When Finn Balor steps into the ring to challenge Brock Lesnar for the WWE Universal championship at the Royal Rumble pay-per-view Sunday night at Chase Field in Arizona, it will have been 889 days since he and Seth Rollins wrestled in the inaugural title match for that belt at SummerSlam.
Just weeks into his run on the main roster, Balor, as "The Demon," defeated Rollins and immediately put his name forward as one of this generation's brightest talents. Less than 24 hours later, he was handing over the Universal championship and stepping away from WWE after a freak shoulder injury suffered in that match seemingly took away the symbol of all he had worked toward since signing his WWE contract, and as far back as 2000, when his career began in earnest.
Balor spent seven grueling months working his way back into shape, and over the past two years he has fought as one of WWE's workhorses to prove that injury was an outlier -- that he has what it takes to be trusted as one of the company's top stars on a day-to-day basis. All told -- counting live events, TV shows and pay-per-views -- Balor wrestled a staggering 169 times in 2018, after 124 matches wrestled in 2017.
In Balor's estimation, that kind of grind and claw-back has all been a fulfilling part of the journey.
"I feel like when I became Universal champion for the first time, I think perhaps -- all things considered, looking back -- it may have happened too soon, and I wasn't ready," Balor said in a recent interview with ESPN. "And that was just ... that injury was kind of the universe's way of saying, 'Hey, Finn, time to knuckle down and work a little harder.' I thought it was very fitting for my career that it happened the way it happened. It was like another obstacle has been put in my way.
"I worked for six years to get out of the independent scene, the United Kingdom and then, you know, and worked for eight years in Japan to establish myself there," Balor continued. "Left [there] and worked for two years to help build NXT and then here I come to WWE, and I'm a house on fire and in three weeks I've got the Universal title in my hands. I feel like it was a very fitting kind of end to that story to kind of knock me back down a peg or two, and then knock me back to the bottom of the pile and make me really fight for what I needed to."
There have been multiple high-profile Intercontinental championship matches, including a barnburner of a WrestleMania opening match, Raw tag-team title shots, a spot in the Money in the Bank ladder match, and Balor even made the final four of the 2018 Royal Rumble. But in the past 889 days, Balor has had but one shot at the Universal title -- an August 2018 match on Raw against Roman Reigns, which he lost.
Now, at one of the WWE's biggest events of the year, Balor claimed a spot recently vacated by Braun Strowman opposite Lesnar, with that same Universal championship on the line. As with many of the great stories in WWE lore, the mix of storyline and real-life obstacles has led to an underdog whom fans are almost universally behind.
Between it being a modern-day David-and-Goliath battle and an opportunity for Balor to take on an opponent in Lesnar that few could have ever foreseen, the title challenger is finally exactly where he wants to be.
"Believe or not, I've been envisioning this match since the day I came back from injury," said Balor. "Obviously being a smaller guy, I always was a huge fan of Rey Mysterio versus Big Show or the likes of Shawn Michaels versus Diesel. And this was a match that I always felt needed to happen.
"Obviously I didn't expect it to be for the Universal championship at Royal Rumble," Balor continued. "The way the stars were aligned, and the universe, [it] has provided me with an incredible opportunity to kind of redeem myself for perhaps not fulfilling my destiny with the first Universal title run."
The Balor-Lesnar matchup isn't just special because of the difference in size or the clash of eras. Lesnar has had a grand total of 53 matches since his return in 2012.
"I'm also kind of fighting a very rare opponent, because I believe he only had eight matches last year, so not many people get to step in the ring with Brock these days," Balor said. "Obviously that's a huge, daunting task, but something that I will relish and something that I'm looking forward to taking on toe-to-toe with 'The Beast'."
When he walks Sunday night into Chase Field, a baseball stadium that's a larger arena than most that host WWE shows, Balor will be more at home than most on the WWE roster. In the end, though, no matter the crowd or the space in which the match is taking place, it'll be the same ring as every other WWE match he's had in his career.
"I honestly haven't really put much thought into what the venue's going to be like," he said. "Obviously yeah, we're in Phoenix, we're in that baseball stadium. I've plenty experience in baseball stadiums from the Tokyo Dome and obviously with WrestleMania was in a huge stadium. The show we done out in Saudi [Arabia] was huge. So obviously those big environments kind of add to the mystique of the show.
"Hopefully the atmosphere will be electric that night, and hopefully the Balor Club will be strong and I can ride the wave of momentum."
As for the question on most people's mind, the answer is no: Balor will not be wearing the paint and the gear of "The Demon" or channeling that energy Sunday night. Outside of a handful of one-off appearances -- most recently against Baron Corbin at SummerSlam 2018 -- "The Demon" hasn't played much of a part in Balor's career since he joined Monday Night Raw.
In his mind, it's important that he's standing on his own strength of character and personality when he steps into the ring for one of the biggest matches of his career at the Royal Rumble.
"I feel like maybe I leaned on 'The Demon' too much there in the past as a crutch, and I can assure you that the man who faces Brock Lesnar at the Royal Rumble will be Finn Balor, the man," Balor said. "I think a lot of people were surprised when I came out at WrestleMania not in demon paint, but I feel like I had a bigger message to spread that day -- one of equality and acceptance. Honestly, this match just kind of came about so fast that I haven't had much time to think about it. I don't have any new gear, I don't have any new looks, I don't have any new ideas right now. ... I'm sure I'll come up with something."