Ilja Dragunov is not an overnight success. In a career that has spanned nearly a decade, Dragunov comes to the ring with an intensity that hasn’t been seen in the WWE for many a year. While many may confuse his size as a guise for a talent with great heart, it isn’t a fair assessment of him as an athlete. Trained by former WWE and NXT talent Alexander Wolfe & Rick Baxxter, Dragunov has worked hard to be where he is today.
The story of Ilja Dragunov isn’t a tale like everyone else. Born Ilja Rukober, Dragunov was born in Moscow, Russia, and would immigrate to Germany with his mother when he was only five years of age. With no ability to speak the language, Dragunov and his mother would build a life for themselves in their new home. He never initially had aspirations of becoming a wrestler.
His immediate priority was to help his family when he was of old enough. Working jobs in a gas station or pizza restaurant to simply provide or his family. As he would grow, he would build a family. He came from nothing to become something. In his own words, becoming a wrestler was never his life’s calling from a young age but was somewhat different.
‘It was more or less an accident. Basically, everything I do in my life, whether it’s professionally or concerning my family, whatever I begin, everything that fuels me with passion, its what I’ll be invested in long-term.
So wrestling came into my life – I don’t feel like I chose wrestling, wrestling chose me – and when I had realized that, I thought, “Okay, it’s what I enjoy, that’s what fuels me, that awakens something inside of me.” So to me, there was no other option than investing everything into it. That’s all I can do.”
From literally nothing, Dragunov became a husband and a father. Each day that passed provided him with new and different opportunities for professionally. By his own admission, wrestling to him is all about emotion. To see him compete, it is impossible to ignore the raw emotion that he brings to every match. From the sheer intensity he brings with every strike to the fierce means he attacks his opponents. There is nothing mild-mannered about Dragunov.
“That’s a declaration to anyone trying to mess with me. Nobody can feel or imagine the physical and mental pain I took to get to this point. I remember it like it was yesterday, and I will fight like my life, again and again, depends on it. I’m not human; I’m a symbol.” –Ilja Dragunov in an interview at Wrestlezone.com
However, to appreciate where Dragunov is, it is important to follow his journey before joining the WWE’s NXT and NXT UK brands. His first documented match was nearly ten years ago. On April 21st, 2012, Dragunov was part of a three-team tag team gauntlet match competing for the German Wrestling Federation.
Despite him and his partner Zero Samurai being unsuccessful, as always, it is in defeat where the greatest learning can come about. He would go on to gain his first win on July 7th, 2012, also in the German Wrestling Federation.
The following year, Dragunov would compete for several promotions, including Big Japan Pro-Wrestling. However, it wasn’t until he would compete for Westside Xtreme Wrestling, based out of Essen, Deutschland, and Nordrhein-Westfalen, that he would find a home. The promotion has been in existence for over two decades and has seen the likes of Timothy Thatcher and WALTER also be integral parts of the promotions past.
History with WALTER
Throughout his career, Ilja Dragunov and WALTER have either stood in the ring from one another or been on the same side with one another. A documented 34 times. The first time the two men faced one another was in September 2015 at wXw’s 15th Anniversary Tour in Borken, Germany, with very modest results. Known then as ‘Big Daddy’ Walter, he and Dragunov wrestled to a double count-out.
Neither man got the better of the other. However, a couple of months later, Dragunov would finally get the better of Big Daddy Walter on the same tour. This time, however, it was via disqualification. So while a win is a win, in this instance, it would be no better than to win by count-out. This win didn’t demonstrate the intensity and fire that burns with Dragunov.
Their paths crossed once again a month later when Dragunov and his partner Robert Dreissker, collectively known as Cerberus, would defeat Big Daddy Walter and his tag team partner Zack Sabre Jr to capture the wXw World Tag Team Championships. This win here certainly symbolized something to Dragunov against Walter. He had taken something that meant a great deal to Walter and dethroned the then tag team champions.
It would be nearly a year later before the two would once again cross paths. This time Big Daddy Walter had become simply WALTER. With the newly shortened and direct name came a new vision. During wXw’s Shotgun Live Tour in Koln, WALTER would defeat Dragunov by the referee’s decision. The next time the two would face one another in a match of significance would be for the wXw Unified World Wrestling Title.
Again, Dragunov would defeat WALTER after twenty-three minutes in an absolute war. WALTER would once again earn a title match less than a month later, but the result was the same. Losing to the champion Dragunov.
As time passed, the two rivals would eventually come together to achieve success as a tag team. On August 3rd, 2019, Dragunov and WALTER would come together to defeat Aussie Open (Mark Davis and Kyle Fletcher) to become the wXw World Tag Team Champions.
Unfortunately, their reign would be short-lived as Fletcher and Davis would regain the titles less than a month after losing them. The next time the two would step into the ring across from one another would be as part of the WWE’s NXT UK brand.
“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 recognized 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 also has 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.” – Ilja Dragunov talking to Inside The Ropes
Outside of his time in wXw, the one promotion that was also home to Dragunov was PROGRESS Wrestling based in the UK. In 2018, Dragunov appeared in PROGRESS for the first time, coming face to face with Pete Dunne during PROGRESS’ Chapter 69 event. Three months later, Pete Dunne would accept Dragunov’s challenge that was set to take place in England’s historic Wembley Arena.
Three months after that, Dragunov would help Christian Michael Jakobi during Dunne’s attack of him after a series of insults. The two men would battle time and time again despite both being challenged. It would be September 2018, when Dunne and Dragunov would finally face one another. Despite coming out on the losing side at Chapter 76: Hello Wembley, Dragunov would leave an impression on Dunne.
The following year, Dragunov would take part in Super Strong Style 16, PROGRESS’ annual tournament. He would make it to the semi-finals after being eliminated in a three-way elimination match. He would later become the number one contender for the Unified World Championship. But, unfortunately, he would lose to long-time rival WALTER.
As 2018 became 2019, Dragunov’s stock was off the charts. It was announced that he would be joining the WWE as part of their NXT UK brand. After failing on two separate try-outs to make the roster, he would officially sign with the company at the end of February 2019. His career has been anything but conventional. He has faced men bigger than him, stronger than him.
But they all fail to achieve where has been successful. Dragunov’s unmatched intensity is frightening. From the look in his eyes to the pulsating veins in his forehead, the sheer ferocity to which he walks into his match is just as apparent now as it was for him before he joined the WWE.