April 5th, 2017
The Pontchartrain Convention Center
New Orleans, Louisiana
Before I dive into the matches, I want to briefly touch on the aesthetics of the show. This was the best EVOLVE has ever looked, in terms of the featured ‘set pieces’ so to speak. The large entrance portal featuring a large video screen that I’d like to refer to as the “GabeTron” (though it didn’t actually show entrance videos) was very cool, and the black WWN mat look very nice as well. On top of all that, EVOLVE has a snazzy new logo! All of these things really added to the presentation, and it made me even more excited for the card that was to come.
DJ Z def. Austin Theory
When it comes to injuries, DJ Z has to be one of the unluckiest wrestlers on the planet. He’s such a talented performer yet it always seems like injuries keep getting in his away. After making a few appearances in EVOLVE towards the end of last year he had to take some time off due to a neck injury. He made his return here against Austin Theory (minus Priscilla Kelly, who was suspended in storyline, but is actually in Japan on a tour with Tokyo Joshi Pro) in what ended up being a very entertaining opening contest. There was some good back and forth action throughout, and it never lost my attention. Just before they reached the ten minute mark, DZ J managed to hit his ZDT on Theory to score a huge non-title victory over the FIP World Heavyweight Champion. I was really happy to see DJ Z get the win here, especially since he came into this bout on a losing streak (he lost in all four of his EVOLVE outings last year). The commentary team did bring up the absence of Priscilla Kelly, and how that would impact Theory on this big weekend of events. Well, his loss here in this non-title opener seemed to give more credence to the idea that her absence would be a negative (though he would bounce back in a huge way the next night). The finish did come off as a tad abrupt, but as a whole, however, these two had a really solid match to kick off the show. ***1/4
Afterwards, Austin Theory took the mic and threw a temper tantrum, claiming that he lost due to a fast count. He then turned his attention to his match with Keith Lee the following afternoon at EVOLVE 103. Theory wanted a shot at the WWN Title, and to make his challenge a bit more enticing for Lee, he vowed that he would put his FIP World Heavyweight Title on the line as well. This was a very interesting development, and at the time, I really wasn’t sure what to make of it, since the idea of Keith Lee potentially winning the FIP World Heavyweight Title seemed so… strange.
Will Ospreay def. AR Fox
Of course, there were a lot of questions surrounding Will Ospreay’s status after a brutal IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title defense against Marty Scurll at New Japan’s Sakura Genesis event a few days prior. Thankfully, he was still able to make it to New Orleans, though his neck and shoulders were covered in black tape and cupping marks. I was expecting these two to have a great match, and they certainly didn’t disappoint. This was an awesome bout from start to finish, and it did a really good job combining incredible action with a solid in-ring story. After a quick flurry in the opening minutes, AR Fox immediately went to work on Ospreay’s injured neck. While Ospreay was able to fight back on a few occasions against Fox and the Skulk, the former EVOLVE Champion pretty much controlled the middle part of the match. The action picked up again in the final few minutes, and we got to see plenty of cool exchanges between these two. Fox nearly got the win after a Lo Mein Pain/450 Splash combo (that was a great nearfall), but eventually Ospreay was able to take out the Skulk, and hit Fox with the OsCutter to pick up the win. Once again, this was awesome to watch from beginning to end. Ospreay showed here why he is one of the best in the world today (even when he’s not at 100%), while AR Fox continues to impress in this current EVOLVE run. I might be on the high end when it comes to this match, but I absolutely loved it. ****1/2
Four-Way Tag Team Scramble
The End (Odinson & Parrow) def. Catch Point (Williams & Garrini), Doom Patrol & Work Horsemen
After he accompanied Tracy Williams & Dominic Garrini to the ring during their entrance, Stokely Hathaway immediately ran to the back so he could also accompany Chris Dickinson & Jaka while they made their entrance (that man is dedicated). The stipulation here was that the EVOLVE tag team titles would only change hands if either Chris Dickinson or Jaka were pinned or submitted. With there being no tag rules, things broke down pretty quickly.
While this was a generally good match that featured nonstop action right from the opening bell, it wasn’t without problems. First of all, it was strange seeing the End (who have been pushed as this mega heel group that’s caused all sorts of chaos in EVOLVE) placed in a six-on-two handicap situation against the babyfaces. They were the ones that seemed to have the odds stacked against them, and even though it could be seen as the heels getting their comeuppance, it was still strange. Then there was an odd segment in the middle of the bout involving Catch Point, where Stokely Hathaway tried to get Dominic Garrini to lie down so that Chris Dickinson & Jaka could win. Dickinson went for the pin, but Williams immediately broke it up. That spot didn’t get any reaction all from the live crowd, and it felt like it was just shoehorned into the match so that the never-ending “Catch Point” dissension storyline could continue. There also a number of rough points throughout the bout. Dickinson dropped James Drake right on his head with an overhead belly-to-belly suplex, and the referee seemed to hold up a late pin attempt by Drake on Dickinson so Odinson (who was clearly late in getting there) could break it up by hitting an F5 on Anthony Henry onto the pile. The End (who really hid for most of the bout after getting mauled at the start) ultimately won after pinning Henry following their Electric Chair/European Uppercut combo called Hell On Earth, but Dickinson & Jaka kept their titles since they weren’t pinned. James Drake attacked the End with a chair afterwards. ***1/4
Again, this was a match that had numerous issues despite being technically good. I already alluded to some booking issues and problems in the match itself (plus the crowd didn’t seem to be that into it), but the placement of the bout was also a factor. Putting this right after AR Fox/Will Ospreay wasn’t the best idea, and if you just swapped the order it might’ve improved the situation here. Then there’s the stipulation. The way this was put together didn’t make a ton of sense. If you’re one of the challenging teams, why not just go right after the champions at the start? A better solution would’ve been to borrow from a match that ROH has done in the past, called Defy Or Deny. It’s actually a similar concept, but with clearer rules. If the champion gets pinned, then the person who got the pin gets a future title shot. If the champion wins, then the potential challenger is eliminated from title contention. Clearly the idea was to set the End up for another title shot, but there were better ways to go about it.
Keith Lee def. Darby Allin
Keith Lee was just coming off a successful defense of the WWN title against Kassius Ohno at WrestleMania Axxess. These two met in a singles bout at EVOLVE 95, and unfortunately for Darby Allin, this second encounter went about the same way that the first one did. He put up a good fight but he was simply no match for Keith Lee, who emerged victorious. This went about exactly how I thought it would. For the most part this was an extended squash for Lee (who just tossed around Allin like a rag doll at points), but the story here was about Allin giving it everything he had despite the insurmountable odds. It’s been said many times before: but he’s so good in that role as the underdog who just keeps on fighting. For what this was, it was a fun match that served its purpose well. ***1/4
Afterwards, Keith Lee took the mic and accepted Austin Theory’s challenge for the following afternoon at EVOLVE 103. As Lee was talking, Darby Allin started to crawl towards Lee, and told the WWN Champion to give him more punishment. Lee declined this offer and left, but then Jarek 1:20 attacked Allin from behind (after a distraction from Candy Cartwright). Jarek took the mic and declared that he was gunning for everyone that took his spot in EVOLVE.
Ringkampf (WALTER & Thatcher) def. Daisuke Sekimoto & Munenori Sawa
This was my first time seeing Daisuke Sekimoto and I was instantly struck by how thick he was. I guess that’s why he’s known as the “Muscle Monster”. He also seemed to be a bit shorter than I was expecting. Seeing him next to WALTER in this match further drove that point home for me, but I’m not quite sure if Sekimoto is actually a short dude, or he’s just short compared to WALTER.
Anyway, this was an awesome tag team encounter that featured a ton of hard-hitting action from start to finish. These two teams just beat the crap out of each other for almost twenty-two minutes, and it was such a joy to watch. Sekimoto’s exchanges with WALTER (particularly the chop battles) were simply brutal, and in general it was a blast seeing him for the first time. The interactions that Sawa had with Thatcher were entertaining to watch as well, as they featured a mix of technical wrestling and hard strikes. For a guy that hasn’t been an active wrestler since 2011, Sawa looked pretty great here. In particular, I was amazed by how fast some of his stikes were. While both Sawa and Sekimoto put forth incredible efforts, Ringkampf would ultimately emerge victorious, which I suppose shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since they’re a regular tag team. All four men worked their asses off and, as a whole, this match delivered in a big way. It wasn’t quite the match of the night for me but it kept my attention throughout and, when the dust settled, I ended up really enjoying it. ****1/4
Afterwards, all four men embraced in the ring. As soon as Sawa and Sekimoto left Stokely Hathaway came out to confront Ringkampf. He’s still upset about Thatcher leaving the Dream Team last year, and calls on Thatcher to bow out of the EVOLVE tag team title bout the next night at Mercury Rising. Then Darby Allin snatched the mic from Hathaway, and wanted to fight WALTER then and there. WALTER just tossed Allin from the ring, and when he tried to get back in, he just got powerbombed. This whole bit was short, but it did a fine job in building up some of the stuff that was taking place the next day.
Matt Riddle def. Zack Sabre Jr.
This is the third meeting between these two in EVOLVE. Riddle scored a shocking submission victory over Sabre at EVOLVE 59 nearly two years ago in Dallas (I say shocking because Riddle had only been in EVOLVE for a few months at that point), but Sabre later evened up the series in a non-title Champion vs. Champion bout at EVOLVE 86 last June (Riddle still held the WWN title at that point). I went into this expecting it to easily be the best bout in their series, especially since it was the first time in the series that a title was on the line, but when the dust settled it ended up being right on par with their previous two encounters. The first portion of the match saw a lot of exchanges on the ground, as both men traded holds and submission attempts. For the most part, Zack Sabre Jr. seemed to have the upper hand when they were on the ground, as he twisted and contorted Riddle’s limbs in a number of ways. However Riddle never stopped fighting, even after Sabre made his knee a prime target. While he used his own submissions throughout, Riddle managed to really nail Sabre with some big offense while they were standing, and that kept him in the fight. There were plenty of excellent counters throughout, and the intensity certainly picked up in the second portion of the bout. In the end, Sabre tried to go for his Orienteering With Napalm Death submission, but Riddle countered it into the Bromission, and Sabre quickly tapped out. This was a great main event from beginning to end, but for me, it didn’t quite manage to break away from their other two encounters to be the definitive bout in their series. A number of people were speculating about Riddle winning the EVOLVE title this weekend, especially if Zack Sabre Jr. is planning to spend more time in New Japan. While I certainly figured Riddle winning as a strong possibility, I still thought (going in) it was a match that could’ve gone either way. Regardless, it was still a really strong main event to finish off the show with. I’m very intrigued to see how and what Riddle does with the EVOLVE title going forward. ****
Afterwards, Zack Sabre Jr. awarded the EVOLVE Title to Matt Riddle, and the two shared a fist bump before Sabre left. Riddle then took the mic and talked about the fact that he’d been chasing this title for a long time. He brought up how he was never originally going to be in EVOLVE for that long (as many were expecting him to sign with WWE in early 2016), but he said that he’s never been happier than he is right now. He thanks the fans for making all of this possible, and led them in a “Bro” chant as the show came to a close.
EVOLVE 102 was a really solid show from start to finish, but there was definitely a large discrepancy between the top three matches and the bottom three matches. Out of six bouts on this card, three of them (Sabre/Riddle, Ringkampf/Sawa & Sekimoto, Fox/Ospreay) were very strong, and cracked **** or better. The other three all hovered around ***1/4, but that doesn’t mean they were necessarily subpar. DJ Z/Theory and Keith Lee/Darby Allin were both very entertaining in their own ways, and even the tag scramble had it’s fair share of positive moments. When this massive weekend in New Orleans is finally over, I don’t think this event will stand out as one of the top shows that took place, but it was certainly a relatively easy show to watch from beginning to end. With three fantastic matches and three good matches, you really can’t go wrong.