There are a lot of labels that get tossed around in WWE – face, heel, monster, jobber, main eventer, franchise, architect – but there is none more damaging to the potential of a WWE superstar than injury-prone. Littered throughout WWE history are guys and gals who management and/or fans had high hopes for whose careers never met our expectations, for some of them the reason was that very same label. Now, the most recent definitive example of this, in my humble opinion, is Dolph Ziggler. I fear, however, that we may be seeing the early stages of one of WWE’s brightest potential stars seeing his career shift due to that pesky label. I hate to say it, but Finn Balor I’m looking at you. But before we get to Finn, let’s take a look at the history of injury-prone wrestlers and how it changed their career paths.
Ok, let’s just get the most painful one out of the way. Now, some may say that Daniel Bryan wasn’t injury-prone, just that he had two really bad injuries or sets of injuries that ended his career. This is partially true. The first injury, the neck injury after Wrestlemania 30 could have been written off as bad luck. Other wrestlers have returned from neck injuries in the past – Stone Cold Steve Austin is one in particular that comes to mind. He was likewise injured at a critical point in his career but was able to get back in the ring and continue his career, which was shortened by the injury to be fair. For Daniel Bryan, however, it was the concussion following Wrestlemania 31, and the results of the tests after that concussion that led to the end of his in-ring career. For Bryan it was the culmination of a career filled with concussions which led to the fear of potentially catastrophic future injuries and ultimately his transition from active wrestler to Smackdown Live General Manager. And, even though he has flourished in that role, the WWE universe mourns the loss of potential feuds like Bryan vs AJ Styles, or Bryan vs KO, or Bryan vs Shinsuke Nakamura. One more thing on D-Bry, it’s his history of concussions specifically that has led WWE to ignore the independent test results that have essentially cleared Bryan for active competition again. They don’t want the potential of every future Daniel Bryan match to be one that could end with him seriously injured, or worse dead, in a WWE ring.
Ok, so this may be an unfamiliar name for some, but for avid followers of NXT, WWE’s developmental show, Hideo Itami is another in a long line of careers either shortened, or headed nowhere due to a poor injury history. Let’s rewind to 2014. Hideo Itami debuted as one of the most highly touted NXT signings ever. This was pre-Samoa Joe, Shinsuke Nakamura, Finn Balor etc. At the time, he was one of the best Japanese wrestlers and just about the biggest name WWE could sign. Fast forward to May 2015 when Itami suffered a nasty shoulder injury. This injury was so devastating that it kept Itami out for over a year. We all know what happened in between that year – NXT experienced a boom in talent acquisition and its Takeover events became near legendary and even outshined their main roster counterpart events on more than one occasion. The explosion of star power from guys like Sami Zayn, Shinsuke, Kevin Owens and others left Itami a mere afterthought. He returned in June of 2016 but suffered another injury just a few months later, this time less severe, but it didn’t matter. Since that time NXT has seen the debut of guys like Bobby Roode and the return of former WWE talent like Kassius Ohno and Drew McIntyre and Hideo seems like more and more of an afterthought. It’s gotten to the point now where the rumor mill is buzzing that Itami wants to get out as soon as he is able to. Imagine a world where we got a triple threat of Itami vs. Finn vs. Shinsuke for the NXT championship. Sadly it is unlikely that Itami makes it to the main roster before his time with WWE is over.
Mr. Kennedy… Kennedy
Sorry, I had to, for old time’s sake. Anyone else remember Mr. Kennedy? (Ok, the five of you can put your hands down.) I remember Ken Kennedy well. From the old school mic that used to descend from the ceiling to the Kennedy… Kennedy schtick. Mr. Kennedy was entertaining. He was a loudmouth and someone who seemed destined for the main event from very early on in his career. He arrived on the scene guns blazing in 2005 and you could see the dollar signs in Vince’s eyes when he looked at him. The first speed bump came near the end of 2005 when Kennedy suffered a lat tear that kept him out of action for six months. After about a year back Kennedy won Money in the Bank and was the planned reveal for who was Vince McMahon’s illegitimate son. Everything was coming up black for Kennedy until a thought-to-be torn triceps injury that would have potentially kept him out for at least six months forced WWE’s hands into having Kennedy lose the MITB briefcase to Edge. Even after it was revealed that the injury wasn’t a tear and he wouldn’t be out for any extended time, the powers that be in WWE were over Kennedy and any push he was slated to get was done. One more separated shoulder and a botched move on Randy Orton later and Kennedy was out of WWE and in TNA as Mr. Anderson… Anderson. Don’t worry, it’s not like injuries hampered him there as well…. oh, they did him in there too huh, tough luck.
If there was every anyone who personified greatness cut short by injury, it’s Dolph Ziggler. Ziggler who started as Nicky in the Spirit Squad, a male cheerleader group who was dumped in a box marked “Return to OVW’ by DX, managed to overcome that hurdle and eventually make the main roster and begin a respectable career. He started to gain a reputation for selling in his matches and began to climb the brass rings. He captured a couple of Intercontinental and United States championships and even a less than an hour long reign with the World Heavyweight Championship as he continued to shine and gain popularity. By 2013 WWE was ready to give Dolph a run with one of the top titles in the company. Dolph won the Money in the Bank match in 2012 and successfully cashed in on Del Rio on the post-Wrestlemania Raw in 2013. It seemed at this stage that WWE was in complete support of Dolph, but one concussion at a live taping and a month off of TV later, Dolph lost the World Heavyweight Championship to Del Rio. Although Dolph has won a few more secondary titles since then, it seems his potential as a world champion has come and gone. Now, Dolph wasn’t known to have an injury history of any note and maybe part of his descent from legitimate main eventer to main event gatekeeper is partially because he wasn’t willing to change his style – rumor is some folks in the back didn’t like the way Dolph sold – but nonetheless, barring that concussion, the last four years of Dolph’s career may have looked a little different. No one expected Dolph to take the WWE championship off of Dean Ambrose last year in their feud. He gets used as a gatekeeper because he was once on the verge of a main event push, he is a former world champion and because, oddly enough, his ability to sell makes him the perfect foil for up an coming main event stars – AJ Styles last year, Shinsuke Nakamura this year. Once again, what could have been.
One More Thing
Before we get to Finn… Some of you will look at this list and see that most of these guys had one or two injuries at most and be confused as to why WWE did such a major shift in direction for these while other, more injured wrestlers, were allowed multiple world championship reigns. When you think of guys like Mick Foley – concussions, missing teeth, broken cheekbone, broken jaw, herniated discs etc; guys like HHH – torn quads, knee, biceps, neck etc.; guys like Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold, Batista. Kevin Nash and others – there are a laundry list of wrestlers who had more injuries and/or more significant injuries than all of the guys listed above but were still able to excel and win championships – before and after their injuries. So what is it about the guys listed here, there isn’t really any consistent thread. You can say that WWE was never really fully supportive of Dolph and Bryan. But you can’t say the same for Itami and Kennedy – both of those guys were being set up to be stars. You can’t say that attitude was the problem across the board either. Bryan and Itami in particular never seemed to be the egotistical or self-absorbed type, while Dolph has had his share of non-injury screwups and Kennedy’s attitude soured after the not-so-torn biceps situation. So maybe you can say that in any case there are a confluence of circumstances that lead to a guy being deemed not fit for future pushes but the one consistent thread among the four guys above is injuries.
Ok, this may be a bit premature, but I am fearful that Finn is on the path to being another what if he hadn’t gotten injured guy in WWE. So let’s start with the obvious, Finn is not a young rookie. When Finn joined WWE’s NXT developmental brand in 2014 he was already 33. Don’t freak out, that’s not old, but this also wasn’t Finn’s first wrestling experience. Beginning his career at the tender age of 18, Finn at the time of his NXT debut would have already had fifteen years of bumps on his body. Considering that and the fact that he carried the NXT brand on his back for a solid two years Finn’s body has been through a lot.
So in some ways, it was no surprise that less than a month after his main roster debut in 2016 and in the match that would see him capture his first main roster championship and become the first Universal Champion, Finn jacked up his shoulder. Now, there are good and bad times to get injured. In WWE, the worst time to get injured is right when the company seems primed to strap a rocket to your back and blast you off into superstardom – see Daniel Bryan above. In the middle of a nothing feud with another superstar to kill time, not really a big deal getting injured then. So we fast forward to Finn’s return just after Wrestlemania this year. Everyone is excited. Finn is back and ready to go. But then on April 10th in just his second match back on Raw Finn appears to suffer a concussion. Now, we don’t know definitively if he did or didn’t, but if you look at this man’s face below, that rug burn seems to indicate he, in Friday terms, “got knocked the fuck out.” Maybe he was concussed, maybe he wasn’t. We don’t know, but I’m sure WWE did.
In the immediate aftermath there doesn’t seem to be any changes to what’s happening with Finn. He was kept in and around the Universal Title picture at first. He was involved in the Fatal Five-Way to determine the number one contender at June’s Extreme Rules pay-per-view. In fact, there was a lot of talk that he might be the winner going into that match. Then, after losing, Finn just kind of disappeared for a while. Now, when you have the stature of being the first wrestler to hold a world championship and one of the most highly touted NJPW wrestlers to join WWE and the man who carried NXT for two years, it’s fishy that WWE has nothing for you to do for a solid five to six weeks. Finn disappeared for two weeks after Extreme Rules with no explanation. Then upon his return he fought Bo Dallas, tagged with the Hardy Boyz and then fought Cesaro and then Karl Anderson for a four-week stretch before finally entering a “program” with Elias Samson. Even the Samson feud now seems to have just been a holdover to get back to the Finn vs Bray feud.
At this stage, this most likely means that we are getting Demon Finn vs Bray at SummerSlam, which on the surface seems like it could be the relaunch of Finn into the main event scene. But what if it’s just a way to give him something to do that looks meaningful but really isn’t. I mean, let’s be real here, what is the benefit of winning a feud against Bray at this stage of Bray’s career? There was another report just this past weekend that Finn banged up the previously injured shoulder a bit at a recent house show. Maybe WWE has already decided that Finn, due to the pre-WWE miles and the amount of energy expended in his NXT day, is injury-prone and not worth the risk of a main event push. It doesn’t help that outside of Kennedy, that list above is full of smaller guys, who are already generally at a disadvantage in Vince’s WWE. So while some fans wait around assuming that Finn’s push will resume at some point in the next few months, some of us are looking at the monster main event scene – Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns, Samoa Joe and Braun Strowman – wondering where the hell would Finn fit in and if there is even a place for a “little guy” in the Universal title picture right now.
Oh and the comparison for Finn with regards to a current guy who got injured in the midst of a major push – Seth Rollins, who won the WWE title in his first opportunity back after being injured and has remained in or around the main event scene ever since. He is the exception – like Stone Cold and HHH before him – that proves the rule.
So I end where I began, there are a lot of labels that get tossed around in pro wrestling and in WWE and if that injury-prone label has now been attached to Finn Bálor’s name, we may have already seen the best that is WWE career may ever have to offer. Let’s all hope against hope that this is not the case.