SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
As the ranks of the NXT-UK roster starts to swell, and the competition for locker space in the Enfield Performance Centre gets trickier, many fans (and wrestlers themselves) are starting to wonder whether they need to accept that the path carved out by the likes of Pete Dunne and Tyler Bate is the only option for young European wrestlers. WWE have made it no secret that their recruitment policies are going to ramp up before ever slowing down and it’s starting to look like the done thing for young wrestlers is to jump on board. The most recent batch of signings which include the likes of Aoife Valkyrie, Pretty Deadly, and Dani Luna was especially evident of this as they are talented performers who were only just starting to make a name for themselves.
For any wrestler who doesn’t feel right about taking this road, who feels maybe that it’s too soon for them or that there’s just more of the wrestling world that they want to experience, they have three tremendous examples. Marty Scurll, Zack Sabre Jr., and Will Ospreay are three men who all could have signed with WWE at various points, but choose to carve out a different path and in doing so have made themselves highly successful – professionally, creatively, financially, and critically. Marty has just signed a big money contract with Ring of Honor and is now hugely influential behind the scenes in his new role as head booker, building bridges with New Japan, the NWA and potentially even AEW. He has built this spot off the back of years of betting on himself, investing in himself with The Villain character and forging relationships with fanbases around the world. Now he’s reaping considerable rewards.
But Marty isn’t who I want to talk about today. He deserves his own article another time. Today I want to talk about Zack Sabre Jr., Will Ospreay, and the most entertaining rivalry of 2020 thus far.
As key pushed performers for the biggest wrestling company in Japan during a boom in popularity, Zack and Will are two of the happier wrestling success stories of the last decade. They, too, have done things their way and they are clearly having the time of their lives as performers. It shines through in every match and every promo they put out there. While they share the unity of having told WWE “thanks but no thanks,” their individual routes to this point have been quite different.
ZSJ got into the business young, very young. An avid tape collector who devoured niche promotions like BattlARTS and Michinoku Pro, Zack knew this was something he had to try himself. In his early teens, the Isle Of Sheppey native, enrolled in Kent-based promotion Hammerlock run by Andre Baker. Hammerlock had been operating as a member of the NWA at this point and its ethos was grounded in the old school NWA traditions and the hard-nosed style of catch wrestling developed in the Snakepit in Wigan. Baker instilled this into the likes of Doug Williams and Johnny Moss, and later the younger crop of Hammerlock students which included ZSJ and Finn Balor. It wasn’t uncommon for training to be conducted on gym mats rather than a ring itself with grappling and proficiency in bare bones basics being valued above all else – especially anything like top rope moves or big highspots.
Zack would graduate Hammerlock and after becoming one of the rising stars in a greatly subdued British scene, he earned himself a spot in the Pro Wrestling NOAH dojo in 2011 and grabbed it with both hands. Under mentors like Yoshinari Ogawa, ZSJ became one of the best technical wrestlers in the world – for many, replacing Bryan Danielson in that spot and winning awards to prove it. When it came time for the British Wrestling boom spearheaded by Progress and Rev Pro in 2015-2017, Zack was used as a main event attraction in dream matches against the world’s best like Shinsuke Nakamura, Tommaso Ciampa, and Katsuyori Shibata. He was considered a fully formed, world class talent.
Will Ospreay, on the other hand, grew up as a wrestler during said boom. In many ways he was the face of the period – performing month in and month out in both Progress and Rev Pro. In the former, he engaged in an unforgettable feud against Jimmy Havoc which elevated the promotion to a huge extent. In the latter, he was tested against the likes of Matt Sydal, A.J. Styles, and eventually the man who would bring him to New Japan – Kazuchika Okada.
Ospreay is several years younger than Zack and didn’t really catch the tail end of the “old school” British mentality that Sabre did. The flashy style that The Aerial Assassin made his name on was developed in makeshift rings in his parent’s back garden, and on the backyard wrestling message boards of the day. Needless to say, it was a mentality that wouldn’t have gone down too well on Andre Baker’s mats. Ospreay did find more formal teaching in the form of the London School Of Lucha Libre headed by Greg Burridge, and he was able to refine his style before notable pro bookings started to come his way.
While ZSJ’s ascent through the decade was, much like his style, steady and measured; Will’s was accelerated and breathtaking – reminiscent of his style! As such, it was Ospreay who beat Zack to the punch in terms of getting to New Japan – but only by a few months. Since they debuted, both men have been pushed hard, winning titles and tournaments, and defeating huge names (they both hold singles wins over Hiroshi Tanahashi for instance).
Before NJPW, their paths crossed on several occasions in England, Germany and even once in Dallas at Mania weekend. Without exception, fans were always treated to a great match which saw their styles mesh wonderfully. Usually the guile and craftiness of ZSJ overcame the explosive arsenal of Will. They wouldn’t have a big singles bout in New Japan until last year’s G1, and it became clear in the promos before and after the match that the character differences between them was adding another layer to their chemistry as opponents.
Unlike on home soil over the years, Zack plays a cocky, know-it-all heel in New Japan. The multi-time British Heavyweight Champion seems to feel New Japan’s backstage comments and press conferences are simply a platform for him to wax poetic about his talent, his superior lifestyle choices and occasionally vent his frustrations about UK politics in hilarious fashion. This is polar opposite to pure babyface Ospreay who speaks with fire and emotion about his love for Japan, his goals in the ring, and his struggles as a wrestler and human being.
When it became clear on Jan. 6 that they would be getting programmed together for the upcoming New Beginning tour, the prospects were tantalizing. Not only would we get the sure-fire great match, but there was also potential to explore their personality dynamic a little deeper with a tour full of both men mouthing off at one another. The results have exceeded even the loftiest of expectations.
Their British Heavyweight Title bout was scheduled for Feb. 2 in Sapporo. Many expected an Ospreay win and he would move on to hold that belt for the majority of the year (he has promised more regular Rev Pro appearances in 2020). Unsurprisingly, it was a great match (more on that in a moment). Surprisingly, though, it was Sabre who won. This allowed for another absolute belter of a heel promo by Zack after the match, a stark contrast to the deflated Ospreay who valiantly passed out without submitting. It was a classic bout, one which literally could not have been any better for the story they were telling nor the style they were wrestling. A style that really only the two of them could truly perfect – the ultimate blend of what they’ve each mastered throughout their careers. It was as gripping as it was thrilling, and as nuanced as it was spectacular.
They were still programmed on opposite sides of tag matches for the rest of the tour, but it seemed the singles rivalry was put to bed for the time being. Or so we thought. A few days later at Korakuen Hall, Ospreay pinned the champ for the first time in a New Japan ring to emphatically end an exhilarating Chaos vs. Suzuki-gun elimination match. One fiery promo later and you were DYING to see Ospreay challenge again. He spoke with such raw emotion about the seven years since he debuted in Rev Pro and how that promotion gave him so much but he could never win their top prize. He will be given the chance to do so this coming Friday. Valentines Day, London, Revolution Pro Wrestling… York Hall, Bethnal Green!
York Hall is a truly iconic British Wrestling venue. It’s housed so much history. It’s the building where Zack Sabre Jr. has wrestled Davey Richards, Katsuyori Shibata, A.J. Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, and countless other greats. It’s the building where Will Ospreay has done battle with Pete Dunne, Matt Sydal, Marty Scurll, and even Vader! But it’s a building where, until Friday Feb. 14, Zack Sabre Jr. has never gone one-on-one with Will Ospreay.
One way or another, history will be made in York Hall. This feels like a huge match for Rev Pro, and as amazing as the Sapporo bout was, the atmosphere on Friday night may well make the latest edition of the ZSJ vs. Ospreay rivalry the most memorable one yet. This is a huge match for New Japan, this is a huge match for Rev Pro, and this is a huge match for British wrestling. For any young wrestler with an unsigned NXT:UK contract in their hands, this is a match and a night that their eyes should be glued to because two of the world’s best are going to put on the greatest advertisement possible for not signing on that dotted line.
(Alan Counihan is a Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter columnist and host the PWTorch VIP Podcast “Pro Wres Paradise.” He covers the Japanese and European scene, both current events and history, in his can’t-miss weekly VIP podcast. Become a VIP member HERE.)