NXT UK is a strange little entity. What it does well, it does very well. It just so happens that most people aren’t watching what it does well. NXT UK exists alongside Main Event and 205 Live as the forgotten commodities of the WWE Network. Admittedly, my only real interaction with NXT UK stems from the occasional cooperation with the American NXT and when NXT UK has a Takeover event. Some of my favorite NXT matches involve wrestlers from NXT UK. Tyler Bate vs. WALTER, Pete Dunne vs. WALTER, Mustache Mountain vs. DIY, and Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne (I am noticing a pattern there) are all absolute barnstormers, but the episodic television is not something I have kept up with since its inception.
I think there is a lot of anger directed toward NXT UK and that anger is not without merit. The British wrestling scene from 2015 to 2018 was starting to become a haven for a certain type of wrestler. The United States, Mexico and Japan are known to have a very specific style, and while British wrestling has always been the epicenter of catch-as-catch-can, it was finally beginning to make its way into the collective consciousness of the wrestling world. Countless British promotions have gone out of business since NXT UK opened its doors and that was always the fear many British fans had about WWE making its way to the little Island. There is a lot of validity to the statement that “Britwres is dead”, and there are plenty of complaints one could make about NXT UK, but when it is good… it is really good.
I honestly didn’t think much of Ilja going up against WALTER in an empty arena. I love both performers and what they do in the ring, but I was imagining this would be the culmination of a simple television feud. On a recent evening twitter scroll, I saw the Voices of Wrestling account absolutely gushing over this match:
People aren't exaggerating about WALTER/Dragunov. A level of physicality rarely seen in a worked match. One of the easiest 5-stars I'll ever give out in my life and probably the MOTY. I cant imagine anyone reading this not enjoying it. Incredible, all time match. -J
— Voices of Wrestling (@voiceswrestling) October 31, 2020
Now, WALTER and Dragunov are known for being stiff Britwres bois, but apparently, the physicality in this match reaches another level. Normally I would write my article as I am watching a match, potentially pausing as I wish to catch up on my thoughts, but in this case, I have decided to completely absorb myself in what I am about to see. If it is truly as great as some people are saying, I don’t want to miss a single second. Either way, it should be an interesting thirty minutes…
…(35 minutes later)…
That might be the best match WWE has ever produced… I need to watch it again…
…(Another 35 minutes later)…
Yes, I actually watched it twice in a row, and yes, I still think it might be the best match WWE has ever produced. I am well aware that is a completely subjective statement, but if the ultimate goal of wrestling is the suspension of disbelief, this was quite literally the epitome of that idea in WWE. There are a multitude of qualifiers that make a match truly great, but wrestling in its essence is a combat sport. This match was the apex of combat. The brutality was rivaled only by the likes of King’s Road era All Japan and the wars Tomohiro Ishii and Minoru Suzuki have found themselves in over the years in New Japan. I can’t imagine that Misawa would be much of a WWE fan, but he would have adored this.
When someone uses the term “brawl”, I imagine that most people’s minds go to Stone Cold Steve Austin “stomping a mud hole and walking it dry”, but this was not that type of brawl. I have not winced and audibly gasped this much since the famous “Neck Trilogy” between Tetsuya Naito and Kota Ibushi. There was very little ACTUAL wrestling throughout this match, and that was to its benefit. Not once was a submission used to simply wear down the other wrestler in order to HOPEFULLY get the upper hand at a later point in the match. Any submission or test of strength was used to put the other in a position of dire vulnerability, and more often than not Dragunov was the one in dire straits.
Ilja Dragunov is a human fireball and his perpetual intensity is what makes it possible for him to continue standing back up over and over again. For the amount of punishment WALTER dishes out, Dragunov spends shockingly little time off of his feet. The match simply does not slow down through the entire half-hour and much of that has to do with Ilja having an impenetrable force of will. When the Russian and the Austrian begin shouting at each other in their respective native languages, as they each have moments of bending but never breaking (to put it mildly), it feels like a classic, wholly independent moment in the canon of WWE.
As I was watching it for the second time, I was focusing on the strikes and Dragunov’s physical storytelling specifically. Ilja sells everything like death, but neither man is holding back in their strikes…there probably isn’t much “selling” that is necessary; Dragunov looks like he has been hit by a car, so I am sure it isn’t taking much to “look hurt”. Wrestling is about hitting each other hard in safe places. In this match, they are just hitting each other really hard.
In the final stretches, it feels like Dragunov is a Russian soldier during the German siege of Stalingrad. No matter how hard the Germans pushed the Russians, there was something inside each Red Army soldier that told them that Stalingrad was far enough. Completely outgunned, the Russians continued standing back up. WALTER is genuinely giving Ilja every single ounce of damage he can muster. Only when Dragunov’s neck is hanging on by a thread does Walter lay in a sleeper hold that looks as though it may have finally destroyed Ilja’s neck to the point of paralysis. When the match is over, Ilja is a shambles; blood pouring out of his mouth and unable to move, there is no doubt Ilja left absolutely everything in the ring.
While I can understand why someone would think this is too much, I am very much on the opposite side of that fence. Wrestling is one of the highest forms of performance art in existence, and this is one of those matches you could use as an example to prove that statement to people who may think wrestling is for children who want to laugh at clowns and rednecks that want to see cleavage. I don’t know if this match could have possibly existed in WWE outside of the extraordinary global circumstances we are facing in October of 2020. Wrestling has only transcended the empty arena on a handful of occasions, and this was one of them. Not only did it transcend the empty arena, but it also transcended the entire history of a company. Everything WWE supposedly wants to produce was turned on its head by Walter and Ilja Dragunov. A match of the year candidate? Absolutely. Automatically one of my top ten matches of all time? Easily. Blood-curdling in its violence, this is uncharted territory for WWE, and although we may never see it again, this is everything I could have possibly wanted from a wrestling match between Walter and Ilja Dragunov. This will go down in history.