In the eight years since then-Ring of Honor booker Gabe Sapolsky dreamt up a new company in an email exchange with Bryan Danielson, EVOLVE has taken on many different looks, feels, concepts and evolutions. On Saturday, Sapolsky and the EVOLVE brand celebrate their 100th show and embrace the history and the evolutions that got them to this point.
The landscape of independent pro wrestling when EVOLVE was founded eight years ago was a drastically different place than it is today. The proliferation of streaming wrestling was still in its infancy—and much less reliable—WWE hadn’t launched NXT and New Japan Pro Wrestling was still working its way through the dark ages. Even the independent wrestling juggernaut, Ring of Honor, was going through widespread changes in distribution, ownership and a most importantly, a change at the top of its pro wrestling business.
In October 2008, Ring of Honor co-founder and head booker from day-one, Gabe Sapolsky, was ousted from his position and replaced by Adam Pearce. Sapolsky stayed out of the limelight for the next seven months before announcing the formation of Dragon Gate USA in April 2009, a promotion that would meld traditional American independent wrestling with the niche Japanese promotion Dragon Gate.
The following November, Sapolsky made another splash in the independent wrestling landscape announcing the formation of EVOLVE Wrestling. Using then-Ring of Honor World Champion Davey Richards as a mouthpiece, the company burst onto the scene through a series of viral videos.
Richards only worked once for EVOLVE during its initial run. As Sapolsky found out time and time again during EVOLVE’s early days: plans change.
“The vision from when Bryan Danielson and I first started talking about EVOLVE to what actually happened at EVOLVE 1 definitely changed,” Sapolsky says.
Sapolsky’s star-driven agenda was thrown for a loop but EVOLVE was about more than two men.
“(Sapolsky) and Bryan Danielson had seen the landscape of wrestling was changing at the time and wanted to try and, for lack of a better term, evolve what wrestling was in the ring,” Lenny Leonard, EVOLVE’s lead announcer says.
Leonard called EVOLVE’s first show in January 2010 and will call EVOLVE 100 Saturday.
“They knew there was a plethora of amazing young talent out there that wasn’t being given a bigger platform and they wanted EVOLVE to be the place where fans would find the next Bryan Danielson, the next CM Punk, the next Homicide or Samoa Joe.”
Created to disrupt pro wrestling, to shake up the norms and to differentiate itself from everything that came before it, EVOLVE never fit into one single box or one set standard.
“EVOLVE set out to be completely different from day one,” pro wrestler Gran Akuma, who wrestled on EVOLVE 1, says. “The vision was to tear down what pro wrestling was and rebuild it from the ground up.”
When Sapolsky pitched the idea of EVOLVE Wrestling to various talents across the independent wrestling landscape, nobody was quite sure what they or Gabe was getting into.
“It was really exciting because there were no preconceived standards in place and nothing was off the table,” Akuma says. “If anything, I don’t think we really grasped the opportunity we had in front of us at the time.”
Leonard assumed his time in pro wrestling was over when Sapolsky parted ways with Ring of Honor and had no concept of what EVOLVE would be when it started. And now, eight years later, says he had no concept of how long it would stay alive.
“I don’t know that I considered even once, how long it was going to last, because I never really looked at anything I did in wrestling that way. I sort of fell into it all to begin with, so I guess on some level I felt, eh… if it ends, it ends,” Leonard says. “I had already done far more in wrestling than I had EVER expected to do, so if ROH was the pinnacle and EVOLVE/DGUSA was going to have been a quick ending, I would have still been pretty happy to have gotten the chance to have been involved even a little bit in pro wrestling.”
In 2015, Dragon Gate USA faded away amid issues of visas and increased costs to book Dragon Gate talent. EVOLVE, though, not only outlived its big brother, it outlasted most rational wrestling’s fans expectations.
Early EVOLVE shows, notably their debut show EVOLVE 1: Richards vs. Ibushi, were an odd fit in the 2008 pro wrestling landscape. The red-headed stepchild. The ugly duckling. EVOLVE’s initial concepts simply didn’t fit into the pro wrestling norms. Two polarizing decisions from Sapolsky came to define EVOLVE’s early days: win-loss records and no champions.
The former is a concept as old as pro wrestling itself but nobody had done it so transparently or so obviously as Sapolsky attempted with EVOLVE. Win-loss records were announced during the in-ring introductions of each wrestler. On graphics during entrances, there were win-loss records. Announcers like Leonard were instructed to bring up records constantly. Wrestler X is 1-2. Wrestler Y is 3-0.
The goal with transparent win-loss records was to tell stories and build feuds off those records. If a particular wrestler was on a win streak, everyone knew. If someone new burst onto the company and went undefeated through their first five matches, everyone knew.
This wasn’t a new concept by any means, but no other promotion in history was so transparent or blatant about it. For Sapolsky, it was a tough sell. The win-loss record concept did not last.
“The wins/loss thing is still something I firmly believe in,” Sapolsky says. “But it was one of those things that didn’t translate from the idea on paper to the reality of the actual shows. I still believe it can work, and I’ve learned form why it didn’t in the past, but the circumstances have to be 100% there and it has to be meticulously done. The main thing is having a consistent roster and a regular schedule.”
Consistency was hard to come by in the early stages of EVOLVE. Wrestlers came and went with the wind, some signed by WWE, others traveling to Japan or signing with other independent wrestling companies. It was next to impossible for Sapolsky or EVOLVE to maintain a steady and consistent roster for win-loss records to truly mean something. The win-loss concept was so different for so many of the wrestlers, many of them young in the business, that the buy-in just wasn’t there.
“We had a locker room full of talented, creative people and a blank canvas,” Akuma says. “But I think most of us were too locked into doing pro wrestling the established ‘right way’ that we didn’t dare paint outside the lines.”
EVOLVE also attempted to establish an unprecedented champion-less approach. Wins would be the ultimate goal, not a piece of gold. In breaking from pro wrestling tradition, Sapolsky faced an uphill battle. Fans are conditioned to care about titles, title wins, championship matches. Fans clamour to watch their favorites climb up the ranks and win the big one.
Sapolsky and EVOLVE wanted to reprogram fans and deviate from pro wrestling norms. Like transparent win-loss records, it didn’t last.
After 19 shows, Sapolsky relented and AR Fox became the inaugural EVOLVE Champion at WrestleMania Weekend in a hard-fought tournament.
“I actually wished we could have gone more shows without having a champion,” Sapolsky says. “However, at that point I had to admit to myself that the win/loss thing wasn’t working…we needed something else and that was a champion.”
That Fox was chosen as the very first champion was no accident.
“AR Fox was the right guy to be the first EVOLVE Champion,” Sapolsky says. “At that time, we were about innovative wrestling with lots of creative high-flying and athleticism.”
One of EVOLVE’s most notable features through the first 99 shows has been its ability to mold itself in the shape of its current roster.
In the early days of EVOLVE it was all about young talent from around the world working a wide range of styles, dream matches like Munenori Sawa vs. Bryan Danielson, Kota Ibushi vs. Davey Richards or, Akuma’s favorite, Chris Hero vs. Ikuto Hidaka.
“Crazy dream matches have become more common the past few years, but at the time (Hero vs. Hidaka) was absolutely surreal,” Akuma says. “It was the kind of match that could only happen in Fire Pro, and in my opinion it actually exceeded expectations. It was early EVOLVE distilled into one match—two very different kinds of pro wrestling somehow blending together beautifully.”
From the dream matches evolved a high-flying promotion led by talent like AR Fox, Ricochet and Rich Swann. EVOLVE later welcomed a grappling, submission-based era with wrestlers like Timothy Thatcher, Drew Gulak, Matt Riddle and Tracy Williams taking center stage.
No matter the trend, Sapolsky and EVOLVE ran with it.
“I’m also a firm believer in rolling with the talent you have,” Sapolsky says. “A couple of years ago we had a lot of guys who were best in the world at grappling, so we made that the theme of EVOLVE. Now that talent pool isn’t quite what it was, but there’s a wave of heavyweights, so we feature more of that.”
Never did EVOLVE let itself be one thing. Never did EVOLVE set a house style and make people adapt to it. Instead, EVOLVE realized from day one it was up to them to adapt or die.
“The evolution of EVOLVE will always be important to both me and the promotion,” Sapolsky says. “You can never remain stagnant in the entertainment field—what was new, fresh and innovative today will be old one day.”
It didn’t always work. July 2011’s EVOLVE 9: Gargano vs. Taylor was a creative success built off the ongoing Chuck Taylor/Johnny Gargano feud from DGUSA. Soon after the July event, the promotion went dark.
EVOLVE 10 didn’t take place until the next January when EVOLVE 10: A Tribute to the Arena set off a firestorm of criticism. Sami Callihan and Pinkie Sanchez ran in to break up a Sabu vs. Justin Credible main event. The show, which was to be the last at the famed ECW Arena ended with Callihan telling the audience the ECW Arena was dead as the lights went out. For a company on unsteady footing, EVOLVE 10 was not a step in the right direction.
In 2012, DGUSA and EVOLVE merged—more out of necessity than desire. DGUSA shows were increasingly infrequent and soon EVOLVE became the featured promotion of the relationship.
“When you start something new and actively avoid following a template, not everything is going to land,” Akuma says. ”Once EVOLVE figured out what it was going to be, I think it’s significance has grown steadily.”
EVOLVE’s significance and influence is seen in many ways from the very first show—EVOLVE 1: Richards vs. Ibushi:
•Kyle O’Reilly vs. Bobby Fish
•Chuck Taylor vs. Cheech
•Ricochet vs. Arik Cannon
•The Dark City Fight Club vs. Aeroform
•Mercedes Martinez vs. Niya
•Brad Allen vs. Silas Young
•Jimmy Jacobs vs. Ken Doane
•Johnny Gargano vs. Chris Dickinson
•Munenori Sawa vs. TJP
•CHIKARA Sekigun vs. Akuma’s Army
•Davey Richards vs. Kota Ibushi
“Without EVOLVE, I honestly don’t think things like the Cruiserweight Classic would have happened,” Akuma says. “I think NXT would look very different. EVOLVE set out to redefine what pro wrestling is, and that’s exactly what they’ve done.”
EVOLVE 1 took place January 16, 2010 at the Rahway Rec Center in Rahway, New Jersey. Now, eight years later, a majority of those on the card play major roles in today’s pro wrestling world.
•Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish make up 2/3rds of NXT’s top stable, Undisputed Era.
•Chuck Taylor is one of the biggest stars in today’s modern independent scene and works all around the world.
•Ricochet has dazzled audiences in every continent and recently signed with NXT.
•Mercedes Martinez played a huge role in last year’s Mae Young Classic and makes frequent appearances on NXT TV.
•Jimmy Jacobs was the talk of the wrestling world for weeks last year.
•Johnny Gargano recently main evented NXT TakeOver in what many are calling the greatest match in WWE history.
•TJP won WWE’s inaugural Cruiserweight Classic.
•Akuma’s Army featured not only Akuma (duh) but also a young Brodie Lee, who would later become 1/3rd of WWE’s Wyatt Family, Luke Harper.
•Kota Ibushi’s reunion with former tag partner Kenny Omega is currently the biggest story in pro wrestling and Ibushi figures to be in a number of prominent matches in 2018.
More than just the wrestlers involved, EVOLVE’s hallmark matchmaking would come to define the company as well.
“The goal (with EVOLVE) was to create something new, so I think it needed to be a mixture of wrestlers you didn’t see together all the time,” Akuma says. “EVOLVE wasn’t one style of wrestling, it was every style possible, in every combination possible.”
Much like the styles of the wrestlers within them, EVOLVE’s show structures have adapted over the years.
“We started out with like 11- or 12-match shows in the beginning, showcasing a lot of different styles and multi man matches,” Leonard says. “Then went to the six or seven match card lengths with subtle style changes with Catch Point and Tim Thatcher grappling type guys on top, and now we are in the eight to nine match shows with several preliminary matches to showcase guys and give them a chance to perform on a bigger stage to see if they can make themselves stick.”
As EVOLVE celebrates its 100th show this weekend, it’s easy to look back and see those who influenced the company’s beginnings and those who continue to influence the brand to this day.
One name that came up frequently was Johnny Gargano.
Gargano, who began as merely a bit player in EVOLVE and DGUSA, quickly became the brand’s top star and arguably the company’s greatest success story.
“(Gargano) gave us a legitimate home-grown star, and a guy who you could, and we did, build not one but two companies around in EVOLVE and DGUSA,” Leonard says. “An amazing wrestler, as we all can see every week now in WWE, but an even better human being.”
“Johnny Gargano was the heart and soul of The WWN Family,” Sapolsky says of Gargano’s impact. “He stood by us in the toughest times and I’ll always remember that. Seeing him main event NXT Takeover in Philly and have one of the greatest matches I’ve ever seen was really special for me.”
Other names mentioned by those I talked to included Drew Galloway, Chris Hero, Timothy Thatcher, Drew Gulak, Biff Busick and even current talent like Darby Allin—who rose from a tryout match to the main event of a recent show—Keith Lee, current EVOLVE Champion Zack Sabre Jr, Matt Riddle.
“We’ve been lucky to have so much exceptional talent in an EVOLVE ring from EVOLVE 1 to EVOLVE 99,” Sapolsky says.
Sapolsky, Leonard and everyone both in-ring and behind the scenes will celebrate EVOLVE’s 100th show this weekend, not only because of where EVOLVE has been but because of where the company is going in the future. Sapolsky recently signed with WWE as a consultant and despite early fears, EVOLVE will remain in its current form but instead have a stronger working relationship with both WWE and WWE’s developmental brand NXT.
For now, Sapolsky and EVOLVE will continue disrupting the pro wrestling world and continue finding new avenues for their business. EVOLVE was built on a foundation of change and a goal to be ahead of the curve on how they deliver an independent pro wrestling product. That will always remain.
“We are a mom and pop company, but we try to stay ahead of the game on all aspects of the company,” Sapolsky says. “We will always do these things and that’s why we last when some momentarily hot companies burn out.”
EVOLVE 100 takes place Saturday, February 17 from La Boom in Woodside, New York. You can find more information about EVOLVE 100, Sunday’s EVOLVE 101 and watch both shows live or on video on demand at wwnlive.com.
For more coverage of EVOLVE Wrestling please check out our EVOLVE-specific podcast, Everything Evolves: