If you’re the kind of person who pays attention to commentary on NXT (which can be hard, I know), you may have noticed last week that the WWE Cruiserweight Championship has become the NXT Cruiserweight Championship. That may scan as a minor difference, but the change, combined with the fact that 205 Live didn’t air the week before, caused some to wonder about the future of the cruiserweights’ show.
As such, my thoughts during last week’s otherwise good match between Drew Gulak and Lio Rush were largely pessimistic. What would the end of 205 Live mean for WWE? What would it mean for the radically shifting landscape that is wrestling in the United States?
To find out, I went to an EVOLVE Wrestling show. In 2015, EVOLVE signed a deal with WWE that allowed WWE to scout their talent. In 2019, looks like this: WWE supports EVOLVE by sending NXT stars to EVOLVE shows for meet and greets, and EVOLVE supports WWE by having Performance Center and NXT talent wrestle in front of audiences that aren’t the same 100 or so faces that show up to NXT house shows every week.
My suspicion is that, should worse come to worst and 205 Live comes to an end, the majority of its wrestlers will end up in spaces like EVOLVE. It would make sense, as it would let WWE hold on to its human capital while fulfilling its obligation to the smaller company, who’d get to bolster their cards with readily available WWE Superstars. To investigate what we lose, let’s talk about EVOLVE.
EVOLVE 137: A home for the not-quite and never-gonna-be ready.
EVOLVE has a weird vibe to it. There’s an appreciable crowd doing the things one expects a wrestling crowd to do, but none of them seem like they’re there for EVOLVE. Given that the promotional e-mail I saw about EVOLVE 137 listed the NXT stars there to do a pre-show meet and greet before any of the matches, I’m not sure that EVOLVE was there for EVOLVE.
NXT and Performance Center talent dotted the card, Cameron Grimes and Kassius Ohno chief among them. Every single match involving WWE talent, even the pretty good Lights Out match between Ohno and Josh Briggs, felt bloodless, as the WWE talent was so well-protected that it seemed like the draw was the privilege of seeing them perform live, not actually compete for something.
Grimes (the result of indie stalwart Trevor Lee finding a magic hat at a thrift store and transforming) kicked out of a reverse Spanish Fly, an absolutely ludicrous maneuver, fifteen minutes into his match. He won an exchange or two later. The match was good. Enjoyable, even. But did it have stakes? Was there any life at all to the succession of false finishes preceding Grimes’ victory? The crowd reacted, but it was hard to tell if their reaction had to do with the performance, or was due to the instinctive rhythm a wrestling match has. Does a “fight forever” chant mean anything when you can guess who will win based on who was on USA after a Law and Order rerun two days prior?
On paper, the argument for booking NXT Superstar Cameron Grimes in an exhibition is pretty strong. He’s a great wrestler, and unless you live in a town NXT house shows come to or you’re one of the weirdos who haunts Full Sail, you’re never going to get to see him live, let alone so intimately. But that intimacy comes at a cost. Compare EVOLVE to independent promotions like Beyond Wrestling, AIW, or GCW. The buzz those companies have and the passion of their fanbase is sorely missing from EVOLVE. Do you see people live tweeting EVOLVE streams? Do you even know how to go about streaming an EVOLVE show unless it’s on the (award-winning) WWE Network? So what do these smaller but more buzzed about companies do differently from EVOLVE? Well, for one, they don’t actively market themselves as a farm league.
This is an admittedly harsh review of a show I enjoyed in a largely passive way, but one of the featured attractions of the evening was an in-ring appearance by NXT General Manager William Regal. Regal is one of my favorite wrestlers of all time. He was there, according to a video posted to Twitter, to “change the life” of an EVOLVE competitor, who turned out to be Shotzi Blackheart. It was a great moment for Blackheart, but once she was out of the ring with her NXT dream realized, Regal continued to speak to the crowd. Rather than acknowledge EVOLVE, he thanked the fans for the continued success of NXT. When he was interrupted by Anthony Greene, who asked why he wasn’t getting an NXT contract, Regal said that NXT was reserved only for the best of the best, and that Greene wasn’t good enough.
Regal’s promo left a sour taste in my mouth, as, intentionally or not, he set up EVOLVE as a league of wrestlers who were either good enough for a WWE contract, or who weren’t. Eddie Kingston wrestled on that card. AR Fox wrestled on that card. I’m not trying to sound mock offended on their behalf, but Kingston wasn’t offered a contract after a WWE tryout, and Fox is unlikely to be offered one unless the company suddenly becomes significantly cooler about wrestlers’ pasts. Am I really supposed to buy that, if Kingston were the heel in the ring with Regal, that the best promo in the country, in the middle of one of the best years of his career, isn’t worthy of a spot in NXT? More to the point, am I supposed to buy Greene as a legitimate threat to anybody after WWE’s head talent scout told him that he sucks? Am I supposed to think of EVOLVE as inferior, even within EVOLVE’s own fiction? What does it mean for a wrestling promotion when the highest prize, above any championship, is not having to be in that promotion anymore?
Ironically enough, this is the same question that has dogged NXT and 205 Live. Is the goal of those brands to win its title, or to move on to Raw or SmackDown? NXT is attempting to answer that question and solidify itself as a true “third brand” by bringing back stars Finn Bálor, not “calling up” talent like Johnny Gargano, and staying out of the WWE Draft. 205 Live, on the other hand, is bleeding talent to other rosters, has had its title renamed to fit on NXT, and, unlike the moribund WWE Main Event, is not even broadcast on terrestrial television. It is, despite its uniqueness, the most expendable hour of WWE programming. Already half-merged with the NXT brand, its future is always going to be an open question.
If the answer to that question is that EVOLVE becomes a home for wayward WWE Superstars too valuable to release, EVOLVE will be death to watch. It’ll also be in just as tenuous a position as 205 Live is now. For all of its trappings, EVOLVE already relies too much on WWE to be truly independent, and WWE doesn’t need it to continue functioning, especially now that they have similar relationships with Progress in the UK and wXw in Germany. Maybe this deal works for EVOLVE, but they’re a glorified warehouse, and even if himbos are what you’ve got in stock, there’s nothing sexy about a warehouse.
Imagine depending on being that warehouse, with the future of a show housing so many indie-ready talents up in the air. Do you stick with who you have, or do you book WWE Superstar Tony Nese in someone else’s spot? EVOLVE 137 suggests that the answer to that question is simple. I wish it weren’t.