At NXT TakeOver 36, Ilja Dragunov did what no-one could do for 800+ days and defeated Walter for the NXT UK Championship.
Dragunov and Walter went to war over the title just as they did last year. It was an emphatic victory and career-defining performance and one that created an army of fans of “Unbesiegbar”.
Dragunov is a name that shot to prominence on the UK and European scene from 2015 onwards. Tales of his brutally violent and unique style flooded the timelines of independent wrestling fans worldwide.
His wrestling journey en route to WWE was an arduous one full of trials and tribulations. Here are five things you didn’t know about Ilja Dragunov.
5. Ilja Dragunov’s tough upbringing made him the wrestler he is today
Dragunov is one of wrestling’s most intense and ferocious competitors. The reason for this is his tough upbringing, which built his drive and determination from a very early age.
Born in Moscow, Russia in 1993 during a time of war and political upheaval, he and his mother moved to Dresden, Germany when he was just five years old.
Speaking in a three-part documentary made by Westside Xtreme Wrestling (wXw) Dragunov recalled:
“I am an immigrant woman’s son. So I came to Germany when I was five years old.”
They were strangers in a strange land, unable to speak the language and with very little money to their name. Dragunov recounted his tough upbringing and revealed the abuse he received and how they didn’t have enough money for a Twix.
“Eating crap is basically everyday business. It starts with standing in line for social security, being verbally abused because you don’t understand the language. Then you don’t have any money and you have to get by that. I remember a moment when I begged my mother for money, so I could buy a Twix, when I was a little boy. I just wanted to eat something sweet, but we didn’t have any money for that.”
4. Ilja Dragunov worked in a pizzeria and petrol station to make ends meet
Before finding his calling and training to be a wrestler Dragunov worked every job he could. His impoverished childhood created a fierce work ethic that he used it every day long before his in-ring career began.
I soon realised that I needed to work for the things I needed and I can’t whine when things are not going the way I want. That means I had quite a number of jobs.
Dragunov recalled the list of pre wrestling jobs he had and revealed that he was yelled at by a lot of his bosses.
I had every crappy job there is. I worked at a gas station, I had a job as custodial staff, worked at a pizza parlour – that’s behind me now. I was screamed at by quite a number of people.
His upbringing and multiple jobs are the basis of his unwavering resilience while teaching him to take nothing for granted and appreciating everything.
3. Ilja Dragunov didn’t choose wrestling, wrestling chose him
Dragunov began training at the German Wrestling Federation (GWF) and quickly realised this was the career for him. A gifted athlete with a real skill for wrestling he was soon turning heads on the German independent scene especially with wXw.
Speaking to our very own Kenny McIntosh last year, Dragunov relayed how wrestling woke something up inside him and he knew he had to invest everything he had into becoming the best he could be.
“I mean, wrestling was my home. It is still my home, and it became my home in a very difficult time where I came into living in Germany, I came into Germany when I was very young as an immigrant with my mother and parts of my family. And a lot of things were super complicated for me because the language was complicated for me. The whole living here was complicated for me because it was a completely new environment. And that’s a lot for a kid, and a lot of years I suffered from this very badly.
“When I came to wrestling, I finally had the feeling that I was doing something right. I had the feeling that gave me something that gives me a platform to express myself, to express what my soul is all about. And that’s the reason I never stopped this. I didn’t come into wrestling, like watching it into the TV. I just started to train in it. And then I started to get focused on wrestling and learn about this and this reason that I had the chance to express my soul and everything because wrestling is an art and I let my soul flow into it. That’s what keeps me there, that keeps my passion and my love for life in general.”
2. Ilja Dragunov was trained by former WWE Superstar Alexander Wolfe
Dragunov’s successful wrestling career is no surprise considering he was trained by not one but two German wrestling legends. Rick Baxxter is a 10-year veteran and Axel Tischer fka Alexander Wolfe is one of the founding members of Ringkampf. Along with WALTER, and Axel Deiter Jr, AKA Marcel Barthel, the clothing range transformed into the wrestling faction, which WWE has recreated with Imperium.
Not only does Dragunov credit them for training and mentoring him but for his “Unbesiegbar” (which means invincible) mentality.
Dragunov’s invincible attitude isn’t just a gimmick, it is a way of life. Speaking in the documentary, he stated:
“Unbesiegbar became a phrase at some point. At first, I couldn’t make anything out of this. During some promo at my early days at wXw, that word was mentioned. The idea was to say something at the end of the promo. “We need something from you.” And then the word “unbesiegbar” came up. That word pervades through my whole life. All of a sudden, something that had been in me my whole life came out. That’s my mental attitude.”
Rick Baxxter/ @TheWWEWolfe
My trainers/ my mentors
They start my perspective. My love for the long way, the patience and the toughness.
There wouldnt #UNBESIEGBAR without you both. pic.twitter.com/Aid4Fz6SFL
— 𝙄𝙡𝙟𝙖 𝘿𝙧𝙖𝙜𝙪𝙣𝙤𝙫 (@UNBESIEGBAR_ZAR) April 30, 2018
1. Ilja Dragunov has a long history with WALTER
Long before their paths crossed in NXT UK Dragunov and Walter had clashed many times. wXw played host to an incredible match between the two in 2017 when Dragunov beat Walter in the wXw 16 Carat Gold final.
The following year they would meet again but this time in a Triple Threat Match with John “Bad Bones” Klinger for the wXw Unified World Wrestling Championship. Dragunov won the title in a jaw-dropping main event.
Dragunov and Walter continued to feud over the title in matches that will leave you speechless upon viewing. It was no surprise their legendary rivalry followed them into WWE.
Speaking to Kenny McIntosh last year in the lead up to his beautifully violent outing with Walter for the NXT Championship, he recapped how special their rivalry is.
It feels special. I can say it feels special every time I was with WALTER in the ring, there was something, there was a level up for me. This is like the true challenges of life like this is more than just wrestling. This is like a true fight to survive. This is something I can’t even put it into words because this is something like nobody has ever seen before.
This is like a new level of brutality, new level of violence. This is a true fight because it shows how much worth it is to fight for the NXT UK Championship. This is like the end game. There is nothing else I could possibly do to than to leave my soul there in this match.