EVOLVE kicked off the year with what has become an annual visit to Florida. The first of the weekend’s two shows kicked off with Joanna Rose welcoming us to the Orpheum (WWN’s preferred Florida location) and introducing “new” Open the Freedom Gate champion, Johnny Gargano. She said new even though Gargano had had the title for around a month and a half at this point. Once Gargano arrived she simply handed the microphone over and left the ring. She didn’t even bother interviewing him. I found myself wondering, not for the first time, what she’s paid for.
Gargano wanted to be the guy to kick things off for WWN in 2015 and had asked to be the first man to the ring. He said that as the champion he’s the face of WWN and as such he wanted to be the one to thank everyone in the world that had supported the group in 2014. It was basically a spot of crowd-pleasing platitudes. A nice message but dull to get through.
Gargano’s second topic was more interesting and significant for future EVOLVE shows. EVOLVE, Gragano felt, she be a company young guys go to to prove themselves and earn their way to the top in the ring. He outlined a very Sapolsky-esque sponsorship idea. Basically existing roster members will recommend outside talent to be brought into the company.
Rich Swann came out. After joking about how Gargano's previous title reign sent him loopy (because mental illness is so lol, right?) he referred back to 2010 when he, Gargano and Chuck Taylor formed Ronin because they felt they were being held down. It was a nice touch, highlighting that the sponsorship initiative is not at all out of character for Gargano. Swann said Gargano was meant to defend the Open the Freedom Gate championship against Caleb Konley but he wouldn't because of an injury to Konley’s arm. Then he brought out Shane Strickland as a guy he was endorsing and suggested Gargano wrestle him instead.
Gargano said Ronin was born out of frustration because they didn't get what they felt they were entitled to. He offered Strickland a title shot because of this. Naturally Strickland accepted.
They started out with some mat wrestling, the champion getting the better of the challenger. Strickland’s first notable move was a drop kick, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t that notable at all. Still, it was enough to send Gargano rolling to the outside where he avoided a Strickland dive. Strickland, because he’s a super cool high-flyin’ babyface, landed on his feet and returned to the ring with a frog cross body on ‘The Whole Shebang’.
Strickland tried a springboard but got super kicked by Gargano as he was on the second rope. Then he was hit with a backstabber. The champion applied a modified Haas of Pain. After a few seconds he released the hold and started twisting Strickland’s fingers about instead. After that he hauled him back to his feet and gave him some chops.
Then it was time for that staple of Johnny Gargano matches: the duelling suplexes spot. After that they traded some elbows and Strickland scored an Ace Crusher. Gargano came back with a double stomp to back of head. Strickland scored with a pop-up into a pair of knees. He used his knees again Gargano attempted a belly-to-back suplex, countering out of the move and sending the champ to the outside. Strickland attempted a moonsault off the apron. He landed on his feet when Gargano moved, but he wasn’t quick enough to avoid a super kick or a suicide dive.
Back in the ring Strickland did manage to catch Gargano's DDT, hoisting him up and hitting a twisting brainbuster for a near fall. They traded forearms before Strickland wiped out Gargano with a bicycle kick. Enziguri to Strickland. Roundhouse to Gargano. Strickland charged Gargano in corner and got hit with a knee. He responded with a super kick, a DDT and a phoenix splash for two.
The challenger returned back to the top rope but got knocked down to the apron by Gargano. He springboarded back into ring but was met by a super kick, a lawn dart and the Gargano Escape. He submitted within seconds to end a very strong opener. It was a loss but one that did Strickland a lot of good.
Champion and challenger shook hands after the match. Strickland and Swann(who had remained at ringside) left together before Moose showed up and speared Gargano. Swann returned to make the save. The Bravados appeared and called Moose off. They told Gargano they had a problem with him calling them jerks in China (which happened but was a very minor thing, as you’d expect). They said they were fighting words and they intended to make Gargano pay for them.
Trevor Lee versus a very over Biff Busick was match number two. They had a very competitive, surely designed as something to get Lee over in defeat as he withstood a battering from ‘The Manliest Man’. Lee got plenty of offence in, being given the chance to show what he could do. Busick won via submission with a rough takeover into the rear naked choke. They shook hands afteards.
The Bravado brothers, with Moose, were out next. Both Harlem and Lancelot did lots of slightly uncomfortable close talking into the camera as they wandered around the ring. Harlem reminds me a bit of Miz in his mannerisms. It's hard to argue that that's a good thing.
Their opponents were AR Fox and Uhaa Nation. There was a comedy spot early on with Lancelot trying to barge Uhaa to his feet. He was unable to do it so he did some press-ups instead. Uhaa did some too, moving to the side without missing a bit when Lancelot tried to elbow drop then clapping his hands to avoid arm swipes.
The Bravados took control when Moose distracted the referee. Lancelot threw Fox off the top rope onto the apron then punched him out on the floor. From there it was Fox's turn to be worked over. He took a double suplex and a Bandwagon elbow, a double team move that’s so underwhelming it’s good. Fox managed to connect with a desperation Ace crusher and then tag out.
Uhaa clotheslined Lancelot and hit a few German suplexes on Harlem. He avoided the brother’s assisted enziguri, resulting in the Bravados hitting one another. Uhaa hit an amazing release German suplex on Harlem before following up with a moonsault off the apron onto both brothers. ‘The Whole Foxin’ Show’ got in on the action with Low Mein Rain. Just because.
In the ring Fox hit a Swanton and Uhaa hit a frog splash on Lancelot. He kicked out and gave Uhaa a jumping knee and a release German suplex. Another impressive kick out came seconds later when Harlem survived a double team from the faces: a Gory special by Uhaa with Fox coming off the ropes, rolling across his partner and dropping down to the mat with a DDT.
A lariat and a yakuza kick floored Harlem. Uhaa whipped Fox towards Harlem as he was slumped in the corner. But instead of the predictable collision Fox leapt over the turnbuckle and took out Lancelot (and some lighting equipment) at ringside instead. Fox returned to the ring to join Uhaa in hitting a double team lung blower on Harlem. He kicked out as Lancelot made the save.
Harlem grabbed Uhaa and gave him an exploder into the corner, where he landed on an already dazed Fox. The buckle bomb-enziguri connected on Fox, then Lancelot power bombed Fox onto Uhaa in the corner. The crowd, already excitement, went crazy when Uhaa kicked out of Harlem’s pin attempt.
On his feet Uhaa gorilla pressed Lancelot to begin the Uhaa Combination but got a boot in his face from Harlem. Uhaa gave him a Death Valley driver and a moonsault. Fox followed up with a 450 splash and Uhaa finished things off with a standing shooting star press for the win. It was a cracking match. The Bravados lost but they did plenty to show that they’ve come a long way since their early days in ROH. They’ve become a reliable heel act.
After the match Fox was KOed by moose. A faceoff between ‘The Offensive Line’ and Uhaa allowed the Bravados to sneak in an attack from behind. Moose looked on vacantly as the Bravados gave moose the Gentlemen's Agreement.
Ricochet v Timothy Thatcher was up next. Thatcher was sporting his usual scarf and no kneepads. Ricochet was sporting some rather fetching pink tights. They had a good match pitting Ricochet's speed against Thatcher’s strikes. Thatcher controlled the first several minutes with mat-based offence. He worked over Ricochet’s arm, an odd choice considering Ricochet’s usual ring style. Thatcher’s tactics here can be some up with three words: stomping and stretching. That'd make a good T-shirt for him. Just saying.
Ricochet turned the tables after a Regalplex, a leaping roundhouse and his floatover northern lights suplex. Although he was trapped in the Fujiwara armbar and blasted with various other moves (there was a lovely spot where Thatcher rolled out from under a shooting star press and applied the Fujiwara) Ricochet was pretty much constantly building steam from then on, getting the win with a roundhouse kick and a successful SSP.
Afterwards Ricochet said it was a hell of a fight and the pair shook hands. Thatcher left as Ricochet cut a promo taking issue with Gargano saying he's the face of WWN. His feeling was that he is the face of WWN. He said he’d prove it the following night by winning the EVOLVE championship and becoming the first man to hold that title and the Open the Freedom Gate title (though not at the same time, obvs).
The penultimate offering was a ten minute flash match, which is exactly the same as an iron man match that lasts ten minutes but it has a name that reflects its shorter than average length. The contestants were Anthony Nese and Rich Swann, who had hazily defined issues with one another that may or may not have had something to do with Swann fancying Su Yung, Nese’ secretary (it was never made entirely clear if his feeligns for Su were genuine or a work to rile Nese).
Speaking of Su Yung she accompanied Nese to ringside along with a besuited, sling-sporting Caleb Konley. They were followed out by So Cal Val. She told Nese that his Premier Athlete Brand needed a better quality of assistance and offered her managerial services. Nese took her card. Su Yung was displeased.
Swann was alone for the match. That seemed a bit off considering that he’d sponsored Shane Strickland earlier on the show and hung out at ringside for his championship match. Not that it mattered though: Swann got a pinfall inside the first minute after an axe kick, tumbling splash and a flash (hence the name of the match) rollup.
Nese reeled from that, taking a pasting both in and out of the ring. He eventually turned the tide when he reversed a dragon sleeper into an Emerald Flowsion. He gave Swann a battering but he kept kicking out. Nese grabbed a couple of chair from ringside and hit a Conchairto on Swann's leg. That got him disqualified and put Swann two falls up but also gave Nese a distinct advantage in the closing moment. Nese's plan was to rack up wins on an injured Swann. He got one with a single leg crab but he didn’t make it much further.
Swann fired up and then withstood Nese’s offence until the close of the match. As the clock ticked down Swann went for a Lethal Injection but got caught and buckle bombed by Nese, then trapped in a single leg crab. The time limit expired within seconds, Swann holding on and earning himself a 2-1 victory. It was a good match.
The time limit gave it a different feel to most EVOLVE bouts. I wouldn’t mind seeing it used again. It would be interesting to see what Busick and Thatcher do with the gimmick, for example.
After the match Nese and Yung had words as the Bravados appeared in the ring with Moose. The Brand, outnumbered, backed off. The Bravados teased attacking Swann but were run off by Johnny Gargano. Moose took three chair shots from Gargano and got put down with an Ace crusher on the chair.
Gargano said they should settle their issue the next night. Swann said he'd fly in Chuck Taylor (with frequent flyer miles he earned from his trip to China) for a six man match. Harlem reminded everyone that he and Lancelot had run the Young Bucks out of WWN (which is definitely true and nothing at all to do with the Bucks being a pricey hire) and said they'd do the same to a reformed Ronin. He proposed a losing team must split stip. Gargano's only response was "Ronin is back!" So, for the record, he didn’t actually agree to the splitting up stipulation.
The main event was a non-title match between Drew Galloway and Roderick Strong. It was a rematch from EVOLVE 35, where Strong jumped Galloway and heeled it up before losing their match. Before the bell Roddy said he'd behaved out of character and offered an apology. He wanted Drew to shake his hand and then have a “technical masterpiece” with him. It was classic inflammatory Roddy. Galloway didn't go for it and he was right not to: Strong charged him at the bell. Galloway dropped him with a lariat.
They had a wild, energetic brawl around the building, taking in the bar, the merch stands, and the stage, before heading out onto the street. It reminded me of the late 90s hardcore matches between guys like Road Dogg, Al Snow and Hardcore Holly. Galloway and Roddy are probably the right age to remember those. Maybe it was an intentional homage.
They headed back into the building after a minute or two and worked their way over to the bar. They chopped each other on the bar itself and glugged some drinks. Galloway spat some whiskey (I assume it was whiskey, recognising drinks isn’t really my thing) while Roddy just drank his. Frat boy gimmick, y'know?
It was around ten minutes before they were back in the vicinity of the ring. They didn't get back in though. Oh no. They had to continue their Attitude Era madness with a back drop on the apron. When they did finally enter the ring it was to have a duel with chairs. At that point the referee threw the match out. They carried on brawling though because why not?
Heather Lynn (stupidly) entered the ring to announce the decision. Roddy clutched at her and then threw her into the path of the irate Scotsman as he aimed a boot at Roddy. Lynn took it instead. And she took it like a pro (giggity). Galloway carried her backstage and then returned to the ring to attack Strong. Referees and what Lenny described as "young boys" (really, Lenny?) broke them up. Strong ran out of the building.
Galloway took a microphone and demanded Strong return to finish their fight. Roddy reappeared but only to troll him. Galloway pulled him a pussy then cut a show-closing promo to bring a good card to a close. EVOLVE started the year in exactly the right way.
Results summary:Johnny Gargano defeated Shane Strickland to retain the Open the Freedom Gate championship
Biff Busick defeated Trevor Lee
AR Fox and Uhaa Nation defeated The Bravado Brothers
Ricochet defeated Timothy Thatcher
Rich Swann defeated Anthony Nese 2-1 in a ten minute flash match
Drew Galloway and Roderick Strong wrestled to a no contest