This past weekend in Corona, NY and Melrose, MA, the super-indie Evolve took its first steps into a new format, and it (mostly) paid off. If you want the match-by-match breakdowns, Cageside Seats has you covered (96 recap, 97 recap). But if you'd like some more extrapolation about this new evolution, that's where I'm looking to help, as someone who attended Saturday's show in New York, and watched the iPPV of the Sunday show.
Catch Point turning?
I might be reading too much into this, but as I finished Evolve 97, I couldn't think about anything other than how Catch Point might be turning face.
Entering the weekend, things seemed like we'd be talking about The End, but everything continues to feel like the new invading force from Full Impact Pro (another brand belonging to WWN, the parent company of Evolve) is being used in service of Chris Dickinson and Jaka's trajectory towards being anti-heroes.
I was no fan of how the crowd in NYC cheered on The End (Odinson, Parrow and Drennen) when that team invaded during the tag titles match on Saturday, but that may have been more about the structure than the booking. Did the audience chant "THIS IS AWESOME" when Parrow and Odinson rocked Jaka and Henry with a super-collider because they liked the heels, or because the match wasn't connecting?
Either way, I believe Evolve wants The End to be heels, or at least that's the vibe I get from this video:
So, if that's true the run-ins from The End on both nights look in service of creating opportunities for Chris Dickinson (who isn't wrestling for barely-explained reasons) to save his guys, and repeatedly get thunderous reactions. I don't know if the Catch Point faction will turn face, but between the Filthy Father fighting like a man possessed and Jaka getting dissected by The End, something is afoot.
Large lads wrestling update: Better, faster, more emotive
Last time I saw the Viennese Gawd they call WALTER was early in September at BOLA, and I have to say it's pretty impressive how he's continuing to improve. That running big boot of his is insane, and somehow his chops are getting even louder. Add that up to how he's looking more svelte than ever, and this guy is a world-beater.
That was all showcased in WALTER vs Keith Lee on Saturday (a BOLA 2017 rematch), where everything from both giants seemed crisper. The pacing of Keith Lee's matches continues to allow him to stand out from the pack, as he starts things off slowly, allowing a tempo to build and rise. Also, Lee's in-ring dialogue and ad-libs are continuing to add dimensionality to his performance.
One more thing: is Evolve getting a darker side of WALTER now that he turned on Riddle? Considering Evolve is bringing WALTER's Ring Kampf partner Tim Thatcher back in January ... I'm quite excited.
Three more matches, slightly mixed results
So, this is a tale of two nights. Going into this weekend, Evolve promoted its events with the motto "The New Chapter Starts" and talk of rising stars and a revised format, where each card begins with three preliminary matches.
After the first night, the concept of adding three matches (each with a 10-minute time limit) featuring talent looking to jump onto the Evolve roster seemed to work.
The standout of the first three was the tag match set in the middle, which allowed Kyle The Beast and Shane "The Iron Demon" Mercer to impress the attending crowd with excellent tempo and offense. Mercer won the match with what I believe was a moonsault/powerslam combo that melted my brain. According to ReverendKain, it's "Moonsault & Battery." This pair made it to the main card the second night, so the "prelim process" seems to be working for them.
The rest of the matches that night were OK, but nothing too astounding. The second night was the opposite. I'm not going to be mean or anything because I'm not going to call people out for attempting things I couldn't ever do, but those matches need to be a bit crisper or else Evolve's risking looking like the indies it's supposed to be above.
Jarek 1:20's slipped from the main card of previous shows down to the prelims, but continues to be a heat-machine, and further embraced the magician gimmick since previous Evolve shows, adding Candy Cartwright (who you may have seen in WWN's SHINE promotion) as his assistant. On night 2, Jason Kincaid came down to the prelim bouts-tier with Jarek. Can't figure out why that is, maybe because of Kincaid's bizarre promo from Evolve 96 not connecting.
But Evolve's intermission needs an adjustment
Normally, a match featuring Jaka and "Hot Sauce" Williams vs The Workhorsemen (Anthony Henry and James "not the one seen in Progress and WWE" Drake) would get a decent amount of enthusiasm from the audience. On Saturday, that didn't happen, as the audience was silent for a lot of the match, which was preceded by an intermission, another tweak made to the Evolve program. This problem re-inserted itself on Sunday, with Austin Theory vs Fred Yehi also not getting the audience love they should have.
Progress gets away with intermissions by having Jim Smallman do a little mic work to wake the people back up. In this case of Saturday, I'd say give Stokely Hathaway (or "Stoke" as he claims he should be called) the mic for a couple of minutes, as nobody gets a crowd invested in an Evolve match like he does. For Sunday, maybe that match should have gone at another spot, as neither wrestler does a lot on the mic and neither does Theory's accomplice Priscilla Kelly.
I get why the intermission is a thing now — give the audience a break since you're adding 3 matches up front — but you can't just add an intermission and expect things to work.
Proven Theory; departing Yehi?
It felt like a given that Theory would win since I can't even remember when anyone has defended the FIP title before on Evolve, Theory is ascending, and Yehi may be WWE-bound soon enough.
That was a loosely updated version of the tweet I posted as the match was starting, and I have to admit I never thought otherwise during the match. Hope that some good comes of this switch, and that if Fred goes to Full Sail, that he kicks some ass over there.
Not sure if Evolve needed a third singles championship, for a promotion that ... well. ... hasn't had a show since August according to CageMatch.
Oh, and one little note about Yehi from his match with Matt Riddle on Saturday: it felt surreal when the crowd popped as loudly for Yehi taking his shoes off (at Riddle's behest) as any other point in the night. The moment was followed by a "NO SHOES" chant.
AR Fox's posse is great
At first glance, I was extremely worried about AR Fox hitting the ring with a crew of youngsters who look like they were told "go out there and be as street as possible." Pro wrestling always has a hard time handling characters of the urban variety, and I was worried that they were not acting of their own agency and just window-dressing, but, fortunately, I was wrong.
The crew — who come from the AA4W school where Fox works as a trainer — don't seem to have much definition outside of Ayla, but they were awesomely entertaining over the span of the weekend. Not only did they give us that amazing moment of catching a flying AR Fox and parading around with him on Sunday, but the sight of Keith Lee demolishing them on Saturday was fantastic.
And if you want more reason to have faith? At Beyond Wrestling: Cold Brew (which aired on WWNLive.com on Sunday afternoon) Fox's crew was more active, and impressed some in the audience by "doing flippy shit in timbs" which might be a first.
New challengers appear for champions ...
Based on the events of this past weekend, both Evolve champ Zack Sabre Jr. and WWN champ Keith Lee have new challengers, possibly for next month's shows in New York.
Keith Lee's likely to be facing AR Fox, who called the shot at the end of Evolve 96. Trying to carve out the EGOT of WWN, having been a DragonGate USA tag champion, a Style Battle winner, and the first-ever Evolve Champion, he's in a predicament that I don't exactly see him winning. Too soon in Keith Lee's run to drop the title already.
And Zacky One Belt is going to be getting a challenge from Darby Allin in the near future, as the daredevil won the right to name a match of his choice, pinning Hot Sauce in the High Stakes triple threat on Sunday. After months of Darby's promos teasing his desire to defeat Sabre Jr. for the title, it was no shock to see his intentions formalized in this tweet:
The NEW #1 contender for the EVOLVE Championship, @DarbyAllin! #EVOLVE97 pic.twitter.com/xozkQ0xj3N— EVOLVE Wrestling (@WWNEVOLVE) December 11, 2017
From everything I've heard (whispers and rumors and promos), this actually seems like it could lead to a title change.
Go to the shows
Since William Regal (who was advertised for Evolve 96) can't appear on iPPVs (according to a WWN official I spoke to on Saturday), only the crowd at the Elmcor in Corona, Queens, NY got to see the WWE talent scout and NXT GM praise Darby Allin and Austin Theory for their match that night, and tell them they need to win a title to stay on the radar of those who matter.
This neat little moment was excellent for a few reasons. First, William Regal brings a charming presence wherever he goes. Second, it foreshadowed the stories for both Allin and Theory. And lastly: Regal was doing meet & greets at the event, and take it from this mark who paid get a photo with him and exchange some words with the legend: he has an amazingly kind spirit.
Small tweaks, not all great
I bet Evolve management has been watching a lot of New Japan lately, or at least I hope so. Why do I say this? After multiple matches — enough to be a pattern — staff rushed to the ring carrying ice packs. It's a great touch, seen often in NJPW and in combat sports, to sell the idea of the work in the ring.
The other little change? Evolve's Lenny Leonard and Ron Niemi both now wear WWN-branded polo-shirts to the ring. Not sure whose idea this was, but either those shirts need a re-design or the gents need to go back to the formal-wear.
Oh, and one more thing:
Evolve should not return to the Elmcor
Let's start at the obvious problem that everyone in attendance could see: Evolve couldn't sell out this venue. That may not be the biggest issue, though, as I'm sure this place is dirt-cheap to book.
Second off: the Elmcor doesn't offer the intimate viewing angles of La Boom, Evolve's typical home base in NYC, which was reportedly booked by a lucha libre promotion that night.
Third: it's much deeper into Queens than La Boom, and thus requires a lot more effort to get to. Unless you're driving there, this probably adds a subway transfer and a long walk, which is no fun on a cold winter night.
Fourth, and arguably most important: it's still not a proper event venue. Just as its AC proved vastly insufficient for Progress NYC (ask all the people who got sick — including the people who passed out — about how it was too hot in there), this time, it proved unable to keep the cold out, with a drafty chill filling the room throughout the night.
And before you say "that's just how it is at indie wrestling shows," I'll say this: Evolve costs more than most shows, and the experience should reflect it. Maybe I'm being a baby and too critical, but both La Boom in Queens and St. Finbar's in Brooklyn (the venues they play on January 13 and 14) are far more accommodating, even though that latin nightclub and church gym aren't built for this kinda thing.
Henry T. Casey is a tech writer for Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag who can be found at @henrytcasey on nearly every social media service. He podcasts about wrestling at The Ring Post, which you can listen without worrying about it being too negative or going over every damn segment on Raw.
Photos: Henry T. Casey.