OPENING SEGMENT - Very good. We've got a new "hostess" tonight, Joanna Rose, (Heather Lynn is still our ring announcer) and Joanna asks us to welcome our new DGUSA Open The Freedom Gate Champion, Johnny Gargano. In the almost four months since the last EVOLVE show, the WWN, the parent company/major streaming platform for DGUSA, EVOLVE, SHINE, and FIP (and later ACW and Style Battle) held several rather ambitious shows. Four of them, to be exact. And they were ambitious because they took place in China, which has had very little pro wrestling before. While the events drew remarkably well, WWN hasn't gone back since (likely due to prohibitive costs of flying people over, dealing with the Chinese government, and fear that the crowds they drew were mostly curiosity more than established wrestling fans and that they hadn't made enough of those people into wrestling fans willing to see more over the course of the tour). Either way, there were some big titles changes that took place on those shows, and one of those was Johnny Gargano regaining the DGUSA Open The Freedom Gate Title from Ricochet, who he had ended his almost two and half year reign back in April.
Gargano is being a total babyface here, but given his history as a "smarmy heel who is sarcastically being a babyface" during his first run as Open The Freedom Gate Champion, I'm a little wary as to whether or not I'm supposed to take his statements at face value. I probably am, as he puts over the whole roster as the stars of tomorrow and the stars of today (and particularly puts over Galloway for "reinventing himself" and now living up to his "full potential") but the fact that I'm still wary speaks to the effectiveness of that first run, as well as the way Gabe has booked this on-going face turn- slow enough that I still feel like this Johnny Gargano is that same guy who was a douchebag heel for all of those years, and with all of his motives for turning face so far being just self-serving enough that I can easily see him slipping back into his role as a heel, without it feeling like he turned and turned back.
Johnny says that 2015 will see a lot of new talent coming to EVOLVE, and he pitched the idea to EVOLVE management that the wrestlers themselves pick who these new talents will be, with each member of the roster getting the opportunity to "sponsor" a new talent. This sounds like a pretty cool idea, as it is different than what you see in a lot of companies, has a very grassroots/EVOLVE feel to it, and immediately sets these new wrestlers up in a situation where there are a number of different stories that can be told with the sponsor/sponsored relationship that can all complement each other via the contrast between them.
Before we can hear more about his, current FIP World Heavyweight Champion (he too won his belt in China) and Gargano's friend-turned-enemy-turned-who-knows-what Rich Swann came out. Swann seems to buy into Gargano's face turn. He also brings up their time in the Ronin stable in DGUSA, a stable they and Chuck Taylor formed because they felt that the veterans were trying to keep them down. For this reason, Swann says that he liked Johnny's idea for the wrestles to be the ones to sponsor new talent, and because Johnny's originally scheduled opponent for tonight, Caleb Konley, got injured, Swann suggests that if Johnny is serious about his desire to help young wrestlers make their names, he the wrestler that Swann is sponsoring, Shane Strickland. Gargano agrees, explicitly pointing out the tie-in to the founding of Ronin, and saying that he would be a hypocrite if he didn't give Strickland the biggest opportunity possible, so he even offers to put the DGUSA Open The Freedom Gate Title on the line!
This was a very good segment. It not only introduced Strickland in a big spot (challenging for a title and with FIP World Heavyweight Champion Rich Swann's endorsement) and also reminded us about Ronin, which not only would become important for tomorrow night, but the tie-in really helped sell me on the sincerity of Gargano's babyface turn.
DGUSA OPEN THE FREEDOM GATE TITLE MATCH:
Johnny Gargano(c) vs. Shane Strickland (w/Rich Swann) - 7/10
A very strong opener, but I really didn't like the spot where Gargano reversed one of Strickland's flippy moves with a superkick because Strickland "miscalculated how far away Gargano was." It's not that I didn't like the spot itself, but having that be the thing that leads to the flurry of offense that wins it for Gargano made Strickland look pretty bad to me, and that's really not what you want when you're pushing a guy as part of your new talent initiative. Gargano worked the structural role of the heel and did some things that were, let's say "debatably" legal, like working over the fingers (I think it's legal but until the recent spurt of British influence in the US has only really been used by heels in North America), and breaking cleanly but then throwing a chop while Strickland was still in the corner, which worked well with the sort of confusing transition period he is in; he's not doing anything majorly illegal so he seems to be turning babyface, but he's still doing things that are generally frowned upon... and yet some of that would probably fit in with any "veteran vs. new guy" match, which is what this theoretically was. It kept us guessing as to whether the babyface turn was genuine, but once again ended on a very babyface note of offering Strickland a respectful post-match handshake.
POST-MATCH SEGMENT - Good. Also helping the case for Gargano being seen as a babyface is Moose coming out and spearing him. Rich Swann ran back out to defend Gargano, nailing Moose with an enzugiri. Moose's employers, the Bravado Brothers then came out and explained that this attack was in retaliation for Gargano calling them "jerks" on the China tour, and where they come from, such strong language is clearly "fighting words," and thus something must be done to make Gargano pay. That something, one of the Bravados announced, was that "in 2015, we're going to make your like a living... it's gonna be really bad for you."
BIFF BUSICK vs. TREVOR LEE - 7/10
No one is sponsoring Trevor Lee. He earned his way onto the roster the old-fashioned way. He put on quite the good showing in his debut and took a lot of punishment and still kept going, but unfortunately he came up short here, being choked out by Biff Busick.
A.R. FOX & UHAA NATION vs. THE BRAVADO BROTHERS (w/Moose) - 7/10
A fun and exciting tag match. Fox and Uhaa came up with some nifty-looking double-teams, and Fox took a huge bump while the Bravados were their consistent selves. Fox and Uhaa picked up the win but Moose laid Fox out afterwards, then distracted Uhaa so the Bravados could jump him from behind and lay him out with the Gentleman's Agreement.
RICOCHET vs. TIMOTHY THATCHER - 7.5/10
Thatcher first tried to take Ricochet's agility away by working on his legs before switching to the arms to try to win via various armbars but Ricochet hung in there and picked up the win. That final struggle in the armbar (and really the whole finishing sequence) was particularly great.
RICOCHET PROMO - Not so good. Between having just wrestled a match and then having to deal with an obnoxious heckler (whom he dealt with very well), he got lost and side-tracked a bit and then misspoke on some important words (there is no "EVOLVE Gate Championship." The belt he is challenging for tomorrow night is the "Evolve Championship"), and he came off more like a heel than the babyface he is supposed to be.
SOCAL VAL OFFERS TO MANAGE THE PREMIER ATHLETE BRAND - Val says that Su Yung has been lax in her duties as manager while the Premier Athlete Brand were on the WWN China tour and was "too busy sleeping with the enemy." She says that if the P.A.B. are serious about their careers, they should "upgrade" and hire her to manage them. I haven't been following other WWN promotions, but they seemed to imply that there is some sort of previous relationship between Konley and Val. Val as great here, as always, but some credit is also due to Konley and Su for their reactions in the background, with Su taking offense to Val's comments and Konley gently but firmly stopping her from getting in Val's face when she clearly wanted to.
10 MINUTE FLASH:
Rich Swann vs. Anthony Nese (w/Su Yung & Caleb Konley) - 4/10
This was a ten-minute Ironman Match. Swann scored a fall via roll-up very early on and controlled things until Nese got frustrated and hit him in the leg with a chair, taking an intentional DQ in order to weaken Swann for the remainder of the match. The problem was that although he did get a quick submission fall via single-leg crab right after it and just like you'd expect they kept going back to the same hold in the last minute, including time running out with Swann in the hold to edge out the 2-1 win, Swann didn't sell his leg for pretty much the entire remainder of the match, so the story wasn't really that effective.
For its exact moment in time the booking was okay, but knowing where things are headed for the P.A.B.'s managerial situation (Nese will accept Val's offer tomorrow night and demote Su to Val's assistant, which will result in Val spending month's belittling Su before finally firing her for trying to stand up for herself), I think there was a much better way this match could have been booked. If I were booking this I would have had the only fall be the DQ, and rather than have Su distract the referee but the referee turn back to the match with ample time to warn Nese not to hit Swann with the chair but have Nese do it anyway because he's frustrated, I would have had Su simply release the referee's attention a moment to early so that he turned around catches Nese mid-chairshot and calls for the DQ, then built the rest of match around Nese trying to capitalize on the damage to Swann's knee and at least get that tying fall but Swann holding out and fighting through the pain and never giving up, with time expiring with him in some sort of knee-targetting submission. This way you protect Nese by having the only fall be via DQ, and more importantly you make the DQ- and with it the entire loss- due to Su's screw-up, giving Nese more reason to turn to Val tomorrow night, while still getting you to the same place you want to be after the match, which is Nese being upset with Su and Swann's knee being injured so that he will be vulnerable for when Moose and the Bravado Brothers come out for the...
POST-MATCH SEGMENT - Very good. Moose and the Bravado Brothers come out and set Swann up for some sort of devastating maneuver but Johnny Gargano runs out with a chair to make the save. Gargano nails Moose with several chairshots to the back but the big man doesn't go down until Swann gets up and nails him with an Ace Crusher onto a chair (and this time he remembers to sell his knee).
Gargano then grabbed a mic and said that he wants to end this with a tag team match tomorrow night, asking Swann to team with him, even if he doesn't trust him. Swann agrees to do so, but modifies things a bit by suggesting that he use some of his frequent flyer miles to fly their old pal Chuck Taylor in to make it a six-man match (with the unspoken implication being that Swann wants at least one person in the match he can trust if Gargano decides to turn on him). The Bravados agree, but suggest that they up the stakes even more by proposing that the losing team can never team again because they want to run Ronin out of the WWN just like they ran the Young Bucks out of WWN. Gargano accepts, and we've got what on the one hand seems like a big match for tomorrow night, but there really doesn't seem to be too much actually on the line for the babyfaces here because Ronin isn't even an active stable. The whole point of the match, of course, is to be a turning point in the Swann/Gargano relationship and the Bravados gave a reasonable kayfabe reason for why they would want such a stipulation so I'm not saying the booking is bad, just that the match doesn't feel quite as big as the stipulations might suggest.
RODERICK STRONG vs. DREW GALLOWAY - 7.75/10
Incensed after Roddy's post-match attack at the last show, Drew threw down his jacket and threw down the Evolve Championship belt and demanded that the referee ring the bell. Roddy, meanwhile, retreated to the safety of the crowd. He asked Heather Lynn for her microphone and cut a promo, apologizing to Drew for his very "out of character" actions last time, including hitting Drew with a microphone to start the match and hitting him with the ring bell after it. He says that they "got off on the wrong foot" and offers to get into the ring and tell Drew he's sorry. He says that even though this has been advertised as a "grudge match" he has no grudge against Drew- though he totally understands why Drew might harbor one against him- so he just wants to apologize to Drew and then they can shake hands and have "a great wrestling match. An on-the-mat, technical masterpiece."
This whole time referee Brandon Toley has been standing trying to calm Drew down and back him up and let Roddy speak. When he was ready to offer a handshake, Roddy actually pulled Toley right between him and Drew to act as a human shield, which was a great heel move. Roddy tries to get the fans to chant "SHAKE HIS HAND!" to convince Drew to do so, but about three quarters of them started to chant for Drew to KICK HIS ASS!" instead.
Drew finally agrees, giving Roddy the quickest, angriest, most dismissive handshake you've ever seen... and Roddy then lived up to his word and actually did apologize... and then he charged right for Drew, still holding the microphone but Drew was ready for his treachery and nailed him with a big lariat. AWESOME!
The "Grudge Match" label apparently means just about the same thing as the old "Relaxed Rules" in ROH, which makes you wonder why they didn't just call it that, as ROH never does them anymore and I highly doubt that ROH trademarked the name. Either way, the ref went beyond that in my opinion and pretty much let them do whatever they wanted, but I'm going to place the blame for that on the advertising/billing part of Gabe's job, because it's pretty clear that these guys were all under instructions from Gabe to go out and have a vicious grudge match with some weapons and brawling through the crowd, because that's how what their previous match and the pre-match segment both set up for, that's how Lenny Leonard framed it, that's how the referee treated it, and that's how Roddy and Drew fought it (as opposed to in New Japan where heels just grab weapons for the sake of it in every match and the referees never try to stop them or DQ them).
But like I said, either way, I think these guys went too far for that. Lenny Leonard said that they were going to be given latitude "within reason," but by the time you're doing move OUTSIDE, ON THE SIDEWALK, I think you've crossed that line. They had a vicious brawl all over the place and when they finally got back into the ring they started swinging chairs at each other so the referee just called for the bell to end it. This was one hell of a brawl and that is what I have rated it as, but it was really intended to just show the hatred between these two men and set up for the...
POST-MATCH SEGMENT - Roddy and Drew kept fighting and wound up on the outside. Ring announcer Heather Lynn then got into the ring to announce that match was officially a no-contest. The fact that she hadn't gotten into the ring to announce any other results throughout the night should have been a clue that something was up. That something turned out to be Roddy trying to escape Drew by crawling back into the ring, then grabbing onto Heath to help pull himself up. Drew charged in for a Claymore Kick and Roddy, right at the last moment and with just enough plausible deniability to avoid punishment by the company (even though we all know he did it and he did it on purpose), pushed Heather in the way and Drew hit her by accident.
Being a good babyface, Drew went to check on Heather while Roddy, for his part, tried to crawl away. As Drew went to take Heather to the back, Roddy decided to get on the mic and run his mouth, but before he could even start, Drew charged at him and they started to brawl again before it was quickly broken up by the referees who had come out to check on Heather, plus a legion of Young Boys. Drew wanted to keep fighting and the crowd wanted the fight to keep going, but Roddy didn't and he left.
I liked this a lot in theory, as it let Roddy both escape punishment from Drew and be a dastardly heel, and it definitely felt big because referees rarely ever take bumps in EVOLVE, never mind the ring announcer. The problem is that it was kind of a big downer to end the show on. Yeah, it's a big angle, but it's not the sort of angle that makes you say "Holy sh*t! I can't believe that just happened! I can't wait to see the next show to see what the fallout from this will be!" and thus it didn't replace the feeling of disappointment that the main event ended in a no-contest.
Gabe was definitely aware that this might be an issue because when Drew then started to cut a promo he challenged Roddy to come back and fight him and not let the show end in a no-contest (with the idea of that clearly being to try to put the heat on Roddy rather than fans getting annoyed at the promotion for ending a show with a disappointing finish, but I don't think that tactic is ever really successful for this sort of thing in this day and age), and that's really what surprises me the most about the choice to end the main event like this. Gabe is a pretty cautious booker when it comes to protecting the reputation of his promotions for having satisfying main events in terms of both work-rate and finishes, and while he might stray from that a bit in places like FIP, when it has come to "his" promotions- the promotions that have been all but synonymous with him while he was the booker- like ROH and EVOLVE, he has guarded that reputation- and especially when it comes to finishes- very zealously. Who has been more synonymous with a clean and satisfying main event finish in wrestling since Giant Baba died? Maybe Misawa, I guess? But certainly no one in the eight years since Misawa died, and certainly no one in North America since Sam Muchnick. This is a guy who was so worried about having a satisfying main event finish that eponymous Joe vs. Punk match from ROH World Title Classic didn't actually main event that show (and Ultimate Endurance Match for the tag titles did) because Gabe was worried that fans wouldn't find a one-hour Broadway for the world title to be satisfying enough. And finding a reason for something else to be the main event on a night he has something he's worried might not be a satisfying finish for a major match is a tactic Gabe has used many times over the years... which makes it all the more baffling that he didn't use it here tonight. I understand not putting the Open The Freedom Gate Title match as the main event because it needed to in its place on the card for the sake of the Swann/Gargano/Bravados story that would play out over the course of the night and set up tomorrow night's main event, but I see no reason why Ricochet vs. Thatcher couldn't have main evented tonight's show. Yes, Roddy vs. Drew is a bigger match, but all you need to solve that problem is have Drew come out in the middle of the show and cut a promo saying he's tired of waiting and demanding that Roddy come out so they can have their match right now and you've got a perfectly reasonable excuse for why your advertised main event is going to go on second to last and Thatcher vs. Ricochet can then go on last (where I think the main event positioning would also have benefited Thatcher as someone who was pretty much a brand new face to anyone who wasn't paying attention to smaller Northern California indies).
But that's enough second-guessing the card-construction of a show that took place almost three years ago. Now let's talk about the...
DREW GALLOWAY SHOW-CLOSING PROMO - Drew, being a good babyface, said that once he was done talking here he was going to personally take Heather Lynn to the hospital. He then said he wanted to transition to talking about more positive things, and put over the fans. He also said that during his reign he was going to make the Evolve Championship mean more than it ever had before, and, noting that while EVOLVE spent a few months off due to the difficulty in setting up for the WWN tour of China, Drew had been going around the world defend the Evolve Championship, and that he was therefore declaring it to now be the Evolve World Championship. While this was an otherwise great promo, it felt pretty odd to have Drew make this announcement after a non-title match (and especially one he had wanted to be a title match but was told by the company that it couldn't be because Roddy was un-ranked, which made it even more odd that he was allowed to defend the title outside of EVOLVE again other people who surely weren't in the official EVOLVE rankings). I think it would have made a lot more sense for him to cut this promo after his title defense against Ricochet tomorrow night.
Another strong show from EVOLVE, with consistently great wrestling all up and down the card aside from the one match that was only booked for ten minutes, and although there was a big angle at the end, I thought that actually brought the show down a bit (for the reasons I went into detail on above). The changes continue to come during this transition period, and even though most of tonight's changes were really about set-up for tomorrow (Val will take over the P.A.B., Swann and Gargano have reached a turning point and we set up a match to solidify the direction their relationship will now take with tomorrow night's match, we've got a "losing stable must disband" match for tomorrow, and we even got an angle to set up getting a new ring announcer), tonight still did feature the debut of SoCal Val, the main-show debut of Trevor Lee, and we closed with the news that our singles title is now a world title.