In theory it shouldn’t be difficult to take a wrestler and make him a believable top contender. All you have to do is have him win a lot against other top wrestlers. Simple right? In a way yes, but it doesn’t always work out quite like that. But it was that strategy which was employed in March 2018, when Zack Sabre Jr entered the New Japan Cup and proceeded to win the whole thing.
In the span of 11 days, he went from a good wrestler filling in the tournament bracket to somebody everyone in the locker room should fear.
Besides some victories surrounding the British Heavyweight Championship and a few tournaments, Zack Sabre Jr hasn’t had a lot of spotlight as a singles wrestler in New Japan since his 2017 debut. Most of 2020 was spent teaming with Taichi, who has benefited from more chances to shine in singles competition. Yet the idea still persists that nobody is safe from the Submission Master.
That aura has persisted in large part because of the 2018 New Japan Cup. His individual performance, along with some strong storytelling, has left an enduring legacy that keeps him both relevant and dangerous. A week and a half’s work produced years of notoriety. And it was achieved so simply that it makes you wonder why it feels like such a special case.
The New Japan Cup has been used to prop up promising main event talent for years now, giving them a valuable credibility boost and a main event opportunity at a moderately big event like Sakura Genesis/Invasion Attack. Last year, EVIL tore through the tournament before defecting to Bullet Club, and became a constant presence in the main event scene through the rest of the year. Katsuyori Shibata’s 2017 win was the leap everyone had been waiting for, and if the resulting title match didn’t lead to his unfortunate retirement, he likely would have been a factor at the top for years afterwards. The year before, Tetsuya Naito cemented his return to being a main event fixture, using the tournament to lead him to his first run with the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
Everyone who has won has made a certain kind of sense in hindsight. There are no Jinder Mahal shockers where someone who hasn’t sniffed a main event match suddenly becomes the top guy. But it doesn’t mean that, at the time, the results can’t seemingly come from left field.
Enter the Submission Master: Zack Sabre Jr.
ZSJ made his debut for the company in 2017, doing so with a big win over Shibata (who would win the New Japan Cup one month later) for the RPW British Heavyweight Championship. For the rest of that year Zack got a few chances in singles competition, ending in a main event match against Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Intercontinental Title.
It was a good first year in the company. However, when it came time for Wrestle Kingdom you had to look right down at the bottom of the card to find him, slotted into the gauntlet trios match which basically served as an excuse just to get people on the show. Zack Sabre Jr had been presented as a capable wrestler, but someone who was firmly in the middle of the pack. Entering the New Japan Cup people thought Zack might make a bit of an impact, but he was far from the favourite to win it all.
All signs pointed to Hiroshi Tanahashi claiming the trophy. Kazuchika Okada was in the middle of his legendary IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign, and was on the verge of tying the record for most defences in a single reign. The man who held the record? Tanahashi. With their longstanding rivalry still simmering, he couldn’t allow Okada to break that record. By winning the Cup, Tanahashi could stop him at ten defences, one shy of the record. Or he could challenge for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, and gain some revenge on Minoru Suzuki who had injured him in the previous month. He had every reason to hoist the trophy in the air for a third time.
Zack’s path to victory was a murderers row of some of the best talent in the company. His first opponent was Tetsuya Naito, the reigning G1 Climax winner who had just two months prior headlined Wrestle Kingdom. His next opponent was Kota Ibushi, a heavy favourite as someone who always seemed destined to find himself at the top of the company. In the semi-finals he’d face another highly touted wrestler on the verge of main event glory in SANADA. And awaiting him in the final should he reach it would be The Ace himself: Hiroshi Tanahashi.
Naito. Ibushi. SANADA. Tanahashi.
Zack Sabre Jr conquered them all. And he did so in such a convincing manner that he instantly became a feared opponent. Nobody in the company wrestled like ZSJ. He’d dominate a match, dissecting and torturing his opponents, tying them up and trapping them in inescapable holds. In each of the four tournament matches ZSJ wrestled, he won with three different submission holds. Each time he capitalised on a tiny mistake, executed a perfect counter and then wrapped his victim up in a brutal submission.
Accompanying him as a hype man and manager was Taka Michinoku, who started his year plus stint alongside ZSJ at the tournament. Straight away his pre-match introduction routine would get over, encouraging fans to respond to his question of who would win. If they weren’t sure, Taka was sure to tell them the answer:
“He is Submission Master. He is ZSJ. He is Zack Sabre Jr.”
Naito was the perfect first opponent for ZSJ. By this point he is just shy from the pinnacle of his popularity, being two months removed from the Wrestle Kingdom 12 main event against Okada. Fans reached out toward him, hoping for a glancing touch as Naito coolly strolls down the entrance way into the ring. They want their hero to reign victorious, and they expect it.
Throughout the match the crowd are very vocal in cheering him on. But you also hear them gasp as Zack Sabre Jr pulls out unique counter moves and submission holds that bend the human body in unnatural ways. Naito gains fire late in the match, but a quick change of focus from working on his right arm to targeting the often injured knee proved the difference maker. As the crowd tries to inspire one last fight to the ropes Naito succumbs to ‘Orienteering with Napalm Death’, a brutal over-the-shoulder single crab combined with a forced leg split. Naito verbally submits as it becomes acutely aware he can’t free himself or find the respite of the ropes.
“Who’s Tranquilo now dickhead?” Zack asks after the match, avenging a loss in the previous year’s G1 tournament. For many people, this was the scalp that would establish him. Even if he were to lose to Ibushi next, ZSJ had eliminated one of the company’s top stars. Sometimes that’s all you need – like Great O-Khan beating Naito in this year’s tournament. But Zack wasn’t content with one win, and warned Ibushi that he had some special submissions up his sleeve just for him.
Heading into the match The Golden Star was riding high. To this point he was undefeated in New Japan Cup competition winning the tournament in his sole appearance in 2015. Not only that, he had recently reunited with his Golden Lover Kenny Omega. The cherry on top was that in their G1 encounter last year, Kota had bested ZSJ. Just like Naito had.
Early on it was clear that Ibushi had a power and striking advantage, and for as much pain as Zack can inflict, he can get dropped quickly when his opponents can land something. All it’d take is a big move or strike and the momentum of the match would change in an instant. This was especially dangerous against Ibushi, who is not only one of the best strikers in New Japan but had debuted his new finisher – the Kamigoye – in the time between the two matches.
Zack had it scouted, spinning into an Octopus Hold that then led to ‘Hurrah! Another year, surely this one is better than the last; the inexorable march of progress will lead us all to happiness’. Ibushi was close to the ropes as it was locked in, but Zack had bent him in such a way that he couldn’t see. It didn’t matter, the move proved inescapable, and all Ibushi could do was lay there and refuse to give up. Referee Red Shoes Unno had seen all he needed to. Like a boxer who doesn’t know when he’s punch drunk, Kota wouldn’t admit that he was trapped with no hope of escape and Red Shoes had to save him from being inflicted with further injury.
Afterwards Zack compared their two fighting philosophies. To him it was admirable, albeit stupid, that Ibushi fights with his heart, while he fought with his brain (and an underlying hatred of the British Conservative Party; Kota’s views on this subject have not been made public). The Japanese media were portraying Zack as a dark horse to win the tournament, but he would prove them wrong. He had already managed to avenge two of his G1 losses, and was now halfway to glory.
His next opponent was the most recent challenger to Okada’s historic reign: SANADA. In the years that would follow their chemistry would become nearly unmatched as they trade holds and counters, but this semi-final match would mark their first one on one encounter. The crowd were not quite prepared for what they were about to witness.
It took about ten minutes for the first proper strike to be thrown: a European uppercut by ZSJ. Before then it was pure hold for hold chain wrestling, of which SANADA was often gaining the upper hand, much to the visible frustration of the Submission Master. It would take a while but Zack would begin to regain control of the technical exchanges, proving that even those who can hang with him hold for hold will eventually succumb to his skill. Just like all the others.
The win comes when Zack counters a moonsault, locking in a triangle before switching into a combination submission that trapped both of SANADA’s arms and the right leg he was using to try and desperately reach the ropes. Firmly secured in place while headbutts rained down into his exposed abdomen, he had no choice but to submit.
After the match ZSJ brags about knowing 7822 different submissions (substantially more than the 1004 different hold Chris Jericho knows) and promised to put an end to Tanahashi’s misery, who is apparently being held together by hairspray and athletic tape. He had already achieved the near impossible feat of making Tanahashi tap out last year, but The Ace had evened the score. The final of the New Japan Cup would also serve as the rubber match for these two very different wrestlers.
Through the first three matches of the tournament Zack had managed to avoid taking too much damage. Against Tanahashi however, he began to be tested more, taking High Fly Flows while on the outside and then again onto his back, along with several of his signature moves. The Ace wouldn’t go down easy.
An opening finally presented itself when Tanahashi went for an O’Connor roll, only for Zack to counter it, taking his back and setting up the ‘Orienteering With Napalm Death’ submission. He ended the tournament the same way he had started it: using that move to submit two former IWGP Heavyweight champions, and the the two most popular men on the roster. Naito was the perfect first opponent to set the scene, and Tanahashi proved to be the perfect final challenge. He won the rubber match and forced the company’s figurehead to give up, which is a legacy making moment by itself (and now he had done it twice).
Naito. Ibushi. SANADA. Tanahashi.
Four definitive submission victories against four top opponents in the span of 11 days. And Zack did it without any nefarious tactics. There was no outside interference, nothing overtly dirty in how he went about winning his matches. He simply out-wrestled some of the best talent in the world.
His name was added to the list of Cup winners, becoming only the second foreigner alongside The Giant Bernard in 2006 to win the tournament. As his reward, two weeks later Zack Sabre Jr would go on to face Kazuchika Okada, putting up a valiant effort before ultimately falling to a Rainmaker, like so many others would. There was no shame in that. Okada matched the defense record, and would go on to overtake Tanahashi’s total by beating The Ace himself, who came out to challenge after the match.
To this day that match is the only time ZSJ has had a shot at the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, but it hasn’t made him any less of a threat. Because it was how he got there that everyone remembers. Zack proved he can beat any wrestler on the roster, and do it through a variety of means. In 11 days he was transformed from competent mid-card act to main event level threat, and it persists to this day even though he’s never quite reached that same level of success again. Gedo crafted the story perfectly, taking an outside threat to winning the tournament and presenting them in such a way that it seemed foolish not to see him as a favourite by the end of it all.
It seems so simple in hindsight. Zack went in and put on a clinic, and convincingly tore through the best of the best. The fans didn’t argue with his ascension, they were too busy hanging on every submission attempt with baited breath. Whether you felt it before or not, it seemed crazy to think Zack Sabre Jr couldn’t submit the entire roster after that week and a half in March. It was a simple story, but one that was executed so well that it has cemented the rest of his career.
Naito. Ibushi. SANADA. Tanahashi.
If he could submit them all in less than a fortnight, why couldn’t he beat anyone on any given day? In 11 days, Zack Sabre Jr became a made man in New Japan Pro Wrestling.