The middle of summer used to mean a lot of lost sleep for the hardcore American pro wrestling fan, because the middle of summer meant the G1 Climax was happening on the other side of the globe. With the rise of internet streaming and the growth of New Japan Pro Wrestling into the No. 2 promotion in the world, the company’s premier tournament, the G1, became a can’t-miss event. Two blocks with usually around 10 wrestlers apiece (almost all of them incredible) and a round-robin format that ended with the two block winners facing each other in the final made for dozens of great matches all compressed into a span of just a month. Until 2020, the G1 helped immortalize stars like Kenny Omega, served as a watershed for wayward souls like Jon Moxley, and year after year showcased the best of Japanese wrestling with consistently great performances from legends like Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, Tetsuya Naito, and so many more.
For more than just the most obvious reason, though, the tournament hasn’t been the same since COVID. The schedule was thrown off in the last two years, not actually for pandemic reasons but due to the planned and then the actual Summer Olympics in Tokyo. On top of that, the travel limits in place also significantly lessened the scope of the participants. The 2022 edition has dropped the G1 back into July and August, with a few outsiders entering the country to compete, but even with the slow lurch toward normalcy so much still feels different, because New Japan has moved backward while the rest of wrestling has taken strides forward. The ongoing restrictions of the clap-only crowds in the COVID-cautious country force the atmosphere of the G1 to be a shadow of its old self. (Recently crowned champion Jay White is especially annoyed by this.) The growth of All Elite Wrestling and improved fan access to so many other, smaller promotions worldwide means that New Japan no longer stands out as the main alternative to WWE for Americans. The loss of former G1 MVPs like Omega and Kota Ibushi hurt it further. But I think worst of all is the new diluted format—a supersized schedule with 28 wrestlers competing across four blocks, with none of the newcomers slotting in as headliners.
The lack of depth in the tournament is noticeable, and while there have been the expected good matches from the top performers, the amount of buzzy action or eye-catching match-ups feels more like a manageable handful than an overflowing bucket. Entire days of the G1 have come and gone almost anonymously, as the tournament has been weighed down with more filler than ever while even the high points often feel like greatest hits performances from the longtime main stars. With WWE’s revamped management and AEW’s regularly spectacular in-ring work competing for attention on much larger platforms, the G1 has become more like inessential background noise to an American fan. Like a regular-season baseball game, it’s on if you feel like it, but you’re probably not missing much if you skip any given day.
Just don’t skip Zack Sabre Jr.’s promos. The twisty leftist vegan long ago established himself as a brilliant and idiosyncratic wrestler in this company, with standout performances that date back to the 2017 G1. But in recent months Sabre has vaulted even higher, showing an irresistible combination of unique fighting style and dickish charisma that makes him, at least to an English-speaking audience, the freshest talent that New Japan can offer.
Carrying the flag for “technical wrestling”—a kind of catch-all term for an in-ring moveset that tries to hew closely to legit amateur wrestling and MMA-style striking and grappling—Sabre stands in clearcut opposition to so many preconceived notions and stereotypes of what pro wrestling is. He’s a lanky lad, though he’s gained muscle lately, and instead of possessing one or two signature, match-finishing moves, Sabre is defined by the variety of his offense. The Sabre trademark isn’t something so crass as the Superman punch or the tombstone piledriver. It’s watching him put an opponent in a submission hold, then six seconds later watching him transition into another, and then another, until he finds what gets them to tap out.
While there is of course a joy to the anticipation and then catharsis of seeing a larger-than-life monster set up for his finisher and then execute it, Sabre’s logical yet unexpected sequences not only work much better with the physical tools he possesses but also make him memorable in his own way. Since it’s the whole and not any one part of his abilities that make him such a compelling package, it’s tricky to summarize his work in just one clip, but hopefully this bit from a March match against Shingo Takagi does the trick:
This work on its own makes Sabre an asset to any promotion. Very few wrestlers even attempt to perform like he does, and with the arguable exception of AEW’s Bryan Danielson, nobody matches it. But what really elevates Sabre into a singular presence in wrestling is his mouth, which is where so many other good workers have to fall back on clichés. Seemingly whenever a camera is on him, Sabre just goes and goes and goes until he’s landed on an inimitable point.
While mastery of his craft keeps him from being an unambiguous heel in the ring, on the microphone he projects a magnetic arrogance with his unhinged ravings. After his most prominent match yet, in June at the joint AEW/NJPW PPV from Chicago’s United Center, Sabre went off on how his planned technical wrestling dream match against the injured Danielson became a more straightforward loss to the debuting Claudio Castagnoli, formerly Cesaro in WWE.
“Three years ago, I said that giving a technical wrestling match to an American audience was like reading Shakespeare to a dog,” Sabre said, referencing another catchy old promo of his. “Well I’ve updated it: It’s like asking a dead dog to decipher whether a Monet is a fraudulent or not.”
In keeping with New Japan’s attempts to present its events as much like “real sports” as possible, every show of theirs also comes with each wrestler giving post-match promos in the back that mimic the aesthetics of boxing and MMA press conferences. With 20 G1 shows in a one-month span this year, this could very easily get monotonous. But Sabre couldn’t be boring if he tried. Night after night, seemingly trying to entertain himself more than anything else, Sabre goes on wild, profane stream-of-consciousness sprees of cheeky insults and ambitious delusions. Here are some highlights: calling his British rival Will Ospreay a bunch of names; painting a hilariously graphic picture of NJPW cornerstone Hiroshi Tanahashi continuing to wrestle into his 70s; noting how he prefers the avant-garde composer John Cage to Tana’s air guitar antics; best of all, speaking about a George Michael hallucination he had before making a comeback—a delightful recurring motif in Sabre promos.
That I am more excited about these ramblings than any specific G1 match so far might tell you something about the state of the tournament, but it’s also indicative of the weird little patch of greatness that Sabre has tended for himself. Though they’ve treated him very well and given him some big wins, the 35-year-old doesn’t fit the mold of the champion that New Japan would ever push to the very, very top. Even among foreigners in the company his status is eclipsed by Ospreay and White, both of whom were molded by New Japan from a much younger age. But even if he doesn’t quite have the crossover appeal of a mainstream superstar, Sabre’s got me excited about an event that’s otherwise getting lost in the shuffle. Whether it’s a new kind of finish between the ropes or a new ridiculous tangent in the back, he makes me want to see what comes next. In a promotion that’s dangerously close to becoming stale, that’s an exceptional gift.