What’s better in pro-wrestling, style or substance?
That’s the question that this match looked to answer. On one side there was the most technically proficient grappler not named Bryan Danielson, and on the other was one of the flashiest and most daredevil wrestlers not named Kenny Omega.
Ospreay and ZSJ were quite possibly the best British wrestlers at the time, and in some respects still are. Both of them have many loyal fans and just as many detractors. And in terms of background and styles the two were worlds apart yet here they came together once again. How good was their clash? Read on to find out.
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.
Zack Sabre, Jr. and Will Ospreay had wrestled each other many times over the years, and for the most part ZSJ was seen as the better competitor, at least as far as wins and losses were concerned. Going into this match, these two had wrestled one-on-one eleven times. Of those eleven matches ZSJ won seven, including a RevPro Undisputed British Heavyweight Championship defense back in 2017 and their most recent singles bout at the time during the prior year’s G1 Climax. So not only did ZSJ have history on his side but he also had momentum going into this match.
But Ospreay was nothing if not a determined challenger. He was quickly becoming the best “hybrid” wrestler in the world who could still walk the line between cruiserweight and full heavyweight and excel in both domains. He was incredibly explosive, but his wrestling style still included some shortfalls. He was exciting but lacked in believability. So who better to help him change that than the most technically proficient and dangerous submission specialist in the world?
This match originally took place on February 2, 2020. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
This is for ZSJ’s RevPro Undisputed British Heavyweight Championship. They trade armlocks and ZSJ counters and escapes effortlessly. They lock-up again and ZSJ applies a hammerlock. Ospreay does an impressive counter of his own but he can’t hold a candle to ZSJ when it comes to technical grappling and reversals. ZSJ stands on Ospreay’s good left arm and twists into another armlock but Ospreay fights out and another technical exchange ensues. ZSJ shoves Ospreay into a corner arrogantly. On their next lock-up ZSJ goes after Ospreay’s taped-up bad right arm and a hold exchange ensues. Ospreay tries an Irish whip counter but ZSJ wrenches the bad arm. Ospreay tries several other holds but he can’t out-grapple ZSJ here. Ospreay tries a cravat into another Irish whip but ZSJ flips him onto his back while still controlling the arm. Ospreay tries a flip escape but ZSJ’s having none of that. Ospreay finally manages to flip out and escape and lands a shoulder tackle with his left arm, leading to a stalemate.
Ospreay teases a double-arm test of strength and ZSJ obliges. He overpowers ZSJ but ZSJ rolls into a stronger position of control and then reverses the pressure completely. Ospreay tries to counter with a backslide but ZSJ blocks and bridges to avoid a pin. ZSJ counters again with a monkey flip and the two trade roll-up covers before the ref can even count one. ZSJ breaks the sequence with a headscissor and Ospreay misses a roundhouse kick as ZSJ bails to ringside.
Back in the ring, ZSJ hammerlocks Ospreay’s left arm but Ospreay counters with a single-leg takedown and a heel hook. He keeps it locked in despite ZSJ’s various escape attempts but ZSJ eventually counters with a headlock takeover and then wrestles into a heel hook of his own. Ospreay tries using the exact same counter that ZSJ just used but ZSJ stops him mid-counter with a bow-and-arrow hold. Ospreay rolls over into a cover and gets a one-count. He reverses a corner whip and both wrestlers block various takedowns until Ospreay lands a running headscissor. Ospreay charges and goes for his handspring flip taunt but ZSJ catches his arm mid-handspring and drags him to the floor. He lands an uppercut and charges but Ospreay flips over him and boots him down. Then Ospreay lands a pescado from the ring to the floor right onto ZSJ.
In the ring, Ospreay stiff ZSJ with various strikes but ZSJ gestures for him to keep bringing it. Ospreay hits stiff forearms but ZSJ bounces off the ropes and retaliates with the same. Ospreay shoots ZSJ into the ropes but ZSJ dodges all of Ospreay’s attacks and switches from a backslide into an abdominal stretch. Ospreay sinks down to get a ropebreak so ZSJ lands a neck twist with his feet. ZSJ tries another torturous multi-limb submission hold but Ospreay gets another ropebreak. ZSJ applies a cravat hold but Ospreay fights out with elbows, but only momentarily. Each time Ospreay swings, ZSJ lets go and reapplies the same hold. Ospreay tries escaping with rolling and with slams but ZSJ keeps the hold on. Ospreay eventually fights out with his springboard kick and both men go down.
ZSJ reverses an Irish whip and goes for a big boot but Ospreay dodges and hits a forearm smash. He follows with a basement dropkick and a snap underhook suplex for a one-count. ZSJ tries an arm wringer counter but Ospreay shuts him down with another stiff elbow. ZSJ blocks a corner charge and sends Ospreay onto the ring apron. Ospreay hits an elbow and goes for a dive but ZSJ avoids it. ZSJ blocks an inverted suplex and the two trade snapmares and other reversals until ZSJ applies a backpack sleeper. Ospreay tosses him off and goes for a running shooting star splash but ZSJ gets his knees up. Then ZSJ twists Ospreay into a cross armbreaker. Ospreay resists by keeping his hands clasped together but ZSJ peels his fingers apart. Ospreay escapes and goes for a modified crossface. ZSJ wrestles into a counter triangle choke. Ospreay rolls out of that into a Fogure-4 leglock. ZSJ holds one leg to stop the full application of the hold. Ospreay breaks ZSJ’s grasp and locks in the full Figure-4. ZSJ tries slapping Ospreay’s face to escape but Ospreay dodges his swings and tightens the hold. After trying different things, ZSJ rolls to the ropes to finally get a much-needed ropebreak.
Ospreay kicks ZSJ’s now-weakened legs and ZSJ hits back with uppercuts. ZSJ fights through the immense pain from Ospreay’s kicks and fires back but Ospreay answers with a standing leg breaker and a shooting star splash for another two-count. Ospreay lands a springboard clothesline and goes for a corkscrew kick but ZSJ dodges. Ospreay shoots ZSJ off the ropes and hits a flapjack. He misses a Robinson Special and ZSJ does for a European clutch. Ospreay blocks with a sunset flip and gets a close two-count. ZSJ blocks a full nelson, hits a back elbow, and catches Ospreay’s foot on a hook kick and applies an ankle lock. Ospreay knocks him off, lifts him into the Gory Special position and backslides into a Brainbuster attempt. ZSJ blocks and kicks Ospreay’s weakened arm. Ospeay hits back with a kick combo. Both men collapse.
Ospreay goes for an Os-Cutter but ZSJ catches him with a sleeper hold. Ospreay tries freeing himself but ZSH hits first with a half-nelson suplex. ZSJ follows with a trio of running Penalty Kicks and covers for another two-count. ZSJ mocks Ospreay with slaps and kicks but takes it too far and Ospreay drills him with a big forearm smash. ZSJ hits back with an uppercut and a big boot but Ospreay no-sells and fires up. Ospreay counters a standing guillotine with a Brainbuster and then lands the Os-Cutter. But ZSJ rolls to the floor before Ospreay can pin him. Great save.
Ospreay tosses ZSJ back into the ring but ZSJ rolls back out. In response, Ospreay hits a Sasuke Special to the floor and then lands a hook kick to the face once back in the ring. Ospreay teases the Hidden Blade. ZSJ hits first with a grapevine ankle lock. Ospreay deadlifts him up and lands another hook kick. ZSJ dodges another Hidden Blade and locks in a scissored armbar. He rips off Ospreay’s bandages but Ospreay gets a ropebreak with his foot.
Ospreay blocks a Michinoku Driver but ZSJ answers with a front chancery. ZSJ tries again but Ospreay counters with a reverse Bloody Sunday for a two-count. ZSJ counters a Stormbreaker with a European clutch but only gets a two-count. ZSJ lands another PK but the momentum sends Ospreay to his feet and he lands a roundhouse kick in response. Ospreay goes for a powerbomb but ZSJ tries countering with a triangle choke. Ospreay deadlifts ZSJ anyway and lands a massive powerbomb for another two-count. Shooting Star Press connects. One, two, and ZSJ kicks out. ZSJ counters another Stormbreaker with an octopus hold. Ospreay counters back into his finisher position. ZSJ blocks yet again and reapplies the octopus. ZSJ keeps switching his limb positions so Ospreay can’t move, counter, or escape. Then ZSJ switches back to the scissored armbar. The ref sees that Ospreay has gone limp and calls for the bell. ZSJ wins!
Winner and STILL RevPro Undisputed British Heavyweight Champion via referee’s decision after 27:04: Zack Sabre Jr.
That was another excellent match between two of Britain’s best active wrestlers. It was one of the most unpredictable matches of the past several years thanks to the incredible chemistry these two men had with each other. Ospreay and ZSJ complemented each other by wrestling in two distinct styles that contrasted almost perfectly and filled gaps in each other’s offense. What it lacked in raw excitement and wow factor, especially compared to more recent Ospreay matches in particular, it made up for in technical smoothness and a classic match structure. This was more eye protein than eye candy, and anyone who follows this review series knows that I think that matches with more substance are better than those that feature nonsensical and superfluous flash on the whole.
I know I’m in the minority here but when it comes to modern wrestling I think ZSJ is a better representative for what pro-wrestling should look like than Will Ospreay. Ospreay is, to me, a high-spots guy that stacks one big move on top of another, often to the point of excess, while also trying to be as exciting as possible. That’s fine and all, but whereas Ospreay is more exciting, ZSJ is more legitimate, and in an era of cynicism and a lack of believability I think the latter is more important than the former. As the modern wrestling scene has shown, there are hundreds if not thousands of people wrestling today that do what Ospreay does, though not as well and perhaps not as consistently. But few people, if any, can grapple and put on an exciting technical wrestling competition like Zack Sabre, Jr.
Through his wrestling, ZSJ comes across as more real and more threatening. He doesn’t try to be as flashy as possible; instead, he wrestles commonsensically. Ospreay did big, explosive moves while ZSJ did plenty of small and logical things that, when stringed together, did more to Ospreay than all that Ospreay did to him. As the commentators noted, ZSJ was trained under the notion that, if he couldn’t submit his opponent in six seconds with one hold, he’d move onto another one. He was always moving from one hold or strategy to the next to keep Ospreay – and therefore the audience – guessing. He was one step ahead of Ospreay all throughout the match and had a bottomless well of brilliant counters ready for Ospreay, whether Ospreay stayed in his comfort zone or tried to match ZSJ at his own game. When ZSJ was in control, it didn’t look like he was just putting on moves; it looked like he was torturing Osprey and causing him genuine pain.
ZSJ is what Bryan Danielson could’ve been had he been given the full freedom to be as malicious as possible in the ring: a cruel grappling master that twisted his opponents’ bodies in ways other than how God intended. Because of his mat proficiency, it was easy to overlook any shortfalls in ZSJ’s overall presentation as a wrestler. After all, why would anyone care what he looks like or that he isn’t as big if he’s doing such a good job of cutting off the babyface in this match and building heat?
With all of this praise towards ZSJ, you might be thinking, “well what about Ospreay?” Well, he was great for the most part but as I’ve noted in previous matches reviews he does things that really made it hard for someone to believe in him. After spending minutes getting tortured and having his limbs picked apart, the first things Ospreay does on a counter is that obnoxious handspring high kick. Put yourself in Ospreay’s situation: a dangerous submission specialist that knows how to put pressure on your body spends a long time dismantling your joints and making it hard for you to move around, much less hit back. And the moment you have a second of space to begin a comeback, knowing that your body is already in bad shape, would you risk losing control with something as out of place as a handspring? No, you wouldn’t. You’d do something sudden and easy to give yourself some breathing room.
I know Ospreay fancies himself an acrobat and a shock-over-logic sort of wrestler, but to me these minor quirks of his are what prevent him from being a genuine top-tier wrestler. A truly great wrestler needs a sense of believability and Ospreay tends to lack that with all his out-of-place acrobatics. Just because he can do all of these things doesn’t mean he should.
That being said, once Ospreay started grappling with ZSJ instead of flying around, he compensated for his aforementioned shortcomings. He had to leave his comfort zone to try and win this match since his usual game plan was failing. Once he started attacking ZSJ’ legs he began showing more logic and he started making more headway. With ZSJ in more pain from Ospreay’s legwork he was no longer able to block or counter Ospreay’s big flashy moves. Ospreay made a terrific comeback, but ZSJ was still able to outsmart him in different ways. The best example of this was when ZSJ rolled out of the ring right after eating an Os-Cutter, not once but twice. Doing so gave ZSJ precious seconds to recover and turned the match back in his favor.
Try as he might, Ospreay couldn’t find a way to get ahead of ZSJ. And in the end, ZSJ proved why unpredictability is so critical to putting on great matches and selling oneself as a truly proficient wrestler. As Ospreay tried to regain control, he started attempting his trademark finishers. Meanwhile, ZSJ simple went for one different hold after another, including ones that weren’t his “regular” finishers. He didn’t care about hitting his moves; he just did whatever was necessary to win, and in this case that meant cycling through different submission holds that put even more pressure on the same body parts that he had targeted up to that point. ZSJ proved that wrestling logically trumped wrestling like a showman and that’s what made this match so satisfying.
Final Rating: ****3/4
I think this match was slightly better than their rematch from a few days later in RPW because this one had a better story and was more cohesive. The only thing stopping this match from that upper level of greatness is that Ospreay still had some bad habits that make Ospreay unique yet also take away from the story he’s trying to tell in the ring. No matter who Ospreay is in the ring with, he still wrestles in the same flashy style that’s exciting but often comes at the expense of realism and common sense.
Don’t get me wrong; many of Ospreay’s matches are great and worth watching, especially when he has someone to complement him like ZSJ did here. But if you ask me, Ospreay isn’t as world-class as some people make him out to be. He’s 30 years old and is already so worn down that he has publicly began questioning his long-term future in the wrestling business. Meanwhile, ZSJ appears to be much healthier and can still go without suffering any major ill effects.
This is a great match, especially if you don’t really care about crowd noise and atmosphere. In terms of raw action these two put on an incredible performance. While some people might think that Ospreay’s best opponents were other big spot guys like Kazuchika Okada or Kenny Omega, I think that Ospreay was best served wrestling ZSJ.