Zack Sabre Jr. is exactly where he wants to be in NJPW

Zack Sabre Jr. took a major step forward in his career in winning the New Japan Cup and holding his own against Kazuchika Okada in his first IWGP heavyweight championship challenge. NJPW / Asahi TV

It's virtually unheard of to take a wrestler and make them a worthy and believable world championship challenger in less than a month.

Unlikely challengers have certainly pushed world champions in matches before -- Jeff Hardy's 2002 ladder match against The Undertaker comes to mind -- and under the right circumstances, a star can be made.

Sometimes a bold stand and outside-the-box thinking, as seen this March with Zack Sabre Jr. in the New Japan Pro Wrestling cup, can pay off in an even bigger way as well. In a company that typically takes years to build up wrestlers with layered, complex storylines, Sabre -- just one year into his run with NJPW -- was put in a position to tell an exceedingly simple and effective story that blazed his path to victory and a shot at IWGP heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada.

Sabre, one of the great technical wrestlers in the world, started by knocking off Tetsuya Naito, the man many presumed would end Okada's historic title reign at Wrestle Kingdom 12 in January. He then beat Kota Ibushi, the ever-popular daredevil, followed by another presumed star-in-waiting, SANADA, to reach the finals. After earning his second career victory over long-time NJPW ace Hiroshi Tanahashi in the finals, it was on to Sakura Genesis, where he'd get his first-ever shot at the IWGP heavyweight championship inside of the legendary Ryogoku Sumo Hall.

"If I was going to picture where I wanted to be when I started my journey, it's exactly where I wanted to be," Sabre told ESPN.com during an interview conducted in New Orleans at the WWNLive Experience.

This moment represented everything Sabre had ever worked for in his wrestling career. With each distinct chapter, Sabre made a leap of faith and extracted himself from his comfort zone to make the necessary steps he needed to realize his full potential. When everything lined up in March 2017 -- from the offer to sign with NJPW, to becoming one of the central members of Minoru Suzuki's "Suzuki-gun" faction, to all of the opportunities that lay before him, Sabre realized this was the moment to claim what he felt was his destiny.

"My dream when I was 14 was to wrestle full-time in Japan, for New Japan," Sabre said. "But if in 2018, that wasn't a company that was right for me, then I wouldn't go. I'm not just there for the idea. This is where I want to be. It's kind of a double reward, in that it's something I set out to do, I achieved it, but then also I just feel so at home in the company."

His match against Okada, and everything that led up to it (which fans were given another chance to enjoy in recent weeks on AXS TV), came during a unique moment in time in the history of NJPW. Okada, in the midst of setting every record under the sun from longest IWGP heavyweight championship reign in the company's history, to the most consecutive successful defenses and more, had been up against many different kinds of opponents in his 10 previous title defenses. There were grudge matches against the likes of Suzuki, Marufuji and Naito, first-time challengers like EVIL, SANADA and Bad Luck Fale, and two transformative matches against Kenny Omega.

But in Sabre, Okada faced a completely different kind of opponent. At a billed 6-foot, 187 pounds, Sabre's long and lanky body and ability to twist opponents into a seemingly endless series of submission holds from almost any position posed a distinctly different kind of challenge. That kind of opportunity and canvas upon which to create something special was not taken lightly by either man, and for nearly 35 minutes, Sabre pushed forward in the biggest match of his career -- bending and twisting Okada to the point where some of the fans inside the Sumo Hall allowed the idea of a shock Sabre win creep into their mind.

"I felt like there were times in that match when the fans genuinely thought that I was capable of winning, so that fulfillment is only more inspiring and motivating," said Sabre. "I feel if I was able to get, able to control an audience after one month of a push, then I really envision myself being there for a long time, for the majority of my career -- so I'm excited. I feel like the possibilities are endless now. I think I can hopefully wrestle Okada for many more years.

"To have that faith, I've only been with them for a year," Sabre continued, speaking about the opportunity given to him by NJPW. "I was a junior in a smaller company before. I couldn't ask for more faith [from] the company, really. And there's so much room to grow. I feel like I'm so far away from plateauing -- there's still so much more to grow as a performer."

Sabre finds himself in such a coveted position because of the amalgamation of all his experiences. So how did he get here?

In the first few years of his career, Sabre worked his way around a U.K. wrestling scene that was a long ways removed from the classic World of Sport days, and still years away from the boom period that's hit in recent years.

As Sabre started to get some buzz for his technical style (and in part, his unique look), he started to cross paths with more and more familiar names -- wrestlers like Sami Zayn (then El Generico), Aleister Black (then Tommy End) and, perhaps most importantly, two matches against fellow technical dynamo Daniel Bryan. He expanded his reach to Germany and throughout Europe and then, in March 2010, made his first trip over to the United States as part of a tour with German company wXw.

"I don't know if you've seen me from 2010 -- boofhead, emo cut and terrible blue biker shorts," said Sabre. "I wrestled TJP and he was already so slick and at such a good level that it made me think about how much I needed to progress."

As he'd done at each step of his evolution, stepping into the ring with more experienced opponents helped Sabre push himself harder domestically. He spent the next year traveling all over Europe, seeking out the best opportunities and opponents he could find. One year later, he returned for another wXw tour -- but this time, Sabre was ready to get the full experience of what the U.S. independent scene was like in 2011.

After appearing for companies like EVOLVE, CHIKARA and CZW on the East Coast, Sabre ventured to locations few British wrestlers had ever deemed worthy of visiting.

"That experience in the States really threw me in the deep end. I was doing a bunch of indies, I was traveling with a bunch of different guys," recalled Sabre. "I did a trip with Jon Moxley -- Dean Ambrose -- from Philly to Ohio one night. I did Ohio, Nebraska, I did all these things in front of crowds that didn't really know who I was and didn't really care. I loved it."

There would be many more North American trips in Sabre's future, but his long-awaited ticket to Japan arrived as soon as he got back to England. After a dark match during a Pro Wrestling NOAH U.K. tour in 2008, and a few matches against some of their bigger names over the years, Sabre elected to join NOAH and throw himself into a new adventure entirely.

"New Japan was my primary goal, but as I grew to learn more about Japanese wrestling, it was about getting into a reputable company," said Sabre. "I wanted to get into a dojo."

For more than four years, Sabre made NOAH his primary focus while maintaining a fairly regular presence in the U.K. and Europe. He went more than three years without performing in the United States, but between his immersion in Japanese wrestling and the blossoming of the U.K. scene, he had all the opportunities to improve that he could ever ask for.

Although he was largely viewed as a junior heavyweight in NOAH, where he became a two-time GHC junior tag team champion, Sabre was wrestling against the top wrestlers in the world. He won several other tag team titles in the U.K., and challenged for a number of singles titles in both Japan and throughout Europe, but his success at this point in his career was not measured in gold.

This period played a key part in Sabre developing his antagonistic personality in the ring, which he'd continue to sharpen in the years that followed. By mid-2014, Sabre had pieced together that his submission-based style needed something to back it up if he was going to step up to the highest levels of pro wrestling.

"I think I figured out I'm at my best when I'm a knob, a bit of a d---," said Sabre. "I think naturally, being someone who is presented as very skilled in a minimal-type style, you need to have something alongside that. Arrogance and a bit of ego encourages a crowd to get behind my opponent, and hopefully a lot of my stuff looks painful.

"Technical wrestling is very minimal, so I think the tools that we have to be able to evoke reactions are different," Sabre said. "Minoru Suzuki is very good with that. If you do something very visual, like a dive to the outside or a move off the top rope, it's already very visceral. It's very out in the open, so it's been about trying to find ways to make holding someone's leg bigger. I'd say a balance between both."

In late August and early September 2014, Sabre made his long-awaited return to the United States -- and started relationships with two North American companies that would come to define the next four years of his career. He took part in the 2014 Battle of Los Angeles with Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, and then returned to EVOLVE a few weeks later. Within a year Sabre was vying for titles with both companies, and he'd ultimately go on to win PWG BOLA in 2015.

In January 2016, less than two weeks before AJ Styles left for the WWE, Sabre defeated him to become RevPro British heavyweight champion. That March, Sabre took the PWG world heavyweight championship from Roderick Strong, and then won the wXw 16 Carat Gold tournament just one week later.

"I wear being an independent wrestler with real pride. I think the people in my position that get to travel all over the world -- the top companies -- this is the modern territories now."" Zack Sabre Jr.

After winding down his time in NOAH, Sabre traded the RevPro title with Katsuyori Shibata, losing it in England only to win it back in his NJPW debut in March 2017. Just weeks earlier, he'd defeated Timothy Thatcher to become EVOLVE champion -- bringing in an era in which he gained the highly literal nickname "Zacky Three Belts".

It was in the midst of all this success on multiple continents that the WWE came calling in the summer of 2016. As part of the first-ever cruiserweight classic, Sabre faced off with the likes of Tyson Dux, Drew Gulak and Noam Dar on his way to the semifinals, before ultimately losing to Gran Metalik.

Though many of the tournament participants ended up signing WWE contracts, the timing and the circumstances simply didn't suit Zack Sabre Jr.

"I think people might presume that because I'm not with WWE now that my experience was negative with them," said Sabre. "Far from it -- it was very positive -- but I had envisioned how my career would go as a kid and it didn't involve WWE. Having that taste of it, even though it was very, very enjoyable and I think I would learn a lot from that environment. ... I really think the presentation of indie wrestling, and New Japan [in particular], that's best suited to me. Perhaps one day.

"I wear being an independent wrestler with real pride," Sabre continued. "I think the people in my position that get to travel all over the world -- the top companies -- this is the modern territories now."

Over this stretch, Sabre and the companies he represented as world champion flourished. He spent a combined 695 days as Rev Pro British heavyweight champion, 489 days as PWG world heavyweight champion and well over a year as EVOLVE champion.

"Zack gave us a foundation to build on during his 404 days as champion," said Gabe Sapolsky, VP of talent relations, creative and marketing for WWN, EVOLVE's parent company. "The fans knew when they saw Zack Sabre Jr. defend the EVOLVE Championship in the main event that they would get their money's worth right there. He put EVOLVE on his back and rose to the role of champion. He made his opponents in every title defense. Whether it was Jaka or Matt Riddle or Darby Allin or Keith Lee or Timothy Thatcher or anyone else, his opponents always looked good even when they didn't win. He helped build what we are and he helped set us up for the future."

As the saying goes, iron sharpens iron. Between EVOLVE, PWG, RevPro, his growing role within Suzuki-Gun for NJPW and all of the other companies he performed for, Sabre had once again found himself in as ideal a state as he could ever hope for.

But as was the case earlier in Sabre's career, stasis doesn't suit him. Even with all of the opportunities afforded to him, the dream matches he was able to have and the increased visibility he enjoyed in North America, Sabre's ultimate goal was a full-time run as one of the stars of New Japan Pro Wrestling. He dropped the PWG championship in July 2017 to Chuck Taylor, and then, in a matter of a couple of days during WrestleMania weekend in New Orleans, lost the EVOLVE title to Riddle and the RevPro British heavyweight championship to NJPW's Tomohiro Ishii.

In the aftermath of that weekend, Sabre announced he was stepping away from EVOLVE as he looks towards a more full-time schedule with NJPW. He's remained involved with several U.K. independents in the meantime, as Sabre is currently a RevPro tag team champion with Suzuki and won PROGRESS' Super Strong Style 16 tournament in early May.

Although it appears he's off for now, he's left an indelible mark on the North American independent scene, and in turn, it's made a tremendous impact on his own career. EVOLVE's upcoming events on Saturday and Sunday in Chicago and Detroit, respectively, will be the first such shows without Sabre's presence in over two years -- but his run on top will continue to have an effect on the future of that company for years to come.

"At EVOLVE 7, Zack was a skinny youngster who did some cool British-style wrestling and seemed like he had potential," said Sapolsky. "When he lost the EVOLVE Title at EVOLVE 102, he was a well-rounded wrestler with charisma, personality and the ability to be the face of a promotion."

Even at 30 years old, Sabre is now one of the elder statesmen in the British wrestling scene. Although he's committed to building up his legacy in New Japan, he still feels a certain responsibilities as one of the founding fathers of a movement that now has at least more than a dozen independent companies operating within the U.K.

As he continues to pursue his own dreams, Sabre hopes he can do whatever is in his power to help push others forward.

"I hope if someone sees Zack Sabre Jr., they think 'Oh I'd like to watch more of his matches. Oh, here's PROGRESS, and Rev Pro,'" Sabre said. "By no means am I an oracle or genius, but I like being on the U.K. shows too. If I can help in some way, as someone that has learned the hard way, I can advise other people.

"If someone isn't aware of Rev Pro, likes the idea of one of my matches, they're guaranteed to enjoy the rest of the show. I want to balance my own personal enjoyment of traveling and pushing it that way, I want to try to remain as big a part of the scene as I can."