After making himself one of the hottest names in wrestling, Ilja Dragunov became the first ever Russian-born WWE Superstar back in 2019 and since then has been tearing it up on NXT UK. From TakeOvers to Worlds Collide, he’s been making a name for himself in WWE. Ahead of his big NXT UK Championship match this Thursday, he sat down with Inside The Ropes‘ own Kenny McIntosh to discuss his career so far….
Hey Ilja! This must be pretty exciting for you because this Thursday you’re going to be facing WALTER for the NXT UK title. You won the Battle Royal earlier this year. How are you feeling about it? It feels like this is a huge match, like a dream match almost.
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.
WALTER talked, in the hype promo, about where you guys came from, the same system, you guys have faced each other before, you’ve talked about it as well. Talk a little bit about your history with him and how that kind of plays into the match.
I think he may have made a lot of my life, like, as a wrestler. He made me completely because every time we fought, it was like you had to really work for something, so much fight for something, I think it’s like WALTER and I fighting was meant to be, it’s like we need to fight each other.
And we recognised it very early, back in 2017, there was electricity when we both stepped into the ring. We had no choice but to just go at it. I think this is something very unique, if you are able as a performer, to go ridiculously into this with all the energy and all the intensity you have. And this happens all the time with us. He has also this intensity, which is completely different to mine, but because of that, we are very similar because we just hit each other like a lightning strike. And that’s something that people feel when we face each other.
Absolutely. A lot of people were talking on social media about the tag match that you and Pete Dunne had against WALTER and Alexander Wolfe two weeks ago. Were you expecting that sort of response? Because everybody was talking about it and urging people to watch that match?
I think it’s that, if you like, putting something into the wrestling, which is so real then it appeals to you. We were like a fight where the action just didn’t stop. The people get it. I think it was like if you have something which is just permanently flowing like this match was, if anything can happen at any time like it did in that match, that’s something people want to see. That’s entertainment.
Now you obviously won the Number One Contender’s Battle Royal months ago and then lockdown happened. How have you been able to deal with everything that happened? Things had to wait a little bit and now the big match is finally happening. What have you done to keep your focus over the months and be able to stay in shape?
I don’t need to do anything to keep my focus. My focus is always alive. This is like my intensity in the ring. I always have it. I always have this fire inside of me. And I especially felt it when this whole thing started with the pandemic, like it wasn’t an easy situation for us all. It was very hard for a lot of people and a lot of people showed a lot of strength during this situation.
I can say, I need to put strength into this and I saw the positive side and on the one hand, I can’t wrestle, we can’t do anything. But on the other hand, I can spend so much great, fulfilling time with my family just to recover, just to get my my head straight and also to put in a lot of preparation, like I worked out like five days a week straight, three and a half hours, just increased my training routine just to be as prepared, as intense as focused as I could be, to come back and to go with everything I have into this chance.
Take us back to when you first walked into BT Studios and they put that all together. It looks state-of-the-art. It looks amazing. What was your reaction like when you walked in and saw that BT Studios set for the first time?
I thought it was beautiful. It definitely lived up to the hype. That BT Sports studio was the highest level of professionalism. It was the perfect start to get back in and to show that we are always NXT UK, we are strong. And this is the perfect environment to show how strong we are, how strong we can come back and be. I think we did that. We’re going be stronger and stronger all the time. Doesn’t matter how long it takes.
You can see through your interviews and through you in the ring, you’re very passionate about wrestling, about being the best, What made you fall in love with wrestling? What made you get into this as a profession?
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.
And when you were starting to get involved in wrestling or train in wrestling and watch things, who were your influences? Who were the people that you watched in wrestling and kind of were able to take things from?
Definitely Kenta Kobashi & Nigel McGuinness. They were definitely my role models that I followed from the very beginning.
Is it weird to see Nigel McGuinness, being one of the people you were influenced by, now that he’s going to be calling your match, your title match?
Absolutely. It was weird for the first time. It was like a lot of things when I started in WWE, it was surreal to me. And this was like one of the most surreal things for me. When Nigel started calling my matches it felt like, “It turns out I did something right.”
For people who weren’t aware of you already, they may have become aware of you with the match with Cesaro last year at TakeOver: Cardiff. That was a match where again, people online were telling their friends, “You need to check out this match.” What was it like working with Cesaro? What are your memories of that match?
My first memory of this was when I found out I was going to face him, I had the feeling, “OK, that’s the biggest sign of respect I can get,” because if the company gives a lot of trust in me, I’m definitely going to make the best out of it. It was a stepping stone for me, of course, because people wait for the chance to show what they truly are about. And I think it was like this was a very good impression for the people of what I am all about, especially against a world class competitor like Cesaro is.
Last year, we saw WALTER was part of Survivor Series. I know, with the way the world is, maybe this year Survivor Series is not possible. But if you’re the United Kingdom Champion and you’re able to go over to the US at some point, whether it’s in a Royal Rumble or Survivor Series, is there anybody in the US that you’d like to get in the ring with or that you can look at and think, “I could do something great with them”?
Absolutely. I always think about the perfect scenario and not like just match-wise, dream match-wise, I think about something which is so special because nobody would think about this before, which could be like very unique and very unpredictable. I think like a character as unique and special as Ilja Dragunov is what appeals to me, so for that reason I think it would be very special to face Bray Wyatt. It would be very special in a lot of ways that I think nobody would ever see it coming.
I mean, seeing you and The Fiend face off together would be quite the moment to watch for sure.
I think so.
The last thing I want to ask you is, if you are successful this Thursday and win the NXT United Kingdom Championship – and if it was up to you – who would your first title defence be against? Who do you look at in NXT UK and think, “They deserve a title shot”?
A-Kid. I think A-Kid is definitely the person in NXT UK where people should pay their attention to, because I never saw someone with this kind of special work ethic and this special kind of persona – so talented and so humble. And we already had a match against each other. Why not repeat it?
Why not! Why not! Well, listen, Ilja, I want to thank you so much for your time. Best of luck on Thursday when you and WALTER batter each other. I’m sure we’re all going to look forward to watching it, and best of luck in becoming NXT UK Champion.
Thank you very much.
Tune in to see Ilja Dragunov vs WALTER for the NXT UK Championship on NXT UK on Thursday 8pm on WWE Network and Friday 10pm on BT Sport.