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Pete Dunne on No. 1 Contender Match: ‘This Is the Chance to Take the Next Step’

At only 27 and in the best shape of his life, Pete Dunne is looking to build on a body of work defined by his run as NXT UK champion.

Pete Dunne will wrestle Johnny Gargano and Kyle O’Reilly in a triple-threat match to determine the new top contender for NXT champ Karrion Kross in the main event of Tuesday night’s NXT.

The 27-year-old Dunne has spent the overwhelming majority of his life in pro wrestling. Beginning at the age of 12, he has honed his craft across the globe, and he delivers an in-ring style that is physical and violent. After a compelling title program where he served as the challenger to Finn Bálor, Dunne now seeks a chance to prove his worth during a run as NXT champion.

Speaking with Sports Illustrated, Dunne discussed the opportunity to reinsert himself in the NXT main event, his style as a master of joint manipulation, as well as working with Shawn Michaels and what he has learned through the pandemic era of pro wrestling.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sports Illustrated: It is so hard for a sequel to be better than the original, but that is what Finn Bálor has crafted in this current iteration of NXT. You have played a role in that. Your match together at TakeOver: Vengeance Day in February is on a short list for match of the year candidates. What was your perspective of working with him, as well as his current run as a whole?

Pete Dunne: We’re from similar parts of the world, so I’d heard about him for a long time. I remember my first or second training session, there was talk of this guy from Ireland that was wrestling in Japan. So I’ve followed him for a long time, but never had the chance to work with him. To do that on as big a stage as TakeOver was amazing.

I’m amazed at the way he’s reinvented himself. That’s so difficult to do. He’d already gone through NXT, then been to Raw and SmackDown, and now he’s back and still on top of his game. He’s working the way he wants to work. There are no shortcuts; it’s a real competition. It’s so much appreciated to see that, and I hope to have the chance to work with him again.

SI: Every time you work with someone, it feels so fresh. There is such a collection of talent for you to share the ring with, including, to name just a few, Kyle O’Reilly, Karrion Kross, Johnny Gargano, Isaiah Scott, Santos Escobar and Bronson Reed. Who would you like to work with in a long-term program?

PD: If I can pick one from NXT, someone I actually worked with recently, but it was very brief, it’s Leon Ruff. The way our styles are, and the way we are as characters, there is so much to be done. It would be a completely different style of match. We got a brief showing of that, but when live events are back, I’m excited to do more with him.

Over in NXT UK, A-Kid would be the guy. He comes from a similar place from where I come from, but it was even more difficult because there is no wrestling at all in Spain—yet he’s still become one of the best technical wrestlers in the world. To do that, pretty much off your own back, it is so impressive. I can’t wait to have a match or two together and really show the world what he’s about.

SI: You’ve been wrestling since you were 12. It’s such a major component of your life, and I love the story you told on Mark Andrews’s podcast about flying home to the U.K. from your WarGames match in Los Angeles in 2018 just in time for the birth of your daughter. That match was also spectacular, and I can’t think of a better commitment to both your personal and professional responsibilities.

PD: That whole moment was just crazy. I was actually working with a broken foot at the time, flying in and out of the States. I couldn’t stay in the States in case she went into labor. The actual due date was the day after TakeOver. We took a big risk. Now that I think about it, it was an insane thing to do.

I was debating when to leave, but I’m glad it all worked out. I have a beautiful two-and-a-half-year-old living with me now, and it’s gone by so fast.

SI: You are only 27, but you’ve already accomplished such a great deal in pro wrestling. I am also well aware that you are your own toughest critic. Are you happy with where you are right now? Or is it tough to appreciate all you’ve done because you are so determined for more?

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PD: I’ve got a body of work I’m proud of, but like you touched on, it’s also a body of work I know I can improve. Every opportunity I get, like a TakeOver against Finn or the triple-threat this week, I’m looking to further that body of work. Right now, my career is defined by my NXT UK title run. This is the chance to take the next step.

I would love the opportunity to wrestle again for the NXT title and, ultimately, hold that title. I’m in the best shape of my life, my work is the best it’s been, with some of the most unique stuff you’re going to see right now. I’m excited for what the future holds, and I’m striving to build a body of work without a bad match in there, as well as some great ones.

SI: It looks like Johnny Gargano is the guy to win this triple threat match, and he’ll then have a short program that will help elevate Karrion Kross as champion. That doesn’t mean it will necessarily play out that way, and even if you did, you still have the chance to make viewers believe otherwise through your performance.

PD: Yes, I have the chance to control what I do when I’m in the ring. For me, the art of what we do is to have people look at it and go, “How does that not hurt?” I’m looking for that visceral reaction. The more I can see people cringing when I’m pulling someone’s fingers back, the more I can pull out that reaction, and that means I’m doing my job.

You can throw me in matches with Finn and Kross, and it’s believable that I can hurt them, and it’s going to look like a competition. When I’m out there with the Undisputed Era lads, or Trent [Seven] and Tyler [Bate], when we’re out there, we’re competing. That helps add so much excitement to NXT. What better way to do that than in a triple-threat with Johnny and Kyle.

Kyle, I’ve had multiple matches with, and I think they always come across well. Johnny, I’ve only worked with him maybe once outside WWE and then once here, which is crazy because we’ve both been here for so long. There’s untapped potential for that match, and we can do so much more against one another. And I’ve never been in the ring with Kross. There are also all these new fresh faces developing in NXT, so it’s a very exciting time.

SI: I know the first rule about working with Shawn Michaels is that you don’t talk about working with Shawn, but it is rare to have the chance to work with one of the greatest of all time. What lessons have you learned from working with him?

PD: The most amazing thing about Shawn is he’s all in on NXT UK. One of, if not the greatest of all time, is hands-on with that product, and that is amazing to me.

Getting to work with him is amazing. He’s running the scene that we built. Walking around TV, you have access to Shawn Michaels, Triple H, William Regal. It’s all there and it’s all accessible for us.

SI: Over the past decade and a half, you trained yourself to work a crowd, and you can do it magnificently well. You honed your entire career around performing, responding, and reacting to the crowd, which is entirely different now, though NXT still has small crowds at the Performance Center. What has the pandemic era of wrestling taught you?

PD: For me, I took it as a challenge. No doubt that a full audience is better than without it, and that reaction is what we feed off—and it even makes it better for those watching at home. I’ve also started to enjoy working in front of the smaller audiences. When I’m bending the fingers or hitting the stiff shot that makes a lot of noise, that aggressive, raw style comes across well. But when we can come back to a full audience, it will remind us how amazing that is. I feel like we’ll have a different appreciation when things go back to normal.

SI: Speaking of appreciation, there are so many people that appreciate your work and are hungry to see you as NXT champion. Why should we keep our optimism alive that we’ll see a Pete Dunne title reign in NXT?

PD: It feels like I’ve been here a long time, but I’m still only 27. I’m always trying to evolve and take the next step forward. This is the most serious edge I’ve ever had, and I’m positioned in a slightly different way. Honestly, I think it’s inevitable. Everything I’ve ever shot for in my career, I’ve managed to accomplish, and this is the next thing on my list. And hopefully, this year, I can get it done.

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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.