There’s a lot about this match working against it. Its greatest crime, of course, is forcing anyone to pay attention to NXT UK. The show, at its best, is a cynical capitalist measure to stamp out the momentum of independent promotions that made a name for themselves in the mid to late 2010s. That’s the best case scenario of NXT UK. Of course, after the Speaking Out movement, the brand has been revealed to be not only the attempt at a total wrestling monopoly but also a safe haven for physical and sexual abusers that make just enough money to keep them from being held accountable. I’m sure the same could be said about many promotions all over the world but WWE’s distinct position at the top of the mountain with all the money in the world to burn make them easily the most egregious offenders. You can afford to fire some domestic abusers, Vince, you have every other wrestler in the world on your roster already.
Part of what makes NXT UK and even NXT itself so exhausting as well is that it’s just corporate rebranding of things that have already worked elsewhere. This match embodies that kind of idea. WALTER and Ilja’s best known match up in the finals of the 2017 16 Carat Gold tournament will always come off far more sincere and impactful than this ever could. It was the kind of organic match up that drew attention to a small European indie through the sheer power of its quality. This, however, is a repackaged old favorite run by the largest company in the world to try to leech off the shine of someone that did it first and did it better.
With all that being said, this match rules.
Incredibly hard to get this match up wrong. This the kind of match up tailor made to thrive in the COVID-era setting. They just beat the shit out of each other for twenty plus minutes and drop each other on their heads. Honestly, sometimes that’s all you can ask for out of a match. They start things incredibly hot by running through the finishing sequence that ended the excellent build up tag to this from a few weeks prior to get the energy going from the get go. WALTER smartly transitions into a more traditional heat segment by slinging Ilja throat first into the ring ropes, setting up an attack on the neck.
WALTER’s work on the neck here is fantastic. A lot of it is simple stuff like neck cranks and headlocks but those things stand out when a man the size of WALTER actually puts some pressure on it. Ilja does well to come across as sympathetic here. His high energy feels suited to this kind of high stakes setting. He emotes so damn hard in a way that could get grating if overdone but up against a behemoth like WALTER just feels right.
Ilja sells the neck well, it’s not a problem that just goes away. Even when he’s hitting Germans, he can never quite maintain the bridge and it bothers him to put that much weight on it. He even sneaks in a few of those nerdbait crumble sells even if some of them are somewhat baffling. Why would he crumble on the run up to a Torpedo Moscow? Surely his legs are still fine. I suppose one could say that it’s nerve damage cramping up his back which is fair enough. Early in the match, he does a lot of stiff arm selling to set up the idea of nerve damage being an issue as things progressed.
But of course, the best part of the match is the strikes. WALTER has some of the heaviest hands in wrestling and Ilja’s always been game to try to match them. These two just go to town with the chops and clubbing blows and lariats. Actual violence is almost always a plus in pro wrestling especially on a show as lifeless and irrelevant as NXT UK with only canned crowd noise in the background. There’s nothing fake about the blisters and welts all over Ilja by time the match ends and that’s good stuff.
This match isn’t perfect though. Down the stretch, it loses sight of what makes it work so well–the stiff and brutal action–and instead veers towards the things expected of it. It’s a major NXT Title match so it has to reach a little bit higher for that status of 5 Star Epic. The third act focuses much on more on big moves and bumps that simply don’t connect with the same immediacy as a frying pan palm to the chest. It’s structured to have the kind of extended finishing stretch to put over Ilja’s toughness and while it succeeds more than it flounders, there’s some sag in the final stretch where you kind of just want them to pack things up and quit while they’re ahead.
Even then though, I have to give them credit for attaining one final spike of energy in the match when it seemed like they’d already exhausted their playbook. WALTER nailing a suplex on the floor followed by a big bump into the stairs was an excellent set up for the final two moves that wrapped things off and they only missed the mark by about five minutes instead of a truly horrific ten or twenty.
In many ways, this is the kind of match that O’Reilly and Balor aspired for at Takeover but fell just a little short of. This match falls short of an entirely different standard of match up but when it comes to in your face stiffness and violence, they brought that around in spades.