Preview: EVOLVE 131 – 10th Anniversary Celebration (7/13/19)

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Evolve 131
Credit: Evolve

On Saturday July 13th, Evolve Wrestling, the company that for the past decade has been known for its unique and non-traditional approach to pro wrestling, will put on its 131st show. Billed as EVOLVE’s 10th Anniversary Celebration, EVOLVE 131 is following trends set all the way back to the promotion’s origins. On Saturday, the company that played such a huge role in the growth of the independent scene and development of its stars in the late 2000s and beyond, will once again be at the forefront of something revolutionary. EVOLVE 131 will be the first time a non-WWE show will be broadcast on the WWE Network in the network’s five-year history.

When Gabe Sapolsky, co-founder and original head booker for Ring of Honor was ousted from his position in favor of Adam Pearce and a shakeup within the company in 2008, no one could have predicted what would have happened next. But then, in a series of email exchanges with Bryan Danielson and the backing of partners, Sal Hamaoui, and then-Ring of Honor champion, Davey Richards, Sapolsky, who months prior had announced his involvement in the creation of Dragon Gate USA (DGUSA’s first show was in July 2009), introduced the world to a pro wrestling evolution. His new company, known as EVOLVE, prided itself on taking a revolutionary approach to the industry. EVOLVE began something different. In its early years, the company was known for its emphasis on win-loss records and a championship-less approach. As the company grew, it became known for taking chances, blending styles and never following specific trends. Evolve allowed itself to, well, evolve, with its roster, not committing to any one thing but rather following the course of the incredibly talented men and women who wrestled for them.

“Without EVOLVE, I honestly don’t think things like the Cruiserweight Classic would have happened,” Gran Akuma said in an interview with Voices of Wrestling prior to Evolve’s 100th show. “I think NXT would look very different. EVOLVE set out to redefine what pro wrestling is, and that’s exactly what they’ve done.”

Like all wrestling promotions, Evolve has had its growing pains, but they’ve weathered every storm, surviving and thriving. Not to mention, providing a platform for some of today’s best wrestlers to get increased and much necessary exposure. Evolve’s all-time roster reads like a who’s who of some of the best stars in the industry today and some of the most influential names in the independent scene period. Some only wrestled at Evolve a handful of times. Others became staples for the promotion and saw their career advance due to their runs with the promotion. Overall, here is a list of some of the top names to have worked Evolve in the last 10 years:

Chuck Taylor, Jimmy Jacobs, Johnny Gargano, Ricochet, Bobby Fish, Kyle O’Reilly, Adam Cole, Brodie Lee, Chris Dickinson, Jon Moxley, Gran Akuma, Rich Swann, Sami Callihan, Claudio Castagnoli, Chris Hero, AR Fox, Davey Richards, Kota Ibushi, Tony Nese, Austin Aries, Kevin Steen, Zack Sabre Jr., El Generico, Low Ki, Adam Page, Drew Gulak, Colt Cabana, Josh Alexander, Orange Cassidy, Shane Strickland, Brian Cage, Andrew Everett, the Young Bucks, Super Smash Bros., Arik Cannon, Mia Yim, Santana Garrett, Drew Galloway, Timothy Thatcher, David Starr, Ethan Page, Matt Sydal, Moose, Roderick Strong, Trevor Lee, Tracy Williams, Rey Horus, Mike Bailey, PJ Black, Chris Dickinson, Tommy End, Willie Mack, Rocky Romero, Jonathan Gresham, Matt Riddle, Darby Allin, Cedric Alexander, Marty Scurll, Tommaso Ciampa, EC3, Cody, Jeff Cobb, Will Ospreay, Keith Lee, Austin Theory, ACH, WALTER, Mark Haskins, Sammy Guevara, Travis Banks, Allysin Kay, Jimmy Havoc, LuFisto, Pete Dunne, Priscilla Kelly, Toni Storm, Joey Janela, Brody King

And the list goes on…Point being, Evolve set out to introduce the world to some of the best wrestlers in the industy and for 10 years, they have helped do just that. In 2015, Evolve, which had seemingly become an unofficial farm system/proving ground for WWE, specifically NXT talent, entered into a formal partnership with wrestling’s juggernaut. Sapolsky became a consultant and through the partnership, Evolve’s wrestlers were featured on WWE.com and NXT wrestlers were present at Evolve events. The partnership continued to grow with NXT wrestlers working Evolve cards and hosting some of the Cruiserweight Classic qualifying matches to finally, in 2018, winning Evolve titles in matches that were able to be broadcast on WWNLive for the first time in the history of the partnership.

This latest development is a huge one for Evolve, as the exposure of WWE Network offers what Sapolsky calls his, “mom and pop company” the opportunity of a lifetime. And whether its the first of many independent cards on the WWE Network or the first and only, Evolve will continue to be on pro wrestling’s cutting edge, much as it was 10 years ago.

Let’s take a look at the 10th Anniversary card, which will be broadcast live from Philadelphia’s 2300 Arena.

Evolve has held just two shows in Philly, the first of which was meant to be the last ever wrestling card (EVOLVE 10: A Tribute to the Arena) at 2300 as the venue was set to be renovated into a concert hall. Plans fell through however, allowing Evolve to return for EVOLVE 108, which was part of a doubleheader with PROGRESS Wrestling, making their Philadelphia debut. While just the third ever Evolve card from 2300 Arena, this one is already shaping up to perhaps be one of the most special cards in the promotion’s history. At the very least, it’s certainly one of the most historic.

Fun Fact, before getting into the card. On EVOLVE 1: Richards vs Ibushi, Johnny Gargano, Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish were on the card. While not of them are scheduled to wrestle at EVOLVE 131, all three will likely be in the building (Gargano is doing meet and greets and O’Reilly and Fish will likely accompany Cole to the ring) should there be any surprises that might occur…

Brandi Lauren vs Shotzi Blackheart

At EVOLVE 129, Brandi Lauren and Shotzi Blackheart wrestled to a no contest in just their second ever head-to-head, the first of which was won by Lauren at SHINE 49.

Just 22 years old and only in her third full year as a professional wrestler, Brandi Lauren, also known as Ava Storie, is well on her way to having a successful career in the industry. Lauren has used her background as a model as well as her bubbly and charismatic personality, to help fast track her career. She’s no in ring slouch though as Lauren was trained in part by Jay Lethal, one of the best wrestlers in Ring of Honor history. Lauren primarily wrestles for Shine, though she has also made appearances for IMPACT Wrestling, ROH, SHIMMER and this year, made her Evolve debut against Priscilla Kelly.

Known for being an incredibly entertaining wrestler with fluid movements and some really hard hitting strikes, Shotzi Blackheart is also relatively new to pro wrestling, having only started training a little over five years ago. Blackheart made her SHIMMER debut in 2016 and has also wrestled for Shine, where she is the current Nova champ, Rise, where she is the former Phoenix of Rise champ, and Alternate Wrestling Syndicate, where she is their current women’s champion. Blackheart is also the former women’s champion of IWA Mid-South and the current Sabotage War of the Genders champion of Sabotage Wrestling. Blackheart has accomplished a lot in a short time and her potential is only just scratching the surface. A debut in front of a WWE audience is certainly a step in the right direction.

Babatunde vs Colby Corino

A former football player in Europe as well as a brief preseason stint with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, the 31-year-old Babtunde joined WWE in 2016 as a member of that year’s performance center class. The 6’9, 355 pounder has wrestled just over 80 matches in his career, all of which have been with NXT and Evolve. Well, all but one, as Babtunde’s first introduction to TV came during the Greatest Royal Rumble PPV. Babatunde has yet to make his NXT TV debut as he’s been working the house show circuit outside of his appearances with Evolve, which began in May.

The compete opposite of Babatunde in size (Babtunde has over a foot and almost 200 pounds on his opponent), the 22-year-old Colby Corino, youngest member of the Unwanted, is set to make his homecoming. Born in Philadelphia, Corino has been around wrestling his entire life as his father is Steve Corino, former ROH star and commentator, NWA and ECW World Champion, and now WWE employee. Cagematch lists Corino’s first match as having occurred in 2001 when he would have been four or five years old. He teamed with his father in that match and two additional matches before he really began his career, at just 12 years old. In the ensuing decade, Corino has wrestled for Pro Wrestling WORLD-1, NWA, ROH, Premier Wrestling Federation, Atomic Championship Wrestling, Evolve, Game Changer Wrestling and more. The sky is the limit for the young wrestler, though he’ll definitely face a challenge in the imposing Babatunde if he hopes to pick up his first-ever Evolve victory.

Anthony Henry vs Arturo Ruas

A career that spans over 17 years, Anthony Henry began his time on the independents with various NWA territories where he won 10 titles, including thrice as the NWA Anarchy Young Lions Champion and NWA/APW North Georgia Champion. Having wrestled for PWX, Combat Zone Wrestling, Beyond Wrestling, International Wrestling Cartel, IWA-MS, Southside Wrestling Entertainment, Full Impact Pro, Freelance Wrestling and more in his career, Henry made his Evolve debut in 2016. By the following year, he became a regular with the promotion, winning the tag titles alongside James Drake. The two went on to win tag championships in Atlanta Wrestling Experience as well as FW, where they are in the midst of their record-setting 393 day reign. Henry is also the current Full Impact Pro World Heavyweight Champion.

Another member of the 2016 NXT Performance Center class, the 37-year-old Arturo Ruas/Adrian Jaoude is seeming to learn the ropes pretty quickly.  A fixture on the NXT live event circuit, Ruas made his NXT TV debut a little under a year ago, on July 18, 2018. A few months later, he made his Evolve debut, defeating Joe Gacy. While he’s yet to pick up a win on NXT TV, Ruas has been booked strong in his Evolve appearances (8 wins, 1 double DQ, 1 loss), not losing his first match with the promotion until EVOLVE 130. During his winning streak, Ruas wrestled Henry to a draw as the match ended in a double disqualification. Both men will certainly be looking to get the decision in their rematch on Saturday.

Curt Stallion vs Sean Maluta vs Stephen Wolf vs Harlem Bravado

Over the past few weeks, these four Evolve stars have been creating hype videos, explaining why they will win this match and be the one to emerge as one of Saturday’s standouts. Here is a look at the competitors:

Curt Stallion: Wrestling out of Texas and trained by Michael Elgin and Jastin Taylor, Curt Stallion began his in-ring career in 2013. In 2015, Stallion landed with ACW, while also making appearances for ROH and FIP. He debuted with IWA-MS the following year and in 2017, became a regular with AAW Pro and Scenic City Invitational. In 2018, Stallion wrestled on his first Evolve card, EVOLVE 117. He’s become a staple with the promotion ever since, wrestling on all 12 cards this year.

Sean Maluta: A member of the famed Samoan Dynasty and Evolve’s Unwanted stable, the 30-year-old Sean Maluta has been wrestling for 15 years. Debuting in 2008, Maluta spent the first nine years of his career with his family’s World Xtreme Wrestling, where he is a former three-time cruiserweight champion, two-time tag team champion, television champion and three-time heavyweight champion. In 2016, Maluta made his WWE debut, taking part in the inaugural Cruiserweight Classic. He remained with the company, wrestling on both NXT and 205 Live, though he’s yet to pick up a victory with either. Maluta is also winless in Evolve, after debuting last month at EVOLVE 129.

Harlem Bravado: An 11-year veteran, Harlem Bravado has spent most of his career as a tag team specialist alongside his brother Lancelot. The two have traveled the world together, improving both their gimmicks and their in-ring over the years. The Bravado Brothers had extended stints in ROH and Pro Wrestling NOAH before joining the WNN family in 2013. Across Evolve and FIP, the Bravado Brothers won both the FIP tag titles and the Open the United Gate championship. The two have also won championships in PWX and WrestleForce. In 2016, Harlem began to forge a singles career, wrestling his last ever match with his brother. He’s been heavily featured in Evolve since, going about 50-50 in the win-loss column.

Stephen Wolf: A young-and-up-and-coming wrestler who will only get better with experience, Stephen Wolf’s career began by being trained by Harley Race. With that kind of tutelage its no surprise that Wolf has advanced his way through the industry at a steady pace. After debuting in 2015 with DREAMWAVE Wrestling, Wolf found a home with AAW Pro, becoming a well known name there. He made his Evolve debut in 2017 but only recently, did he sign with the company. A new member of the roster, its only a matter of time until Wolf has Evolve gold around his waist.

Josh Briggs vs Anthony Greene

Josh Briggs and Anthony Greene are no strangers to each other as they’ve come up in the same Massachusetts/Northeast indie scene. Both two young and up-and-coming wrestlers with star potential, Greene and Briggs will meet in singles action on Saturday.

Josh Briggs’ career began with his hometown Chaotic Wrestling where he wrestled one match in 2016. By 2017, Briggs was fully on the scene, becoming a regular for CW as well as Beyond and Limitless Wrestling. Briggs continued to expand his presence in 2018 when he made his Evolve debut. Wrestling 15 matches with the promotion, Briggs has become a regular, splitting his time primarily with Evolve and Beyond and making a splash in both. He’s a former CW New England Champion, a title that was taken from him by Greene.

Despite being just 25 years old, Anthony Greene has been on the scene since 2012. In his seven year career, Greene has won 11 titles, including a one day stint with the CZW World Championship. He’s known mostly for his tag team work with Cam Zagami, as the Cam-An Connection. As a singles wrestler, Greene has shown incredible potential as well. He’s been a regular for CW, Northeast Championship Wrestling, Beyond, LW, CZW and more. In 2018, Greene made his Evolve debut and has continued to wrestle for the company ever since.

Drew Gulak vs Matt Riddle

In May, NXT held a live show in Philadelphia where hometown favorite Drew Gulak came out and issued an open challenge. It was answered by none other than the Bro himself, setting up the first announced match for Evolve’s 10th Anniversary Celebration.

From 2015-18, one of the most well known and well-regarded stables in Evolve was that of Catch Point, a stable founded by Drew Gulak that included some of the promotion’s best technical or “catch” wrestlers. Gulak’s assembled group featured himself and four others (Tracy Williams, Matt Riddle, TJ Perkins and Fred Yehi), all of which shared a similar mentality/philosophy and in-ring style. The five pushed each other to be better, drive to win held above all else. At one point, all five members received shots at then-champ Timothy Thatcher, in consecutive shows. But like all stables, Catch Point came to an end, though not before it picked up new members in Chris Dickinson, Jaka, Stokely Hathaway and Dominic Garrini. Members of the stable won the tag titles four times overall, wrestling their last match a little under a year ago. Riddle and Gulak’s showdown marks the first Catch Point reunion of sorts and the first time these two have wrestled in Evolve in four years.

With his meteoric rise, its hard to believe that the 33-year-old Matt Riddle has only been wrestling for just over four years. Leaving behind a successful MMA career, Riddle began training with Monster Factory Pro Wrestling before quickly finding a home with Evolve, where he is a former Evolve Champion and WWN Champion. Riddle has been with the promotion since 2015, having wrestled on 63 cards, which is just under half of Evolve’s total. He’s also wrestled for Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Beyond, AAW Pro, PROGRESS, Westside Xtreme Wrestling, Revolution Pro, Over the Top Wrestling and more. In 2018, Riddle debuted with NXT, where he instantly became a star. This will be his first match back in Evolve since August 2018.

Also hailing from the local area, the 32-year-old Drew Gulak is the face of 205 Live and last month, he finally got the hardware to prove it, winning the Cruiserweight Championship for the first time in his WWE career. Gulak began wrestling in the Pennsylvania indie scene in 2005. Trained by Chris Hero, Skayde and Mike Quackenbush, Gulak’s early career was spent in CHIKARA and CZW, where he is a former two-time tag team champion, Wired Champion and World Heavyweight Champion. After a brief period of wrestling in Europe and Japan, Gulak joined Evolve in 2013. In 2016, Gulak was invited to the Cruiserweight Classic where he left quite an impact. In the ensuing years, Gulak has been a staple in both NXT and 205 Live. Saturday marks his return to Evolve after three years away.

Evolve Tag Team Championship: Eddie Kingston and Joe Gacy (The Unwanted) vs AR Fox and Leon Ruff (The Skulk)

Earlier this year, longtime pro wrestling veterans Joe Gacy and Eddie Kingston, both who had just recently arrived in Evolve, changed the tag team landscape when they united as the dangerous duo, the Unwanted.  They promised Evolve that nothing would be the same ever again and the team delivered on that promise right out of the gate, winning the tag team titles from NXT’s Street Profits (Angelo Dawkins and Montez Ford). The group soon added Shane Strickland, who has since been replaced by Sean Maluta, and Colby Corino. Together, the four have made Evolve their playground. On Saturday, they’ll face The Skulk for the second time in as many cards, the last of which saw AR Fox and Leon Ruff defeat the Unwanted and two other teams in a four way elimination match at EVOLVE 30.

The 37-year-old Kingston has been wrestling for 16 years and in that time he’s garnered the respect of his peers and the fans as one of the best American indie workers. Known for his ability to promo and his expert level of selling, Kingston has had an incredibly accomplished career, picking up titles in IWA-MS, CZW, CHIKARA, AAW Pro, Evolve and more. From the U.S. to overseas, Kingston has made his impact and left his mark on more than a handful of top companies including ROH, IMPACT, PROGRESS, AIW, GCW and more. His partner in Gacy, has done much of the same. The 31-year-old Gacy began his career in 2006 with CZW, which has remained his primary home for the last 13 years. There he is a three-time Wired Champion and two-time world champion, those being five of the 18 career titles he’s won. Gacy spent time as a member of the Switchblade Conspiracy alongside Jon Moxley and Sami Callihan but when Callihan went to NXT and later, IMPACT and MLW, and Moxley debuted in WWE, Gacy was left behind. Unwanted, one might say. On Saturday, he finally gets his chance to shine and get one step closer to his WWE dream.

The 31-year-old AR Fox is a name that has been synonymous with Evolve almost since the beginning. A pro wrestler of 12 years who is one of the top high flyers in the industry today, and who helped popularize the style years ago, Fox made his Evolve debut at EVOLVE 6: Aries vs Taylor. In addition to his work with CZW, where he is a former two-time Wired and one-time junior heavyweight champion, and DGUSA, Fox became a staple with Evolve, wrestling there regularly until 2015. A former Evolve champ, Fox has wrestled at least one match with the company every year dating back to 2010. Raising his profile after his run on Lucha Underground and in AAW, Fox returned to Evolve as his base in 2018. It was then that he first began teaming with Leon Ruff, who Kingston has referred to as Fox’s “dojo boy.” Ruff made his pro debut just two years ago. He’s starting to break out, wrestling for LW, and recently had an Evolve title match and, alongside Fox, had an Evolve showcase match against Harlem Bravado and Kassius Ohno. Ruff’s career is only just beginning and after Saturday, win or lose, people will know just how good he can be.

Winner-take-all match for the WWN Championship and Evolve Championship: JD Drake vs Austin Theory

In just three years as a pro, Austin Theory, the 21-year-old trainee of AR Fox, already has seemingly all of the intangibles. He certainly has everything WWE looks for in a superstar and its been expected for a while he’s not far off from an NXT shot. Theory’s career began in 2016 with World Wrestling Alliance 4. The following year, he joined Evolve, becoming a staple of the promotion. He’s enjoyed feuds with Jason Kincaid, Darby Allin, Ethan Page, DJ Z, AR Fox and has had the opportunity to wrestle some of the industry’s best in Zack Sabre Jr., Velveteen Dream, Roderick Strong, Adam Cole, Johnny Gargano, etc. Climbing the ladder through Evolve, its no surprise Theory has been given these opportunities and marquee matches as he’s very likely being groomed for the next step.

Looking to humble his young opponent, the 35-year-old JD Drake brings six years of experience into this match. Truly starting from the bottom, Drake has worked hard for all of the opportunities he’s ever received and has made all kinds of sacrifices to get where he’s been. In 2017, he got his first big break, landing with WWN and Evolve. Becoming the every man’s champion, Drake quickly rose in the ranks, becoming a fan favorite. His passion and charisma coupled with his skill as a big guy doing athletic things in the ring, helped him find success. He currently holds three titles, two of which are with tag partner, Anthony Henry, the other of which is the WWN Championship, which he’s never shied away from defending. This included against Theory at EVOLVE 124.

Only then, Theory didn’t have his belt on the line. In a title unification match on Saturday, both men will be fighting for that top spot and both will lay it all on the line to keep what is theirs.

NXT Championship: Adam Cole vs Akira Tozawa

Kicking off 2019, Adam Cole made the world a promise when he issued his Undisputed Era prophecy. While the stable is still two titles short of fulfilling it, Cole made the most of his opportunity when he defeated Johnny Gargano for the NXT Championship at TakeOver: XXV. Now, Cole returns to make his first defense of that title in the same arena where he wrestled his very match back in 2008. He’ll face Akira Towaza for just the second time ever, as Tozawa looks to capture his first WWE based championship since winning the cruiserweight title two years ago.

Like many wrestlers hailing from the Philadelphia area, Cole’s career became primarily with CZW, the place he called home for parts of his first five years as a wrestler. The 30-year-old found some success at CZW, winning the junior heavyweight championship. His biggest career move however, came in 2010, when he began working with ROH as well as making his Evolve debut. But it was with ROH that Cole was truly made into a star, one who would become one of the promotion’s biggest names. Cole debuted in ROH alongside Kyle O’Reilly as FutureShock, with the two finding early success. In the ensuing eight years with ROH, Cole went on to win the TV title twice as well as became the first and so far only man to win the ROH world title three times. Cole also became a regular with PWG during this time as well as had the opportunity to wrestle in New Japan Pro Wrestling, including an ROH title match at Wrestle Kingdom 11 in 2017. Cole left ROH that same year, joining NXT, and reuniting with O’Reilly, as well as Bobby Fish and later Roderick Strong, as Undisputed Era. Cole quickly made an impact in NXT, becoming the inaugural North American Champion. Excluding a dark match in 2018, this will be his first return to Evolve in nine years.

While only wrestling one match for Evolve in his career, the 33-year-old Tozawa has been with the WWN family almost since the beginning. In 2005, Tozawa debuted with Dragon Gate in Japan, where he went on to win seven titles, including three in the tag team division. In 2009, DGUSA, the American offshoot of Dragon Gate and Evolve’s brother promotion, opened up and Tozawa, who is considered today to be one of the company’s MVPs, made his debut.  Tozawa remained a staple in both Dragon Gate and DGUSA until 2016, when he signed with WWE shortly after his appearance in the Cruiserweight Classic. In 2017, Tozawa won the cruiserweight championship and has been a fixture on 205 Live ever since.

Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world, as well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world. You can watch EVOLVE 131 on the WWE Network, streaming live tonight at 8 PM ET.

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