Earlier this year I asked Finn Balor about his future prospects in WWE. A 16-year veteran of the mat wars, and still at that time waiting for his call up to the main roster, he answered without a hint of hesitation.
“I will be headlining Wrestlemania,” the native Irishman boldly proclaimed. “Absolutely, one hundred percent, yes.”
While that statement may have sounded like a lofty prediction for a worker who had never tasted WWE success, those who had seen him perform at a high level throughout the world knew better. So it didn't come as a big surprise when, just months later, Balor was the fifth overall pick in the 2016 WWE draft.
Six nights later, on his 35th birthday and his first appearance for the Raw brand, Balor won the right to compete for the newly created WWE Universal championship. He first defeated Rusev, Cesaro and Kevin Owens in a fatal four-way match, and before the night was over he upset former WWE champ Roman Reigns.
Many WWE fans were blown away by the dramatic impact Balor had made in less than a week. But those who had the chance to see him the past two years in NXT knew fully well what Balor was capable of, and most had waited anxiously for WWE to move him up to the big show. The “rookie,” though, turned the heads of even his most ardent fans when he became WWE's first Universal heavyweight champion after defeating Seth Rollins last Sunday night at Summer Slam.
All of a sudden, that proclamation about headlining a Wrestlemania didn't sound at all far-fetched. In fact, a more likely prediction would be that he's a pretty sure shot at headlining a Wrestlemania event next year in Orlando.
Unfortunately that dream might have to be delayed. Less than 24 hours after winning the Universal title at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Balor was forced to relinquish the crown as a result of a serious arm injury he suffered in his match with Rollins.
During the extremely physical bout, Balor absorbed a running powerbomb to a ringside barricade, dislocating his right shoulder and tearing his labrum.
Like the warrior he portrays in the ring, Balor popped his shoulder back in place and continued fighting, eventually defeating Rollins in the middle of the ring.
Balor underwent successful surgery on Tuesday night in Birmingham, Ala., to repair the torn labrum. The prognosis is excellent, say his doctors, who are anticipating Balor getting back at full speed within four to six months.
Balor's sudden rise to the top had surprised many insiders who assumed he might have to work his way up the WWE ladder. But in what was a philosophical and stylistic about-face for Vince McMahon, it was the WWE owner who made the call to give the mega-push to Balor, changing course from a planned Summer Slam match with Chris Jericho to a monumental Universal title crowning with a win over Rollins.
Now, to have the ball taken from him through no fault of his own, Balor may find himself in the position of underdog when he finally returns from injury.
Former WWE champion Daniel Bryan, who all too well knows the role of underdog, was one of the first to wish Balor a speedy recovery.
“Regardless of brand, my heart goes out to Finn Balor,” the Smackdown GM tweeted. “He worked so hard for so long and should've had these kinds of opportunities long ago.”
Elaborating further later in the week, Bryan added, “The most tragic part, that kind of stuff happens ... the most tragic part to me is it happens as soon as he gets up here. And I think one of the things that really upsets me about the whole situation is that Finn Balor should've been up here a year and a half ago.”
“Taking the WWE Universal championship from Finn Balor was heartbreaking,” said Raw GM Mick Foley. “I can only hope the Demon King returns better than ever.”
Chris Jericho related a story about Balor, who appeared on Good Morning America last Monday, on his podcast. Balor, he said, was feeling sorry for himself because of his injury until he saw someone at GMA who only had one arm.
Jericho thinks Balor will return by next year's Wrestlemania better than ever.
“He's got it all. He didn't lose the title. He has this amazing character that we don't know anything about and then he goes out for six months with an injury.”
While some injuries can be physically and emotionally debilitating, Balor has the resolve to come back better than ever. He's a battle-scarred veteran who has been tested throughout the world and absorbed a tremendous amount of pain along the way.
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.
And his journey is far from over.
Bret Hart, who has long espoused the importance of safety inside the ring, had some choice words for Seth Rollins.
“I take no great pleasure in saying 'I told you so,' but if you're a professional wrestler and you keep hurting opponents and or yourself, clearly you're doing it wrong,” Hart told WrestleZone.com. “I wrestled a very realistic and physical style and not once in 23 years did I ever hurt one opponent. Seth Rollins needs to improve his technique and become the safest wrestler in the business. I have great respect for Seth. I believe he'll improve and hopefully stop hurting the talent before someone gets killed.”
Rollins has been connected to three high-profile injuries on the main roster over the last 13 months.
Rollins accidentally broke John Cena's nose during a match on Raw in July 2015 when he caught Cena with a knee to the face. Sting (Steve Borden) was injured at the Night of Champions pay-per-view later that year after taking a buckle bomb from Rollins that resulted in a serious neck injury that forced Sting into retirement. Sting later called it a freak accident. A few weeks later, Rollins tore multiple ligaments in his knee performing a routine sunset flip in a match against Kane and was out for six months.
The same move that caused Sting's injury dislocated Balor's shoulder at the beginning of the match last weekend.
Hart attributes some of the blame on the fast pace in wrestling today. He says individuals like Stephanie and Shane McMahon don't understand sport injuries. “They don't understand that when you do these kinds of things, you can kill somebody. It may look great, but you really need to think twice with what you're doing,” he told Forbes.com.
“You watch Seth Rollins who they've pushed as this huge mega, mega push. I watched him a few months ago, and you can watch it back on YouTube but he knees John Cena in the face. Just knees him in the face so hard, so recklessly, so dangerously, you can easily kill somebody with a knee like that in the face,” said Hart. “It's a testimony to John Cena that he finished the match and that he didn't get a shotgun and shoot Rollins when he came through the curtain.”
Rollins responded to Hart's criticism during an appearance on Chris Jericho's podcast, and said that the comments hurt his feelings.
“I have all the respect in the world for this guy, but this one hurt my feelings more than anything, was Bret Hart. Bret Hart had some comments about me and how safe I am in the ring because of (breaking) John (Cena's) nose, and then me getting hurt while I was the champion, and (he) just said 'you couldn't do that because people relied on you as a top guy.' And that hurt my feelings, and I haven't seen Bret since then. I know he comes from a different era when he worked through a lot of stuff ... That hurt my feelings. I idolized you.”
Both Sting and Cena, though, have lauded Rollins as one of the brightest talents in the business.
It could be Hart's own personal history which helps explain his feelings toward what he calls Rollins' recklessness in the ring.
An errant kick by Bill Goldberg during their 1999 Starrcade match resulted in a concussion for Hart and ultimately ended the in-ring career of the WWE Hall of Famer.
“Bill Goldberg kicked me in the head and ended my career because he didn't know what he was doing,” Hart told Forbes. “You get guys that cost me millions and millions of dollars, cost me my career, probably led to my stroke, and so many things that happened all because somebody didn't know what they were doing.”