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A Guild of Calamitous Intent: How Finn Bálor Found Success on the Judgment Day’s Path of Destruction

Finn Bálor has finally acclimated himself on the main roster as part of a faction that seems to revel in being pummeled. (Or, Bálor figured out how to work smarter, not harder.)

Jonathan Bartlett

When the Judgment Day first formed in the lead-up to this year’s WrestleMania, I wrote some things I now regret. For example, I mentioned several times during updates to the Big Board that they looked like the staff of a Hot Topic. I may have also said Edge seemed like he was trying to be “the coolest dude on Daddington Island” when it seems obvious now he was running for mayor of Flavortown.

These were knee-jerk reactions and, ultimately, unfair criticisms. There’s nothing wrong with how they were dressed or what they were doing for a living, even if it wasn’t my aesthetic (and if I had known what was coming style-wise for the Rated-R Superstar, I would have reevaluated my stance entirely just for the sake of dad fashion everywhere). This guilt peaked after Finn Bálor joined TJD and evicted Edge not just from his leadership position but the group. In that moment, it became immediately obvious that this wasn’t just a bunch of disgruntled goths trying to make ends meet, but something else entirely.

Hapless goons fueled by the kind of exuberance that comes only from ignorance of your own incompetence, it seemed as though overnight the Judgment Day’s goal became to run into the fists of their rivals and look cool doing it. They were all talented and strongly presented individually—Bálor, along with stablemates Damian Priest and Rhea Ripley, made the Big Board when eligible—but once they were combined into a single unit (and booked accordingly), they became objectively one of the least successful acts on WWE television in the ring.

The Judgment Day was at the bottom of our rankings, right near the netherworld of Kayfabemetrics. “Second” only to Sonya Deville—who has spent so much time in the negative zone that her mailing address has been changed to the Crossroads of Infinity—they even managed to sink below performers like the Miz and Baron Corbin, who primarily serve as the sewage system of This Old Wrestling House. The first eight times Priest and Bálor teamed together ended with seven losses, including a Main Event tag match. And, folks, if you just attempted to go full Phantom Limb, being on Main Event usually isn’t a great sign for your current standing in the company. If you lose that match, chances are you may want to start updating your résumé.

Thankfully for Bálor, he had (to that point) a fairly impressive CV: Along with an eye-popping 75 percent winning percentage overall in his eight years with the company, he was the inaugural Universal Champion, won the Intercontinental and NXT championships twice, and most recently held the United States title for 49 days earlier this year. In fact, he has the longest combined reign as NXT champion at 504 days, a full three-plus months longer than Adam Cole’s previous-record 396-day single run with the title.

None of this objective success seemed to matter in terms of his presentation in the company, however. Unlike Kevin Owens, Bálor’s track record hadn’t been so much “one step forward and two steps back” as a constant lateral shuffling. Some folks like to point at his being forced to relinquish (due to injury) the Universal Championship less than 24 hours after winning it at 2016’s edition of SummerSlam as a turning point in his career.

The theory that Vince McMahon immediately gave up on Finn Bálor ever being a top star in his company is a pretty weak one, especially when you consider the first half of Shawn Michaels’s career—which, lest we forget, included him relinquishing the Intercontinental Championship because he was assaulted at a bar and a WWF championship because he lost his smile (and hurt his knee [and didn’t want to drop the belt to Bret])—is admissible evidence.

At some point, though, there was a decision made from on high atop the thing that Bálor would win consistently, but that success would mostly be relegated to live events and weekly television shows. Since then, appearances on pay-per-view/premium live events have been relatively rare, wins even harder to find, and main-event spots almost nonexistent: According to our calculations (yes, we track this), Bálor’s impact on the history of PPV main events is roughly equivalent to that of R. Truth, Baron Corbin, and Cesaro.

Not dominating PPV bouts (although he’s still won exactly 50 percent of his 28 WWE PPV matches to this point) while also having a borderline Hall of Fame career (his NXT runs have real “Carmelo at the Olympics” vibes) is not entirely unusual. Most performers don’t have particularly overwhelming records at these shows and even someone as accomplished as Roman Reigns has won only 63 percent of these matches in his career. Hardly appearing in PPV matches while maintaining Bálor’s level of success? Not so much.

It’s definitely unusual among his peers. Kevin Owens has been in the company nearly as long, with a similar list of accomplishments (including Owens losing the NXT championship to Finn), yet he’s had twice as many WWE PPV matches as Finn, so far. For Chrissake, Bálor’s worked 18 less PPVs than the “Wrestling God” (in his wrestling apron) Baron Corbin and he’s even had fewer matches on PPV than Sami Zayn, who has been less traditionally successful than either Owens, Bálor, or even Corbin (though he’s unequivocally a bigger deal than all three of them currently). Samoa Joe is Finn’s closest analog from his NXT “graduating class,” with 23 PPV matches in his on-again, off-again relationship with WWE.

All of this may seem like nitpicking, but when you add it to a fairly light schedule in general—after reaching a peak of 170 matches in 2018, he’s yet to have worked more than half that number, and there’s no reason to think he’ll get to 85 this year either—it makes more reasonable the assumption that fragility played a role in Finn’s inability to maintain the main-event status it’s clear his talent warrants. But it still doesn’t seem convincing, and not just because it would be a pretty vanilla explanation.

Separated shoulders do in fact suck and it makes a ton of sense that Fergal Devitt, the man behind Finn Bálor, wouldn’t want to risk crippling himself for the rest of his life by retaining a schedule of the magnitude of 2018’s. It is definitely the route I would take—I tore my rotator cuff in a permanent-Christmas-tree-related incident and retired as soon as I could from the entire permanent-Christmas-tree industrial complex—but that peak was reached after he was hurt in 2016.

There was another part of him, however, that never seems to quite work, at least not on the main roster of WWE: the Demon, his painted alter ego that was a dominant force whose appearance meant Prince Devitt (in New Japan) was about to take something to another level of performance and artistry. This reverence for the character was carried on through NXT, but when Vince got his hands on it, it seemed like he fundamentally saw it as a way to sell new toys. It was presented the same way as Braun Strowman jobbing out a car Colin Jost and Michael Che “bought” him (in a ploy by the WWE to sell toys and a joint WrestleMania appearance).

As with Bray Wyatt’s alter ego, having an all-powerful entity—although the Demon lacks the Fiend’s ability to wrestle inside of his opponent’s minds, the former has been posited as more or less totally indestructible while the latter is at the very least flammable—to essentially sub in for one of the performers at key times or against extremely stacked odds seems like it should be a gimme for anyone writing the character. Instead, the result (especially in front of live crowds) has been mixed at best, with the Powers That Be heretofore unwilling to commit to the bit and just have both weirdo demon boys win all their matches until they face one another and open a portal to hell.

Though, the hesitancy to do so is somewhat understandable (and not just because of the whole portal to hell thing). At least with the Fiend, it appears that there is a push and pull between Wyatt and whatever devil is inside of him that unleashes the Fiend. As far as we can tell with the Demon, it’s a place that Bálor brings himself to emotionally that manifests itself as a new paint scheme for half his body. There is (or was, as it’s not totally clear that the Demon will make his way back on TV in Bálor’s current incarnation) no governor on the situation, and presumably, the Demon could show up literally every night to work, even on house shows (which, it should be said, is what the Fiend did briefly in 2019).

This put the storytellers at WWE in a corner, as they could either let the Demon and Finn Bálor run roughshod over the main-event scene until someone figures out how to narratively separate the two, or just not ever put him in a spot where calling up Him would be necessary. Unfortunately for the Bálor Club (and presumably Devitt’s wallet), they went through Door no. 2. This put both parties in a situation where Devitt became noticeably unhappy—although the timing is a bit odd, his SummerSlam interview with our beloved Ringer Wrestling Show team is a master class in pushing up against the permeable membrane of unreality in professional wrestling to get yourself and your real sentiments about your place in the business over—and for the first time it felt like Bálor wasn’t simply treading water but struggling to keep his head above it.

Then came “the tweet” and, with it, a total change in the booking philosophy of the entire company, and a creative boon specifically for folks like Bálor. With an already established—albeit, as we mentioned, at the time exceedingly hapless—crew, a baseline level of success upon which to build (as although he’s not set the world on fire, he’s still well above .500 for the year even with that 1-7 stretch to start his time with the Judgment Day) and what looked to be the kind of elevated purpose that comes only from a focused story line with clearly defined goals (which, to put it nicely, has not been prioritized in a long time), Bálor and crew were finally put in the position to succeed (as opposed to fighting against the current) for the first time this decade.

And, unsurprisingly based on his work for literally every promotion other than this one, Bálor’s been at his best ever in WWE since Dominik Mysterio’s heel turn at Clash at the Castle (which is not coincidentally the only match Bálor’s lost since the end of July. He’s also had what might have been the second-most-impactful win of his entire career (outside of becoming the first Universal champion in history) in beating Edge at Extreme Rules. By a full 10 minutes, it was his longest singles PPV match ever and that extra time was worth quadruple anything he’s ever earned in the six years since his debut on PPV at the 2016 Royal Rumble.

He’ll need to thank Edge for the time—as we’ve discussed in the past, the Ultimate Opportunist’s average match length is nearly double the tracking average and several minutes longer than anyone else’s, even Roman’s—as nearly all that value added came from comically long matches that have become a staple for the Iconoclast. (For context, Edge has extracted 12 times the amount of value from match length than the average performer in our system.)

But all the rest is entirely up to him, and for his part, Bálor seems to be having the most fun he’s had since he found his way to Raw and SmackDown years ago, and it might be the best he’s been the entirety of his time stateside. He’s elevated himself and, by extension, the motley crew of misfits who he genuinely seems to enjoy working with and getting over. His celebration after the Judgment Day helped (as a family) Dominik Mysterio steal a win from friend turned enemy AJ Styles on last night’s Raw wasn’t just someone performatively celebrating getting over on a rival in kayfabe, but someone who has finally found his place in WWE after searching for nearly the entirety of his career.

Protecting the world from devastation can be hard work, but as the Judgment Day attempts to denounce the evils of truth and love, and extend their reach to the stars above, it seems Finn is ready to blast off at the speed of light toward the top of the card (and maybe even our Power Board).

Nick Bond (@TheN1ckster) is the cofounder of the Institute of Kayfabermetrics and provides weekly updates to The Ringer’s WWE Power Board.