'I was told I could never be a wrestler'
Ireland's latest world champion, Finn Balor, talks to MICHAEL VERNEY about his incredible journey
Published 28/08/2016 | 02:30
Ever since a young Fergal Devitt laid eyes on behemoths like The Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy on ITV World of Sport some 30 years ago, professional wrestling was the only one career he wanted to dedicate his life to.
Growing up in Bray is far removed from the glitz and glamour of the Vince McMahon-owned World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and the realm of sports entertainment. And at 5ft 11in and just shy of 200lbs, Devitt bares no resemblance to those giants of the squared circle.
But the 35-year-old, who wrestles under the name Finn Balor (Demon King in Gaelic), repeatedly refused to take no for an answer in his chosen craft and the culmination of his globetrotting 16-year career was reached in the early hours of Monday morning.
Brooklyn's Barclays Center erupted when Balor, whose family were in attendance at WWE's Summerslam pay-per-view, scored the surprise Universal Championship win over Seth Rollins despite only debuting one month ago in what is an unprecedented rise to wrestling's upper echelons.
Bray had expected to be crowning Katie Taylor as double Olympic champion over the weekend but instead they can now lay claim to another world champion with Devitt following in the footsteps of Dublin's Sheamus, real name Stephen Farrelly, to claim WWE's top prize.
He reached the pinnacle despite all the naysayers and no one could take it away from him. "Wrestling sucked me in at an early age and it never left me, I've always been enthralled with it, it's just something that was always inside me," Fergal says.
"I knew when I was four or five, this is something I love. When I was 16, a teacher asked me what did I want to be when I grow up? And I said 'Sir, I want to be a wrestler'. He looked me straight in the eye and said 'Devitt, you will never be a wrestler'."
A self-confessed "pass student at best", he had no grá to fill out the compulsory CAO form but eventually deviously complied by choosing courses which required 600 points like medicine, dentistry and science in full knowledge that no offer would come.
He flirted with art school but there was only one show in town. "There was no wrestling on the form, and why should I study something else except wrestling. It was a no-brainer, why would I waste my time on something I don't love?," he says.
Despite excelling at soccer with Wolfe Tone (his father Fintan played with Bray Wanderers) and Gaelic Football with Bray Emmets, even representing Dublin Schools in Croke Park, he couldn't ignore the lure of being a professional wrestler.
After completing his Leaving Certificate in St Brendan's College, he packed his bags for England to serve his apprenticeship before eventually progressing to New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he built up a cult following during his eight-year stay, and eventually to wrestling's Mecca, the WWE.
It's a long way from training in wrestling rings in a garage behind Lino's, Bray's local chipper, to the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, but Fergal has never forgotten his roots. He left Ireland 10 years ago, but returns at the drop of a hat - and even visited his alma mater last Christmas. There's no time to be homesick, but if the opportunity arises, he likes nothing more than the joys of Irish life such as breakfast with his mother, which he describes as a "beautiful thing".
"I got back in April for about four days. I had a little ankle injury which put me out for a week so they told me to rest up. They told me to rest up at about two o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon and I was on a flight home at about eight o'clock," the grappler says.
Old habits die hard, however, and the gym is his first port of call every day, no matter where in the world he is, with CSP Gym his choice when home on these shores. To wow audiences with an array of skills requires remarkable athleticism and dedication to reach peak performance night in, night out.
"You're not going to get to this level by turning up to the gym twice a week, you've got to go seven days a week. If you've two hours to spare, you find two hours to go to the gym. You flip over the bed in your hotel room and do push ups, it becomes a way of life.
"It doesn't become like a chore, it's not like 'I have to do this'. This is who I am and this is what I've gotta do. I always say to achieve anything you really want, all it takes is to give it absolutely everything you have. That isn't really a lot if you love something.
"The road is the hard part and the wrestling is the pleasure. It's basically like we're paying a tenant to be able to wrestle all over the world and to travel. I feel more at home when I'm in an airport than sitting at home. It's comforting to be on the road - and sure it's tough with sore bones sitting on an aeroplane all day, and jetting from town to town trying to find good food, but I find solitude and almost enjoy the torture."
Injury doesn't normally come into the equation given the risks they take on a daily basis, but heartbreakingly, Devitt required shoulder surgery after his euphoric success and wrestling fans were in mourning across the world on Monday night when he was forced to relinquish his title with four gruelling months on the sidelines facing him. But after toiling for nearly two decades to reach the big time, the smart money is on business as usual upon his return.
To be a performer and feel "the most ecstatic experience" possible makes it all worthwhile for him. He's living the dream in the wrestling spotlight experiencing a buzz "like no other".
You haven't heard the last of Finn Balor.