Zack Sabre Junior reflects on a phenomenal career to date and talks about what is to come.
Zack Sabre Junior has been wrestling non stop since he was a teen, so it’s fair to say that down time does not sit well with the British Submission Master. As he waits to get back into the ring however, he was willing to sit down with NJPW1972.com to discuss his phenomenal career to date.
At school, we were just as likely to talk about wrestling as football.
–It wasn’t that long since we last interviewed you, but a lot has changed since before the New Beginning tour.
ZSJ: Before these events were cancelled, I think I made myself clear when it came to the IWGP US Heavyweight Championship, that I want to challenge next. Then the timing seemed to work out that Taichi and I would go for the tag titles as well.
–You set yourself up for a busy spring.
ZSJ: I want to be productive. I feel much happier with multiple things going on as opposed to just one at a time.
–Spring is usually a key time for you in NJPW. You won the New Japan Cup in 2018…
ZSJ: And I debuted at the Anniversary Event in 2017.
–We’ll get to that, but let’s start at the beginning. What was your first exposure to wrestling? WWE was very popular in the UK, but your style is very different to what they presented. Were you a fan?
ZSJ: I was born in 1987, so I was definitely aware of what the (then) WWF by the time I was six or seven years old. WWF was on paid satellite TV in the UK, and we couldn’t afford it, so I first watched more WCW, because it was on free to air.
–So were you aware of Japanese wrestling through WCW?
ZSJ: Right, NJPW was sending a lot of wrestlers over. I think I first saw Liger relatively young. in the early 90s on WCW TV.
–WWF especially was very popular in the UK in the early 1990s.
ZSJ: It wasn’t quite mainstream, but for the kids in the playground at school, it was just as likely they’d talk about pro-wrestling as they did football, I feel.
–But the local scene was very different. British wrestling was a mainstay on British TV, but after it got cancelled in the late 1980s, the scene changed.
ZSJ: It was a different crowd going perhaps. WWF and WCW were popular but they wouldn’t come to the UK very often. That meant that a lot of places would change and market around seeing pro-wrestling live rather than any particular promotion or star.
–They were trying to bring the TV audience to see live pro-wrestling closer to home. Did you go to any of those shows?
ZSJ: I did! I remember seeing Steve Grey in, oh, around 1995. I still have a little autograph book I took with me to those shows.
–Growing up on WWF or WCW, it would have been very different going to a local UK show at the time.
ZSJ: I didn’t understand much about styles or presentations of pro-wrestling at the time, but I did realise then that they were wrestling in a completely different way to what I’d seen on TV. I remember really liking it.
–Would that have been All-Star Promotions? They were last to run regular TV in the UK.
ZSJ: Probably, or at least a company with a similar approach. From that point I really considered myself to be a general wrestling fan. I did everything I could to get hold of. New Japan was on Eurosport, so I’d try to get tapes of that.
–But technical wrestling in particular appealed to you?
ZSJ: Any wrestler with a more technical style appealed to me. A lot of people will talk about seeing Hulk Hogan or someone like that and being amazed, but the shiny production never really appealed to me. The larger than life guys weren’t as interesting as Sean Waltman or Bret Hart in my mind.
–Did that make you stand out from your friends at school?
ZSJ: Whenever we’d play wrestling, they’d be trying to do chokeslams and stuff. I’d be the only person trying to do a Figure 4-Leglock, quite badly! (laughs) I was just more drawn to a more minimalist approach to wrestling.
–More rooted in martial arts?
ZSJ: Yeah. I took it as an expansion of grappling. When I was in school I did judo and karate as well, so.
–The two were connected.
ZSJ: Yes, but pro-wrestling was always unique. I loved sports, but at a certain point pro-wrestling took over everything, especially when I started training.
I was watching less as a fan and more as a wrestler from the age of 12.
–You started young.
ZSJ: I started training at 14, yeah.
–A lot of people in Japan or America might be surprised by that, but a lot of people in the UK start young. Gabriel Kidd (LA Dojo) started at 11.
ZSJ: For a lot of kids in the UK, it’s similar to a lot of community classes. You have karate, you have judo, soccer club, and here’s pro-wrestling.
–How did your family react to you starting out?
ZSJ: My mum was always very supportive of me, but I think she just thought it was another after school activity when I first started.
–It replaced swim class (laughs)!
ZSJ: I think it probably speaks to how the UK treats sports differently as a culture. In Japan or America, sports are taken much more seriously from an early age. You get put on a career path early, there are college scholarships, that kind of thing. In the UK, all the sports you do have to come separately, alongside your education.
–It’s a different environment.
ZSJ: And a different set of rules as well, we have less strict athletic commissions. It’s easier to sneak in with something like pro-wrestling classes at a local gym, because you’re afforded more choice in a way, sports isn’t as established as a career path.
–Your mum thought you had a new after school activity, but in your mind, you were going to make it.
ZSJ: One hundred percent. By the time I was 12, I started watching wrestling differently. Less as a fan, more like ‘if I’m a pro-wrestler, how would I do this’. It was a different mindset. Then, by the time I was 14, I was convinced.
–You started training with NWA-UK: Hammerlock. How did you come across them?
ZSJ: In the UK there was this monthly wrestling magazine called Power Slam. There was an advert in there for Hammerlock, and I was amazed that I could start at my age. I saw the advert just before Christmas in 2001. My mum made me wait until just after Christmas, and then I started the first Sunday in 2002.
–Power Slam magazine was really important to a generation of wrestling fans and wrestlers in the UK.
ZSJ: Oh yeah. I didn’t grow up in a big city, but you could buy it in a lot of shops, so it was easy to get hold of. This was before YouTube or social media, anything like that, so the reports and photos let you see a world of wrestling from Mexico, Japan, all over.
–Was Hammerlock training mostly under Andre Baker?
ZSJ: I learned a lot from Andre, but my day to day coach was Jon Ryan. I have to credit him for everything really. Later on, Andre took a shine to me, so he would give me some one on one training, or train in a small group with people he saw potential in.
–What was the early training experience like?
ZSJ: It was terrifying. And very busy. There were 60 kids there every weekend. At that time, WWE had gone to Channel 4, a free station, so it was very popular.
–A lot of parents thought that if their kids were going to play at wrestling they should do it safely at least.
ZSJ: It saved a lot of houses being destroyed!
–But as WWE was popular, the domestic scene in the UK was struggling.
ZSJ: Right. Hammerlock did OK for a time. It was only them, FWA, All-Star that were touring, and there were some places that drew fairly well. But it was only ‘wrestling’ that was on the poster. Nobody became a Hammerlock fan, or a fan of a particular wrestler, they were all one and done shows. Nothing was connected.
I realised I didn’t just want to be a wrestler, but a wrestler in Japan
–Any memories of your first matches?
ZSJ: It was petrifying. You’re trying to learn so much that you’re overwhelmed and then when you’re in matches, everything goes out of the window. I remember wrestling in working men’s clubs in front of 20 people. Pubs, where the regulars were annoyed wrestling night had shown up.
–Not many people have the diverse range of venue experience as you. Tokyo Dome down to Tap ‘n’ Tin and Tam O’ Shanter.
ZSJ: Hammerlock had some beautiful venues as well. Margate, Windsor Gardens. Civic Halls. Towards the end of my time with Hammerlock though, they were in bad shape. More promotions were appealing to the indie wrestling fan, and NWA, just trying to draw with a general ‘Wrestling’ weren’t successful anymore.
–You were kept on your toes.
ZSJ: You never knew what you were going to get, 15 people in one place, 1000 in another. But the people I wrestled gave my fantastic experience. Johnny Moss, Danny Garnell, Paul Tracey, Fergal (Devitt, now Finn Balor in WWE). An incredible amount of talented people that helped me a lot. You had to work very hard, they’d test you all the time, but when you earned their respect, they’d help you no end.
–In the mid 2000s, the Wrestling Channel ran briefly on satellite, and this was the beginning of the social media age. People’s perceptions about wrestling were changing very fast.
ZSJ: It was still before YouTube, but I remember when I first started wrestling in Hammerlock there was a TV there showing Japanese wrestling. Lots of people there were trading and sharing VHS tapes from around the world.
–Was that when you first really got into Japanese wrestling?
ZSJ: Yeah. It was one of those first days that I got a hold of the 1994 Super J-Cup. I’d seen the photos in Power Slam, but this was when I really got hooked.
–Super J-Cup 94 was a viral sensation before social media existed. It turned a lot of people onto NJPW.
ZSJ: It made me realise that I didn’t just want to be a wrestler, but that I wanted to be a wrestler in Japan.
–What about Japan in particular appealed?
ZSJ: The aesthetic still seems fresh now, let alone 18 years ago. The only wrestling I’d seen on TV was American, but the way everything was presented is completely different. The sports like presentation has always appealed to me the most.
–You were wrestling in pubs and clubs, but the match that really seemed to put you on the map was in TxW (Triple-X Wrestling,) with Bryan Danielson (now Daniel Bryan in WWE)
ZSJ: No question. I’d been wrestling in that area of the UK in Coventry for a few years at that point, in the Tam O’ Shanter pub. There were fans there that were very vocal pre-social media, but on message boards and things like that. They were becoming aware of me, and then the Danielson match happened, and my career instantly took off.
–This was in 2008.
ZSJ: Yes. It’s strange in a way, this was when there was a big financial crash and recession, but at the same time, the independent scene in the UK became something much more credible and successful.
–Why do you think that is?
ZSJ: There’s something about the working-class appeal of pro-wrestling, I think. British wrestling was very successful in the background of the coal miners strikes of the 70s and 80s. Wrestling fans will always dedicate their money even when times are tight.
KENTA, Ishimori, Nakajima. I got absolutely battered, but I managed to win somebody over.
–There was a lot of growth in the UK scene at the time.
ZSJ: It was a bit mixed up, and there wasn’t much of an identity, but people were trying a lot of different things. They were looking at ROH and the success they were having, and then flying in those wrestlers to the UK.
–Some Japanese wrestlers as well.
ZSJ: Yeah. NJPW not as much, as they’d be going to Mexico most often, but Pro Wrestling NOAH were making strides in Europe.
–And that provided you your first opportunity internationally?
ZSJ: Well, WxW in Germany were the first to take a chance on me and fly me out there to wrestle.
–Was that a big deal for you at the time? To wrestle overseas?
ZSJ: Oh yeah. All the things that sound terrible, like sleeping on airport floors when flights were delayed, or going into a German nightclub for 12 hours to wrestle two matches and then going home, in hindsight, they were some of the most fun experiences I ever had.
–And then the NOAH European tour happened.
ZSJ: It was 2011. IPW were running some of the best cards anywhere in the company back then and were able to run a couple of tours in the US. That gave me a shot over there, I remember backpacking around the US for a couple of months, and then I came back just in time for NOAH.
–It was an intense three days for you.
ZSJ: It was a trial series really. In three days, KENTA, (Taiji) Ishimori and (Katsuhiko) Nakajima (NOAH). Lots of pressure.
–Lots of punishment, too.
ZSJ: I got absolutely battered! But I managed to win someone over.
In part two, ZSJ talks about his career in Japan!