Kevin Owens' Universal championship victory on Raw was shocking for a great many reasons. First and foremost, Triple H's return came out of nowhere, which was surprising in and of itself. The fact that he was the facilitator of Owens' victory, and all of the fallout that's soon to come from that outcome, further cemented its position as one of the most surprising moments the WWE has produced in recent memory.
Equally surprising is the fact that just eight days earlier he was nowhere near the Universal championship. At SummerSlam, it was Finn Bálor who defeated Seth Rollins to become the inaugural champion. Owens only received his chance to compete for the title because Bálor suffered a severe shoulder injury during the match, including a torn labrum and several other complications which required surgery and forced Bálor to relinquish the title.
Since Owens and Bálor signed WWE contracts and began their runs in NXT in 2014, their fates have intertwined over and over again -- and, if all goes according to plan, it seems likely that they'll cross paths again, sooner rather than later.
- Finn Bálor (@FinnBalor) Aug. 30, 2016
Bálor signed in May 2014 and debuted in late September, with Owens signing in August and first appearing at NXT TakeOver: R Evolution in December. Both men were high-profile independent stars, and it was clear from the beginning that both would soon find themselves in the NXT title picture.
Owens got there first, defeating Sami Zayn for the NXT championship after a brutal series of attacks and a match that ended by referee stoppage. Bálor was the first person to challenge Owens for the title, and on the March 25, 2015, episode of NXT, they fought for the first time in the WWE. Owens picked up the victory and moved on from Bálor for a time, returning to his conflict with Zayn and another debuting independent superstar, Samoa Joe.
It may come as a surprise to some fans, but before their WWE debuts, despite a lengthy history of traveling far and wide in the world of independent wrestling, Owens (formerly known by his real name, Kevin Steen) and Bálor (who went by both his real name, Fergal Devitt, and Prince Devitt) had never faced off before.
They followed a similar path, getting their names recognized through hard work and sheer determination. They were also in a similar position within the wrestling world -- strong performers in almost every sense of the word in this business, but neither exactly fitting the previous mold of what a WWE superstar should be.
Owens officially began his wrestling career at the age of 16 (his first professional wrestling match was, in fact, on his 16th birthday) in 2000. He developed a strong following among wrestling fans and achieved great success with his vicious style and incredible maneuverability as a big man as he shifted between Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and Combat Zone Wrestling, among many other companies. He won both the ROH world championship and the world tag team championships (with Zayn, who portrayed the masked wrestler El Generico at the time) during that time, and he was also a three-time winner of both the PWG world championship and world tag team championships.
Bálor, who also began his career in 2000 at the age of 18, made his name overseas in Japan performing for New Japan Pro Wrestling. On top of three IWGP junior heavyweight championship reigns, six IWGP junior heavyweight tag title reigns and two Best of Super Juniors tournament wins, Bálor's popularity exploded as a founding member and eventual leader of the incredibly popular stable known as the Bullet Club in New Japan.
Once within the confines of NXT, it didn't take long for the pair to find common ground and, ultimately, friendship.
- Finn Bálor (@FinnBalor) Aug. 31, 2016
It was inevitable that their paths would cross again in the ring before too long, and their rivalry caught fire again leading up to the first major NXT match outside of the confines of NXT's Full Sail Arena home -- as a major part of the WWE Network Beast in the East in Tokyo, Japan. In front of a Japanese audience that was quite familiar with Bálor, and one that Owens quickly inspired to hate him, Bálor took the first major step of his career and defeated Owens to become NXT champion.
They'd go on to headline NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn, another major milestone in that brand's history, as their feud culminated with a ladder match main event in which Bálor retained the title.
Owens and Bálor departed at this point, with Owens off to the main roster, a massive rivalry with John Cena and the Intercontinental championship. Bálor all but carried the NXT brand for the next year during his record-setting 292-day reign as champion. He'd ultimately lose the title to Samoa Joe, and helped usher in a new era of NXT in a match with his old friend Shinsuke Nakamura, but eventually it was clear he had little left to accomplish there.
With Bálor's selection in the WWE brand separation draft, he was once again in the same place as Owens, and it didn't take long for their paths to cross once again. With Raw anxious to crown a world champion of their own, a series of matches to determine who would face Rollins for the Universal championship at SummerSlam was scheduled for a single night on Raw.
Bálor took on Owens, Rusev and Cesaro in a four-way match to kick off the night, and the crowd got behind what turned into a tremendous showdown between four guys who should play a big part in the company's future. In the closing stages of the match, Bálor hit Owens with his patented "Sling Blade" slam, which sent Owens out of the ring, and set Rusev up to hit his finisher, the "Coup de Grace." He covered Rusev for the three-count as Owens made an ultimately futile dive to try to stop it -- forming yet another layer to their ongoing story.
Bálor went on to beat Rollins, win the title and give it up in a 24-hour stretch -- setting up Owens, his friend, to make another major step in his own career.
In his impassioned speech before he handed the Universal championship to Mick Foley, Bálor left us with another piece of foreshadowing that helps set the stage for the biggest showdown between himself and Owens to date down the road.
"Rest assured that when I am healthy, and when I am fit and when I am ready, I will be back and this title is the first thing that I'm coming for," he said.
While it will be six months, or possibly more, before Bálor makes his return, these two friends should be poised to once again square off as enemies and thrill WWE viewers around the world.
- Kevin Owens (@FightOwensFight) Aug. 30, 2016