The hype surrounding EVOLVE from 2015 and the NXT presence during the triple shot this weekend make this the biggest three days in the promotion’s history. With a weekend of tournaments scheduled, EVOLVE has, on paper, a chance to make a huge splash. Did EVOLVE 53 impress or underdeliver? 

January 22, 2016
The Orpheum
Ybor City, Florida

EVOLVE Champion Timothy Thatcher kicked off the show with a rare promo. The soft-spoken ace apologized for not being able to wrestle due to a “lovely” staph infection. Thatcher declared that win he returns he has unfinished business with Davey Richards, Chris Hero and Catch Point.

The Premiere Athlete Brand interrupted Thatcher. Caleb Konley got on the horn and moaned about never getting a title shot. Thatcher replied that the people were tired of them talking and wanted to see wrestling. Coincidentally, the Bravados music hit, leading into the opening contest.

The Premiere Athlete Brand vs. The Bravados

I think it is safe to say that the opening contest of the tag title tournament and the show was between two teams that EVOLVE fans despise. The PAB, while solid single workers, have never gelled as a team and their matches are consistently slow and boring. The problem for the Bravados is that they  were pushed down the fans throats throughout 2013-2014. With all that in mind, if the match stunk and the fans did not care about then no one would be surprised; the thing is, it turned out to be an excellent match.

Sure the match started off slow, but it picked up at the end with a scintillating closing sequence; especially when the Bravados were in control. Harlem and Lancelot have clearly improved since their last EVOLVE outing. They pulled off some creative double team moves and scored a surprise win with a Gory Special/STO combo. ***¼

Jason Cade vs. Joe Coleman

Jason Cade impressed me during the FIP six-man tag tournament last fall, and this match gave him a stepping stone to show up and show off.  Cade seized his opportunity and flipped it upside down. He was a true human highlight reel, and honestly worked harder than he needed to. Check out the shooting star press he won the match with because it was a thing of beauty. **¼

Matthew Riddle vs. Peter Kaasa

Kaasa and Riddle are the standouts of youth movement taking EVOLVE by storm. With that said, Riddle is still green behind the ears and needs to be carried in longer matches and Kaasa isn’t the right type of wrestler to do that; so this match ended up being short but very, very sweet.

Kaasa’s fancy offense and athleticism vexed Riddle, and, for once, the normally placid super rookie appeared irked. Riddle quickly channeled his frustration into fighting spirit and demonstrated a nice suplex game, but even that only warranted two near falls. Kaasa quickly regained the advantage and ascended to the heavens to finish Riddle; his 630 senton attempt whiffed, badly. Riddle pounced on his prone opponent and locked in a heel hook. Kaasa tapped out and Riddle escaped with his unbeaten streak intact.

I think the brevity of this match was a good thing because it protected Riddle and proved that Kaasa is a smart worker. The in-ring narrative was focused as well. Which is hard to do in a sub-five minute match. **1/2

Ethan Page vs. PJ Black

PJ Black didn’t impress me during Mania’ weekend and left a lot to be desired during his bout with Ethan Page. They worked a back and forth WWE C level show match; meaning the work was good but felt a tad uninspired. Page initially won with a Spinning Dwayne but Black had his foot under the rope, so Page asked for the contest to be restarted; Black quickly won after the restart with a roll up. Black vs. Page was more angle than match but that was not a bad thing since Page’s redemption arc is currently one of the best stories in all of wrestling. **½

Team Tremendous vs. Roppongi Vice

The second tag team match of the night was the first to feel like an EVOLVE match: a contest with solid work rate and a simple story. In this case, it was the normally beloved RPG Vice were the object of the crowd’s scorn and for good reason. Barretta and Romero turned an early stalemate into a decisive advantage by mid-match but in the process they treated Team Tremendous with disdain. There uncharacteristic cockiness inspired Team Tremendous to fight back and the good detectives almost pulled off the upset, but a Trent Barretta low blow batted down their Hail Mary and one reverse piledriver/double stomp combination later, RPG Vice was on their way to the semi-finals. ***1/4

Fred Yehi vs. Tracy Williams

Williams and Yehi’s respective reputations on the mat preceded them. So a technical wrestling exhibition seemed in order and early in the match that was the case. Then both competitors took on a different aura; they forsook their scientific approach to the squared circle and embraced the animal within.

Each man fired strikes not meant to soften but to obliterate. Back and forth, they punished each other; neither yielding an inch or showing a hint of weakness. I’m sure somewhere in Japan that Yuji Okabayashi grunted his approval at what unfolded in the Orpheum. As the fight progressed it became apparent that neither man could be subdued by normal means. Tracy Williams took that idea to heart and finished Yehi off with a sequence of breathtaking violence: a piledriver, a brainbuster and then an anaconda choke for the win. ****

Before the next contest got underway, Drew Galloway came out to announce that Johnny Gargano was not at the venue yet, and as a result their match would be in the main event.

Tommy End & Chris Hero vs. Zack Sabre Jr. & Sami Callihan

Perfection is a word that critics wisely avoid for the most part. Even when we see it we are naturally inclined to doubt what our heart is telling us. Folks, I’m going to agree with my heart for once, this was a perfect tag match and one that thrived without resorting to tropes in an obvious manner.

From start to finish, Hero and End mugged Zack Sabre Jr. every chance they got. If you didn’t know this was a simulated fight it would have been tempting to contact the authorities. ZSJ, who is not normally known for his selling, play-acted a victim to perfection. When he managed to crawl all the way over to Callahan, the former NXT star launched into their opponents with the speed of a bottle rocket. Callihan served his purpose with distinction and saved ZSJ more times than I could count during the match.

If there is a chink in this match’s armor it is the over abundance of near falls, and even that is a reach. The crowd and the the good brothers following along at home bought each false finale. Think about that, how many matches in the last decade have accomplished that? Not many.

The closing stretch was as beautiful as the violent ballet of professional wrestling will can be. To even write a word describing would be an insult to you, dear reader, because it must be watched unspoiled. Hero and End did pick up the victory but all four men were the true winner’s because they all put on the performance of a lifetime, a perfect match. *****

Johnny Gargano still hadn’t arrived by bell time of the main event. Ethan Page came out to offer his services to Galloway, but the former EVOLVE Champion told him to get lost and that he would rather fight on his own.

Drew Gulak & TJ Perkins vs. Drew Galloway & Johnny Gargano

…And so Galloway went at it alone for most of the match. He did a damn fine job too. The burly highlander tossed TJP and Gulak around in a mesmerizing display of power. When he is allowed to play the unstoppable monster Galloway is at his best.

Eventually, the numbers game caught up with Galloway and his valiant effort was on the verge of being a mere moral victory, and with all hope lost, Johnny Gargano showed up on the ring apron and evened the odds. Say what you will about the veracity of Gargano’s journey from Orlando but his tardiness created high drama and added to the appeal of the match.

However, it was Galloway, not Gargango, that fitting won the match for their team. He did his best to end Drew Gulak via Future Shock and succeeded in doing so to end a fun match that successfully deviated from the EVOLVE formula. ***1/2

Final Thoughts: EVOLVE 53 succeeded in setting the table for the rest of the weekend by putting on a card full of solid fights. Every match had a purpose and did not feel wasteful, but that does not justify calling this show a must buy. Chris Hero/Tommy End vs. Zack Sabre Jr./Sami Callihan is an instant classic and makes this show one worth seeking out.