Finn Balor's journey back to the NXT championship could reach its destination Tuesday night when he faces off with Adam Cole, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa in a four-way iron man match on NXT television with the vacant title on the line. After reaching the top of the brand in 2015, Balor made his way to Raw and became and became an instant star on the main roster.
After taking a few months off following SummerSlam 2019, Balor landed back in NXT. The break, Balor recently told the Spark in the Dark podcast, was necessary because he found himself turning into a "bitter dick." Balor elaborated on that to CBS Sports that his time away from the ring was not only necessary to getting himself back in touch with friends and family, but also to stop "performing like a WWE wrestler."
"It was just that the workload was so heavy," Balor said. "I worked 172 matches that year and that's in different cities every night, so you have to add in probably an extra 50 days of travel. So, I wasn't really home for a couple of years. I hadn't really taken a break. Having come straight out of an eight-year run in Japan and straight into five years solid in WWE, I had become kind of encapsulated in the WWE bubble. I had distanced myself so much from family, friends and what was reality. I just realized that I needed to take a little step aside and reset everything and get a new perspective on what was important. I feel like taking two months off -- people say I was taking a break, but it was two months. It's not that long when you've been working for 20 years, nonstop, 230 days a year on the road. It was a vacation. I got married and came back and felt more focused and rejuvenated.
"Also, I feel like when you're doing something for so long, you kind of get caught up in the cycle of doing something the same way and relying on what you know works. I felt like I needed to change my style a little bit in the right. It's very hard to transition a style overnight, so getting to step away and kind of lose sight of what everyone else is doing around you -- even though we don't want to be influenced by the people around us, subconsciously, when we're so deep in the WWE environment, you automatically start performing like a WWE wrestler because it's a certain cadence. The matches are at a certain tempo, and gradually everyone starts performing the same even though it's not intentional. It's kind of like a subconscious performance. I felt like I needed to step away from that and reset my performance and feel like it was kind of more me making the decisions and not my subconscious going out there and following the pattern of what was a WWE match."
In his years away from NXT, the brand underwent some significant changes. Those changes culminated in NXT landing a weekly show on the USA network and losing the label of being a "developmental brand." That, Balor said, was part of the massive change he saw when he returned to the place where he'd once held the championship for more than 290 days.
"It's a completely different brand, completely different environment and completely different talent," Balor said. "I feel like, in my first run in NXT, it was very much us against the world and an upstart mentality of a bunch of rebels trying to prove themselves to the world and say, 'Hey, we're here now.' I feel like in the time away, NXT kind of developed itself into more of a true third brand. The aim I think in my first run in NXT, was to transition NXT from being a developmental brand into a true third brand. In that time away, it really did develop into a third brand and is really a standalone product now. The talent are some of the best in the world. I feel like the style has changed from when I was first there and it was preparing you for Raw and preparing you for SmackDown and that WWE style to now, and NXT is its own unique style with unique performers that have their careers over many years in many regions that are completely polished performers. That has created NXT into its current form."
Heading into Tuesday and a match guaranteed to go 60 minutes, Balor said that he has little concern over his physical stamina. That, he said, is one of the few benefits of the coronavirus pandemic, with wrestlers able to focus on their physical condition as a result of reduced travel and work schedules.
But Gargano, Ciampa and Cole are three of the most talented wrestlers on the planet, and all four men in the match have been "cornerstones" of the brand over the past five years. And each man in the match, according to Balor, brings something unique to the table.
"Ciampa, his energy is infectious," Balor said. "I think it translates to people and they recognize it and he brings absolutely 100 percent every night. He's someone that I've known a very, very long time, maybe since about 2011 or 2012. I saw Ciampa at a New Japan Pro-Wrestling tryout and I said, 'We've got to hire that guy, he's going to be special.' I think he proved to everyone that he is special.
"Gargano is someone who I had only heard of before he came to NXT. We kind of just missed each other in NXT, but obviously I follow NXT very closely, even when I was on Raw. He was the one person I felt really connects with the people. His passion and his love for pro wrestling, people can feel that and that's something very few people have.
"Cole is someone who I actually wrestled right before I came to WWE in a small hall in the UK and he's someone who I believe is one of the most polished performers in the business and someone who has gone through an incredible journey in his career already. Through the independents to Japan and NXT, his trajectory is straight to the top. He's someone I feel is one of the best in the world and someone who is an absolute gentleman outside of the ring."
While a potential run as NXT champion is front-and-center in Balor's mind, the future could, of course, provide some interesting opportunities. One such opportunity would be a chance to work with AJ Styles. Amazingly, despite similar career paths, Balor and Styles have only been in one singles match in their careers, a match won by Balor at the 2017 Tables, Ladders and Chairs pay-per-view.
Styles recently pitched the idea of a tag team with Balor during a Twitch stream, admitting he'd be willing to go to NXT to make it happen. While Balor seemed interested in the idea of teaming with Styles, he seemed more intrigued by the idea of standing in opposite corners.
"Obviously, me and AJ have kind of a storied history," Balor said. "We've always kind of crossed paths but never really interacted too much. When I went to Japan, he was in TNA. When I came to the U.S., he went to Japan. When I came to Raw, he went to SmackDown. So, we've always kind of missed each other outside of that one match we had, and that was sprung on us at the last minute. But we've got very similar paths and a lot of mutual friends. He's someone I would love to not only tag with but be in the ring in some capacity. Whether it's standing across the ring from him one-on-one or if it's standing side-by-side, I think we would make a great tag team. Whether it's in NXT, Raw or SmackDown, I would love to be in there with AJ."