5-Star Match Reviews: Ilja Dragunov vs. WALTER II – WWE NXT TakeOver 36 2021
There are some pairs of wrestlers that simply cannot have bad matches when they’re together. Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker had three of the bestmatches in WWE history.
The feud between Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat was the measuring stick for decades and to some degree still is. Kenny Omega wrestled classics with Kazuchika Okada and Tetsuya Naito. And to this day, I have yet to see a bad match between Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi.
Today we look at another wrestling pairing that created greatness. These two wrestlers only faced each other twice in WWE yet their two singles matches are widely said to be among the best in WWE history. We’ve already looked at their first epic match together and it DID indeed live up to the praise. Now let’s see if they can do what Taker and Shawn did and live up to their high standard in their big rematch.
It’s time to look back at the NXT UK title match between WALTER and Ilja Dragunov from WWE NXT TakeOver 36.
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 challenged WALTER for his title back in October of 2020 and lost. Fast forward to June 2021 and Dragunov earned another shot at WALTER’s title by beating Rampage Brown and Joe Coffey. With this match, Dragunov hoped to avenge his prior loss and win the title that he came so close to winning last year.
This match originally took place on August 22nd, 2021. It was rated *****1/4 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, a rating it shares with Adam Cole vs Johnny Gargano from NXT TakeOver XXV and WALTER’s match with Tyler Bate in Cardiff. It was rated five stars out of five by John Canton right here on TJRWrestling and he also named it the WWE Match of the Year in his 2021 WWE Johnny Awards column. That’s incredibly high praise, so let’s see if it was well-earned.
WALTER smacks Dragunov’s head as they circle each other. He takes Dragunov down with a leg sweep and rushes Dragunov to the ropes. Dragunov ducks a big chop and lands a big one of his own. He lands another one and WALTER starts getting angry and shouts ‘komme hier’. Dragunov continues frustrating WALTER by dodging him until he goes for a dive, at which point WALTER catches him. They trade grounded front facelocks until WALTER starts hammering Dragunov with knees. WALTER hits some big forearm smashes and goes for a German suplex but Dragunov blocks, rolls through and goes for a single leg crab. WALTER kicks him off but that momentum sends Dragunov into the ropes and he comes back with a shoulder tackle that knocks WALTER down. WALTER jumps up as Dragunov charges but Dragunov blocks and slams WALTER down. He tries another single leg crab but WALTER gets a ropebreak and then kicks Dragonov’s knee. Dragunov escapes WALTER’s headlock takeover but WALTER can’t escape Dragonuv’s.
Dragunov keeps his headlock in for a long time and even manages to maintain it off an Irish whip. WALTER counters with a back suplex and…wait, no, Dragunov maintains the headlock. WALTER manages to power Dragunov into a corner for a ropebreak and hits some forearms. But then Dragunov fights back with elbows of his own. WALTER tanks them and goes for a chop. Dragunov blocks and wrestles WALTER to the mat. He goes for a kimura-type armlock and transitions into a short arm scissor. WALTER tries to roll over into a pin but Dragunov maintains control. Suddenly WALTER rolls over, gets to his feet, and deadlifts Dragunov onto his shoulder. He carries Dragunov to a corner and places him on the top turnbuckle…and then lands a massive chop. Dragunov falls to the floor and WALTER goes right after him. Powerbomb onto the edge of the apron. Just like that WALTER’s in control.
In the ring, WALTER punts Dragunov’s spine and goes for a sleeper but Dragunov blocks by keeping WALTER’s arms away. Dragunov gets a ropebreak but WALTER smacks both of Dragunov’s hands down and hits a huge German suplex. Dragunov collapses into a corner but WALTER drags him out, kicks his spine again, and locks in a Boston crab. Then he switches first into an STF and then into a crossface. Dragunov fights to his feet, but before he can elbow out, WALTER snapmares him and punts his spine once more. They start trading forearms and then Dragunov lands a chop. WALTER hits back with a vicious chop of his own and locks in the sleeper. This time Dragunov’s attempt at blocking fails. WALTER goes for a powerbomb but Dragunov blocks and then powers out. WALTER hits an elbow and Dragunov answers with a jump kick. Dragunov hits two running lariats, one to WALTER’s collar and the other to the back of his head. He goes for a third but WALTER blocks and sends him into the ropes. Dragunov does the tiger feint and swings. WALTER blocks and hits an uranage. One, two, Dragunov kicks out.
WALTER starts stomping and kicking Dragunov while he’s down but Dragunov demands WALTER hit him harder. He tries to kick WALTER’s shins from the mat but WALTER out-hits him and demands he get to his feet. WALTER hits another chop so violent that the referee checks on Dragunov to see if he can continue. The ref checks on him following a chop. WALTER is that dangerous.
Dragunov uses the ropes to lift himself up but eats a big boot. WALTER continues mocking Dragunov but Dragunov fights back with stiff chops of his own. They start stiffing each other even harder with Dragunov firing up. But WALTER keeps his cool and hits forearm smash after forearm smash. WALTER goes for a lariat. Dragunov counters with an arm drag into a submission hold. Awesome counter. Dragunov traps WALTER’s arm and start hitting kneelifts and backfists to WALTER’s neck. He transitions into an octopus hold and lands Danielson-style elbows to WALTER’s neck as well. WALTER tries to counter with a fireman’s carry but Dragunov hits more elbows and then lands a HUGE knee strike. It reminds me of Kota Ibushi’s Kamigoye arm-trap knee strike but with only one arm held. Dragunov goes for another jump kick, but this time WALTER counters with a sick lariat. That’s followed by a second, running lariat. One, two, Dragunov kicks out.
WALTER gets to his feet first and lands a murderous chop to the back of Dragunov’s neck. But Dragunov fights through the (immense) pain and turns to face WALTER. He ducks a big boot and lariats WALTER to the mat. But he’s not done. Chop to the back of WALTER’s neck. German suplex. The fans are going nuts cheering for Dragunov. Suddenly WALTER cuts Dragunov off and chops his already-beet-red chest. But that only delays WALTER for a second. Jump kick to the head. Running knee strike. Dragunov follows with a T-bone slam and pins but only gets two. Dragunov goes to the top rope and WALTER actually asks him to stop while still on the mat. Dragunov shakes his head and connects with a missile dropkick. Then he goes to another corner. Diving senton. But he knows that’s not enough. He goes for a running uppercut. WALTER counters with a sleeper hold and then into a sleeper suplex. Dragunov lands on his head…but somehow gets to his feet and charges. Torpedo Moscow running uppercut connects. Both men collapse as the fans chant ‘holy s**t’.
Dragunov gets up first and lands another running uppercut. He goes for the pin. WALTER kicks out at 2.9. Dragunov has this look of shock, fear, and despair on his face. Desperate, he resorts to chops to various points on WALTER’s body. He charges…and runs into another massive chop from WALTER. WALTER pins but only gets two, so he goes to the top rope for a splash. Dragunov cuts him off with a superplex. He goes back to the top rope and lands another missile dropkick. Dragunov takes aim for and charges with another Torpedo Moscow. WALTER cuts him off with a running shotgun dropkick. Folding powerbomb! One, two, thr – no, Dragunov kicks out.
WALTER slaps the taste out of Dragunov’s mouth and hits a running knee. he lands another powerbomb and goes to the top rope. Diving splash. Dragunov screams in agony as he’s covered. One, two, NO, Dragunov kicks out yet again. WALTER mounts Dragunov and starts hitting hammer fists and forearm clubs as Dragunov covers his head. WALTER tries another sleeper hold but Dragunov throws him off this time. WALTER lands a big boot but Dragunov ducks a lariat and lands a second-rope diving head-butt. Dragunov hits some elbows to a grounded WALTER and locks in his own sleeper. WALTER powers up and carries Dragunov on his back to the second rope and falls backwards. Dragunov separates from WALTER but rushes back to land more elbows. Then he locks in another sleeper hold. WALTER powers through again and falls backwards, with all his weight crashing onto Dragunov. But Dragunov maintains his sleeper. Dragunov taunts WALTER in German but WALTER manages to make it to his knees. Dragunov hammers WALTER with everything he’s got. Backfist to the back of the neck. Elbow smash to the back of the neck. Dragunov copies WALTER and does a lifting wrenching sleeper lift. WALTER taps out instantly! There’s the match! Dragunov wins!
Winner and NEW WWE NXT UK Champion after 22:03: Ilja Dragunov
When this match took place, I remember several people called WALTER “the best wrestler on the planet”. Well, once again he made a strong case to prove he is because HOLY SHIT WAS THIS A GREAT MATCH!
This was the kind of match that anyone can enjoy. It had a classic David vs. Goliath dynamic that was on display from bell to bell. Dragunov came across as the relatable underdog and WALTER was the nigh-unstoppable juggernaut. They had tremendous chemistry together. They complimented each other’s strengths and meshed so well that it was as if they’d had hundreds of matches together. But most importantly, they beat the piss out of each other. This was easily one of the most brutal matches I’ve ever seen that didn’t involve any weapons. It was hard-hitting in the classic AJPW way. In fact, just like its predecessor, this was basically a 1990s King’s Road match transported thirty years into the future.
This match was fantastic because it had both its own self-contained story and it included callbacks to their match from August 2020. Dragunov was much more careful here now that he knew what WALTER was capable of. He showed that by constantly going after WALTER’s lariat arm throughout the match. And unlike many so-called epics in which such rigorous limb-work gets forgotten, here it had an impact: WALTER landed two consecutive lariats and wasn’t able to win with them. And WALTER was just as strong with his psychology as he attacked Dragunov’s back with kicks and submission holds for a long time in the hopes of slowing Dragunov down. But whereas Dragunov’s strategy was successful, WALTER’s was not. Dragunov showed incredible heart and resilience here. He took a monumental beating from the stiffest wrestler alive today and refused to stay down. That was where Dragunov’s talents really shone through: no matter how hard the impact was, no matter how red and blistered his body got, no matter how pained the expression on his face was, Dragunov refused to give up. He fought like a man and even demanded WALTER hit him with all his might. Dragunov was perfect in his role as was WALTER. Together, they demolished each other in a twenty-two minute war.
As for the callbacks, those were sprinkled throughout the match to add gravity to what was happening. Most of it came from both men trading finishers and signature spots, such as when Dragunov chopped the back of WALTER’s neck as a reflection of their first match. The best one was at the very end with the sleeper. Back in 2020, it was WALTER’s sleeper that put Dragunov out; though as I said in that review, Dragunov never quit but lost because the referee saw that Dragunov’s body had given up on him. Here it was the opposite in two ways: not only was it Dragunov putting WALTER in the sleeper, but WALTER consciously tapped out. He made the choice to submit to Dragunov’s sleeper as opposed to fighting through it and never ‘formally’ giving up. That minor detail alone not only heightened the greatness of Dragunov’s winning moment, but it brought some poetic justice through Dragunov using the same weapon that WALTER had used before against his much stronger opponent. Subtleties like that go a long way in rewarding viewers for watching multiple matches in a single feud.
There was everything great about wrestling all condensed into one contest. Strong technical wrestling that made sense? Check. Well-defined characters in obvious roles that were played to perfection? Check. Wrestling psychology grounded in logic that stayed consistent from beginning to end? Check. Insane, brutal action that made viewers believe how strong and tough the wrestlers were? Check. Unpredictability mixed with credible near-falls based on how the match was laid out? Check. Simple wrestling without the need to overthink things or add unnecessary elements like gratuitous flips, bad comedy, or tongue-in-cheek digs at the wrestling business itself? Check. This match literally had everything one can enjoy in wrestling.
Final Rating: *****
WALTER and Dragunov had only two epic matches together (so far) in WWE and both are among the best matches I’ve ever seen. And yet, I think that the first one was a bit better, even though it lacked the crowd. Though both matches were and still are fantastic, the first one had a bit more balance to it. This match was mostly Dragunov overcoming WALTER and finishing him off at the end whereas the first one saw both wrestlers go a bit further in trying to hurt each other.
All the same, this is definitely one of the best matches to ever take place under the larger WWE umbrella. The only place to watch it is on the WWE Network, but man, seeing this match more than justifies the cost.
Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.