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Friday, April 6, 2018

International indy wrestlers dazzle at Evolve 102

Posted By on Fri, Apr 6, 2018 at 4:37 PM

I like the Kenner lakefront. I like Williams Boulevard, I like WTIX Oldies Night at the Treasure Chest, I like the anomalous beach-volleyball complex, the airplanes overhead, the unintuitive street grid, the cozy coffee shops where both Jefferson and St. Charles Parish politicos loudly plot and swap gossip.

On Thursday, the first big night of a long WrestleMania weekend that will run through SmackDown Live on Tuesday, I was in Laketown to see some outstanding independent wrestling. I attended "Evolve 102," put on by Evolve, a promotion that's part of the WWN Streaming Network and shares talent with some other bigger independent wrestling organizations.

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For a wrestling fan, WrestleMania week is long days and nights of tough choices. No matter what event you attend, you know at any given time you're missing at least one or two other events that might be as good or better— and with so many megastars in town, there's no predicting who'll make a surprise guest appearance where. You've just gotta roll the dice, pick a show and mute your phone's relentless fusillade of FOMO fuel.

With Evolve, I picked a winner. The show was exciting, diverse, long enough without being too long and the matches were not just great on their own merits but worked well in sequence. A given wrestling match has its own narrative dynamics, its ebbs and flows, but so does a show itself. If the opening match is an all-out 20-minute donnybrook, the audience will be flagging by main-event time. Each piece of the card has a role to play, and Evolve was superbly laid out on both the micro and macro levels.

The Pontchartrain Center was miles better than the Tulane Auditorium that hosted the same events back in 2014; it was the right size and showcased the Evolve folks' impressive lighting and fog effects.

click to enlarge Matt Riddle
  • Matt Riddle
Before things started, I spotted #1 Contender Matt Riddle manning his own merchandise stand. Riddle, the self-proclaimed "King of Bros," has apparently bulletproof chill and a casual, authentic self-confidence that reminds me of pro skateboarders. He competes barefoot a la '70s/80s heartthrob Kevin Von Erich, and sorta looks like Kevin overall, albeit with shaggier hair. Riddle's booked for maybe a half-dozen or more high-profile matches in a three-day span this WrestleMania weekend, but when I remarked on his grueling schedule, he shrugged. "Just doing my thing," he said.

An opening match between DJ Z and Austin Theory featured what's colloquially termed "flippy wrestling"— an approach that emphasizes dazzling acrobatics over convincingly simulating combat. "The physics don't make sense, but it looked cool," the guy behind me said after one sequence. I think that sums it up better than I could. Afterwards, the sore loser grabbed the mic and plugged an upcoming appearance at WWE Axxess. "Whether you people like it or not," he told the booing crowd, "Evolve wrestling is just my stepping stone."
The WWN Champion, Keith Lee, defeated a tiny, skinny and pointedly obnoxious guy named Darby Allin in what I'd consider a "squash match," a deliberately one-sided contest designed to showcase the winning wrestler's strengths and move set. The squash match is meant to be crowd-pleasing fun, and this was. Despite being miniscule relative to Lee, Allin managed to keep himself sufficiently unsympathetic that the beloved champ didn't seem like a bully for beating the tar out of him. Keith biel-threw Darby across the ring by his annoying shorts and then delivered the Spirit Bomb, his signature move, so hard that Allin hit the mat and then bounced a good foot and a half in the air.

For space reasons I will skim over a stellar match between two hot, highly-regarded high-flyers, AR Fox and Will Ospreay, except to marvel that only minutes after his match at Evolve was done, Ospreay was back in the ring again at WrestleCon's SuperShow in the Sugar Mill in the Warehouse District, going lake-to-river and match-to-match in record time despite nursing a genuine neck injury.

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A messy, multi-team tag scramble was only notable for the winning team containing the ominous Odinson, a wrestler I first saw down in Houma, years back at a fine south Louisiana wrestling company called Elite Pro.

Not being that familiar with most of Evolve, one of the show's big draws for me was WALTER, a rising cult figure within indy wrestling. According to the T-shirt worn by the fan a few seat over, "Others perform; WALTER kills." At 6'4" and 310 pounds, this Austrian brute is big, but not gargantuan by pro wrestling standards. What sets WALTER apart is something in his demeanor. There's an unmerciful extra unpleasantness to his chops, stomps and throws. You feel frightened for his opponents. WALTER isn't mechanical or unemotional, but the way he treats other wrestlers seems fundamentally to disregard their humanity; it's like watching a troubled child smash his action figures. I was enchanted.

WALTER isn't perfect — he still has room to grow as a wrestler — but in a high-octane tag match against two stalwart Japanese gentlemen who didn't flinch from pain, WALTER gave me my money's worth. He was particulary pleasing paired off against Daisuke Sekimoto, a bulldog two fire hydrants tall and three fire hydrants wide.

In the night's main event, Matt Riddle challenged notorious submission-wrestling meanie Zack Sabre Jr. for the Evolve World Championship. While Sabre's style is flamboyantly sadistic, focused on stretching and bending his opponents, I found it hard to root against a guy whose gimmick is British class-consciousness and whose entrance theme is IDLES' Mother: "My mother worked 16 hours 6 days a week... the best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich!" There was a vociferous section of Sabre fans present from the U.K. They chanted his name as well as "Fuck the Tories" and, adorably, "N.H.S.".

I can't praise Riddle vs. Sabre enough. Matt's athleticism is uncanny; when he leapt off the mat for a senton he appeared not just to hang but to hover, idling aloft while he made up his mind where to land. Twitter has been telling me for weeks that Riddle had hit a new level of awesome; Twitter was right.

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Sabre's trademark stretches and submission holds were on full display. He repeatedly wrapped Riddle into hideous knots, climbing and clutching like a nightmare vine. He phased through the larger man at will, melting into momentary immateriality and then solidifying wherever it was strategic. Riddle's bare feet came in for special attention; Sabre bent and twisted Riddle's toes until the audience was screaming for it to stop. I screamed a little too, though it was really more like a whimper. What you feel while watching a studly surfer get his feet tortured will teach you some dark truths about yourself.

The stars of Evolve, as well as many others, will be back at the Pontchartrain Center tonight, April 6, at 8 .m. for "Mercury Rising," the big WWN Supershow. I give this my strongest recommendation.

"Mercury Rising," featuring the wrestlers of Evolve, is at the Pontchartrain Center Friday night at 8 pm. Tickets start at $25 and are available at the door.

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