Bryan Danielson vs. Zack Sabre Jr. (NJPW The New Beginning in Osaka 2/11/24)

Match Reviews

Featured image by @Z_ONpppp

So much of it rocks. Zack Sabre Jr. is someone I enjoy a lot, but that’s not to say I don’t have my problems with him. In particular, when paired against someone who’s not a stylistic complement, he’s prone to moving from hold to hold without much rhyme or reason. That’s a problem in some of his better performances too, God knows, so it’s always a joy to watch him against someone that really forces him to earn things. As he was in their October bout, Danielson’s the exact perfect kind of opponent for that.

A large part of that is that Dragon can keep up with Zack on the mat. What this means practically speaking is that Zack rarely has the opportunity to just flex on Danielson and switch from hold to hold, rather Dragon’s always able to keep up pace with him, countering and halting Zack’s attempts. This puts a much stronger narrative spin on Zack moving from hold to hold as he does, in this case making it feel more like a desperate attempt to find something that works against a superior opponent, instead of him just trying every single idea that pops into his head.

Danielson, for his part, feels like he’s proficient enough to actually punish Zack’s mistakes. Not only does he know how to prevent Zack from gaining too much momentum down on the mat, but Danielson’s more measured approach also allows him to have a much more threatening sense of focus from bell to bell.

The way the narrative of the match plays out too, Danielson’s clearly given much more room to control the pace of this match, for the better. The central idea here is that Zack’s legs catch the ropes after landing wrong on a hip toss from Bryan, which gives the latter a target to pick at for the rest of the match. Just on paper, this isn’t an awful idea at all, as it allows this match to have a clear hook that Danielson can build upon. And when he’s in control, the match is delightful. Dragon’s an experienced hand at all this, and he knows so many great ways to twist Zack about and really work at a hold to its maximum effect to make it look like he’s just torturing this man.

The problems start to come when the match switches focus to being about Zack Sabre Jr. gutting his way through the pain.

The hype video and promos hinted at this with the focus becoming less about being the best technical wrestler in the world and more about Danielson questioning Zack’s heart. In a broader sense, he’s a pressure test for Sabre on this night, trying to see how far he can take Zack and if the latter will break. It’s the same kind of underlying narrative that made something like the strap match with Ricky Starks so compelling. What separates this match from the Starks bout though is that this match has a much more active intention on its mind: making Sabre Jr. look cool and admirable in the face of this mounting pressure. Starks very much didn’t have to live up to that in the strap match, he could get by just trying and failing, but Sabre here has to fully make the transition.

Narrative-wise, he does so. There’s a few key beats that nail that idea throughout the match. For one, when the two find themselves in dueling leg locks, Danielson once again tries spitting at Zack to shake the latter’s focus. This time, Zack holds onto Danielson’s leg instead of relinquishing the hold to add more punishment, indicating that Zack learned from his previous failure. On top of that, Zack forces himself to gut out the damage in his pain to really take the fight to Danielson in the back half, and eventually stay cool enough to get that big pinfall win off the Dragon.

The problem is that performance-wise, Sabre never really sticks the landing. Babyface work has never been Zack’s strongest point. His in-ring demeanor and style really just lends itself to him being a cocky prick instead, and the nature of the match forces him into a more sympathetic role. It might actually have worked better if only because Danielson himself can be such an effective bully, that Zack would have just naturally been sympathetic just eating shit, but with the bad leg as his obstacle here, it’s a mixed blessing. Yes, it allows Dragon a target to attack that gives a lot of shape to the match, but it also asks Zack to try to express it sympathetically which he does to mixed results. It’s never awful, but it’s never tonally exactly what I would want from this performance either.

At the same time, it also asks Zack to gut his way through the bad knee, leaning on fighting spirit-style spots that just don’t feel quite right for Zack as a character in this position. Besides, the match itself offers an alternative plot point where Zack’s able to target and work down Danielson’s neck towards the back half to mount his comeback. I think the cleverness of the latter would have worked to be demonstrate Zack’s ability as a character far more than him smacking at a bad leg forcing himself to move forward.

Miscast hero aside though, it’s just sort of impossible for me to deny how much of this I love. Specifically, that this is the style of match getting so much hype from late 2020s New Japan. Sure, it’s still a half hour epic built around big dramatic beats in the finish, but it’s also a match where everything feels weighty and consequential. Most importantly, even though it’s hard to buy that anything in the first ten minutes might end the match, everything in those first ten minutes feels interesting in a way that standard Bushiroad time-killing simply hasn’t achieved in a very long time. On top of that, everything outside of a catch spot or two, just looks so fucking beautiful. Real pressure applied to holds, limbs bent in gruesome ways, meaty striking too. It is a thrill to feel this Osaka crowd respond so strongly to Danielson and Sabre trading pinfall attempts, following the steady rhythm of the match all the way through to its finish. It’s a joy to have Danielson take this crowd on the journey he plotted, bullying Zack enough to draw boos and make the latter the home team hero.

It’s one of those matches that Danielson seems determined to populate his final full time year with: matches that in any other year would feel like absolute miracles.

In his attempt to help crown a new technical wrestling master, Danielson proves himself unequaled in the end.

Rating: ****1/4

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