CURT STALLION vs. HARLEM BRAVADO - 7/10
A great opener, though with a slightly surprising result.
DJ Z vs. JOSH BRIGGS - 7/10
This was ten minutes of a really MEAN wrestling match. Punches to the back of the neck, SICK knees to the face and DDTs, and all of that good stuff. They seemed to make a conscious effort to have very few nearfalls, but make every nearfall feel as close as possible.
COLBY CORINO vs. SLIM J vs. JOE GACY vs. LEON RUFF - 5/10
This was short but action-packed and good for the time it got. The finish saw Gacy pin Ruff, while Colby Corino just stood a few feet away and kind of watched... but maybe he was scared by Gacy's crazy death-stare eyes? They had a short stare-down afterwards with Colby backing off and the camera paid attention to Colby's exit and the announcers called attention the whole thing with a cryptic "not just what we just saw there," so there will definitely be something coming out of this. Gacy's recent winning streak combined with getting the pin over the only person in this match currently contracted to WWN is probably a big step towards him getting a full-time roster spot.
SHANE STRICKLAND vs. A.R. FOX (w/Ayla Fox & The Skulk) - 8/10
This was definitely more of a "big moves" match than I prefer, but at no point did the "big moves match" aspect of it make any of their false finishes feel any less believable. There was never a sense of "well with everything else they've kicked out of so far, there is now way that will end the match, either." They also did a wonderful job of making this feel like a war, and that they truly (as the announcers said) left it all in the ring. Some of the spots with The Skulk were a little contrived, but, even taking that into account, this match was awesome.
EVOLVE TITLE MATCH:
Austin Theory(c) vs. Anthony Henry - 7.5/10
This was a GREAT match, but at the same time it still didn't quite feel like the big world title match it was supposed to. Their storytelling was fine with Theory working over Henry's midsection while Henry's taped-up knee also gave him some problems at key moments and Theory capitalized on that in the end and Henry was very good in his role as the determined babyface, but the match felt like it somehow didn't add up to the sum of its parts.
POST-MATCH SEGMENT - Not so good. Theory cut a cocky promo burying Henry and telling Adam Cole that Cole made the biggest mistake of his life last night. Priscilla Kelly then came out and vowed to make Theory miserable for casting her aside, saying that he owes his success to her and that he was weak before she took him under her wing. She vowed to tell Darby Allin everything she knows about him and to ensure that Darby takes the Evolve Title from him. Theory didn't take her seriously at all, and even laughed when she started shoving him. Meanwhile, the fans chanted "BITCHY EX-GIRLFRIEND" at Priscilla... and I can't really blame them because that's what she is coming off like.
As I've noted before, I've had a very hard time accepting Priscilla as a babyface because she never actually turned babyface. She can be angry that Theory fired her as his manager, but she has never once acknowledged that any of the cheating shenanigans she instigated to bring him to the top were in any way wrong. Priscilla's comments here brought that issue to a whole new level for me. She took this young, innocent babyface and taught him to be a douchebag, and now she's upset that he acted like a douchebag to her? I'm not saying she doesn't have a right to be angry with him, but from where I'm sitting firmly on the babyface side of the fence, getting fired by Austin Theory after helping him win the title is Priscilla getting her just desserts.
Furthermore, while Priscilla can certainly claim to have help Theory rise to the top, he just beat Anthony Henry cleanly and last night he beat Darby Allin cleanly as well, so it's not like he owes ALL of his success to her, so it's not even that she is trying to right her own wrongs by ensuring that there is a worthy champion because Theory has proved himself worthy with his wins over top EVOLVE names. Her flat-out admitting that this is about revenge for Theory casting her aside makes accepting her as a babyface even harder. If she is going to be a heel trying to bring Theory down then that's fine, but the commentary has treated her like she's now some sort of babyface, and she just isn't. Theory's promo was good and Priscilla's promo was good in a vacuum, but the angle with Priscilla as a bayface just isn't working.
EDDIE KINGSTON vs. ANGELO DAWKINS - 2/10
They wrestled a bit and brawled a bit and then Kingston got a chair and hit Dawkins with it for the DQ. I'd really f*cking sick of these Eddie Kingston DQs and came close to giving this one a dud out of sheer anger.
Kingston destroyed Dawkins' knee with a chair, like he did to Anthony Henry last night, and then allowed the referees to lead him away when they intervened. The announcers pushed that Kingston clearly didn't care about winning and losing, and the idea that he was here to "clean up" EVOLVE, which hasn't really been brought up since his first weekend in, so that's a positive sign of some actual direction to all of this.
WWN TITLE MATCH:
J.D. Drake(c) vs. Montez Ford - 7.5/10
On his way to the ring Ford was asking fans and the camera person if it was true that Dawkins got injured, playing into the announcers' comments that he was unaware of what happened to his partner due to preparing for his own match.
This was a hard-hitting, emotion-driven grudge match, but not one driven by hate, which allowed for the post-match show of respect to feel so much more believable than most you see between two guys who are feuding with each other. Rather than the usual "Ford is mentally distracted by what had just happened to his partner" the announcers pushed this is as sort of a test for Ford to overcome. Ford lost this match, but he never seemed distracted during the match, so he did actually past the "test" and prove that he could keep his head in the moment, although framing it this way instead of the usual way doesn't give Ford that protective excuse for why he lost that can be used to build to a rematch.
I think that was actually done specifically to avoid the idea of a rematch, as the post-match show of respect here really felt like an ending to this feud. That is a little odd on the one hand, as Drake's tag partner Anthony Henry is clearly unhappy with NXT's presence in EVOLVE (aside from established indy names like Hero) and the feud originally started as a tag feud, but the real moment that this escalated into an actual feud was between Ford and Drake after their first match back at Evolve 115 when Ford playfully- in his own mind, but clearly not in Drake's- reached for Drake's WWN Title after pinning him in a tag match, so ending the feud with mutual respect after a WWN Title match between Ford and Drake does make sense.
POST-MATCH SEGMENT - Finally, something advances! After the aforementioned mutual show of respect, Eddie Kingston came out and attacked Drake from behind. Ford attacked Kingston, but was attacked by Joe Gacy and Colby Corino. Angelo Dawkins hobbled out to try to make the save but his knee got taken out and stomped on some more. By this time Drake managed to recover and nailed each heel with a clothesline, but then Shane Strickland came out and floored him with a high knee to the face. Kingston then grabbed a mic and cut a promo explaining that at one point or another, all four of them were rejected by EVOLVE, but now they are here and speak for "the Unwanted" which I assume will be the name of their faction. The announcers noted to us that Kingston had previously complained about the "numbers game" being unfair to him, and so now he has gone out and gotten himself some numbers.
ADAM COLE vs. DARBY ALLIN - 7.25/10
This was full of character, as you'd expect, but was disappointingly short for a main event. The quality was passable for a main event level match, but there are certain promotions that I really expect more out of from an in-ring perspective (especially when it's not a TV show) and EVOLVE is definitely one of them. Cole kept trash-talking Darby and telling him "you're not on my level," which unfortunately seemed to be borne out by Darby's clean loss. This whole "Darby Allin's NXT gauntlet" story isn't clicking for me at all, and the fact that he has lost so many of these matches (6 out of 7, with five of the losses being clean and the only win coming against the guy who had to cheat to beat him) makes the fact that Gabe seems to be simultaneously trying to build him up as a title challenger to Austin Theory very odd and contradictory right now.
POST-MATCH SEGMENT - ANGLES! Austin Theory jumped Adam Cole from behind. Priscilla Kelly came out and her distraction allowed first Darby and then Cole time to recover. Theory went to grab his belt to leave but Priscilla hit him with a bicycle kick and Cole hit him with a superkick. Darby tossed the belt at Theory and Cole left while Priscilla went to try to convince Darby to listen to her. Anthony Henry came out and tried to attack Darby from behind but Darby heard him coming and turned around in time to duck Henry's superkick, which wound up nailing Priscilla. Henry then attacked Darby and laid him out, and seeing as how this was big heel turn, the crowd... chanted for tables. I want to blame them for this, but 1) Darby did set up a table before that never got used, and 2) this is his hometown crowd, so this probably wasn't the best place to turn him heel.
That being said, I'm not certain that this wasn't exactly the reaction that Gabe wanted the crowd to have. Henry yelled at Darby, calling him the "golden boy" and had apparently complained on Twitter about Darby getting opportunities that Henry thought he deserved. Over the past few years Gabe has definitely done more than the usual number of angles that seem to designed to split the fanbase to a degree, so that you probably have a 75-25 split by making the heel feel heelish but have a general argument you can see some fans getting behind, so it's possible that all of this was designed to create that sort of reaction.
Henry double-stomped Darby off the table as Priscilla Kelly tried to crawl over and stop him. Henry sold his knee afterwards, so that was a good touch, too. Henry dragged Prisclla's fallen carcass over to Darby's and mockingly told them to be a "happy family" together. He then picked up the Evolve Title belt (still sitting in the ring from when Darby tossed it at Theory), then just tossed it back into the ring before heading to the back. That's an interesting touch, as it seems to indicate Henry abandoning his title chase due to being consumed by his jealousy of Darby.
Well... I'd been asking for storylines to move forward and they certain did in a big way tonight, but I still think it's important to note how the actual matches on this card were hurt by the lack of clarity in the storylines. The two places I thought this was most clear were Theory vs. Henry and Cole vs. Darby. The former didn't feel like that big match where the title could change hands because even though Theory is a cocky heel and Henry is a babyface on a title quest, the story of Henry's quest didn't really feel like it was in the forefront of things going on with him right now (his issues with Eddie Kingston and the Street Profits feel like much bigger issues) and it never really intersected with Theory's cockiness in the build-up to the this match. There is a great promo to be cut with the young Theory bragging about having achieved more in just a few years than Henry has in his entire seventeen-year career. With hindsight it seems like the reason for that was because of Henry's impending heel turn, but I don't think that making this feel like a big babyface title match for Henry and then turning him heel later in the night need to be mutually exclusive.
As for Darby vs. Cole, this "Darby runs the NXT gauntlet" storyline doesn't feel like it's going anywhere because there seem to be neither reasons for nor consequences to it. I guess the subtext is that NXT is interested in Darby but him losing to them just makes him look bad, and it's important to note that the idea of NXT being interested in Darby hasn't been brought up. It almost feels like this "storyline" (if it can really even be called that) was contrived to allow Darby to be in the ring after main events when Austin Theory attacks people to so that Darby and Theory can interact in a way that feels like it builds to a title match (and they had one last night) and so Henry can have something to complain about (especially with Darby losing so much). It's weird in that the pieces now seem to fit together (and it even ties in with some of Henry's comments about the NXT guys from autumn, too), but it just feels like a very sub-optimal way to get the pieces in place. It almost feels like the sort of situation that would only arise from Gabe being told or feeling like he had to use the NXT guys (and I'm only talking about guys coming in as special attractions for the weekend, not about "regulars" like Aichner and the Street Profits), but with WWE then giving him restrictions on them doing jobs, and that Gabe then had to figure out how to get to where he wanted given those restrictions.
And speaking of NXT guys and doing jobs, Austin Theory has been getting involved with them a lot and in ways that feel like they should lead to title matches, but the booking of the NXT guys makes it feel like them doing clean jobs is not going to happen, and when combined with how infrequently each individual guy comes in, it's hard to see any sort of beneficial endgame for Theory's involvement with them.
All of that said, this was still a pretty great show in the ring, and for the first time in a few months am convinced that EVOLVE is just in the middle of something of a creative rut, and there is a clear light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully next month's shows still feel like they're moving towards it and are ready to emerge from the darkness for WrestleMania weekend.