RIP Evolve: A look back at 5 years of great wrestlers, and a specific moment in indie wrestling
Henry T. Casey
Evolve is seemingly dead, except in our roving reporter’s notepad.
Today, Evolve is sort of dead and buried, but it’s oddly still on my mind.
Trying to pinpoint the death of Evolve will push people between two poles: the literal camp that ties the reported sale of Evolve to WWE this past July and the folks who say Evolve was a living dead promotion that was more NXT Meet & Greet than anything else. A vestigial extension of the Largo Loop Florida shows for NXT talent.
While select events are getting uploaded to the WWE Network on some particular cadence, booker Gabe Sapolsky has recently retired from independent wrestling writ large (he’s been working in NXT, and is likely still there) and Evolve’s umbrella brand WWN is now moving to name-branded shows, starting with Eddie Kingston’s Grindhouse — continuing the tradition of Joey Janela’s Spring Break and the upcoming Effy’s Big Gay Brunch.
But because some of the stars Evolve moved onto greener pastures — or disappeared in other cases — I’ve started to think about it more. And then recent episodes of the Bad Wrestling Podcast focusing on the promotion were so good that I thought about Evolve more. And so the article you’re about to read came to be.
Seeing Evolve in person
Personally, I’ve been wondering if I was a part of the problem with Evolve. Not in any substantial way, as Evolve was never seemingly swayed by what the fans said or did, but because I think first went to Evolve shows because of the promotion’s ties to WWE. Or at least the timing fits and I’m not sure what else would have brought me there.
It was the summer of 2016, and my friends were visiting and we figured we could attend EVOLVE 67 before NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II, and thanks to a few matches on that card, I think I went to every single NYC Evolve show since (and one in Livonia, MI), carrying all the way to Evolve 145. Along the way I suffered the Club WWN user experience (signing up for it and trying to watch it on a laptop was a nightmare) just to stay aware of what the company was up to, as they were one of the only local wrestling promotions that I could get to easily (getting to House of Glory shows next to the JFK airport was *always a pain*).
As I wrote here, I always put live wrestling above TV wrestling, but Evolve would often prove a test of that statement during its final year (in this incarnation). Yes, while Evolve 139 had what should have been a banger in Leon Ruff vs Matt Sydal — until the former Evan Bourne walked out on the match. In that moment, we were to believe this was a serious injury or something. The next night, we were pushed to believe Sydal had been hurt, until he turned heel and made everyone feel like they’d been worked. It was weird and felt very bait and switch.
And then in the months after Evolve went quiet, the Speaking Out movement shone glaringly strong on more than a couple top Evolve talents, some of whom have gone onto WWE. This is one of the top things that taints the memories I have of Evolve, where I was a fan who was trying to become a reporter. I don’t know if those years were also the beginning or just the tail end of the very weird moment where wrestlers got friendly with fans, which still goes on today — but feels a bit tainted when it comes to how wrestlers turn their mobs of online supporters against accusers. Social media, of course, only exacerbated that. Fans are still friendly with wrestlers on the indie scene, but I’ve since started to rethink how I engage with everyone.
But outside of all of the above — the terrible things people allegedly did outside of the ring — and whatever the hell was going on with Sydal’s booking, every single Evolve show I ever went to was hallmarked by one simple thing: talent giving it their all.
So, I’m going to do what feels right: talk good things about a lot of the Evolve roster I got to see live. And, yes: per the above, more than a few names are notable by their absence, and that’s all I will say about that.
This list is mostly, with some exceptions made for emphasis or connected performers, in alphabetical order.
The 6th man of Evolve, if you will, La Boom was and is one of the best weapons in the WWN utility belt. Not a bad view in the house, thanks to it being a small night club, La Boom was perfect for this moment in independent wrestling history. Its cramped hallway for merch sales always felt like it needed at least 50% more space — especially when they were breaking down the ring — but that enabled the whole “befriend the wrestlers who sell you their merchandise” mindset. Speaking of, wow that have been fun at the time, but seems a little questionable these days, looking at independent wrestling’s dodgy history with everything, including the Speaking Out movement.
That’s how great Fred Yehi was in Evolve that I’m breaking the alphabetical order rule to give him proper highlighting. I’m extremely disappointed with all wrestling promotions because nobody grabbed Fred Yehi the second he left Evolve. Once known as The Savageweight, Yehi is really good at the strikes and submission-based wrestling that was sort of the standard for Evolve. The good news is that he’s going to be in the Ring of Honor Pure tournament. The bad news is that it’s Ring of Honor. While I should be promoting an Evolve match here, I honestly think Yehi’s lack of a serious push in Evolve is reason enough to look at his (and others’) success outside of the Sapolskyverse (™ Bad Wrestling Podcast). Plus, all of the Evolve library is locked behind the Club WWN or WWE Network walls. So, watch this 60 minute iron man match for charity between Yehi vs Jeremy Wyatt, from Saint Louis Anarchy.
Fred Yehi vs. Jeremy Wyatt (Iron Man Match for Charity) – #60MinutesandChange – YouTube
Check out: On Saturday, Yehi faces Anthony Henry (who you’ll read about below) at the aforementioned Grindhouse event
Honestly, you need to see the Troll Boyz matches, where ACH and Ethan Page teamed up to break every single rule in that moment of independent pro wrestling. They were amazingly funny, and doing the kind of stuff that one would have thought would have gotten them run out of Evolve. But, for however short their run was, they even won the Evolve tag titles. It was a good moment. ACH is having a career reboot moment in GCW, where I’m excited to see him get high profile matches.
The Besties In The World Davey Vega & Mat Fitchett
Sweet boys who seemed too good for this weird promotion, Besties Vega and Fitchett were the final Evolve tag team champions, and never got to use their entrance music, Truly Madly Deeply by Savage Garden. This is likely because WWE was always planning on buying the Evolve library — and much like how Progress went to generic tunes — the WWE has no interest in spending money to license music.
Evolve seemingly never cared much about women’s wrestling, but with the most insane dive spot ever, Shotzi Blackheart made herself must-see.
Watch that moment on the WWE Network, and watch her in ring work in NXT and around the Indies, and you’ll realize it was kind of annoying that she had to almost kill herself for notoriety.
Check out: vs Brandi Lauren at Evolve 131
Ethan Carter III
Did you know the top 1%’er had time in Evolve? He fit well in the anti-WWE faction, with Drew Galloway and DUSTIN (Chuck Taylor). EC3’s run takes place around the time I got into Evolve, and his appearance was a great surprise in the moment. To give you a sense of the length of his run, EVOVLE is only a paragraph in Carter’s Wikipedia.
Underdog energy is a currency in pro wrestling that can either be used as it is, to get instant support from a crowd, or to be perverted and make a super hate-able bad guy out of. Corino’s run began with the former and slowly worked to become the latter. The kid’s got a lot of heart and guts, and is for sure one to watch.
It felt like Jon Davis was one of the guys that Evolve would always bring back to look menacing, strike fear, and squash dudes. He was one of the last folks brought into defeat the magician Jarek 1-20. Considering how rare Davis appeared on the various indie scenes, I don’t know if we should expect him anywhere any time soon. If WWE cares about Retribution having muscle, he could be a guy to bring in for that.
Speaking of perennial Evolvers, Harlem Bravado is one of those annoy the crowd slow and methodical heels that is the perfect antithesis of the spot-heavy indie world that Evolve often became. You know how people love Baron Corbin for being a heel who “gets it?” Bravado is that and then some. I’ve almost felt my lungs shred as I booed him. He knows how to work the most infuriatingly slow match that still engages the audience. Plus, I will always have to admire the heelish brilliance of a white guy named Harlem.
He just never got a big enough push to feel like a real threat. Later, his heat-drawing capabilities increased when he teamed with Anthony Greene and Brandi Lauren to form The In-Crowd. I always liked Harlem Bravado, but I’d never let him hear that to his face.
Check out: Evolve 136, against Daniel Garcia
Whether you call him The Dirty Daddy, The Filthy Father or The Putrid Papa, Chris Dickinson is one of those guys who owned the Evolve ring when he got in it. And with Jaka, as Doom Patrol, Dickinson was undeniable. For some reason, though, it didn’t work out. After Dickinson and Evolve parted ways, he spent his time as a top player in Beyond and GCW. Dickinson was basically set up to be The Guy in Tampa at the shows surrounding WrestleMania 2020, and one wonders if he’ll get a similar series of showcase matches at The Collective’s replacement set of shows in Indianapolis. Either way, if you don’t know by now, listen to me when I say you should always watch Chris Dickinson matches.
Check out: Evolve 105 in Livonia (a low-key Evolve stronghold), Doom Patrol vs The Workhorsemen
One half of The Work Horsemen, JD Drake (also known as The Blue Collar Badass) always put on a fun time. Not only did he and Anthony Henry make waves when they entered Evolve and won the tag titles on their first night, but Drake shined in singles matches where he took his beatings as well as he gave them out. The guy’s chops still ring in my head. Originally just James Drake, JD renamed himself to avoid confusion with the Grizzled Young Veteran James Drake. A former WWN champ (Evolve’s other singles title that was supposed to be defending outside of Evolve, at other WWN promotions), JD Drake should be able to get signed wherever he damn well pleases.
Check out: Evolve 135, against WALTER
Without AR Fox, the later years of Evolve would have probably had a lot fewer moments of happiness. What you need to know about this time is that Evolve was more like a NXT Meet & Greet event with wrestling in the background, or at least that’s what the lines for the WWE superstars would have you think. AR Fox helped these years be better not just because of his insane in-ring capabilities, but by bringing The Skulk, his WWA4 trainees, into the promotion. Aided by Ayla Fox, AR and The Skulk would go from hated villains to the heart and soul of the promotion, imbuing it with energy during its halcyon days.
Check out: go find AR Fox vs Keith Lee on Evolve 100 when it eventually hits the WWE Network. It’s good stuff. Yes, that’s me singing “GO BACK TO ATLANTA” in the background.
Rumored to be signed to NXT in the most recent batch of talent, Gacy was one of the most reliable workers in Evolve, and he was even more maniacal with Eddie Kingston in his ear, when the two worked together in a faction dubbed The Unwanted. He’s also the current CZW World Heavyweight Champion, and while his Evolve run doesn’t have a standout match in my memory, you could always count on Joe Gacy to be a wild man.
Check out: Gacy’s singles work is great, but I remember his tag match with Eddie Kingston at EVOLVE 123 clearly, when the pair faced the Street Profits in Melrose, Massachusetts.
The Catchpoint King himself, Drew Gulak was one half of Thatcher’s other biggest Evolve bout: The Squared Circle of Survival match. A no ropes, exposed mat experience, this was a phenomenal experience to watch — especially as it was on a night where I brought two friends to see their first indie show — nobody, myself included, knew what they were watching in that ring.
A grapplefucker of the highest caliber, I continue to cheer him on and thank Daniel Bryan for seemingly being responsible for helping Drew Gulak thrive in WWE.
Check out: The aforementioned Squared Circle of Survival match at Evolve 72. Every time I’ve met Gulak in person, I’ve talked his ear off about this match.
Nicknamed “Shark Bait,” Anthony Gutierrez is one of those amazing technical wrestlers who you worry may not get a real shot because of having a slight build. Still, I don’t know why he’s been overlooked, seemingly everyone else contracted to Evolve has been signed or rumored to (as David Bixenspan pointed out). Once Evolve 136 his the WWE Network, find his match against…
Seemingly locked in a never-ending feud, the capoeira-based Ruas had the serious size advantage to make his matches against Shark Bait a great David vs. Goliath affair. Ruas is still signed to WWE/NXT, and has appeared on Raw Underground. A more than capable ass kicker, Ruas probably needs a manager or a talkative tag partner to get big in WWE.
Honestly, how few amazing managers are there in wrestling anymore? Stokely Hathaway was (and I say was, he’s not Malcolm Bivens) one of the greatest at the art of representing talent. Not only did everyone look beastly next to his modest-yet-intimidatingly-swole frame, but Big Stoke would never stop talking about how great Timothy Thatcher was. They were the true Dream Team.
A great striker, and an increasingly better talker, Anthony Henry won tag gold in Evolve, and was sadistic in his turn on tag partner JD Drake.
After everything went to crap when Mania week was cancelled, Henry retired, which was annoying as he’d left Evolve at this point and was booked on GCW’s Bloodsport, where I was sure he was gonna make great impressions. Hopefully he gets his shots at The Collective in October. In Evolve, Henry would just constantly lose, in valiant (or heelish) efforts, and while I want to emphasize the positive with Evolve, this did nobody any help. I’m constantly happy to see posters of independent wrestling shows that reveal Henry is still in the ring, but he appears to be set to retire again, at the end of 2020. See him now, because he deserves his flowers.
Check out: Henry vs Roderick Strong at Evolve 129 was excellent.
Chris Hero/Kassius Ohno
While your Hero and mine wrestled under both names in Evolve, I was there more for his work under the Ohno naming, after he returned to NXT. While Ohno’s return to Titan Towers may have been a case of wasted talent when it came to on screen, he thrived in Evolve proper.
Ohno’s Evolve matches against Curt Stallion and Anthony Henry had great elements of size disparity, where Kassius felt like the final boss of Evolve, possibly guarding NXT’s doors. Looking at Ohno’s Cagematch profile, you see his most recent matches were mostly split between NXT UK and NXT house shows, and I hope that he’s able to thrive once independent wrestling returns.
Check out: Hero vs Dick Togo at Evolve 74
Hot Sauce Tracey Williams
Maybe the main reason for me to watch Ring of Honor, Evolve’s Hot Sauce Tracey Williams was one of my favorites to root for. A great mat technician, and an entrant in the upcoming ROH Pure tournament, Williams is the kind of guy who should always have a solid place in pro wrestling. Plus, while few men could make BEING STABBED IN THE EYE WITH A SCREWDRIVER work, Williams made the devious work of Stokely Hathaway feel terrifying. He also looked great in an eye-patch.
Check out: Williams vs Fred Yehi at Evolve 94
The screams of “YEOW!” can still be heard by those who spent enough time at Evolve shows. Jaka was primarily known for his tag team specialist work, as he put on some classics with Doom Patrol partner Chris Dickinson. Later, though, Jaka’s singles run had some epic bangers with champ Zack Sabre Jr.. While Jaka returned to Beyond briefly earlier this year, he disappeared since. If he doesn’t return, make a point of finding his Evolve work as events get uploaded to the network.
Check out: Evolve 97 vs Zack Sabre Jr., as mentioned
The best of the best in Evolve, if you ask me, were the goofy characters, as they stood out even more in the sea of increasingly realistic gimmicks. Yes, in a company of people who were MMA guys or grimy guys, Jason Kincaid was a yoga bum whose ring work matched. Tying his opponents into all kinds of pretzels, and bouncing off the ropes like a Sonic character, Kincaid was unique. The feuds he was put in often didn’t exactly make sense, but his wild promotional videos were confusing enough to make you think you accidentally were tripping balls on acid. Kincaid would be a great GCW guy, I think.
Evolve gave Eddie Kingston a microphone so often that you have to blame WWE for not signing him before AEW picked him up. The Mad King even got a live mic on the WWE Network, with the ECW Arena show that was arguably booked to counter one of AEW’s shows.
Kingston seemed so unlike Evolve (and that’s an insult to Evolve, not Eddie), that his arrival on the scene, coming out of the crowd, was one of the more genuinely shocking moments in the company. Without Eddie Kingston, the faction known as The Unwanted would have been a lot less interesting. Watch Eddie Kingston on AEW Dynamite.
Check out: Eddie Kingston’s Evolve debut was maybe my favorite run-in in recent history:
Also, the Relaxed Rules match between Eddie Kingston and Babatunde on EVOLVE 139. It’s fun stuff, with Kingston making the now-Dabba-Kato look amazing.
Keith Lee won WWN Championship (which wasn’t the main title of the company but treated like it was the 1B to the Evolve titles 1A), and defended it in belters. You shouldn’t need my words to convince you about the Limitless One, and I will always tip my hat to Evolve for giving us so many amazing moments with Lee.
Check out: His match at La Boom against a pre-NXT Kyle O’Reilly at EVOLVE 82 may not be a MOTY, but it’s still one of my favorites, thanks to Lee’s ad-libbing.
Not exactly An Evolve Guy, but for anyone who doesn’t know what to think of a potential KOR solo run, there are some gems in the Evolve archives. The guy has long had what it takes to be your match of the night wrestler in whatever promotion will have him.
Do you know about The Era of Ego? Do you ask if it’s confidence? Or do you know better? Ethan Page is one of my favorite wrestlers from my time watching Evolve, as the guy had all of the goofy facial expressions, matches that weren’t nearly as dry as some of the stuff he went up against.
I don’t know enough to say “Wrestler A MADE Wrestler B,” but Ethan Page deserves some credit for Darby Allin’s early success in Evolve. Their rivalry was everything that AEW wants Allin vs Starks to be. biggest rival in Evolve seems happy as can be in Impact, with his long time tag partner Josh Alexander, as The North. When Page left Evolve, after his run with ACH as the Troll Boyz (which broke all of the fourth walls possible) I would lament how we never saw Page in New York. Later, he’d post about terrible NY traffic on one of his many social media accounts, and I don’t harbor him any ill will for this. I get it. NY traffic is terrible.
Check out: Evolve 82, vs Allin
Parrow and Odinson
Two big giant slabs of hoss. I want to see them own shit in America the way they so-briefly tore up Evolve.
The Skulk: Leon Ruff, Liam Gray and Adrian Alanis
The WWE Universe has seen each of AR Fox’s pupils on TV, but never together as the faction that Evolve’s audience loved to hate before it loved to embrace. I can’t wait to see what these guys get up to. Look closely in the background of Raw Underground, and you can see Gray betting on the matches with Isaiah “Swerve” Scott.
Check out: Ruff vs Curt Stallion at Evolve 124 was excellent stuff
Zack Sabre Jr.
The former Evolve champ … what is there to say, aside from doesn’t seem to have internet access anymore. Weird. He wrestled well, and his victory for the title, over Thatcher, was one of the most raucous moments I can remember from La Boom.
Check out: Aside from that match? Well Evolve 99 against WALTER
I call Curt Stallion the Cesaro of Evolve, but don’t think that Stallion is Swiss or a master of the swing. Not only was Stallion an amazingly reliable wrestler — always having memorable matches — he even got a decent match out of Mansoor, who was loaned to Evolve in what I can only imagine was punishment for something that Evolve management did with a previous guest.
One of the rumored signees to NXT, Stallion should have a strong future, provided that Vince has actually gotten over his body-guys obsession, as Stallion is on the lighter side of the scale.
Check out: Evolve 120: Stallion vs Leon Ruff vs … Mystery Opponent. Trust me.
Winning the Evolve championship at the ECW Arena was a big coming out party of sorts for the former member of The Unwanted. Formerly known as Killshot in Lucha Underground, and now known as Isaiah “Swerve” Scott, Strickland had some great matches in Evolve. I don’t know where he’s going in WWE, but he was one of the many wrestlers whose indie music (“Ain’t Nobody” by Chaka Khan) wasn’t played in Evolve, and that was to the detriment of everyone wanting to have fun. That being said, it didn’t fit a heel, as it was too fun to sing along.
Check out: Strickland vs Tracy Williams, Evolve 113
Or “Your Last Match,” as he’s known, is a wrestler unlike most others. Taggart is taller than a brick shithouse, covered in tattered denim and a maroon hoodie and he moves like he’s trying to cosplay a WCW cruiserweight. Incredibly expressive to boot, Brandon Taggart quickly became a favorite of mine, as well as of at least one new fan I brought to Evolve shows.
Check out: Evolve 140: Taggart vs Babatunde. Two big men bumping BEEF.
In a shoot-interview with WALTER, Excalibur and Dan Barry on the High Spots Network, Thatcher let it be known that he was working to be the most boring wrestler he could be in Evolve. And judging by everyone I’ve ever talked to about his run, that was mostly a success. Pairing Thatcher with manager Stokely Hathaway (who currently works with El Generico in an orphanage in Mexico) was a genius move for all involved, as both Tim and his manager had a manic energy, but Stokely yelled and said outlandish things, and held vendettas, while Thatcher just snarled.
Check out: Evolve 87, vs Jason Kincaid
A beast, always. Nothing really needs to be said. This photo, of WALTER going full Mr. Crabs Meme, needs to be seen.
The magician is a rare gimmick these days, possibly because that’s the only industry seen as faker than pro wrestling. Anyways, Jarek fits into the Jason Kincaid class of Evolve talent, where his character came through a bit louder when most of the other talent were seemingly just performing themselves, and not creating and embodying a personality. Jarek was assisted by Candy Cartwright, who recently won something of a victory in the legal system.
Evolve’s legacy will always be the subject of debate, but the work these wrestlers did under their banner should always be honored. As more and more of these shows are presumably added to WWE Network, give them a watch when you’re in the mood for a virtual trip to a simpler time… and some kick-ass wrestling.
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