IT STARTED AT the age of “about four or five”.
A young Fergal Devitt would spend afternoons watching wrestling with his grandfather.
The Bray native worshipped stars such as The Ultimate Warrior and Shawn Michaels, but he didn’t dare dream that he would be emulating their incredible feats of athleticism some day.
“Growing up in Bray, being 5 foot 11 and 180 pounds, you never really think you’re going to work for WWE,” he tells TheScore.ie.
Indeed, save for the occasional exception, wrestling was scarcely a viable career option for an Irish person until recently.
With no wrestling schools set up in his country at the time, as a youngster Devitt had to make do with competing in sports such as soccer and Gaelic football, before eventually getting the chance to pursue his dream aged 18.
Once he finished school, he travelled to Kent in England and joined the Hammerlock wrestling company, training under the late Andre Baker. His subsequent exploits would later lead him to be considered the school’s most successful graduate.
And after six years spent honing his catch-as-catch-can style of wrestling, Devitt began what would turn out to be an eight-year career in Japan.
He eventually made the move to Asia for what was initially intended to be a three-month apprenticeship, but Devitt took little time to adapt to his surroundings, despite initially feeling somewhat intimidated by this unique experience.
“I was 24 when I arrived in Japan, which I guess is pretty young and it was a huge culture shock,” he recalls. “But at that age, I was willing to welcome any change in my life to pursue this dream. I was a proverbial sponge, willing to soak up the culture and all the different techniques that I’d learn.”
The young Irishman soon made his debut with New Japan Pro Wrestling in October 2006 under the moniker ‘Prince Devitt,’ primarily refraining from using his first name because the locals had such difficulty pronouncing it.
“After six weeks, they chucked me in the ring with El Samurai for my first match in Tokyo,” he adds.
Devitt seldom looked back from there, winning the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship three times and the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship six times among other notable achievements.
Consequently, when WWE eventually came calling earlier this year, it was hardly a surprise. Devitt had established himself as a world-renowned star, occasionally delighting crowds on tours of Europe and Mexico as well as in Japan, and garnering acclaim for his acrobatic style.
At the relatively late age of 33 (10 years older than his hero Shawn Michaels was when he began with the company), Devitt officially joined WWE last July and despite its ostensible inevitability, he is in no way blasé about becoming part of the world’s biggest and most famous wrestling promotion.
“It’s kind of like the culmination of 14 years hard work,” he says.
“At the beginning, I just wanted to have a wrestling match, and I did that in England. I just took it step by step and to be here in WWE — it’s a real feeling of achievement. But now that I’m here, I want to achieve more. So this is the beginning of a whole new chapter for me.
“It’s been an incredible experience so far and I’m just looking forward to seeing what happens in the future.
“WWE is the biggest wrestling company in the world, and it is that for a reason.”
Devitt has signed with NXT, WWE’s developmental branch, located in Winter Park, Florida and the Irish athlete has been highly impressed by the company in the short time that he’s spent there.
“The coaches here include Billy Gunn, Matt Bloom, Norman Smiley and Terry Taylor… So there’s just a wealth of experience to learn from.
“It’s really been like the floodgates have opened for me. The amount I’ve learned in the last three or four months here has surpassed what I learned in the past three or four years before that.”
Devitt wrestles under the ring name Finn Bálor, which is derived from the Irish mythological figures Fionn mac Cumhaill and Bálor, with the latter also meaning ‘Demon King’.
The up-and-coming star hopes to make the step up to an even bigger stage in the WWE eventually, but for now, he is more than content with his rate of progress.
“I take it each day as it comes. Our next pay-per-view is Thursday, and we have myself and Hideo Itami against the Ascension. My next target is that match really.”
(Devitt recently fulfilled a lifelong dream when he joined WWE)
And does the recent success of a smaller wrestlers, such as Daniel Bryan, give him confidence that his own relatively modest stature (by wrestlers’ standards) won’t necessarily be a hindrance career-wise ultimately?
“Obviously, I’m very happy for Daniel Bryan and his success, but I don’t tend to gauge my own success off what other people are doing. I make sure I’m taking care of myself first of all. The lads have all been great, I’m very proud of them, but I have to worry about myself.”
Speaking of his colleagues, he regularly keeps in touch with Sheamus and Rebecca Knox (aka Becky Lynch) — two other Irish wrestlers currently contracted to WWE — with the latter at one stage even training under Devitt in the early days.
Devitt even set up his own wrestling company – NWA Ireland — in the early 00s, however he rarely gets an opportunity to come home these days.
“The schedule here [is manic]. We’re working six days a week. We train in the ring three hours in the morning and an hour and a half in the weight room in the afternoon Monday to Friday. Then Thursday, Friday and Saturday we have shows in the evening where we’re competing. So there’s very little free time to get home, and at the moment, it’s all eyes on the prize, and training to build my career in NXT.”
Moreover, Devitt believes plenty of other Irish wrestlers can follow in his footsteps in the future.
“There’s a great wrestling company there called Wrestling.ie. They’re doing great things locally and a lot of my friends are still doing things there, so I wish them the best of success.
“There’s a lot [of good wrestlers] in Ireland, especially Dublin. There’s also a lot of talent in the UK and Scotland especially. I keep my eyes on the scene over there and look out for upcoming talent. And if I have an opportunity to help them, I won’t hesitate to do it.”
In addition to impressing with his in-ring ability — he was ranked as high as #30 in Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s top 500 singles wrestlers for 2014 — Devitt also comes across as a natural showman, which as any fan knows, is as vital an attribute as anything else to attain success in the business.
Devitt’s love of comic books often inspires his in-ring attire, as well as his tendency to apply face and bodypaint that can take hours to apply, though it’s “worth it,” he insists.
“What we do is sports entertainment,” Devitt adds. “And there’s a lot more to wrestling than the actual wrestling. There’s a lot of entertainment and we also do a lot of charity work with various communities in the [Florida] area.
“I love any sort of drama or comic book influence, whether or not it involves paint, which might get brought back in future.”
In addition to listing Adrian Neville as his favourite opponent, he says that his dream match would be against either John Cena or The Big Show, as he enjoys “David versus Goliath stories”.
Devitt revels in playing heels (bad guys) while also being comfortable as a babyface (good guy), yet the wrestling industry’s ongoing fixation with dark, good-versus-evil themes has unfortunately been mirrored by a series of real-life issues in recent years. WWE, in particular, has attracted criticism owing to a number of its athletes, most infamously Chris Benoit, dying prematurely.
Furthermore, most recently, the company was engaged in a high-profile controversy with former star and new UFC recruit CM Punk. Among other allegations, Punk suggested the company tried to force him to wrestle when he was injured, and then supposedly fired him for refusing to do so.
Another Irish athlete, Joey Cabray — who TheScore.ie recently spoke to — also says he became disillusioned during his brief stint in WWE, owing to the highly tense environment that he alleges existed.
With this in mind, has Devitt encountered any problems with the company? Can he see where the likes of Punk and Cabray were coming from?
“I’ve been treated outstandingly by WWE since communication opened [about a deal to sign] and since the day I came in the door,” he says. “They’ve shown me complete respect, and it’s been a dream come true to work with the company.
“I can’t speak for Joey. I am aware he was here at one stage, but my experience has been nothing but positive.”
And finally, given that the subject tends to dominate mainstream media’s coverage of wrestling, over the course of Devitt’s 14 years in the industry, has he ever come across any instances of steroid use, or the abuse of other drugs consistently linked with the business?
“Absolutely not,” he responds emphatically, adding: “WWE operates a Wellness Policy and that includes testing four to 12 times a year, so the athletes here are trained on the strictest of diets, and they’re the absolute top athletes, so that’s that.”