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Of LDRS and WZRDS

Photo Credit: AAW Wrestling (@AAWPro)

You know that feeling of embarrassment when we go back and look at images of our younger selves? Not as in baby pictures, but looking back at ourselves before we truly find who we are as people. We laugh at how bad our haircuts are. We cringe looking at our fashion choices. We make fun of how our bodies aren’t as filled out yet. What we see are people who hadn’t yet found their confidence, hadn’t quite learned what made them special and were still fishing for identities. And when we find out exactly who we are, we start conducting life like we’re above it. We discover this levity that allows us to traverse this minefield called life and not let things get to us. Now, that’s not exactly a realistic way to go about life. But as a persona, as a character, the person who is calm, cool, and collected, is as compelling as there is in any form of entertainment. Because when they finally break or lose their composure, it means so much more.

The ethos of this role is hard to understand. For some people it’s easy to dismiss the act as “boring” or “emotionless”, which at times is used fairly. But when we look below the surface and examine these characters and their approach, you get lost in trying to understand them. I think that’s especially true in an entertainment medium like professional wrestling where on the indie level, ideas and motivations for characters aren’t fully fleshed out a lot of the time. Us as viewers have to do much of the examination and connecting of whatever dots to find why exactly do we care about a performer other than “he has good matches”. For some wrestlers, there really is much at all below the surface, but when we finally get to those kinds of performers who captivate us and make us feel like we’re witnessing the entire journey of a man or woman that goes beyond that one match, but wherever they wrestle, it’s rewarding as all hell. And that’s what I’ve experienced this year with Zack Sabre Jr. A man who I was already a fan of and followed for some time now, but someone who I think has the most interesting character in wrestling and also has a strong chance at finishing as my Wrestler Of The Year.

To fully grasp why I am so intrigued by the Sabre Jr character so much, we have to take back a few years. To when Zack had long hair that went well past his forehead. To when he was a lanky, pale kid with no definition trying to make a name for himself. When he was in wXw (a company that I almost see as home for him) taking his lumps against some of the best guys of this century like Bryan Danielson and Claudio Castagnoli. Even though the Sabre Jr of 2008/2009 that Danielson faced wasn’t nearly as polished and commanding as he is now, Zack did a tremendous job fighting from underneath and not looking out of place with a man I consider to be the best wrestler of all time. It’s cool to see Zack not as this suave sage of grappling. He’s just a kid fighting to earn his keep. To earn the respect of the big dogs that he’s being thrown against.

While our first glimpses of Zack showed great potential, it’s hard to pinpoint when exactly it all started to come together for him. Watching his earlier work you see him doing things you’ll never see the 2016 Zack Sabre Jr do. Suicide dives and springboard moves were common place for him. I’d say around 2014 is when we really see Zack hone in on becoming the “Technical Wizard” that we know now. He still throws a ton strikes, but we saw more innovation and creativity in some of the things Zack would do in his submission game. He’s also starting to pick up more holds and transitions used by stars of old in the British wrestling scene. Not just the holds either, he started displaying the same personality traits some of his predecessors did. In modern wrestling there’s a lot of people who will say “wins and losses don’t matter”. Well, tell that to Zack Sabre Jr. Zack has a way of making every win seem like the most important thing for him and making a loss seem like it absolutely rips his insides and pride to shreds. It’s something I think a lot of World of Sport guys were masters at and Zack has it down to a science as well. In a little bit we’ll be getting to feuds and matches where losing caused Zack to act like a cry baby or throw a temper tantrum a la Jim Breaks.

He also began to carry himself as a big deal and star in the way British icons did. You start to feel like Zack is “the man” whenever he walks through the curtain. He has a posh swagger that he exudes that no one else has in wrestling right now. This goes back to that feeling of “being above it” I mentioned earlier when people find themselves. Zack found himself and began to give off that vibe. But we can’t forget our roots, the things that shape who we are. While Zack does have this posh swagger, it’s not that long ago he was the pale kid with long hair and no muscle tone, trying his damndest to become somebody in this business and get a seat at the big boys table. When he’s pushed to his limits, Zack has to scratch, claw, and fight. Not only to survive, but to win. The people he was thrown up against taught him these valuable lessons, but he doesn’t want to go back to being that geeky kid who was dominated and tortured by Claudio and Bryan. I don’t get that feeling of wanting so desperately wanting to be great and desire to be as good as the people you looked up to from anyone else other than maybe Sasha Banks. Zack needs to be the best and despite this classy and gentlemanly veil he likes to put on, he knows when it’s time to get down and dirty and fight.

There’s also an underplayed level of smarm and craftiness in Zack as well, which traces back to his time in Pro Wrestling NOAH. Being under the eye of Yoshinari Ogawa, who is no stranger to these things and built a career off of doing ANYTHING to get the job done and pick up a win. Ogawa came up in AJPW and in a company where you’re being fed to some of the hardest hitters in the history of pro wrestling like Kobashi, Misawa, Kawada, Taue, and Akiyama, you either become a hard hitter yourself, or find something else that works for you. And that’s what Ogawa did. He was an annoying little twerp where in the midst of these epic bomb throwing AJPW battlefields, he was looking for eye pokes and roll ups. Learning from and teaming with Ogawa certainly had an effect on Zack and the many ways he’ll find a win. He has numerous submissions in his bag of tricks, infinite pin combinations, and if that all doesn’t work, he can just kick your head off. People having multiple viable finishers is one of my favorite things in wrestling so naturally that’s a reason why I gravitate towards Zack.

Zack has a ton of great matches to boast this year from a wide variety of promotions with a wide range of opponents. If I looked at my Match Of The Year document and counted the amount of matches of his I’ve given **** or higher, he may have the most and for a lot of people, the person that’s had the most great matches is the Wrestler Of The Year, it’s that simple. For me, while that matters a ton, he has moments, performances, and adaptations in character during the year that take him over the top and make him stand out more than the likes of Chris Hero, AJ Styles, or Trevor Lee, guys who have at one point been in the conversation for my number 1 spot.

Zack Sabre Jr’s feud with Chris Hero is a never ending saga. They have history dating back years at this point. Hero knew and wrestled Zack while he was still on the rise. This year alone they’ve been in the ring together 8 times (including tag matches). Something about this feud always seems to bring out the bully in Hero to the highest level. Now, I’ve gone on before about how great Chris Hero is as an intimidating bully gatekeeper and how a Chris Hero bully formula match will at the very least get you something very good. This isn’t news to anyone. But facing Zack there seems to be something a little more there. Hero’s trash talk is a bit more scathing than usual. He tends to finish Zack off in a more brutal, almost “mercy killing” way than he does anyone else. There’s a sense of a student vs teacher dynamic, but in a different way than I feel like this story is usually told in wrestling. Instead of the teacher having a “Yeah, I’m getting older, but I still haven’t taught you everything I know” feel, it comes across as two men who are reaching their peaks at the same time. Not quite equals but both are clearly among the best going today. Hero’s stance is more along the lines of “If you truly want to call yourself the best in the world, you have to beat me first”. And Zack knows it’s true. For as long as Hero has been around and for how storied his career is, not only is he still kicking, he’s doing the best work he’s ever done. Zack is great and all, but how is he supposed to combat a man that walks the line between God and Godzilla? A man who is omnipotent in all things wrestling and also a destructive force.

It’s uphill battle for Zack, but he goes in full steam ahead because he so badly needs to be the best. Against Hero is where we see Zack having to fight from behind the most. At Mercury Rising from this year, Zack took the fight right to Hero from the jump, but didn’t get the job done there. A month later at EVOLVE in Joppa, Maryland, Hero and Sabre Jr put on the best match I’ve ever seen live and for my money is the best of their series. Zack tried his hardest but once again, Hero was too much for him to overcome. Live bias is obviously a factor here but I won’t deny that getting able to see that match up close was a turning point for me when it came to Zack as a Wrestler Of The Year candidate.

I’m a big fan of things like escalation when it comes to wrestling. The feeling of when people start to get more familiar with each other’s gameplans, when they start to get more and more fierce in how they interact, and when their matches noticeably increase in the desire to best the other. No other series of matches this year, or maybe even the last few years, did that for me the way Jonathan Gresham and Zack Sabre Jr did this year in Beyond Wrestling. Gresham and Sabre Jr are no strangers to each other, having squared off a few times in wXw and maybe a few other places in Europe, but meeting in Beyond were their first ever encounters in the United States. The first match between them at Ripped Of In The Prime Of Life had the most exhibition like feel. A contest between two of the finest grapplers on the planet. Displaying all the intricate holds, exchanges, and transitions that only they can pull off. As the match went on however it got a little chippy. Some shoving, some slaps, and nasty suplexes came later, but Gresham ultimately got the win on Zack with a beautiful pin combination. After the match Zack called Gresham “cheeky” and asks him very politely for another bout at Beyond’s Flesh show. There’s still a competitive nature to the challenge, but it maintains a high level of sportsmanship and professionalism.

At Flesh they wrestle the match slightly more aggressively than they did the first. Limb attacks, strikes, and sarcastic taunting done by both men. The respect and comradery isn’t completely thrown out the window, but there’s clearly more of an edge in this match. Zack gets close, but Gresham picks up another win, this time by submission. After this match though, Zack is fuming. He pushes Gresham out the way, grabs a microphone, gets right in his face and demands a 2/3 falls match at Beyond’s biggest show of the year, Americanrana. Now all that respect and sportsmanship is fading. A lucky pin combination for a sneaky victory wasn’t going to make him mad, but he clearly wanted to even the score. With Zack losing by submission though, that’s enough to make the posh showmanship dissipate into rage and frustration. Why is he so upset? He lost fair and square in the middle of the ring. The answer is there’s no bigger blow to a mat technician’s ego than making him tap out and that pushed Zack to the brink. He needs to make up for that.

And thus, the stage is set for the final encounter between Sabre Jr and Gresham in the main event of Americanrana. Before the match even starts you can see Zack overcompensating for his bruised ego by getting up in Gresham’s face during the introductions. This wasn’t a “cool” swagger anymore from Zack. This was up in your face and with a point to prove. Even though Zack is down 0-2, he still has the nerve to act this arrogant and disrespectful. From the get go you feel the intensity from them and it’s off the charts. There’s no more friendly grappling. They make even simple wrestling maneuvers like a tie up feel as intense as a strike exchange. They are tied up so fiercely that they roll out of the ring. Once out of the ring, they do some outside brawling. The “some” part is essential here. Instead of a prolonged fight on the outside, they did just enough to prove the point that there was something more venomous in this match than their previous ones. I recall during this segment of the match that in a moment of desperation, Zack gouged Gresham in the eyes, showing you where Zack’s mind was during this match.

I loved everything about the Americanrana match. The creativity, the intensity, and performances for both men, but I also see this as Zack’s best performance ever. His facial expressions, his nasty offensive attack to Gresham’s neck, but most importantly his selling. One of the main criticisms from detractors of Sabre Jr is that he’s weak when it comes to selling. After watching that match I can’t see that argument as anything more than asinine. He sold his leg tremendously and never once stopped selling it just to get offense in. He was consistent all the way through, all the way down to the finish where Gresham made Zack tap out with a figure four leglock. Not only was he amazing selling a limb, he was great selling the idea of exhaustion and how depleted he was getting towards the end of the match. Zack gave it everything he had but the excruciating pain on his leg was too much and had tap out. He had no more fight left. He also sold how much this match meant to him when he lost. During the aftermath Gresham sticks out a handshake to a dejected Zack. Zack looks at his hand and then decides to leave the ring and limp to the back. The crowd booed this action. A little bit of time passes and Zack comes back out and embraces Gresham in the ring. Despite how much it killed him, Zack lost fair and square and Gresham proved to be the better man and gave Gresham the biggest win of his career. An interesting note about this feud is that they managed to keep it competitive and keep Gresham as the underdog figure despite the fact that Zack was the one losing.  A great end to a great feud that only lasted for a little under a month but still created magic. They produced something I view as special and key to the 2016 resumes of both men. The Americanrana bout is in my top 5 for Match Of The Year as it stands right now.

In RevPro this year we saw Zack Sabre Jr’s status as the best technician in wrestling get challenged, but in a different way than Gresham did. An Olympic level wrestler came to take Zack’s championship. No, I’m not referring to Kurt Angle. I’m talking about a man some people call a “monster”. I’m talking about a physical freak known as Jeff Cobb.

Cobb visited the U.K with one thing in mind, the RPW British Heavyweight Championship and had a date with Zack at RevPro’s Uprising show. I think this is one of the most well told stories all year in wrestling. How could Zack expect to out wrestle a man that was in the Olympics? On top of that, Cobb is a beast of a human being and has a clear advantage over Zack in the strength and size departments. Throughout most of the match, Cobb dominated Zack in every capacity. Tossing him around with ease and controlling the match on the mat. This is the first time anyone had seen him in a position like that during his reign, undoubtedly out matched in his area of expertise. How would Zack find a way out of this situation? He began to kick and kick and kick and kick and kick. Zack is prideful but he knew when to call it quits on one tactic and go to another one. Chopping the bigger man down is a simple concept and very common, but there’s beauty in simplicity and beauty in having to adjust your game plan to scrap all the fancy stuff and kick someone right in the mouth. Another complaint about Zack from people is when you wrestle him you have to “wrestle a Zack match”. Well here not only did Zack not wrestle a Zack style match, he had to completely change his approach if he was to have any hope of keeping his championship. Zack was able to escape with a victory that night by the skin of his teeth. This isn’t one of the “best” matches this year to me as a whole, but the story is one of the better told one’s in wrestling this year.

In this year’s wXw World Tag Team League (which was a fantastic set of shows that you all should seek out), we saw more of the escalation of character that I love about Zack. This Tag League run is actually what inspired this piece. He teamed with longtime friend and partner Marty Scurll. When Zack and Marty first started teaming together 8 years ago, it wasn’t the dastardly “Villain” that Zack was teaming with. It was a more clean cut and jovial young man. As they’ve both gotten older and both becoming two of the biggest stars in all of independent wrestling, Marty took the darker path. Zack, while he had gotten cockier and more arrogant over the years, was still someone that carried himself with pride and dignity on doing things the right way. He was still a gentleman. He was still a sportsman.

Marty kept begging Zack to go along with him in his bending of the rules throughout this weekend. Zack would reluctantly agree to go along with Marty’s games. When we get to the finals of the tournament, it pits Zack and Marty vs JML (David Starr & Shane Strickland) for the Tag Team Championship. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly Starr does to make him so mad, but he pisses of Zack something fierce and makes him lose his calm and collected demeanor. That is replaced by an aggressive hot head who has no problem taking cheap shots and will do anything to win. As we got to the final minutes of this match, after exhausting all of their resources and their biggest bombs, Marty grabs one of the wXw Tag Team title belts to use it as a weapon. Zack gets up and snatches the title from Marty, seemingly reprimanding him for these attempted tactics. And then hell freezes over. Instead of just tossing the belt back outside and letting the best team win with no shenanigans, Zack blasts David Starr with the title belt. It was as impactful a moment as you’ll see in wrestling if you’ve been following along with Zack’s story. He’s so frustrated, so angry, and so obsessed with winning that he did something that was totally out of his character. Zack no longer reluctantly went along, this time he was the perpetrator.  If Marty would’ve hit him with the belt, we would shrug it off because we expect this kind of thing from a man known as “The Villain”. Zack is the “Technical Wizard”. He’s expected to best someone because of his superior intellect and mat wrestling acumen. He let that go and became someone driven by the desire to win by any means necessary.

And it failed. JML wound up winning the match, the tournament, and the tag team titles. In the aftermath, Marty Scurll shook hands with the victors, but again, in another surprise, Zack didn’t. He looked at them in the ring, had a look of contempt and vitriol in his face, and just walked to the back. The sportsman and mature one of the team did something unbecoming of his reputation. I loved this so much because who did the deed actually means something. It’s not something token done by a typical cheating heel. It’s done by a man who essentially never does stuff like this. Even in Zack’s most desperate times we haven’t seen that from him. It’s the most easy to case where knowing Zack’s character and career path really does matter.

While the bulk of this has been about matches that have been major stand outs for Zack as a character, for someone to be my Wrestler Of The Year, the output still has to be there in terms of match quality and Zack has it in spades. Not including the people I’ve already mentioned, Zack has done very good-great stuff with a wide variety of people. From top flight indie names to rising stars to people some may not have ever heard of. AJ Styles, Timothy Thatcher, Will Ospreay, Trevor Lee, Roderick Strong, Adam Cole, Kyle O’Reilly, Tommy End, Mascara Dorada, Johnny Gargano, Drew Gulak, Sami Callihan, Mike Bird, Travis Banks, Cedric Alexander, Jurn Simmons, Martin Stone, David Starr, WALTER, Bobby Gunns, Bubblegum, Jigsaw, Matt Riddle, Trent Seven, Michael Elgin, Pete Dunne, and I could keep going, but that’s just a taste of the variety Zack has had this year in terms of opponents. This isn’t even mentioning his sneaky output in tag team matches with partners ranging from Marty Scurll, Tommaso Ciampa, and Sami Callihan. Facing the likes of Heroes Eventually Die, Catch Point, The Origin, A4, Cerberus, Matt Sydal and Ricochet, Death By Elbow, and Sumerian Death Squad. He has done this across an incredible range of promotions. EVOLVE, PWG, AAW, RevPro, CHIKARA, OTT, PROGRESS, ATTACK, Fight Club Pro, PCW, AWE, wXw, Beyond, AIW, Limitless, PWX and even the WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic. From opponent variety to variety in where he’s had to wrestle, he has all of those bases covered. Zack doesn’t hit every single time. The match with Akira Tozawa from PWG is a disappointment, the match with Tommaso Ciampa at PROGRESS Chapter 36 was a waste of a stipulation, and the Marty Scurll match from EVOLVE 61 was the most unengaging match between two wrestlers that I like this year. But more often times than not, Zack delivers for me.

Is Zack Sabre Jr my favorite wrestler? No, not really. Some of my favorites are guys not even in the running for my number 1 spot. But I’m not sure there’s a wrestler I find more interesting. From his roots to him bringing it all together and becoming one of the biggest stars in independent wrestling, his journey is a unique one. I think my growing interest and appreciation in Zack the character made it easier for me to get into a legendary wrestler who has a reputation for being “boring” and that’s Jumbo Tsuruta.

At no point did I ever feel as if Jumbo was a bad wrestler. I thought he was great in the ring from his debut almost to the day he retired. But he never left much of an emotional connection with me as a viewer the way other AJPW acts did. I could see Jumbo was great, but where’s the fire? Where’s the passion? Where’s that burning desire in you that in turn makes the viewer want to see you win? Then 1985 happens. This intensity and fire gets brought out of him by an invader named Riki Choshu. Choshu is as bad as they come, has a reputation for getting dirty, and has no qualms disrespecting others. He’s the type of guy that will waltz into your house uninvited, slap you across the face, and then go make a sandwich in your kitchen. He walked in to Jumbo’s turf and started disrespecting him. At first you see Jumbo being hesitant to go at Choshu the same way, but eventually when that fire gets brought out of him, it means so much more. Having the backstory and seeing Jumbo’s roots where he was having great American style title matches for years, but realizing that’s not going to cut it dealing with Choshu leaves more of an emotional impact because it’s coming from someone we’d never expect that from. I’m not saying that liking Zack Sabre Jr made me like Jumbo. Maybe it’s just my taste as a wrestling fan maturing. But I feel as though even if there isn’t a direct correlation between the two, they have too many similarities to just be coincidence. Two men who’s detractors usually go for the “boring” and “emotionless” critique, but when I look at them I see men that had to be pushed and prodded to a breaking point and have as much fight as anyone when backed into a corner.

Making something that’s even a tiny change in character feel like a world of difference is something that I love. To me that’s brilliance on the highest level. Making the slightest deviations of formula or gameplan feel like a seismic shift. For as much as I love guys like Chris Hero, AJ Styles, Trevor Lee, and Matt Riddle, being used to them being so adaptable makes it mean not as much. It’s great that you can drop those guys in any promotion with any guy and you’re more than likely able to get something great out of it. That’s a fantastic skill in it’s own right. But I think there’s something to be said about the person you don’t expect to be so malleable that blows you away when he does make changes. It impresses on a deeper level. There’s a chance that Zack doesn’t finish number 1 on my WDKW100 ballot. There is some stiff competition in wrestlers who are all doing incredible things in their own ways. It’s become a meme at this point, but 2016 is in fact one of the craziest years I can recall in wrestling. Not just because of the insane news and concepts that have spawned, but because it seems like there are so many wrestlers firing on all cylinders right now. There’s so many answers for Wrestler Of The Year that I wouldn’t argue with. As it stands currently, Zack sits atop my rankings for his match quality output, his variety in opponents and places he’s worked, and the thought and detail put in to a character that on the surface shouldn’t be so rewarding to watch. Every match in every promotion he’s in has become must watch for me because his journey is one that I can’t get enough of.

This is one part of a two part piece. The first part is the perspective of a fan that sees Zack as the best wrestler of 2016. The second will be from the perspective of a fan that isn’t as high on Zack and will say why he ISN’T the best wrestler of 2016. That part will be written by Brock Jahnke and will come out in relatively close proximity to this one.

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