Sunday, March 10, 2019

Zack Sabre, Jr. vs. WALTER 1/14/18 – EVOLVE 99

Indulge me for a moment of gushing: I love, love, LOVE Zack Sabre, Jr. In an era where so much of professional wrestling is dominated by MMA-influenced strikers, high fliers, and the homogenous “sports entertainment” that WWE shoehorns multiple styles into, the ultra-technical wizardry of Sheppey's favorite son is a joy to behold. Look, my favorite wrestler of all time is Bret “Hitman” Hart—it stands to reason that I'd be crazy go nuts for a guy who can stretch dudes to a degree that would have made that crazy old wizard Stu Hart lick his lips and rub his hands together. Add in his leftist Labour politics and I'm completely twitterpated. He often walks to the ring to the chords of “Mother” by the band Idles, getting the crowd to chant “The best way to scare a Tory is to read or get rich.” Heck, his real last name is Eatwell and he's a vegan. Eatwell! Its like he was destined to be the world's most annoyingly flawless man. And his pompous, arrogant heel character lets you know how perfect he is at all times.

Over the past year, while I've finally dived head first into the deep end of the New Japan Pro Wrestling pool, I've gotten to enjoy watching ZSJ stretch the hell out of guys like SANADA, Tomohiro Ishii, and one of my other favorite NJPW boys, Tetsuya Naito. But it was during a YouTube search of his opponent here where I stumbled across this gem from a Knights of Columbus in Brooklyn.

I've been hearing the name WALTER for several years now, and to my eternal shame, I didn't get a chance to take in any of his work until his NXT UK debut (I joke about WWE, but let's be real, there hasn't been this much quality wrestling in WWE on the whole since, well, ever, so it's hard to break out and invest the proper amount of time in the indies when you also have a day job and two bands). But his NXT UK work hasn't shown too much yet, so this past weekend I took some time to look up highlights of his recent independent work. Which brought me to this match from EVOLVE 99.

ZSJ and WALTER have crossed paths several times in their careers, which is right and logical for two European indie journeyman superstars. As teammates, they've held the tag titles in Germany's wXw, and as enemies, they've become familiar with each other all over the world. But this match in Brooklyn from just over a year ago is early on in a series of singles matches these two engaged in all across the independent scene, starting with a white-hot encounter in October 2017 across the country at PWG's All-Star Weekend. That match was given the elusive 5-star rating from Dave Meltzer and featured an arrogant ZSJ taking the role of pigheaded David vs. WALTER's sick-of-your-shit Goliath. Sabre, convinced he can match WALTER blow-for-blow (or at least, convinced that he has to prove he can), absorbs an absurd number of the Austrian's already-legendary chops, gets suplexed from pillar to post, and certainly holds his own, hitting solid kicks and many of his signature holds before trying to tie WALTER up in his signature European Clutch neck-bridge pin, only to fall right back into a Gojira Clutch sleeperhold and immediately tap out. What's fun about this rematch nearly three months later is how the two men, across the country in another promotion, build off their earlier contest, callback to it, and build on it as chapter two of an ongoing series, which, now with WALTER in WWE, is on indefinite hold.

Much of this EVOLVE contest is a repeat of the PWG classic; however, in EVOLVE in early 2018, ZSJ is the promotion's champion, having just knocked off Darby Allin in a title match the night before. This isn't for the title, which is probably for the best, as Sabre comes off as the one with something to prove here once again. Zack Sabre Jr. in 2018 is a cocky, pompous bastard (and I love it) who knows he's the best technical wrestler in the world and isn't shy about letting everyone know that he can tie anyone of any size in knots. WALTER, however, outweighs ZSJ by 110 pounds, and is an accomplished amateur wrestler in his own right, as well as a master of several punishing suplexes. And his chops. My GOD, his chops. Just look at Jack Starz' chest after his first encounter with the Austrian in NXT UK:

Good lord, you could read WALTER's fortune off Jack Starz' chest. And there's something about WALTER that makes ZSJ think that he needs to prove that he can absorb that and come out the other side unscathed. He tries it in PWG and the results are...not great for Zack. He tries it again here in EVOLVE and...well.

It's clear during the opening minute of the match, during the feeling-out process of collar-and-elbow tie-ups and rope breaks, that Sabre's going to get suckered into trading blows again, as WALTER uses his weight advantage to press ZSJ to the ground, ties Sabre up with a half-nelson, reaches for a foot, and causes Sabre to push his way out of it, already looking flustered. This is Zack's game, and WALTER is not shy about playing it. He's a huge, rumbling beast, but he can stretch a dude too—maybe not quite as skilled as Sabre in that department (who is?), but skilled enough to keep up and let his weight do the rest. So how does Sabre counteract the size difference when WALTER can at least keep up on the mat as well, especially when the next tie-up results in him getting tossed like a sack of rotten produce halfway across the ring out of a side headlock?

It's about four minutes in when, after getting wrestled and tossed to the mat a few times, that Sabre decides to try some strikes to wear down the big man. But open-handed strikes aren't Zack's forte, so he starts off with a series of kicks to the tree trunk thighs of the “Ring General,” which triggers a callback spot from the PWG match.

A brief aside here: back before the Internet, a pair of wrestlers could move from territory to territory and work the exact same match night in and night out if they so wanted. Unless someone followed the workers on the road, no one would be the wiser. This was the standard at WWF/WWE house shows for years (and probably still is on occasion). Back in 1992, I attended a WWF house show in Green Bay where World Tag Champs Money Inc. (Ted DiBiase and Mike “Irwin R. Shyster” Rotunda) worked a false finish with the Nasty Boys where the challengers seemingly pinned the champs are were to be awarded the tag titles, only for the ref to realize that the Nasty Boy that scored the pin wasn't the legal man. Before the Nasty Boys could reset, DiBiase and IRS committed some chicanery or another and retained the titles (I think they used one of the Nasty Boys' motorcycle helmets. The Nasty Boys did not ride motorcycles). It was a fun thrill to think that we almost saw a title change at a house show, until a few months later when, during a house show on the UW-Oshkosh campus, they worked the exact same false finish. My friends in the second row with me were flipping out (they had missed the GB show) as I tried to calm them down and explain that I had seen this ending already.

This can't really happen on the indie scene anymore, as almost everything is recorded and put online. So, for example, say Zack Sabre, Jr. and WALTER come up with a fun spot where ZSJ uses a leg takedown to get WALTER onto his back, only for WALTER to bridge his neck to keep his shoulders off the ground. Zack tries to hop onto WALTER to knock him to the ground, but the 300-pounder doesn't move, eventually dropping his shoulders to the mat after some more kicks from the EVOLVE champ. They get back up, and this time WALTER forces Sabre to the mat. Sabre does the same bridge, but when WALTER then hops onto him, Sabre drops like a piano fell on him, but shocks the crowd by raising back up into a neck bridge with all 300 pounds of Austrian on top of him! The audience in the Brooklyn Knights of Columbus go nuts for this, and maybe some of them know it's the exact same spot these two came up with at PWG a couple months ago, and maybe they don't. But with both matches out there on the Internet, the context changes. It's a callback, a “greatest hits” spot. It's becomes a question of what the two men do to build off the previous match, in order to emphasize progression over rehashing.

In this case, there's not much different – it plays out in New York exactly same way it played out in Reseda. But either way, the sequence is fun as hell, so we'll let it slide.

Once they separate, WALTER goes for his first chop, but Sabre ducks and hits a European uppercut which briefly dazes the big man, but barely knocks him off his strike. The Austrian finally connects with his first thundering CHOP and ZSJ drops to the mat. Fun fact about WALTER's chops: when they connect, they're so loud that the fans flip out so much that they forget to “WOOOO” like they normally do. Knocking a wrestling crowd out of their sing-song routine is a feat in and of itself. Zack, visibly wincing, gets up and hits WALTER with another uppercut. WALTER no-sells it and yells, “come on!” as if he's insulted by Zack's effort. ZSJ obliges him with another uppercut. His reward? He ends up flat on his back after another thunderous chop. Maybe stop getting in the way of those hands, Zack – they're like gigantic flying hams. You hate ham.

When Zack gets up and slaps WALTER across the face, the big man looks nonplussed, and maybe a little confused. “Hey man, why ya gotta be disrespectful? I'm just over here throwing you around like a bale of hay, which I was hired at a fair wage to do, incidentally.” And once again, when he slaps Zack back, Junior staggers into the corner like he was just shot. He's been taken out of his game once again, and he did it to himself. We're barely five minutes into this thing and the story is already less that of Zack Sabre vs. WALTER than it is Zack Sabre vs. his own stubbornness.

Sabre briefly gets the upper hand, tying up ol' WALT on the mat and positioning his left elbow for a wicked stomp. Textbook British joint manipulation, and should help to short-circuit those nasty chops...except WALTER is right-handed. CHOP. Drop. Crowd pop. Oops. The crowd is LOUD for the Austrian right now. “WAL-TER! *clap*clap* WAL-TER! *clap*clap*” And Zack is bumping like he's in a flea circus, flopping with every strike the Big Daddy lays in on him. “I don't know how much money Zack Sabre Jr. owes WALTER,” the announcer quips. “I'd be happy to lend it to him.” Oh, sure, so then you have license to chop the poor guy into next week. I see how it is.

Ten minutes in, ZSJ finally gives himself an opening when, after a flying European uppercut from the top rope that WALTER shrugs off like a bug bite, he's whipped into the opposite corner, but gets a foot onto the middle turnbuckle, spins around, and connects with a tornado DDT that finally drops WALTER's head onto the mat. One penalty kick to the chest later, and Zack's finally, finally in control. He hits a Pele' kick to the Austrian's wrist and follows it up with a kick to the face. But sure, Zack, go ahead and try an uppercut again. It hasn't worked in a match and a half; I'm sure your due—nope, WALTER shrugs it off and screams at him. Nice. Another one pushes WALTER into the corner, but when Sabre tries a running attack, he's met with a brutal shotgun dropkick. I imagine swinging a pair of logs into his gut would have hurt less. Dear Zack: there is a crucifix on the wall at this Knights of Columbus hall. I know you're probably atheist, but it's never too late to consider prayer.

The announcers (Wikipedia tells me they're Lenny Leonard and Ron Niemi, so I'll take their word for it) begin to put over their champion for even getting into the ring to take all this abuse. “What does it say about a Zack Sabre Jr.? He just had a grueling title defense last night—he didn't have to take a match today against someone the caliber of a WALTER. But no, he is out here proving himself against the very best.” Aside from reminding me that using indefinite articles before proper names is rapidly becoming my least favorite sports cliché, this once again drives home the point that Mr. Sabre feels like he has something to prove against this hulking Vienna sausage. And twelve minutes in, he's still trying to prove it, defiantly slapping WALTER across the face and getting a boot in his mush for the trouble. Zack drops to the mat again. My dude, this is NOT working.

WALTER starts back in with the tossing. German release suplex. Double underhook butterfly suplex. You will believe a Zack Sabre can fly! But one thing Sabre continues to be famous for is tying up his opponents seemingly out of nowhere, and before you can blink, he's wrapped himself around WALTER's back and tied him in an octopus hold! Apparently he's not done yet, and as he bends the big man's fingers back, he keeps trying to negate those insane chops. Except that he's still working the left hand. Come on, man! WALTER gets out of it and lifts ZSJ for a tombstone piledriver, but Sabre wriggles out, then dodges as WALT whiffs on a shotgun dropkick. A penalty kick later and both men are exhausted on the mat! “THIS IS AWESOME!” the crowd chants, because there isn't a wrestling fan alive anymore that isn't just itching to chant that at least once at every show they attend. It's just what you do at shows, man. 

When they get back up, Sabre gets WALTER on the mat and starts to turn him around for his signature European clutch (a double wrist-clutch flip into a bridging cradle pin). But with WATER having 4 inches on Zack on top of those 110 pounds, Zack lands right into WALTER's arms and into the dreaded Gojira Clutch sleeperhold! This is what forced Zack to tap out in their previous contest in PWG, but this time Sabra's ready for it, reverse somersaults over WALTER's head, and manages to land the European clutch anyway, to only net a two-count! It's a thrilling exchange and I audibly laughed with disbelief when I saw it for the first time. Just really great stuff. WALTER kicks out, Zack charges him, and gets absolutely leveled with a clothesline. Try as he might, his clever-ass wrestling holds are no match for the brute force of 300 pounds of grade-A Vienna beef. In a last gasp move, Zack counters a powerbomb attempt into a guillotine choke, but WALTER makes a few adjustments and butterfly suplexes his way out of it. For everything ZSJ has thrown at him, he still looks like he could go another twenty minutes and still have a pulse around 80 bpm.

Even in the midst of a grueling war with the world's best technical wrestler, WALTER knows to check his heart rate and make sure he's in the proper fat burning zone.
And yet, Sabre will not stop slapping WATER across the face. Seventeen minutes in, they're trading shots, and it's still not going any better for Zack. He's nothing if not stubborn. But he's at least hung around long enough to capitalize on one last WALTER mistake, as he runs at Sabre with a clothesline. Zack ducks, grabs WALTER's arm, and swing onto his back, taking him down into a cross-armbreaker attempt that turns into a triangle choke. But WALTER just sets upright onto his knees, slapping ZSJ's chest until the hold just collapses. It's kind of...slapstick, really (sorry). He powerbombs out of the hold, grabs Zack for a second powerbomb, and then crouches over Sabre for the pin...which Zack kicks out of at one.

Have I mentioned that I love the late-match one count? It's such a gloriously defiant “fuck you” to the aggressor. “You've been destroying me for eighteen minutes, but you couldn't even get a two count. Eat shit, WALTER!” But of course, as is the case with many late match one counts, it's merely one last gasp before the inevitable. One double underhook powerbomb later, the refs slaps the mat for a one, two, three. The EVOLVE Champion has been dominated by the Eastern European phenomenon that is the all-caps WALTER. No lowercase in his name, and no lowercase in the ring. After eighteen and a half minutes of BOOM THWOK POW, it's over.

After the match there's a bunch of extracurricular with Darby Allin hilariously pleading with a barely-conscious ZSJ for a title rematch, only to have WALTER and his corner man, Timothy Thatcher, push Allin away from the fallen champ. “This is a professional wrestling ring,” WALTER explains. “What the fuck are you doing in here?” Dude can throw shade as well as he throws fools. NOW I'm a fan.

WALTER and Zack Sabre. Jr. have another three matches in 2018 after this one. While an April 7 PROGRESS Wrestling match (wrestling sure does love its all-caps spelling!) ends with Sabre once again trying a European clutch pin and falling into a Gojira Clutch submission, he finally cracks the code and picks up a submission win in wXw in Hamburg the next month. The evolution of these matches across the globe is a real treat, and a great example of how the same sequences can be worked into a series of matches in order to tell an ongoing story instead of just rehashing what was done before. Exploring this series not only has converted me to full-on WALTER fandom, but it's cemented Zack Sabre, Jr.'s status as probably my current favorite indie wrestler. He's the friggin' best! But don't just take my word for it—he'll be the first to tell matter how many times WALTER puts him down.

1 comment: