rounds since Sunday is:
‘It is not practice that makes perfect, its perfect practice that makes perfect.’
This was a mantra of Finn from day one. We all soaked up the wisdom like a sponge.
Very soon, it was clear that Finn was too good to stay here in Ireland. Soon, he began to make trips to the UK to compete as often as his job would allow; he had followed his father’s lead and began working on the trains. Very quickly, Finn outgrew the UK also. He was a step ahead of everyone.
A trip to the US beckoned, but that was after the match that changed everything for him. It was an NWA convention (the wrestling organisation not the rap group), and a match with Dru Onyx, a massive Canadian who moves like a cat. That was the match that led to an invitation to the NJPW Dojo in Los Angeles on a six-month deal.
I could go on and on about the things Finn has done, but one has to realise that for us in Ireland, he was the first to make the big trips. The first up in the morning to train, the hardest working, and the leader of the group. Always going that extra mile to help people; always there to lend an encouraging word or to bring you back to reality.
The trip to LA lead to a young boy contract in NJPW.
— WWE (@WWE) August 19, 2016
He moved from Bray to Los Angeles to Japan. For a homebody, someone who doesn’t like to leave home, that was a massive change. It was back in the day where wifi didn’t exist – we all used MySpace, and the PSP was the zenith of gaming. His first match was against a Japanese legend in El Samurai. I remember it like it was yesterday. He impressed as we knew he would. Our little secret was getting out, and Japan was taking notice.
The Japanese accomplishments are too vast to mention. Junior heavyweight champion numerous times, junior heavyweight tag champ numerous times, CMLL middleweight champion, and then forming the world famous Bullet Club.
Make no mistake, it is Finn’s baby, and he was a trademark away from being Hugh Hefner rich. It was the stable that had every team on the independent level copying their style, their font and everything about them. The Bullet Club placed Finn in main events all over Japan, made him a household name, and really got the buzz going.
Then came word that WWE were at the door, begging for him to come over. The dream was happening.
He moved to Florida and began his work. Very soon he was out working everyone in the gym, in the ring and anywhere possible. Again, Finn was a leader. He led the NXT brand to huge success, and enabled it to build up to a legitimate company.
Which leads us to last Sunday night. Summerslam. A match against Seth Rollins to crown the first ever WWE Universal Champion.
— WWE (@WWE) August 14, 2016
There were a few tears among the Irish wrestling fraternity, especially from those who know the work and sacrifice he has put in to get there. When it looked bleak, the times of long journeys for no pay to work with wrestlers who couldn’t lace his boots, he persevered. He outworked everyone he has ever come in contact with, all while remaining the fella from Bray. Never being cocky, even though he would have every right to be.
The match itself on Sunday was fantastic. There was a moment when I realised something was wrong. A buckle bomb into the ringside railing. Because the railing isn’t flat, it is on a curve, the landing was right and the shoulder dislocated. Without thinking, he popped it back in and continued. We all celebrated!
Now into the downer. That move tore his labrum. I am not about to talk about whether it is dangerous or not. That’s not for me to say. But it puts Finn out of action for at least six months.
Maybe this will give him time to recharge and take a bit of time to look at his accomplishments. It is never a bad thing to look at what you have achieved before getting yourself back into battle. Once you climb Everest once, you know you can do it again.
The demon will rise again!
Neil Keegan, Pundit Arena