Believe it or not, I really wanted to like this match. In fact, I was pretty much certain that I would. Roman Reigns has been on the run of a lifetime with a renewed character that has brought a lot of life to his main event title matches this past year. Finn Bálor is in his first major main roster program after an NXT run characterized by a more solid and fundamental approach to his typical match style.
These two are also a proven pairing. Every time they’ve been pitted against each other in the last five years, they’ve produced very good matches. Just three weeks ago, they had an urgent and exciting television championship match that boded well for what they might be able to produce with more space and time.
Unfortunately, the WWE are masters at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
The Demon, a Smaller Fish
From the go, there’s a few things holding this match back. First and foremost is the fact that we’re constantly reminded that Roman Reigns has bigger fish to fry. Ever since SummerSlam, the obvious feud for Roman Reigns has been against Brock Lesnar and there’s simply no reason to believe that eventual match won’t be for the Universal Title. This makes the Bálor title defense feel like more of an afterthought—an entertaining detour on the road to The Beast.
In an attempt to sovle that first problem, the WWE simply dug themselves deeper into the hole. They brought back Finn Bálor’s Demon persona for this match. Typically, once Bálor has that body paint on, he’s booked to win. The problem with that is the company very clearly doesn’t want Bálor to win so the eventual loss will only serve to make fans of the persona angry.
There’s another problem with Bálor being asked to don the paint tonight. The Demon forces Bálor to strip away the grounded and snug mat work that made his recent NXT run feel so fresh. What’s left is Bálor working a simpler, if slightly more feral style complete with some babyface-hero-no-selling in the opening moments.
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That’s not a death sentence for the match though. These two have chemistry with each other and the extreme rules stipulation means that fun gimmickry can get involved. The Demon brings out a themed bundle of kendo sticks, he and Roman get into a classic tiff of tease and denial with a table spot, Roman works a control segment with a chair. Standard stuff but done well enough especially with Roman’s confident heel work playing off the crowd perfectly.
At one point, Roman tosses Bálor over the barricade into the crowd then the real comedy begins. Before following his challenger into the masses, Roman calmly demands that Paul Heyman hand him a face mask to wear. It’s a great bit. A small detail that adds a lot to a match by feeling fresh and unique while entirely obvious at the same time.
I can sit here and quibble about the implied politics of this moment. Roman, the heel champion, demanding a face mask before going out into the crowd can be read as an arrogant elitism of setting himself above the unwashed masses when in reality, anyone, anywhere in the world would be better off masking up especially in crowded public spaces. But really, I like Roman Reigns enough as a performer that seeing him mask up just made me laugh and cheer him on like a hero. Hell yeah, Roman, don’t get sick out there.
The crowd segment is fun. Bálor bumps onto the Kickoff show set and Roman bumps through a table nearby. They brawl back to the ring where Bálor takes another table bump and kicks out of some Roman Reigns signature offense. The peak of this comes from Bálor using the low blow kick out that Roman debuted against Jey Uso last year against the champion. It’s a nice little pay off to a long-term piece of heel offense from Roman.
The Usos get involved, of course. They break up a pinfall off a Coup de Grace and a big fight breaks out in the ringside area with more table bumps and the customary barricade Spear from Roman. All of this has a great energy to it, the kind of fun car crash main event that the WWE does so well at their best. A babyface fighting against the odds, lots of chaos and carnage. It’s good stuff, it really elevates this match to the boundaries of greatness.
Then it all falls apart.
The lights go red, never a good sign in the WWE. I didn’t like it when Kane did it, I didn’t like it when The Fiend did it, I don’t like it now. A heartbeat echoes on the sound system. Finn Bálor flops like a dying fish on the floor, each time slightly off beat as hearing the music over the crowd can’t be easy. We’re often reminded that wrestling isn’t ballet and it’s true. A ballerina would have been on beat.
There’s an odd, overly precise manner to Bálor’s physicality as he moves with the heartbeat. It feels so choreographed yet so stilted all at once that it renders the whole thing comedic. I’ve watched this clip of Bálor’s resurrection via music and lighting multiple times now and it just gets funnier every time.
Bálor does what he can with this awful set up. He grabs a chair and wails on Roman, he dropkicks Roman though a table. It’s a believable spike in violence and intensity if one ignores the blaring theme music and the garish red light. The WWE even pump ring entrance fog into the arena, obscuring the whole scenario from their HD cameras and probably the crowd in attendance. I don’t blame them for trying to hide this from us.
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Then the joke takes a turn for the cruel. Bálor climbs to the top rope, poised to hit the Coup de Grace when the top rope snaps. He crotches himself on the second turnbuckle, the lights come back on, and Roman Spears him for the victory. All that silliness and The Demon couldn’t even get the W. It’s almost too perfect a visualization for how the WWE cuts the legs out from under its talent.
So many questions arise from how this plays out. Nobody on screen is seen fiddling with the ropes so why did they break? It’s one thing if we’d seen Heyman or the Usos loosening the turnbuckles beforehand but this just happens to happen. Next, why is The Demon’s magical second wind so feeble? One fall from the top and the magic vanishes, leaving only Finn Bálor’s beaten body, ready to be folded in half by the Tribal Chief. The Demon’s next opponent can leave the steel chairs in the back, bring a banana peel and toss it on the canvas.
The finishing stretch to this match reads like a thought experiment on wrestling criticism. Just how much bad booking can you tack onto a good match until it’s ruined? Seventeen minutes of good to great action should be able to bear the burden of a bad finish. But I don’t think any wrestler should be faced with the task of carrying the weight of something so inventive in its awfulness. It’s not fair to them, they deserve better.
It’s a real shame. This match was great until it wasn’t.