36. Kazuchika Okada vs Zack Sabre Jr (IWGP Heavyweight Championship Match, Sakura Genesis 2018)

After witnessing a couple of awful bouts from NJPW World, the first pitting Hogan vs Andre, the second featuring one of the worst wrestlers ever, El Gigante, I thought I’d treat myself to something that looked promising! I have a list of 5* (and some above 5*…out of 5 stars!!!) matches from Dave Meltzer’s ratings. But, of course, instead of looking at the list, I looked at the recommended section of NJPW World and found this encounter between Kazuchika Okada and Zack Sabre Jr, from NJPW Sakura Genesis 2018. And, I’ll be honest…I felt a little let down.

I’ve seen both of these wrestlers in action. After hearing the hype around Okada’s battles with Omega, I checked one of those out (all three have Meltzer ratings above 5 stars!). But it was so long ago that I can’t remember much about it, apart from being more impressed with Omega than Okada. For Zack Sabre Jr, I saw him wrestle in the WWE Cruiserweight Classic tournament. He reached the semi-finals. The tournament was fantastic, and many of the competitors impressed me. But I remember Sabre Jr.(and Kota Ibushi) making the biggest impression on me. You don’t usually think of submission-based wrestling as flashy/spectacular, but Sabre Jr. manages to do so. He harks back to old-school British wrestling.

And, just like Omega, I found Sabre. Jr more entertaining than Okada in this bout. If you’ve seen Sabre. Jr in action before, you know what to expect: super-smooth, fluid chain wrestling and submission work. Okada tries to play this game earlier on, using Mexican-style holds. But Sabre. Jr eventually gets the upper hand. You don’t play the submission game against Sabre Jr.! Sabre Jr. focuses on the Rainmaker’s Rainmaker arm for much of the rest of the bout. He builds Okada up for various comebacks, ostensibly playing the heel, but Okada’s comebacks seems basic compared to Sabre Jr’s offence. Was Okada injured, ill, or just exhausted from his epic title reign? I’m not sure, but he’s not firing on all cylinders here.

I understand the story of the bout, the story of Okada absorbing Sabre Jr’s offence and submissions and being outwrestled. But they take too long to tell the tale. At nearly forty minutes, there’s not enough here to justify that length. Take ten minutes off, and you get a very good, maybe even great, bout. Not only that, but there’s something just not right with Okada’s performance. Sabre Jr. is on the top of his game, but he can’t take this match to the next level. There’s no lack of hard work or effort, but something doesn’t feel right here.

Or maybe I just need time to adapt to the NJPW style of wrestling, after twenty years of WWE wrestling conditioning?

Hammy’s Rating: *** (out of 5)

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