Zack Sabre Junior and the ‘next evolution of British wrestling’

Zack Sabre Junior speaks in advance of his Feb.2 British Heavyweight Championship match with Will Ospreay

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The SANADA match could happen 20 years in the past or 20 years in the future, and it’d still be good.

–So, first of all, congratulations on your success in the Tokyo Dome.

ZSJ: Thank you.

–This was the second year running that we had a British Heavyweight Championship match in the Tokyo Dome; at Wrestle Kingdom 13 you beat Tomohiro Ishii to win the title and this year you beat SANADA to retain. Do you take pride in the championship being defended on events of that scale?

ZSJ: Someone very important to me said ‘you need to take a step back and realise how far you’ve come and what you’re representing’. It’s easy to just go with the flow and not think about achievements, but it is pretty big. Last year was more monumental because (RPW president) Andy Quildan was there with (referee) Chris Roberts. That was a little surreal. To be in the ring with Chris, who I always berate because he’s an idiot, and Andy, somebody who I’ve been working with over the last decade, to look up at that crowd was quite bizarre.

But I think this is where the British wrestling scene should be. It’s gone through difficult times, and it shouldn’t have, but to be part of a generation that’s moved it forward is something I’m proud of, just not entirely satisfied. I’ve won the title in the Tokyo Dome, and I’ve defended it there. That’s not the pinnacle, that’s the beginning of where I want British wrestling to be.

–Over 2019, half of British Heavyweight title defences were in NJPW. Are you conscious about shining a light on British wrestling, but often in a different country?

ZSJ: I’m sure it would benefit the UK a lot more to have a champion that’s based in the UK and wrestling on every RevPro event, but I want to be in Japan, so tough luck (laughs). But if it wasn’t for me- and I’m not being too egotistical to say this- a lot of things that happened for the title wouldn’t have. That championship being defended in the Tokyo Dome, or in Madison Square Garden, or in the main event of NJPW cards, a lot of that is to do with me.

Going forward, hey I’m happy to defend this title against any British wrestler, and they can go on and wrestle with it every week in the UK if they want, but they have to beat me first. I’m happy to go over to the UK to put this title on the line against someone that thinks they can do that, but nobody has been able to for a long time. Years. It’s only been Japanese wrestlers that have been able to beat me.

–Tomohiro Ishii, Minoru Suzuki and Katsuyori Shibata are former British Heavyweight Champions.

ZSJ: And to their credit, they did a lot as champions to go to the UK and make defences. They all contributed in their own way.

–A little removed from Wrestle Kingdom, do you think that SANADA could be a contender again for that title? Could he win it?

ZSJ: Before the Tokyo Dome, everybody thought that SANADA was going to be the next British Prime Minister. But it wasn’t to be. Sorry UK, you’re stuck with me.

–SANADA seemed to have a mental edge on you going into the Tokyo Dome.

ZSJ: Maybe. He gets overlooked for how skillful he is. We should absolutely be concerned with SANADA’s questionable fashion sense, and the reprobates he socializes with, but he is one of the most skilled wrestlers in New japan. And I’m glad that he was thinking along the same lines of me in the ring.

Wrestle Kingdom is the most important event of the year, and some wrestlers get carried away with that. It becomes more about the spectacle than the art, but I think the match we had could have happened 20 years in the past, or 20 years in the future and it would still be good. That’s what I want to do, make the past and the present meet through technical wrestling.

I’m thinking about where this title will be in ten years, and where I am along with it

–The British Heavyweight Championship does seem to have a separate image in NJPW. We’ve seen a very different style of match to something you might see over the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.

ZSJ: I would hope so. I want that title to represent British wrestling, but also to represent my vision of professional wrestling. I want to grow my style as much as I want to grow the status of the belt.

–Let’s talk about Will Ospreay at New Beginning in Sapporo February 2. Back in 2018, Ospreay faced Marty Scurll for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, but this is the first all British heavyweight championship match in NJPW history. Is the national pride important to you? Or are you more focused on the task ahead?

ZSJ: It’s definitely important. I’ve been coming to Japan for ten years now. A lot of my influences were from Japanese wrestling. Japan is a very important place to me, but at my core, I’m a British wrestler. In that sense, being with Ospreay and being that little history note is important, but like I said, I’m not going to be fulfilled with these little accomplishments. I’m thinking about where the British heavyweight Championship will be ten years into the future, and where I’m going to be along with that.

–What do you think of Ospreay as a wrestler?

I think Ospreay’s a blithering idiot, and one of the stupidest people I’ve ever had a conversation with, but he’s also one of the most incredibly talented wrestlers in the world. In his own way he’s representing classic British wrestling with a modern vision as well. We’ve come from two separate points, but they interlink. He’s a very underappreciated technical wrestler- he’s a freak, he can do anything he wants- but I think this match will be a very modern representation of what British wrestling was, in a New Japan ring and it’s very important that it is in an NJPW ring.

You’re very naive if you don’t think Will Ospreay is an incredibly talented wrestler

–You were a standard bearer for British wrestling as it emerged out of a very dark era, and you and Ospreay both have brought the scene to new heights. Zack Sabre Junior versus Will Ospreay is arguably to British wrestling what Kazuchika Okada vs Hiroshi Tanahashi is to NJPW in Japan.

ZSJ: I’ll gladly take that comparison, though maybe it’s better to compare Okada and Tanahashi to me and Ospreay, it should be the other way around.

Nobody going to a British wrestling event now can conceive how bad things were when I was first starting out, and that was supposedly better than it was ten years before that. It was a very difficult period for British wrestling after TV deals ended in the late 1980s.

Marty Scurll had a big influence as well in that resurgence, but to New Japan fans, Ospreay and I have been most prominent. I remember when Will first started to come up, he got a lot of slagging off from the older guard, and he’s surpassed everything they’ve done. As much as I hate to give him any credit, I think that’s amusing.

–If you do take that comparison with Tanahashi and Okada, you as the classically trained wrestler would be closer to Tanahashi. How do you feel about that?

ZSJ: I’d graciously take Tanahashi’s effortless hair, at least. He looks like he’s come out of a hair salon after a thirty-minute match, and I look like I’ve been electrocuted. I’ll take that.

I’m very fortunate and very proud that I was trained (under the late Andre Baker in NWA-UK: Hammerlock) at one of the last places that were training traditional British wrestling with the real foundations of grappling. I’ve traveled to a lot of places since then and built on those foundations, but everything that I learned back then I still use in some form now.

On the other hand, we should give Ospreay credit for not being trained in that way and still finding the success he’s had. Wrestling is like genres of music. I might be most passionate about technical wrestling and that’s the vision I have, but I don’t necessarily think that Ospreay’s style is wrong. People that judge him by watching GIFs are being very naïve if they don’t believe he’s an incredibly talented wrestler. Ultimately though, he can’t touch me on the mat. He doesn’t have the philosophy or understanding of what I think wrestling should be. We’re going to measure and contrast those approaches, I guess. People in Sapporo or watching on NJPW World are going to see what the next evolution of British wrestling is.

Suzuki-Gun is my natural environment, surrounded by real mean bastards

–Your teammate Taichi is main eventing at Sapporo against Okada.

ZSJ: Right where he should be! I won’t begrudge being under a Taichi Okada main event. But to be in the semi-main, that goes back to where I’m not satisfied with where I can go with this championship. Certainly every time that the British Heavyweight Championship is defended it could be a main event. My goal is to make sure that it is.

–What’s your take on Taichi versus Okada? They haven’t wrestled since Okada’s debut, back in 2008.

ZSJ: It’s quite a rare scenario for two guys to have barely touched in all that time. I thought it was hilarious when Taichi hit him with the iron fingers! Did you see the new pouch he has for it? The blue one was a little bit garish- no offense to Iizuka, it suited him perfectly! I think people don’t understand just how capable Taichi is. He’s a funny guy, and he likes to amuse himself a lot of the time, but we saw in the G1 and through last year what he can do. So I’m excited to see him in his hometown against one of the greatest of all time. We’re going to see a different side of Taichi.

–Then in Osaka on February 9, Minoru Suzuki takes on Jon Moxley. Your take on that, for Suzuki-gun?

ZSJ: I’m just going to enjoy it thoroughly from start to finish. They’re going to tear each other apart. If a guy like Moxley is going to be part of New Japan, this is the kind of match that should happen. You’re going to see the level that Suzuki is still at. The guy is north of 50. There’s no better inspiration than that man. I’m 32 right now, I started in 2004, so 16 years. I want to be wrestling into my 60s, 70s. To see a guy like Suzuki competing at the level he does is very motivating.

–You’ve been part of Suzuki-Gun since 2017. The idea of different visions of wrestling, but with fundamentals in grappling, like you were talking about before: it seems like Suzuki-Gun fits you like a glove.

ZSJ: I feel at home there. It does feel like when I was training in Hammerlock. I was 14, and hanging around these hard as nails geezers with shaved heads. Very skillful guys, in the way that catch wrestling is skillful, but also very vicious, mean, and bending the rules. Then they’d also have a great sense of humour. That’s the environment I came up in, and that’s the Suzuki-Gun environment. Everyone is vicious, and everyone is skilled in their own way.

–What’s been the biggest asset that you’ve gained from being part of that group?

ZSJ: I had always been incorrectly positioned to be a fan favourite, when I have a great disdain for most everyone, so I have been able to embrace my inner dickhead (laughs). Being part of Suzuki-Gun has allowed me to vent and speak my mind. I don’t regret the journey I’ve taken to be part of this group at all. This is my natural environment, surrounded by some real mean bastards.

Strong Style probably is dead. But I’m here now. 

–After you won the New Japan Cup, and headed into a title match with Kazuchika Okada at Sakura Genesis 2018, you said ‘Strong Style is dead’. In your mind, what is Strong Style?

ZSJ: (laughs) Maybe some people have noticed this, but I talk bollocks sometimes and slag everyone and everything off. Nothing’s off limits, including ‘Strong Style’. Like I said before it’s like genres of music, and a lot of people get bogged down in the semantics of it.

My understanding of Strong Style is the idea of pro wrestling being the strongest style. That, to me, is what Antonio Inoki was trying to convey. For me, now, the strongest style means achieving the most while using the least. The wrestlers that inspired me, guys like Johnny Kidd and Steve Grey, could still do ten five minute rounds now, in their 60s. Wrestling smart, and wrestling passionately is what I try to do.

There is an escalation in terms of how dangerous things have got. Wrestling is always dangerous, because you can lose, or you can be injured at any time. But injuring yourself doing something to somebody else seems moronic to me.

When I said Strong Style is dead, it probably is, but what I wanted that to mean is that I’m here now. I haven’t trained in the NJPW Dojo, but I probably represent the tradition and aesthetics of Strong Style and New Japan Pro-Wrestling more than anybody in this company. I’ve done that on my own, through my own passion.   

–With that said, in NJPW through 2020, is keeping the British Heavyweight Championship, and representing that title, what matters most to you? Are the IWGP Championships secondary?

ZSJ: No, I think the last couple of years for me have been about representing this title, but it’s… not restricted me, but taken a lot of my focus. From this year, my goal is to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. I don’t care about the Intercontinental, you can throw that in the bin. It’d be more fun to win the NEVER Championship than the Intercontinental. At least that represents something. But I’d like the heavyweight belt much more.

Then again, I have no desire to lose the British title. I’ve said I’d like to be buried with it in Highgate Cemetary next to Karl Marx, and that hasn’t changed. So everything else that I achieve will be with the British Heavyweight belt still around my waist.

–If we have this same conversation after Wrestle Kingdom 15, where do you want to want to be?

ZSJ: I want to be either an IWGP Champion, or challenging for one at the Tokyo Dome next year. Ideally I’d be champion, but if for some reason I wasn’t, I can be challenging. It’s impossible to conceive I wouldn’t win either the New Japan Cup or the G1 Climax or both; that seems the most likely route. But let me get past Daft Ospreay first, then I’ll start making a plan; not that I have to share any of that with you.

photography by Yoshifumi Nakahara