Zack Sabre Jr. is often heralded as the best technical wrestler in the world. He’s travelled the globe, applying his craft in promotions all over the planet, with great success. But when ZSJ debuted for New Japan Pro Wrestling on February 21st 2017, we saw a totally different side to the technical wizard, and the company have booked him perfectly ever since.
Everywhere else we’ve seen Zacky Two Belts, the commentators and promotions always just talk about how he’s a technical wizard, how he’s the best technical wrestler on the planet, etc (which is fine because he is). His character was always the same: mostly silent and just really, really good at professional wrestling – no real reason for feuds, he just wants to be in the ring. This persona does fit ZSJ’s style well, which is exactly why he caught the attention of the biggest company in the world.
And that’s exactly how WWE portrayed Zack in the Cruiserweight Classic tournament – all they talked about was his technical abilities, and given how he entered the comany, if he did stay with WWE, he would have stayed in the cruiserweight division, which would pretty much imply to the audience that his skills only work on people of a similar size, and couldn’t keep heavyweight wrestlers grounded with his techniques. After all, a year and a half after the cruiserweights came to Raw, we’ve yet to see one wrestler breakaway from the division and compete with everyone else, and we’ve also seen somebody like Enzo Amore, who was jobbed out relentlessly during his singles run, come into the cruiserweight division and instantly take over the whole 205 Live programme, forming his own stable and holding the championship.
However, in New Japan Pro Wrestling, Zack’s booking is a totally different story. From day one, ZSJ has been portrayed as a genuinely dangerous wrestler, somebody who people should fear getting in the ring with. His submission and limb targeting skills are so advanced that NJPW always build his big matches around the fact he could seriously injure an opponent, with his foes often being bandaged up after their encounters with Sabre, regardless of whether they win or lose.
Another big plus for New Japan is that they actually gave him a character! On his first night in the company, Suzuki-Gun assisted him in defeating Katsuyori Shibata (right before winning the New Japan Cup), and immediately joined the group with a new heel persona and viscousness. Thanks to their relaxed policies on language both in the ring and post-show press conferences, they’ve allowed him to show off his personality in some of the best unscripted promos of the last year. And I’m not just talking about profanity (although Zack does come up with some beautifully creative insults), he’s allowed to use colloquialisms, his own accent, basically just speak how he would normally speak in real life without fear of people not understanding him.
The fact Zack’s clearly under 200 pounds but competing in the heavyweight division doesn’t matter in New Japan – he’s so good at what he does, he can keep the bigger wrestlers down with just skill (although they do mention his height a lot to make up for his lack of weight). Like a tarantula, he uses his long limbs to wrap himself around larger foes, trapping them to the mat.
On top of that, no matter who he is facing, no matter how big of a star they are, including Naito and Tanahashi, they have to wrestle a Zack Sabre Jr. match. It’s always his style of match, and he dominates. We’re so used to just seeing bigger wrestlers dominating because of their size, but ZSJ is a completely different situation. Rather than overcoming somebody vastly bigger than them, the story they tell is they have to overcome somebody who’s so good at a style of wrestling hardly anyone else uses in the way he does, and have to figure out a way to defeat him before he makes them tap.
Speaking of Zack Sabre Jr. style matches, it’s a type of contest that’s perfectly suited for New Japan. Historically, NJPW have built they matches around telling in-ring stories, and babyfaces building fire to overcome their foes to win the match. In Zack’s matches, he keeps his opponents grounded for the vast majority, both using targeted yet brutal stomps and strikes, combined with long, drawn-out submission holds.
Now, I don’t think anybody in the world can deny that Zack is fantastic at the type of wrestling he specialises in, yet I totally understand why his style isn’t enjoyed by everyone. At indie shows, some are totally fascinated by how Zack controls an opponent and is constantly looking at new ways to transition into holds or apply pressure and pain in different ways, whilst others just want a bit more movement and action in their pro wrestling.
Regardless of whether you love that style of wrestling or not though, it doesn’t typically evoke much of a vocal reaction with Western crowds. We tend to just sit and appreciate what he’s doing when he’s tying opponents in knots, although we do react when he hits one of his brutal kicks or slaps. In Japan though, typically the crowds really get behind whoever Zack is facing, due to the fact he is a heel. The fans over there in general appreciate this style of wrestling more, and they react when their favourite wrestlers fight back through pain to overcome their foes. So when Zack has had somebody like Tanahashi or Naito in various holds for the majority of the match, it sparks a huge reaction from the crowd.
In his New Japan matches, ZSJ keeps holds on for up to five minutes at a time – they’re not rushed submissions whatsoever, and kept on far longer than I’ve seen in any promotion he’s been in beforehand. As his opponent has to deal with rising levels of pain the longer he keeps his submissions locked in, the more the audience begins to erupt with noise to help spur the fan-favourite through the agony and torture. In turn, this makes Zack Sabre Jr. absolutely fascinating to watch at home. Not only is it great to see him constantly changing his offence and scouting how to alter his holds or apply pressure to different body parts, the tension of watching the whole arena get more and more excited the longer the match goes on, and the build-up to whether his foe will tap or not is totally gripping – it’s a totally unique experience in modern wrestling.
As if that wasn’t enough, another way the tension is built in his match is that he’s the only established wrestler I know that doesn’t have one or two definitive finishers. Yes, he does have certain holds he uses more than others and ones he’s given names to, but he is unique in that he really can put anyone away with any of his moves, it’s not as if you know in advance which hold he’s going to finish a match with (this isn’t just in NJPW though). You don’t sit there thinking, “Right, he’s locked that in, that’s his finisher, that means it could the end of the match”, you just sit thinking, “Right, this could all end with the hold he’s doing now, or basically any other move he has in arsenal.” When it comes to submission wrestling, this makes for a much more exciting and unpredictable experience (at least in my opinion).
Throw on top of that, New Japan have given Zack some monumental victories in the past year, with him beating Katsuyori Shibata in his first match, pinning Goto in his second, beating Tanahashi in his first G1 Climax match, and most recently defeated the red-hot Tetsuya Naito, eliminating him from the New Japan Cup.
With the way things are going, Zack could be a main-eventer some time very soon in New Japan, and could possibly even be the one to overthrow Minoru Suzuki in his stable, although Sabre-Gun doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Basically, I’m just saying great work ZSJ and great work NJPW – keep it up.
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