NXT Champion Kevin Owens went head to head this past Wednesday with number one contender Finn Balor (sans beastie) in a match that deserves every bit of praise it has received. The two competitors put on one hell of a show, proving their ability as storytellers of the highest caliber. No doubt these two will have more great battles in the future as they work their way up to the main roster.
They cannot, however, get too used to the generous booking they have received thus far, or they set themselves up to be seriously disheartened when they enter the big leagues.
This never become more clear to me than on a previous Wednesday night when Owens took on Alex Riley. He looked impressive, admittedly, but only because Riley did the job like a true pro. When the two men squared off with one another at the match’s onset, it appeared to me a bit of a mismatch. Don’t get me wrong; Owens is a big guy by everyday standards, but this is the WWE. They don’t call it “the land of the giants” for nothing.
Riley is a man who was never billed as a monster on the roster, but even he dwarfed his rotund opponent by three whole inches, making the man whom many are currently building up by comparing him to Brock Lesnar look rather diminutive in comparison. Not only is Riley big (by your average Joe standards: 6’3″ and billed at 236lbs), but he can really move, executing high dropkicks and leap frogs with deft agility and moving around the ring with easy speed and polished grace. Owens, meanwhile, is able to muster up the occasional burst of steam with which to launch his 260 pound bulk into his prone opponent like a wrecking ball, but the rest of the time he loafs around breathing heavy in what looks like lead-filled boots. Riley showed us what (in a certain, selective conformity) a real main roster superstar looks like and frankly, maybe even a bit harshly, out-classed Kevin Owens in the match. His performance was made all the more impressive by his ability to make his loss look credible.
Owens might look impressive against men such as Sami Zayn, Hideo Itami or Adrian Neville, but just imagine Owens in the ring with a Cesaro or a Jack Swagger, let alone a John Cena or a Kane. One would glance at the tale of the tape and quickly judge Owens the underdog.
I’m not trying to diminish the ability of Kevin Owens. I can’t. The man is talented. I’m merely pointing out that his current gimmick of a malicious wrecking ball sadistically decimating everyone in his path is not going to fly when he moves up to Monday Night Raw.
The same goes for the man many have been touting “the next big star”: Finn Balor.
Again, I cannot take anything away from the Irishman as a performer. He possesses natural magnetism and exudes more poise and presence than most of the people on the main roster now, and like Owens is more than accomplished in the art of building and executing a main event match. In fact, there are few that come to mind who can equal him in the art of stillness. One who comes to mind is Randy Orton, the “apex predator”. In fact, the two share many traits and it would really be something to watch them go at it inside the squared circle.
However, as with Kevin Owens, much of Balor’s presence would shrink in the eyes of those watching when the moment came to square off, and we see the massive difference in size between the two. Randy Orton stands a full six inches taller than Balor and outweighs him by upwards of fifty pounds (if we go by their billed weight). Randy (being the charming fellow we know him to be) I can just picture standing with arms crossed watching Finn performing his elaborate entrance, creeping and slinking like a demon loosed from some primordial pit, as The Viper snorts a mocking puff of laughter through his nose, unimpressed.
The risk of current NXT stars being doomed to jobber status as soon as they move up to join the likes of “The World’s Strongest Man” and “The Big Red Corporate Demon” is not an eventuality, however, but merely a risk, and one that with care may be avoided. All it takes is a bit of gimmick shifting.
Let’s take Kevin Owens. No doubt he has what it takes to hang toe to toe and blow for blow with anyone on the main roster, but to bill him as a wrecking ball will not sell for a song with the likes of seven foot giants and “The Beast Incarnate” stalking about. Conversely, when one observes Owens celebrating his championship victory against Sami Zayn, pressing the title belt to his sweat and tear-stained face as he dedicates the match to his wife and child at home in a moment of utter vulnerability, one sees the raw material needed to get him over. Instead of being a dominating sadist fighting because he enjoys it, he becomes a never-say-die and never-back-down pugilist who fights to provide for his family.
One can picture a man like Kane, in all his power and wickedness, taking twisted glee in ruthlessly pummeling Owens from pillar to post. Again and again Owens struggles back to his feet, seemingly only to invite more punishment. But then Kane misses a big right, and Owens begins landing punches, chopping away at his over-sized assailant until the big man is sent reeling. No big flashy moves here, nothing fancy, just pure heart, grit and hardened gumption. In the end, Owens pulls off a victory (although he may have to use a finisher other than his pop-up power-bomb on Kane) and, in classic Rocky Balboa fashion, cries passionately into the camera: “I did it, baby!”
That’s a fine enough fantasy for the current reigning NXT champion, but what about the sensation from Wicklow County? What can Finn Balor do to off-set his initial physical disadvantages in the ring. One can gain inspiration from others come before.
Adrian Neville is an example of a wrestler who need not fret the same obstacles as those that stand to threaten his neighbour from across the Irish Sea. His secret weapon is his acrobatic move set, a talent which sets him dramatically apart from the majority of other superstars and simultaneously turns his smaller than average size into a strength instead of a hindrance.
It has become a standard in the world of professional wrestling: if you’re small and light, you better learn to fly or flip or kick – or all three, if you can help it. Neville can do all of it in spades, and that’s what he brings to the dance to compensate.
Daniel Bryan achieves the same, but while he lacks the gymnastic skills of the man from Newcastle he makes up for them with fleet-footed speed, near suicidal risk-taking, and an extensive knowledge of technical wrestling and submissions.
So aside from his elaborate entrance and make-up, what unique talents does Balor bring to the table? He doesn’t race like Bryan or flip like Neville. Although his experience in Japan has given him a mean kick, he doesn’t seem to use it nearly as much as his compadre Hideo Itami.
If he were not so invested in his war paint and demon-channeling, if instead he were to show up on Vince McMahon’s doorstep as a blank slate, a lump of clay to mold in whatever shape the king of sports entertainment saw fit, we all can imagine what would happen. Anyone who watches WWE knows Vince loves his regional, ethnic and national stereotypes, and we also know he takes his cues from pop culture. It requires no stretch of the imagination to look at Finn Balor through Vince McMahon’s eyes and see Brad Pitt’s guff-talking, bare-knuckle boxing gypsy character from Guy Ritchie’s 2000 film Snatch. He would tape up Finn’s wrists, slap some shit-kicking boots on his feet and send him out to scrap like a good Irish boy-o.
The truth is, I don’t yet know what’s to be done with the artist formerly known as Prince Devitt. He’s got the skills, he’s got the world experience, he’s got the confidence, he’s even got something that sets him apart from your average indie star. He could very well be a future headliner in the WWE.
Even so, the questions yet remain:
Will his gimmick translate to the bigger stage? Will the creative team – not to mention the production team – provide him with the support he needs to get over? Lord knows The Ascension, who terrorized the tag team ranks of NXT for over a year in convincing fashion, have looked comparatively hokey since their advancement. Will the same fate befall Balor? Will his entrance on Smackdown or Raw be met with the same cold indifference the WWE Universe has shown Adam Rose and his Rosebuds? Or will he naturally pull in a following as Bray Wyatt has managed to do?
It’s never clear what the fans will gravitate towards, and success is never guaranteed. One thing is for sure: Balor is a credible talent and the company is lucky to have him, but if they aren’t careful in managing him, his career could go south even before it has a chance to take off.