NEW YORK - As Finn Balor sat in a green room overlooking Times Square after an appearance on "Good Morning America," his journey to this point, let alone the championship belt sitting in front of him, seemed like a dream.
"I still can't believe I'm a professional wrestler in the first place," he said in between sips of coffee. "That hasn't sunk in yet. I'm sure I'll look back when I'm 50 or 60, if I make it that far, and think about everything that's happened."
Balor, who wore a sling on his right arm before and after his "Good Morning America" interview, but didn't want to talk about the severity of the injury, found out that he would be on the show around midnight after his victory over Seth Rollins to win the inaugural WWE Universal title. SummerSlam was his first WWE pay-per-view and the culmination of a dream he had growing up as Fergal Devitt in the town of Bray in north County Wicklow, Ireland, which has population of 31,872.
"Everyone that watches wrestling as a kid dreams of being a wrestler for WWE," he said. "For me, coming from a small town in Ireland and being under six feet tall and 145 pounds as a kid, it wasn't a realistic dream. A lot of people tell you that you can't do things, but the message that should be taken from me being the first ever WWE Universal champion is for kids that are told that they can't do things they should say, 'No, I can do it. I can do whatever I want.'"
Balor's match against Seth Rollins was one of the most anticipated of SummerSlam, as was the introduction of the new WWE Universal championship. Many fans at the Barclays Center, however, booed and chanted disparaging remarks when the belt was revealed. Many fans online felt it was nothing more than a red version of the WWE World Championship or WWE Women's Championship. "The fans buy their tickets and they're entitled to their opinion," Balor said. "I wasn't aware of the chants when I was in the ring. I was focused on the task at hand. I have been made aware that there was a little bit of displeasure, but with anything new, there's always reluctance to accept. It's a red title. It's red leather as opposed to black. I don't see the big deal. I'm sure after a couple of weeks that it will be the norm that it's a red title. Raw is red, it's the red brand and the Demon is black and red, and now the championship is red."
Sitting across from Balor in the green room was WWE Women's champion, Charlotte, who defeated Sasha Banks at SummerSlam to claim the championship for a second time. Both Balor and Charlotte, who is the daughter of WWE Hall of Famer Ric Flair, initially made their marks as champions at NXT before being called up to the WWE's main roster. The evolution and growth of NXT from Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW), the company's developmental promotion in Tampa, Florida, can be seen across the roster today, as many of the champions and headline talent can trace their roots to FCW and NXT.
"I got the chance to see NXT evolve into what it's become today because I started at FCW in Tampa," Charlotte said. "Seth [Rollins] had just won the first ever NXT title when I got there and Paige was crowned the first ever NXT women's champion. This was before NXT was going on tour and we still had 20 people at shows. For me to watch where NXT is now and what it has grown into is amazing because I know it wasn't always like that. It's now its own brand. When we were at FCW, it was harder to get on the main roster. There were showcases maybe twice a year, and the producers would come and look at the talent and say they liked him or her because they fit a certain role. Now NXT talent is getting seen all the time and they have more opportunities now to join the roster and that makes a huge difference."
Balor came to NXT in 2014 after a successful run with New Japan Pro Wrestling and credits his two years with the company's developmental division with helping him get to where he is today.
"When I came to WWE, to be able to go to the NXT system and be able to be integrated that way was the best possible scenario for me," Balor said. "To be able to get comfortable with a new working environment, a new style and a new country and make relationships with other talent that will stand the test of time. When you're in NXT you're really fighting and trying to dig down deep and chase your dream. For the likes of myself, Kevin Owens, Adrian Neville, Sami Zayn and guys that have followed similar paths and come through that NXT system together, we've all bonded so tightly. That team morale that we have in the WWE locker room now was built in NXT."
Before leaving the Barclays Center as champions after SummerSlam on Sunday night, Bálor and Charlotte watched "NXT Takeover" on Saturday and couldn't help but feel like they were at the graduation ceremony for some of their friends who could soon join them on the main roster.
"I was really excited for Billie Kay. I was still in NXT when she was hired, and to be able to watch her in her debut match and being out there for Bayley and Asuka was extremely special. But competitively I was thinking we have to outdo both of those matches [Sunday]," Charlotte said. "To see how much they mean to the fans and see Bayley get that moment after was special. You could feel how much the crowd was invested into both women's matches."
Balor took a seat in the crowd for the main event between Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe and perhaps for the first time in his career, got a sense of what it's like to watch his peers from the fans' perspective after either being in the ring or watching in the back for years.
"To me it was weird not to be involved in 'Takeover,'" Balor said. "I was a little envious of everyone involved. From a personal standpoint, I can't remember the last time I watched a wrestling match from the crowd and I had the opportunity to watch Shinsuke and Joe and it was unbelievable from the contrast to both entrances to their styles. They had me right from the bell. Sometimes I take this for granted because I'm doing it. I'm in control. But when you see other people do it makes you realize how difficult it is and how much pressure is on them to perform. I felt pressure for both of my friends in the ring. It was great to get an outsider's perspective looking in as opposed to watching on the monitor behind the curtain."
As he prepared to leave the green room to get ready for Raw later that night, Balor was still coming to grips with holding his new championship belt and being on "Good Morning America" with Charlotte the morning after SummerSlam. Just three years ago, he was in Japan with Karl Anderson forming the Bullet Club and now they're both in the WWE.
"I was texting Karl Anderson late last night and he goes, 'Man, how the hell did this all happen? We started 'Too sweet' in front of a 1,000 people in Tokyo a couple of years ago and now we're here in the WWE at SummerSlam,"' Bálor said. "It's quite surreal. The amount of work that goes into those 25 minutes Sunday; you're not just talking days of preparation; you're talking years of preparation.
"Last night was an unbelievable milestone moment in my career. It's something I never, ever expected to happen. It's still really hasn't sunk in yet. Talking about it Monday morning is a little difficult but if you fast forward a week, maybe I'll be able to articulate it a little better."