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Our Q&A with Ilja Dragunov: Carmelo Hayes has a certain aura about him

It’s being billed as one of the biggest matches in the history of NXT. Saturday night at NXT No Mercy, Carmelo Hayes will defend his NXT Championship against Ilja Dragunov - former NXT UK Champion and one of the best professional wrestlers going today.

Of course, you simply cannot talk about the best in the game today without mentioning Carmelo Hayes. He truly is HIM. And he’s had the NXT Championship on lockdown since he won the title from Bron Breakker back at NXT Stand & Deliver in April.

It’s a run for Melo that already includes one victory over his opponent this Saturday night, but Ilja Dragunov is man on a mission and is not one to be deterred from fulfilling what he believes to be his destiny.

The last time these two men squared off against one another at the Great American Bash, they set the wrestling world on fire. Cageside Seats had a chance to catch up with Ilja Dragunov ahead of this highly anticipated rematch to get his thoughts on having to follow up on their previous encounter. As well as his connection to GUNTHER, the legacy of NXT UK and so much more!

Check out our full Q&A below:

Disclaimer: The questions themselves have been edited to provide additional information and better fit the written format.

Cageside Seats: This is obviously a big matchup for you coming up this Saturday against Carmelo Hayes. NXT Championship on the line. The last time that you two guys got in the ring with one another, it was just insane. An out of this world match. How do you personally prepare for a rematch like this? Does the thought of trying to live up to really high expectations that the fans are now gonna have for this rematch, cross your mind at all?

Ilja Dragunov: I wouldn’t say so, to be honest. I wouldn’t say so, because if you’re a person like me, who already always put everything I have into something, into all the performances... I don’t care about those calls of, I gotta follow up with this. We need to follow up with this. We need to do something better or whatever. Everything that attaches people is the story, is the depth. And the story is already there. Because after the first match, everything that happened after this, the people are captivated [as] Camelo tries to keep this Championship. I’m looking out for my destiny that I have been following since I came back to NXT. There’s already a bunch of fire in this feud and you just need to let this fire explode another time. And I have no worries, no doubts, that this performance, that we’re gonna deliver is gonna be spectacular or just like the last one.

cSs: Do you get more amped up for big show matches like this one? Or do you just try to remain consistent in your preparation and your mindset heading into each match, regardless if it’s a house show, NXT taping or a big pay-per-view like No Mercy?

Ilja Dragunov: I think it would be reasonable to actually prepare yourself different for different performances, but it’s absolutely not the person I am... I really, really am like a very unbalanced person in the business, as privately too. So there’s no difference for me. How many people are sitting in the audience, what kind of match this is, I have to fulfill the expectation people have towards me. Because I bring out everything out of me, everything out of the person I’m in the ring with. And the day I’m not gonna do this anymore, is the day where my passion is not enough to keep up with my body anymore.

cSs: Passion, that’s a great word to use when talking about yourself and a lot of people on this NXT roster, including Carmelo Hayes. You could see that in every single one of his matches, very early on in his NXT career. There’s just something about him that people noticed and latched onto right away. What do you think it is that makes Carmelo such a talented and special performer?

Ilja Dragunov: Of course it’s gonna be the charisma, it’s gonna be the athleticism, but I think if you really have this greatness to become Champion like he did and how he was probably supposed to be, because we can tell [he’s had] it since he started, is he has a certain aura about him. He has an aura that people see like, ‘Oh my God’. If I see this person, I need to cheer for him. I feel like I need to see him again and again, again and again. He has this certain aura that is very, very hard to teach. And this makes him so outstanding and it makes everything he does so outstanding. If you don’t have this aura and you don’t find a way to develop it, you’re not gonna reach heights like he did.

cSs: You’ve talked before about having chemistry with your opponent, specifically GUNTHER and the special chemistry the two of you have in the ring together. But I feel like you guys are cut from the same cloth in that, it very much feels like you personally can go out in the ring with anybody. You could go out in the ring with a broom handle and you’re gonna be able to put on a spectacular match and the crowd is going to go crazy. GUNTHER is very much the same. He seems to always get everyone’s best match. What is it about your game, personally, that that makes you so good and puts you in that rarefied air of being able to dance with seemingly everyone?

Ilja Dragunov: I must say I would never, ever be able to do this, the way you talk about, if I didn’t know [GUNTHER] for such a long time. I mean, like even before WWE, back in the days in Europe and Germany, we fought so many times and I would never, ever reach this level of capability without him. Never. Absolutely not. He’s the bar for me and I just try to keep up. I just try to be as great as he is, and this drive I have - because he’s still in that sense also kind of a rival for me - this is a drive that just cannot stop me.

And all those lessons, all those battles we had just made me, feel a lot of pain (laughs), but it gave me so much experience. It made me so passionate because he is a person... he really puts you into this deep water and he brings a different side out of you. And this is the most fascinating thing to do. That’s the reason why he’s one of a kind. And this is the only reason I’m this good.

cSs: So in a sense, even though you two are on separate brands and you have not faced each other since Takeover 36, you guys are still competing with each other. Whether it’s what he’s doing on the main roster with Chad Gable and all these other wonderful matches that he’s had, or whether it’s your matches with Dijak, Carmelo Hayes or Baron Corbin, you guys still compete with one another?

Ilja Dragunov: Of course we do. Of course we do, because you’re gonna just check social media, how often people talk about us both in the same tweet or post or whatever. Our names are always close to each other. I still see everything he does. So of course, he always recognizes what I do. I mean, we kind of like, we are in a constellation. Always, somehow, like a thing of destiny. I don’t know how to call it another way.

cSs: As I’m sure you are well aware of then, GUNTHER recently became the longest reigning Intercontinental Heavyweight Champion of all time, breaking a record that’s been around as long as I’ve been alive. What is your honest as assessment the work he’s done on Raw and SmackDown in the last year?

Ilja Dragunov: Like the first thing I thought is, yeah, of course. It’s impressive. Of course. I feel like... how great it is that I had the opportunity to fight with him so many times. But this is like an obvious thing for me, because you just gotta understand this person has a mentality and a drive that is one of a kind. You can’t compare him to anybody else. And all those things happened, yeah, of course they did. Like, how [could they not]? That’s my thought on that.

cSs: Now you’ve made it pretty clear in the past that you are not in a hurry to get up to the main roster, even if it’s to provide GUNTHER with some competition for that Intercontinental Championship, but do you feel like if you got the call tomorrow that you were being moved to Raw or SmackDown that you would be ready to go? Or would you still want to hone your craft in NXT? Is there anything specifically that you’re working on before you’d like to switch brands?

Ilja Dragunov: I really need to continue to confess that I don’t have those milestone goals, because some things are just out of my control. Some things, especially in this business, happen so fast, change so fast. I don’t stop myself with things like this.

I really put a lot of focus and a lot of passion in every single performance I have because, [I don’t want] this day to come where I don’t feel this anymore and I just work from one step to another. And I’m thinking already about the next step ahead when the one step happens. It’s just, not me. I just try to do everything I do with as much personal energy and personal passion as I possibly can because otherwise how could I really be in that moment and appreciate things?

I know people, they’re just getting from one thing to another. They get used to this and somehow lose passion. You can see it sometimes, that people lose passion, but if I really focus on how precious every step can be and how you can own all those moments, there’s so much more value to this than just saying, ‘Hey, I just want to go up as fast as possible.’ No, I’m just writing my story here right now. And I wanna include those people. If somebody decides, okay, let’s go. I’m prepared for everything. I prepare for chaos, but as long as I have the chance to create unique performances, I’m gonna do so.

cSs: Has that mindset then amplified the feeling inside you when you do get one of those big milestones, like winning the NXT UK Championship, or if you beat Carmelo this Saturday and you’re standing there as the NXT Champion?

Ilja Dragunov: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, when those moments happen, like, I don’t know... I feel I get sometimes stuck in moments so bad that I really think about all those moments leading up to [them] and how crazy it is. How everything just comes together through, sometimes, ridiculous ways. This is what makes this whole journey like, a lot better. Life is art and seeing those moments and how they work together to bring you to exact this point, to facing your destiny, this is a story that only life can write.

cSs: Now you are an alumni of NXT UK and unfortunately that brand specifically does not, technically does not exist anymore. There are still plans to relaunch it obviously, but if you look across the landscape of WWE right now, whether it’s on SmackDown with Isla Dawn and Alba Fyre, or Butch. You look at what GUNTHER is doing on Raw, Piper Niven as well, there are elements and sprinkles of NXT UK talent everywhere. Do you take pride that even though NXT UK is gone, it’s definitely not forgotten and you guys are still making your presence felt on WWE television?

Ilja Dragunov: 100%. I mean, we accomplished so many things. Things are not meant to be for eternity, sometimes. Life changes, things happen, but there were still so many things that came through NXT UK. So many people that got a chance to continue [their career]. So many eyes got put on European talent and the tradition of this business in Europe that is rich. That is so rich and so many people that came from the same tradition as I came from, just from different places, those people now are building the future of this company and have all those beautiful chances to shine. Well then, NXT UK was a big success in my opinion.

cSs: Now, it’s hard to look back at certain points in your career and wonder where you’d be now if you took a different path. Like, I can point to a time in my life where I almost got a radio gig in Cleveland. I didn’t and then I met my wife in Cincinnati like a month or two later. It’s crazy what ripple effects certain little life events can have. That said, could you imagine where you would be right now if it wasn’t for NXT UK?

Ilja Dragunov: I don’t, I really don’t know. I never ask myself this question. I never ask it, but I think everything happens for a reason and me being here right now is something I couldn’t imagine for a very long time. Just being the fact, of living in the states, for example.

cSs: And let’s talk about the show you’re on now here in the states. There’s been a ton of buzz surrounding NXT recently. Kind of reminiscent to where this brand was years ago when it was viewed by many as a viable third brand and the black and gold was reigning supreme at Survivor Series. Things changed over time however, the program evolved and it’s fair to say the show lost it’s momentum. But now that pendulum is swinging back the other way. You see the ratings starting to build back up and people are talking about NXT like they did in 2018, 2019. Do you guys feel that as a roster and a locker room, that you all are starting to build this brand back up into something really special again?

Ilja Dragunov: Absolutely, because you just can tell how hard people work. You get to see people that are, working for such a long time, so hard. Like, there are new people coming up. Everybody’s really trying to make the best out of the chances they get.

For example. Where I really thought, well this person that worked so long, kind of now has his breakout and then I realized how over he is with the audience. When I had the match with Trick Williams, I really, really felt that. This place is special and people who are here long enough have the opportunity to become very special. So he’s a name that’s stuck in my head.

You just feel the aura of this place. You just feel how much the audience is loyal to this product, loyal to us. And, like I said, things change all the time and nothing is meant to be forever. Hype goes down, in between, but then you just gotta find ways to get back on top. And this is just life in general. And I think NXT is doing great right now. People work very hard and you can see [improvement] in different aspects, like the ratings and everything. It’s our time to shine.

Will Ilja Dragunov fulfill his destiny and defeat Carmelo Hayes to become the new NXT Champion? Tune in to NXT No Mercy Saturday night to find out. Coverage starts at 8pm ET on Peacock.

You can follow Rick Ucchino on Twitter and subscribe to the Bleav in Pro Wrestling Podcast Channel for more of his work.

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