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The State of Evolve’s Latest Evolution: The View from Front Row at EVOLVE 119, 120

Not every EVOLVE show sends me running for the keyboard to write a post, but EVOLVE 119 and 120 practically forced my hand. Not only did this weekend’s shows feature a returning Johnny Gargano (thanks to EVOLVE’s working relationship with NXT), but these cards (especially 120) were riddled with things that need to be pointed out.

So, from surprises that had me jumping up and down and screaming “FRESHLY SQUEEZED!” to standout moments for rising stars, here are the biggest takeaways from EVOLVE 119 in Brooklyn and EVOLVE 120 in Queens.

EVOLVE can still surprise

If you go to the same promotion over and over again — and I’ve been to every NYC show of their’s since August 2016 — you start to notice some patterns. You get an idea of what — and who — to expect.

Henry T. Casey

Until you get rocked to your core by a freshly squeezed surprise. That’s right, folks, Orange Cassidy, the ace of Beyond Wrestling, the Independent Wrestling Champion, shocked even the most jaded of the La Boom faithful at EVOLVE 120, joining a match with The Skulk’s excellent Leon Ruff and the impressive Curt Stallion.

Sure, Joey Janela’s short-lived stint with WWN should have been evidence that that the company will run with talent that doesn’t fit its mold, but for my dollar, Orange Cassidy’s such a better get.

And Mr. Cassidy was far from watered down. From his jaw-dropping hands-in-his-pants kip-ups to the soft-touch shoulder tackle that always gets a HOLY SHIT chant, this match had some of my favorite OC spots. My completely biased inarguable favorite, though, happened when he did a springboard twisting backflip onto the guardrail in front of me, and just sat there, posing for everyone delighted to take his photo, myself included.

Orange Cassidy is more than ready for his close-up.
Henry T. Casey

While EVOLVE is super-serious at times, the comedic value that Cassidy provided is tremendously valuable, and he’s showing that he’s more than just laughs: he’s ready to risk with the best of them.

An even bigger surprise, on a meta-level, came with the EVOLVE 120 segment where WWN Ambassador Trevin Adams offered Curt Stallion a WWN contract. Typically, the new talent happily accepts the offer and we move on.

Instead, the often-sarcastic Texan was handed his cell phone, and said “Court” was on the line making an offer, which prompted Adams to offer him an extra $50 per appearance. Stallion “hung up” on “Court,” but before he could sign the contract, he got another call from “Joe” — which prompted another $50 bump offer. A third offer came in from “Shibata-san!” Then, with the crowd chanting “CODY! CODY! CODY!” Stallion told Trevin he had another call from “wait, whose name are they saying?” And before Curt could talk into the phone, Trevin promised even more money, which was accepted, and the crowd popped huge. For EVOLVE to start acknowledging the rest of the industry again, even in such a comical way, was seriously amusing.

Curt Stallion on the phone with “Cody”
Henry T. Casey

The overdue future of EVOLVE is finally starting

Slowly, but surely, the all-male roster of EVOLVE has been changing. Whether it was with Priscilla Kelly and Penelope Ford’s shenanigans the night Joey Janela won the EVOLVE title, or how Kelly helped build Theory for this championship run, you couldn’t say EVOLVE was just for men, and this weekend gave us more confirmation.

PK landing a tope suicida on Trish Adora
Henry T. Casey

I don’t write this to argue that EVOLVE needs women’s wrestling the way that some wingdings say NJPW should buy Stardom or something. I write this to say that if EVOLVE wants to be the future of pro wrestling (more on that in a moment), it will need to continue to showcase up-and-coming talent.

And while last month saw Shotzi Blackheart fall to Priscilla Kelly in a strong bout, EVOLVE 119 had its sole women’s match in Kelly vs Trish Adora. And while once-a-weekend isn’t exactly where I’d like to see EVOLVE be, even this slight amount of consistency is a good thing.

But, please, EVOLVE, I know you have SHINE to be a top-to-bottom women’s wrestling card, keep this up, and make it even better next time. In 2019, we’re running out of reasons for an American promotion to be a boy’s club.

EVOLVE is still making stars

Anthony Henry, after defeating AR Fox
Henry T. Casey

The Workhorsemen — WWN Champ JD Drake and FIP Champ Anthony Henry — have been doing great in EVOLVE since their debut at at EVOLVE 88 in Charlotte, NC, but Henry’s been working with a chip on his shoulder. Frustrated by the influx of NXT talent, and displaying an aggravation for a perceived lack of respect from the fans, he spent the recent EVOLVE shows getting his ass handed to him by Kassius Ohno, losing via DQ to Fabian Aichner and getting a no decision against the Street Profits.

And without the matches he had this weekend, you might have thought he’d have reason to be concerned or worried. First off, at 119, Henry and Curt Stallion (who both have a grumpy loner look) had the kind of match that made me want another fistful of rematches, like the Sheamus and Cesaro best of 7 series. But because EVOLVE talent seem to deliver their best performances at their home venue La Boom, Fox vs Henry was the kind of face-melting brilliance that had Henry walking out with the audience’s respect. Not only did both men pull off an insane amount of off the ropes moves, but the kick that won Henry the match rang out like a sniper shot at point-blank range.

PK at Evolve 120
Henry T. Casey

And while Priscilla Kelly may have made headlines for her bloody tampon spot, she’s making waves in EVOLVE. Ever since emerging from a feud with Jason Kincaid in a war for Austin Theory’s soul, she’s gotten better and better on the mic, making impressions in her admittedly limited role. When she took to the ring at the end of EVOLVE 120, to take some revenge on Theory (who’d fired her after winning the title) the crowd popped huge. I look forward to seeing her next matchups in EVOLVE.

Speaking of Theory, while the kid’s still improving — EVOLVE’s last two heel champs were Shane Strickland and Timothy Thatcher, so he’s in deep water — his confidence on the mic and his facial expressions are most definitely as high as the blue chipper’s stock. Even when Theory started the motions of the five-knuckle shuffle, as if to call out John Cena again, it didn’t come across as a kid trying on his dad’s suit, but as a shot across the bow from a guy who seems right up Vince’s alley.

Theory couldn’t put Gargano away.
Henry T. Casey

Also, total credit to Theory for holding his own against Gargano, in EVOLVE 120’s fantastic main event. If I had to say where he could change, though, I’d like a little less of the rest holds and a little more effortless super-athlete stuff. The guy’s gonna earn ire either way, but the latter would fit his character a little better.

Evolve’s A and B show issue remains

The scene before the show at Evolve 119 in Brooklyn.
Henry T. Casey

If you’re not familiar with EVOLVE, and need to decide between seeing them in La Boom and anywhere else (barring the Knights of Columbus Hall in Livonia, MI), select La Boom. It’s the promotion’s home venue, and they knock it out of the house each and every time, to such a great degree that they always overshadow the other show.

Of course, that may not be as easy a decision for March’s shows, when EVOLVE will come to Melrose, MA on Friday night and La Boom on Saturday, as those are pretty far away from each other. I’d always pick La Boom, though, as it’s a great intimate venue with tons of good sight-lines.

Maybe enough people know to pick La Boom, as the Saint Finbar’s Church in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn wasn’t as packed as I expected for Gargano’s return. At that show, he teamed up with fellow EVOLVE veteran AR Fox, as the WWN Icons, against the new breed team of Josh Briggs and Austin Theory. It was a fun match, and included the below feel-great moment, but a lot about EVOLVE 119 felt like setup for 120.

AR Fox and Johnny Gargano high-five, like it was a high school movie ending.
Henry T. Casey

It’s Darby Allin’s time — again

Last, but most certainly not least, let’s talk Darby Allin. If his matches with Fabian Aichner this weekend, where the eternal underdog took the biggest beatings of the show, taught us anything, it’s that the kid is primed to be the EVOLVE champion. I don’t know when you pull the trigger — though April at Mania week seems fitting — but everything feels right, again.

Henry T. Casey

This isn’t the first time it’s felt like Darby was being groomed for the title, as he beat WALTER back in June for crying out loud, but it certainly feels like the right moment. Not only does Kelly’s quest to ruin Theory set up a lot of fun business for Allin (PK’s shoot-husband), but Allin and Theory alone are such an excellent juxtaposition in styles and looks and characters that it almost has to happen between these two.

Evolve’s running two of its next five shows at La Boom, so they’ll have options if they want to run this finally moment at their best venue.

And if you didn’t catch that vibe on your own, Johnny Wrestling scribbled yellow highlighter on the point, talking to Allin in the ring, saying that he saw a bit of himself in the guy, and encouraging him to go for championships just like Johnny, who plans to take Ricochet’s NXT North American Championship in Phoenix.

It takes a roster

THEN: in 2016 Gargano said EVOLVE was Riddle’s.
Henry T. Casey

Gargano’s words of encouragement for Allin were a callback to the above moment at EVOLVE 69 (nice), Johnny’s farewell show back in Sept. 2016. There, we watched Gargano christen Matt Riddle as the new face of the promotion, which he was ... until he got the call-up to NXT.

NOW: Johnny Wrestling thanks a whole roster for letting him visit.
Henry T. Casey

But at EVOLVE 120, Gargano didn’t say the promotion belonged to Allin, instead he called out the locker room, which drew the babyfaces — Priscilla Kelly, AR Fox (with Ayla Fox), JD Drake, Anthony Henry, Joe Gacy, Liam Gray, Leon Ruff, Adrian Alanis and Curt Stallion — to the ring. With this assembly of unlikelys in the ring, Gargano (doing what felt like his best impression of Capt. America christening a New Avengers) said they were the future of pro wrestling.

He then proceeded to rattle off a list of requests, for fans to come back whether he’s there or not (Keith Lee and Matt Riddle said similar sentiments when they had their EVOLVE farewells), and for the future crowd to don AR Fox merch, carry Darby Allin signs and wear Priscilla Kelly shirts.

And if that’s the future of EVOLVE? We’ve got more great nights of graps to come.

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