Monday, January 9, 2017

2016 Year In Review/2017 Year in Preview: EVOLVE

2016 was Riddle's year to shine, bro
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
The feeder promotion to WWE's feeder promotion had an interesting 2016.

2016, Summarized: EVOLVE came into 2016 with Timothy Thatcher having a stranglehold on the company's Championship. Despite his lock on the belt, he didn't lack challengers. Catch Point, the stable of gritty grapplers, had several members nipping at his heels, namely Drew Gulak and the phenomenon Matt Riddle. Riddle had been calling out "Trashy Tim" even before the year began, and his case was bolstered by winning the Style Battle over fellow stable member "Hot Sauce" Tracy Williams. Riddle got three shots at the title, all of which were unsuccessful. The first two had questionable finishes; EVOLVE 57's match ended on a confusing low blow spot that allowed Thatcher to get a surprise headbutt for the win, and EVOLVE 59 saw the match end in a no contest. Finally, they settled their trilogy at EVOLVE 66, when Thatcher defeated Riddle, but wouldn't stop stretching him after the bell, which drew ire from Drew Gulak, Catch Point's founder and leader. The tensions boiled over into EVOLVE 71, when Gulak bested Thatcher in a non-title street fight "to the finish." Thatcher was still Champion, but at no point did his reign feel more tenuous. Luckily for him, Stokely Hathaway was there to offer his services. Hathaway burst onto the scene in EVOLVE as TJ Perkins' representation in advance of the Cruiserweight Classic. Perkins won the tournament and left EVOLVE, so Hathaway was left without a client. He petitioned Thatcher to accept him until he did after EVOLVE 71. Thatcher went wire-to-wire as the Champ in 2016, and looks to keep that going in the new year as the new cornerstone member of The Dream Team.

Thatcher wasn't the only adversary for Catch Point in 2016, but to fully recap the other big feud, one must examine the beginnings. EVOLVE added Tag Team Championships, crowning the first holders in a one-weekend tournament in January. Johnny Gargano was set to compete alongside Thatcher, but the Champ had to sit out thanks to a staph infection. Gargano teamed with Drew Galloway, and they went onto win the whole thing, which they'd hold until losing the belts to Catch Point's Gulak and Williams WrestleMania weekend. Shortly after though, Galloway would suffer a psychotic break, losing his mind over EVOLVE's working relationship with WWE. He allied himself with other castoffs and misfits such as Chris Hero and DUSTIN (formerly Chuck Taylor). The group ran amok on EVOLVE, targeting Gargano and Catch Point as the ones most benefiting from WWE's teat. Galloway and DUSTIN won the Tag Championships, and the group continued to wreak havoc even as the wheels slowly started to fall off. They were rebuked by both Cody Rhodes and Riddle, the latter who was named as the new "face of EVOLVE" after Gargano departed for WWE full-time. Finally, Hero fell off from the group completely. DUSTIN turned on him after they lost the Tag Titles (Hero subbing for an injured Galloway), but Hero had the last laugh, defeating him in one of his last matches before heading to WWE. As for Catch Point, it not only lost Perkins as a member, but Gulak, who also went to WWE. However, Riddle, Williams, and Fred Yehi not only promised to continue the group, but to bolster the ranks by adding Chris Dickinson and Jaka on the last show of 2016.

Page emerged as a major bad guy
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
Speaking of antagonists, Ethan Page emerged as a major baddie in 2016. He spent most of the first part of the year trying to play nice after garnering a rep in 2015 of being a prick. He tried showing Gargano that he was a good guy, a good friend, and an honorable wrestler. However, that facade went out the window when Gargano said farewell to EVOLVE and Page led an assault that included Galloway's outsiders and a new tag team called The Gatekeepers (Blaster McMassive and Flex Rumblecrunch from Chikara) on him. Page shot up the ranks as one of the top villains of EVOLVE, parlaying his antics into a title shot and some top of the card opponents. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Zack Sabre, Jr. set out to prove that he was indeed the best wrestler in the world. He set out on an exhibition series against several of the best that EVOLVE had to offer, but after a hot start, he faltered down the stretch of his five match trial series. This setback caused Sabre to reexamine his purpose in EVOLVE, which set him on a path to gain the EVOLVE Championship. However, after consecutive losses to Page and Gulak, that path looks more muddled than ever.

2016, Analyzed: On the upside, EVOLVE probably had the best actual in-ring year of any major company in America, indie or corporate. I don't want to subscribe this quality to any one thing. One could attribute it to the fact that it leaned on several technically sound mat grapplers while peppering the roster with skilled men of differing styles (Gargano, Ricochet, Darby Allin). Or maybe one could credit the roster not really bloating too much. EVOLVE remained a mostly tight-knit promotion with the same cast of regulars throughout the year, which led to increased chemistry. Even rematches that happened twice or even three times during the year didn't feel stale because the wrestlers on the roster by and large have been smart enough to change the game up each time out. Basically, if one wanted to rent a show and get bang for their buck, that person would buy an EVOLVE video on demand, or if recently, get a monthly pass to FloSlam.

EVOLVE deserves praise for going to FloSlam as well. Having all those VODs available in one place and only offering them a la carte felt like the biggest missed opportunity to bring in new viewers, and FloSlam corrects that. Once the entire library is up, the service will be more than worth it. However, as a live streaming service, FloSlam lacks, what I can only guess is not on its end but on the WWN/EVOLVE side. WWN streams have always notoriously been shoddy at best, and the quality has not improved. If you're going to offer live streaming, then you must, must, MUST make sure it works more than it doesn't.

Losing Hero will be a big blow
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
Streaming quality is far from the only critique of EVOLVE in 2016. From a storytelling perspective, EVOLVE is all messed up, to put it lightly. Basically, the promotion wants to be a pure sports company, but it has no idea on how to present itself in a concrete manner. To be frank, EVOLVE has had this problem since its inception. It runs too many angles about "respect" and other nebulous concepts. Hell, the big heel angle, Galloway's marauders causing havoc, was over wanting to "save EVOLVE from itself." What the fuck does that mean to a first-time viewer who doesn't know the backstage workings with WWE?

Basically, EVOLVE isn't a pure sports company. Fuck, Chikara does pure sports build better than EVOLVE, and its biggest angle is about a demon possessing the top rudos in an attempt to swallow the company whole. EVOLVE is what happens when wrestling bubble "smarks" book a wrestling promotion around their discussions about drawing and meat market evaluations of wrestlers, even down to the commentary. I swear, if I hear Lenny "Lenny Leonard" Leonard talk about "the seminar" again, I'm going to flip out. No company has more of a gap between how it tells stories outside of the ring and how the wrestlers tell them inside of the ring than EVOLVE right now, not even WWE's RAW brand. That fact is the biggest shame of them all, because EVOLVE's roster is about as good as any roster that doesn't allow women to wrestle on it can possibly be right now.

2017, Forecasted: Right off the bat, EVOLVE is working from a deficit. Drew Gulak is gone from the company to join the ranks of WWE's pit of despair Cruiserweight Division, while Chris Hero will leave after wrestling Zack Sabre, Jr. at EVOLVE 77 Royal Rumble weekened. To put it into perspective, EVOLVE losing both those wrestlers would be like if Smackdown were to lose both AJ Styles and John Cena tomorrow. However, it still has a tremendous talent base from which to work. Matt Riddle is ready to carry the mantel, and his Catch Point brothers Fred Yehi and Hot Sauce Williams are not far behind. Drew Galloway still adds main event heft, and for all his faults, Cody Rhodes is still a name. Plus Champ Timothy Thatcher, Ricochet, Ethan Page, DUSTIN, Jason Kincaid, Darby Allin, Sami Callihan, and Sabre should all contribute going forward. Plus, with Jeff Cobb, Chris Dickinson, and Jaka coming aboard, EVOLVE has a unique opportunity to keep momentum going. But how will the company go forward?

ACH is a HUGE addition for '17
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
Well, for one, Williams will probably be the next big challenger for Thatcher in the near future. He makes the most sense, since he defeated both Hero and Gulak at the end of last year and is the leader of Catch Point. Sure, he holds the Tag Titles right now with Yehi, but I doubt that would be a huge stumbling block. Of course, Thatcher may not make it out of Rumble weekend with the title, since he takes on Cobb at EVOLVE 77. And of course, Thatcher and Cobb could be Tag Champions IMPLODING since they get shots at the Tag Titles the night before at EVOLVE 76. Page is another sensible contender going forward, since his momentum has been kept solid. And one can never count out The Bro Supreme himself, Riddle.

Of course, I'd be remiss without mentioning ACH's re-debut with the company at EVOLVE 76 and 77. The San Antonio high-flyer got a cup of coffee with EVOLVE/Dragon Gate USA before moving onto Ring of Honor, but after a falling out with that company late last year, he made the lateral move as many expected him to. ACH will add a lot of dynamite to the promotion. He'll get a huge chance to shine, and hopefully, the company will have sense enough to book him vs. Ricochet before one or both of them eventually head to NXT.

2017, Wanted: I was excited as anyone else when EVOLVE announced that it would be deciding Tag Team Champions around this time last year, but the titles have had swirling malaise around them ever since they were introduced. For me, the biggest reason has been that the company made the decision not to foster a healthy tag division with established teams, but just slap singles guys together and make them the focus. With how tag wrestling has made a resurgence in WWE, especially in NXT, it doesn't make sense for the indie/feeder closest to WWE not to have a division with established teams. The Gatekeepers are a nice start; they had an awesome 2016 in Chikara as the Devastation Corporation. Tag teams are out there. Hell, WWN Live has used several of them for the EVOLVE tourney or other affiliated promotions. Where are the Bravado Brothers and Team Tremendous and the Hooligans and the Submission Squad? What about other teams like Hallowicked and Frightmare or Da Hit Squad or the Jollyville Fuck-Its? Tag team wrestling isn't something you can do by slapping dudes together with barely any story or as a means to further other weak angles. EVOLVE has done a great job of developing a singles division with great rapport, so now the time has come to do the same with the tags by giving teams their own playground.

I would also like to see a return to the Philadelphia area. EVOLVE's last show here ended in acrimony, thanks to a crowd filled largely with ECW partisans shitting on a main event between two guys they were predisposed towards hating. The company swore off the city thanks to a bad crowd (even though most of the miscreants were there on a bus trip from New York City 👀), but honestly, how are you going to run a national company and skip over one of the best cities for wrestling? ROH tried phasing Philly out and got terrible crowds in Baltimore as a result. I'm not saying phasing out Joppa as a tour stop should be on the table, because Maryland fans deserve some national love. I'm just saying, don't shut out Philadelphia because your dumb asses are too proud to admit you made the fucking mistake of booking EVOLVE 10 to an ECW crowd, not that Philly is an "awful" town. I know, I know, this polemic won't help get EVOLVE back here. I'm just continually mad online. Someone help me.