This weekend NXT presents The Great American Bash from the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park in Austin, Texas. In the main event, Carmello Hayes defends the NXT Championship against one of the most volatile Superstars the brand has ever seen in Ilja Dragunov. Andy Spoors interviewed the challenger exclusively for Wrestlesphere.
It is next to impossible to speak to Ilja Dragunov without thinking of those now infamous matches with Gunther (at the time named WALTER) for the NXT UK Championship.
Such was the brutality, the images of both men clutching at their beet red chests, eyes aflame, sweat pouring from every inch of their bodies, will never be forgotten.
Nor should they. On those nights, whether in an empty TV studio for their first match, or in the Performance Center for their second, both battels were an absolute war of attrition.
But looking back, which bout did the challenger prefer?
“I think for me, the first one,” said Druganov. “A lot of people would probably struggle with having no audience at all.
“But for me I was thinking ‘this is great!’ because I never really care about how many people are sitting in the audience.
“For what I want to create, for the result? The adrenaline is already there.
“I have an adrenaline on the highest level even before I see the first fan. And especially with this empty, cold room and all the noises. Everything that happened felt so different.”
“This match was physically one of the peak performances I’ve ever had, because I remember after the match laying in the ring.
“I don’t think I could give anything more when the match was done. There was nothing else I could give at this moment. I was dehydrated. I had no air at all in the lungs anymore. I was done.”
Speculation has been rife on Dragunov’s future ever since his arrival in the United States.
And after a series of eye catching matches against JD McDonagh and Dijak, hopes have built that the Mad Dragon will shortly be called up to the main roster.
“As long as I can perform with the most honest version of myself, it really doesn’t matter where I am,” he added.
“Because again it doesn’t matter who is around me, doesn’t matter who’s talking to me, I’m going to constantly put out the biggest part of my soul into this.
“It’s something that is making me stick out, because it’s not only in the ring, it’s everything I do.
“I try to do everything passionately because otherwise it doesn’t mean anything. So if you put soul into something it becomes art.”
Curiously — and perhaps an example of social media fantasy booking more than anything else — there have been whispers from fans hoping to see Dragunov join with his rival, Gunther, and join Imperium in the future.
“My question would be who actually wants that,” he added. “Because there couldn’t be more differences between Imperium and me.
“Those guys are very cold, very stoic, very methodical. I am a completely unbalanced, super intense Mad Dragon!
“That’s the person I am. These things don’t fit together, so who wants to see something that is not fitting together?”
One thing the WWE Universe may not have been expecting to fit together is the appearance of facial hair on the usually clean shaven Dragunov.
“First I had a big cut after the Dijak match on my chin so I couldn’t shave myself, or I could but it would look just ridiculous,” he added.
“So I kind of let it grow. Then I just thought I kind of like what I see! I’ve always been a big fan since my early career of trying things. Just try!
“A lot of people hold back because they are afraid of the reaction of others. Maybe they don’t like it or it looks stupid or whatever.
“I thought I like the look and it fits into the whole intense Mad Dragon persona so let it grow. And I still like it, so I’m just trying different things! Always in life, try different things, that is the source of creativity.”
For those not yet accustomed to his work, when asked about what fans can expect this Sunday at The Great American Bash, the Mad Dragon smiled before a steeliness and determination washed away any trace of a grin.
“You’re going to see a fight,” he added. “You’re going to see something that matters. And it’s for the biggest prize in NXT.
“There is no person on this planet that is more ready to give everything he has to take this spot. To be this person and to be the face of the NXT brand.”
Watch NXT The Great American Bash live this Sunday on the WWE Network or Peacock in the United States.