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Wednesday, January 05, 2022

NXT UK Worth Watching: Wolfe! Dragunov! Grizzled Young Vets! Flash Morgan Webster!

Zack Gibson/James Drake vs. Flash Morgan Webster/Mark Andrews NXT UK 10/5 (Aired 11/7/19) (Ep. #67)

ER: This felt like a properly condensed version of their more bloated Big TakeOver match and had a really nice extended face in peril section that made the bigger spots feel bigger than the (even bigger) spots at TakeOver. It's always fun when southern tag formula slips into WWE tag matches, and it's even more fun when it shows up on a WWE branded show in Essex. This settled nicely into a nearly 8 minute segment of GYV cutting Webster off from Andrews with quick tags and a couple of great teases. Drake and Gibson are strong opponents for Webster and Andrews. Drake is really good at taking bumps that require him to run recklessly at an opponent, and Gibson knows how to ratchet up the meanness to make a match like this feel like more than "taking moves". There was some nice clever moments to lengthen the match, with my favorite a stretch where Drake gave Webster a hard shove backwards into the corner, but Webster throws a back elbow to Gibson on the apron while hitting the buckles. Gibson disappears after taking the unexpected elbow, but appears shortly after to yank Andrews off the apron *just* when Webster is about to tag in. I didn't love the back stretch (once Andrews finally got tagged in) as much as the Webster FIP stretch, but Drake did a great job holding it together by being one of the best in NXT UK at taking Andrews' complicated offense. Drake didn't need to save anything, but he definitely made Andrews' biggest stuff (big rana to the floor, crazy dragon rana in the ring) look great, where a messy catch would have made the match really fall apart. We break down into several cool spots, like Gibson getting spiked on a tornado DDT, Webster hitting a big senton, and Andrews trying to slide under a superkick but getting scalped and left looking like a limbo bar casualty on that mat. It all ends with Gallus, Imperium, and Dragunov running in to mess everything up and set up a big WarGames, but this tag got a lot of time to build and they used that time well, great match between two title contenders. 

Alexander Wolfe vs. Ilja Dragunov NXT UK 11/15 (Aired 11/21/19) (Ep. #69)

ER: This was an incredible Wolfe performance, able to sustain a 15 minute match while contending with Dragunov's hambone improv vet theater kid routine that kept threatening to derail this whole thing. Wolfe is the closest guy on the WWE roster to Fit Finlay - even closer than Gulak - for his ability to stay active and stay after his opponent. There's so much empty space in matches now. There is a lot of movement and action, but a lot of it is joyless step memorizing. Finlay, Bret Hart, Andre, Arn, those were guys who knew how to fill time while looking in the moment. It feels a bit much to say Wolfe's name in the same breath as any of those legends, but it's a style that really stands out so much more now. Guys were a lot more active with selling and movement in the 80s and 90s, in a way that didn't relate to their offense. It's now a rarity to see guys fill time with "non-offense" like stomping someone's hand or raking their boot eyelets across exposed skin. Back rakes were considered joke old man Hogan offense 25 years ago but brother, I would kill to see a modern wrestler who incorporated an occasional back rake into his matches, but without the implied wink. 

Wolfe is a guy with offense that looks good, moves that make impact, and a guy who knows how to keep things moving in fun ways. Dragunov is a guy who flops around in lieu of selling, makes dumb fish lip faces to show he's had enough, and wears spooky colored contacts like a goth 15 year old with an optometrist dad named Gary. Seeing Dragunov "work the mat" was hilarious, because he just looked like a pale fish flopping around on the bottom of the boat, more death spasm than folkstyle wrestling. Wolfe had to somehow hold this whole 15 minute match down while dealing with comical shit like that, and he somehow did it. Wolfe just kept cutting off Ilja's bullshit with stiff wake-ups, like kicking the middle rope into Ilja's balls or trying to snap Ilja's legs at the knees with the greatest drop down any of us have ever seen. Wolfe does a dropdown the same way the greatest wrestlers of all time did a dropdown, understanding the need to make it look like you are either a) panic dodging an opponent, or b) attempting to trip your opponent. Wolfe throws his dropdown like a crossbody, leaving himself open to get hit with Ilja's crossbody. Wolfe was always good at keeping things moving with small painful strikes, while generously taking Ilja's big suplexes. My favorite moment of the match was Wolfe catching Ilja with a drop toehold but it not fully taking, so Wolfe has to fight him and really try to drag him down with it. When he can't, he changes the strategy and kicks Ilja in the stomach from his back, adds another to the face, then gets to his feet and casually knees Ilja in the face on his way by. The big moves down the stretch felt bigger with Wolfe's constant press, building to a surprise Wolfe win, setting up a big 8 man tag with a ton of my favorite NXT UK guys. 

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