Finn Balor on Will Ospreay, potential of U.K. Championship tournament

Will Ospreay may not be in the upcoming WWE U.K. Championship tournament, but in Finn Balor's eyes, he's getting the training and experience in New Japan Pro Wrestling that will make him a well-rounded star when he's ready to come to the WWE. Oli Sandler

Finn Balor knows a thing or two about biding your time before making the jump to WWE.

The Irishman spent 14 years on the independent circuit -- eight of them in New Japan Pro Wrestling -- before signing for WWE in 2014. He debuted on NXT, spent two years anchoring the developmental brand and helping develop it into something more, and then made a tremendous impact in his first six weeks on Monday Night Raw before suffering a devastating shoulder injury.

It was in the dojos of Tokyo, during his earliest days with NJPW, that the then-Prince Devitt honed his craft. In time, he went on to claim the IWGP junior heavyweight championship three times, and twice won the prestigious Best of the Super Juniors tournament.

A man who emulated him by winning that very same tournament in the summer of 2016, at the age of just 23, is Will Ospreay -- a star seemingly destined to shine in a WWE ring like Balor, who became the inaugural Universal champion at SummerSlam.

But for now, Ospreay is set to make his debut in another of wrestling's biggest institutions -- NJPW's Wrestle Kingdom 11, which takes place Wednesday night at the Tokyo Dome. As someone who's traveled a similar path, Balor believes the Englishman's career will be all the better for working in NJPW.

"Will Ospreay has obviously done incredible things. He's out in New Japan now and that's gonna really make him brush up on his fundamentals," Balor told ESPN. "The fundamentals are literally the foundation for everything we do. Without those, there are just holes in your work that you can see from the back of the building."

Balor was speaking in London at a press conference announcing the WWE United Kingdom Championship tournament, which takes place at the historic Empress Ballroom in Blackpool Jan. 14-15, live on the WWE Network.

Among the 16 men revealed on stage at the O2 Arena who will compete in the tournament, there were some notable absentees in terms of the biggest active names of British wrestling -- perhaps none more so than Ospreay.

The 'Aerial Assassin' enjoyed a memorable 2016. The year began with him working weekend bookings while keeping up with his 6am-6pm day job in Essex, England, before he committed fully to a career in which he's excelled by signing with NJPW in March and then Ring of Honor in November, where he won their television title in his debut.

He also put on a match of the year candidate with Ricochet in a high-flying classic during the BOSJ tournament in May -- something that brought him to the attention of the wider world of professional wrestling fans in a very big way. But Ospreay himself will know there is always room for improvement -- and during these still-formative years of his career, it's vital that he builds a foundation that will allow him to maximize on his seemingly endless potential.

"I often find out once people have trained, you can never really re-train," Balor continued. "When you get trained, you learn to lock up, you learn a wrist lock and okay, onto the next thing, onto the next thing. You never really go back to the fundamentals.

"I found going to Japan, working in the dojos, brushing up on the fundamentals, that's where I really mastered what I was doing. Hopefully the same is gonna happen for Will. This is gonna take Will from an incredible performer to the finished product, being able to perform in New Japan. So hopefully in a few years, he will be involved here."

Despite Ospreay's absence from the U.K. Championship tournament, from which WWE plans to launch a weekly U.K. show, Paul 'Triple H' Levesque told ESPN in an interview at the O2 Arena that the 23-year-old is "an amazing talent." He said he is also keen to work with Ospreay when the time is right.

Ospreay, who thanked Levesque on Twitter for the compliment, told ESPN last month that he wants to be thrown in at the "deep end" in WWE so that he can make the biggest splash possible -- suggesting he is likely to keep sharpening his skills on the independent circuit for the immediate future.

Marty Scurll, Ospreay's fellow Brit in Ring of Honor, is another big name missing from the U.K. Championship tournament; in both cases, you can point to their contractual obligations as to a definitive reason for their absences. The case of Zack Sabre Jr., who competed in this summer's WWE Cruiserweight Classic and someone Balor considers "the standout talent maybe in all of independent wrestling, not just in the U.K.," is a bit more puzzling.

While the U.K. Championship tournament may be lacking in some of that name and star power, Balor feels several future stars will be born from the pool of 16 men competing in this tournament.

"Just remember that when I went to New Japan, nobody knew who I was. And I've done okay," Balor said. "So don't be fooled by the fact you don't know their names. The reason you don't know their names or you've never seen them before, is because they've never had this exposure. This is gonna shine a light on all of these guys.

"The fact they may not be big names or used on a lot of big independent promotions, I don't think that has any bearing on their ability," Balor continued. "I think there's gonna be a lot of standouts."

Balor pointed to ICW mainstay Wolfgang as one competitor whom he expects to excel, and said getting Preston City Wrestling's T-Bone signed up was a huge coup for WWE. He is also anticipating a few surprises, pointing to Swindon's Tiger Ali as a potential dark horse.

"This tournament, obviously it's great for WWE to build a new brand, but more importantly, it's gonna stimulate growth in the grassroots of local wrestling and independent wrestling," Balor said. "When kids tune in and see Jordan Devlin, Trent Seven, Pete Dunne, Wolfgang on the WWE Network, and then they see a poster at the town hall for their local wrestling show, they're gonna say, 'Oh my God, that's Pete Dunne, I wanna go see him.'

"How crazy is the idea of a WWE champion wrestling at a local independent show? And that's really what we're doing here Basically we're just throwing oil on the fire of independent wrestling. It's gonna stimulate it from the grass roots, everyone can benefit, not just WWE but all the local promotions."