From King to Prince to Warrior, NXT champ Finn Balor could be next big thing in WWE

NXT champion Finn Balor is entering his 16th year as a pro.

It might seem as though Finn Balor has spent an extraordinarily long time making his way to WWE.

A 16-year veteran who is regarded as one of the most exciting performers in the business today, Balor worked the majority of his first six years as a pro in England and his native Ireland, and the next eight years in Japan.

“I’m very much a student,” explains the 34-year-old Balor. “After six years of wrestling on the independents in Europe, I somehow, by magic, found myself in the New Japan dojo in Tokyo. What was supposed to be three months turned into eight years.”

But ask the current NXT champion, and he’ll tell you without hesitation that his career has gone exactly as it should have. He even passed up some earlier opportunities to work for WWE because he felt that the timing just wasn’t right.

“During those years, there were opportunities to come to WWE,” says Balor, who had always kept an open line of communication with the company.

“I had actually been speaking with WWE for a long time before I came here. It was more a question of when rather than if. But at the moments that presented themselves, it never felt like the right time. I was always on the verge of doing something in Japan, or having achieved exactly what I set out to achieve there. The timing just never felt right.”

Two years ago, however, WWE came calling and Balor was ready to make the move. It’s the one place he always wanted to be.

“It was the time to execute the move as respectfully as possible,” says Balor. “When the call came to come from NXT to work with the new brand under Triple H with guys like Adrian Neville and Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens, it was written in stone. It all happened exactly like it was supposed to happen. There were no missed opportunities. Everything couldn’t have happened any better.”

While it was a tough decision and big gamble making the move from New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he was a major star and a national celebrity, the potential reward was one Balor had been dreaming about for years. Now that he’s here, there’s no looking back.

“I’ve been very lucky in my career with timing and certainly making the switch to NXT when it was on the verge of breaking out. Being able to help and support all the boys and help NXT grow has been a big honor for me.”

The move proved to be beneficial not only to NXT, WWE’s developmental program, but it also paved the way for Balor to emerge as one of WWE’s most promising future superstars.

The high-flying sensation, with his natural charisma, is a proven can’t-miss prospect who will play a big role in WWE’s future, and he’s raring to show his stuff on the grand stage. Does that mean he might be headlining a Wrestlemania one day soon?

“Absolutely, one hundred percent yes. I will be headlining a Wrestlemania in the future,” he says.

While that might sound life a lofty goal, Balor is soft-spoken, humble and respectful, and he has more than paid his dues to make such a claim.

His list of titles and accomplishments are impressive. The current NXT champion is a three-time IWGP junior heavyweight champion in Japan and six-time co-holder of the IWGP junior heavyweight championship.

Balor will be among a number of NXT performers scheduled to appear on the brand’s first Lowcountry show on April 9 at the Charleston Area Convention Center. Other WWE superstars of tomorrow slated for the event include former NXT women’s champ Bayley, Samoa Joe, Sami Zayn, Apollo Crews and Baron Corbin. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Bell time is 7:30.

Balor spent the first six years of his career working in England and his native Ireland under his real name, Fergal Devitt, but adopted a new mat moniker when he began his eight-year run in Japan.

“When I first went to Japan, I was wrestling under my real name,” says Balor. “The Japanese people have a great amount of difficulty with the letters f, r and l. So three out of the six letters in my first name they couldn’t say. It was a bit of a mouthful for those guys. When they say ‘Devitt,’ they say it as ‘David,’ and it’s written in Japanese as ‘David.’ So there was a lot of confusion.”

When it was time for Balor to make his debut, officials notified him that his ring name would be “King David.” But Balor was only 24, and the royal name begged the question: Why was he a king already?

“That name (stunk). In most cases when you’re given a new name, you’re not going to like it. You’re going to be resistant to change. You have no affiliation or no association with that name. In the two weeks between being christened and my actual debut, it was kind of pitched around the office again.

“Simon Inoki, who was with the company at the time, said, ‘Why don’t we call him Prince?’ I could deal with Prince. I’m normally a really humble guy. I wasn’t very keen on calling myself King. Prince was something that became very much a part of me. All of a sudden I found myself answering to Prince. It just became who I was.”

In the same vein, when he signed with WWE last year, he was given the option to keep his name or change it.

“They put some options out on the table, and I pitched a couple things. Even at the beginning, I still felt very attached to Prince Devitt. I hadn’t had these experiences that I associated my new identity with. That was very much an adjustment period.”

It wouldn’t take long, though, for the star to rack up accomplishment after accomplishment in NXT. He chose to honor his heritage by taking on the names of two Irish mythological figures — the warrior Finn McCool and Balor, the king of the Fomorians, Gaelic for “Demon King.”

“Now, as Finn Balor, I can’t really identity as Prince Devitt anymore because I’ve done so much as Finn Balor. I’ve kind of grown into that character. I’ve left the Prince in the past. A lot of folks ask me about certain people who come into the company and get to keep their name. For me I’m quite happy that I was able to change my name and reinvent myself over and over again. It differentiates the chapters in your life and different periods in your career. That keeps things fresh. I’m not opposed to changing my name again next year.”

One thing that might be missing, on a nightly basis anyway, is the eye-catching warrior face and body paint that Balor routinely wore as Prince Devitt while working in Japan. A fan of art and expressionism and inspired by comic book characters, his colorful gimmick and mesmerizing ring entrance added an extra dimension to the grappler’s persona.

“I was looking for something new and outside the box,” he says. “I was toying with the idea of wearing a mask or a full body suit, I thought about the paint, and it just clicked.”

Originally designed to be a one-shot deal for a match at the Tokyo Dome, the gimmick took off and Balor began wearing it on a regular basis. After he arrived at NXT, he found producers surprisingly receptive to the character.

But now, says Balor, his trademark war paint will be reserved for specific situations.

“The Demon only comes out on special occasions,” he laughs. “There is some kind of special moment where it will come out. But right now it’s very much something we’re doing on special occasions. That takes a while. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into doing it.”

The laborious process of bedecking himself in head-to-toe body paint sometimes took hours, he says.

“When everyone’s rolling into the building at 4 p.m. to get ready for the show, I’ve been there since 9 a.m. But the time it takes to do it is not the reason why it’s not going to be an every-night thing. We just want to keep it special and make sure it doesn’t lose its mystique. There has to be a reason behind everything.”

While Balor gained great experience wrestling in England and Ireland the first six years of his career, he became a full-fledged world-class athlete after joining the Japanese dojo. It’s an experience not for everyone, but for those who survive the rigorous and grueling training regimen, it separates the men from the boys.

“The dojo system in Japan is something very unique,” says Balor. “It prepared me not only for wrestling in the states and around the world, but it also prepared me for how to handle myself as an adult in the real world. I’m very proud of the way I came up in the business and very grateful for the opportunity that New Japan gave me to be one of their young boys, which is similar to an internship. I’m eternally grateful to them.”

Balor was only 24 when he arrived in Japan. Living conditions at the dojo were bad, but the young lion was afforded the opportunity to train with some of the best wrestlers in the world.

“It was incredible. Coming through the dojo system helped the fans appreciate me more as one of their own as opposed to just another foreigner coming in. It was a revolving door policy with a lot of the guys, but I was kind of the one mainstay for a long time. They treated me not as a foreigner, but as a Japanese young boy. I think that’s what helped me establish my name over there.

“The discipline and respect that it instills in you from a young age is something that is almost lost in the modern-day era of what we do. I think that’s helped keep me level-headed and grounded about everything and really puts in perspective about just how good I have it now. Don’t get me wrong. It was a great opportunity to be in the New Japan dojo, but those days were dark and that was hard work. People wouldn’t really understand now. It could be called torture, but really it was preparation. That preparation was amongst the best in the world.”

The training, says Balor, would begin every day at 8 a.m. with students cleaning and disinfecting the entire gym.

“That would include the ring canvases, the ropes, the floor, everything. We would be in there until 1 p.m. in 100-degree heat without windows or fans or AC. Believe it or not, we didn’t do any wrestling either. You can imagine the things we were doing. A thousand squats, 500 push-ups, rope climbing, Sumo sparring, judo sparring. That style of training wouldn’t be endorsed now. There wouldn’t be a lot of talent left. But it was something that made the man I am today.”

It was difficult, says Balor, leaving the New Japan promotion and the country itself.

“It made it hard to leave as well because I was so entrenched and rooted in their culture. I lived with a couple Japanese guys at the dojo for eight years. It was hard to let go and move on to different things. I’m not a very emotional person. I don’t cry a lot, but I cried when I left that dojo. It was not only an enriching experience to work in Japan. It was an honor. And looking back, it was the best decision I’ve ever made. The opportunities I’ve been afforded at NXT and the things that I’ve been able to do here just blows my mind.”

Long one of the hottest free agents on the pro wrestling market, Balor has become the face of NXT, which itself has become one of the hottest brands in wrestling. Last year Balor defeated Kevin Owens for the NXT championship at Ryogoku Sumo Hall in Tokyo — the same venue where he had his very last match for New Japan Pro Wrestling.

While the consummate team player enjoys the camaraderie in the NXT locker room and the success he’s helped shape, he’s also excited about what lies ahead in the future. Poised to be a massive star in WWE for many years to come, he’s certainly no overnight sensation, as he’s been dazzling crowds all over the world for years.

With his high-risk style comes the potential for injuries, and Balor has suffered his share. An assortment of concussions and sprains, separated shoulder 10 times, broken left wrist, hyperextended elbow, bruised kidney, torn knee ligaments and cartilage, dislocated jaw, busted eardrum.

It has all been worth it, he says. Every step he has taken, every injury incurred, has been a learning experience and part of a long journey.

“I’ve been around a lot,” he says. “I’ve spent an extensive amount of time in Europe and Mexico, and I’ve spent eight years in Japan. The last two years that I’ve been involved with NXT have been an incredible learning experience. Not just performing in the ring, but life in general. They are things that are going to stick with me for life. I just feel very lucky and very humble to be a part of WWE.”

During his time as a pro, Balor also has spent considerable time training others. He even had a hand in training fellow Irish performer Becky Lynch (Rebecca Knox). He downplays his contribution, though, asserting that Lynch was destined to be a star.

“People will say that, but I’m a firm believer that great performers train themselves. And Becky certainly is a great performer. I was on hand when she was training and I was one of the coaches there, but she didn’t need much training at all. She just needed to be pointed in the right direction. She’s got a big match coming up at Wrestlemania, so I’ll be rooting for her for sure.”

Balor is proud of his deep Irish roots, as evidenced when he crooned some Irish songs following an NXT show on St. Patrick’s Day. He laments the fact that he doesn’t have many opportunities to return home these days.

“I’m actually buckled over with homesickness as we speak. I have three brothers and a sister I’m very close with, and my parents are still happily married, and I speak with those guys on FaceTime a lot. But with the schedule being so heavy right now at NXT, it’s rare that I get the chance to go home. I was very happy we finished a UK tour with NXT in December. I got to home for the holidays for a week. But I’ve been back here since January working hard and steering the ship for NXT. They miss me, but they understand sacrifices have to be made. They’re huge fans and they watch on the WWE Network every weekend. They’re supporting me all the way.”

Selected last year by NXT as the Overall Competitor of the Year, Balor is quick to give credit to his many colleagues for helping him adapt to the country and the company while helping him move up the wrestling ladder.

“Kevin Owens and myself came in together and kind of adapted to life in WWE together and grew very close during that period. Sami Zayn has been a great friend. Adrian Neville is someone I’ve known for a long time. He was someone whose advice I’d always trust. Matt Bloom, who’s a coach at the Performance Center, has been instrumental in me adapting to life in America and the WWE style. Another coach, Terry Taylor, has been incredible in hands-on work with me. There have been a lot of great people who have really rolled out the red carpet and taken care of me. I’m just humbled and lucky to be a part of NXT.”

As Prince Devitt, Balor was one of Japan’s biggest wrestling stars. He founded The Bullet Club, one of the most popular factions in wrestling today, and there have been rumors than he plans to reform it with the recent WWE signings of fellow Bullet Club members Karl “Machine Gun” Anderson and Luke “Doc” Gallows. That could mean his arrival on the main roster may come sooner rather than later.

Balor retained his NXT title by defeating top challenger Samoa Joe — with whom he had won the inaugural Dusty Rhodes Tag-Team Classic last October at NXT TakeOver: Respect — in the main event of Friday night’s NXT Takeover: Dallas spectacular. A packed crowd, with most in town for Wrestlemania, witnessed firsthand what NXT fans have known for a long time. Balor is one of the most exciting and talented performers in the sports entertainment business.

If his journey takes the next step immediately after Wrestlemania, he’s ready. If not, he remains focused on “flying the flag” at NXT.

It’s really not about winning and losing for Finn Balor. It’s all about the performance and the struggle.

“I just want to leave the wrestling business in a better place.”

Sam Morton, who wrestled professionally in the Carolinas during the ‘80s and ‘90s as Slammin’ Sammy, passed away Friday in Columbia at the age of 52.

Trained by the late Lillian Ellison (The Fabulous Moolah), Morton also worked as part of a heel tag team with J.D. Justice (Bledsoe) as The G Men.

A Rock Hill native and 1985 graduate of The Citadel, Morton also was an accomplished writer who authored a number of books, including five fiction anthologies. “Sam is an author on the move,” the late Pat Conroy once wrote.

Morton also worked for 12 years as a robbery/homicide detective for the Richland County Sheriffs Department in Columbia, and “one long week as the blade changer on the potato-cutting machine at the Frito Lay plant in Charlotte, N.C.,” he wrote on his website biography.

In a 2013 interview on the Writers Who Kill blog, Morton discussed his days training at Moolah’s wrestling school in Columbia.

“Lillian Ellison, The Fabulous Moolah, the greatest female wrestler in history, taught me how to tell a story, which is all a wrestling match is. She taught me the ebb and flow and how to kick things up if the fans got restless. She also taught me the greatest marketing lesson ever. You can’t even get this stuff at Harvard: In a sandpaper voice, Lillian once told me as I sat sucking air in her training ring, ‘Honey, there are three types of wrestling fans: the kind that think it’s all fake and no X-ray or doctor’s report will make them think otherwise; the kind that absolutely believes it’s all real and nothing will make ‘em believe any different; and then there’s the kind right there in the middle that just ain’t quite sure—and that’s where you make all your money.”

Reach Mike Mooneyham at bymikemooneyham@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.