Owens-Balor: The Title Match of the Century

The build towards Owens-Balor on July 4 in Tokyo has been so impressive because the angle itself is largely just fundamentals. The execution has been such that the journey hasn’t felt formulaic at all, however. The match is built around the most basic raison d’etre of professional wrestling: the championship title. The high-energy babyface Balor has proven he is amongst the best and wants the title as validation of his love and sacrifice. The bully heel Owens has proven he is ruthless and needs to keep the title so he can lord it over people and cover his insecurities. To sweeten the pot, the NXT Championship has been elevated to a level that nobody could’ve expected through its involvement in the Owens-Cena storyline on Monday Night Raw.

It’s really simple wrestling math: Over, worthy, popular babyface + despicable but respected heel + coveted title = money match. (And that formula doesn’t even take into account the “smart mark” anticipation of seeing two world-class workers have a match together!)

What made the build towards July 4 so unique, however, was the fact that both wrestlers were presented as highly-credible stars in completely different ways. The champion Owens was established as a legitimate top dog by feuding with John Cena on Raw, going so far as to score a pinfall win over the face of our era at Elimination Chamber. This made Kevin Owens the biggest major league cross-promotional wrestling star since at least Ken Shamrock in the early days of UFC and perhaps as far back as the territorial era. Being portrayed as a beast in both NXT and WWE proper at the same time elevated Kevin Owens from “indy star and developmental champion” to “World Champion-level star.”

On the other hand, Finn Balor’s journey toward this match has been much more about talking than wrestling, and, at times, much more about Fergal Devitt than Finn Balor. The “Finn Balor: The Demon Revealed” promotional packages that aired over the last three weeks of NXT set a new standard for character development in wrestling. They combined the best aspects of an HBO boxing promo, a handmade documentary, and an ESPN “30 for 30” piece. The videos had just enough of that WWE polish to look highly professional without feeling phony or over-produced.

What “The Demon Revealed” did more effectively than anything that’s aired on Raw since the build toward Taker-Michaels 2 at Wrestlemania XXVI, however, was make you care about the match on a personal level. Introducing Fergal Devitt as a human being not just a wrestler, having other familiar faces put him over as a decent guy, and showing clips of him chasing his dream around the world added a bonus layer on top of the classic babyface + heel + title formula. NXT fans already loved and respected Balor as an exciting athlete, but now they are rooting for him on a personal and professional level as well.

NXT may be developmental, but this is the best angle in wrestling.

The Proper Care and Feeding of Demons

Finn Balor and his pet Demon represent the ultimate marriage of two of the biggest stars of an era in WWE: Jeff Hardy and the Undertaker. Since his arrival in NXT, Balor has consistently been portrayed as more Hardy than Hardy. He’s a risk-taker. He’s attractive. He has a personal connection to the fans. He wrestles intensely exciting matches. What he doesn’t have, though, is the recklessness that derailed the much-loved Carolinian’s journey to the top of the mountain.

Balor’s superiority to Hardy as a potential top star draw is also evident when one considers their signature alter egos: Willow was Jeff Hardy being someone else, whereas The Demon represents a place that Balor reaches in his mind and spirit when the stakes are most high and the odds most unfavorable. Willow was a failure because people felt as though they were being cheated out of seeing the Jeff Hardy they knew and loved. On the other hand, when people see The Demon, they feel like they are seeing their favorite wrestler turned up way past eleven and into the stratosphere.

The Demon is the closest thing to an Undertaker gimmick on the current wrestling scene. The act has a special mystique that elevates Balor from being a top star on the show to the stop star on any show. His now-signature entrance is exactly the kind of thing that people pay money to see, even more money to see in person, and even more money to see up close in person. If the character is protected, as Undertaker was effectively for the last half-decade, Finn Balor’s entrance at Wrestlemania could become one of the most anticipated aspects of the big show.

However, much of the money in The Demon is in Balor not being The Demon – at least not most of the time. Unlike the Undertaker, who at times in his career was overexposed by week-in, week-out television appearances, Balor has the luxury of being Finn Balor on TV. Ninety-nine percent of the time, he can simply portray the exciting, high-flying, straight-up wrestling babyface with the natural bond to the fans. Living as Jeff Hardy with a slow build to being the Undertaker once every four months would give Balor the chance to be the biggest money babyface of his era.

Unfortunately, NXT Takeover: Unstoppable was the perfect example of a show where the Demon should have remained chained in Hades. The positioning of the match was all wrong for Balor to take things to the supernatural level. A vicious, mystical, quasi-monstrous being should never, under any circumstances, jerk the curtain. Furthermore, even the announcers were openly discussing how the match was less juicy than it should have been due to the injury to Hideo Itami. Add those factors together with the pressure not to burn out the crowd early, and the result is a match that was “just really good.” The Demon shouldn’t be in really good matches; The Demon should be in the match of the season.