Instant Classic: WALTER vs. Ilja Dragunov Is The Best Match of 2020

Something struck me deep about this match when it happened and I felt like it was worth explaining to really anyone who would 1) be interested in either wrestler, 2) be interested in wrestling content in general, or 3) has the time to read nearly 1,500 words about two men doing a bunch of really mean things to each other. I felt a similar reaction many months ago (feels like ages, over a year now) when WALTER retained his NXT United Kingdom Championship against Tyler Bate in a very, very great match at NXT UK TakeOver: Cardiff. I rarely have this feeling with most matches, but it is pronounced by the fact that it’s two different WALTER matches for the same title reign to end in literally the most opposite of places. Hearing the crowd go nuts during the Cardiff match vs. having the extremely chilling, cold interior of the ring with no fans is stark, and paints the perfect foundation for what is easily the best moment of NXT UK since Cardiff.

Since the inaugural tournament in January of 2017 for the now named NXT United Kingdom Championship, this belt has seen a handful of some of the best the WWE has to offer. If you’re not familiar with the belt or NXT UK, consider NXT programming but a lot more pure in terms of actual wrestling and less entertainment. There have only been three champions – Tyler Bate, who won the aforementioned tournament, Pete Dunne (who held it for a whopping 685 days), and now WALTER in over 570+ days.

Three months into NXT UK, WALTER took the belt from Pete Dunne on an episode of their weekly programming in April 2019. Since then, he has defended five times, against Dave Mastiff, Joe Coffey, Tyler Bate, Trent Seven, and Travis Banks. If none of those names mean anything, they are each their own flavor of great, in a sea of good. Just gotta be in the right spot at the right time for most of them. And they were poised and pushed properly, it’s just… WALTER’s kind of brutal. I don’t know too many more physically impressive athletes on the planet, much less in wrestling. This guy can move and this guy can slam someone into next Tuesday without the hyperbole.

On March 7, 2020, Dragunov defeated 19 other contenders in a battle royal to become the next #1 contender to WALTER. And then the pandemic happened. Finally, when everything worked out for both sides, it was announced on October 8 that in three weeks, he’d finally get his shot at the man who has ran NXT UK since day one-ish. To build this up from the dead, they had a tag match with WALTER having Alexander Wolfe from his stable, Imperium, and Ilja working with Pete Dunne – someone who knows a lot about WALTER. Things were back on again. And this match’s atmosphere would make what they did in Progress before look pretty weak. (It’s actually a great match, honestly.)

NXT United Kingdom Championship – Ilja Dragunov vs. WALTER (5 stars)

Guns blazing. This match goes 100% throughout, Dragunov even attempting a finisher within five minutes. I never thought to myself that there was even a possibility someone could out-chop WALTER in a match, but Dragunov starts hot with his chop game. Some of the most vicious chops I’ve ever seen in any WWE programming, maybe the hardest chops I’ve seen landed in the past decade. Such a weird note for a wrestling match, I figure, but it’s important if you see it. A nasty rope spot throwing Dragunov out, WALTER methodically cranks away at Ilja’s hopes and dreams, slowing down and closing the window on winning the belt that has been delayed for seven months. Size becomes the story has WALTER THE MAN WITH FULL CAPS and easily the larger man here wrenching at all different kinds of joints, similar in his attempt to break down Tyler Bate. There’s this moment that either WALTER doesn’t know which hold he wants to apply, or he’s simulating the experience of a hold that constantly works, no matter which specific hold he shifts to. Somehow after all the chops and all the damage, Dragunov still fights back for more. And WALTER really turns it on with a stretcher over the corner turnbuckle, leaving the body of Dragunov to dangle all the way to the ground in a visually gripping way. WALTER continues to keep him on the outside and a repeated outside count begins and then the real beating begins. Multiple chops that feel like a lifetime apart. Dragunov catches one and gets hot, doing the same chops, finally getting back in the ring and a massive German suplex. He’s stunned, but not wounded the beast. WALTER strikes, but fails. Dragunov lands a second German. A third. Commentary stops saying anything.

“Dragunov is not human.” Insane lift high angle German suplex. Nigel McGuinness plugs what is possibly the perfect comparison – the Golden Era of Japanese Wrestling: Giant Baba, Jumbo Tsuruta, Bruiser Brody – and it honestly is as perfect as anything I’ve ever heard on NXT UK. Everything firing on all cylinders. Is it the highest it has ever been? I’d hard argue that it certainly had reached that point already and what follows is what makes it that much better. Multiple sleeper hold spots from WALTER keep Dragunov tormented throughout this match in pain but SOMEHOW HE JUST KEEPS GOING. Some people have it in them to be able to have a very long, very good match. WALTER has already proven that multiple times on NXT UK programming. Dragunov proved he could do it with the Ring General, the leader of Imperium, the man who has held this belt for so long. Somehow Dragunov survives a lariat-to-powerbomb-from-hell cradle pin sequence and then continues to take WALTER’s worst. Chops, sleepers, big moves – Dragunov somehow lives. Finally rolling to the ropes, WALTER applies a nineteenth thousandth sleeper. Dragunov will not sleep. He will not die. He can’t die.

The subtle line that wrestling draws over performance is the ability of having two humans portray a sport-like structure of an event. Big men that have belts for really long times usually beat smaller guys. It’s not a universal rule, you just usually sell the larger man’s size for the story. This belt and this brand so far have blurred those lines quite a bit, mostly because WALTER is not Andre the Giant where most people couldn’t lift him if they tried. But here, this match uses the power moves from Ilja Dragunov perfectly. When he nailed three German suplexes in a row, it was to solidify he could withstand WALTER’s barrage of anything and he could still go. When you add a second wave, that’s when most of these contenders lose out. Only Tyler Bate really reached as far as Ilja Dragunov would go. He sadly (and to this day, still a terrible decision) didn’t beat WALTER, but without the Bate match here, does this match resonate as much? Dragunov lands a huge move and commentary mentions this is the closest WALTER has been to losing. Dragunov lands his finisher, but he is juiced. He can’t make the pin. Goes for it again, and slips. Either a slip or a reversal spot occurs after. Close 2-count again. Dragunov elbows WALTER until he slides outside and they both go outside.

I’ve given you the proper context (hopefully) and even alluded to possibly mentioning this is the greatest match of NXT UK’s history. What happens next in this match solidifies it. The nastiest of sleeper suplexes I’ve ever seen in my life, on the outside, and high angle to the point that I thought Ilja Dragunov, man who could’ve actually, possibly, finally beat WALTER for the UK title… was dead. He was fine and moving, but that was devastating. It was perfect. AND THEN HE RUNS AT HIM FOR A HUGE BIG BOOT AND A POWERBOMB ON THE APRON. WALTER needs this title. He won’t leave without it. He powerbombs Dragunov again, and gets ready for the killshot, the finale, the big end. Go home.

And Dragunov kicks out. Silence. But even after all of that, WALTER doesn’t miss a beat. Full mount. Slaps aplenty. #20,000th sleeper applied. I really thought throughout the match it was possible. But then Dragunov finally stopped. WALTER looks like he has lost everything physically. He isn’t moving. He even collapses. Echoing through the building, WALTER’s music plays as Dragunov lies motionless in the center of the ring, spitting blood. Officials help him off and away to care. Commentary has lost their voices. They have sold one of the best NXT UK matches of all-time perfectly. WALTER retains. Again. In another nearly perfect match. Ilja Dragunov gave the best match of his career and was a few good moments away from ending one of the best title runs in recent wrestling memory. He is going to be set up for a lot of good things, if not near future title attempts. And the legacy of WALTER and Imperium continues to grow, while his unmatchable reign ages on. Stop what you are doing and go watch this.

With all that said, I think it’s the best match of 2020 so far. It would take a lot to top this with this much time left in the year. There are certain candidates that have already happened or could happen later. Maybe the next WALTER match continues his extremely hot streak. Either way, hit us up on Twitter at @shootsportsish or myself at @buffdrinklots if you have a different match of the year.

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