As of August 2019, it’s officially been three years since Finn Balor vacated the Universal Championship. It seemed so bizarre at the time and extremely frustrating as well, especially if you were a big fan of NXT then. In the summer of 2016, a long-overdue call-up from NXT to RAW happened: Finn Balor.
There’s absolutely no denying the fact that Finn Balor was the single most anticipated call-ups in WWE developmental history. Those who followed him on NXT knew that he had a larger-than-life presence about him and was clearly pushed on NXT as a future World Champion. He had practically everything going for him – he looked phenomenal, he could connect with the audience, had fantastic in-ring ability and The Demon Persona only topped all of his qualities off.
It was assumed that Balor would be a smashing success on the main roster, but WWE fans were still a year or so away from learning the harsh reality that success in NXT doesn’t necessarily translate to instant success on the main roster. But for Finn Balor, it was actually that way right off the bat.
It was during the WWE draft that Finn Balor’s name was finally mentioned on the main roster. Fans expected him to debut as early as late April 2016 after he lost the NXT Championship to Samoa Joe, not aware that he still was a while away. The anticipation kept building week after week and at first, there was the assumption that since Balor lost as The Demon at NXT Takeover: The End, it was truly the end of his NXT run…until it wasn’t.
However, he would only have one match before he finally left – against NXT’s hottest new star Shinsuke Nakamura. It took the second coming of the brand split for fans to finally hear what they wanted. And to everyone’s shock, Finn Balor was selected as the final first-round draft pick for RAW, ahead of big names such as John Cena, Roman Reigns and even Brock Lesnar.
This instantly put him in a top position and his debut would come on the RAW after Battleground – where the World title picture for both brands would be clear. The announcement of the Universal Championship was made and a small 3-match tournament began to determine Seth Rollins‘ SummerSlam opponent.
Balor could not have asked for a better debut as he won a Fatal-4-Way and then became only the second man in WWE history to pin Roman Reigns clean in a singles match (and fourth overall). It instantly shot him up to RAW’s top SummerSlam bout and it became clear that WWE intended to push him right off the bat.
The timing made sense because they needed a fresh change and a top babyface, with Roman Reigns being kept away from the main event scene temporarily. That month turned out to be a very smooth one for Finn Balor, as he introduced the Demon King to the larger audience and got momentum behind him for SummerSlam.
And so the stage was set for the two former NXT Champions to go head-to-head to earn the right to become the first-ever WWE Universal Champion. In what turned out to be a low-key and underrated SummerSlam classic, Finn Balor would beat The Architect to earn the crown. There were just two problems with the match – One, the crowd would not keep quiet about their displeasure with regards to the look of the Universal Championship. Two, Finn Balor ended up suffering a shoulder injury during the match after a botched buckle bomb to the barricade.
He pulled through and finished the match anyway, but images leaked on the internet of Balor having a cast on him and the following day, the biggest concern had turned into reality – he suffered an injury and had to vacate the Universal Championship just one night after winning it. It turned out to be a rather bitter moment, but fans were hopeful of an incredible comeback and that he would jump right back to where he was when he did return (how wrong we all turned out to be).
The rumors at the time were that Finn Balor was all set to begin a program against Kevin Owens for the title. It probably meant that he would have held on to the title for a while and he may have been the go-to guy for WWE to be a top babyface. Although it’s hard to imagine them displacing Roman Reigns in that role at the time, it certainly would have been an experiment worth seeing.
It likely would have altered the course of the lineage and it also probably would have meant that Goldberg vs Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 33 would be a regular singles match. However, the title ended up going to Kevin Owens 8 days after SummerSlam and he held onto it for a while before unceremoniously dropping the title to Goldberg in 22 seconds.
That would eventually lead to the man who would dominate the Universal Championship for a good part of two years – Brock Lesnar. He would go on to have the longest world title reign in modern WWE history and one that fans weren’t really big fans of. Sure, we did get to see some great matches in the process, but their endgame was very clear and fans got further frustrated when his reign didn’t end as expected a year later at WrestleMania 34.
Unfortunately, the Roman Reigns tragedy led to the title going right back to Lesnar, who eventually dropped it to Seth Rollins at WrestleMania 35 before winning it a record third time in late July. Thankfully, the last reign would hardly last a month as Rollins went over The Beast Incarnate clean as a whistle.
Ultimately, the title is in the right place, but one can only ponder as to what could have been with the title. Would Finn Balor have made the cut as a top babyface? Would they eventually make him put over Roman Reigns? All we can do is speculate and wonder.