October 28th, 2018
The Orpheum
Ybor City, Florida

Watch: WWN Live

It’s been several weeks since the most recent EVOLVE events (several weeks can feel like AGES in the wrestling world), and a lot has happened with the promotion since.

WWN Champion Joey Janela, who was arguably the company’s biggest start upon his debut back at EVOLVE 106, suffered a major knee injury in a match against Psicosis on a GCW event in late September. When it became obvious that Janela was going to be out for a very long time (the most recent update was that he’ll be out for at least a full year), he was stripped of the WWN Title. In the ensuing weeks, it was announced that a Ladder Match, the first genuine Ladder Match in EVOLVE’s history, would be held to crown a new WWN Champion (there was a “Ladders Are Legal” match at EVOLVE 30, right before the first reboot, but that featured just pinfalls and submission, with nothing hanging above the ring). Now originally, there were going to be a number of qualifying matches, with the winners advancing to the Ladder Match. However, that ended up changing. Instead, there would be only one of these qualifiers (which took place early on the card), with the winner joining the other five competitors in the Ladder Match.

Additionally, WWN and EVOLVE started to promote a “What Is EVOLVE?” tagline. There was speculation as to what this meant, but it soon became clear that it had to do with the company’s ongoing relationship with WWE (specifically with NXT). There were a couple of hints that pointed in this direction. A matchup for the EVOLVE Tag Team Titles between Doom Patrol and The Street Profits was teased in the weeks leading up to EVOLVE 114 (before the bout was formally announced in the days leading up to the event), but more importantly, it was announced that the restriction on certain matches being aired on EVOLVE events had been lifted. This meant that going forward, bouts on EVOLVE events that featured WWE talents (mainly from NXT & 205 Live), which previously were just dark matches, would be shown on EVOLVE iPPVs. We knew coming into this show that The Street Profits would be involved, but I doubt anybody expected the amount of WWE talent that ended up being on the card, and the impact they would have.

Non-Title – ACW Tag Team Champions The Precipice (Chance Champion & Omar Amir with Skinny Vinny) def. Mat Rogers & Zenshi

I thought the Darby Allin/Josh Briggs bout would be kicking off the show, but instead, we started off with a “bonus match” featuring an….eclectic group of talent. On one side, you had the team known as The Precipice, who apparently have held the tag team titles in ACW (another WWN partner promotion) for a full year. They also have a manager named….Skinny Vinny. Yes, that is indeed his name. On the other side, you had the odd pairing of Mat Rogers (a big, beefy Australian fellow) and Zenshi, who most of you would know better as Shyron from his time in promotions like CHIKARA and Beyond Wrestling. This was a perfectly competent two-star special, and not much else. Everyone involved got a chance to shine, but Zenshi was the clear standout in this bout. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him, but I’ve forgotten just how athletic this guy can be. At one point, he pulled off a Matt Cross style flagpole press, but he did it in with the ring ropes instead of the ring post! If anyone in this match becomes a regular roster member, it should be him. Mat Rogers has some potential, but as for The Precipice (who got the victory here), they were pretty average. Not much else to say about this one. **

In a small little side note, we got a video (before the next segment) promoting the WWN Training Center, with featured head trainer Matt Sydal. I vaguely remember Sydal being announced as the head trainer some time ago, but I completely forgot about it until I saw that video.

Following the bonus match, the usual opening introduction by the commentary team was interrupted by EVOLVE Champion Shane Strickland. He mentioned a number of wrestlers who had either left the promotion (Matt Riddle, Tracy Williams) or had been put on the shelf (DJ Z) since facing him. Strickland had promised that he’d become EVOLVE Champion, while also being a threat to the promotion, and since his arrival, both of those promises have been kept. He claimed that EVOLVE started this “new talent initiative” because there’s nobody left to challenge him. Strickland was then interrupted by NXT’s Fabian Aichner. The EVOLVE Champion went to attack Aicher, but the Italian (who first caught people’s attention in the Cruiserweight Classic back in 2016) sent him packing. Insulted by this intrusion, Strickland took the mic back and proclaimed that not only would he defend his EVOLVE Title against Aichner later in the night, but he would send Aichner back to the WWE Performance Center with a broken arm. We weren’t even into the first match, and the NXT influence was already being felt.

WWN Title Qualifying Match – Darby Allin def. Josh Briggs

The winner of this bout would join Anthony Henry, AR Fox, Austin Theory, Harlem Bravado, and JD Drake in the WWN Title Ladder Match later in the night. This was a very entertaining ten minute sprint that featured plenty of action throughout. It did get off to slow start at first, but the pace quickly picked up. Josh Briggs showed off his size and power on a number of occasions, as he tossed Darby Allin around like a ragdoll. At one point, when the match spilled to the outside, Briggs managed to chokeslam Allin onto the nearby bar. Allin certainly took a beating here, but like always does, he fought back and played a great underdog. The legs of Briggs became a target that Allin went after at a few points, but that didn’t play too heavily into the finish (it mainly served just to give Allin openings to go on the offensive). Allin ultimately won the bout after trapping Briggs in the Last Supper, but there was a scary moment that occurred right before the pin. Allin counted an attempted powerbomb off the second rope by Briggs, and as they came crashing to the ground, it looked like Briggs landed right on his neck. It certainly could have turned out a lot worse for Briggs, but fortunately, it appears that he’s ok. Aside from that botch towards the end, I’ve got no real complaints about this one. As the official opener of the show, it worked perfectly. ***1/2

Priscilla Kelly def. Jessie Elaban

Jessie Elaban was the next NXT surprise to appear on this show. She’s a relatively new WWE signing (signed around June or July of 2017) and only started wrestling a few months later. Most recently, she appeared in the 2nd Mae Young Classic, though that appearance was short, as she got knocked out by Taynara Conti in the first round. Jessie went up against Priscilla Kelly here in what ended up being an incredibly basic match. They went back and forth for almost ten minutes before Kelly got the win via submission. Kelly was decent, but I have a lot of things to say about Jessie.

It’s obvious that she isn’t very good at all, and while that’s not a complete surprise (considering that she’s has less than sixty matches under her belt), she’s still got A LOT of work to do if she’s serious about making it as a wrestler. Her movements in the ring were clunky, and the match as a whole lacked any real energy. The fact that this match went close to ten minutes didn’t help things either. Someone at Jessie’s experience level shouldn’t be wrestling in matches at that length. As for her gimmick (which I guess could be seen as an nerdier version of Bayley’s gimmick when she first started in NXT), I actually don’t mind it that much, but it clearly has a low ceiling. It reminds a lot of The Vaudevillains, in that while it could work in NXT (and we don’t even know if Jessie’s gimmick would work there, since the majority of her matches thus far have been on live events), it’ll die a death if she ever makes it to the WWE main roster. It wouldn’t shock me if, in three years time, she’s either wrestling in CHIKARA (with this gimmick, because it just seems like the kind of character that would fit in there), or out of the business entirely. The bottom line is that Jessie’s very green, and she clearly has a long way to go. **

Adrian Jaoude (with Cezar Bononi) def. Joe Gacy

The cavalcade of NXT talent continued, as we next saw two Brazilian dudes from the WWE Performance Center. While I’ve heard the name Cezar Bononi before, I’ve never seen him (or his partner) before. I honestly didn’t know which one was which until Adrian Jaoude took his top off. He took on former CZW World Heavyweight Champion Joe Gacy here in what was essentially a squash. Gacy got some offense in, but for the most part, Jaoude dominated, and pinned Gacy after hitting a spinning kick. It felt like one of those boring UFC fights where nothing happens. I don’t foresee these Brazilian dudes going far in WWE, but hey, you never know. Wrestling is a weird business. *1/2

Leon Ruff (with Ayla Fox) def. Barrett Brown

I honestly don’t know why it took so long for EVOLVE to book Barrett Brown again. For those who don’t remember, Brown made his first (and only) EVOLVE appearance back at EVOLVE 77 in January 2017. On that night, he was part of an incredibly entertaining six-man tag team bout that saw his side (which included Zack Sabre Jr. & Darby Allin) defeat Ethan Page & The Gatekeepers. Brown more than held his own in that one, and it’s honestly astounding that it took EVOLVE almost two years to book him again. Anyway, he took on Leon Ruff here in what ended being an entertaining match. It was a slight step down from the opener, but it featured similar characteristics. The length was similar (both bouts clocked in at around ten minutes), and there was fun back and forth action from start to finish. Brown had a solid outing, with Ruff continues to impress. Ruff has been the standout of The Skulk (from an in-ring standpoint), and fact that he’s getting more opportunities in singles competition is proof of that. He ultimately picked up the win after getting the better of Brown during a series of pinfall exchanges. A very enjoyable undercard match. ***1/4

EVOLVE Tag Team Titles – The Street Profits (Angelo Dawkins & Montez Ford) def. Doom Patrol (Chris Dickinson & Jaka) (c)

To be completely honest, this was my first time seeing The Street Profits in action. While I’ve obviously heard a lot about them, I just haven’t had the time to really dive into NXT, aside from the big TakeOver specials, over the last year or so (working forty hours a week will obviously restrict what you do in your free time). So I was very intrigued to see how Angelo Dawkins & Montez Ford would do as they challenged the team that has defined the EVOLVE Tag Team Titles over the last year or two.

The match itself was pretty good, and they managed to tell a decent story. After a fairly standard opening exchange, Doom Patrol isolated Montez Ford for a number of minutes until he finally made the hot tag to Angelo Dawkins. The action did pick up a little bit down the stretch, and eventually, The Street Profits captured the EVOLVE Tag Team Titles after Ford hit a top rope splash onto Jaka. Again, this was a perfectly solid undercard tag team encounter, but they never reached that next gear, which would’ve taken the match from “pretty good” to “really good” (if that makes sense). The Street Profits seem to have a fun act, and while I don’t see them being a top tag team in WWE (especially given that so many have proclaimed Montez Ford as a future singles star), they can certainly succeed as an entertaining undercard team. Now as for the title change itself, I can understand if it rubs people the wrong way (especially with regards to EVOLVE’s relationship with WWE, which has clearly gotten stronger), but at the same time, this is exactly what the EVOLVE Tag Team Titles needed. The tag team division in EVOLVE has been relatively weak in general, and for the last few months, Doom Patrol have basically been champions of a division that has no teams. The Street Profits wouldn’t have been my first choice, but at this point, just having another team in the division to work with Chris Dickinson & Jaka is a positive. ***1/4

Angelo Dawkins took the mic afterward, and promised that The Street Profits will defend the titles against any challengers, and on all EVOLVE shows going forward. Montez Ford then thanked everyone for coming out to witness their huge victory.

After intermission, we got an unadvertised singles bout between Dante Marquis Carter (who wrestled the first thirty seconds of the match with his cell phone sticking out of his back pocket) and guy by the name of Mikey Spandex. Their match only last about a minute before NXT’s Dan Matha ran out and destroyed both guys. After taking the mic, he said that he keeps hearing about this “EVOLVE place”, where all of the newest prospects are coming from. Matha declared that today was his day off, and that he’s here to prove that EVOLVE isn’t anything. His promo then went in a weird direction as he seemed to talk about having sex with women while putting over how “saucy” he was. Matha then called everyone in the back “soy boys” (which is a term that has recently been used by the alt-right) before he was FINALLY interrupted by three members of The Skulk (Adrian Alanis, Liam Gray, & Shawn Dean). They took turns making fun of Matha as the fans chanted “Mr. Clean” at him. They were supposed to have the previous announced “Skulk Scramble”, but since Tommy Maserati was unable to make it, Adrian Alanis suggested that they have a four-way match with Dan Matha, and that’s exactly what we got.

Four-Way Freestyle – Adrian Alanis def. Dan Matha, Liam Gray, & Shawn Dean

So this started off with the three Skulk members going at it for about a minute before Dan Matha got involved. At that point, Matha proceeded to spend the next two or three minutes doing…wait for it…standing side headlocks. AR Fox ended up putting a stop to this garbage, as he ran out and helped the rest of The Skulk get rid of Matha. The match then resumed without Matha, and Adrian Alanis picked up the victory after pinning Shawn Dean. Dan Matha seems like the kind of guy that John Laurinaitis would’ve signed in 2004. He’s absolutely terrible and just comes off as a relic from that early to mid-2000s era of WWE. It looked as though Matha was going to be sticking around in EVOLVE to feud with AR Fox (based on how this “match” went). However, per the final episode of the Everything Evolves Podcast, it now appears that won’t be the case, which is excellent news. Nobody wants to see Dan Matha. *

EVOLVE Title – Fabian Aichner def. Shane Strickland (C)

I guess Aicher is wrestling jeans? That’s weird. Anyway, I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this one, in terms of match quality. However, when the dust settled, it ended up being a very good match. It did take a few minutes to get going (similar to some of the earlier bouts), but once it did, we were treated to a lot of good back and forth action. Strickland was his usual great self, while Aichner managed to hold his own here. I’ve always been impressed with Aichner (on the rare occasions that I actually got to watch a match that he was involved in), and while Strickland is clearly a better wrestler, Aichner didn’t look out of place here as the challenger. On a number of occasions, it looked as though Strickland was going to put Aichner away for good, but the Italian persevered, and eventually scored the massive upset victory after hitting Strickland with a spinning powerbomb. The match was very good, but the result has gotten a ton of attention. I honestly don’t have issues with Fabian Aichner being one of the NXT talents that got sent to EVOLVE. He’s actually a pretty solid wrestler, and out of the people that NXT sent to this show, he’s clearly the best in-ring performer.

However, I totally disagree with this move to put the EVOLVE Title on him, primarily because it prematurely ended Shane Strickland’s title reign. It just doesn’t make a ton of sense. Strickland was pushed heavily from the moment he came back into this company (mainly to fill the holes that were being left behind by the likes of Zack Sabre Jr., Keith Lee, and Matt Riddle), and just when it seemed like his reign as EVOLVE Champion was starting to build momentum, he drops the title to Fabian Aichner with no build. If (for some reason), NXT insisted on giving Aichner a title, they why not just add him to the ladder match and give him the WWN Title, which is certainly secondary to the EVOLVE Title in terms of prestige. The match itself was really good, but this result seemed to sacrifice Shane Strickland’s push in favor of putting over this new influx of NXT talent. ***3/4

Afterwards, Aichner took the mic and cut a promo that was similar to the one that The Street Profits cut earlier, as he noted that he’ll defend the EVOLVE Title on all of their upcoming events. Aicher seemed to get a mixed reaction from the crowd after he won. While people did cheer him, there was also some loud booing from a portion of the crowd when he tried to cut his promo.

WWN Title – Six-Way Ladder Match – JD Drake def. FIP World Heavyweight Champion Anthony Henry, AR Fox (with Ayla Fox), Austin Theory (with Priscilla Kelly), Darby Allin, & Harlem Bravado

As I mentioned earlier in this review, the WWN Title became vacant after Joey Janela suffered a very serious knee injury. I appreciate the fact that Lenny Leonard gave explanations with regards to why these people were in the match (while Darby Allin earned his spot earlier in the night, the other five were all current or former champions in either EVOLVE or Dragon Gate USA). If you went into this hoping for a crazy Ladder Match, then that’s exactly what you got, for the most part. There were plenty of wild spots throughout, and everyone involved, including Ayla Fox and Priscilla Kelly, got opportunities to shine. Darby Allin completely disappeared from the bout a few minutes in after getting powerbombed on a ladder by Harlem Bravado. Allin did return in a big way later on, as he put Bravado through a table with a Coffin Drop off a balcony, but I’m not sure why he was absent for a sizable chunk of this one. Anyway, the biggest criticism I have for this match is that it was entirely too long. I’m all for giving a multi-person Ladder Match a lot of time, but thirty-three minutes is just overkill. This bout would’ve really benefited if they cut out the first five minutes or so, which featured all six guys brawling around the bar area next to the ring. The sheer length did take away from this match, but aside from that, I still found it to be incredibly entertaining. Everyone involved really worked their asses off, and I’m someone who always appreciates effort.

In addition to all of the action, a couple of stories were continued in this one as well. Austin Theory continued his issues with both AR Fox and Darby Allin, while former tag team partners Anthony Henry and JD Drake ended up coming to blows after working together at a number of points. Ultimately, Drake emerged victorious as he successfully captured the WWN Title. It’s good to see that Drake is getting more of a singles push after some of the strong outings he’s had this year. It’ll be very interesting to see how he does as WWN Champion going forward. As for this main event, it wasn’t totally clean (there was a botch or two here and there), but it was a lot of fun to watch. Even with the issues regarding the length, it was still a brutal affair that featured plenty of action. ****

Afterward, we got an emotional promo from JD Drake. He talked about how it took him sixteen years to get to this point and brought up how much success The Work Horseman have had since coming to EVOLVE/WWN (they now both hold singles gold, with Anthony Henry winning the FIP World Heavyweight Title from Austin Theory several weeks ago). Drake then brought up his trainer, who died in a car accident about a year ago after suffering a stroke. He said that he was the only one who believed he could make it as a wrestler. Drake then concluded by saying that this win was for the fans.

Final Thoughts

While it was far from the promotion’s best outing of 2018, EVOLVE 114 will certainly be remembered as a major turning point for EVOLVE as a company. From an in-ring standpoint, the show was a mixed bag. The main event was an incredibly entertaining hardcore spotfest, while the semi-main event was really good. However, the rest of the undercard ranged from pretty good, to painfully average, to downright awful (most of the weaker matches involved wrestlers from NXT). Unfortunately, some of the brighter points from this show were completely overshadowed by the significant shift in the promotion’s direction and purpose.

EVOLVE 114 officially cemented the company’s new role as a developmental territory for WWE’s developmental territory.

While EVOLVE has been in a relationship with WWE for the last couple of years, this was the first major step in the promotion’s full assimilation into the WWE system (the final step would be EVOLVE becoming part of a tiered WWE Network, which has been rumored for quite some time). In addition to the special appearances we’ve seen over the past year or so from various contracted WWE performers, mainly higher level NXT Talent as well as 205 Live talent (those will continue in the coming months with Kassius Ohno and Mustafa Ali), we will now see more lower level NXT talent in EVOLVE. People who either need more experience outside of the “Largo Loop” (Adrian Jaoude, Jessie Elaban), or aren’t currently being featured on NXT TV (Fabian Aichner, The Street Profits), will be showing up in EVOLVE more frequently going forward. EVOLVE’s new status in the wrestling world is firmly symbolized through their new slogan, which is “Learn. Grow. Create. Evolve.”.

On one hand, I can see the positives in this change. If you’re WWE, and you want some of your lower level NXT talents to get more in-ring experience (perhaps in a different environment), then EVOLVE is a good place to send them. In general, I believe that WWE needs to utilize their current (and future) partner promotions more often, especially given their bloated roster. They have so many wrestlers (both on the main roster and NXT), but not enough time to use all of them. It would behoove them to send people they aren’t using to their various partners for periods of time, just so they can have something to do instead of having them do nothing for weeks, even months, on end. They can serve as places to develop new talent (which appears to be EVOLVE’s new role), as well as sanctuaries for talents on all levels who aren’t currently be used in storylines. There’s no reason why they can’t do that.

On the other card, I can totally understand all of the negatives coming out of EVOLVE 114. This monumental shift in direction effectively kills off EVOLVE’s status as a true independent wrestling promotion. If you’re an EVOLVE fan who enjoyed the wrestling that this company provided over the last few years (despite the loose WWE affiliation), then this probably dealt a severe blow to your interest in the promotion. Likewise, if you’re someone who isn’t a fan of WWE (and there are plenty of reasons not to be a fan, both inside and outside of the ring), this move probably turns you off. It’s crazy to think of where EVOLVE, as a company, has been throughout its history, and all of the talent that came through its doors (particularly in the last three or four years). The last year has been especially tough in terms of roster turnover, with so many top names leaving for NXT, with a few notable exceptions that left EVOLVE to go elsewhere (Zack Sabre Jr., Tracy Williams, Stokely Hathaway). In hindsight, it was only a matter of time before assimilation with WWE became a necessity.

While the closer connection with WWE will probably bring some new fans in, it will drive away just as many, if not more. Just over two-and-a-half years ago, EVOLVE drew the larger crowds in its history in Dallas, Texas during WrestleMania Weekend with an all-star roster.

Today, EVOLVE is a shell of its former self. Even though it’s now strongly cemented within the WWE system as a developmental territory, there’s no doubt that this change will be a blow to the health of independent wrestling scene in the United States. It also serves as a potential warning to other promotions in North America and around the world. If you’re going to be a partner with WWE, then your future will be very similar to what EVOLVE has gone through.