That was what I had in mind when I sat down to watch EVOLVE 25.
An FIP “world” championship match kicked off the evening. Champion and former WWE low carder Trent Baretta was defending against 'The Premier Athlete' Anthony Nese. The latter is basically an indies version of Chris Masters’ ‘Masterpiece’ gimmick, but done better. It was a match that had been, according to Lenny Leonard, talked about for weeks. I’m sure that is technically true. I’m less sure of the reverential tone that was implied to have accompanied these discussions.
Gabe Sapolsky’s love was ‘Trentylocks’ was as clear as ever during the match’s opening moments when the commentary team lauded him as “perhaps the greatest FIP champ ever.” This is exactly what WWE does with John Cena on a regular basis, but because more people watch WWE, Cena’s been on top longer, and Baretta wrestles a more indy-friendly style few people seem to notice the comparison.
Memorable spots included Baretta getting ripped off the middle turnbuckle and landing hard on the mat, a Death Valley Driver from Nese to Baretta on the apron, and a suplex from Baretta to Nese over the top rope, which saw Baretta go over the rope too. It was impressive and slickly performer but contradicted wrestling logic. There was no reason for Baretta to take the tumble too.
They pumped in a load of very enjoyable false finishes at the finish. Baretta got the win after around twenty-five minutes when he reversed an Okana roll. Being the length it was it was not a traditional opener, which added to the enjoyment of the match. The crowd reacted well to it too. The two shook hands after the match as Leonard put it over as the greatest FIP title match ever. I’ve not seen more than a few FIP title matches but I’d be dubious of that claim.
Baretta cut a promo about having known Nese for ten years and them being the original Dude Busters. He said the 'Premier Athlete' stuff was good but might be missing something. Whether this was hinting at something larger was left ambiguous, a state of affairs that wouldn't last long.
Match two was the five way Fray! match (Gabe loves weird match names) for an Open the Freedom Gate championship match at EVOLVE 27. The rules seemed to be partially inspired by the Royal Rumble. Two men started and the other entrants entered every two minutes, eliminations being made by pinfall, submission or DQ. Last man left in the match would win.
Lince Dorado and Chuck Taylor were the first guys in. They did some fast wrestling with a comedic twinge until Jon Davis entered at three and started using some power moves to slow things down. Entrant four was Caleb Konley. Within a minute of his entrance the spot of the match was performed as Dorado turned a power bomb to the putside from Davis into a moonsault and landing on Konley and Taylor. Davis continued to keep the match slow until Uhaa Nation came out. After a brief pause he clambered into the ring for a face-off with Davis. Before they could have what I assume was a highly anticipated exchange Chucky T slipped in and broke things up. After a flurry of high flying Davis was eliminated by both Dorado and ‘The Kentucky Gentleman’.
Dorado was the second man out after being dropped on his head by Taylor. Konley went out seconds later to an Uhaa Combination, leaving Taylor and Nation as the final two. 'The Kentucky Gentleman' didn't last long. He fell to multiple power bombs within a minute of Dorado dropping. The match was good but surprisingly short. Ultimately that helped it as it allowed for a mostly speedy pace to be maintained. It only dipped when Davis was controlling things. He seemed an odd man to have involved. Nothing else for him to do I suppose.
The Ricochet v Chris Hero dream match followed that. Breaking with the wrestling norm the commentators acknowledged that Hero and 'chet had wrestled once before but that it was long before they'd reached the level they're at now. Honesty on a wrestling show? That's a novelty.
The match started with a handshake and some rasslin' exchanges. There were a lot of takedowns. The point was to show that Ricochet could wrestle as well as fly but that Hero still had an advantage. Things picked up as Ricochet started showboating, provoking Hero to first punch him in the face and then deck him with a big boot. Hero slowed the pace, winding ricochet with jabs and wearing him down with blows and rest holds. The inevitable Ricochet comeback, provoked by some loud trash-talking from Hero, saw the pace pick up.
We got a jawbreaker followed by a spinning heel kick and springboard clothesline but his standing shooting star press was countered with a cravat and then a cravatplex by Hero. Moments later Ricochet found himself shoved off the top rope and into a steel girder holding up the building. Naturally he just made it back into the ring before the twenty count expired, and just as naturally he kicked out of the kick to the head Hero immediately hit him with. What sort of a babyface would go down to that?
Outside the ring Hero tried whipping Rico’ into some chairs but 'The Future of Flight' managed to leap up to the stage then back over to the ring apron where he blasted Hero with a kick. Back in the ring he still couldn't the advantage for long as ‘The Knockout Artist’ smacked him with an elbow for two. Seconds later he survived another. Hero survived a springboard 450 splash and a shooting star press but finally went down to a 630 splash. Hitting all three in succession was a good call. It gave Hero no time to recover, which is how high-fliers should get victories with high-flying moves. A series of heavy impacts that wind their foe.
After the match Ricochet said Johnny Gargano's been ducking him for a long time and challenged him to a title match in New Orleans. That's WrestleMania weekend, obvs.
Hero grabbed a microphone and talked about how he'd been in the ring or on shows with a lot of big names. The point? To remind everyone how much it meant when he said Ricochet is the best athlete he's ever wrestled. He then said that when Ricochet gets his match with Gargano there'll be a new champion crowned. Then he put over the entire locker room as a new generation of big names destined for big things (WWE, basically). That got cheers.
Just as I thought the talking had wrapped up Trent Baretta returned to the ring. He said he "kills it" (presumably speaking metaphorically) on every show he's on and that he won his match while Hero lost his. He also emphatically said he was not mad Hero hadn't mentioned his name when putting over the roster. But, y'know, he was.
Rich Swann and (sigh) The Young Bucks were out next for their six man tag outing against Johnny Gargano and Open the United Gate champions the Bravado Brothers. The first few minutes were slow but it became pretty frantic soon enough. An early stretch of ringside brawling helped there, getting all six guys in on the action and surprising viewers because it’s not something associated with any of them. Or EVOLVE in general for that matter.
This match, the best of the evening, was a perfect example of why ROH were fools to stop using the Bravado boys in 2012. They were good characters and decent wrestlers. They’ve improved, particularly with the wrestling side of things, since then. For the record it was also a good example of why the Bucks are so highly regarded (despite their continued no selling of psychology) and why DG USA is lucky to have exclusive broadcast access to Gargano and Swann. Gargano in particular. He's very good as the braggadocios, self-absorbed bad guy.
Swann and the Bucks won after More Bang for Your Buck on Lance. After the match the Bucks mouthed off about wrestling being their job (the implication being that the Bravados have to work day jobs, more a part of dues paying than anything else I'd have thought) and said they'd regain the Dragon Gate tag belts. Gargano then attacked Swann and the Bucks and Bravados brawled to the back. Roderick Strong then ran in through the crowd to run Gargano off. Uhaa Nation met the champ in the aisle, sending Gargano back into the ring to take some stiff chops and thrown out (again). Another challenge was issued, this one to Gargano from Roddy. You may have picked up on the fact that this was a show heavy on promos.
The fifth and final match was an EVOLVE championship match, AR Fox defending against Davey Richards. The story here was Richards’ history with the company. He was selected to be the centrepiece attraction of the group after Bryan Danielson joined WWE. For one reason or another relationship fell apart and Richards only appeared on one EVOLVE show. He says he was under contract to ROH. Sapolsky says Richards lied constantly about availability and was tricky to work with. Whatever the truth of the matter this understandably led to hostility between the two sides.
Lenny Leonard started by discussing this history. He acknowledged that EVOLVE and Richards both have their own version of what happens. For their part the crowd were split. The history added something to the match that made it feel like a big deal. It would have been good anyway, because Richards is a talented guy and a major name from outside the company, but the history of EVOLVE and 'The Lone Wolf' is one of those rare situations you get in wrestling where the behind the scenes stuff adds to what plays out in front of the cameras.
The match was very good. Fox hit an imploding shooting star, a combination of Sliced Bread Number Two and a moonsault off the apron, his leg drop on to the apron, and a nice array of cutters. Richards impressed with a knee lock in the ropes, stiff-even-by-his-standards kicks and lariats, a reversal into a Tombstone, and the standard selection of double stomps and leg submissions. The finishing sequence was a blizzard of top ropes moves and counters. It was ‘The Whole Foxin’ Show’ who came out on top when he hit Lo Mein Pain.
Richards kept the promo trend alive, grabbing the title belt and a microphone. He mentioned the wrestlers who'd work hard earlier on the show and Chris Hero referencing big names like Bryan, Punk and Joe before saying that those men, Hero, and the EVOLVE roster could all kiss his ass. Just to show that he was seeking boos he threw down the belt, a major heel tactic when Sapolsky’s running things.
‘The Lone Wolf’ then stormed out to strong boos. The sequence worked mainly because it was an inversion of what we've come to expect from wrestlers in these situations. Normally the big visiting star puts the company over. To have Richards trash it fit with the story of him walking out when the promotion was just getting set up. If he were coming back it probably wouldn't have happened. That Richards has signed with TNA turned out to be a positive.
With only five matches EVOLVE 25 may have looked weak beforehand but it turned out to be very good. There were enough men booked to appear for tweaks to have been made to get a six or seven match show but that’s not always what’s best. The Fray! and six man tag bouts were worthy additions to the show. It’s interesting to compare the approach here to the one made with EVOVLE 19. That was a show that featured eight matches. The man in charge disliked it. While I enjoyed that show I’d say this one was better. I’d hazard a guess that Sapolsky preferred this too. Less can be more.