As the year comes to a close, we need to talk about Ilja Dragunov. The last twelve months of his have been nothing short of incredible, as he’s been having match-of-the-year-candidates on a consistent basis.

    Dragunov ended 2018 on a real high. From a show-stealing match against David Starr at PROGRESS Chapter 78 to a hidden gem with Travis Banks at Chapter 81, he set the tone early on for his 2019.

    Sure, his PROGRESS debut against Pete Dunne at Wembley Arena a couple of months prior left a little bit to be desired, but November 2018 was a real turning point for Dragunov in PROGRESS that led to the beginning of a standout year for the Czar.

    Here are Ilja Dragunov’s five best matches from 2019.

    Ilja Dragunov vs. Timothy Thatcher – PROGRESS Chapter 83

    Courtesy: PROGRESS Wrestling

    Every once in a while, a single match announcement is enough to convince me to travel across the country to witness live and in person. January of this year is a case in point, as Dragunov was advertised for a match against Timothy Thatcher in a match that promised to be right up my alley, and it was. 

    This match was an excellent showcase of mat-grappling, smart striking and tactical use of bodyweight from both performers and was a great opener for a show that I personally thought was underwhelming as a whole. It is fair to say that Thatcher and Dragunov have very natural chemistry when in the ring together, and I would love to see a rematch between these two with higher stakes. I urge you to check out this match on Demand Progress – it is a criminally under-appreciated match.

    Ilja Dragunov vs. Cesaro – NXT UK TakeOver: Cardiff

    Courtesy: WWE

    In the week leading up to NXT UK’s second marquee event, Cesaro announced that he would take a ‘hands-on approach’ as he paid a visit to WWE’s UK brand. Speculation of his potential opponent took over Twitter as fans discussed the plethora of possible show-stealing matches. 

    By merely mentioning Cesaro’s name whilst stood in the ring, the entirety of the Cardiff crowd gasped in unison as they realized what they were about to witness. 

    What followed was a match that I could only imagine was an eyebrow-raising moment for those unfamiliar with Dragunov. To me, this became evident as the reactions he has garnered from the live crowd at subsequent NXT UK TV tapings are far more positive than those he faced before his TakeOver match. 

    Despite not defeating the SmackDown superstar, the growing connection Dragunov now has with the NXT UK crowd is a testament to how well he has performed in these big match scenarios, not only against Cesaro but also against the likes of Kassius Ohno on NXT UK TV. 

    Ilja Dragunov vs. Cara Noir – PROGRESS Chapter 96

    Courtesy: Head Drop

    2019 has been the rise of Cara Noir as much as it has been Ilja’s year. After a star-making match against NXT’s Pete Dunne at Chapter 95, Ilja Dragunov was Noir’s next hurdle in his meteoric rise. This match delivered in the ring as much as it promised on paper – stiff strikes and flawless grappling. 

    The unorthodox stage-show nature of Noir’s character provided the perfect platform for Ilja to showcase his weird side as well. This was especially apparent in their rematch at Chapter 97 last week as they played all sorts of mind games that involved them holding hands and kissing on the forehead. I’m sure their second match was a big hit on Tumblr.

    Ilja Dragunov vs. WALTER – PROGRESS Chapter 92

    Courtesy: Head Drop

    David Starr, Cara Noir, and WALTER. Whenever Dragunov laces up a pair of boots in preparation for a match at the Ritz in Manchester, it is safe to assume that the show is about to be stolen. This is exactly what happened at PROGRESS’ Chapter 92 in the main event of what could be considered the best British wrestling weekender of the year. 

    After defeating Jordan Devlin the night before (more on that later), Dragunov earned himself his first-ever PROGRESS World Championship opportunity, which just so happened to be against WALTER – a man who Dragunov is more than familiar with after tremendous matches in 2017’s 16 Carat Gold tournament final and indeed the following year in a three-way match involving John ‘Bad Bones’ Klinger, the latter of which saw Ilja being crowned the wXw Unified World Wrestling Championship.

    Chapter 92’s main event was just as good, if not better; though of course that might come with some live bias on my part. Sitting in the front row for a hard-hitting match with such a big fight feel was an incredible experience. It really felt like both men were willing to batter each other for the biggest prize in European wrestling – just look at a photo of Ilja’s bruised chest after the match. This match was a magnificent way to end a great weekender, and it definitely holds up on the VOD.

    Ilja Dragunov vs. Jordan Devlin – PROGRESS Chapter 91

    Courtesy: Head Drop

    Sometimes as a wrestling fan, we see a match graphic and immediately get excited. The announcement of Ilja Dragunov vs. Jordan Devlin in a number one contendership match in Newcastle did exactly that. There was no way this match was ever going to be anything less than sensational. 

    Right from the start, the very vociferous crowd picked their hill to die on. The back-and-forth Devlin/Ilja chants were deafening throughout the match and created a special atmosphere. As you can imagine, the wrestling was picture perfect and definitely warranted the positive reaction. Amazing moments such as Devlin’s Torpedo Moscow reversal into a Canadian Destroyer and his missed moonsault presenting Ilja with the opportunity for a Torpedo Moscow out of nowhere made this an unforgettable match for me and is quite possibly my favourite European match of the year at the time of writing. 

    If there is one match from this list that you should watch, definitely check out Dragunov vs. Devlin. It encapsulated everything that makes professional wrestling such an amazing art-form and I will never tire of watching it.

    Ilja Dragunov is my standout performer of 2019. Even with a focus on his work in NXT UK and PROGRESS, the list of incredible matches he has been a part of goes on and on, and we’re only scratching the surface. I believe that he has to be in the conversation for one of the best professional wrestlers in the world at this point, and there is still time to better himself in 2019. Who knows what Ilja will be capable of in 2020?

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    You can find the author of this article on @DeiOwen. Thanks for reading!