Another new beginning in EVOLVE saw rule changes and what you could perhaps call a Swerve in the main event…

WrestleMania weekend saw the promotion bid farewell to Zack Sabre Jr, while this would be the final hurrah for Keith Lee. As ever, Lenny Leonard and Ron Niemi are hosting the show, and they advise us that the count-out rule has been thrown out – instead, the referee now has discretion to throw the match out. That seems rather, erm, nebulous.

AR Fox vs. Zachary Wentz
Wentz made his WWN debut over WrestleMania weekend, while Fox is in that awkward bucket of “what do I do now?” after his story to build him for the WWN title amounted to an unsuccessful shot at the belt.

Wentz started off pretty well, going after Fox into the corner before working his way into a standing moonsault for a near-fall. They head outside to make use of the no count-out rule, where Wentz avoids a 619 on the apron and hits some headscissors to take Fox into the guard railings. That run ends when Fox manages to superkick Wentz from the ring to the floor, ahead of a shooting star press off the apron as Fox and his skulk were feeling it.

Back in the ring, Fox almost takes the win with a Twister, following up with a step-up enziguiri into the corner and a Blue Thunder Bomb out of it as Wentz was starting to struggle. On cue, Wentz hit back with a German suplex, before ducking a Fox clothesline so he could wipe out AR’s crew with a tope con giro… Fox thought he’d do the same too, but his tope crashed into his skulk as Wentz managed to neutralise any potential interference.

Wentz looked for a handspring enziguiri, but Fox avoids it and blasts back with a pair of cutters for a two-count. Some back-and-forth strikes led to a barrage of evasions until Fox hits a Code Red for a near-fall before Fox looked for the Foxcatcher… Wentz blocks it and springboards off the ropes into a cutter that really faceplanted Fox! Problem was, Wentz looked to follow up off the top… and he took way too long, allowing Fox to rush in with the Lo Mein Pain before the Foxcatcher got the win. A pretty decent opener, with Fox getting back on track. ***

After the match, a member of Fox’s Skulk – Tommy Maserati – gets a little confident and promises to show that tonight’s all about the future. Guys like him. Cue an open challenge…

Tommy Maserati vs. Josh Briggs
…one that was answered by the debuting Josh Briggs. Good lord. Maserati quickly powdered to the outside, but it did him no good. Running boot, spinning backbreaker and a chokebreaker. With a nasty landing for young Thomas to boot. SPLAT.

Tracy Williams vs. Dominic Garrini
Having been ousted from Catch Point, “Hot Sauce” is on his own. Stokely Hathaway’s out to tear into him, but in true EVOLVE fashion, there’s way too much reverb and it’s a struggle to decipher what Stoke is saying. How do you go over 100 shows and still struggle with audio like this?!

Eventually this turns into the match as Stoke says it’s “Catch Point Rules” – if you remember the old ROH Pure title, it’s that basically. Three rope breaks each, a 20-count on the floor, and you lose a rope break for strikes to the face. There’s a lot of ground-based grappling early as Garrini suckered Williams into a triangle armbar, forcing “Hot Sauce” into binning a rope break. Williams comes back with chops and a teardrop suplex, before a butterfly suplex drew a one-count… and a crossface a rope break as we’re rushing through the rope breaks. Stokely distracts the ref to hide a punch to the face as Garrini took over, rolling Williams to the mat for a two-count before the tide turned with Williams popping up and kicking him in the back. A release overhead belly-to-belly from Garrini almost ends badly as he resumed the offence… at least until Williams get off the ropes with a dropkick.

Williams swipes away some kicks and hits a lariat for a near-fall, but Garrini’s right back in with some knees before he lifts Williams to the top rope… Garrini escaped a counter, but fell to a flying DDT anyway as Williams picked up a near-fall. They work into another low blow attempt, this time after Garrini tried to bump the referee… but Williams blocks it and goes right back to the crossface as Garrini tapped quickly. That felt very underwhelming – Garrini’s time in EVOLVE so far has been far from monumental, and when you’re coming up short in matches like this, with the odds stacked in your favour, you do have to wonder… **¾

Post-match, Chris Dickinson and Jaka make the save for Stokely, before there’s a brief staredown as everyone heads to the back.

Bu Ku Dao, J. Spade & Johnny Flex vs. Chris Castro, Isaias Velazquez & Matt Knicks
With EVOLVE running out of one of Freelance Wrestling’s venues here, we’ve got a guest match as Team Freelance took on a team from WildKat… which certainly breaks up the flow of things. As long as it’s more notable than the last guest match they ran!

I’ve seen a few of these guys on prior EVOLVE shows, and perhaps a Style Battle or two, but for those not in the venue, this felt like an early intermission. Johnny Flex gets taken down with a dropkick early, prompting him to tag in to J. Spade as we’re in the realm of revolving door tags.

Chris Castro comes in with a palm strike to Spade for a near-fall, as he began a string of offence that saw him batter Spade. We’ve a variation of the CCK lungblower/back senton deal as Knicks trips Spade into Castro before he does the back senton, before we move into… comedy? It feels very much out of place on the wider, straight-laced EVOLVE show, as Knicks easily charges down Flex with shoulder tackles.

Flex demands to have a go of the jacket, to see if that’s what gives the magical shoulder tackle powers. Of course it didn’t, as he was tripped before he could get going. In response, Flex knees and suplexes Knicks for a two-count, before Space blind-tagged himself in for a duel elbow drop. Tags out bring us to Castro and Bu Ku Dao, with the latter getting ragdolled, only for Spade to low bridge Castro as tags became… a novelty?

Bu Ku Dao nails a crucifix bomb before he goes back to that ring jacket… throwing it away, only for Knicks to catch it and palm strike him to death. Spade cuts off a dive with a spinning heel kick as a Parade of Moves gets going, including a swinging Flatliner from Dao that was tagged “Wasabi”. In the end, after a dive wiped out everyone but Dao, Dao’s killed with a powerbomb/backcracker combo that looked bad. It got the win… but this was so not needed on the show. Six men, under ten minutes… it was entertaining enough but insanely forgettable. **¼

Stevie Fierce vs. Anthony Henry
You could wring your hands and ask “why’s Henry in this, having been a former EVOLVE tag champ”, but this is apparently borrowing off of a feud they’ve had in Freelance, which explains why Henry’s getting booed.

The match starts like a heated feud should, with lots of aggression as Henry quickly took Fierce down for a snapmare and a kick to the back. Fierce rebounds with a stomp that sandwiched Henry’s head onto the apron, before Henry charged him into the crowd barriers. Henry sends himself into the crowd with a dropkick as Fierce was draped on the barriers, before they returned to the ring as Henry keeps up the offence. Fierce catches a kick and tried to fight back, but he’s snapped off the ropes into a German suplex, before managing to get back up into a DDT. A Thesz press sparks some new fire for Fierce, who catches Henry with a Flatliner for a two-count… but he looked to get suckered in as Henry replies with a back suplex as he mounted a comeback, before almost falling for a small package.

Henry tries for a neckbreaker but nearly gets beaten with a backslide before a suplex in the ropes saw both men fall to the floor. The former tag champ is up first with an STO onto the apron, and that’s followed up with a double stomp off the top… but Fierce rolled away and nails an Unprettier for a near-fall – a call-back to their prior matches as Henry just got a foot onto the rope in time. From there, Henry nails a spin-TKO, then an old-school neckbreaker for the win. This was really good – helped by commentary augmenting the feud rather than wittering on in the background, this was a Freelance crossover into EVOLVE that worked. ***½

Leon Ruff vs. Liam Gray
Well, this unannounced match doesn’t happen as Austin Theory and Priscilla Kelly hit the ring. As you were then!

Theory decked Ruff, as Kelly dropkicked Gray, and I guess AR Fox’s crew are here just to be warm bodies, eh? What we do get in lieu of a match is another echoey, hard to hear promo, as we just skip ahead to our match. Which was meant to have been the main event. Really?! All the names you had on the card and this was meant to be the main event? Way to bury yourself!

WWN Championship: Austin Theory (c) vs. DJ Z
The challenger’s all over Theory from the off, powerbombing him out of the corner before faking out a dive so he could catch Theory with one across the corners.

Theory then rolled under the guard rails and into the crowd… but that just suckers DJZ in with a dive as Theory catches him and charged him into the wall. They’re back in towards ringside as Theory took over, snapping DJZ into a suplex for a near-fall, before Priscilla Kelly snuffed out the challenger’s attempted comeback by tripping him to the outside… where Theory capitalised by barging him into the crowd barriers.

Back inside, Theory takes DJZ up top, but a sunset bomb brought the champion right back down, with some clotheslines keeping him there, albeit briefly as Theory’s right back in it. DJZ manages a springboard dropkick to put Theory on the floor, but Priscilla’s back to distract DJZ… who’s finally smart to it as he Matrix’s away from a clothesline as a neckbreaker put Theory down once more.

A hotshot on the ropes and a slingshot splash looked to keep it one-way but Theory gets the knees up on a moonsault… before DJZ countered with a satellite DDT for a near-fall. DJZ gets caught in the corner as Theory nails a rack bomb out of the corner for a couple of near-falls. The intensity’s turned up as DJZ gets in a top rope ‘rana and another DDT… but Priscilla Kelly puts Theory’s foot on the rope to keep the match alive.

DJZ’s had enough and chases her around ringside, but the Benny Hill spot ends quickly with a buckle bomb and a TKO. Fortunately, DJZ kicked out at two, but there’s more distraction as Theory has the belt… the referee gets into a tug of war with it, allowing Kelly to hit a low blow as Theory gets the win with his Ataxia finish. I really wasn’t sold on this match – they went at a fast clip, but this felt like there was a lot of stuff missing. “By Any Means Necessary” Austin Theory isn’t going anywhere, but it doesn’t mean I have to like the way the character’s being used. **½

Anything Goes Match for EVOLVE Tag Team Championship: The End (Odinson & Parrow) vs. Catch Point (Chris Dickinson & Jaka) (c)
We’re told that The End earned a shot at the titles because of how they won that shambolic tag match over ‘Mania weekend – where they won a multi-way match, but because the champions weren’t pinned, the belts didn’t change hands. Another blood feud, another jump start as the champions came out in street clothes, with Dominic Garrini brawling with Drennan to the back as The End were being forced to do this on their own.

Lots and lots of crowd brawling here, with the camera flicking back and forth. It’s a wild one, but one that’s hard to follow along with as the mobile cameras struggled to keep up with. They all ended up around by the merch tables as Jaka gets whipped into a (padded) wall, allowing Parrow to manhandle Dickinson, bringing him back to the ring in a Fireman’s carry. It’s two-on-one for a bit as Parrow dumped Dickinson with a Fire Thunder driver, but they take their time in making a cover as Dickinson kicked out at two.

Finally returns from the dead as Odinson’s putting boots and chairs to Dickinson… but he’s brushed aside as a crowd barrier’s brought into the ring, and propped up against a turnbuckle. They tease powerbombing Dickinson through it, but Jaka makes the save with some chairshots, before sidestepping a charge from Odinson, who headbutts the chair he’d shoved between the turnbuckles.

Drennan also returns, since Dominic Garrini is clearly useless at doing anything for Catch Point, but the champions quickly get rid of him with a Doomsday Device that Drennan looked to land on his head from. A chairshot gets rid of Dickinson, so The End go after Jaka… but instead both champions get chokeslammed onto chairs for a near-fall. The End look for their own Doomsday Device, but a thrown chair from Dickinson gets rid of Odinson, before Parrow’s given a back body drop onto the guard railing. With Parrow rolled off of it, we get a chair-assisted elbow from Dickinson, and a Superfly Splash from Jaka, and that’s the win. Surely the end (pun intended) after a pretty dominant showing from the champions – and save for their introductory few shows in EVOLVE, they’ve been largely forgettable I’m afraid. **

Trey Miguel vs. Myron Reed vs. Snoop Strikes vs. Darby Allin
This marked Darby’s return after his WrestleMania weekend was curtailed by way of a concussion during his appearance for PROGRESS… he’s in with three newbies for EVOLVE, and it’s all action to start off with as Darby flies into things before he’s even taken his jacket off.

Snoop Strikes tried to get the win early with a sunset flip into an Anaconda Vise, but it’s broken up as he ended up running into a forearm from Miguel, before Myron Reed’s crossbody took us to another stretch. Reed takes his time doing some handwalking as he and Miguel indulge in some flippy dos, ending when Miguel snapped Reed’s neck between his legs. Snoop Strikes returns and nearly crashes and burns with some topes, before kneeing Allin in the face ahead of a springboard dropkick as he kept the ring clear. A plancha to the outside sees Allin flat on the floor again… but he’s brought right back in to DDT Snoop, as the former title contender’s surging ahead.

A Code Red nearly puts away Reed as Miguel’s brought down off the top with a superplex onto Reed! Snoop’s frog splash breaks up the cover there, as all four men trade blows, leading to Snoop absolutely spiking Darby with what looked like a springboard tornado DDT. That looked nasty… as did Darby’s spill to the floor. Miguel’s back in to post Strikes as a 619’d Cheeky Nandos followed in the corner, before a step-up tornillo sees Trey crash into the pile on the floor.

Back in the ring, Miguel drops Snoop with a neckbreaker, as following him outside saw him thrown into the guar rails… Darby gets crotched as he looked to leap up off the top, prompting Myron Reed to hit a tope con giro over the turnbuckles into the pile! Poor Darby, put in a Tree of Woe for that… but he’s back to his feet as he Coffin Drops off the top rope into the pile as well! Darby throws Reed back inside to get a near-fall, but he’s met with a Stundog Millionaire, before Allin monkey flipped Reed and worked his way into the Last Supper clutch for the win. An entertaining, if not messy at points, affair… my God, that tornado DDT to Darby looked like it almost added to his concussion count though. ***

Post-match Candy Cartwright comes out to tell Darby that “Jarek’s coming” – but Darby just walks off to avoid the shrill voice. I’d have done the same.

James Drake vs. Keith Lee
It’s a rather curious choice of opponent for one of Keith Lee’s final matches here, but who knows? New changes could finally see EVOLVE using James Drake in a more prominent role.

Anyway, it’s a hoss fight, and we start with a long tie-up battle as they looked to show off each other’s strength. Eventually Drake takes it into the corner for a clean break, so they switch it into a side headlock, which gives way to shoulder tackles, with both men rebounding off the ropes before Lee gets all athletic with a leapfrog before finally taking Drake down with a ‘rana! Yep, big Keith can fly! As can Drake, it seems…

Drake goes a step too far by asking Keith to bask in his glory, and gets punched out for it, before catching Lee with an Exploder suplex! A back senton’s next for a near-fall, as Drake stays on top of him with clubbing forearms and a chinlock, before being shoved into the ropes as he rebounded with a diving kick for a near-fall. Drake keeps up with some chops, but Lee just shrugs them off and unloads with some elbows and forearms of his own… only for the double chop to get blocked as Drake instead ran into a pop up headbutt and a standing, overhead belly-to-belly! It’s Lee’s turn to throw some clubbering forearms now, before fighting Drake into the corner as another crack at the double chop’s stopped.

Against the run of play, Drake hits a Shining Wizard for a near-fall, before offering himself up for chops. He gives as good as he gets, mind you, but Lee’s able to throw a double chop to rock Drake… who hits back with one of his own. Which is damn near laughed off as they just swap double chops until Lee dragged Drake into a backbreaker for a near-fall. Drake manages to sidestep a charge into the corner and catch Lee with a leg lariat off the middle rope for a near-fall, as we’re back to those clubbering forearms and elbows!

A spinning back elbow and a clothesline looked to have Drake ahead… but Lee popped right back up with a clothesline to leave both men flat on the floor! Lee’s right back in with a pop up spinebuster for a near-fall… but Drake’s in with a spinebuster of his own as they’re still going tit for tat! Drake tries to cannonball Lee in the corner, but he’s then forced to fight out of a powerbomb attempt as the pair were beginning to run on fumes.

Drake counters some punches in the corner with a powerbomb before following up with a top rope moonsault – actually hitting it for a near-fall! Another cannonball works as he hauled up Lee into a Fireman’s carry, but Lee escaped and hits a POUNCE, then Ground Zero for the win. A bit of a sudden finish, but this was a nice little slobberknocker that showed plenty from Drake without him getting the win. It wasn’t a dominant outing from either man, which says something for Drake going forward I guess. ***¾

Remember when they said that Austin Theory vs. DJ Z was the originally scheduled main event? What replaced it was what I believe the kids call a “self own” as what we actually got as the main event was many, many leagues above the planned match.

Shane Strickland vs. Matt Riddle
It’s a non-title affair, as we get a rematch of the MLW title tournament finals. I have a feeling it may be a rather different result here, given Matt’s brought his belt out with his Kill Bill-esque black and yellow track jacket.

Riddle and Strickland try each other out on the mat in the early going, but it’s a German suplex from the EVOLVE champion takes Strickland to the outside, before a second one sees him land on his feet as they roll through into a cross armbreaker from the MLW champion. The tit-for-tat continued as Riddle grabs a guillotine, and cinches it in as it turned into a suplex as commentary dropped in a line about how “the locker room feel Riddle didn’t show the right respect” when he beat Zack Sabre Jr. for the title.

Riddle keeps up the pressure, but a missed forearm in the corner gave Strickland a chance to hit a 619 and a Codebreaker-like move to the arm… and it’s clear what body part he’s aiming for. A Jim Breaks-style arm lift adds pressure to Riddle’s left arm, which looked to snap in two after a low dropkick from Strickland put him back to the mat, as the onslaught continued. Strickland traps the arm and cranks on the neck as Riddle was surprisingly being caught off-guard with a submissions game.

Some kicks and shots to the arm keep Riddle on his haunches, but with one arm Riddle’s able to haul Strickland back in a German suplex! A series of chops from Riddle keep him ahead, at least until Strickland turned it around with a pump kick to the head. Riddle kicks away Strickland as he went for another 619, before baseball sliding to the outside to slap him as the crowd were given a slightly closer view, with Riddle placing Strickland on the apron for a series of kicks.

A series of back sentons in the ring, then one off the top rope almost gets Riddle the win, but Strickland goes back to the arm as he fights out of a Bro to Sleep and catches Riddle in a keylock. Somehow, Riddle escapes with another series of chops, only to get caught with a roll-through into a cutter for a near-fall. He takes Riddle up top for a superplex, but Riddle fights back, climbing to the ring post, only to get brought down with a superplex as Strickland turns it into a keylock on landing!

Riddle stands up out of it and heel kicks Strickland to get free, but Strickland flies in off the top rope with a double stomp to pick up a near-fall as he went back to his regular arsenal. Strickland goes back to the submissions, trying an armbar, before taking Riddle outside with a superkick and a pump kick off the apron. Commentary oddly reminds us of the new rule change, as Strickland drapes Riddle on the guard rails, before leaping off the apron for a double stomp, but Riddle’s able to hit back back in the ring with a ripcord knee and a powerbomb.

A Tiger Knee’s enough to put Strickland down for a two-count, so Riddle pulls him up for the Bryan Danielson elbows, knocking Strickland down, but the King of Swerve’s got enough left him in to avoid it, escaping a Bro to Sleep with a double stomp before he snapped Riddle’s arm between his legs. Riddle rolled into the ropes, but Strickland keeps up on him with another Keylock… Strickland refuses to let go despite Riddle being in the ropes, and that leads to a DQ as Strickland, kinda like Riddle’s arm, has snapped!

The crowd did not like that finish, but I sort of enjoyed it – it gave Strickland an edge and showed that he’s here to do damage, rather than pick up wins. Hey, when was the last time YOU saw that cause a DQ, rather than the classic “disqualified for kicking too much ass” finish? ****¼

Post-match, Strickland keeps up the assault on Riddle, sandwiching his arm in a chair before Pillman-izing it.

All in all, EVOLVE 104 was really a two-match show. Having ten matches on the card (not including the never-gotten-started match) is perhaps a little bit of overkill, especially when nothing on the undercard crossed the ten minute mark, but at least nothing dragged. The real main event (not the one they threatened us with and threw into the mid-card) and the first of Keith Lee’s farewell matches were more than worth the price of your VOD/subscription… while the undercard as a whole was alright. With all due respect to the folks involved, I’m hoping that this latest reshuffle means that The End will either be retooled or moved away since their storyline thus far has been rather uninspiring aside from their introductory invasion.