When I was nine years old, the Attitude Era was at its peak and WCW was beginning the descent. Not like I would know, at the time, since my parents actively discouraged me from watching. Most of my knowledge of wrestling was gleaned from the shirts my classmates in a small Georgia town wore, talking about “Goldberg” and “Sting” like hallowed names. At the time though, I was more interested in boybands, Sailor Moon, and The Powerpuff Girls.
I had also been diagnosed with a panic disorder at the beginning of the school year. Something that then became a topic of discussion with all my teachers every year until I graduated high school. Coping has gotten way better over the years, but in those first five years, it felt like a war. Against everyone who uses your panic as ammo for their taunts, but with yourself as well. I was scared and tired, but mostly I was just angry. Constantly screaming in hopes that someone would understand how much it hurt.
In another small town across the world around this time, Fergal Devitt begins training to be a wrestler.
I was immediately drawn to Finn Bálor the moment he stepped through the curtain at NXT Takeover Unstoppable. He definitely backed up that immediate draw in the ring with Tyler Breeze that night, but it was The Demon that hooked its claws in me first. The slow and inhuman crawl, the dragon wings that unfurled with every high beat in the entrance, the way The Demon stared and stalked… It was everything to me right in that match. Something that made me know that perhaps NXT was the place I needed to be.
Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch would certify that later in the night, but that was the night The Demon King first spoke to me.
When I was 15, I was starting to realize there was something different about me.
No, not the mental problems. Those weren’t going away anytime soon.
No. It was the way I stared too long and sighed too wistfully at pictures of Shirley Manson. How Devin Aoki and Rosario Dawson in Sin City took my breath away.
I tried to pass it off as just a celebrity girl crush for a while, but getting a real crush on my best friend when I was 16 certainly certified it: I was bisexual, and I was living in a small town where no one got it.
On top of anxiety over school and the International Baccalaureate program, that helped lead to one of the worst depressive periods of my life.
Across the world, Fergal Devitt becomes a young lion and a Prince, starting an eight year journey in Japan that would soon become the backbone of his career.
Most of what you really need to know about Finn Bálor as a character (as he currently stands) can be found in The Demon Revealed, the documentary NXT did about Finn before he challenged Kevin Owens for the NXT Championship at Beast in the East. Which is that most of his character is himself. A quiet guy who is rather introverted and doesn’t like the spotlight on him except when he’s wrestling. Loves Legos and giraffes, riding his bike and going on hikes, and had dreams of being an astronaut before he got into wrestling. Could have also been a soccer player or an artist as well, but his heart called to one thing in particular.
Basically, he’s the consumer who became the creator. A story familiar to many of us who decided that we wanted to get involved in comics, novels, or any number of creative field. Or just if you’ve read The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie.
Where the story of Finn really comes alive though is with The Demon King, which was inspired by the Irish myth of Bálor, King of the Fomorians. It’s the dark parts of Finn that he hides until he needs them. His anger. His obsession. When he does allow them out, quiet Finn goes away and becomes something else. Something supernatural. Something legendary. As he put it once himself:
“These are not just stories, Seth. They’re a source of power. When a warrior enters a great battle and he knows that his limbs and his flesh are not enough, he can tap into the power of these creatures and become a man greater than himself. He can become a myth.”
Again, the consumer becomes the creator. Maybe Finn Bálor is more Pantheon than Symbiote.
There are some people that criticize this, saying that it’s unfair that fans will rail on Roman Reigns for having “no character” while giving Balor a pass because of his indie cred. As a both a Bálor fan and a Reigns fan, I do agree with some of this. In the same way I wish we could see Roman be more of himself on TV, I wish we’d see more of the aspects of fun loving nerdy Finn or quiet anger Finn on TV more as well. However, I don’t necessarily think that how he is currently is a bad thing. Maybe we’re just too close to Prince Devitt to consider an alternative.
My world falls apart close to Christmas 2013. My sadness and heartbreak from the year past comes to a head at a jazzy holiday party.
The next day, I begin to scrape myself off the ground after reading Captain Marvel: Down. I mark that period as the start of the journey that has lead me to where I currently am.
In Japan, Prince Devitt is the despot leader of the Bullet Club, all full of unbridled rage and dirty tricks. He calls himself the Real RockNRolla, inspired by the Guy Ritchie movie RockNRolla. He wants the lot and he doesn’t care what it takes to get it. He’s the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion and that year’s winner of Best of the Super Juniors. His second. However, most people don’t know that this is close to the end of that eight year journey, and that something new is on the horizon.
Prince Devitt in his Real RockNRolla stage is an appealing and alluring character. He’s the bad boyfriend Shirley Manson was singing about come to life. He’s the nightmare scenario of every Nice Guy™ on the internet with his bad boy swagger and his roguish good looks. He’s the kind of rude and cool that you wish you could get away with in real life. He was so good at playing that character that seeing him go from putting bags over unsuspecting reporters heads during NJPW press conferences to his normal quiet self in the Smack ‘Em Up documentary that followed his last indie days can cause some whiplash.
To want that character back is understandable. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have a hope that Finn was secretly still running The Club behind the scenes at WWE and that any week, he was going to show up and deck AJ Styles right in his toothy mouth because it was never his Club to begin with.
However, in these past two months Finn has been on the shelf as his shoulder heals after SummerSlam, I realized that potential version of Finn isn’t the one that appealed to me in NXT. Sure, it would be fun and to bring back the original Bullet Club connections would be a step in the right direction for former members Anderson and Gallows. I would absolutely mark for him still, but Prince Devitt in America isn’t the reason I stayed up until 7 am to watch Beast in the East. It was for Finn Bálor, the introverted nerd who worked for years to make his dream come true, and has a dark side that crawls like an otherworldly creature that he accepts as part of himself.
The only other major demonic character the WWE has had over the years is Kane. Even in recent years with Kane’s somewhat friendly to the point of unsettling “Corporate Kane” persona, Kane has always been presented as a violent outsider. Someone that you don’t want near you because his darkness will hurt you, whether you’re the love of his life or even his friend and tag team partner. Kane must be shunned because it is the only way to be sure. Even when he’s “good,” he’s still treated with wariness because you never know when he’ll snap and set you on fire again.
With Finn, it’s a bit more subtle, or maybe even something of an evolution from that presentation. Finn Balor appeals to people because he’s a lot like us. He’s a fan. He loves what he does and pours his heart into it. However, he does have dark and dirty parts of himself as well. It doesn’t make him evil though. It just is, and he embraces that. He allows for it. He understands how those don’t make up the entirety of who he is.
When you spend years going through Hell because people treat you like some sort of monster because of your brain chemistry or the fact you happen to be attracted to multiple genders while you’re just trying to live the best you can, having someone who is part monster and embraces it is a revelation. It makes you want to embrace those parts of yourself and focus in on defeating those who would say otherwise about you. That you can still be you and love your monstrous self too.
In September 2015, I go to my first NXT show. I make the drive to Gainesville, FL and show up to a rec center gym named after Martin Luther King, Jr. in a dress I made to look like The Demon and a pink umbrella to protect it from the rain.
I’m nervous at first. These are the NXT faithful I’m surrounded by and I’m here dressed up in something I spent two weeks on. What if they don’t understand? What if I’m mocked? My brain is being evil and I hate it.
However, the anxiety melts off when Bayley’s biggest fan Izzy runs up to me and tells me that she likes my costume. More fans begin to compliment me. Even Enzo, Cass and Carmella seem impressed in the meet and greet.
Finn wrestles in a tag match with Samoa Joe against Baron Corbin and Tyler Breeze that night. He’s two months into his historic reign at that point and he’s wrestling in Gainesville like he was wrestling in New York. If I wasn’t already in awe at that point, I’m even more so now.
After the show, I wait. I say quiet good nights to Emma, Dana Brooke, Dasha Fuentes and Solomon Crowe as they leave. Robbie Brookside recommends a band to me that I still can’t remember to this day. I talk with other fans who have been waiting about other things. It’s fun, but I start to figure I should give up.
Until another fan tells me Finn just walked out and I bolt across the parking lot, shouting his name and hoping he doesn’t get mad.
Instead, he’s excited and grateful. It’s fun to tell people that I made Finn Bálor curse with my costume. Most of our chat is just a cycle of awe and excitement. After we take a picture together, he gives me a hug and it is the best feeling in the world. It’s validation, not just for the costume, but for every reason the Demon King spoke to me.