NJPW: Zack Sabre Jr.’s Improbable New Japan Cup Win


Analyzing Zack Sabre Jr.’s shocking 2018 New Japan Cup win and what the future holds for the young Brit.

In November of 2016, as part of an inter-brand card between Revolution Pro Wrestling based out of Kent, England and New Japan Pro Wrestling, a then 29 year-old Zack Sabre Jr., fresh off of a scintillating performance at the WWE Cruiserweight Classic that saw him reach the semi-finals, took on NJPW stud Katsuyori Shibata.

On that night in London, Shibata would prove to too much for Sabre as he snatched away the RevPro British Heavyweight title from the Brit. Four months later, Sabre, refusing to allow his conqueror to spend too long with a belt that he had previously held for nearly 300 days, traveled to Japan for a rematch with Shibata at NJPW’s 45th Anniversary Show. And in what was one of the better matches on a solid night of bouts, “The Technical Wizard” reclaimed his belt, a belt that he still holds to this day.

After proving his merit against a superstar like Shibata, Sabre has become a bit of a mainstay in NJPW and makes continued appearances on their big shows. Shortly after his win at the Anniversary show, he appeared a month later at Sakura Genesis, two months after that he competed at Dominion 6.11, and just a few weeks later battled in the inaugural United States title tournament where he lost in the semifinals to Tomohiro Ishii.

Through the summer of 2017, Sabre was a member of the 27th G1 Climax tournament. In a tremendous debut at the vaunted G1, Sabre went 5-4. securing 10 points and a tie for third place in his block.

His five wins included three major ones as he bested Ishii, and former NJPW Heavyweight Champions Togi Makabe and Hiroshi Tanahashi. Sabre parlayed the victory over Tanahashi into a shot at the IWGP Intercontinental Championship in the main event of Destruction in Hiroshima but could not repeat his winning formula as he lost to the “Ace of the Universe” after a 30 minute war.

So when Sabre was announced as a member of the 2018 New Japan Cup field, his odds for winning weren’t necessarily bad. But seeing names like Tanahashi, Ishii, Kota Ibushi, Michael Elgin, and Sanada in the bracket as well, it was clear that Sabre would have a tough road ahead. His first round match looked more difficult than any other as he drew former IWGP Champ and most recent winner of the G1 in Tetsuya Naito.

Naito, fresh off a stirring main event loss to Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom in January, has been one of the hottest wrestlers on the planet for the past year. But after nearly 23 minutes and an onslaught of Sabre submission holds, Naito shockingly tapped to the patented Orienteering With Napalm Death banana split like finisher.

Credit: www.NJPW1972.com

Next up for Sabre was the ever tough Kota Ibushi, a guy Sabre had just lost to at the G1 in an incredible match. But much like Naito, Ibushi could not stop the constant limb stretching pressure from the 30 year-old Englishman, submitting to a leg assisted double chicken-wing like maneuver that made “Golden Star” look like a human pretzel.

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For the semifinals, Sabre welcomed one of the most current rising stars in all of NJPW in SANADA. The past few months have been a career changer for the Niigata, Japan native. At Wrestle Kingdom, he and his Los Ingobernables stablemate EVIL, captured the IWGP Tag Team titles from Lance Archer and Davey Smith Jr.

SANADA used that victory to get a shot at Okada and the IWGP Championship a month later at The New Begininning in Osaka, a match he just very narrowly missed winning. But even with that type of momentum, he did not have the goods to defeat Sabre as he too was forced into submission by “The Hunk Killer”.

This all led to Wednesday’s final and a rubber match with Tanahashi who looked to capture his third New Japan Cup. However, the third leg of this trilogy seemed very different than the first two encounters. Sabre, specifically, was just a different wrestler than in the first two bouts. He was calculating, vicious, and seemed intent on damaging Tanahashi permanently. It was about as dominant a win against “Tana” than has been seen in a long time and when he tapped to the same move that Naito did, it created a new main event caliber superstar in Sabre.

Outside of the trophy and prestige for winning the New Japan Cup, the biggest prize is that the winner gets a title shot at any championship of his choosing. It would’ve been hard to believe that Sabre, after defeating the likes of the four men that he just did, would opt for anything other than a crack at Okada and the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. And that fact was solidified as he called out “The Rainmaker” within minutes of his win and the two will square off in less than two weeks at Sakura Genesis in what will be the first time this duo will face each other.

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Now, as impressive as this win was for Sabre, his chances against Okada are not all that great. At well over 600 days as champ, Okada does not seem like he’s going to drop his belt anytime soon and may be gearing up for an eventual showdown and fourth match with Kenny Omega.

But no matter how things play out at Sakura Genesis, it’s clear that Zack Sabre Jr.’s star has never been brighter and he’s well within the next crop of stars that could stay within the NJPW main event scene for the near future. Four stunning wins, a big, glorious trophy, and a ticket to face “The Rainmaker” for the belt. Sabre is having a terrific month of March and maybe on the best run of his surging career.