WWE’s Russian star Ilja Dragunov had the wrestling world at his feet before a disastrous injury stuck that put him on the shelf for the foreseeable future. The former NXT United Kingdom champion went from being one of the best wrestlers in the world and the man to carry his brand forward, to watching NXT UK shut down and many of his friends and colleagues let go from the WWE.
Here we will look at his incredible title victory that was cruelly ripped from him after an injury to Ilja Dragunov forced him to relinquish his hard-fought championship and stuck him on the side-lines for the foreseeable future. We will look at how long he will be injured for, when he will return to WWE and if he could make a shock appearance at Cardiff’s Clash at the Castle event next month.
He Won The NXT UK Championship From WALTER In One Of The Best Matches Ever
Ilja Dragunov won the NXT United Kingdom Championship at NXT Takeover 36. He faced WALTER (now GUNTHER in WWE), who had held the championship for an eye-watering 840 days, during the American NXT show in front of thousands of screaming WWE fans.
Taking every big hit and thunderous slam WALTER could muster, Ilja Dragunov eventually worse down the giant Austrian and forced him to tap out, giving him his first ever championship in NXT. He became the first Russian to win gold in WWE since Vladmir Kozlov became WWE Tag Team Champion alongside Santino Marella and only the second non-Briton to win the UK Championship.
His reign was brief but featured some incredible match, with Dragunov mastering the art of the babyface who can take punishment and keep on going. He defended his championship 5 times against 5 very different opponents.
His NXT UK Championship defences were against;
- Rampage Brown
- Roderick Strong
- Nathan Frazier
- Jordan Devlin
However, the fifth defence would prove to be a disaster for Ilja Dragunov and would be where injury would strike.
Ilja Dragunov’s Injury Cost Him The UK Championship
On July 7 2022, Ilja Dragunov was forced to give up his United Kingdom Championship at a TV taping due to injury. The champion appeared in the ring in a protective boot, indicating that he had suffered an injury to his foot during a title defence against Wolfgang.
Dragunov gave up the championship which he had battled so hard to win. Coming off the back of his legendary victory over WALTER, he had the world at his feet. Unfortunately, this was now the area causing him the most problems in an unfortunate turn of events.
An NXT United Kingdom Championship title tournament was set up, pitting 8 of the top stars of the promotion against one another for the chance to become the champion of Great Britain. However, the result was spoiled when new champion Tyler Bate appeared at NXT: Heatwave to challenge NXT Champion Bron Breakker for the World’s Collide event in September.
That means that we could have seen Ilja Dragunov vs Bron Breakker if he had not succumbed to injury. That would have been an NXT dream match and would have pitted two future WWE Champions against each other in a bout that would have been talked about for years to come.
However, with his injury worries mounting, Ilja Dragunov’s future in NXT UK has come under threat.
His Future Is Up In The Air After NXT UK Shut Down
On the 18th August 2022, WWE announced that NXT UK would be taking a “hiatus” and announced the formation of a brand new show – NXT Europe. It is expected that NXT Europe would replace the United Kingdom show, leaving a lot of talent to fear for their jobs with the move across the channel to Europe.
Some of those fears were founded. Several WWE superstars were released from their deals, including some of the most popular acts on NXT UK like Mark Andrews and Flash Morgan Webster. The roster was gutted and a host of talent poached from the UK indie scene was released back into the wild after achieving very little in the company.
This move to Europe could be huge for Ilja Dragunov, or could be the death knell in his WWE career. He is an insane competitor in the ring and one of the best wrestlers in the entire world. However, with his current injury status, WWE could be biding their time to release him from his deal once he has recovered – the company generally looks after it’s employees whilst they are on the shelf.
His nationality could also be a sticking point for WWE. Whilst he has shown to be nothing but a top employee and a world class wrestler, the currently political sphere does not look kindly upon the Russians. With the current war in Ukraine raging on, many Russian companies and persons have been sanctioned by the west, with the United Kingdom being one of the hardest hitters.
WWE may want to get rid of any Russian influences on the brand, with European fans unlikely to take to any Russian being a “good guy” with the current war raging on. Whilst the average Russian has nothing to do with the war, WWE may be unable to ignore the general sentiment felt toward Russia and pull the plug on the push of one of their finest grapplers.
Obviously, Ilja Dragunov has nothing to do with the war and his push should not be affected. But you never know with WWE and anything could happen, although we hope that they see sense and still view him as one of their top European stars once he is healed from his injury.
When Will Ilja Dragunov Return From Injury?
Ilja Dragunov’s current return date is unknown, as WWE have yet to confirm the extent of the injury he suffered. He was pictured wearing a protective boot when relinquishing his NXT UK Championship, so it is obvious that he is suffering from a foot injury.
However, if we look outward into the world of wrestling we can compare his injury to a champion of another promotion. CM Punk also suffered a foot injury after AEW Double or Nothing 2022, breaking it and having to wear a similar protective boot whilst he recovered.
He recently returned to AEW on AEW Dynamite this month, spending almost 2 months out of the ring. He was forced to miss Forbidden Door but will be back to wrestle Jon Moxley for the Undisputed AEW Championship.
With that being said, we can estimate that Ilja Dragunov will return to WWE from injury in late September. He was injured in July, so giving him a full 2 months to recover seems accurate, given CM Punk’s recovery time. However, NXT Europe will not be launching until 2023 so they may hold off on re-debuting the Russian former champion until that promotion is up and running.
Other options including debuting him on NXT 2.0 or even a main roster call-up after Clash at the Castle. An appearance the UK stadium show may be too much, too soon, but could always be a possibility. He is used to surprise appearances in Cardiff, having faced Cesaro at NXT UK Takeover Cardiff in 2019, in a losing effort.
Ilja Dragunov could be drafted to Raw or Smackdown as part of the upcoming WWE draft but it is most likely he will be used as the new face of NXT Europe, which came to be after NXT UK shut down.