A lot of people, myself included, have criticised WWE for their long-term storytelling, or lack thereof. Favouring shorter programmes is fair enough, but WWE have a tendency to muddle character development and storylines into a congealed mess. However, when they get it right, they knock it out of the park. One such example is Ilja Dragunov, the new NXT UK Champion. His journey to the top is a sublime piece of longer storytelling, which I’ll unpack below.
“You Won’t Beat Me.”
On October 29th 2020, WALTER and Ilja Dragunov collided in a NXT UK ring. The story of the match was simple, yet brutal. Dragunov, the heroic underdog, hit the champion with everything he had, but it wasn’t enough. WALTER locked in his sleeper hold and put Dragunov out. As he faded into unconsciousness, the last words on the Czar’s lips were “you won’t beat me.” Ilja Dragunov didn’t give up. On its own, the match was a clinic of brutality, European wrestling, selling and storytelling. However, that match broke something inside of the Russian.
From that point onwards, anyone who chopped Ilja in the back or neck (as WALTER had done many times) would be subject to a brutal beatdown. Dragunov’s rage was almost a form of PTSD. In his fury, he would lose opportunities, as he was so focused on striking whoever had chopped him.
It seemed that no one would ever dethrone the Ring General. Forced to clamber back up the ladder to the top, Dragunov learned to control his newfound rage. Until finally it happened. At Takeover 36, Ilja Dragunov stood opposite WALTER for the second time.
Once again, the match was an instant classic. WALTER was as strong as ever, chopping down Dragunov like a tree. Every near fall, strike and spot drew a reaction from the mesmerised crowd. However, whilst the Viennese Bull was the same powerhouse, this was a different Ilja Dragunov. The Czar knew he had to go through WALTER to get to the title. Much like their first encounter, whatever WALTER threw at Dragunov, the Mad Russian kept coming. However, with his newfound rage, Dragunov was able to endure WALTER’s beatings and give as good as he got. Ilja Dragunov didn’t give up.
WALTER hit him with everything he had. First, there were numerous chops. Then, powerbombs, German suplexes and stiff lariats. Finally, WALTER hit his biggest move, the top rope splash which won him the title so long ago. 290lbs of Austrian muscle crashed into Ilja Dragunov…who kicked out. However, continuing a theme from their first match, none of Ilja’s moves were enough to keep the champion down. The Torpedo Moscow headbutt, Konstantin Special, and the Greetings From Moscow lariat all did damage to the champion. But nothing could keep him down for a pinfall, not even the top rope Torpedo. But Ilja Dragunov didn’t give up Even though I normally believe a finisher should finish a match, this time it made sense for neither man to be able to finish the match. It sold how tough both men were, since nothing normal could harm them.
Ultimately, it took three attempts, but Ilja Dragunov locked in a sleeper of his own and WALTER tapped out. Instead of passing out as Dragunov had done, WALTER tapped as soon as he was beaten. This demonstrated the fact that underpinned this whole story. Ilja Dragunov doesn’t give up. That’s why he is the new NXT UK champion.