For what’s felt like months now, the British indy scene has experienced murmurs over “just what will WWE’s involvement turn into”. What happened at EVOLVE this weekend may well be some people’s idea of a worst case scenario.
While the recent, long-awaited launch of NXT UK gave us a tangible end product, there’s still some rumblings that WWE still has a bit further to reach. That being said, if you take a look at what happened in the States this past weekend, you may be looking at things with a bit more trepidation or optimism… depending on your mindset.
We’ve gotten used to WWE helping out some “favoured nations”; for instance, in the past six months PROGRESS have been able to have Kassius Ohno and Matt Riddle appear on their shows despite being under contract to NXT, while EVOLVE have had similar treatment… despite those matches being held with the cameras turned off. So in effect, while PROGRESS have been able to benefit from extra ticket sales and VOD subscriptions, all EVOLVE could do was sell a few extra tickets.
This past weekend that all changed, at least Stateside.
With the announcements during the week that WWN would be able to show matches featuring WWE-contracted talent, perhaps we should have seen this coming. Although EVOLVE has dropped out of our rotation, we’ve kept up to speed with some of the happenings… including the events of this past weekend in Ybor City, Florida, where both of the promotions’ main titles found themselves in the hands of WWE-contracted wrestlers.
In a nutshell: Fabian Aichner debuted and beat Shane Strickland for the EVOLVE title, while the Street Profits – Montez Ford and Angelo Dawkins – beat Chris Dickinson and Jaka for the promotion’s tag titles at EVOLVE 114. Factor in other appearances for Adrian Jaoude (who has appeared on NXT TV a grand total of… twice), Dan Matha (whose debut was teased two years ago, only for it to lead to a run in from Samoa Joe) and Jessie Elaban (who only has one televised match under her belt, at this year’s Mae Young Classic), and you’ve got a promotion that quickly has drawn the appearance of being the “NXT B-show” or “NXB” as some dubbed it.
WWE helping to fill in some blanks in the roster as a one-off is one thing. However, with Aichner, Ford and Dawkins holding the gold, you’d have to believe that this is more a new direction for an EVOLVE roster that feels like it’s constantly been in flux in the past 18 months, with reboot after reboot not really helping the company find its feet.
The problem is, this wasn’t a gradual shift. It’s not like the Street Profits came in and won the EVOLVE tag titles as a surprise. This was a card where about half the matches involved WWE-contracted talent – meaning that the “novelty value” of just having WWE-contracted names on your shows has disappeared overnight. In November, EVOLVE have Mustafa Ali appearing on shows, but unless you’re a massive fan of Ali, whatever novelty that “WWE wrestlers are on our card” held has quickly gone. After all, EVOLVE shows (for now) already have three guaranteed NXT wrestlers on them.
In a week where WWE’s financial reports showed that their live event business is barely breaking even, it’s not a total stretch to surmise that this is a trial run for at least part of WWE developmental to be outsourced. Granted, EVOLVE’s monthly shows are hardly “enough” for developmental talent to grow with, but as some have surmised, replacing the “Largo loop” with EVOLVE is a cheaper option for WWE – effectively getting someone else to foot the bill – then it’s worth a shot, even if it looks stupid on the outside, with $2bn of new television deals about to kick in.
That being said… what happens in EVOLVE, or indeed, in the States, isn’t necessarily indicative of what may happen further afield, no matter what conspiracy theories have been around. Like the curious case of Joseph Conners in PROGRESS… or Wolfgang, for that matter, and while from this past weekend’s PROGRESS show, eight of the nineteen wrestlers on show are WWE-contracted, the “road there” was slightly different, with those guys having already been used by PROGRESS long before the contracts were signed. The opposite of EVOLVE, whom, unlike their upcoming date with Kassius Ohno, can’t get away with “we’d used them before they were signed” as a defence.
When EVOLVE (and the rest of the WWN crew) signed that ill-fated FloSlam contract two years ago, they were drawing around 700 PPV buys-per-show (according to data that leaked after the deal fell apart). Now, I can only surmise how many of those were fans who watched because it was wrestling, or because it was EVOLVE. The launch of Club WWN earlier this year made following EVOLVE more affordable and palatable for the wallet (costing $10 a month rather than per show, complete with back catalogues and access to other shows within the WWN brands), but these latest roster shifts adds a new question. How many people will continue to watch EVOLVE now it’s turned into “NXB”?
Part of the charm of watching independent wrestling is that “it isn’t WWE” – no matter whether you want to take that as a slight on the WWE, or a preference for seeing something that maybe isn’t as polished. When your favourite promotion is suddenly swamped with contracted talent, a lot of the charm goes with it… and whether EVOLVE ends up with a net gain or net loss of fans based on this change remains to be seen.
We’re embarking on a new chapter of cooperation on the indy scene. Whether it’s good or bad… depends on how you like your indy wrestling.