The year 2022 has been interesting so far in terms of wrestling. We’ve seen a lot of different things take place over the past three months. There have been heavyweight wars, surprise returns, dream matches, great surprises, big disappointments, comedy matches, bitter wars, brawls, bloodbaths, spot-fests, and much more. And now we look at something a bit more ‘grounded’.
The match we’re looking at today is a match stripped of a lot of the ‘extras’ of wrestling. It’s a match without high spots, without over-the-top characters, without angles, and without weapons. In fact, it’s basically a ‘pure’ wrestling match because what it features is 20-minutes-plus of simple grappling. But is something as straightforward as that entertaining in 2022? Read on to find out.
Today we take a look at the 2022 New Japan Cup singles match between British wrestling greats Zack Sabre, Jr. and Will Ospreay.
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.
This is a tournament match between two British wrestlers that couldn’t be more polar opposites if they tried. On one side is Will Ospreay, who many have called the top high-flying athlete of the past decade. Imagine if you combined Rey Mysterio in his prime, a pre-WWE Ricochet, and both of the Young Bucks into one wrestler. You’d get Ospreay. His high-flying skills are quite possibly unmatched by anyone alive, though his wrestling style is also polarizing. He is notorious for being more of a ‘performer’ and an ‘athlete’ than a ‘wrestler’. His selling is notably inconsistent and while he makes fans’ jaws drop with what he can do in and above the ring, he also makes his match come across as Cirque de Soleil performances instead of competitive combat sports matches.
On the other side is Zack Sabre, Jr., whose wrestling style and personality can best be described as ‘asshole Bryan Danielson turned up to 11’. ZSJ is quite possibly the best pure technical grappler on the entire planet. He has this uncanny ability to twist around and contort both his body and his opponent’s body in creative and punishing ways. He always has this incredible ability to come up with clever escapes and counters to pretty much any move. It’s no wonder that he won the Wrestling Observer’s Bryan Danielson Award (the Best Technical Wrestler award) seven times in a row. In simpler terms, ZSJ was better at being Bryan Danielson than Bryan Danielson. But that’s not all. ZSJ is also a great talker and is phenomenal at getting people to hate him. He talks with this stereotypical haughty British imperiousness that makes him sound like he thinks he’s better than everyone else. And while that’s largely true in the realm of pure grappling skill, his attitude still makes people want to see him get his ass kicked.
That’s what Ospreay hoped to achieve here. He hoped to shut ZSJ up and move on to the finals of the New Japan Cup. But that was going to be extremely challenging. Few wrestlers still active today know Ospreay as well as ZSJ. They’ve faced each other over 30 times since 2014 in both singles and tag matches, 14 of which being singles matches (not including this one). Of those 14 matches, ZSJ won eight while Ospreay won six. But Ospreay has won more of their recent bouts, including all of their singles matches since early 2020. So could Ospreay continue his momentum and beat ZSJ once again? Or would the most dangerous grappler in the world find another clever way to make Ospreay tap out?
This match took place on March 21st, 2022.
The bell rings and Ospreay charges immediately with a dropkick but ZSJ dodges so he goes for ZSJ’s leg. ZSJ counters and escapes. ZSJ avoids a few more quick moves and then Ospreay sends him into the ropes. Hiptoss, countered into a backslide, countered into an abdominal stretch by ZSJ. Ospreay tries to hiptoss out but ZSJ counters that with an armdrag and then counters a running clothesline with a grounded armbar but Ospreay escapes that. All of this action within one minute or so at most.
Ospreay spends a minute or so recovering at ringside and then slowly locks up with ZSJ back in the ring. ZSJ takes him down and they do some fantastic chain counter-wrestling on the mat. ZSJ wrestles into an armlock but Ospreay out-grapples him (somehow) and goes for his leg. Ospreay tries a few different quick counters but ZSJ counters back just as quickly. ZSJ does this awesome double-chickenwing-type hold using both legs that forces Ospreay onto his shoulders. ZSJ pins for a quick one-count and applies an arm wringer, but Ospreay drapes his neck on the top rope and lands a big boot.
ZSJ rolls to the floor and Ospreay foes after him with an Irish whip into the barricade. He lands an exceptionally stiff chop and then starts rubbing his foot in ZSJ’s face back in the ring. Ospreay traps ZSJ’s arm and lands stiff forearm strikes, and then lands a massive hammer throw into the corner. ZSJ hits hard but still kicks out at one. Ospreay starts trash-talking ZSJ as he hits more forearms, but ZSJ opens his guard and tells Ospreay to keep going. Ospreay obliges but ZSJ starts hitting back with uppercuts. Then the two starts trading snapmares of all things and both try to counter each other, but ZSJ out-grapples Ospreay and then lands a neck twist. Ospreay fights out of a cravate hold and goes for his handspring enzuigiri but ZSJ ducks and goes for a Romero special. Ospreay fights out but suffers another neck twist for his efforts, yet he still kicks out of a dropkick at two.
Ospreay powers out of a full nelson but opens himself up to a single leg takedown and a leg twist. Ospreay counters a corner Irish whip and ZSJ goes for a disaster kick but Ospreay hits first with a kick of his own. Ospreay struggles to capitalize due to pain in his leg as ZSJ rolls to ringside for safety. Ospreay manages to land a plancha to the floor but immediately starts hobbling noticeably right away.
Ospreay tosses ZSJ into the ring and goes for a springboard attack but his leg gives out immediately. He manages to hit a forearm before ZSJ can capitalize but he’s still struggling to move around. He attempts a neckbreaker but ZSJ counters with a backslide into a leglock. Ospreay kicks him off but ZSJ lands a penalty kick to Ospreay’s chest. Both wrestlers fall to the mat due to pain in their bodies until both are within reach of each other. Then they start hitting mocking leg taps. Those taps soon turn into sitting kicks to the chest, and then into Shibata-style sitting slaps. The trash-talking continues as both men fight to their feet. ZSJ hits a boot. Ospreay answers with a step-up kick. ZSJ jumps onto Ospreay with a guillotine choke. Ospreay tries to throw him off but ZSJ counters with a kick to the arm. ZSJ goes for a tilt-a-whirl octopus hold. Ospreay counters that with a spinning single knee backbreaker. Both men go down again as Ospreay jams his bad knee.
Ospreay traps ZSJ’s arm Okada style and starts hitting stiff chops. ZSJ refuses to go down and eats chop after chop. Ospreay then goes down to one knee and exposes his chest to ZSJ, which infuriates ZSJ. He charges, but runs into another stiff chop. Ospreay mocks ZSJ and tells him to get up and chops him all the way onto the ring apron and then to the floor. Ospreay lands more chops and then goes for a back suplex onto the edge of the ring apron. But ZSJ counters into a kimura lock. Then he goes for a suplex but Ospreay counters that and sends ZSJ into the barricade again. Ospreay lands a hook kick followed by an Os-Cutter using the barricade as an aide. The referee starts counting as Ospreay rolls into the ring to heal his leg. ZSJ hears the count and bursts under the ropes at eighteen. Ospreay goes to capitalize with a diving dropkick but misses. ZSJ grabs that bad leg of Ospreay’s and applies an upside down heel hook. Shades of his partner Minoru Suzuki.
ZSJ gets into the ring and kicks the back of Ospreay’s knee. He hits one running PK to the chest and goes for a second but Ospreay catches his leg. But ZSJ counters Ospreay’s counter with a rolling kneebar. Ospreay pulls towards the ropes. ZSJ pulls him in the opposite direction. Ospreay counters with a deadlift bridging German suplex but only manages a two-count because his left leg gives out. For ONCE Ospreay has great selling. Ospreay pulls ZSJ to his feet and lands a swing neckbreaker into a forearm smash to the back of ZSJ’s neck. Ospreay goes for his Stormbreaker finisher but ZSJ counters into an octopus hold. Ospreay powers out and counters into a back-to-belly piledriver. One, two, ZSJ kicks out. Ospreay’s screaming in pain since he jammed his knee on that piledriver. He goes for his Hidden Blade elbow smash but ZSJ collapses forward. Ospreay calls for stoppage and the ref comes in to see if ZSJ can continue. ZSH starts moving to signal that he can continue so Ospreay walks towards him and prepares to hit a massive elbow/forearm. Suddenly, ZSJ dodges. ZSJ goes for a European Clutch pin. Ospreay blocks and goes for a sunset flip. ZSJ counters with a cradle. ZSJ squeezes out and goes for a crucifix pin. One, two, kick-out. ZSJ tries again. One, two, and – no, another close kick-out. ZSJ charges…and runs into an elbow smash. That’s followed by a Ligerbomb. One, two, ZSJ kciks out again. Ospreay pulls his elbow pad off. Hidden Bla – no, ZSJ counters with a triangle hold. No, Ospreay counters into a firemans’ carry. NO, ZSJ counters that into a backpack sleeper hold. Ospreay throws him off. ZSJ locks in another heel hook. Ospreay tries to turn around while still locked in the heel hook and swings for an elbow. But ZSJ dodges and rolls to push Ospreay away while still trapping the leg. Then ZSJ pulls Ospreay in closer and locks in a sleeper. Ospreay’s locked in two submission holds at once. He has no choice but to tap out! ZSJ advances to the tournament finals!
Winner by submission after 23:04: Zack Sabre, Jr.
Post-match, there’s a ton of controversy about the finish. Ospreay doesn’t sell and immediately starts arguing with the referee, as do his allies Jeff Cobb and the Great O’Khan. Ospreay insists he was hammer fisting – i.e. hitting the mat with a closed fist to express pain or frustration – and not tapping out – i.e. hitting the mat with a flat, open hand to signal submission. But the referee’s decision is final and ZSJ is still declared the winner.
I know the terms ‘wrestling’ and ‘pro-wrestling’ mean different things to different people. To me, technical grappling is the purest form of professional wrestling because it’s the closest to what wrestling once was. What started off as a pure strength competition involving holds and martial prowess later evolved to include strikes, characters, and later feuds, scripts, and personalities. In other words, wrestling became more nebulous and diluted as time wore on. Nowadays, wrestling encompasses so many different takes on the art form that one forgets what it once was. Thankfully, ZSJ and Ospreay turned back time with what they did here.
Throughout the match, ZSJ acted as the counter grappling machine in the face of Ospreay’s sprinting and strike-heavy offense. Ospreay has evolved into being more of a hard-hitter and an explosive big move spammer that’s usually hard to deal with. But his style meshed well with ZSJ’s. ZSJ looked at the space between Ospreay’s moves and found openings to attack the foundation of Ospreay’s control. ZSJ attacked both Ospreay’s arm and his leg to make Ospreay’s main attacks more difficult to land. And that strategy worked more or less to perfection throughout the match. Ospreay wasn’t able to land his typical dives and springboard moves regularly or with 100% effectiveness. And when he did take big risks and rely on dives, he hurt himself as much as he hurt ZSJ if not more so. Ospreay was forced to hobble around and struggled to stay standing several times. He was a tad inconsistent in selling and his logic as a wrestler was off a few times as well (why would any wrestler go for dives and running/springboard moves knowing they’re functioning on a bum leg?), but that comes with the territory with Ospreay at this point.
That said, I was glad to see Ospreay’ bringing ZSJ’s legwork into the finishing stretch instead of ignoring it altogether. ZSJ’s methodical dismantling of Ospreay’s leg kept playing a role in finishing moves and near-falls. Ospreay even pulled a Kawada and broke up his own bridge because his leg gave out. That sort of logic and common sense not only made that particular near-fall believable, but it helped build the match even further. If something as simple as a bridge was so hard for Ospreay to do, how could he possibly hit any more of his finishers, most of which required heavy leg usage?
But that question didn’t need answering because ZSJ beat Ospreay with a fantastic counter. Ospreay’s bad leg became the focus of ZSJ’s final gambit as he locked in a heel hook. And like an animal caught in a bear trap, Ospreay tried to escape by wriggling around to hit ZSJ while he was focused on Ospreay’s leg. But this bear trap hit back as ZSJ dodged Ospreay’s strike and pulled him in for a simultaneous leglock/sleeper hold combination. Once again, ZSJ’s ability to contort and twist his opponent into brutal and punishing submission holds was put on display. He used a two-pronged approach to beat Ospreay and steal a win, though it wasn’t without controversy. But even if that specific moment wasn’t meant to be the specific finish, Ospreay likely wouldn’t’ve lasted much longer. His leg was all but destroyed, his main striking arm was nowhere near 100%, and ZSJ also had him locked in a deep sleeper hold. He might’ve lasted maybe a minute or two longer, but he was still done. Maybe the referee decided to be merciful and ended the match early before Ospreay became a warm body.
Final Rating: ****3/4
Unnecessary finish-related nonsense aside, this was a fantastic wrestling contest. This is the kind of match I want to see Bryan Danielson have now that he’s free to wrestle without limitations. In fact, it reminded me a lot of Bryan’s recent match with ZSJ’s partner Minoru Suzuki from AEW.
Like that AEW match, this one had an interesting combination of chain grappling with a few moments of classic Japanese strong style striking. It was fun seeing the mix between great mat wrestling and two smaller guys hitting each other without blocking in some twisted game of one-upmanship. But this one edges that one out thanks to some awesome technical wrestling.
I know that some fans out there think that the purer grappling stuff isn’t exciting. Watch this match and I’m certain ZSJ will prove you wrong.