ZSJ talks about his career in Japan, joining NJPW and Suzuki-Gun, and his plans for the future!
In part two of our exhaustive interview, Zack Sabre Junior brings us up to the present in his career retrospective, and discusses what might be in his future on NJPW’s return!
Your wrestling education should be permanent
—When Pro Wrestling NOAH toured Europe, you wrestled KENTA and Taiji Ishimori in a proving series of sorts. Now you’ve all found yourselves in NJPW, albeit having taking different routes to get here.
ZSJ: Very few wrestlers have a straight line through their careers. It’s one of the most interesting things about the business. Sometimes you won’t see someone for years and then you come across one another in a completely different place. I bumped into KENTA in America.
–In 2016, when he was in WWE and you wrestled in their Cruiserweight Classic tournament?
ZSJ: Yeah, and then years later here he is in New Japan.
–So the NOAH European tour led directly to you joining their Dojo?
ZSJ: The tour was in May, and then I started in the Dojo in July. The invitation came right after the tour.
–Being part of their Dojo system specifically was important to you?
ZSJ: It was always the goal, yes. I didn’t want to be a foreign wrestler who just did a few tours here or there, I wanted to be ingrained in the lifestyle. I wanted my whole focus to be in Japan.
–Still, the UK roots were very important to you.
ZSJ: I was still, am still hugely grateful for the time I had in Hammerlock. I was very lucky to learn that style at that time. Your wrestling education should be permanent, you should be learning and adding stuff as you go.
–A Japanese Dojo offered that learning experience.
ZSJ: I was a bigger fan of NJPW than anywhere else, but NOAH was still one of the most respected companies in the world. At that time, this was the best chance I had of being a part of a Dojo.
I’d always wanted to be in Japan
–Did you have to unlearn a lot of what you were used to doing in order to pick up the style in the Dojo? Gabriel Kidd is in a similar spot in the LA Dojo after wrestling several years in the UK.
ZSJ: Well, my situation was a bit different, in terms of the career I’d built up beforehand. Plus I’d come in after wrestling their top guys. So it was more a case of building two skillsets at the same time. You always pick and choose. I was taught in a way that was NOAH style, but it’s up to you as a wrestler to choose the specifics of how to wrestle.
–You mentioned you’d had brief trips to Germany and the US, but here you were living in Japan full time. Was that a culture shock?
ZSJ: Not hugely. I’d always wanted to be in Japan, and I’d asked a lot of questions to wrestlers that had been here, but it’s almost a bigger culture shock to be wrestling in a national touring promotion after being in the indies.
–It’s a larger scale.
ZSJ: Right, it’s a big difference from sitting in the back of the ring truck going from town to town to then being on a bus, being part of a big production, going round the country, having a proper office.
–Who was in charge of everything in the NOAH Dojo at the time?
ZSJ: (Atsushi) Aoki (1977-2019) was in charge of the Dojo and training at that point. He was the person I wanted to make happy.
–Was he a strict teacher?
ZSJ: I’d been told that he was by a lot of the other foreigners. Basically ‘your priority should be making Aoki happy, then you’ll be OK’.
–And did you?
ZSJ: By the end of the first trip I did with them he took me to dinner and brought me a pair of wrestling shoes to say thank you for working so hard. I was coming over for three months or so at a time and then going back to England, renewing my visa and coming back again. The first trip was petrifying but after that it got easier.
–Is there any advice you’d go back in time and give yourself before you came to Japan?
ZSJ: I think in Japan you’re often expected to work at a high level. You don’t get much positive feedback, because people expect you to be working hard and working well. When you do badly, you get told!
–It’s easy to fear the worst if somebody doesn’t say anything either way.
ZSJ: Right. But actually if you do something badly you’re told. At the same time though, there was no fear that I wasn’t doing my best. I wasn’t scared at all of working hard.
–As a foreigner in the Dojo do you think for better or for worse there was any different treatment? Was it more forgiving in a sense, culturally?
ZSJ: Maybe the expectations were a little different. I think with the experience that I had at the time, they were testing to see if I would put in the work with chores around the Dojo. There’s always work to do, and I just did as much as I could with the knowledge I had. Maybe in Japan there’s a very proper way that you should do things, but at first they wanted to see that I was willing to do it at all at first, and then after that, whether I was doing it the right way.
I find a lot of things amusing about the way Taichi wrestles now, but when you’re on the other end…
–As you were developing in Japan, the UK scene was developing as well.
ZSJ: I had a very interesting perspective of the growth, because I’d be doing as many events as possible in the one month or so periods I spent in the UK. I tried to remain in the British scene to an extent, but at the same time I felt it was my responsibility to represent Britain in Japan.
–You won the British heavyweight Championship from AJ Styles in 2016, and went to America as well.
ZSJ: I felt like I needed to go on a new adventure. I’d plateaued in NOAH and I needed to not be in this comfortable position I was in.
–This was also while Suzuki-Gun had invaded NOAH. You wrestled Taichi a lot around this time…
ZSJ: Ah! (laughs)
–When you eventually joined Suzuki-Gun in 2017 I remember you saying ‘this is one way I can be sure of not having to wrestle against Taichi again’(laughs)
ZSJ: (laughs) Well, I find a lot of things amusing about how Taichi wrestles now, but when you’re on the other end of it…!
–It’s a different story.
ZSJ: And I was in a different mindset, too. I was a NOAH boy out of their Dojo and they were these invaders then. So my mentality was obviously different. Now Taichi is one of my closest friends.
Japanese and British wrestling have a lot more in common than with American wrestling, or Mexico
–To go back to the British Heavyweight Championship; you won it from AJ, then it went between yourself, Katsuyori Shibata, Tomohiro Ishii, Minoru Suzuki. The British heavyweight title had a very Japanese feel to it, a Strong Style feel.
ZSJ: There’s parallels there. All these champions have the same mindset, and that’s why they were drawn to it. But I think it comes down to the ‘pure’ wrestling element, for want of a better word, that the title represents. If you’re watching a RevPro main event for that title, there is the understanding that you’re getting a certain quality.
–That’s a quality that transcends borders.
ZSJ: Well, I think as well that Japanese wrestling and British wrestling have a lot more in common with one another than with American wrestling say, or Mexico.
–That’s an interesting point.
ZSJ: There’s a lot of cultural similarities between the UK and Japan, and that goes for wrestling as well, I think.
–With you, Ospreay, and Gabriel Kidd in the LA Dojo, Marty Scurll as well, there is a bigger British presence in NJPW than in other major promotions. Why is that?
ZSJ: We all love flower arrangement! (laughs)No, I think the perspective of British people is different. To the American psyche there’s this idea of the American Dream, where British people will downplay any success they have.
ZSJ: Even in the height of British wrestling in the World of Sport era, there were never big arena shows, they were always these civic halls of 1000 people or so. When I grew up the objective to me was to be a professional wrestler full time. To American wrestlers there’s maybe these hopes of standing in big arenas that takes over the desire to just wrestle for some people.
Your journey should be important. Every match is part of your identity
–Talk around American wrestling is often more centered on specific moments rather than matches, where Japanese fans would talk more about the matches, the ‘Misawa vs Kawada’ or ‘Tanahashi vs Okada’.
ZSJ: Matches, or even series of matches where one leads to the next. A Tanahashi and Okada match is in itself remarkable, but everything in their history is important, every bit of their history is important.
–The journey is as important as the destination.
ZSJ: Your journey as a wrestler is part of who you are and its more important in Japan, where in America it can be more throwaway. That journey should be important as a wrestler. It’s like every record in your discography as a band. That’s part of who you are, part of your identity.
I’ve always wrestled like a prick
–The journey you’ve had has meant that Japanese audiences have claimed you as theirs, and so have British audiences. When you came into NJPW on March 3 2017, you challenged Katsuyori Shibata for the British Heavyweight Championship. It seemed as if you were flying the flag for RevPro but then you joined Suzuki-Gun.
ZSJ: I’m sure I wouldn’t believe you if you told me about this before, when Suzuki was beating the sh*t out of me in 2015 (laughs). That period, from Suzuki coming to NOAH to me being in NJPW was less than two years, but it was so important to my life.
–It was so significant to your development.
ZSJ: I think in the end that being in Suzuki-Gun fits so perfectly with who I want to be as a wrestler. The timing worked out perfectly; RevPro and NJPW had a strong relationship and it would make sense that I could get to challenge Shibata for the title in NJPW, and at the same time I really felt like I was done appealing for fans’ attention. I never enjoyed being the babyface.
–Do you think Suzuki himself saw that in you in NOAH?
ZSJ: I don’t think I’d be in Suzuki-Gun if he didn’t see the potential in me.
ZSJ: I don’t think I ever wrestled in a way that asks for fan support. I’ve always wrestled like a prick (laughs). That’s the culture I was trained in. A mean style. Upfront, aggressive. I was always confident in the ring, but I wasn’t comfortable with how I was positioned until I was in Suzuki-Gun.
–That sounds very similar to the Minoru Suzuki mindset.
ZSJ: He’s a big inspiration to me at this point. His longevity, his condition, but also that he’s an auteur. He only ever wrestles the way he wants to. He puts his own integrity before what anybody else tells him. Rather than listening to what people want you to be, go and fulfill your own vision.
–But fans still appreciate what you do in the ring.
ZSJ: If they appreciate my matches, that’s fine, but if they didn’t I’d still wrestle in the exact same way. The wrestler I am now is how I wanted to be when I started out, and I want to advance that to where I’m embarrassed of myself in five years’ time.
–To go back to Japanese wrestling culture, our Japanese announcers have a tough time with your move names…
ZSJ: Good! (laughs)
–‘Orienteering with Napalm Death’ is something that they’ve picked up, but ‘Hurrah’ (Another Year, Surely This Will Be Better Than The Last; The Inexorable March of Progress Shall Lead Us All To Happiness!) was not going to happen.
ZSJ: Did they just shorten it?
–(Haruo) Murata once coined ‘Shin shun shiawase gatame’ (New Year’s Happiness Hold)
ZSJ: That’s the remix (laughs)
–Do you like trolling people a little?
ZSJ: It definitely brings me joy to wind people up. I always thought that move names are incredibly silly and dull. It amuses me to give these outlandish and unpronounceable names.
–But there is some meaning to them.
ZSJ: Yeah, all of these are things that have been really important to me over the years. They speak to my passions outside of wrestling, film, TV, comedy. I like those names and that’s what’s most important. People not being able to pronounce them properly just makes me extra happy (laughs). ‘Hurrah…’ came from Youthmovies, an English math rock band that had a big influence on me. By the time I named the move that, they had disbanded and I was just paying tribute to them, but it got the band speaking and they did some reunion shows.
–So the move names represent your personality outside the ring in a way.
ZSJ: Right. That’s way more important to me than having a Super Fire Whatever the Hell Driver. That’s not who I am at all.
–If you came up with an intricate move today that needed a name, what are you into now? What would you call it?
ZSJ: I have a long list! But I like the surprise of the announcers not being prepared.
–A reporter asking backstage what the move is called and then having to write it down when you tell him.
ZSJ: Half of the time really I just think of something off the top of my head in the moment. I’ve been watching a lot of Fellini films lately, so maybe that’s a hint. I hope everyone’s Italian is OK.
I can appreciate why fans would be excited about me and Moxley. I’m excited about me and Moxley.
–I doubt it (laughs). When we get back to wrestling a full schedule, you’ve set yourself up as a contender in the US Heavyweight and Tag Team divisions. What’s higher on your list?
ZSJ: I think they can both be up there at the same time. If I was going for two singles belts, that would be different, but the way things are scheduled, I probably wouldn’t have to wrestle twice in one night. I’d be happy to do that, though.
–Again, lots has changed in a short time for you.
ZSJ: As much as I was attached to the British Heavyweight Championship, in a way it’s a little bit liberating. At some point I will get back to it, but it had taken priority over what I wanted to achieve. I had envisioned being British and US Heavyweight Champion at the same time. But now I can dedicate myself truly to America.
–Do you have a time in mind for the US title and Jon Moxley?
ZSJ: I certainly want to be US Champion by July 4. I have some fantastic ideas…
–And Madison Square Garden is near as well.
ZSJ: I don’t think anything would be better than being US Champion at Wrestle Dynasty, and how upset American wrestling fans would be. I think as well, Moxley was coming after my group. I didn’t want to wait for him to come to me, I wanted to jump in.
–It’s a unique styles clash.
ZSJ: I can appreciate that fans would be excited about that; I’m excited about that. You don’t know which way it’s going to go. He’s been having these hardcore rules with everyone and that isn’t going to work with me; you can keep the furniture under the ring, sunshine. I wouldn’t be chasing after him if I didn’t think I could win. I can win. It won’t be easy, but I can win.
–And the tag titles?
ZSJ: Taichi and I have been hanging out a lot. After a few glasses or bottles of whiskey, you start talking a lot. He likes his Fellini as well, you know.
ZSJ: Big fan of Italian cinema. Anyway, we feel the tag division has been neglected for a long time. The best teams always come up organically, not just forced together, and after doing a couple of tag leagues, we thought we should team more consistently together. I have a lot of history with Tanahashi and Ibushi, so it would only make sense that we put ourselves in that situation.