Last August, Ilja Dragunov clobbered Trick Williams towards his first hit singles match. That was notable, as while his personality and presence had always jumped off the page, Williams was a visibly raw prospect inside the ropes. Even since then, his limitations were on display against Dominik Mysterio, not quite wrestling to the level of his emerging popularity. That connection remained pivotal though, particularly as Williams received a star-making presentation in the Iron Survivor Challenge.
This is the title shot he earned with that win, coming slightly later than expected. It’s the fourth singles match between Dragunov and Williams, with their first being a presumed house show trial run in February 2023. In both of their prior televised bouts, Dragunov had quite violently maximised Williams’ game at that point, with this promising to be more of the same. To complicate matters though, this wouldn’t be Williams’ only match at Vengeance Day.
Instead, Williams would kick the night off alongside Carmelo Hayes, battling Baron Corbin and Bron Breakker in the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic Final. Williams’ dynamic with Hayes had been central to this build, using a whodunnit angle of sorts to create some drama and doubt. It’s certainly not NXT’s first angle of that ilk, though it is a case of one with investment, as this friendship has noticeably earned an attachment. The tag bout itself is decent, even if messy, leaving Williams with a busted lip before his headline match.
In truth though, that wrinkle is very much to the main event’s benefit, giving it a fiery flavour at the bell. Within seconds, Dragunov is also bleeding, eating a dropkick to the nose early. With both men bloody, the match’s natural rhythm is immediately encouraged, pairing that initial physicality with a palpable intensity. As he develops, Williams’ offence will almost certainly be trimmed a touch but there are such encouraging signs, even from his refreshing right hands at the bell.
At core though, this is a pretty direct sequel to their August thriller, just an enhanced and extended cut. Dragunov still takes much of this, especially as they are finding their way, whacking Williams at every turn. This remains my favourite version of the NXT Champion, as the increase in offence usually limits some of his more theatrical quirks. He’s very much the in-ring heel here and some needless dialogue aside, that forces him to focus on physicality first and foremost.
That’s a winning formula, framing his crunching offence with such a striking spite. It’s a direction that the people are with too, especially opposite Williams. While the match doesn’t exactly have a big fight feel early, they are ready to cheer Williams and once he’s cemented as the underdog, they gleefully jump onboard. The challenger’s selling is very much a work in progress, and understandably so. Right now, it’s either on or off, rather than being a instinctual part of his performance.
Again though, that’s understandable, as such nuance generally comes from experience and polish, if at all. In this particular case, Williams’ spotty selling is disguised by the blood from his mouth, almost accelerating the match’s route to something more dramatic. Dragunov’s extended control segment is so blunt and unforgiving that there’s a gravity to Williams’ attempts at a retort, feeling last-ditch as early as the halfway point. The double-duty factor only assists them in that regard.
Williams’ eventual comeback has the previously tame Tennessee crowd rocking, earning a respect with his gutsy defiance. It’s a familiar play call in that sense, as the flashy prospect shows a toughness that changes the audience’s perception of him. Nonetheless, Williams’ rally culminates with a sickening Rock Bottom to the floor, then going into some business with the aforementioned Hayes. Admittedly, I don’t love every step of that path, but it never fully rattles their rhythm.
There are definitely moments in which they are reaching further for emotion than necessary but it generally trends in the right direction, mostly working in the match’s favour. After all, those set-pieces do unquestionably supply the bout with a palpable drama, doing so without divorcing the match from its core ingredients. Dragunov’s aggression continues to meet Williams’ defiance in the middle regardless, culminating with a memorable near fall that launches the challenger’s final comeback.
It’s a stunning match, all things considered. I was almost waiting for it to take a wrong turn but it never really does, emphatically exceeding even the most optimistic expectations. Williams’ potential has always excited me and I love his personality, but the quality of this blindsided me. Conceptually, it builds on their last TV match, simply attaching a more theatrical third act to close. That isn’t really the point though, as this just feels different to that match, even if they aren’t overly distant in ideas.
Williams feels so much more at home here, really ticking every box and wrestling at a level befitting his popularity. It’s not just his offence, which is mostly plugged in to perfection, but a general comfort in the heat of battle. This is a gritty, rugged title tilt and Trick Williams is worthy part of that, even if not the leading man. Speaking of such, it’s yet another terrific Ilja Dragunov performance, bringing the absolute best out of a young wrestler who’s still finding his way.
The post-match angle with Hayes will dominate the headlines, but this is a significant stop on Williams’ road to potential superstardom. He belonged here in a fashion that frankly, I wasn’t sure we’d ever see, let alone in early 2024. Obviously, there’s still a long way to go and not every opponent will be able to lace Dragunov’s boots, let alone operate at his level, but it’s hard to be anything but impressed by Williams’ progression.
Special stuff to close NXT Vengeance Day, genuine main event wrestling that elevated both wrestlers as well as the belt they were fighting for. Competitive, heated and at times outright violent, an absolute triumph.