To understand what the hell’s going on at an EVOLVE independent professional wrestling show, you first have to get a basic sense of professional wrestling as a whole. If you think of the industry as a solar system, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) would have to be the sun. Not only is it undoubtedly the biggest wrestling promotion, but it’s also the entity everything else revolves around. Every decision made by every wrestling promotion in the United States (and sometimes outside of it) is either a reflection of or a reaction to the past and present of the WWE.
However, there’s a lot that adult wrestling fans find maddening about the modern day WWE, especially since there was a time that the company seemed tailor-made for them. When they were kids, the WWE presented a live-action Saturday morning cartoon full of superheroes and supervillains with larger-than-life characters and artificially inflated physiques. As these kids became teenagers, the WWE entered its self-proclaimed Attitude Era, replete with cursing, South Park-style raunchiness, and free-flowing blood. Now that these teenagers are adults, however, the WWE has swung the pendulum backwards, firmly re-branding itself as TV-PG. For the last decade its biggest star has been John Cena, a military-saluting, Make A Wish-granting Superman who is never wrong and always wins. Even when he loses, he winds up winning the rematches in convincing, even humiliating fashion. As you can imagine, he’s a big hit with kids and an infuriatingly simplistic figure for many adults. Because it’s the only game in town (the only major promotion in America even resembling a competitor is TNA, run by Billy Corgan. Yes, that Billy Corgan), the WWE is unable to appeal to the interests of all of its viewers and it’s the adults that usually get short shrift.
Storylines in WWE are played out over hours of television (not to mention pay-per-views, pre-shows, and post-shows on the subscription-based WWE Network), mixed with a dose of social media content on Twitter, Facebook Live, Periscope, and more. Opening segments of its flagship show, Monday Night Raw, usually consist of 20 minutes of talking. In between matches, there’s more talking. Moreover, the WWE sells out arenas all over the world, ranging from Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to Texas’s AT&T Stadium where, at Wrestlemania 32, it attracted over 100,000 fans. Even if you manage to get incredible seats, it’s unlikely you’d feel up close and personal with the wrestlers.
While the stereotypical representation of a wrestling crowd is one full of children and bloodthirsty rednecks too dumb to know it’s “fake”, this crowd is much more akin to the one you’d see at your local Gamestop
EVOLVE Wrestling 69 (so named because it’s the promotion’s 69th show) did not take place in an arena, it took place at a Latino dance club in Queens called La Boom. Despite the presence of a ring, you never quite lose the sense that this is a wrestling show at a dance club. The ticket line is gender-segregated (the women’s line is noticeably shorter), an attendant is on duty next to the urinal trough, and a full bar is available for the entire show. A “dress code” sign hangs ignored near the entrance, prohibiting t-shirts, baseball caps, and sneakers, while an audience pretty much exclusively wearing those clothing articles shuffles by.
About that audience. While the stereotypical representation of a wrestling crowd is one full of children and bloodthirsty rednecks too dumb to know it’s “fake,” this crowd is much more akin to the one you’d see at your local Gamestop; diverse ethnically, and uniformly sporting piercings, tattoos, weird facial hair, and comic book/video game/wrestling t-shirts. Each of them seems to be a wrestling expert in their own right, bursting with opinions on not just the storylines of every promotion imaginable, but also the creative decisions behind those storylines and whether each member of the roster is being used to their greatest potential. Performers are judged not on the character they’re playing (which may be outside of the wrestler’s control), but instead how well they play that character.
Far from bloodthirsty, the audience seems to care more about the wrestlers’ well-being than the performers themselves. When a wrestler named Mike Starr attempts to jump from the ring to the metal barricade separating the seats from the ring, he overshoots and winds up in the front row. Starr, still somehow alive, gets up and rolls back into the ring, determined to not only finish the match but to get the jump right this time. Rather than encourage such suicidal behavior, the crowd audibly moans, with some shouting “PLEASE DON’T DIE!” When wrestlers climb the top rope to pull off some spectacular flying maneuver, crowd members shout, “DON’T DO IT! THE LIGHTS ARE TOO LOW!”
It’s not that different from an up-and-coming band selling CDs after a gig. There is no pretense at keeping up the story, as bitter rivals stand side-by-side, joking with each other and sometimes breaking each other’s $20 bills.
EVOLVE and other independent promotions pride themselves on this ability to connect the audience with the performers. Before and after the show, many wrestlers appear in the lobby selling autographed pictures, DVDs, and T-shirts. They shake hands with their customers, exchange pleasantries and sometimes take a few selfies. It’s not that different from an up-and-coming band selling CDs after a gig. There is no pretense at keeping up the story, as bitter rivals stand side-by-side, joking with each other and sometimes breaking each other’s $20 bills. As a means of building brand loyalty, there’s no better way to keep the fans coming back and buying merchandise. At a WWE show, much like at any other arena-set sporting event, you can buy overpriced T-shirts, replica championship belts, and more from bored arena employees. Here, you’re buying access to your favorite wrestlers. Even without a purchase, the wrestlers are more than happy to exchange high fives.
The action itself is in deliberate contrast to the traditional WWE model. Whereas a WWE show is all about storylines,
EVOLVE shows are extremely economical with their storytelling. In the case of the four “New Talent Showcase” matches on the card, the same basic story is told: a “new talent” wrestles a veteran for the chance at a contract. It’s a simple but effective way to get an audience to root for an underdog. When newcomer Darby Allin shocks established star Tony Nese with a roll-up pin, the crowd is genuinely thrilled. Their cheers grow even louder when legendary ECW/WWE announcer (and onscreen EVOLVE authority figure) Joey Styles presents Allin with a contract. The defeated Tony Nese expresses disappointment in his performance, but shakes Allin’s hand and welcomes him to the locker room. Sometimes there is no storyline at all, as in the case of the highly anticipated match between the British “technical wizard” Zack Sabre Jr. and the impossibly athletic Ricochet (best known for playing the part of Prince Puma on the cult favorite Lucha Underground TV series).
The one major storyline at EVOLVE 69 is, quite fittingly, one that acts as a meta-commentary on EVOLVE’s relationship with the WWE. EVOLVE has, in the past few years, made a deal with the WWE to act as a kind of farm system, allowing its talent to be scouted and, in return, receiving increased prominence and exposure. Many EVOLVE shows now feature meet-and-greets with WWE personnel like legendary British wrestler William Regal and former indie standout. current WWE superstar Sami Zayn. This partnership recently culminated in the use of several EVOLVE roster members for the WWE’s inaugural Cruiserweight Classic, a 32-man tournament that, in an unprecedented move for the notoriously monopolistic WWE, featured almost entirely non-WWE-exclusive talent. Much like an indie rock group expressing its desire to be signed by a major corporate label, this is an existentially tricky statement, because even as fans want their favorites to achieve financial success, part of the reason why they were attracted to the indies in the first place was to escape corporate-manufactured product. To root for the stars to make it to the WWE is to root for their uniqueness to be quashed. In fact, rock music works better than minor league sports as a reference point for independent wrestling because there are fans who would argue the independent product is objectively better than the corporate one, while even die-hard college sports or minor league fans have to admit that the players on their teams are not as objectively “good” as the professionals.
Or so it would seem. The truth is, the infusion of independent wrestlers in the past few years has forced the WWE to, for lack of a better word, evolve. Independent wrestlers are no longer being repackaged into entirely new personas that, at best, keep some traits that made them interesting in the first place (the aforementioned Sami Zayn was, while in the indies, a masked luchador named El Generico). This began to change when the WWE brought in indie superstar Kevin Steen. Though they renamed him Kevin Owens (for copyright purposes), the WWE otherwise let him keep the persona and style that made him so popular in the first place. He is now, just two years later, the WWE Raw Universal Champion, the top wrestler on the top wrestling show in the world. The WWE took an even more laissez-faire approach with international superstar Samoa Joe and later Japanese megastar Shinsuke Nakamura, allowing them to keep their names, personas, and histories. Suddenly, the WWE has started to look like a “who’s who” of the independent scene and the style of the wrestling has taken on much more of an “indie” feel.
Back to EVOLVE’s primary storyline. Like the best professional wrestling storylines, these complex, existential questions are worked out by shirtless men beating the crap out of each other. A group called the Revolution, which includes former WWE star Drew Galloway and Chris Hero (a world-traveling independent superstar whose WWE career wound up fizzling). In the storyline, the Revolution disparages EVOLVE’s connection to the WWE, calling its eagerness to get close to the corporate giant a betrayal of everything independent wrestling stands for. The fact that these wrestlers have such real-life bad blood with the WWE only makes the storyline crackle that much more. As a result of their ideology, The Revolution often winds up antagonizing those EVOLVE wrestlers who are on their way to the WWE, like Johnny Gargano, who, despite consistently performing at WWE events continued wrestling at EVOLVE and in other independent wrestling shows. By EVOLVE 69, however, Gargano had become important enough to the WWE that this would be his final appearance.
Fascinatingly enough, his tag team partner against Galloway and Hero was none other than Cody Rhodes–son of the legendary Dusty Rhodes and a WWE superstar in his own right–who recently left the company due to creative differences. Despite Rhodes’s own rocky history with the WWE, he was the undisputed host of the Johnny Gargano farewell party, ordering dozens of Dominos pizzas for the crowd in Gargano’s honor and expressing how proud he is of Gargano reaching “the pinnacle of the business.” Rhodes’s surprising position is less paradoxical than it is an admission that the primacy of the WWE is unquestioned. Every independent wrestler in the business has their career arc defined by their relationship to the WWE: whether they’re aspiring to make it there, or their past WWE success allows them the freedom to choose their future path, or even if they defiantly want to remain independent, every action every wrestler makes is in relation to the WWE.
As I walk up to the official EVOLVE merchandise stand, I find the expected mix of branded T-shirts and DVDs, but there is an additional selection of WWE merchandise like out-of-print action figures, rare DVDs, and replica championship belts. While the presence of the WWE products certainly makes EVOLVE seem less important at its own show, the products sell. Like the company itself, the curators of the concession stand have decided that it’s better to de-legitimize themselves a little and take the money rather than rely solely on their own brand and potentially going under. However, if that ideological compromise leads to 69 (and counting) critically acclaimed wrestling shows that succeed on their own merits, as well as a rapidly expanding fan base, then maybe it isn’t much of a compromise at all. Maybe EVOLVE is already exactly what it needs to be.