“How the fuck did I end up, from Bray, signing autographs in Tokyo?” asks a bemused Fergal Devitt (AKA Prince Devitt, AKA Finn Bálor) midway through Smack ‘Em Up: Reality Bites, a documentary following the star on his final tour with NJPW that, curiously, has only just found its way to the air.
Spend a few minutes with the charismatic, yet unwaveringly humble, Devitt and it’s easy to see why, even after eight, successful years with the company, he still seems shocked by his own career trajectory. This is a kid who fell in love with wrestling through his grandfather, who was told he was too skinny, too small to ever make it and who hails from a seaside town in County Wicklow, where the most notable occurrences often involve someone being attacked in broad daylight.
Growing up in Bray, there are a few constants; 99s on the seafront, pints in The Harbour bar and indy wrestling shows in the tiny Wolfe Tone youth club, a venue boasting a capacity about a tenth of the size to which Devitt is now accustomed. It was here where he first established himself, before founding the Irish strand of the NWA (he actually started around the same time as Sheamus, but because they worked for competing organisations, the two have yet to meet in the ring), and subsequently training extensively in the UK.
Smack ‘Em Up touches on his humble beginnings by interviewing him right on Bray seafront, showing him wandering around without anybody bothering him, blending in among the hordes of tourists. The tone then switches considerably as we are given a brief glimpse of his work on the British indy circuit, as he takes part in a brutal, bloody ICW house show in Glasgow, where he was already infamous for his no-nonsense style.
Sporting his now customary body paint (patiently applied by a fellow wrestler), it’s incredible to watch Devitt work the crowd as well as he did. He was only about six months away from his WWE signing during filming, and this kind of footage shows why Vince came looking for him, instead of vice versa.
The main focus of the doc is Devitt’s final tour in Japan, the end of an eight-year stint during which he won the prestigious IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship three times, along with the Best Of The Super Juniors tournament twice. It’s also where he earned the moniker Prince Devitt, explaining that his superiors had trouble pronouncing his first name, but felt he was too young to be a King.
Smack ‘Em Up, although weirdly paced and packed with way too many musical cues (it was commissioned by the Irish national broadcaster, RTE, so the tone is slightly off) gives us an interesting insight into life in the dojo, in particular, where Devitt began his tenure washing dishes, laundry and, as he puts it, basically interning for a spot on the roster. The living conditions are basic, even as he’s established in the company, but for someone whose whole life is wrestling, just being there is enough.
A certain picture of Devitt emerges, especially in Japan, of a perfectionist, driven by his passion but also hugely grateful for the opportunities he’s been given. Warmly greeting everyone he sees, and speaking openly and frankly about how much work it takes to get to where he is (“Most wrestlers are certifiably insane” he deadpans), it’s clear he isn’t taking anything for granted. There’s no bullshit, no attempt at labelling his job as anything other than what it is, stating emphatically: “I’m in it, literally, because I love it”.
When it comes time to depart, for the bright lights of the WWE, the reactions of the other wrestlers – his Bullet Club buddies, especially – gives an even more heart-warming portrait of the man behind the paint. Long-time friend Luke Gallows chokes up as he describes the Irishman as totally unique, thanks to his heritage and his modelling credentials, which he reckons mark him out as a very special kind of star. It’s easy to see how their stable developed, somewhat organically, as the lads travelled together constantly – eating, sleeping, getting ready – before teaming up, creating a genuine relationship that spilled over into their performances. Although they’re sad to see Devitt go, their respect and admiration for him is evident. They want their buddy to succeed just as much as he does.
Devitt himself doesn’t get teary-eyed until his final match at the Tokyo Dome (that he lost to hometown hero Taguchi), after which he remarks that the feeling is like “breaking up with 10,000 girlfriends all at the same time”. And, following a final indy show in Newcastle (again with ICW), when he shrugs that he doesn’t “like to get too excited about things” his modesty, once again, takes centre-stage. It would be less than three months until he reported for duty in Florida, and yet you wouldn’t know it to look at him. He seems perfectly content, even slightly bashful, in light of all the attention.
It’s rare that we get such an in-depth look at the behind the scenes life of an up-and-coming wrestler. What emerges from Smack ‘Em Up is a portrait of a perfectionist, an un-apologetically honest (“That fucking sucks” he admits, mid-workout at the local gym in Bray), quiet but warm, very normal dude who worked his whole life to achieve greatness but didn’t quite feel the need to make a fuss about it. For instance, upon receiving a sculpture of himself, from a fan, he remarks simply “Same arse anyway”. He kisses his mother goodbye, from the same house they’ve always lived in, before his father drives him to the airport. He asks for nothing and thanks everyone.
Although he seems on the cusp of greatness (and he’s kicked ass thus far), Fergal Devitt is still the same person he always was. Passionate, humble and able to blend in whenever needs be. Hopefully, as his star continues to rise, he won’t lose the nice guy image outside of the ring, even if he has to lose it within.
Joey Keogh writes about WWE and horror for several different sites, and is constantly hoping for a bigger push for Dean Ambrose. You can follow Joey on Twitter at @JoeyLDG.