One of WWE’s marquee SummerSlam matches in 2016 was the one to crown the inaugural Universal Champion and it saw Finn Balor, hardly a month removed from his main roster debut, challenge Seth Rollins. The Architect was handed the match to him, but Finn Balor managed to qualify in emphatic fashion, which we’ll get to.
However, the circumstances that led to the main event were certainly interesting and though the ultimate outcome turned out to be rather tragic, it’s still fascinating to look at in retrospect. In fact, it was surreal that Finn Balor had reached the spot that he did so quickly, and sad at the same time because he hadn’t really ever reached that level afterward.
It should be noted for those who aren’t aware that Finn Balor was the single most anticipated “developmental” call-up in WWE history and it’s not even close. Since the larger audience’s emphasis was never on developmental, there was little known about a superstar when they made their main roster debut.
Today, we have NXT and we get a glimpse into who the big stars of tomorrow are. However, in 2016, the larger audience also didn’t realize that success in NXT didn’t necessarily guarantee success on the main roster. At the time, there was still a lot of excitement about NXT superstars coming up, with fans assuming that Balor would be a superstar who would slot right in. Who was there to prove them wrong? Balor had a larger-than-life persona in NXT and was presented as the star of the brand. His Demon persona only added to his aura and for many fans, that meant guaranteed success.
At first, it seemed that way too. Around July of 2016, WWE held the first draft in a long time and there were a lot of interesting picks, particularly in the first round. For one, Charlotte Flair was the third overall pick (only behind Seth Rollins on RAW and Dean Ambrose on SmackDown), while superstars like John Cena and Roman Reigns were excluded from the first round. Mick Foley, the RAW General Manager at the time, even stated that with an “eye towards the future”, they picked Finn Balor as the final first-round draft pick.
Being a superstar who hadn’t even debuted on the main roster yet was picked ahead of Brock Lesnar, John Cena and Roman Reigns instantly meant to the fans that Balor was being considered as a main eventer right off the bat. His RAW debut on the night after Battleground only further confirmed that, as he won a Fatal-4-Way match and beat Roman Reigns clean on his debut (only 3 other superstars had pinned Reigns clean prior to that) to qualify for the Universal Championship match at SummerSlam.
Roman Reigns even gave his endorsement and WWE was very careful to protect Balor, revealing The Demon King before the worldwide audience. The only reason why Seth Rollins was handed the title match at SummerSlam was that he wasn’t pinned by Dean Ambrose in the Shield Triple Threat Match for the WWE Championship at Battleground, while Roman Reigns was.
So the stage was set for an exciting match at SummerSlam and on paper, Rollins vs Balor looked like the perfect match. The Barclays Center erupted when witnessing The Demon King coming out and it was clear that all eyes were on him and all the momentum was on him. The only thing that really eclipsed the match at the time was that the crowd was disrespectful towards the Universal Championship, as it was presented for the first time.
Apart from that, the match itself was absolutely spectacular. Balor delivered on his debut and the match turned out to be one of the most underrated title matches in SummerSlam history and one of the most underrated matches in SummerSlam, period. At the end of it all, Finn Balor defeated Seth Rollins to become the inaugural Universal Champion, joining an elite-list of superstars who won a World Championship so quickly after their debut.
Everything looked great as Finn Balor raised the title in one hand, but little did anybody know that he had dislocated his shoulder in the process. Seth Rollins had hit him with a buckle bomb on the barricade outside and due to a botch, Balor ended up dislocating his shoulder. Despite that, he braved through the match and ended up beating Rollins.
He had to vacate the championship exactly one night later, never having won it back after that. It’s sad to think that his debut month was his peak at WWE, but things could have been very different had he not gotten injured. There wouldn’t have been a Kevin Owens Championship reign and it’s very possible that Balor would have taken one of the major spots.
It all had to do with timing and WWE couldn’t really be to blame for it. What they should be taking the blame for, however, is how they brought him back and presented him. He is still a main event star and has the potential to do great things.