What’s the Legacy of Evolve Wrestling After Being Bought Out by WWE?

Two weeks ago, something that had been rumored for months became a reality: Reportedly, WWE has purchased Evolve Wrestling, the domestic promotion that had been a developmental affiliate the same way that PROGRESS and ICW in the U.K. were, from Sal Hamaoui, who bankrolled the promotion since its inception in 2010. With Evolve having been spun off from Hamaoui’s World Wrestling Network, Inc. when the promotion formally signed a developmental deal with WWE in October 2018, that means that the the long, strange history of WWN has not come to an end; it’s just this one chapter that’s over.

Originally envisioned as a “pure sports” promotion focused on win/loss records by Daniel Bryan and WWN’s Gabe Sapolsky, Bryan’s sudden return to WWE in August 2010 quickly sent the promotion on a different path. With Dragon Gate USA, an affiliate of the popular Japanese promotion, as WWN’s main priority, early Evolve shows featured the same North American talent on shows where the Japanese Dragon Gate stars weren’t flown in. But like most of Evolve’s iterations, it didn’t last especially long, with DGUSA done in 2014 after all of the Japanese talent no-showed WrestleMania weekend due to what the promotion said was visa issues. (At the same time, WWN was going through various financial issues, as well, including a tax lien being filed against them in New Jersey, but it’s hard to know which was the chicken and which was the egg with regards to if Dragon Gate pulling out caused the financial issues or if the financial issues were the catalyst for not being able to fly anyone in from Japan.)

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A new lifeline came into the picture a little over a year later, in June 2015, with WWE eyeballing Evolve/WWN for an affiliation in light of what was reportedly increased frustration with Ring of Honor. The short version is that thanks to a long production timetable, the Kevin Steen action figure in ROH’s line from Figures Toy Company was not announced, much less released until after Steen himself had debuted in WWE as Kevin Owens. With Steen not changing his look at all in WWE, the result was, effectively, that his new employers were badly beaten to the punch on his first action figure. With Evolve positioned as something of an enemy of ROH—its booker was original ROH booker Gabe Sapolsky and WWN itself had produced ROH’s DVDs until a schism after Sapolsky’s 2008 firing—there couldn’t be a more obvious choice. If someone wanted to go to WWE, they were going to be directed to Evolve so they’d free of potential licensing baggage.

Zack Sabre Jr and Drew Gulak at Evolve 54 in 2016 (WWNlive.com)

Triumphs in grappling, failures in streaming

In the meantime, Evolve found a new identity built around a group of mat technicians like Timothy Thatcher, Drew Gulak, Zack Sabre Jr., TJP, Biff Busick (now Oney Lorcan in WWE), Tracy Williams—derisively called “grapplefuck” in some circles—before settling into something of a “stars of tomorrow” workrate promotion. 2016 saw the most overt dealings with WWE yet, complete with Cruiserweight Classic tournament qualifying matches actually happening in Evolve. The new exposure helped brand the promotion as the place to see the stars of tomorrow in great matches, especially once so much of the roster was drafted into WWE’s new Cruiserweight Division following the conclusion of the summer’s tournament. (Former Evolve performers made up almost half of 205 Live‘s early roster.)

Of course, that meant the company also had to be rebuilt. Zack Sabre Jr. chose not to sign with WWE, so he was prime for a top spot, as were the rapidly improving Matt Riddle (informally sent to Evolve by WWE, where management wanted him to prove himself under someone they trusted) and later the current NXT/NXT North American Champion Keith Lee, who was catapulted into prominence after a show-stealing match at Beyond. It was during this period, buoyed by exposure on WWE.com and a clear group of signature stars, that Evolve should have seen its greatest popularity. Instead, WWN signed a deal to anchor FloSlam, a wrestling streaming service within FloSports, which had been best known for being the go-to place to watch the less mainstream college sports. But with FloSlam being priced the same as all of Flo’s other services—$20/month in spite of there being multiple competitors charging half that—Evolve lost the momentum they had built up.

Before FloSlam, they were getting about 950 to 1,300 buys for most of their internet PPV shows, with shows during the weekends of major WWE PPV events frequently topping 2,000 buys. After FloSlam? The buzz vanished almost instantly, leaving you with a situation where a WWE-affiliated indie promotion that live streamed every show and was headlined by some of the best and most popular wrestlers on the indie scene had noticeably less buzz show for show than Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, which only released its shows on DVD and Blu-Ray, usually months after they happened. In some circles, it was even a running joke that Dave Meltzer, the editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and pro wrestling’s longest tenured reporter, never watched Evolve in spite of the promotion both being an unofficial WWE feeder and featuring many of the same wrestlers that he raved about when he went to PWG shows. Ethan Page, then one of Evolve’s top stars, even half-jokingly expressed his frustration with that perception, mentioning it in a short-lived interview series he did for FloSlam.

Regardless, the Flo deal imploded after a year, seemingly due to Flo brass realizing that they gave WWN a contract that was too one-sided in Hamaoui’s favor and lobbing accusations of being provided with fake IPPV buy data. (The numbers were in line with what most people around indie wrestling suspected them to be.)

Timothy Thatcher and Stokely Hathaway, arguably the greatest partnership in human history, in 2017. (WWNlive.com)

In fond remembrance,

As Evolve fed its top stars to WWE or lost them to places like New Japan Pro Wrestling, 2018 saw the promotion change almost overnight to one focused primarily on NXT talent and indie wrestlers being groomed to become NXT talent. That’s the Evolve that was sold to WWE for parts.

That last version, even if it featured some good wrestlers, is unlikely to be what most of its fans will remember Evolve for. Even if it had lasted longer and left a greater legacy on the WWE developmental system, it wasn’t what brought Evolve to prominence. Evolve at its best was the result of an embarrassment of riches that was the indie scene from about midway through the 2010s through the summer of 2018. With no wrestling war fueling rapid new contract signings, and WWE not yet warehousing talent to keep them locked up, there was a ridiculous number of polished, experienced indie talent available to build a promotion around. To say nothing of the pre-Cruiserweight Classic Purge Evolve roster, it almost feels like a mirage that Evolve was able to build around Lee, Sabre, Riddle, and sometimes WALTER with a strong supporting crew that included Darby Allin, Tracy Williams, Ethan Page, and others, many of whom are now contracted TV wrestlers, as well as plenty of other great, polished talent like Fred Yehi, Anthony Henry, J.D. Drake, Chris Dickinson, and Jaka. A mix of full-time contracts and internal strife would quickly decimate that roster, with Jaka even disappearing from wrestling after he and Dickinson were unceremoniously dropped out of nowhere.

The changes in the wrestling business over the course of the last few years are going to make it hard for any smaller promotion to develop a roster as loaded as Evolve’s was in the pre-Cruiserweight Classic or Lee/Sabre/Riddle eras. There’s still plenty of untapped talent on the indie scene, but not the sheer breadth of polished, TV ready talent that ruled over two separate eras of Evolve. The promotion that died this month was not that company anymore, though. That Evolve has been dead for almost two years, replaced by a vaguely defined NXT offshoot.

Independent wrestling isn’t going to change much, if at all, with the WWE-centric version of Evolve gone, but it’s become increasingly obvious that there’s been an Evolve-shaped hole on the indie scene since October 2018. Mourn the old Evolve if you want to, just don’t pretend it filled the same role as the version it replaced.

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