All the way back in August (no idea how it’s taken so long to get to writing about this) EVOLVE ran a trio of shows in Florida that were marketed as the beginning of the group’s second chapter. Almost a soft, reboot and jumping on point, should you care to think of it that way. It was a good idea. The problems booker Gabe Sapolsky has had getting Dragon Gate guys has resulted in him increasingly relying on the EVOLVE brand name. While EVOLVE shows have rarely been less than satisfying they have also mostly been known as the shows Sapolsky books on which Japanese stars do not appear.
The August weekend was used to make tweaks to the EVOVLE formula and showcase some new names. Chief among the newcomers were Drew Galloway and Matt Sydal, both previously of WWE. The new formula was not explained in depth on any of the three shows, leading me to believe things were being kept vague for some creative wiggle room later (which is fair enough). What we were told, amongst talk of mini-seasons and analogies to college football, was that each set of shows will create a rankings system based on a number of factors (such as wins and losses, quality of opposition, speed and method of victory, and so on) which will determine title contenders and match-ups for the next batch of shows. It seems simple and appealing enough and by all accoutns it seems to be working for them.
EVOLVE 31 kicked off with the first of two Style Battle Tournament matches, pitting Timothy Thatcher against Drew Gulak. It took a while to get going thanks to its lengthy feeling out process but it was good once it built up a little steam. That said it was not the ideal opener. A lively or wild match is what’s needed in the opening spot and this was neither.
Both men worked towards submissions, with Gulak applying the best-looking bow and arrow I’ve ever seen. He would eventually get the submission victory with a grapevine ankle lock.
The second Style Battle match saw Biff Busick defeat newcomer James Raideen, a meaty lad with a straggly mullet from New Zealand. They worked a match stuffed with chops, slaps, big boots, and aggressively applied rest holds. Busick overcame Raideen’s torture rack and impressive lariat and applied a half stranglehold to make Raideen pass out.
Match three was a six man tag pairing Lince Dorado with Dos Ben Dejoes to face The Juicy Product and newcomer to EVOLVE Jesus de Leon. The most notable thing about de Leon is that he was doing a Saiyan gimmick, complete with eye-mounted power scanner. Also worth mentioning is that the Juicy lads had three tag titles each. Among them were the CZW and FIP straps.
It was an action-packed match. Highlights included a hurricanrana from the apron by JT Dunn, a power bomb into de Leon’s knees by David Starr, a twirling DDT by Jay Cruz, a springboard moonsault by Dorado, and a great near fall off a super kick, a German suplex, and a splash by the heel trio. Dorado rolled de Leon up for the win. It should have gone on first. It would have made the ideal opener.
Matt Sydal v Johnny Gargano took a surprising amount of time to get going. Gargano kept things slow to begin with, begging off whenever Sydal began picking up the pace, sometimes slapping on a submission. Notably he put a halt to Sydal’s first high-flying spot of the match. That showed us that Gargano was every bit the equal of the former WWE Superstar™, exactly as it was designed to.
Sydal eventually got rolling with a series of kicks, a headlock bulldog and a standing shooting star press. A series of rollups was followed by a Gargano spike DDT. Sydal escaped a piledriver on the apron but seconds later got caught by a Gargano suicide dive. Sydal countered Gargano's spear with a knee and worked him over with kicks. They exchanged super kicks (Gargano) and jumping spin kicks (Sydal) but neither took the other off his feet.
Gargano power bombed Sydal and lawn darted him into a corner for two. Sydal got a corner lariat but ‘The Whole Shebang’ grabbed a hold of his arm and applied a modified Hurts Donut from the corner. Sydal got leaping top rope hurricanrana and followed up with a top rope SSP to win a top notch match.
Gargano was joined by English wench Joanna Rose after the match. She asked Gargano for a moment of his time. Gargano responded by grabbing the microphone and going on a rant about hating Rich Swann and wanting the Open the Freedom Gate title back. He promised to end Swann for costing him the title (which Swann didn’t really do, but whatevs) and making his life hell (I can't speak for the quality of Gargano's life). Joanna Rose disappeared seconds into this.
The Inner City Machine Guns v Premier Athlete Brand match was announced as a grudge match. That was stretching things. In what would be a theme across the weekend Gargano did a run-in during the Swann and Ricochet entrance and got decked by Swann and escorted backstage. The PAB then jumped the Guns (no pun intended) to get the bout started. It was a good call, ensuring the match started off hot rather than building slowly as three of the four earlier bouts had done.
Nese and Konley controlled Ricochet for a minute or two before he managed a tag to Swann. The faces did some fast paced offence, tagging frequently, and the fans ate it up. A highlight of this portion was a modified Rolling Thunder. That’s always nice to see. Ricochet also did a People's Moonsault, a nice, harmless bit of fun.
Ultimately the Brand lads managed to turn the tide and Nese got in to slow the pace down. Swann was isolated, because he's the smaller man and takes a better beating. Plus it's probably best not to have your top title holder get worked over in a doubles outing unless you’re going to have him pinned to set up a new challenger.
By this point Su Yung was on distraction duty. Ivelisse wandered round to sort her out and even the score. Because that’s what Ivelisse does on EVOLVE shows when she doesn’t have a match, she keeps her peepers glued to Sun Yung. In the ring Swann eventually got the tag to Ricochet after kicking Konley in the face. Ricochet cleaned up with a power slam and a tope to Konley and an ace crusher to Nese. Konley came back with a deadlift German suplex. Ricochet responded to that with a float over northern lights suplex into a deadlift stalling suplex.
Following a pair of tags Nese kneed Swann in the head and power bombed him for two. ‘The King of Swerve’ (that’s Swann, not Vince Russo) hit an inverted suplex and rolled into a dragon sleeper. A series of saves and counters led to all four being down on the mat the audience dutifully applauding. After getting back to their feet Swann and Konley traded blows before the Guns hit a series of double team moves on Nese for two.
After more back and forth Konley wiped out Ricochet by throwing him into some ringside chairs. The Brand then hit a buckle bomb and enziguri combo on Swann, followed by a Konley Death Valley bomb and a Nese 450 splash for the victory in the match of the night.
After the match Nese and Konley gave Su Yung a stern talking to. Swann took a mic and told her not to hang around a “pair of dicks.” She was then invited to party all night long with her. "Hey, babe! Ditch those two needlessly aggressive heels for a babyface chauvinist!" Great message. In fairness Su Yung didn’t look as appalled as she has by this sort of thing in the past, so maybe it worked. Or perhaps it was the beginning of a setup…
The main event saw Drew Galloway face the approximately 350 pound EVOLVE champion Chris Hero. It was originally announced as non-title but Hero changed that before the match. Because Hero’s all about defending titles, yo. They put on a great show, producing an engaging match that kept moving along at a steady pace. They did a bit of everything: starting with chain wrestling and exchanging mat holds before progressing to bigger moves and mixing in some striking and outside of the ring antics.
The finish came after Galloway slipped out of a Death Blow attempt and dropped Hero with a double arm DDT. After the match Galloway told Hero he respected him and requested a handshake. Hero responded by wandering into the crowd and walking out of the front door. Drew then cut a promo that didn't floor me when I first saw it in August and didn't manage it a second time. The fans responded though, and it was the right (pro-EVOLVE and pro-pro wrestling) message to close the show with. So it wasn't completely bad. But I still think Joanna Rose should have been kept from making a contribution.
As the opening night of a three show weekend EVOLVE 31 was very good. Gargano v Sydal and The Premier Athlete Brand v The Inner City Machine Guns were both excellent and the main event was solid. While neither of the first to matches were bad I do think they were hurt by going on so early, which stopped the card from being as satisfying as it could have been.
Results summary:Drew Gulak def Timothy Thatcher
Biff Busick def James Raideen
Dos Ben Dejos and Lince Dorado def The Juicy Product and Jesus de Leon
Matt Sydal def Johnny Gargano
The Premier Athlete Brand def The Inner City Machine Guns
Drew Galloway def Chris Hero to win the EVOLVE championship