This past Monday, Finn Balor fought a competitive match against Kane. And although he won the match via disqualification, Balor ended the evening with a chair wrapped around his neck. A couple of weeks prior, Kane pinned Balor cleanly in the center of the ring. This would have been an acceptable outcome in 1998, when Kane was booked to be nearly invulnerable. But these days, he’s a 50-year-old mayoral candidate who wrestles when his schedule allows him to.
Based on the past couple of months, this mini-feud will likely culminate in a match where Balor finally takes on his Demon form and definitively beats Kane.
While watching Raw these past two months, I found myself thinking, “Balor lost, but he’s not in his Demon form,” and, “If Balor was in his Demon form, he wouldn’t have his neck in a steel chair.” This was the narrative arc for Balor’s feud with Bray Wyatt; Balor was a mild-mannered good guy until Wyatt pushed him too far. And then, the Demon came out to play. It was the Demon who crushed Wyatt at SummerSlam.
This plot device also extends to the WWE video games. In WWE 2K18, the Finn Balor character–the normal, leather jacket version–is rated an 88 out of 99. Meanwhile, the Demon Finn Balor character is rated 92 out of 99. It reinforces the point that WWE implies on TV: that Demon Finn Balor is a stronger, better version of the “normal” character.
But it’s puzzling that WWE would script this. The difference between normal Finn Balor and Demon Finn Balor does more to hurt the man than it does to help him. Finn Balor should be Demon Finn Balor whenever he fights, and not only during the “big” matches.
WWE storytelling works best with clear, definitive plot points. As it is, clean wins are rare; there are always managers jumping on the ring apron, or weird match stipulations, or low blows when the referee isn’t looking. Giving Balor two difficulty settings muddies the waters further. And imagine how embarrassing it is for an opponent who loses to normal, leather jacket Balor; that opponent didn’t register as a threat. Balor never even pulled out the big guns, but he still managed to pin his opponent.
It also adds an asterisk to the end of any Balor loss. Did he lose as his normal self? And if so, does he then need a rematch–this time as the Demon–to win? By this logic, no Balor loss is a “true loss” unless he loses in his Demon form. And that’s an exhausting, insufferable way to approach storytelling in this medium. That might work in video games, but not in a television show, with limited time each week, that presents itself as an athletic competition.
“Hey, I beat Finn Balor, but I only beat him on Easy Mode! Now I have to beat him in Demon Mode, or it doesn’t really count.”
The most common argument for giving Balor two personas is that it makes the Demon a special attraction. Might people become desensitized to the gimmick if Balor used it every week? But history does not support that argument. The Undertaker showed up as an Old West mortician for decades, and it never got old. Balor’s Demon gimmick has the same sort of strength and resiliency.
Imagine if The Undertaker had two versions, where 90% of the time, he dressed as a biker and came to the ring as a biker. But whenever he started losing to an opponent, he kicked it up a notch and went into “Dead Man” mode to get a win. It would be a ridiculous, unnecessary complication, which is why we got Biker Undertaker OR Dead Man Undertaker. We never got both within the same week.
And at least The Undertaker was a big, intimidating man. Balor is 5’11 and 190 pounds. Technically speaking, he belongs in the cruiserweight division (205 pounds or under), even though he fights as a heavyweight. And when Finn Balor is placed next to men like Braun Strowman or Brock Lesnar in nothing but black tights and a leather jacket, it’s difficult for the average fan to take him seriously. Balor looks like he walked off the set of Grease Live; for fans who don’t know his history outside of WWE, he doesn’t appear to be a legitimate threat.
The Demon gives Balor an edge–a sense of mystery and danger–that he otherwise lacks. And narratively, it’s the x-factor that could make Balor vs. Strowman or Balor vs. Lesnar palatable. We can suspend our disbelief long enough to accept that yes, with this supernatural advantage, Balor can overcome the odds and emerge as the better fighter. Balor also fights better and with more intensity whenever he has his Demon makeup on. It could be deliberate. It could be a psychological issue, where the makeup helps Balor get into the right headspace. But whatever the case, it is palpable and self-evident.
Balor was a massive star on NXT. He was on his way to being a massive star on Raw until his shoulder injury derailed him. And his greatest WWE moments thus far–his NXT title win over Kevin Owens at Beast in the East, his win over Samoa Joe at NXT TakeOver: London, and his Universal title win over Seth Rollins at SummerSlam (2016)–were as his Demon persona. WWE should embrace this gimmick instead of keeping it locked away. They’re too busy trying to protect it, and meanwhile, they’re hurting the wrestler who would benefit most from using it.