Why Finn Balor’s Challenge to Roman Reigns Was a Real Surprise

Finn Balor and Roman Reigns

Speculation has swirled for months around the big names World Wrestling Entertainment is trying to lure back to the fold in time for 2021’s SummerSlam. High on the list was John Cena, but anyone who has seen a trailer for the latest sequel to “The Fast and the Furious” knows that he is a bit busy with his robust film career. When Cena crashed the last seconds of July 18’s  Money in the Bank pay per view, it seemed the inevitable was unfolding: Cena was there to challenge Roman Reigns for the Universal Champion.

Who else, but Cena, was there left for Roman Reigns to symbolically pulverize to anoint his entry into the canon of WWE’s most immortal champions? Cena stepped into the power vacuum left by the departures of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in the mid 2000s, and parlayed his scrappy hip-hop heel gimmick into a babyface people’s champion who dominated the WWE for over a decade, the face of the company as it transitioned back into the realm of family friendly entertainment.  Now that Reigns has turned heel, and is on fire with his villainous Tribal Chief persona, a match for the Universal championship between the two is the only way to cement Reigns’s formidability with the end all, be all of credible victories, and wind down Cena’s in-ring career with a credible adversary.

Cena opened July 23’s Friday Night SmackDown from their staging at the Rocket Mortgage Field House in Cleveland, Ohio. The crowd were eating out of the 13x WWE champion’s hand, but his address was interrupted by Reigns’s “special counsel” Paul Heyman, who mocked Cena. His “client”, Reigns, entered the ring during the show’s last minutes, and also soundly derided Cena for his unvarying act, and said no to his challenge for the Universal title.

However, another challenger stepped up: the first holder of of the Universal Championship, Finn Balor.

Nothing about Balor’s recent return to SmackDown indicated that this was in the works. During SmackDown’s first live show in 17 months, at the Toyota Center in Houston Texas on July 16, Balor made his surprise return to the main roster, interrupting a tiresome harangue by Sami Zayn to the delight of the crowd. Whether they were glad to see “the Prince” or glad someone dropkicked Zayn, either way the crowd was energized by Balor. He also defeated Zayn in a midcard match on the July 23 episode. Being paired opposite Zayn seemed to indicate that Balor would join Kevin Owens in the perpetual mix for the Intercontinental Championship.

It wouldn’t have been a bad place for him to land after an NXT run in which he eschewed his “Demon King” alter ego for the stripped down, enigmatic Prince persona, a calculating manipulator who exposed the weak links in The Undisputed Era and broke them up, a gritty fighter always up for the next challenger. The Intercontinental Championship, and the race for it, is traditionally for highly skilled technical wrestlers, and Balor is certainly  that. It seems reasonable to assume that Zayn is just the appetizer, and his eventual foe will be Intercontinental Champion Apollo Crews.

However, the charisma Balor honed on NXT never had its due during his main roster run, which floundered after his Universal Championship run was snatched from him by injury. It is charisma, a palpably cocksure and dodgy charm, which powered the Prince gimmick on NXT, and it is that which Balor credibly pit against a Roman Reigns who has never been more in command of his character psychology and mic work. The jury is split on whether NXT can still truly be called a developmental brand, but for Balor it was developmental in the best of ways, helping him craft a gutsy and credible character that didn’t need to lean on either his history at NJPW or a supernatural gimmick.

At NXT, Balor styled himself as the man with a target on his back, his time on the main roster at WWE and his Bullet Club background making him a giant to knock down for his challengers. However, he was able to channel the same main event confidence into playing the scrappy NXT returnee boldly challenging the Tribal Chief.

However, Cena is probably still endgame. Balor’s challenge, however, was a genuine surprise, a diversion between two stories that seemed to be writing themselves – an IC championship race and win for Balor, and a feud with Cena for Reigns. While the predictable may still occur, their July 23 scene is a testament to how far both Balor and Reigns have come in honing their personas.

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