Bray Wyatt, a notorious player of mind games, often starts feuds with little motivation behind his actions. When Wyatt set his sights on Finn Balor, who had just been hit over the head with a guitar by Elias, it seemed like another one of his hollow call-outs. But on RAW two weeks later, his motivations became clear.
"It's as if your blind delusions have led you to believe you can just live vicariously through Finn Balor," Wyatt said to the Pittsburgh crowd. "You see this ordinary man Finn Balor and you see him do these extraordinary things. You watch him fall, and you feel the heat of his pain. And then you foolishly rejoice as he rises through the ashes, but not me man. Not me."
Wyatt is alluding to what he views as Balor's biggest weakness-- the injury that cost him seven months of his career at the most inopportune time. The showdown between Wyatt and Balor at SummerSlam will be Balor's first singles match at a pay-per-view since that night one year ago at Barclays Center in Brooklyn; a night when Balor became the first ever WWE Universal champion, only for his shoulder injury to derail that pursuit in less than 24 hours.
"Going back to wrestling at Barclays, yeah I got hurt there before, but I've got hurt in hundreds of venues all around the world for the last 16 or 17 years," Balor said in an interview with ESPN.com. "When you go out there and you're in the ring honestly half the time you forget what city you're even in because you're so focused on what you're doing and the task at hand. When you walk out of the building you go, 'Oh yeah, I'm in Brooklyn'."
Balor and Wyatt will meet after what has been a transitional and often tumultuous year for both performers.
Coincidentally, the former NXT standouts each won their first WWE world titles in the past year. Their runs at the top were short-lived, however, as their reigns lasted only 50 days combined. Jinder Mahal will have already almost doubled that number when he enters SummerSlam as WWE champion for 91 days. Balor's reign was cut short due to that catastrophic injury -- a torn pec tendon, biceps tendon, and damaged shoulder cartilage in his match against Seth Rollins at SummerSlam.
While Balor had injury to blame for his short run, Wyatt simply suffered from questionable booking. Wyatt's WWE championship victory at Elimination Chamber, which included pinfalls over John Cena and AJ Styles, was a crowning moment for a fan-favorite who was often viewed as under-utilized. Briefly, it seemed as if he might even headline WrestleMania 33 against Randy Orton, in the culmination of an eight-month long program that started two days after SummerSlam. Instead, Wyatt dropped the title to Orton in a 10-minute match at WrestleMania that was ruined by tacky ring projections that tried and failed to build up Wyatt's "supernatural powers".
Add in the disaster that was the "House of Horrors" match, and a lot of the good that had been done was wiped away.
But SummerSlam represents something special for both men involved. Balor and Wyatt have never faced off in a singles match in NXT or WWE, but a battle between the two is coming at the right time.
"Bray is someone that I've had an eye on for a long time," Balor said. "Obviously he was a standout at NXT and got drafted to SmackDown. We never actually crossed paths in NXT. He already left when I came in. It's kind of the first time I'm getting to know Bray on a personal level. Obviously there are a lot of similarities -- we both have a little bit of a darker side. But I think that's where it really ends, because I think what Bray stands for-- to strike fear into people's hearts and caring more about hurting people than actually wins and losses."
The differences between the two are most apparent in their demeanors. Balor is as proficient in the ring as anyone in WWE, but he is soft spoken and lets his actions speak for him as he maintains a cool aura around him. Conversely, Wyatt is at his best when wielding a microphone in the middle of the ring surrounded by his "fireflies". He's a great talker in an era where good talkers are few and far between. While Wyatt has a gift for talking, sometimes his words can confuse fans and even his opponents.
"[Wyatt] talks in riddles. He talks in tongues. Half the time I don't even understand it," Balor said. "I know he can talk a lot, that's for sure. You give him the mic, you're gonna have a hard time getting the mic back. He certainly likes to talk. Whether it makes any sense or not is up to the people listening."
Time and time again Wyatt's words have proven to be false as he finds himself on the losing end of major feuds. Balor blames Wyatt's losing ways on the flaws of his mentality. Despite his criticisms, Balor knows how dangerous Wyatt can be in the ring with his uncanny motor for his size.
"Regardless of what he says or for how long he says it, when the bell rings he is one of the absolute best out there for the last four years he's been at the top," Balor said. "He's been doing tremendous things. You can't ever discredit his ability in the ring. I think people forget how big Bray is. Bray is like 300, 320 pounds. He moves like he's 220. He's definitely a force to be reckoned with in the ring and it's something I'm going to have to adjust my style every day to help cope with it."
Balor gained experience fighting a similarly massive-yet-mobile opponent during his battles with Samoa Joe, the man who ended Balor's record 292-day NXT title reign.
"I always go back to my days in NXT and look at my feud with Samoa Joe. That was one of the best periods of growth for me," Balor said. "Joe really turned me from a wrestler, in the sense of I want to try and wrestle people, to having to fight Joe. There's a lot of similarities size-wise between Joe and Bray, so I'm able to apply a lot of those lessons facing Joe and bring those forward to face Bray."
The two promising stars face each other at critical stages of their careers. Despite the mess that was his departure from SmackDown in the "House of Horrors", Wyatt thrived in the buildup to Extreme Rules' Fatal 5-way main event. But at this point, it feels as though he's been lost in the shuffle on Raw's more star-laden roster.
Balor also faced an uphill battle as he took his time recovering from injury. He was nearly ready for Royal Rumble and got cleared by WrestleMania 33, but WWE opted to ease him back with house matches instead of rushing him onto the big stage. Balor returned the night after WrestleMania to a great reaction, but outside of a short-term feud to help legitimize the up-and-coming Elias, he has had little direction towards regaining his place in the main-event picture.
Wyatt vs. Balor has been a dream match on the mind of fans for years, but the matchup feels overshadowed by a stacked SummerSlam card. That won't stop Balor from trying to make the match main-event worthy.
"When you're on a pay-per-view of this caliber, you got to go out there to steal the show, no matter if you're the first match or the last match," Balor said. "It doesn't change your psyche going into the event like, 'Oh no, I'm in the middle of the card.' There's still the same amount of people watching. I've been in opening matches of pay-per-views. I've been in main events of pay-per-views and the same mentality is applied to both, and that is, to this point, this is the biggest match of my life and I'm gonna go out there and give it everything I have."
Something that could give this match the momentum it needs is the return of Balor's alter-ego-- The Demon King.
The Demon King has not made an appearance since SummerSlam a year ago. WWE has been wise to hold off on the moment, as Balor only wears the body paint on special occasions, and no moment since his return has felt important enough to bring out the demon. Balor hinted at the return of the Demon King on Raw two weeks ago when the sounds of a heartbeat pulsed and red lights flashed, which is usually a precursor to the demon's arrival. That brief tease of the demon was enough to create a buzz throughout the building. However, Balor isn't guaranteeing the return of the Demon King at SummerSlam.
"Maybe we will, maybe we won't [see the Demon King at SummerSlam,]" Balor said. "A lot of people are under the impression that Finn Balor relies on the Demon King, but that is certainly not the case. If it's required and emotions are running high going into SummerSlam then maybe the Demon King will show up. If not, we'll see the Demon King in the near future I'm sure."
Regardless of whether he's crawling up the entrance ramp covered in body paint or popping the collar of his leather jacket, Balor will return to Barclays for the first time since his career-altering injury. He's out to prove he still has more than enough to regain the momentum that was taken from him.
"My entire career changed for the better because I feel like I learned so much from that injury. I gained so much self-confidence in myself through the journey of recovery," Balor said. "I'm looking forward to going back there and proving a lot of people wrong showing that, 'Oh, maybe he's a bit worried about going back to the same venue, to the same show a year later,' but trust me-- the Finn Balor you're gonna see at this year's SummerSlam is gonna be 10 times the Finn Balor you saw at last year's SummerSlam."