On June 26, The Wrap reported that for the first time in the half decade plus of its existence, the WWE Network would air a non-WWE owned promotion live on July 13. Since WWE began working with companies like EVOLVE, PROGRESS and others, it had long been rumored that non-WWE owned content would eventually be added to the Network, but until this announcement, this remained mere rumors. Later that day, WWE.com confirmed the EVOLVE 131: EVOLVE’s 10th Anniversary Celebration would air live and several days later, a full card was announced. During Raw and Smackdown this week, ads for the EVOLVE show were prominently featured
This announcement was unfortunately met with controversy and discussions regarding the politics of the show. AEW has previously announced that their Fight For the Fallen show would be held at the same date and time and its fans, media and executives were none too pleased with the competition. Executive Vice President Kenny Omega tweeted and subsequently deleted an attack on the scheduling of the event, noting that the AEW event was being held to raise money for gun violence victims. Many people noted that WWE has often counterprogrammed other promotions and expressed their displeasure with this decision.
These criticisms ignored several key things.
First, the EVOLVE event had been scheduled for that date and time for as long (if not longer) than the AEW event. Second, the two events were being held in cities nearly a thousand miles from each other and the stream for the AEW event was already scheduled to be available for free. It should also be noted that while it starts at 9pm and isn’t live like the EVOLVE and AEW shows, New Japan’s G1 Climax B block opening night will also be airing on AXS TV while the AEW show is being shown.
Finally, and most disappointingly, the criticisms and the coverage of this event and the announcement of its airing on the WWE Network have ignored the real significance of this event to the competitors on the show, to EVOLVE’s founder, Gabe Sapolsky, and to the promotion itself. From those three perspectives, there is a lot more to discuss beyond the politics of the event itself.
The show’s lineup provides a good look into the past, present and future of EVOLVE, its former partner promotion Dragon Gate USA and the extended WWN universe. Two matches feature current WWE signed talent who had previously worked for one or more of these promotions. In the presumed main event, the current NXT champion Adam Cole will face 205 Live’s Akira Tozawa. Early in his career, Cole appeared on early EVOLVE shows and faced off against future rivals Ricochet and Johnny Gargano. Since EVOLVE began using WWE talent more frequently, he has appeared several times in 2018 and 2019. Tozawa made his first US appearances for DGUSA and would be a key part of the roster through 2013.
In what is billed as “Catch Point Reunion” match, current WWE Cruiserweight champion Drew Gulak will take on his former stablemate, Matt Riddle. Both men’s careers are intrinsically tied to their time in EVOLVE. Gulak began as a member of Chuck Taylor’s Gentlemen’s Club, but eventually went off on his own and eventually formed Catch Point, a group that helped shift the style in EVOLVE to a more mat-based style. Riddle joined Catch Point in 2016 shortly after debuting with the company the year before. EVOLVE was the first ‘name’ promotion to feature Riddle and his career exploded quickly both in EVOLVE and elsewhere. Along with current EVOLVE champion Austin Theory, Riddle is the only wrestler to hold both the EVOLVE and WWN titles.
The current EVOLVE champions will be featured prominently at EVOLVE 131 as well.
Current EVOLVE Champion Austin Theory (who is also a former WWN Champion) will face off with J.D. Drake, the current WWN champion, in a title unification match. The WWN title had been introduced in 2017 during the height of the FloSlam era and with WWN trying to push as many shows as possible, it made sense to have a second singles title. With the other WWN promotions less prominent in 2019, a unification match makes a lot of sense. Theory is only 21 and has only been wrestling since 2016, but is already getting buzz as a future WWE signee. Drake is a good deal older than Theory but has only a few more years of experience. His in-ring abilities and looks harken back to wrestlers like Arn Anderson and Buzz Sawyer, so he should be a good contrast to much slicker Theory.
The tag team title match features two men who’ve had some national exposure and two men who will be making their national debuts. The current champions are Eddie Kingston and Joe Gacy of the Unwanted. Kingston has had runs in both Impact and ROH while Gacy is most prominently known for his time in CZW. Opposing them will be AR Fox and his protégée, Leon Ruff. Fox has had two separate runs in EVOLVE/WWN and was the first EVOLVE champion in 2013. He has also appeared on the third and fourth seasons of Lucha Underground. Ruff, like Theory, was trained by Fox and is only a few years into his career. What he lacks in experience he more than makes up for in his abilities and talent.
The remainder of the card is filled with talent looking to make an impression not just in EVOLVE, but in WWE as well. In one of two grudge matches, former EVOLVE Tag Team Champion Anthony Henry faces NXT talent Arturo Ruas. The two men had previously fought to a double disqualification at EVOLVE 126 in April. In the other grudge match, a match only signed this week, Shotzi Blackheart will face Brandi Lauren. When no women’s match had been originally announced, Blackheart took to social media and went after Lauren who was scheduled to appear on the show but not wrestle. EVOLVE asked the fans if they wanted this match and the fans overwhelmingly responded affirmatively.
Two “special” matches will also feature prospects looking to make a name for themselves. NXT prospect Babatunde will face second-generation wrestler Colby Corino in a “special challenge” match. In a “special attraction” match, Josh Briggs and Anthony Greene, two of the brightest prospects in the northeast, will face off. Rounding out the card is a fatal four-way match featuring Curt Stallion, Sean Maluta, Stephen Wolf and Harlem Bravado. You can expect all these wrestlers, from the top of the card to the bottom, to try and make a big impression in the ring.
For EVOLVE Founder and Promoter Gabe Sapolsky, EVOLVE 131 will be the culmination of his more than 25 years in the professional wrestling business. It is fitting that the event will emanate from Philadelphia, the city in which many of his career accomplishments and changes have occurred in. Having started as a protégée of Paul Heyman in ECW to his work as the booker of Ring of Honor to the first DGUSA show (which is the actual anniversary being celebrated), Gabe has long been a part of Philadelphia’s continued status as a hotbed of United States independent wrestling.
EVOLVE 131 may also tell the tale of what EVOLVE will be going forward.
Over its existence, it has shifted from a more competition-based promotion with a focus on wins and losses to the sister promotion of DGUSA to the center of the WWN universe. Since 2015, it has also grown closer to WWE and has served as a major pipeline of talent into NXT. In 2018, Sapolsky began working as a consultant for WWE and by the end of the year, NXT talent had become a major part of EVOLVE shows. These moves have pushed some fans away while drawing in new fans interested in seeing NXT talent outside the WWE system.
Will EVOLVE 131 be a one time only special on the WWE Network? Or will this be the start of the promotion transitioning off of its own platform and fully integrating with the Network? Will other affiliated promotions like PROGRESS and WXW follow EVOLVE’s lead? When posed with the question of EVOLVE’s future on the Network during a Reddit AMA, Sapolsky demurred and wouldn’t say what comes next for EVOLVE.
Whatever does come next will begin this Saturday on the biggest platform EVOLVE, Gabe and many of the wrestlers have ever had.