EVOLVE 38 was an odd one. It was initially slipped onto the World Wrestling Network schedule in mid-February, a surprising (but welcome) move just weeks before the big series of shows lined up for WrestleMania weekend. With only a few weeks to put a card together it looked like the show may not be up to the company's usual quality, despite the intriguing announcement of a Roderick Strong v Drew Galloway cage match. But it wasn't a lack of enticing matches that EVOLVE 38 with, it was a stream of talent announcements.
The initial talent list featured Trent Baretta of the Premier Athlete Brand. On February 27 it was announced he'd pulled himself (other accounts claim he was pulled) because he'd been offered a spot as Rocky Romero's new tag partner in Ring of Honor. Perhaps to rub salt in the wound he tweeted pictures from a concert the night before the EVOLVE show.
This left Gabe Sapolsky in a tough spot. Baretta had been one of his most reliable wrestlers (from an in-ring perspective at least) and had been announced as the opponent of AR Fox. Without Baretta one of Sapolsky's favourites was left with no one to wrestle. He came up trumps when he signed Davey Richards but that necessitated another line-up change because Richards' last EVOLVE match had been opposite 'The Whole Foxin' Show'. Fox was switched to a bout with Matt Cage and Richards was announced as the new opponent for Anthony Nese. Ironic, considering Richards was on the show to replace Nese's former PAB teammate.
One final wrinkle came when PJ Black was announced for the show on Saturday. Yes, one night before the show took place. Such a late addition was presumably out of Sapolsky's control and due to negotiations despite it matching his established booking style: he would have been foolish to turn down an earlier than expected debut from Black. But it was still yet another line-up change for the card. It would be the last. Caleb Konley v Biff Busick was cancelled to make way for Konley v Black, Busick being tucked into a fresh match against Martin Stone (a low key addition to the card).
It took a long time coming together but the final EVOLVE 38 show featured a good list of matches. It boasted all new pairings outside of the Strong v Galloway main event and that had its own unique appeal by being a cage match, the first in EVOLVE history. Pleasingly it was as good in practice as it looked on paper and provided the WWN crew with a nice lead-in to their busiest stretch of the year.
The show got underway with Martin Stone v Biff Busick. Other than the wearisome references made to London and England made by the commentary duo of Trevin Adams and Rob Naylor the match was perfectly serviceable. Stone did nothing to make it clear why he was booked but he didn't embarrass himself. The match ended quickly with a rear naked choke in order to protect Busick's number one ranking status. Looking competitive against a late addition like Stone could have undone some of the work that's been done building him up.
Match two pitted the debuting Bill Carr (a name so generic it was once a joke on I'm Alan Partridge) and Dan Barry, collectively known as Team Tremendous, against Larry Dallas's team of Earl Cooter and Jody Kristofferson. I was a fan of Dallas's lads on WWN's China shows so I was pleased to see them introduced to EVOLVE. It was another solid match. Carr, a big lad, had some cruiserweight spots to draw and Barry seemed proficient. Both teams had some strong double team moves too, Barry and Carr using an Electric Chair-Sliced Bread combo to get the surprise win. I'd expected Cooter and Kristofferson to go over as they had a history with the company. Presumably this means more Team Tremendous.
The debuts continued in match three. Newcomer Matt Cage entered wearing a track suit to some excellent music. First ever EVOLVE champion AR Fox entered wearing his weird Marty McFly-in-the-future-hat to his standard, non-excellent music. Within seconds of the match starting the two were exchanging dives out of the ring. They did that for several minutes before heading back into the ring, briefly slowing down for a breather, and going at one another with strikes, dives and double stomps.
Fox busted out an Ace Crusher only for Cage to kick out and respond with a butterfly power bomb and the katahajime. Fox fought out by running Cage back into a turnbuckle and got a long two count off a springboard 450 splash. Another springboard attempt backfired when Cage caught 'The Whole Foxin' Show' in mid-air with a Codebreaker. Fox survived that, blasted Cage with a corner yakuza kick, a couple of super kicks, Low Mein Pain and a 450 splash for the win. The bevy of moves used to put Cage away seemed designed to keep Cage looking strong in defeat (because Fox and Cage are old pals). Cage was the non-former-WWE newcomer to EVOLVE that I'd most like to see make a return visit.
A promo, rare in EVOLVE outside of the post-main event slot, followed that. Drew Gulak said modern wrestlers are more concerned with impressing people than figuring out how to win matches. He revealed his strategy for facing Hero (he'd break him down and pick him apart - insightful stuff) and then called him out to the ring. Hero, who's still sporting the chunky physique he picked up with his "bad back" last summer, entered in a distinctly face-like fashion, a departure from his last appearance at EVOLVE 33 where he went full on heel.
Having twenty minutes to play with they built the match slowly. After starting out with some mat-based locks Hero got frustrated and started striking. Gulak replied in kind. Elbows and knees became the norm from then on, both in and out of the ring. Things gradually escalated as various suplexes were dished out with increasing frequency before the two went back to striking in the form of hard slaps. The finish came out of nowhere: Hero simply picked a dazed Gulak up and Tombstoned him for the win.
After the match Hero put Gulak over as tough then went all bad guy and said him he was too out of it to know where he was. After reiterating that other wrestlers have to earn the right to say his name (the topic that got him so het up at EVOLVE 33) Hero found himself confronted by Biff Busick. Hero threw the injured Gulak into Busick then tried to cheap shot him. Busick fought him off and tried to apply the rear naked choke but Hero ran off through the crowd. Sadly he wasn't shown exiting through a random door. The use of Hero here was excellent.
Busick then helped Gulak to his feet and gave him a pally pat on the back. During the tag match Naylor and Adams had talked about the WWN tag division being in flux and requiring new teams. I suspect that's where Gulak and Busick are headed. To be honest far worse could be done with them.
Caleb Konley, sporting a new beard and a fresh haircut, was accompanied by Anthony Nese for his match opposite PJ Black (formerly WWE Superstar™ Justin Gabriel, obvs). They started out with some speedy rope running and headlock exchanges. It didn't take long to progress to more: they slipped out of the ring for Konley to take a tornado DDT before he took a super kick while performing the McGuinness corner headstand. After a trio of suicide dives from Black, Konley finally took the initiative when he hit the second mid-air Codebreaker of the night a Black springboarded into the ring. Back took a jumping yakuza kick, a back elbow and spinning back fist. Konley missed a springboard moonsault and Black responded by connecting with a top rope springboard moonsault.
Konley got a top rope hurricanrana. Black rolled through into a sunset flip-like pin for a two count. 'The Obsession' got a two count of his own with a fireman's carry into a Michinoku driver (once known as a One Night Stand) and a second with a version of the Liger bomb. Konley tried a superplex but Black fought him off and hung his opponent throat-first on the top rope. That stunned Konley and sent him sprawling down to the mat in position for a springboard 450 splash. PJ Black picked up his first EVOLVE win.
The Premier Athlete lads went to attack but Black escaped. Nese then cut a promo about how he has the best 450 splash in wrestling. Black stood in the aisle smiling then left as Nese called for Davey Richards. The crowd were pleased to see Richards, a significant difference to the hostility he received at EVOLVE 25 when he fell to AR Fox. I imagine this was a nice experience for Richards. I would have booed him had I been there though. Heckling Davey Richards is one of life's greatest pleasures.
They had a very, very good match. The early going saw Richards wrap up Nese with some submission holds and Nese heckling the crowd about his (admittedly impressive) abs. Outside the ring Nese took Richards' punt kick from the apron before managing to make him laugh by trying to escape into the crowd. The laughter continued when Richards did his knowingly terrible Rick Rude hip gyration. Nese survived a Haas of Pain then took Davey to the outside to give him a suicide dive, some loud chops, and throw him into crowd barricades and a girder.
Nese controlled the pace back in the ring until Richards got his knees up on a springboard moonsault attempt. Nese took a handspring enziguri and a super kick before attempting a superplex. Davey fought his way free of that but couldn't avoid being scooped into a fireman's carry and dropped into an Ace Crusher by Nese. That earned 'The Premier Athlete' a two count.
Richards went for a double stomp. Nese avoided then hit the move himself. Richards gave Nese some mid-section kicks, following up with an alarm clock and a lariat. Nese floored the Wolf with a drop kick before hitting his one arm buckle bomb. Richards avoided a 450 splash, scrabbling to his feet to boot Nese in the face and give him a top rope double stomp. Nese kicked out. Richards kicked him in the temple. Nese kicked out again. Richards locked in an over the head single leg crab for the tap out win just after the twenty-one minute mark. This was an ideal semi-main event: they put on a really good match but didn't overshadow the headlining acts.
Much has been made elsewhere of the technical issues presented by the cage. It took too long to set up. The door hung open. It wasn't fixed to the ring properly. I thought it was fine. It did the most important thing and stood up to two grown men being thrown into it. Watching on demand rather than streaming live I wasn't kept waiting long enough to become irritated. Would this have been different if I'd watched live? Possibly, although I understand that fixing a steel cage to a wrestling ring is not a quick process and I would have been happy to wait a fair old while.
I mention this because I want to make it clear that the use of a cage was a good thing. It's obviously not something that could or should be done by the league with any great degree of regularity but as an infrequent treat it's worth the wait. It really added something to the already vicious Strong versus Galloway feud. They made good use of what the cage allowed them to do. In addition to the usual assortment of backbreakers, big boots and stiffness usual from these two they implemented the regular cage-based offense before Galloway did a blade job and got battered by running knees against the cage.
This led to the finish, referee stoppage in favour of Strong. It was peculiar for what is essentially an anything goes, must-be-a-winner environment but it accomplished what it set out to, namely putting Roddy over and making Galloway and his championship reign look vulnerable for the first time in EVOLVE.
After the match PJ Black turned up to chase off Strong then challenged Galloway to make their match in San Jose a title match. Galloway accepted and then talked about how grateful he is for the opportunities he's had since being let go by WWE. He also did a lot of swearing and made the bold declaration that he only wants one championship in EVOLVE, throwing out the challenge for Johnny Gargano to face him in a unification match at WrestleMania weekend. WWN email updates since have intimated the unification bout will happen if Galloway and Gargano have their respective straps come the Mercury Rising supershow. The wording made it seem like a title change beforehand is possible, and that would be a very Sapolsky thing to do, but ultimately I think the unification match will happen.
All told EVOLVE 38 was a strong show. That it was so enjoyable without the involvement of stalwarts such as Johnny Gargano, Ricochet, Rich Swann, and Uhaa Nation (and, for that matter, Trent Baretta) shows that the group is more than a one star company, which is a very good thing in 2015. A strong roster is what modern pro wrestling fans want, not a weak card with two or three heavy hitters at the top (I'm looking at you, WWE). Based on what we saw here the WWN Live events at the end of the month (see here for details on them) should be real treats.
Results summary:Biff Busick defeated Martin Stone
Team Tremendous defeated Earl Cooter and Jody Kristofferson
AR Fox defeated Matt Cage
Chris Hero defeated Drew Gulak
PJ Black defeated Caleb Konley
Davey Richards defeated Anthony Nese
Roderick Strong defeated Drew Galloway by referee stoppage