For me, like a lot of wrestling fans who don’t have an interest in MMA, the first time I heard of Matt Riddle was when Monster Factory Pro Wrestling posted a montage-style clip of his debut match against Nick Comoroto. My response (in our very own Daily Thread, c’mon down and hang out sometime) was two-fold, as you can see here—
The first point is obviously a matter of taste, but the second, well... I did very much like seeing him in Evolve, even if he never quite got a chance to wrestle Biff “Oney Lorcan” Busick. He’s been such a blowaway incredible wrestling talent, in fact, that I’ve set out to chronicle his meteoric rise to greatness right in this here article.
In the beginning
Evolve booker Gabe Sapolsky has said himself that the initial thought with Riddle was worst case scenario, he had the UFC credibility, they could give him a couple of wins and then feed him to Evolve World Champion Timothy Thatcher.
So it was that at Evolve 49, Riddle made his debut with a submission victory over Jonathan Gresham. Riddle’s strategy here was entirely grappling-oriented, with some clear nervous tension leading to hesitation, but his natural smoothness was already on display through much of the match. Indeed, the only real low point was a sunset flip reversal sequence that Gresham did incredible work to keep from spiraling out of control. And after the match, Riddle got on the mic and cut an already pretty well developed promo. It was a good start.
And at Evolve 50, he followed up, taking Chris Dickinson out by pinfall with a jumping knee strike. Right out the gate, Riddle went to striking this time, opening his match up some, and found himself working from underneath in a big way following a knockout roundhouse kick from the Dirty Daddy. And he did it well, naturally shaking himself out of it when the time came to finish.
His first weekend in, he acquitted himself well but the matches were short and designed to make him look like a natural. Sure, he held up his end of the bargain, but there was a degree of hesitation, some awkwardness, but the jury was still out.
His Evolve 51 match against Drew Gulak is where the tide begins to turn. Even before the match really kicks in, he’s got an improved aura of confidence about him and when he shoots in to take Gulak down he’s got that UWFi shoot-style “anything could end this at any time” vibe in spades. And “anything” takes a broader spectrum here as well, as Riddle’s arsenal expands to include suplexes and powerbombs for the first time. He’s not perfect, some strikes whiff here and there and the finish (a judo throw off the top into an armbar) isn’t totally synchronized, but it’s at this point, just one day shy of nine months since his debut, that you can really start to see that the Bro is a special performer.
More of the same the next night against Gulak’s protege “Hot Sauce” Tracy Williams. Critically, Hot Sauce is a guy who employs a lot of tightly chained together maneuvers, and Riddle kept up with him every step of the way. The Gulak match, great as his performance was, was still nearly entirely mat-based, but here he has to take more in the way of actual moves and he does it really smoothly. And later in the night, he got his first taste of the long-term angle that has dominated most of his run since, turning on Thatcher in an impromptu tag match and nearly breaking his arm to accept an invite to Catch Point.
The next step, logically enough, was to enroll Riddle in Evolve’s nearly-annual Style Battle tournament, a four-man round robin pitting disciples of different styles of professional wrestling against one another.
First up, at Evolve 53, he had Peter Kaasa, a high flyer if there ever was one. Riddle has some real growing pains here, in particular seemingly being out of position on a corkscrew shooting star press, but he catches Kaasa adeptly on a big dive to the outside early in the match. Here debuts his picture-perfect fisherman buster and finishes with an awesome counter, slipping out of a powerbomb to grab a heel hook.
Up 1-0, his next challenge was the hybrid technician Fred Yehi. Again the Bro finds himself on the defensive, going to Suplex City and bumping hard for it. Whatever shakiness he had against Kaasa is gone and his salesmanship starts to shine, every chop seeming to cave his chest in, judging by the expression on his face.
Coming out for his second match against Williams, both men 2-0, Riddle is greeted for the first time by the now familiar “Bro!” chants. Here his precision is on display, taking a flip bump over the ropes and landing square and smooth outside and catching Hot Sauce with a snug knee as a he dives off the ropes. We see his jumping tombstone piledriver that he gets so much air on for the first time here and he does the crazy Rob Van Dam “bounce three feet in the air off your head” piledriver sell as well. It’s a bigger, badder, better war than their first match by a significant margin and most of that is Riddle’s continuing growth as a performer.
Tap him, or knock him out?
That right there is Riddle’s defining promo, the moment where even folks I speak to who weren’t regularly following Evolve perked up and paid attention.
The match itself is slight but well-executed, questionable decision to end it with a high but legal knee to the inside of the thigh (watch the tape!) and a headbutt aside. Some really tight fast-paced shoot-style grappling on display, and both men mesh really well together. No big evolution to call out, but this is the first time the Bro busts the rolling Karelin lifts out, ostensibly to try and get in Thatcher’s head, but they’ll be a regular part of his moveset from here.
So the Bro knows failure, and he leapt from the frying pan to the fire against Chris Hero, the biggest test of his career in more ways than one. Not only is Hero a nigh-unstoppable juggernaut who seems only capable of losing to men who go on to be Evolve Champion, but he’s one of the best pro wrestlers in the world today, and if you have a bad match with Chris Hero, it says something about you as a performer in that stage of your career.
Fortunately for Deep Waters, he passed both tests with flying colors. Hero’s knockout blows send Riddle reeling and even lead to him coming up empty on what is his first springboard maneuver for Evolve. He fights back but never loses sense that he’s practically had his head caved in before slowly dragging himself back into it, taking it slow with slaps before finally going for the springboard a second time and connecting with the knee. It’s incredible work for a guy with (at this point) just over a year in the wrestling business.
Indeed, the win over Hero and protected loss to Thatcher show that Gabe’s original worst case scenario had gone out the window. Matt Riddle was going to be a main event player in Evolve, and he had the skills to back it up.
The Dallas Trilogy
After an ending like that, a rematch was inevitable. Thatcher/Riddle II at Evolve 58 is much like their first one, a pile of highly enjoyable grappling with a questionable ending. Against Thatcher he gets to dig real deep and bust out some cool stuff, both in terms of grappling technique and more specific holds.Indeed, it’s here that he debuts the twister that he calls Bromission, although he’s not quite able to lock the leg hook in and Thatcher escapes. Dry heaves following some Thatcher knees are also worth shouting out, as well as some excellent near-taps in a Fujiwara armbar sequence.
The following night against Zack Sabre, Jr. the Bro finds himself outmatched as he tries to keep pace with the Technical Wizard’s grappling and escapology and he shows the pain and frustration well. Indeed the joy of this one is based largely around watching Riddle weave in and out of throwing strikes and throws to gain advantage before going back to hold-for-hold against Sabre. And here we see the first successful Bromission finish of his career
Finally, the last match we’re looking at for our retrospective here, Riddle/Williams III at Mercury Rising. Part of why I’m stopping here, above and beyond not wanting to make this a 10-part series (love you, Swift, but I don’t have that in me), is because this is really the final stop on the Bro Train, the point at which, while he’s still got development, still has matches to have where he’ll surprise me with his excellence, he’s come far enough to silence any doubt. For some it was the Gulak match, for some the Hero match, and for some this third match against Hot Sauce, but one of those seems to have done the job for just about everybody.
The match itself is everything you’d hope, escalations from their previous two matches abound. Riddle busts out the obligatory new stuff, debuting the now practically mandatory fakeout dive into the slap on the outside as well as an Alabama Slam into a heel hook and working an extended “caught in the ropes” sequence into a cross armbar, and when’s the last time you saw something like that?
But perhaps most critically is that this is the first of these matches where the crowd is fully 100% behind Riddle, not just welcoming him to “Bro!” chants but modifying the usual “Yay!”/”Boo!” strike exchange chants to be “Bro!”/”No!” Much like California had done for Thatcher at Mercury Rising the year before with their thunderous dueling chants for his match against Chris Hero, Texas gave Riddle a star-making reception, and the final piece of the puzzle locked itself down.
Excellent in the ring, excellent on the mic, beloved of the people.
That’s Matt Riddle, barely 14 months into his career, and in the time since Mercury Rising it’s truer and truer. He is the best rookie in pro wrestling, if not ever, at least since Jun Akiyama had his own excellent early run in All Japan.
He’s continued to be an incredible pro wrestling performer, up to, including, and beyond my personal match of the year 2016 against Timothy Thatcher at Evolve 66. In only a year and a half he has placed himself among the top five wrestlers active today, at least in the (fairly substantial) pool of folks I get a chance to check out regularly.
His matches are a highlight of any card that he’s on, his promos are always on point, and hopefully, if you weren’t on the Bro Train before reading this sloppy awkward internet love letter of mine, you are now.