At long last, I’ve finally found it. I’ve finally found something that can unify the fractured and argumentative pro wrestling fandom. I have finally come across a pro wrestling match that everyone likes.
I didn’t comment on this match when it first came out because I didn’t want to come across as being caught up in the moment. That’s the purpose behind these 5-star match reviews: to look at a match after the talk has settled to see if a match really deserves praise or if it’s just knee-jerk emotional reaction to something. That’s why I’m looking at this match now.
In the time after it took place, everyone has praised this match. WWE has posted watch-alongs of current and former superstars watching, critiquing and praising this match. The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer gave it five stars. Fans, critics, journalists and other wrestlers all praised it. Even Jim Cornette, a man notorious for disliking most of what ‘modern’ professional wrestling has become, loved this match.
So if all these different people loved this match, then it has to be amazing, right? Let’s find out. Today we revisit the great singles match between WALTER and Ilja Dragunov from NXT UK on October 29th, 2020. The match was rated five stars by Dave Meltzer in the Wrestling Observer and here is John Canton’s review as well.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
Dragunov won a battle royal in April, earning the right to challenge for WALTER’s NXT UK Championship. And here we are. That’s it. It’s simple but it works.
This is for the WWE NXT UK Championship. The bell rings and Dragunov immediately lands a running knee. He hits some forearms in the corner but WALTER fires back with the first of MANY vicious chops. WALTER continues with kicks and chops. Dragunov fights out with chops of his own. They keep fighting. WALTER goes for a powerbomb, but Dragunov fights out with big knee strikes. Another running knee to WALTER in the corner. Dragunov ascends the top turnbuckle, but WALTER cuts him off with, you guessed it, a huge chop to the chest. WALTER meets Dragunov on the top turnbuckle, but Dragunov chops him back down. Diving senton splash by Dragunov. He teases a bug running attack and charges, but WALTER counters into a sleeper hold. Sleeper suplex! WALTER dumps Dragunov on his head, AJPW-style. This match has been great so far.
Both men get up slowly and start exchanging chops. Each one sounds like a gunshot going off, they’re so violent. WALTER lands a Kawada-style scoop slam-back punt kick combo that looks like it hurts like hell. Dragunov fights back and goes for a Kobashi-style rolling back chop, but WALTER catches his arm and throws him into the ropes. Dragunov lands hard, almost like that time Enzo Amore got whiplash on RAW some years ago. After a short reprieve, Dragunov returns to the ring and WALTER goes back to stiffing him with hard strikes. Dragunov tries to fight back with strikes of his own but WALTER drops him with a single forearm. Damn, WALTER is awesome.
WALTER applies a grounded headlock and Dragunov looks for a counter or an escape. WALTER gets a quick two-count and drops a Regal-style knee. They get up and Dragunov tries to gain control with a suplex, but can’t land the move because his neck hurts too much. Great selling. Naturally, WALTER sees this opening and follows with a massive chop to the neck. Because he knows what ring psychology is better than most modern wrestlers.
Dragunov tries fighting back again with stiff slaps but WALTER answers with a HUGE chop to the chest. Good God, is he trying to cave this man’s chest in? Yet somehow, Dragunov keeps getting up, but also keeps getting knocked down by WALTER. WALTER applies a neck crank and a sleeper, but Dragunov escapes with a standing armbreaker. Great counter. Both men slap each other hard in the face and stagger. WALTER applies a Greco-Roman knuckle lock and brings Dragunov to the mat, then stomps on his neck. The camera zooms on Dragunov and his face and neck are as beet red as his trunks.
WALTER lands a neck twist for a two-count and stomps away on Dragunov. Once more Dragunov fights back with stiff strikes, but WALTER counters into a release German suplex. WALTER continues the pressure on the neck with a Misawa-style facelock/chin lock, and slaps at the neck for good measure. He keeps up the pressure with another kneedrop to the neck. Dragunov’s in so much pain at this point that he wails in pain by even moving his neck. And yet somehow the guy keeps getting up to his feet. Even the commentators are wondering how he’s doing this. That’s how you make a smaller guy look like a tough SOB.
Dragunov goes for another hard chop but WALTER drops him with one of his own for another two-count. Still angry, WALTER places Dragunov on the top turnbuckle and chops the shit out of his chest some more. But he’s not done. He stretches Dragunov over the turnbuckle while choking him with his foot. Man, this is just brutal,
Dragunov falls to the ringside area and WALTER gives chase. As WALTER leaves the ring, Dragunov grabs his leg, only for WALTER to power out and stomp on Dragunov’s throat. As Dragunov tries to pull himself into the ring, WALTER kicks his hand off the rope, sending him back down. Eventually, Dragunov gets on the apron but WALTER bends him over the top rope Sheamus-style and smashes his chest in with a forearm. Twice. Then he lands a sickening chop to the back of the neck. WALTER goes for another club to the chest but Dragunov catches his arm. He lands some hard slaps then lands Sheamus-style chest clubs of his own. Dragunov’s making a comeback.
As soon as he Dragunov enters the ring, WALTER smashes his face in with a big boot. WALTER goes for a German suplex, but Dragunov counters. Massive German suplex. Dragunov just suplexed a man twice his size.
Dragunov gets up clutching his neck, and for WALTER this might as well be a bull’s eye. WALTER lands a massive clothesline to the back of the neck and goes for another German, but Dragunov counters into his own second German. They brawl some more. a third German suplex by Dragunov. The announcers sell Dragunov’s heart by saying ‘Dragunov. Is. Not. Human’. He may be small, but he’s tough as hell, I can tell you that much.
Dragunov trash-talks WALTER in German (telling him to get up) and lands a big jumping knee, and WALTER answers with a HUGE chop. My God, once again it sounded like a gunshot going off. Dragunov no-sells and lands two enzuigiris. Deadlift German suplex. Amazing strength by Dragunov. Dragunov pins. Walter kicks out at two. Commentator Nigel McGuinness makes the perfect call: “An incredibly display of brutality that harks back to the golden era of Japanese wrestling.” Damn straight, this is All Japan’s King’s Road in 2020, and it’s awesome.
Dragunov hits back at WALTER with open-hand slaps and stomps, each strike echoing throughout the arena. But WALTER cuts him off with a surprise kick to the legs and a huge forearm to the back, which lands with a sickening thud. WALTER doesn’t give a f**k, which is awesome. He lands a forearm to the side of Dragunov’s head which also lands with a horrifying thud. Holy shit, I have no idea how Dragunov’s even conscious at this point. WALTER goes for a sleeper but Dragunov wrestles his way out and lands a massive rolling back chop to the chest. Then he lands a lariat and the sound of the impact is deafening. Dragunov goes or another lariat, but WALTER ducks. Sleeper hold. Dragunov reaches the ropes. WALTER smacks Dragunov’s arms down. Another Sleeper, Dragunov counters into a roll-up, WALTER counters into a grounded sleeper. Wait, no, Dragunov rolls over into a pin. WALTER kicks out at 2.5. Amazing sequence
WALTER lands another big boot, but Dragunov fires back with lariats. He charges the ropes, massive discus lariat knocks WALTER down. Dragunov pins, but WALTER kicks out at 2.75. Dragunov gets up first and charges, but WALTER literally swats him out of the air. Both men are still down, exhausted. Both get up at the count of nine and WALTER lands more brutal chops. Dragunov slumps over, only being held up by WALTER who holds his arm. WALTER stomps on Dragunov’s exposed neck. WALTER’s getting annoyed now as he slaps, chops and kicks away at Dragunov’s carcass, all while trash-talking in German. At this point, Dragunov’s chest is turning from red to purple. And yet, somehow, Dragunov still has some fight still left in him and keeps fighting back. But it isn’t enough. WALTER DROPS him with a huge lariat. But he’s not done. Folding Powerbomb. WALTER pins. One, two, thr—no, Dragunov kicks out at 2.9. running lariat by WALTER. And another two-count.
WALTER continues his onslaught with merciless slaps to the side of Dragunov’s neck. He goes for different sleeper variations, but Dragunov rolls to the safety of the ropes. WALTER lifts Dragunov up by his hair and then punts him in the back. Another sleeper hold. Dragunov fights out with chops and slaps. WALTER traps both arms and starts hitting Dragunov with his own chest and shoulders. Talk about a clever strategy. But Dragunov fights back with head-butts. Then with chops and knees. And a double-hand chop to the neck. Missile dropkick by Dragunov. He just flew from post to post. He pins, but WALTER kicks out at 2.5.
Dragunov gets up first muttering some German but walks into another chop to the chest. Dragunov no-sells it and goes for an Exploder, but WALTER fights out. Dragunov tries to transition into some other submission hold but WALTER just destroys him with more unbelievably stiff strikes. Yet Dragunov powers through. Exploder Suplex-style slam by Dragunov! One, two, thr-NO, WALTER kicks out.
WALTER charges Dragunov in the corner, but Dragunov blocks his kick and hits a huge chop to the back of WALTER’s neck. Then another, followed by a Torpedo Moskau charge. But Dragunov can’t capitalize on it because of how badly hurt he is. Everything he’s suffered throughout the match has now come back to haunt him. He tries to muster enough strength for another running charge, but can’t move more than two steps forward without collapsing. He’s trying his best but the pain is too much. Then he musters through. Running knee. Dragunov pins. WALTER kicks out again!
Dragunov lands Danielson-style elbows to the neck, but WALTER rolls out of the ring. Dragunov gives chase and lands more hard strikes, but that only manages to anger WALTER. Sleeper suplex by WALTER on the ringside mats! Damn, Dragunov gets planted on his head. he gets up slowly, so WALTER boots him right the chest, sending him into the steel steps. But WALTER’s not finished. Powerbomb on the apron. Somewhere, Kevin Owens must be grinning from ear to ear.
WALTER gets back in the ring and drops Dragunov with another powerbomb. Diving splash by WALTER. Dragunov kicks out at 2.99! WOW, what an amazing near-fall! Dragunov keeps muttering the same thing over and over again: “Mich schlägst du nicht…” which in German means ‘You won’t beat me’. WALTER fires away with more stiff slaps and elbows. Sleeper with bodyscissors. Dragunov is out! The referee calls for the bell! WALTER retains!
Winner and STILL WWE United Kingdom Champion after 25:09: WALTER
I feel like I just went through a portal in time. This match took place in 2020 but looks straight out of 1990s All Japan. And when it comes to in-ring wrestling, there couldn’t possibly a better compliment. It was that awesome.
This match came across like an old school brawl. There weren’t any fancy dives or complicated sequences. Everything here was simple and straightforward, and most of all, BRUTAL. To say this match was stiff would be an understatement. These two men hit each other as hard as possible for over twenty-five minutes. And while there are ways to fake the sound of a kick to the face (as the Young Bucks like to demonstrate), you can’t fake a chop or a slap. Both men absorbed a ridiculous amount of punishment, to the point that it genuinely looked like either of them would pass out from the pain at any moment. The selling throughout the match was amazing, especially from Dragunov. He took a monumental thrashing from WALTER, especially to his neck, and sold it like everything was real. In doing so, he made WALTER’s offense look that much more devastating while also looking like a gutsy fighter himself.
The story was incredibly simple but was told perfectly. WALTER was the dominant champion and Dragunov was the gutsy underdog. They were a mismatch from the opening bell, with WALTER outweighing Dragunov by almost 100 pounds and having a much greater reach. But no matter how much WALTER punished Dragunov for ever being born, Dragunov just wouldn’t quit. He kept fighting back in any way he could, and looked to almost be on auto-pilot at a few points in the match. As someone that doesn’t watch NXT UK as much as I should, I had no idea who Dragunov was going into this match. But once it was over, I was convinced he was one of the toughest wrestlers alive for his performance. His gutsy, never-say-die attitude made him into a true star, and he looked incredibly strong in defeat.
One of the subtleties of the match I really enjoyed was how WALTER and Dragunov trash-talked each other. I speak some German and was able to catch some of their comments. Earlier in the match, Dragunov kept saying, “Du wirst mich niemals brechen” (You will never break me), “Ich bin unzerbrechlich” (I am unbeatable) and “Schlag mich härter” (Hit me harder). In doing so, Dragunov came across as a total badass for asking WALTER for more punishment than he was already dishing out.
Then in a moment of frustration, WALTER yelled out, “MUSS ICH DICH UMBRINGEN?” which means ‘Do I have to kill you?’ to which Dragunov replied, “Das schaffst du nicht!”, which means ‘You will never be able to.’ This gave the match the same sort of vibes as that famous pull-apart brawl between Brock Lesnar and the Undertaker from 2015.
Then, at the very end as Dragunov was fading in an out of consciousness right before the final sleeper hold, he kept muttering, “Mich schlägst du nicht…” (You won’t beat me). And in a way, Dragunov was right. WALTER didn’t beat Dragunov; Dragunov’s body gave up on him. Dragunov still had the will to continue but WALTER had obliterated him too much. It wasn’t the decisive pinfall victory that proved WALTER was better. It was a win with an asterisk, which might lead to a rematch down the road.
Final Rating: *****
This match proved that you don’t need a crowd to have a great wrestling match. It was a King’s Road All Japan Pro-Wrestling-style classic taking place in 2020, which makes it such a refreshing sight. These two wrestlers put on one hell of an amazing match that will go down as a classic. Everything they did was beautifully simple and logical. Instead of setting a blistering pace with tons of explosive near-falls and increasingly-outrageous high spot, this was a war of attrition that morphed into an endurance contest. And while it seemed pretty obvious that WALTER had all the advantages, it became more exciting over time seeing Dragunov keep coming back again and again. He showed heart and determination, even as WALTER shut him down over and over.
This is not a ‘WWE-style’ match. There are no over-the-top characters, no cookie-cutter superstar comebacks, no copy-and-paste repetitive sequences, and no over-explaining of an overthought storyline. This is a simple David vs. Goliath story in which both men go to incredible lengths to hurt each other and try to look like the toughest men in the world. That simplicity makes it refreshing, satisfying, and the Match of the Year for 2020. This is an absolute must-watch match. Seek it out immediately if you haven’t already seen it.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.