As I write this, the card for AEW/NJPW Forbidden Door is starting to take shape. The closer we get to the actual show, the more we realize that Forbidden Door will NOT be a perfect show with nothing but promised dream matches.
Interpromotional politics and other factors simply won’t allow so many fantasy bookings to come true. But there is one match that many fans, myself included, have long hoped for and will not witness: Danielson vs. Sabre.
Though it hasn’t been fully confirmed yet, all roads seem to be pointing to this match-up taking place. It’ll be a dream match for many because, at long last, Bryan will face someone just like him. He will finally face another smaller guy that excels as a technical grappling machine that puts scientific grappling above bombast and theatrics. In preparation for that inevitable match-up, I’ve decided to review another recent alleged 5-Star classic of ZSJ’s (according to the rating given by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer) to see if he really is as great as his fans have said so many times before. (Editor’s Note: Danielson may be out of the Forbidden Door according to a recent report, but nothing is official yet.)
Thus, today we look back at ZSJ’s match with Shingo Takagi from the 2022 New Japan Cup Tournament.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
No story here, really. Just two competitors in a single-elimination tournament vying for the same prize: a nice trophy and a shot at Kazuchika Okada and his IWGP World Heavyweight Championship.
This match originally took place on March 26th, 2022, in the semi-finals of the annual New Japan Cup tournament.
Takagi gets a clean break on the ropes and then ZSJ does the same seconds later. They do the Greco-Roman knuckle lock and Takagi overpowers ZSJ but ZSJ reverses it by rolling backwards. Takagi tries powering out again but ZSJ counters into an arm-trapping cravate hold. Takagi gets a ropebreak but seconds later ZSJ has him trapped in a leg-trap cravate to target Takagi’s injured neck some more. Takagi escapes and sends ZSJ into the ropes but ZSH blocks a hiptoss with an abdominal stretch. Takagi escapes with a successful hiptoss this time, misses a lariat, blocks a boot, and lands a shoulder tackle. Takagi traps ZSJ’s leg in the ropes and stomps on his knee, and then lands a running kneelift against the ropes. ZSJ blocks a suplex with a front chancery and goes for a neck twist but Takagi kicks him off. Lots of lightning-quick counters going on now. ZSJ blocks a dragon screw and finds himself trapped as ZSJ connects with that neck twist.
Takagi bails to the floor but ZSJ hits him with STIFF uppercuts. ZSJ pulls Takagi onto the apron and lands another neck twist, this time turning it into a submission/choke/stretch that he takes his time releasing. In the ring, ZSJ stomps on Takagi’s neck as Takagi gets a ropebreak. He trash-talks Takagi as he hits mocking kicks and an angry Takagi pie-faces him. ZSJ hits back with a take-down into a Figure-4 neck lock and then attacks different points on Takagi’s body with his free hand as Takagi deals with being stuck in a torturous headscissor. Takagi gets another ropebreak so ZSH uppercuts him and dares him to get up. Takagi answers with a stiff chop but ZSJ goes right back to Takagi’s neck with another cravate hold. Another ropebreak for Takagi. ZSJ answers with a simple headlock. Takagi shoots him off and hits a back elbow. ZSJ jumps onto him for a guillotine choke. Takagi throws him off with an overhead suplex and then goes for a Backdrop. ZSJ blocks by grinding the point of his elbow into the back of Takagi’s neck. ZSJ does for another uppercut but Takagi blocks, catches him, hits two elbow drops, fakes him out, and hits a senton. But Takagi’s too slow to capitalize on anything since his neck is causing him too much trouble. Such is the power of ZSJ’s submission holds.
ZSJ tries hitting a clothesline but Takagi ducks and teases a German suplex. ZSJ spins out and into yet another cravate but Takagi escapes via scoop slam. Takagi goes to the top rope with a diving back elbow. He connects, but ZSJ traps him first in a headscissor and then in a cross armbreaker. Takagi gets another ropebreak. ZSJ follows with a sick arm twister and then stomps on his elbow. A huge grin appears on ZSJ’s face as Takagi writhes in pain. ZSJ hits more mocking kicks and charges for a boot but Takagi hits a big punch and a DDT. Takagi uses his healthy left arm to hit Danielson-style elbows to ZSJ’s collar. Then he charges for a basement lariat. But ZSJ ducks and goes for another armbar variation. No, ZSJ switches into a double armbar. Wait, no, he traps Takagi’s leg, creating the spitting image of the ‘wacky Japanese hold’.
Takagi squirms and rolls until he gets a ropebreak. After recovering for a bit, both get up and ZSJ hits more uppercuts. ZSJ escapes a Gory bomb. Takagi escapes a sleeper hold and locks in his own. Then the two trade dragon sleepers. ZSJ lands behind Takagi on a suplex but Takagi escapes yet another sleeper. Takagi shoots ZSJ into the ropes and lands his pop-up Death Valley Bomb. Takagi powers up and hits a superplex, his own neck be damned. Both wrestlers go down. Takagi fires up and lands a corner lariat and charges for another one. ZSJ blocks and lands a backslide into a jackknife cover for a two-count. ZSH tries another backslide. Takagi blocks and goes for his Made in Japan finisher. ZSJ blocks that and a wheelbarrow facebuster and does a picture-perfect European clutch. One, two, Takagi kicks out. ZSJ kicks Takagi hard. Takagi tanks it and charges. ZSJ ducks a lariat and lands a dragon suplex for a one-count. ZSJ lands another running penalty kick. One, two, Takagi kicks out so ZSJ does for a Michinoku Driver. Takagi counters into a roll-up for another two-count. ZSJ with another boot and another finisher attempt. Takagi blocks and connects with Made in Japan. One, two, ZSJ kicks out. Takagi tries his Last of the Dragon secondary finisher but ZSJ elbows out. The two go forehead-to-forehead and then ZSJ starts hitting more uppercuts as Takagi demands he hit him harder. Takagi explodes with a flurry of one-two elbow smashes. ZSJ answers with a barrage of bitchslaps. More stiff strike exchanges. Takagi spins for a discus lariat. ZSJ blocks and kicks that swinging arm. Takagi answers with a basement uppercut with the other arm. Pumping Bomber lariat by Takagi connects. Takagi signals the end and tries LOTD again. ZSJ tries both an octopus hold but Takagi lifts him up onto his shoulders. Wait, no, ZSJ slips out into a sleeper. And then into a triangle choke. ZSJ uses his free arm to elbow Takagi’s forehead. But Takagi still powers up and deadlifts ZSJ up. ZSJ wrestles into a backpack sleeper and Takagi looks like he’s facing when suddenly he powers up again. Takagi climbs to the second rope and falls backwards. But ZSJ reapplies the sleeper instantly upon landing. Takagi makes it into a push-up position with ZSJ on his back…and then collapses. Takagi goes limp. The referee calls for the bell. ZSJ wins and advances to the finals of the New Japan Cup!
Winner by submission after 19:24: Zack Sabre, Jr.
ZSJ’s match with Ospreay five days earlier was way better than this. Takagi’s usually a great wrestler yet he came off as vastly inferior here. ZSJ wrestled circles around Takagi here to the point that the match didn’t really come across as competitive. Instead, it was more like a showcase of one wrestler’s talents with a random stand-in in the place of his opponent (read: victim). All that the match accomplished was putting over how good of a wrestler ZSJ is while reducing Takagi to a complete afterthought.
ZSJ had a simple strategy: go after Takagi’s injured neck whenever possible while also looking for other openings. And he followed that strategy without faltering from beginning to end. He went back to the cravate hold many times, putting over how dangerous and useful that move is. Instead of being a flashy and explosive wrestler, ZSJ showed how to be a smart and logical one while still be entertaining. His strategy paid off handsomely: by the end, Takagi’s neck was so damaged that he couldn’t rely on his trademark toughness to survive another onslaught of punishing submission holds. He couldn’t tough it out and endure the pain because ZSJ had attacked his neck from so many different angles that protecting that limb any further was both impossible and futile.
ZSJ is a great example of a proper submission specialist. When he applies a hold, it looks like it really does hurt. He’s also clever enough to use the smallest of opportunities to cause major damage. When he had Takagi in the neck lock/headscissor, he used his free hand to take Takagi’s focus off the neck lock. Those minor distractions allowed ZSJ to do more damage and keep Takagi on the defensive. ZSJ showed how to make the most out of submission holds. Instead of keeping the focus on the one hold already applied, it’s smarter to look for other weaknesses to exploit, either in the moment or later on. Tiny details like that are just some of the reasons ZSJ is so fun to watch.
But it takes (at least) two wrestlers to make a good match. And when Takagi was on offense here, well, the match dipped in quality. Takagi’s a guy that specializes in high-impact bombs and throwing himself at his opponent with wanton recklessness. And yet, he didn’t do anything exciting when he was on offense; more often than not, ZSJ found a quick and logical counter to stop Takagi’s momentum dead in is tracks and reclaim control of the match. And even though both wrestlers fought well in the closing stretch, Takagi never really reached ZSJ’s level in this match. Takagi was only particularly strong at selling ZSJ’s offense, but nothing of his on ZSJ really stood out. Takagi’s leg work was short and didn’t lead to anything. His big finishers looked great as they always do but his comebacks came across as unearned and his near-falls unrealistic. Ultimately, Takagi looked way better here as the guy taking the beating than the guy dishing it out.
Final Rating: ****1/4
It’s refreshing to see a big New Japan match not stretch on forever and go under twenty minutes, but this was still a bit underwhelming. For a company that prides itself of being King of Sports and making competition central to matches and storylines, this match wasn’t particularly competitive. It was basically the ZSJ show. If you’ve never heard of him before or wonder why him facing Bryan Danielson would be a big deal, then this match will help explain what makes him so good.
This isn’t some legendary match by any means, though. It’s fine and has its moments, but that’s only because it’s basically a one-man show. Takagi’s a great wrestler for the most part yet he barely made a dent in ZSJ at all here. At the end of the day, the best matches are those that are both compelling and even. You want to believe either side can win, which wasn’t the case here. ZSJ dominated the match so thoroughly that this might as well have been a squash match. An exciting and protracted squash match, but a squash match all the same.