Development to Destiny – From NXT to the WWE Main Roster – War Raiders and Finn Balor.

Development to Destiny – From NXT to the WWE Main Roster – War Raiders and Finn Balor.

Credit: WWE

This is the latest in a series of articles looking at the NXT wrestlers who have been ‘promoted’ from NXT to either WWE Raw or Smackdown, and whether those moves were actually a positive thing for the individual or team in question.

For the introduction to this series please go to chopskicksandnearfalls.com/from-nxt-to-the-wwe-main-roster-when-is-a-promotion-not-a-promotion

For the most recent article about Shinsuke Nakamura, Carmella and Tyler Breeze seek out https://chopskicksandnearfalls.com/development-to-destiny-from-nxt-to-the-wwe-main-roster-shinsuke-nakamura-carmella-tyler-breeze

For Elias, The Revival and Ember Moon head to https://chopskicksandnearfalls.com/development-to-destiny-from-nxt-to-the-wwe-main-roster-elias-the-revival-ember-moon

For Aleister Black, Emma and Lacey Evans pop over to https://chopskicksandnearfalls.com/from-nxt-to-the-wwe-main-roster-when-is-a-promotion-not-a-promotion-aleister-black-emma-lacey-evans

And now….

War Raiders

NXT – The War Raiders, as they were then known, were only in NXT for just over a year, but in that time established themselves as the most dominant team in the brand’s history….a description which still applies to this day. Arriving with a well-earned reputation from their time as War Machine, Rowe and Hanson didn’t take long to stamp their beardly authority on the tag team division.

Starting by dispatching Heavy Machinery, on top of some beautiful squashes of some local ham-and-eggers, by the time The War Raiders ran all over ‘The Mighty’, it was clear they were already being targeted at the tag-team belts in NXT.

And indeed in only their 6th match on the brand they got that shot against the previously unstoppable Undisputed Era. Unfortunately for our soon to be Viking friends, the match saw the return of Bobby Fish to interfere (if hitting someone with a chair can be called interference) causing the disqualification win for the Raiders, but no changing of titles.

This was only a small dent in the journey for Hanson and Rowe though, and led to their involvement in NXT’s second WarGames match at NXT WarGames II. They joined Ricochet and Pete Dunne to face all four of the Undisputed Era in a match that, whilst it perhaps didn’t live up to the first WarGames encounter, still packed a huge punch in terms of brutality, spots and entertainment. Plus it signalled yet another win for Hanson and Rowe.

From there they got their rematch with Undisputed Era at TakeOver Phoenix, and in a match that can only be described as an absolute banger, they wrested the titles from Adam Cole’s gaggle of gits. Genuinely, if you haven’t seen this match before, it’s well worth a watch.

Sadly for NXT fans, these sorts of performances had already put the Raiders on the radar of the main roster, and that meant only 4 more appearances in the black and gold brand. Fortunately, one of those performances was the spectacular victory over surprising Dusty Cup winners Ricochet and Aleister Black. The chemistry between these four was off the charts and the show of respect at the end from all four men was heartening.

There was a brief contratemp with the Street Profits before the Raiders left NXT, but annoyingly this was interrupted by the Forgotten Sons before it really got going. Never mind…surely they’d do that contest justice on the main roster?!

Credit: WWE

Main Roster – Right….let’s get the huge stupid WWE shaped elephant in this particular room out of the way. The Viking Experience. I mean….in a company that has seen many many stupid rebrandings over the years, this was arguably one of Vince’s worst ever decisions. Having left NXT as dominant and popular tag warriors, this name change made Erik and Ivar (yes those names changed as well) sound like an exhibition at the British Museum.

Yes WWE did row back by changing the name to Viking Raiders, but unfortunately the damage was done. Whatever Vince and co might think, wrestling fans are not stupid and they don’t forget this sort of bilge. From day one on the main roster, the War Raiders had a huge comedy millstone tied around their necks, and to be honest they’ve never really been able to shake it off.

This cack-handed introduction was backed up with some woeful booking in their first few months. We saw Erik and Ivar run through a whole load of jobbers, which was entertaining in itself, but we were denied any sort of unbeaten run as they lost to the New Day (albeit by DQ) in just their 6th match on Raw.

They lacked any sort of direction in their opening few months, and only really gained any sort of storyline when they entered a brief feud with the OC which they sort of won, but with neither team really gaining much from the whole thing.

Fortunately, WWE seemed to realise that the Raiders deserved big things, and so we saw them win the Raw Tag Titles from the terrible tag team of Dolph Ziggler and Robert Roode. Even this seeming push however was immediately undone as two weeks later they lost to Gallows and Anderson in the insanely stupid and stultifyingly boring ‘tag team turmoil’ match at WWE’s Saudi blood money show.

Indeed in their three months as tag champions, the Viking Raiders lost 4 times and were relegated to the pre-show at Survivor Series 2019, with their only main PPV appearance as champions coming in a very poor match with Gallows and Anderson at TLC 2019….a match that ended in a double count-out.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, early in 2020, they lost the titles to Seth Rollins and Murphy, ending what had been a limp and uninspiring title reign.

For the next couple of months the Vikings were tangentially involved in a feud including Rollins’ new gang and Team Kevin Owens, which promised the mouth-watering match between the Raiders and AOP, but delivered practically nothing. Having ended on the losing side in that feud however, it looked like me might finally get the proper contest between the Raiders and the Street Profits, now tag champions themselves. Erik and Ivar beat Ford and Dawkins in a non-title match and it seemed like we were destined for a brilliant match between the two teams.

What we got instead was weeks of vignettes including the two teams facing each other in everything other than a bloody wrestling match. We got basketball, axe-throwing and mini-golf (and probably some other nonsense that I’ve forgotten) laced with ‘hilarious’ little snippets such as turkey legs and a woman who found Ivar attractive in each video. At one point the teams had to team up to fight Akira Tozawa and some ninjas. It really was the sort of thing that only Vince McMahon could find funny, and made the once fearsome War Machine look like a complete joke.

And at the end of all this? They simply lost to the Street Profits in a bang-average match on Raw. Since then they’ve been piddling around doing very little at all apart from losing, and perhaps to highlight how far they’ve dropped down the card, now seem to be heavily involved in the half-baked ‘Raw Underground’ sections of the show.

Conclusion – As War Machine they were fantastic. As The War Raiders they were fearsome. As the Viking Experience they were laughed out of the room. And as the Viking Raiders they’ve not really recovered from that initial embarrassment, largely due to the fact that Vince clearly sees them as a comedy team rather than anything to do with actual wrestling. They will continue to have their place on the main roster, and to their credit they seem to be okay at the comedy element. But it is now impossible to take them seriously as a legitimate tag team, and that seems like a real shame considering how good they were. Definitely victims rather than benefactors of the ‘promotion’ from NXT.

Finn Balor

NXT – Very few people have arrived in NXT with as much fanfare as the former Prince Devitt, and if you haven’t seen his work in New Japan I implore you to do so to see why he was so justifiably hyped on his arrival.

Unlike similar high profile NXT arrivals though, Balor was actually eased into the brand rather than immediately catapulted to the top, as he started life in black and gold in a tag team with Hideo Itami, feuding with the Ascension. During this run however we did get the debut of the incredible ‘Demon’ character that would come to define Balor in his time on NXT and beyond.

A few months after his arrival though it was clear that Finn was going to be presented as a big deal, as he won a number one contender’s tournament, including an excellent final against Adrian Neville at TakeOver The Rivals, to set up a title match with new champion Kevin Owens.

In a slightly peculiar decision this seeming dream match was placed on the normal weekly show, and in an even more bizarre piece of booking, Balor lost to Owens. This lead to a slightly wayward few months in which Balor won another number one contender’s match, this time against Tyler Breeze, but then didn’t have a lot else to do as he battled the likes of Rhyno and Tye Dillinger.

Even when Balor finally did scale the mountain to win the NXT Title it was all a bit strange. Presumably as a way to capitalise on his popularity in Japan, Balor beat Owens for the belt at WWE’s ‘Beast in the East’ event in Tokyo, a show which seemingly went largely unnoticed in the USA. Fortunately we did finally get to see Balor v Owens at TakeOver Brooklyn and their ladder match, won by the Demon, was the excellent end to the lengthy crowning of Finn as champ.

As champion, Balor’s first run was, slightly weirdly, winning the Dusty Cup in a formidable team with Samoa Joe. The point of this was soon made clear though as Joe turned on Balor leading to a near six month feud between the two that never quite reached the glorious heights that many expected.

Don’t get me wrong the two did have some fun matches, but whether it was the repetition of the match that sapped the feud a bit or not, something never quite clicked. Partly this was due to the fact that Balor had seemingly conclusively won the feud, beating Joe at both TakeOver London and TakeOver Dallas, and was also partly due to the fact that when Joe finally did take the crown from Balor, it happened on a house show. 

The end of this feud came inside a steel cage at TakeOver: The End, in another match that most would describe as good, but not great. Having lost the belt, Finn was now ready to move onto bigger things, but not before delivering a low-key banger with Shinsuke Nakamura in his final match for NXT.

Credit: WWE

Main Roster – Where Balor was eased into things on NXT, this was certainly not the case on his promotion to the main roster. On his first night on Raw, Balor defeated Rusev, Cesaro and Kevin Owens in a four way match, before felling the ‘Big Dog’ Roman Reigns himself, to win the right to fight for the Universal Championship against Seth Rollins at Summerslam 2016. 

Then, at the biggest party of the Summer, Balor became the first ever Universal Champion by defeating Rollins. It should have been the start of Balor’s main roster legacy, but unfortunately during the match Balor suffered a shoulder injury, forcing him to relinquish the title without having a single chance to defend it.

Whether it’s because Vince McMahon hates people getting injured, or whether it was just because the creative team forgot about him, Finn never really got back to the heights he achieved in his first month on Raw. His TV return at the Raw after Wrestlemania seemed to signify he was back in the big time, but matches with Jinder Mahal and Curt Hawkins, together with losing efforts in both Universal Title and Intercontinental Title number one contender matches suggested the bloom was off the rose for Balor on the main roster.

A tepid few weeks of interaction with Elias followed, after which we got the feud that many will see as one of the more laughable in WWE history. What could have been a thrilling story between the fantastical Bray Wyatt and the Demon Finn Balor turned into a farce as Balor was covered in red goop for no reason, the two went 50-50 because that’s what WWE do, and all of this was to build to a version of the Demon that looked like a pumpkin, against ‘Sister Abigail’….which was Bray Wyatt in a veil putting on a woman’s voice. It was truly awful stuff and fortunately for both men, the end to this ‘feud’ had to be cancelled when Wyatt pulled out of TLC 2017 with illness, leading to Balor facing AJ Styles instead in what was probably Balor’s best match on the main roster.

After this disaster, Balor’s 2018 wasn’t much better. Despite a promising rekindling of his team with Gallows and Anderson, and an impressive near hour-long effort in the Royal Rumble, the year mainly saw Balor losing again and again. He failed in the Elimination Chamber. He failed in the Money in the Bank match. And he failed on two occasions to win the Intercontinental Title. Even when WWE finally gave Balor the opportunity to win back the Universal Title that he never lost, he once again failed to get the victory against Roman Reigns.

Brief and forgettable feuds with both Baron Corbin and Drew Mcintyre followed before Balor surprisingly won the opportunity to challenge Brock Lesnar for the Universal Title at the 2019 Royal Rumble. Balor, of course, was defeated but did at least look back to his old self in what was a good Goliath smashing David match.

The next few months saw Balor involved in the Intercontinental Title scene, but rather than Balor winning this belt being the catalyst for a push for both him and the much dumped-on title, instead he traded wins and losses with Bobby Lashley so much that it hardly seemed important at all. By the time Balor lost the belt to Nakamura, in another match that promised much and delivered little, it was easy to forget that he has the Intercontinental Champion at all.

Balor’s final action on the main roster was to be fed to the ‘Fiend’ Bray Wyatt and that was that for Balor as he returned to NXT, where he currently finds himself suffering from mixed booking in a very confused title landscape.

Conclusion – A lot of people seem to think quite fondly of Finn Balor’s run on the main roster, but for me it was pretty much a never-ending series of disasters once his injury robbed him of the Universal Championship. Who knows where he would be now if it wasn’t for that unfortunate turn of events, but the fact remains that he never again got back to the top of the card in WWE and the reason that he’s currently back on NXT is that he simply wasn’t getting anywhere under the creative watch of Vince and Co. Hopefully his current run in NXT leads back to him as NXT champ and a possible clash between a revitalised Demon and Karrion Kross, but his tenure on the main roster makes it feel as if there is a long long way back for Finn Balor.

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