There’s “going on the road”, and then there’s Zack Sabre Jr.’s version. It’s come to the point now where you can say the name “Zack Sabre Jr.” almost anywhere in the world, and a pro wrestling fan is likely to say they’ve seen the man in the ring. He made a splash in New Japan Pro-Wrestling with his debut in February of this year, where he took down Katsuyori Shibata and joined the brutal Suzuki-Gun’s ranks. With a style firmly rooted in highly technical submissions and holds, he then rocked the Heavyweight division after his first G1 Climax tournament this summer.
We sat down to discuss his background, philosophy about pro-wrestling, and more.
―― How did you feel when you got the call to join the G1 Climax?
I knew if I wanted to wrestle in Japan, being a part of the G1 was really important. My aspiration was to be involved in the biggest opportunities from the get-go. So if I wasn’t in the G1 this year, I would have been really disappointed. I feel like my previous time in Japan gave me my foundation, and it’s helped me be a part of bigger things.
―― Did you have any worries about the rigorous G1 schedule?
When it comes to the G1, you’re talking about probably the highest quality tournament that I’ve been in. But for four or five years now, I’ve not had any time off. There have been some weeks where I’d wrestle in three countries…in that same week! I’ll have three international flights coming up next week, all within four days. So being in Japan for one month has almost been like a rest for me!
―― Isn’t that a difficult schedule to keep up?
I think to be a top-level wrestler, you have to be OK with the travel schedule it entails.
―― What were some of your matches in the A Block that really stood out to you?
For me, they were all very important. Before the tournament, my perception was that maybe I was still a Junior [Heavyweight]. So I approached every match with a level of desperation to prove I am now in the Heavyweight division in New Japan. That I belong here.
―― As far as fans are concerned, probably the biggest match of yours that stood out was your victory over Tanahashi.
Yeah that was definitely a big victory, and on the first day of the tournament! But for me, I couldn’t be short sighted. I had to think of the G1 as a whole tournament, not just individual matches.
―― But you have to feel something a little more, right? When it’s a win like that?
Oh yeah, I mean it was very satisfying to be in the ring with someone who’s pretty much a modern legend at this point. I was very intrigued to see what it would be like in the ring with him.
―― What was the response like online or on your social media?
Oh yeah, the Tanahashi victory was one of the most well received ones I’ve had.
―― Your match against Ibushi was also considered a big match. I think there was a lot of anticipation leading up to it.
Yeah it definitely was an important match because lots of promoters in independent wrestling have been trying to make that match happen for a long time now. Over ten years, I think! So it was symbolic for that match to finally happen in New Japan, at the G1.
―― You both participated in the WWE Cruiserweight tournament, correct?
That’s right, and lots of people expected us to face each other in the final match, but it wasn’t to be…
―― So when it finally happened during the G1, what was he like in the ring?
I admire Ibushi’s approach to wrestling. He wrestles in the way that he thinks he should, and I would like to think that I’m the same way. Obviously you want to entertain, but I want to feel happy in the way I wrestle, in the style that I have. So I felt that in the match against Ibushi. There’s a genuine passion in the way he wrestles.
―― You didn’t end up signing with WWE in the end, were there any particular reasons you can share?
It would be like asking a musician, “Why didn’t you sign with the biggest record label?” I’m just concerned with being the best professional wrestler I can be.
―― So there wasn’t a case of maybe being restricted if you signed?
Oh no, it was really just a personal choice. This is my path.
―― It’s kind of impressive that both you and Ibushi took that path and finally faced off the way you did in the G1.
Yeah, I’m glad it happened here!
―― What about Tetsuya Naito? How did it feel going up against him?
I’ve followed, and been a part of, Japanese wrestling for a long time now. So I am very familiar with Naito. I’m always impressed when a wrestler reinvents himself. I’d love face him in a singles match, not confined to a tournament, and see the results.
―― When it came to the staff here at New Japan, a lot of people were hyped for your match against Nagata.
That’s interesting to hear! You know, when I was in the ring with Nagata…well, lots of people talk about “generation gaps” in wrestling, but when your mind is on the same level, it doesn’t matter. When I was wrestling against Nagata, our age difference was irrelevant. He wrestles with sincerity, and technique that’s not used by many wrestlers anymore. I mean, I can put someone in a submission, but it’s much more interesting for me when I have to counter his submission, and so on. So I felt a sort of natural connection with Nagata in the ring.
―― What was it like being put in the Nagata Lock?
Give me another day to recover, than I’ll let you know! (laughs)
―― Changing the topic a bit now, but some New Japan fans have posed questions about your joining Suzuki-Gun. Some say you’re not a good match. How do you feel about that?
I don’t think that just because there are fans that have an image of you, that’s what you should be doing. I’ve always felt I wrestle an aggressive style, that’s what I aim for. I never had any aim to be a fan favorite, or “babyface”. Maybe I’ve fallen into positions of that role elsewhere…But I feel if you are really a fan of what I do, you’ll see that my joining with Suzuki-Gun is really quite natural.
―― Was Minoru Suzuki’s background in UWF and Pancrase a factor in your joining?
Yeah it was definitely a factor. I’ve admired the way Suzuki wrestles for a while now. I think he approaches wrestling in his own unique way, and I feel that’s really important. A lot of wrestlers follow the a uniform mindset, but he does it all his own way.
I grew up watching a lot of submission style wrestling. UWF, UWFI, Battlarts, Pancrase, things like that. So for me, it’s also a great opportunity to further my study of pro-wrestling.
―― Of course, New Japan’s origins are tied to that style through people like Karl Gotch and Antonio Inoki. Did that aspect attract you to New Japan?
Sure, I felt that connection. New Japan’s origin is based on a real fundamental “Action Strong Style”. A lot of foreign wrestlers try to copy Japanese wrestling, but I think they miss the point. The idea is that obviously “pro-wrestling” is the strongest style. And I feel that foundation has to be in submission wrestling, and a very high level of “basic” wrestling. Obviously now a lot of wrestlers are incredibly skilled athletes, but I think they’re forgetting their fundamental wrestling. Or they have no interest in it. My focus is on making very basic things look good.
―― New Japan fans are used to watching a more submission-style of pro-wrestling based on the company’s history. Was that acceptance noticeable as you’ve competed here?
Yeah, I feel the style here is much more focused on presenting the sport of pro-wrestling. Overseas you still have more focus paid on the entertainment side. I don’t see that difference as either good or bad. But I’ve always felt most at home when wrestling here.
―― Which wrestlers did you look up to growing up?
I can name lots of individual wrestlers…but for me, I remember being mesmerized first just by the wrestling itself. The style in England is very technical, so when I started watching live wrestling, the wrestlers all had a very good understanding of basic technique. I could give you a whole list of names, but what inspired me the most was the technical side of wrestling.
―― So when you first got started training in this style, who was your coach?
My first coach was Andre Baker. Prince Devitt went to the same school, actually. So there it was a lot of submission style training and then British style wrestling. As I’ve travelled around though, I’ve trained in many places and styles. Like when I’m in New York, it’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu 3 times a week. When I was in NOAH, I would learn as much as possible at the dojo there. So every step in my career I try to learn as much as possible, from whoever will teach me.
―― So, while some may still consider you a Junior Heavyweight, what do you think? Are you now committed to competing as a Heavyweight?
Oh yeah, I’m done with being a Junior Heavyweight. Really, my interest in focusing on being a Heavyweight is a stylistic one. Obviously I’m much smaller than a lot of the Heavyweights, but I think my style is much more in-tune with Heavyweight wrestling.
―― Fans here may be more used to wrestlers starting out as a Junior and then working their way into the Heavyweight division.
I understand that, sure. But I’ve already spent 5 years at NOAH. I’ve cleaned the dojo floors, washed my senpai’s laundry…plus I’ve been wrestling as a Junior for 14 years now. So I feel I’ve paid my dues in that respect. But I understand fan perception, sure. My career has been based on changing people’s perceptions though.
―― One “dream match” we hear fans talk about a lot is you versus KUSHIDA. You both have similar styles after all…
I can understand the fan expectation there…I did have a chance to face him once in England actually.
―― How was it?
Very, very interesting…I was impressed by his incredible attention to small details in his technique. That’s something I think all wrestlers would appreciate in their opponent. And he seems focused on trying to change things in the Junior Heavyweight scene. But while it’d be interesting to face him here in New Japan, I think it’s far more important for me to focus on the Heavyweight division right now.
―― Your fellow countrymen, Marty Scurll and Will Ospreay, currently compete in the Junior Heavyweight division. What are your thoughts on that?
That’s great for them! (laughs) No, but really I think what’s more important is that all three of us are now at the most important pro-wrestling organization in the world right now. I mean, when you think about pro-wrestling in its most pure sense, that’s the case. So I’m obviously very happy we’ve found a good place to be. But while we’re all a part of the same generation, I’ve always done things my own style anyway. Being in the same division as them doesn’t really matter to me.
―― During our interview with Marty Scurll, he mentioned how British wrestling has been on an upswing and that you three have played a part in that. How do you feel about the state of pro-wrestling in Britain?
I think the whole British wrestling scene has been buzzing for the last three or four years now. For a long time after the “World of Sport” era of British wrestling, everything was based around international wrestlers coming in. Now we’re at a point where the most popular matches at events set up by many British independent organizations are matches featuring British wrestlers. I think Marty, Will and I have been a big part of that. Obviously the three of us want as many British wrestlers travelling around the world as possible. At the moment we might be the most well-known, but the idea is that people watch us and then want to watch more British wrestling. So, I’m proud to be a part of this generation.
―― This may be a bit of a personal question, but you don’t seem to be a “typical pro-wrestler” (everyone laughs) I don’t mean that in a bad way! I mean, you’re vegan for example. Your style of clothes, the things you tweet…
Yeah, well pro-wrestling has always been what I’m passionate about, but it’s not my only interest. In the sense that I only want to be a pro-wrestler, but my interests are not only limited to wrestling. I feel that my style is born from moments where I’m actually not thinking about pro-wrestling. New submissions or moves, for example. And I think it’s important to not be so focused on just one thing. If you believe you’re just a wrestler and that’s all you should do, then you’re missing the bigger picture. Wrestling is not going to be important if the world is an absolute mess, for example.
―― Since the concept is pretty new to me, I have to ask: did you grow up as a vegan?
No, it’s only been two years. So it’s still quite recent I guess, but it’s something I feel I should’ve done a long time ago.
―― I’d like to ask more about your tastes in different things. Any favorite musicians for example?
I think “favorite of all time” would probably be a band called Mogwai, a Scottish band. I like lots of post-rock….so like, Explosions in the Sky, for example. Some others too, like My Bloody Valentine, The Smiths. Mostly post-rock though I guess.
―― I think you’re personality and tastes are really unique as pro-wrestler, especially here in New Japan!
Well, I appreciate it.
―― Finally, you’re quite well known around the world as a top British wrestler. What are your goals, as far as New Japan Pro-Wrestling is concerned?
My goal is to grow the presence of British wrestling. But selfishly, I feel New Japan is the best place for me really. I intend on making an impact here as much as possible. I still think it’s important for me to get out there and wrestle around the world as well, though. So it’s a balance between my life in the independents and New Japan. If I only stay in one place, I can only appeal to one set of fans. This year I wrestled in 12 countries or so. That’s why I travel as much as I do. I want to grow the interest in British and European wrestling around the world as much as possible.
―― When it comes to your challenge for Tanahashi’s Intercontinental title, where does that fit into your plans?
When it comes to New Japan, there are many titles. I feel the Intercontinental Championship title could be much more if it was held by a truly international wrestler and traveled with him. I picture myself holding that title and travelling to 12 or 13 countries, and that could only benefit New Japan as well. I like that the Intercontinental title has gained so much prominence in Japan. For being such a young title, that’s great. But it lacks a certain…uniqueness. And I know just how to give it that!