Ricky Steamboat, Dean Malenko & Bryan Danielson. All three are considered to be 3 of the top 5 technical wrestlers of all time. Now, it is time to add another name to the list – Zack Sabre Jr.
At just 30 years of age, ZSJ has already established himself as the artist of submissions – technically sound, quick, stiff and quite simply a wrestler who wants to be the best in the world.
After a successful run in WWE’s Cruiserweight Championship, ZSJ has worked his way to the promotion of NJPW. While initially joining the Suzuki Gun stable and working many tag matches, multi-man matches and some 1 on 1 affairs, the stage was set for Zack to reach through the proverbial glass ceiling through the NJPW tournament, and boy did he deliver in spades.
In the first round of the tournament, Zack faced a crowd favourite in Naito, who as recently as January was challenging for the New Japan Heavyweight Title. In his first real test, he and Naito competed in a very strong 4 1/2 star match, which ended with one of ZSJ’s new submissions – Orienting with Napalm Death. When watching a ZSJ match you’ll find yourself often saying “it’s not supposed to bend that way!” as Zack finds different ways to bend limbs, body parts and even the fingers of his opponents.
The next challenge was a rematch of the much-lauded G1 match with the passionate Kota Ibushi – who himself has won the NJPW Cup in 2015 and is looking for a return to his glory days. In Ibushi, ZSJ faced a different challenge to Naito, as Ibushi provides stiffer body shots, high flying moves, as well as some very powerful manoeuvres – for example, his signature German Suplex from the outside of the ring to the inside, and the Last Ride Powerbomb. Once again, both wrestlers produced a great match for fans of wrestling, one that was even better than the Naito match in the first round – and once again Zack was victorious, this time through ref stoppage – a solid 4 1/2 star outing.
In the semi finals Zack submitted the SANADA with a bow-and-arrow hold that really typified the ingenuity of ZSJ in the wrestling ring. Throughout the match he continuously provided counters to SANADA’s moves – trying to pick the lock and move on to the next stage. While the match wasn’t on the same level as the previous rounds, it was still an entertaining watch and was a different style of match to the two above.
And so the final was set: a 2-time winner of the NJPW Cup and NJPW veteran in Hiroshi Tanahashi, against the rising star of Zack Sabre Jr.
The match was perhaps overshadowed by the same day news that Daniel Bryan was returning to the ring after his early retirement in February of 2016. However, do not be mistaken – this is a Match of the Year battle between two highly skilful wrestlers. While ZSJ was trying to keep Tanahashi on the ground, immobile and work on both his injured arm and leg, Tanahashi kept on grinding through and creating space between the two wrestlers to quicken up the pace of the match. However, as ever in this tournament, ZSJ started the match with a plan and executed it perfectly. He immobilized Tanahashi to the point that he submitted him using the same submission he defeated Naito with, the Orienting with Napalm Death. A match that more than lived up to the hype – 4 and 3/4 stars.
If ever there was a wrestling tournament that has helped establish a star as “main event” status, it was the NJPW Cup and the case of ZSJ. He is now on the way to main eventing the next NJPW show Sakura Genesis against the reigning heavyweight champion in Kazuchika Okada.
In a year where we are graced by the presence of Okada, the return of Bryan Danielson, AJ Styles, Nakamura, Kota, Andrade Almas, and so many more, Zack Sabre Jr is making an early claim for Wrestler of the Year. Should he continue with these consistent performances, he is sure to be another success story originating from the indies.