This past week on Monday Night Raw, Finn Balor made his long-awaited return since sustaining a severe shoulder injury in a match against Seth Rollins seven months ago at SummerSlam. While missing his first WrestleMania by one day, Balor received a hero’s welcome in Orlando, as he took Chris Jericho’s place in the tag team main event against Samoa Joe and Kevin Owens. While the disruptive Raw after Mania crowd may have blown the roof off the place with the pop he got, Balor is still relatively new to some audiences, considering the fact he was only on the main roster for a month before his injury. Lucky for us, there’s a whole catalog of great NXT and WWE matches to show you just what the Demon King is all about.
In his debut episode of Raw, Balor won a fatal four-way to enter a match against Reigns to earn his way into SummerSlam for the first Universal Title match. While this match was overshadowed by a Sasha Banks and Charlotte Women’s title barnburner in the first Raw after the draft, it’s a fine, fast-paced match that shows Reigns and Balor at their most distilled: Reigns as a nearly unbeatable powerhouse, and Balor as the speedy striker with guts and brains.
In what would turn out to be Balor’s last televised NXT match, the recently dethroned NXT Champion would face off with his friend and then rising-star Nakamura. If you’re a Balor fan, it’s an emotional send-off to be sure, but it also brings a certain intensity that only those two former New Japan Pro-Wrestling stars could deliver. While not playing the villain, Balor dips into his former NJPW role as Prince Devitt, meticulously working over Nakamura’s knees and growling out his name with each attempted finishing blow. He even boops Nakamura with a “Too Sweet” in a much needed moment of levity in the emotionally charged match.
Balor and Owens had a few very intense matches against each other prior to Balor’s return after WrestleMania, but none were as intense as their match at Ry?goku Sumo Hall for the NXT Championship during the 2015 WWE Network special Beast in the East. Returning to the venue in which he made his final appearance for New Japan a little more than one year prior, it was something of a homecoming for Balor. Owens’ work in the match played this up incredibly well, with the then-NXT Champion doing everything in his power to keep that gold over his shoulder and become the most hated man in Japan in the process. The oni-painted Balor proved to be too much for Owens, though, giving Balor the emotional win after a miniature war in his second home.
Rewatching this match after Balor’s return is an emotional rollercoaster. The first-ever meeting between Rollins and Balor starts off relatively slow, with Balor desperately trying to mount offense against the undercutting Rollins. But the barricade spot that popped Balor’s shoulder out of place seems to be a turning point almost halfway through the match. Between Balor pushing through his visible pain and Rollins going full-on snide jerk—and busting out moves from his old Tyler Black days—this becomes a match not just for a title, but also a place in history, one that Balor would earn with broken bones and torn muscles.
You never forget your first, and this opening match was a hell of a first impression. Changed to a singles match at the last minute after Hideo Itami’s own shoulder injury, Breeze and Balor up the intensity, perhaps forgetting there was supposed to be a third man in the first place. Between exposed turnbuckles, Supermodel Kicks, and a dive from the entrance girder courtesy of the Demon himself, Breeze and Balor left it all in the ring that evening for the chance to face Owens for the NXT Championship. But it’s a match that could have easily been for the belt itself: It’s not just a reminder of how gutsy and intense Balor can be, but just how underrated Breeze is.
Balor’s NXT history is forever linked with Itami’s. Debuting as Itami’s tag partner against the Ascension, the two served as a formidable duo against not just those NXT stalwarts, but also superstars like Breeze and Tyson Kidd. However, when time did come for Itami and Balor to face each other in a tournament for a No. 1 contender spot before NXT Takeover: Rival, what ensued was a clinic in the stiff style the two became known for in Japan. For nearly 20 minutes, the two friends practically wailed on each other in a flurry of kicks and strikes before Balor won with a blistering dropkick that sent Itami into the corner. Itami would best Balor a couple of months later in a tournament to enter the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, but nothing could beat their initial encounter.
Balor and Neville faced each other before in NXT, looking for the opportunity to battle Owens for the NXT Championship at NXT Takeover: Rival. The second time they faced, though, it was not for gold, but legacy. Framed as a celebration of the NXT Championship, Neville came back to Orlando at a University of Central Florida taping to face Balor, who was by then slowly encroaching on the record of longest-reigning NXT Champion. Similar to the match with Itami, this turns into a fast-paced battle between friends that honestly feels like it could be anyone’s game. It’s not just Balor’s best match in NXT, but also one of the brand’s most underrated matches of 2016.
Ashley Leckwold is a freelance writer based out of Atlanta who specializes in comic books, professional wrestling, and pop-punk music. Besides being regularly found at Graphic Policy and The Outhousers, you can find her at her blog and on Twitter @misskittyf.