To celebrate the upcoming WrestleMania Weekend, Voices of Wrestling contributors were encouraged to write about a past WrestleMania Weekend match.
The goal of the project was to find, discover and write about matches that resonated with our contributors for whatever reason, whether it be a great match, a memorable live experience, a personal connection or, even frustration.
Please enjoy this series and all of Voices of Wrestling’s WrestleMania Weekend coverage.
April 2nd, 2016
It was only five years ago, but it might as well be an eternity ago. Donald Trump was closing in on the Republican Nomination for President of the United States (an idea that would’ve been absurd not even a year prior), we were only weeks removed from Peyton Manning announcing his retirement from the NFL after winning his second Super Bowl, and the idea of a super deadly global pandemic was something that would’ve been seen as a science fiction fantasy.
The landscape of pro wrestling was also massively different than it is today, particularly in the United States.
WWE was still far ahead of its stateside competition ahead of WrestleMania 32 in the massive AT&T Stadium in Dallas, which was set to feature Shane McMahon’s first WWE match in almost seven years. Meanwhile, NXT (WWE’s increasingly popular third brand) had just put together only its third TakeOver in a major arena (which featured the debut of Shinsuke Nakamura in a critically acclaimed match against Sami Zayn).
Elsewhere, ROH was still riding the high of their resurgence that started in 2014 (which arguably vaulted them ahead of TNA as the #2 promotion in the United States), TNA was only months away from the emergence of Matt Hardy’s “Broken” universe, and Lucha Underground was still alive and kicking (having just hosted their first-ever house show in Austin, Texas a few weeks prior).
It was also a time when EVOLVE was reaching its peak as an independent promotion, with four figure crowds attending their events in Dallas at Eddie Dean’s Ranch to see an all-star roster of talents that included the likes of Johnny Gargano, Chris Hero, Drew Galloway, Ricochet, Will Ospreay, Marty Scurll, Tommy End, Matt Riddle, Kota Ibushi, and many others. I was just as excited for their lineups as everyone else was, though I enjoyed the festivities from my room on the third floor of my fraternity house, as I was just over eight months away from graduating from Penn State.
On that day, as EVOLVE 59 was about halfway through, myself and the rest of the world were introduced, for the first time, to a skinny guy from the state of Washington who (as explained to us by Lenny Leonard on commentary) got a spot on the card after taking part in a WWN training seminar that also featured appearances from WWE officials such as William Regal, Matt Bloom, and Canyon Ceman (this was also a few months before the Cruiserweight Classic, for further context). This guy’s name was Darby Allin. A pretty weird name, I thought at the time. I didn’t think much of him at that moment, as he just served as a body for Ethan Page to steamroll. We didn’t know it at the time, but that nothing squash match would serve as the catalyst for the feud that would launch Darby Allin’s career.
Fast forward a year later to March 31st, 2017….to WrestleMania Weekend in Orlando, and Darby Allin was headlining EVOLVE 81 in an Anything Goes Match against Ethan Page in what was, at the time, going to be the blowoff of their feud. It still amazes me that a seemingly nothing squash match somehow turned into this blood rivalry that launched the career of one match (Darby Allin) and proved to be a career highlight for the other (Ethan Page). I made that point in my review of EVOLVE 81, and it still holds true to this day. This was such an incredible story, from the people who crafted it (presumably Gabe Sapolsky, since EVOLVE was his baby) to the two guys involved who played their roles in this story to perfection.
Darby Allin’s entrance gave us a glimpse into what we would see from him years later in All Elite Wrestling, from the bodypaint on half of his body, to the body bag, to the group of people in medical attire wearing cutouts of Ethan Page’s face as a mask that surrounded Darby during his walkout (these cutouts would become a staple of Darby’s videos). Ethan Page was flanked by The Gatekeepers….aka two-thirds of CHIKARA’s Devastation Corporation.
Once the bell rang, the bulk of the bout was essentially an extended, much more violent version of their original encounter in Dallas. Darby would get in a few shots of offense here and there, but Page largely destroyed him. He ate a few chairs shots before Page pressed him over his head and just launched him from the ring, over the guardrail, and into the fourth or fifth row of chairs in an absolutely insane spot. This absolute beating would continue on the outside, as Page would throw Darby headfirst into a wall (which busted Darby open) and attack him with a ladder. There was a great shot of a bloody Darby scratching and crawling on the floor as he tried to recover, and while he managed to stay alive with spurts of offense (connecting with a hurricanrana on a chair, and a Tornado DDT before managing to put Page through a table), he still took an insane amount of damage. Page saw Darby at this fly that he couldn’t swat away, and no matter what he did, Darby always came back. That had been true in the year leading up to EVOLVE 81, and that was true in this match.
Ethan Page’s quest to destroy Darby Allin (a man who Page never saw as being on his level) continued with an insane press slam from the second rope that sent Darby crashing through two tables on the floor (The Gatekeepers must’ve set them up off-screen because you don’t even realize the tables are there until Darby gets sent crashing through them), following up by a Package Piledriver through two chairs. That set up a huge kickout from Darby that got a massive reaction from the crowd. It’s been said plenty of times before, but Darby Allin plays this underdog role so well. He either gets ragdolled by guys who are much larger than him (like his match against WALTER at EVOLVE 106), or gets brutalized and bloodied in bouts like this. Every time, however, he’ll manage to survive, and keep on fighting until there’s absolutely nothing left….all in pursuit of that major victory over Ethan Page. It’s not hard to get behind a guy like that.
The weakest part of the match saw a very young Austin Theory (who was only a few months into his EVOLVE/WWN tenure after having a standout match on the first Style Battle show a few months prior) and Priscilla Kelly get involved in an attempt to buy Darby some time. This effort proved to be successful, as it led to Darby doing a coffin drop onto The Gatekeepers while wearing a trash can in one of the most memorable spots of the entire weekend. Darby would then return to the ring to finish his fight with Ethan Page, and nailed him with several trash can shots before putting Page through a table with a big splash from the top of a ladder to secure the win that he had been searching a full year for.
This was an excellent blowoff to what was an awesome feud, and yes….I’m considering this bout at EVOLVE 81 to be the blowoff….not the Last Man Standing Match at EVOLVE 82 where Ethan Page got his win back. It was unquestionably an inferior match and is also stained with the fact that Darby Allin suffered a pretty nasty elbow injury after Page smacked him in the arm with a shovel. Regardless, the EVOLVE 81 main event these two had was one of the standout bouts of that WrestleMania Weekend and, as I said earlier, the feud in general was a big moment for both guys. Outside of his tag team with Josh Alexander, the rivalry with Darby Allin was some of the best work Ethan Page has ever done in his career as a singles wrestler. As for Darby Allin, this was the feud that put him on the map. You can’t tell the story of Darby Allin without talking about the Ethan Page feud in EVOLVE. It is what set him on the path that eventually led to him becoming one of AEW’s most recognizable names. Imagine traveling back in time to Eddie Dean’s Ranch and telling someone there that this Darby Allin guy was going to become one of the biggest names in a company that would not only be on TNT of all places, but would come to pose the biggest threat to WWE since WCW. All of that may have never happened if Darby didn’t capture the attention of the wrestling world through that rivalry.
It’s incredible to think about how far Darby Allin has come since we first saw him at EVOLVE 59 back in 2016, but there’s no question that through the incredible rivalry with Ethan Page and more specifically, the amazing blowoff at EVOLVE 81, a future wrestling star was born.