After a great match like the one Walter and Ilja Dragunov had last year, it is at the same time very difficult and dangerous to make them try themselves at a second one. In the middle of the pandemic, in a no-crowd arena, Walter and Dragunov just blew every wrestling fan’s mind with a 5-star match, becoming the highest-rated WWE match of all time, at that time.
Last Sunday, at NXT TakeOver 36, two months after Dragunov earned another opportunity to challenge Walter for the Championship, the challenger was able to make the Champion tap out and end an 870-day reign. But the major stake was delivering a second match as good, if not better than the first. That was the case.
SteelChair Wrestling Magazine had the chance to take part in an international media call with Ilja Dragunov yesterday about him becoming NXT UK Champion at NXT TakeOver 36 last Sunday, making history with Walter twice, NXT UK, and what the future may hold for him.
On his feelings after the match on Sunday and holding the NXT UK Championship belt
“The moment where it actually happened, it was a bit of time until the adrenaline just kind of went down. But I remember coming back to my hotel room, completely not able to sleep, and I was extremely tired. My body was completely sore. I couldn’t sleep because I had so many different thoughts in my mind. The whole path to it, the whole how it all came together, being at TakeOver, getting this kind of attention from the people, getting this reaction to what we did. I was coming to this match, with the thought in my mind, to bring an even more intense performance than in the first match – and that all went so well. We were able to do something special again, that was just incredible. I can’t even explain the thoughts on this because it was a complete mixture of everything.
“The first thing I thought was, you need to get better, as simple as that because this is a very nice happy ending to a very emotional story, but this is not like the end for me. I know the responsibility I have. I represent the greatest brand, in my opinion, so I gotta think about what’s the next level. I gotta be prepared because I want to create my own legacy. What Walter did was outstanding, what a dominant reign. My reign is gonna be just another legacy and a legacy with a symbol like I am a completely un-comparable one, and this is something I definitely need to prepare for, and this is the reason I’m already working in my mind.”
On the differences between the first and second match, in terms of pressure, preparation, audience
“Pressure is an interesting word, I don’t feel like pressure in case of like what people expect from me, this is something I really don’t care about because it’s something completely subjective, but I got an objective pressure towards myself. When I knew that this will happen in that scenario, my preparation was ridiculous, so I basically just lived for working out, to get my stamina on the highest level, to make my strength even more strong, to be even more intense than before the first match, and being as well prepared as possible. The only pressure I feel is like talking to myself, “Ilja, you gotta reach the next level because this is the next level,” and you expect from yourself like the best possible performance and even better performance than in the first place.
“First of all, it was in front of a live audience. Last time, it was beneficial that nobody was there because you could hear the strikes even more without anyone being watching it or being in attendance. This time people could follow us like a live audience could follow us. This time you could see there was a progression of both characters, it was a different way how we went into it, was a different way how we fought, and there was a lot more story behind it. There was a bit much bigger emotional aspect that let the match elevate to an even higher level.
“In the first match, it was a different version of Ija Dragunov. It would only rely on his intensity, but just being intense is just like being blind and just running into a wall, and that’s not the answer to be the best in the world like Walter is. I needed to make a progression to a more intelligent version of Ilja Dragunov, and I showed this progression at TakeOver. I had a game plan for Walter, I knew what he was doing, I knew how to get control over him and to make him realize that I’m not gonna just fall like the last time. I already put him on his limits the last time but, this time, I put him through his limits by being intense and smart.”
On if there was a third match, maybe with a stipulation…
“I don’t really think that this kind of match needs a stipulation because if I see him again, which I don’t think is completely unrealistic, then I think just give us a ring and just let us create something that is completely special to people and something that they have never seen before.”
On what being NXT UK Champion means to him
“I would love to carry the brand on my shoulders with all the pride and honour that I have because I am proud of the brand and the hard-working people. I step into the locker room and see a lot of people and everything they want, day by day, is getting better. The work mentality inspires me and makes me proud to be the champion of the brand and represent it. I see so much talent in this brand that people will definitely pay attention as soon as they [give] it a chance. Especially in this job, one chance can just change the world just from one day to the other. I am absolutely sure that those people who sleep on NXT UK won’t sleep on NXT UK in the future as there is so much talent that will rise up.”
“I have something to offer that nobody else has, my absolutely unique personality in this ring and bringing something absolutely unique to any match I’m going into. After this dominant reign, I will create a legacy for myself, and I will create something that people will remember because people will remember always any of my performances.”
On the contenders he would like to face
“In NXT UK, there are a lot of great talents that I would love to step in the ring with. The first person that comes to my mind is A-Kid. I talked about him a lot in different interviews. I admire his work ethic, I think this would be something absolutely outstanding and interesting that we can put out there. There are many other people. I often faced Noam Dar, this is a person I definitely would love to get into the arena. Definitely people like Tyler Bate. These are all people I want to prove myself in the ring and to come to create unique performances.”
On seeing him more in NXT
“You will definitely see a lot of me in NXT UK because, as a Champion, I will carry this title with all I have and all the intensity and passion I have for this job. That’s the passion you saw on the match, this passion I will continue to have forever, just to create my own legacy. Regarding NXT in the US, right now I’m in Orlando, and I am definitely looking forward to being more often here. I’m open to any competition, open to any challenge, and open to any big challenge that gets offered to me.”
On his physical wrestling style
“It all came naturally to me. I never think about a lot of stuff I am doing. When I started my journey, I realised quickly I had a lot of energy inside of me, a lot of passion. This is something I want to show to the audience and this reflects in my style, I’m going forward and I’m going very hard and very intense. This is my completely honest face that I show to the audience, to the fans. It is my biggest strength, and I rely fully on this strength. Regarding what I can endure in the ring, my other strength is that I recover very fast and very well. This style I chose because I can take it, and it especially makes sense because people can feel physicality through seeing it. It’s very easy to believe what you see if it is very physical, and this is why I think my style is outstanding and the one people want to see.”
On the piece of advice he would give to the younger talent in the locker room or in the independent circuit that would one day be in his shoes
“The biggest advice I can give to anyone in any locker room on this planet is express yourself, it’s everything I did. This is like my main strength, why I’m never stressed. Why I never have big problems going into big challenges like I went to TakeOver 36. I always did what was natural to me, I never did something I thought it’s not me, so fighting hard and endure a lot is something absolutely natural to me, and as long as people show their true face, especially in the ring, and are honest to themselves, in my head, it’s nearly impossible to be not successful.”
NXT UK airs every week on BT Sport on Friday night on television and each Thursday online via the WWE Network at 8 PM BST. NXT TakeOver 36 is available on-demand on the WWE Network. Ilja Dragunov will appear this Tuesday night on NXT.
Special thanks to Alex Sutton – All pics and videos courtesy of WWE