Zack Sabre Jr. Should Have Been IWGP World Heavyweight Champion By Now

It’s almost easy to forget just how good Zack Sabre Jr. is.

There’s a few reasons for that. The primary reason, of course, is that New Japan Pro Wrestling isn’t the hot company that it once was. Zack’s devoted pretty much his entire decade so far to wrestling for New Japan, with only the occasional sojourn back to the New Japan-adjacent Revolution Pro in England. At the same time, his online presence has entirely evaporated since he went radio silent in the face of several contemporaries in the European indie wrestling scene getting outed during Speaking Out.

And even when New Japan gets to be in the spotlight, Zack Sabre Jr. rarely gets the lion’s share of that glory. While he’s been a featured player on the roster for the last five years now, he has rarely ever been presented as being at the very top tier of the company. He’s peaked as a perennial contender for the company’s top titles in the IWGP World Heavyweight Title, and the now defunct IWGP Intercontinental Title.

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Perhaps his most notable moment in New Japan came from winning the 2018 New Japan Cup, having a string of great matches through the tournament and submitting every wrestler in his path, including Hiroshi Tanahashi in the finals.

That slight push in the singles spotlight quickly ended when Zack lost his championship match against Kazuchika Okada the following month.

After the Push

The loss to Okada at 2018’s Sakura Genesis more or less put an end to Zack Sabre Jr., New Japan main eventer. Most of his time in the company since has been dedicated to working in the heavyweight tag team division alongside Taichi as the Dangerous Tekkers. While their team did create some renewed interest in heavyweight tag wrestling in New Japan, especially during their feud against Hiroshi Tanahashi & Kota Ibushi, I’ve always found the tag division to be a little beneath Zack’s abilities.

It’s not that tag wrestling can’t be good or great, of course, it’s just that the powers that be at New Japan don’t seem to care much at all about tag team wrestling. Not to mention that tagging with a wrestler as divisive as Taichi makes it feel like Zack’s doing the heavy lifting in an act that has a built-in ceiling on it.

So for the most part, I had pretty much resigned Zack to the fate that many talented wrestlers stuck in New Japan have been doomed to. That of someone who will occasionally have the chance to do great work—typically in the G1—but will never have too much of note to do in the long run.

Then things started to change.

I couldn’t tell you what brought it about. I can only imagine that the limitations New Japan has faced in light of the COVID-19 pandemic have forced them to at least consider some of their wrestlers in a new light. Zack has been a great wrestler for most of his time in New Japan, but something really seemed to click at the tail end of 2021.

The 2021 G1 Climax, in particular, marked a return to form for Zack. He had always performed well in his past G1 outings, but those always came in years where the roster is far more stacked, when the spotlight shone on others. In a pandemic G1, acting as an agitator amidst wrestlers who have already spent the best part of a decade already wrestling each other, he stood out as the MVP of the tournament.

It was a strong tournament for Zack, one that even earned him an IWGP World Heavyweight Championship match against Shingo Takagi. While that match fell victim to some of the worst aspects of the New Japan main event scene (namely going long merely for the sake of going long), it was heartening to see Zack Sabre Jr. get this sign of trust from the company again after a few years wallowing in the midcard.

The 2022 New Japan Cup

The past few months have brought another opportunity to Zack.

The 2022 New Japan Cup saw the tournament’s largest ever field. Forty-six wrestlers in a single tournament, fourteen wrestlers more than the second largest iterations in 2019 and 2020. I’m not sure there’s any company in the world that could make a tournament of forty-six work, let alone New Japan on the decline.

And yet, in that mass of names, it was Zack Sabre Jr. that stood out above all the rest.

Zack wrestled six matches for this tournament, and not a single one of them is anything less than good. His first round match, against young lion Ryohei Oiwa, demonstrated Zack Sabre Jr. as a sadistic bully. Working with a young lion suits Zack especially well. The simpler, more fundamental approach required of young lions means that Zack himself takes on a more focused attitude. At his worst, Zack overcomplicates things to the point they no longer have meaning, seeing him distilled to his best qualities against a young lion does him massive favors. He just needs to stretch the kid until Oiwa finally gives in.\

His match against DOUKI isn’t quite great, but it is a fun break from the usual Bushiroad heavyweight style. There’s less dead air in the opening segments with DOUKI using a lot of quick offense like armdrags and lucha-style takedowns that Zack is more than game to bump for. What really stands out from Zack’s performance here though is his sense of his own worth within the company. DOUKI struggles to throw any real convincing strikes against Zack and to his credit, Zack doesn’t sell anything that doesn’t look good. It’s one of those instances where a little uncooperativeness adds to a match instead of harms it.

Zack’s rematch against The Great O-Khan feels like a refinement of what they achieved in the G1 last year. Where their first match lost some of its appeal when they got off the mat as O-Khan has yet to develop an interesting and impactful arsenal, this rematch sees both men play firmly to their strengths. The standing segments are trimmed down to a minimum: a few inoffensive Mongolian chops, and then back to the fun grappling that these two do best.

After that, Zack yet again proved that he’s Will Opsreay’s best and most consistent opponent in New Japan (something about the Shingo pairing just never jived with me). Not only is Zack able to match Ospreay’s quick pace, but he’s also able to play a more sympathetic babyface against Ospreay’s more domineering style throughout the match. The match doesn’t quite hit great for me — I still have too many issues with Ospreay—but it’s certainly the Ospreay match I’ve enjoyed the most in the last year or so, and a lot of that is thanks to Zack.

Zack Sabre Jr 2022 New Japan Cup NJPW
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On the tournament’s last two nights, Zack again faced very familiar opponents. First, he defeated Shingo Takagi in the semi-finals in another great match between the two. It’s certainly better than their bloated IWGP World Heavyweight Title match, but doesn’t quite hit the same peaks of their G1 bout. Still, it’s a strong match that leads nicely into the final match of the tournament with Zack Sabre Jr. taking on Tetsuya Naito.

Zack and Naito have wrestled a bunch in the past and this plays out with a lot of their regular tropes and motifs. Naito tries to soften the neck to set up a Destino, whereas Zack focuses on Naito’s historically bad knee early on before moving on to systematically pick apart the rest of Naito’s body. What really stands out more than any limb work though is the ferocity with which Zack wrestles this finals match. He’s moving with a speed and brutality that feels unmatched at the highest levels of New Japan right now. Zack just flings himself into his offense here, looking every bit the fired up main eventer he should be.

Zack ends the tournament by getting his first ever pinfall victory in the New Japan Cup, pinning Naito with the Zack Driver in a svelte (by Bushiroad standards) 24 minutes. In a perfect world, this happens at a packed Korakuen show and not a mostly empty Osaka-jo Hall. But the quality that Zack’s able to get out of it speaks volumes of his talent.

And Then, the Rainmaker

Of course, all this momentum ran into the wall that is Kazuchika Okada.

The IWGP World Heavyweight Title match between Zack and Okada at Hyper Battle wasn’t bad. Mechanically, it’s about what you’d expect from a modern Okada match. At this point, it’s mostly just taste that will dictate whether that works for you or not. Those that have enjoyed Okada’s latest title reign so far will likely not find too much to complain about.

As someone who’s been incredibly frustrated with Okada’s recent output though, it’s a lot of the same old problems.

None of what made Zack’s run through the NJC so exciting is present in this match. None of that furious energy, that wild fire pushing him forward makes it into this title fight. Once the bell rings and one sees how almost timid Zack is on the mat with Okada, it becomes clear that the challenger is wrestling the champion’s match instead of vice versa. Instead of being the irritant forcing the match to move at a quicker pace, Zack instead settles back into the familiar rhythms of the Bushiroad main event style.

Zack Sabre Jr Kazuchika Okada NJPW Hyper Battle 2022
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It’s disappointing to say the least, but certainly not unexpected. Looking at the big picture, it’s not hard to see what New Japan’s going for. It’s a milestone year, their 50th anniversary as a promotion. So what better way to celebrate than having their top star of this era having another extended World Title run? It’s Okada’s grand victory lap.

That’s fine. It’s a story, and business-wise, it probably makes sense for a company that’s already suffered so much from the effects of the pandemic. It’s just not anything that will get me leaping out of my seat or switching on their shows to stream.

Perhaps what’s even more distressing about this booking choice is how redundant it is. We’ve been here before already, in 2018. Zack makes his big run through the New Japan Cup before having his knees cut out from under him by Okada at Sumo Hall. There’s nothing about this new run that adds anything particularly interesting to that narrative, it’s just a tired old booking choice Gedo fished out of a better time.

It is what it is. In the end, it’s probably my fault for expecting anything of New Japan in this time.

I’ll try not to make the same mistake again.