IF PENA WINS, HE GETS A WWN CONTRACT:
Steven Pena vs. Anthony Greene - 5/10
Lenny Leonard described Pena as "a standout in our WWN recruitment camp," which sounds SOOOOO much better than calling it a "seminar." You go to a seminar to learn; you go to a recruitment camp because you're already great and think you have a chance of impressing the bosses and getting signed. I was less happy with him talking about the referee for this match, Jeremy Scott, got this spot by "impressing in the talent seminar held early today by Kassius Ohno." I know that as a shoot refereeing is not an easy thing to do, but within kayfabe, what could Ohno have possibly been impressed by? Maybe the guy had perfect cadence on his counts every time? That's about the only thing I can think of.
Even worse was the whole "pipeline to the next level of NXT and perhaps WWE" bit. It makes all of the WWN promotions seem so secondary, and like they are a step down from WWE. This is not a new problem for EVOLVE, as it is something people have been noting since NXT's involvement began to increase last year, but I do think they have been handling it a little worse recently, and this "pipeline" terminology is a big part of the problem. When the NXT guys came in in October, it was portrayed not as a step down for them, but as a lateral one. They told us that NXT was great... but that WWN was just as great, but different. It was portrayed as a less polished, more rough-and-tumble environment, with a different prevalent wrestling style. We got to see the Street Profits and Fabian Aichner on the mat, trading holds with Anthony Henry, or having brawls with Eddie Kingston, the like so which you rarely see in WWE. They really need to move away from the "pipeline" framing and back towards the "different environment" framing.
As for the match itself, both guys were fine. I've seen Greene several times now, plus saw the EVOLVE mini-doc on him... and I don't get it. He's "Retro" Anthony Greene because he wears a fanny back and a headband and has a retro mustache style. So what? Why am I supposed to care about that? He has wrestled two men this weekend where the framing was that they were in the position that he himself was in just a month ago, needing a victory to earn a WWN contract, and I don't see any difference between him and either of those two opponents. Greene might be marginally less bland than Stephen Wolf or Steven Pena, but as a character he is no less empty. "Retro" isn't a character; it's just kitsch. It's something people cheer for because they think it's fun or funny, not because they give a sh*t about you. If there hadn't been a random balloon on the ceiling for to jump up and grab at Evolve 124, he'd be just another generic indy guy who no one would remember the next day.
HARLEM BRAVADO vs. ADRIAN JAOUDE - 6.75/10
These two got a disappointingly short amount of time, but they did one hell of a job telling their story. Said story started out with Jaoude being cocky and showing he could take Harlem down at will and then letting him go, just to taunt him. At one point he got careless and Harlem managed to kick him in the face. This stunned him for long enough for Harlem to go for a vertical suplex, and while Jaoude did manage to land on his feet, he hurt his knee on the landing. Harlem pounced on the injury and worked it over for a while, but then made a similar mistake to Jaoude's, not following up when he had a chance, and as a result got nailed with a back heel kick out of nowhere and pinned. Jaoude is quickly becoming one of my favorite members of the EVOLVE roster and I'm extremely eager to see him get the chance to have longer matches, while Harlem is the undercard wrestler I care the most about by far right now, as he struggles to work his way up the card but has a great showing every time.
Stephen Wolf vs. Brandon Taggart vs. Juntai vs. Leon Ruff (w/the Skulk) - 4.75/10
This didn't go much more than five minutes, but was very good for the time it got. Taggart is this big, fat, slob who is dressed like he's homeless, but he can still move and had great facial expressions. Ruff picked up the pin on Juntai, so that's two in a row for him.
POST-MATCH SEGMENT - Fine. The rest of the Skulk congratulated Ruff on his victory and sent him to the back. Adrian Alanis then called out Liam Gray for laughing at him after his loss to Babatunde last night and told Gray that he arranged for Gray to face Babatunde tonight.
BABATUNDE vs. LIAM GRAY (w/the Skulk) - no rating, decent squash
Another loss for the Skulk.
POST-MATCH SEGMENT - Fine. The Unwanted attacked the Skulk from behind and beat them up. Kingston cut a promo on Babatunde and he and Gacy teased attacking him but backed down, using the desire to be 100% for their tag title defense later tonight as an excuse.
CURT STALLION vs. ACE PERRY - 7/10
Stallion picked up the win but Perry had a great showing as well. Considering the number of people we've seen in "win this match and earn a contract" matches over the past few months, it'd seem a little ridiculous if Perry hasn't at least earned one of those during EVOLVE's next swing through the Midwest with his showing tonight.
EVOLVE TITLE MATCH:
Austin Theory(c) vs. Nate Webb - 2.75/10
Nate Webb came out and started cutting a promo about how a "higher power" wouldn't stop him and the fans or something like that. The audio wasn't too good so it was hard to understand him. He then led the fans in singing Teenage Dirtbag so I guess the "higher power" comment had to do with a musical rights issue. Austin Theory came out and nailed him from behind with the Evolve Title and demanded that the referee start the match. This got a nearfall, but Webb was up and on top soon after, which I thought squandered a lot of potential for a good underdog story much in the same way Danielson and Corino squandered it at ROH Buffalo Stampede, although with the roles of challenger and champion reversed.
They brawled into the crowd. Unfortunately they first wound up in an area that the cameras were pretty much unable to cover, so we were mostly staring at fans' backs while seeing the wrestlers' heads move. Eventually someone (probably the referee) smartened them up to this so brawled over to a different side of the building where the camera was easily able to follow them, but then they went into another dead area and made things worse by doing one of those "take turns hitting each other from your knees" spots, creating the same problem as before.
Theory hit Webb with a water bottle with the referee right there but this was not a DQ for some reason. Then Webb hit Theory with a chair, and Lenny Leonard had to improvise, claiming that the referee had been instructed to "give some latitude" about the enforcement of the rules. Knowing what the "personal nature" of this feud is that has resulted in this latitude (I'll talk about that at the end because I think it has some interesting implications), this feels completely unwarranted to me, but regardless of whether or not I think it's warranted management clearly does... in which case all I ask is that you tell me that in advance. I should not be asking "why was that not a DQ?" and if I do ask that question, I should not feel like Lenny Leonard's answer is him quickly pulling something out of his ass.
After the water bottle and two chairshots, the fans began to chant "WE WANT TABLES!" because if you give a wrestling crowd a weapon shot, they're going to want a table bump. Can we stop with this f*cking chant and let the wrestlers do the match they have planned? If the Dudleys aren't involved, do don't chant "WE WANT TABLES!"
They teased some moves on the floor and eventually hit a vertical suplex out there, which had to hurt like hell. They eventually made it back to the ring. Webb brought a chair into the ring but the referee took it away. I had no problem with this because it fits into the way that a referee's leeway in these situations has always been portrayed in EVOLVE. If something happens in the heat of the moment, let it happen, but the referee's ultimate goal is to shepherd things back towards the ring in order to get them under control (this is most clearly illustrated in the count-out rule, which is that there are no count-outs, but if the referee feels things are getting out of control, he/she can call for the bell and issue a double-DQ). I don't always like how far they let things go, but at least there is a consistency there.
Having the chair yanked away from him resulted in Webb arguing with the referee, which allowed Theory to recover, and after knocking Webb down with a big punch, Theory grabbed his belt and tried to bail. Unfortunately for Theory, his exit was blocked by Josh Briggs, who chased Theory back to ringside, pointing at Webb and telling Theory "me or him!"
Theory chose Webb and scrambled back into the ring. Webb hit him with a move for a nearfall, then went for Soylent Green but Theory reversed it, hit Ataxia and got the win. This was a relatively miserable Club WWN/Blu-Ray/DVD viewing experience for the large majority of the match, and is by far the worst title match I can remember seeing in the history of this championship, and possibly the worst title match in the history this entire company.
Before we headed to intermission we got a shot of a disappointed Nate Webb, who Lenny Leonard told us was hoping to "teach a lesson to not just Austin Theory but also to EVOLVE officials" by winning the title tonight. This could be a line intended to set Webb up as a recruit for The Unwanted, but it's also something that plays into the possible implications of the Webb/Theory issue that I mentioned earlier, so let's talk about that for a moment.
BRM CONSIDERS SOME VERY INTERESTING META-IMPLICATIONS ABOUT THE STATE OF EVOLVE AND IT'S RELATIONSHIP TO THE WWE - Apparently the big "personal issue" that led to this match was that Nate Webb and EVOLVE management got into a fight on Twitter and Austin Theory stuck his nose into it, and the result was Webb accepting the spot for an open challenge for the title that Theory was offering on this show. Not only is that underwhelming boring on completely lame, but it almost feels like Theory is the babyface here, sticking up for his company and offering to out the belt on the line against someone who hasn't done anything to earn it.
The specifics Lenny Leonard provided- Webb accused Theory of being a "cookie-cutter wrestler, molded for WWE" and that thousands have come along before him and thousands will come along after him, to which Theory responded "are you jealous?" and saying things like "I'm going to be a millionaire one day and you're going to be a bartender watching me on TV)- did a little bit to mitigate this by having Theory be a smug dick, but with the context of the way EVOLVE has portrayed itself in relation to WWE, I'm not certain that Webb's insult is something we fans should really consider as much of an insult (and Theory certainly didn't take it as one).
Before I go any further, I need to emphasize that unless I specifically say otherwise, what I am looking at here is the portrayal of the EVOLVE-WWE relationship within kayfabe and its implications about the lens the world of EVOLVE should be viewed from. This is partly because I don't believe that any of the WWE talent who have become EVOLVE regulars have failed to live up to the in-ring expectations I have from EVOLVE and because I think that any creative failings of Gabe's in the sixth and a half months since NXT talent have become a major force in the promotion are not exclusive to situations involving the NXT talent, but the main reason I am going to be examining it through this lens is because I believe that a kayfabe lens is how all storylines are primarily intended to be viewed.
WWE's portrayal, in essence, has been that of a big promotion with big stars who has let their wrestlers wrestle for EVOLVE. The reasons for this have been left unstated. In the case of some of the bigger names (by which I mean former big indy guys) names, I think the reasons vary widely (Gargano because he's a happy babyface who wants to, Cole because it's a place he is adored by the crowd, for Ohno it plays in well with unhappiness with the "shiny new toys," so either he is going to break them to prevent Regal from playing with them, or he is going somewhere he feels management appreciates him more), but that is all purely conjecture on my part so it's not necessarily fair to read it into storylines.
What hasn't exactly been stated but I do think is fair to read into storylines is that for the guys who mostly just midcarders before their EVOLVE runs began (Aichner, Street Profits, Jaoude, or any of the random one-offs), the idea is that WWE is sending them to EVOLVE to test them. EVOLVE is, after all, the place that gave WWE/NXT Matt Riddle and Ricochet and Keith Lee and Johnny Gargano and Drew Gulak, and Aleister Black, Drew McIntyre, Kassius Ohno, WALTER, TJP, and all four members of Undisputed Era have all had runs in EVOLVE. The quality of competition in EVOLVE is clearly pretty damn high.
This also ties into the fact that idea of EVOLVE being a "pipeline" to WWE has been pushed pretty damn hard. And just in terms of things like Darby Allin running a gauntlet of NXT wrestlers last fall or William Regal's "show me you're good enough by winning some titles" segments with first Matt Riddle and then Austin Theory, but also in Lenny Leonard's commentary. Every time he talks about WWN's seminars he makes sure to mention which NXT wrestlers and coaches will be there and puts over the idea of it being a "pipeline" to WWE so hard that it sometimes feels like he's not talking to us fans sitting at home any more but rather trying to pitch WWN and its seminars to any indy wrestlers who are watching.
The result of all this is that unlike in many other promotions, both present and past, WWE is not a bad guy. They're not the place with the lame wrestling that we bash and we chant "YOU SOLD OUT!" whenever someone decides to take the money and go there. Going to WWE is portrayed as a perfectly fine thing to do. Their idea is still present that the wrestler is leaving for a big-money contract, but he/she is not selling out and accepting lesser competition in exchange for more money so much as (in the ideal portrayal, anyway) taking a lateral step to a place that has some different rules, but with the same level of competition (which it almost has to with the number of former top EVOLVE names on the roster), but they're getting paid more money so we really can't begrudge them for it.
So in this context, is Austin Theory saying he wants to "use the Evolve Championship as a stepping stone to becoming WWE Champion" really such a heel thing to say? How can it be when the company is advertising itself as a stepping stone to WWE?
Theory is obviously a huge dick, which is what makes him a heel, and his statements definitely have the "I'm too good for this place" vibe that makes for a good heel (especially in a WWE-related context), so I think that the line is being walked reasonably well with Theory in a vacuum, but if making it to WWE is not a bad goal, then Theory's strategy of "be as great a wrestler as possible, but also work hard to fit into WWE's cosmetic preferences as possible" is not something that can really be ridiculed or portrayed as negative. After all, Drew McIntyre and Candice LeRae and Keith Lee have all also worked hard to get their bodies' into shape to fit WWE's preferred aesthetic. But the thing (especially from a kayfabe point of view) that sets them apart from Mason Ryan and Lacey Von Erich and Brakkus is the fact that they have also worked hard on becoming great wrestlers.
In a connected- and much less kayfabe- thought, someone on the PW Torch post-show roundtable for Double or Nothing (I'm pretty sure it was Todd Martin, but it might have been Wade Keller) made the observation about Cody's throne-bashing that there is a certain sneaky genius to having Cody be the one to take shots at WWE. Not because he's been there and the others mostly haven't or anything like that, but simply because Cody was a heel at the time, and is almost certainly the member of the core group most likely to spend a larger portion of his time as a heel. This, the thought-process goes, allows fans like myself who were annoyed at that display, or any other bashing of WWE (or any other company) that we might feel is unwarranted, to channel our anger at someone who is heel rather than at the company like we might if the majority of wrestlers were doing it. Todd Martin noted that this was essentially what Paul Heyman did by having Shane Douglas be the guy to take (the majority of) the shots at smarky favorites like Shawn Michaels and Ric Flair.
I think it's highly likely that Gabe is trying something similar here with Theory, albeit as a bit more of a tightrope walk than what his mentor did. While Heyman (and, perhaps, AEW as well) expected an anti-WWE and WCW fanbase and was using his heel as a sort of plausible deniability for the company when attacking aspects of those products that might still have been popular with some of his fanbase, Gabe is expecting a pro-WWE (or at least pro-NXT) audience and is using Theory as something for the anti-WWE (or at least anti-WWE having anything to do with EVOLVE) contingent to focus their dislike on so that they don't leave altogether before Gabe can come up with that next big idea to pull them back in by showing them that, WWE deal or not, his company is still capable of providing them with the compelling stories and in-ring action (and, if I may be so bold, woke-ish atmosphere) that the various anti-WWE contingents among the fanbase have supported EVOVLE for in the past.
NATALIA MARKOVA vs. SHOTZI BLACKHEART - 4.75/10
Most of the spots where they needed a lot of coordination between both parties looked rather slow and thus came off as very choreographed. Having seen Shotzi wrestle before and not have this problem, I'm going to put the blame for this on Markova. Their strikes that connected all looked very good, though. Markova is too much of a cartoon for my liking. EVOLVE does not have much of a history with women's wrestling (more on that in a moment) but of the few women who have been in-ring regulars, she has definitely gotten herself over more and quicker than any of the others.
During this match Lenny Leonard made the comment that Shotzi and other women are now coming to EVOLVE because of they've seen that things have changed for women in WWE and that EVOLVE is their pipeline there. While this does both explain why women's matches are suddenly popping up in EVOLVE and what these women are hoping to gain from coming to a promotion that has no title for them (surely they could be getting booked in some other promotion that would have a championship for them to win and thus make more money and have something to channel their competitive spirit into), it also makes EVOLVE look like nothing more to these women than a way to get into WWE, which really doesn't make me care about their matches or stories. Case in point...
BRANDI LAUREN ATTACKS SHOTZI BLACKHEART AFTER THE MATCH - Brandi beats Shotzi down and screams "THIS IS MY RING! STAY OUT!" and "I'M THE STAR HERE!" Shotzi got back up and they kept brawling until referees broke them up. Shotzi slipped free a few times and actually ran over a referee at one point, so that should be a fine or suspension (though Lenny Leonard didn't say anything about it so maybe it was a shoot accident). There were more referees breaking this fight up than I have ever seen break up a fight before. There were at least seven of them. This was fine for what it was, but if all Shotzi is using EVOLVE for is to go to WWE, then what makes her any different from Austin Theory? I kind of want her to stay out of Brandi Lauren's ring. At least Brandi has said that she wants to be the star here in "her" women's division.
KASSIUS OHNO vs. JOSH BRIGGS - 8/10
A story of two big, mean prideful men, one a young blue-chipper wanting to prove himself against a man he looks up to, the other a veteran looking to prove that he is more than a match for these young kids. Ohno seemed to agree to stay away from Briggs' injured hip, but went to it at the end to get a win, which played into the theme of Ohno's promos going into this weekend, which was "don't meet your heroes; you might be disappointed with what you find." This was an excellent showing from Briggs, with a loss that allows the title shot against Theory that they have been laying the groundwork for since last month to be delayed until the fans truly begin to see Briggs as a main event player, which performances like this contribute to.
EVOLVE TAG TEAM TITLE MATCH:
The Unwanted (Eddie Kingston & Joe Gacy)(c) vs. the WorkHorsemen (Anthony Henry & J.D. Drake) - 7/10
The WorkHorsemen are getting this title shot in exchange for Gacy getting a shot at Drake's WWN Title last night. The Unwanted retained the titles, with the two key spots in the match being miscues between Drake and Henry, including a rather creative one towards the end. Lenny Leonard said he had never seen these two so not on the same page, and wondered if it was because they have been teaming together less frequently due to being on singles runs over the past few months (both won championships at the beginning of autumn of last year). They had an extended argument after the match, with Henry coming off as more of the heel (he has been a heel recently, but he was also the victim of the final miscue, so he is also the person you would naturally expect to be more angry in this situation). Henry alleged that Drake's focus on the WWN Title had led to Drake feeling that he no longer needed Henry or the tag titles. Drake insisted that this wasn't true, but Henry was having none of it.
ADAM COLE vs. A.R. FOX (w/Ayla Fox) - 7/10
They had a great athletic match telling the story of Cole working over Fox's head, but it was disappointingly short at just twelve minutes. I also felt that Lenny Leonard's framing of the match (saying the Skulk were not at ringside because "this one means the world to Fox. He wants to show that he can hang with the best in NXT") makes Fox- a top EVOLVE star- look worse in defeat than he would have if it had just been framed as a match between two top wrestlers because there is no larger, more meaningful goal that Fox fails to accomplish. I also think this framing makes EVOLVE look a little worse as well, as it changed the message from "Adam Cole is better than A.R. Fox" to "top EVOLVE guys can't quite hang with top NXT guys."
This was a good show from EVOLVE, but not really one that did much to address some of the doubts I've been having about the products. It's certainly decent and usually even gets up to "good," but it doesn't feel like a product that is going to break through to being "great" any time soon. Matches- particularly ones involving either NXT talent, or up-and-coming EVOLVE talent, often feel like they get five minutes less than they should have, thus making it harder for the newer group of guys to break out, and making the NXT stars' matches feel underwhelming. Storylines are clearly moving forward, though, and as long as that keeps happening, I'll be able to believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel.