Johnny Gargano made his return to EVOLVE as we had another passing hello from a familiar face.

We’ve not laid eyes on EVOLVE for a while – truth be told, it was a combination of things. I had to cancel my credit card and since the payment processor that Club WWN uses is hardly intuitive, I never got around to updating my details. Add in the fact that a month later EVOLVE shifted gears and suddenly implanted a decent proportion of the “Largo Loop” NXT roster into their shows, and there was a lot of bad feeling that just turned me off this promotion.

We’ll look back on the missing shows at some point, but since we last covered EVOLVE (at EVOLVE 111 in August)… Fabian Aichner came in and beat Shane Strickland for the title on his first night in (at EVOLVE 114), then lost it to Austin Theory two months later on EVOLVE 117. On the same show Aichner debuted on, the Street Profits beat Doom Patrol for the EVOLVE tag titles, and have hung onto them, while Joey Janela’s injury meant the WWN title was vacated, with JD Drake winning it in a ladder match at 114. Seems a lot happened there!

EVOLVE have calmed down a lot on the “use NXT talent” side of things, restricting it to just those in title pictures along with some marquee appearances, such as Roderick Strong, Kassius Ohno, and on this weekend, Johnny Gargano. So let’s get to it… We’re from the Saint Finbar Catholic Church Gym in Brooklyn, and some things never change – Lenny Leonard and Ron Niemi are on the call. Same commentators, same “non-telegenic buildings” and hey, we’ve got legible lower thirds!

Joe Gacy vs. Colby Corino
Having seen CZW on and off, Gacy perhaps wasn’t the first name I’d have picked to use, but he apparently impressed in tryouts. His opponent here was Colby Corino, son of Steve, who used to be part of the Ugly Ducklings back in the day and was set to train with New Japan before a brush with the law derailed that.

Corino tells Gacy he doesn’t deserve to be in EVOLVE, and starts by taking him down into a hammerlock as he looked for a submission attempt. When that doesn’t work, he goes for a roll-up before a lucha roll-up took him into a crucifix for a near-fall. Gacy blocks a step-up rana and just tosses Corino aside, before a pump kick sent Corino loopy. Strikes follow from Gacy, who just waylaid Colby with clubbing forearms, before a shoulder tackle snuffed out an attempt at a comeback. A Beele throw sends Corino into the corner, as Gacy ends up getting tripped into the same corner, ahead of a punt kick from the apron and a springboard crossbody as Corino turned the match back around.

At least until Gacy started to throw some chops, before he had to kick out of a sunset flip attempt. An axe kick from Corino, and some stomps to the back of the neck, took Gacy into the corner… but he’s too busy playing to the crowd rather than following up. He does manage to land a springboard Ace crusher out of the corner, before a chinlock left Gacy almost running on fumes.

Gacy eventually powers up and drops Corino with a death valley driver before finding a second wind full of shoulder tackles. Catching Colby in the corner, Gacy unloads with uppercuts before he blocked a right hand, and landed a Samoan driver for a near-fall. Corino fought back though, biting Gacy en route to a tornado DDT, only for an instant comeback to see Corino hurled into the corner with a release Northern Lights suplex. Oof.

A clothesline from Gacy dumped Corino on the apron before he was dragged in for an Alabama Slam and a sit-out powerbomb as Gacy got the win. Pretty one-sided stuff for Gacy, but Corino showed some good stuff too, particularly as he bumped like a madman at times. **¾

Milk Chocolate (Brandon Watts & Randy Summers) vs. Lotus (Gavin Quinn & Juntai) vs. Beaver Boys (Alex Reynolds & John Silver) vs. The Skulk (Adrian Alanis & Leon Ruff)
We’ve a tag team scramble, which is basically one big lucha tag rules match, with the winner challenging the Street Profits for the tag titles later on.

Juntai starts against Ruff, and my word, Lotus look to be heavily inspired by the old Ascension here. A shoulder tackle puts Ruff down, to little reaction, but Ruff’s right back in with a neckbreaker as Adrian Alanis comes into play, helping out with a Slingblade version of a Hart Attack for a near-fall on Juntai. Quinn rushes in as Juntai’s thrown outside, before he dumped Alanis with a brainbuster for a two-count.

Randy Summers low bridges Quinn to the outside as the team calling themselves Milk Chocolate took advantage… but Alanis heads outside too, as the Beaver Boys got a rapid comeuppance. A double-team hiptoss facebuster takes down Summers, while Watts takes Silver outside… and finds that his tope’s caught and turned into a stalling suplex ahead of a tope from Alex Reynolds to finish that move off.

We’ve more dives as Ruff hits a step-up senton to the outside, upstaging Quinn who had been taking his time ahead of a corkscrew moonsault to the pile. Back inside, some Dusty punches from Quinn led to him getting dragged outside by Silver, who instead hit the ring and took a dropkick from Watts. Silver’s back with kicks to trap Watts by the ropes, following that up with a diving uppercut before we bust out into a Parade of Strikes, until a discus lariat from Alanis left Juntai down.

An overhead belly-to-belly sends Reynolds flying into the corner as Alanis kept the momentum going, only for him to get low bridged to the outside by Lotus as Ruff then leapt into a buckle bomb. Heck, Lotus looked decent with their double-teams, dropping Alanis with a knee drop slam before Milk Chocolate tried to steal the pin. Watts and Summers tried for a piggy back splash off the top, but were stopped by Silver who stacked them up on top of Ruff, showing off his strength for a triple Samoan drop out of the corner.

Silver and Reynolds pepper Quinn with double teams ahead of a bridging German suplex that almost gets Silver the win. Superkicks from Silver looked to wear down Summers and Watts, but a powerbomb/back cracker nearly puts Silver away. Alanis comes in with a shotgun dropkick to a running Watts, before a Burning Hammer gutbuster and a wonky floatover DDT from Ruff got the win. That finish wasn’t too good from Ruff, but it ended a suitably frantic scramble… and yeah, what a shock the folks with the WWN deals won out, eh? **¾

Trish Adora vs. Priscilla Kelly
Adora appeared on NXT back in August 2018 in a losing effort to Kairi Sane… and I don’t expect her to have much luck here against a rather viral Priscilla Kelly. As in because of the video, not for anything else…

Commentary tells us that Kelly was fired by Austin Theory last month, so she’s here just as a wrestler for this SHINE showcase outing. Adora blocks a crucifix before Kelly slipped free into a wonky looking Gedo clutch, as Adora then gets sent outside for a tope. Kelly keeps on putting the fists to Adora afterwards, before a forearm to the back of the head led to the pair heading back inside. Adora’s waiting for her though, meeting her with a kick as she choked Kelly in the ropes. A seated double armbar stretch followed from Adora, who then switches into headscissors, wrenching away on Priscilla before a clothesline quickly neutered the former Nova champion’s escape.

Kelly’s on the top rope, and catches Adora with a sleeperhold from the turnbuckles, only for Trish to come back with a running jawbreaker – much akin to Danny Doring’s old bareback from back in the day. She tries to keep up the pressure, but Kelly took over with a kick to the head from the apron, before a missile dropkick finds its mark. Some more kicks follow, as does a grounded guillotine, but Adora just rolls out of the cover and into a crossface before she got a foot to the rope to force the break.

Adora tries to fight back with a cobra clutch, only for a forearm to knock her into the corner as Adora comes back with a sit-out powerbomb for a near-fall. However, Adora couldn’t capitalise, and when she’s taken into the corner by Kelly, Priscilla hits back with Osteoporosis – a diving clothesline off the top that rolled into a pin for the win. This was okay, but nothing that made me think that SHINE had improved massively in the months since we stopped watching. **

Curt Stallion vs. Anthony Henry
Stallion’s one of the latest names EVOLVE’s given a shot to, in light of Gabe Sapolsky’s “everyone on the US indys are oversaturated” remarks that he tried to justify the NXT influx with.

Henry, a former EVOLVE tag champion, ties up with Stallion as they rolled around the ropes, then underneath them, as we had the never-ending tie-up! They wreck some of the guard rails as they eventually broke free of each other, before Stallion rolled back in to restart things. By which I mean they trade shots at each other as they unleashed an endless barrage of forearms before a clothesline from Henry left Stallion down.

Uppercuts from Henry take Stallion into the corner, before another chop battle broke out as they looked to slap each other silly. Snapmares, kicks, and slaps ring around the building as they held nothing back, nor showed any ill effects before Henry’s attempt at a sunset flip was cut-off with a diving dropkick from Stallion. On the outside, Henry’s stood on by Stallion, as they continued their strike battle with Stallion finding his mark with a series of kicks. A knee lift followed, before Stallion kept up with chops back inside, only for Henry to stop all that by stomping on Stallion’s arm. Commentary notes how Henry’s taped ribs could be causing him issues, but Stallion didn’t really target them often, and when he’s rolled through for a superkick his time almost looked to be up.

A cross armbreaker from Henry’s quickly brought to an end in the ropes, so Henry keeps up kicking away on Stallion. There’s a running Yakuza and a PK kick in the corner as Curt tried to stem the tide, following in with a baseball slide dropkick only for Henry to suplex him right back into the corner. We’re back to the vicious palm strikes, before Stallion and Henry trade German suplexes for fun, which led to the pair of them spilling to the outside in perfect synchronisation. Hmm.

On the apron, Henry spikes Stallion with a death valley driver, before rolling him back in for a double stomp off the top that almost got the win. More kicks from Henry give way to Stallion snapping back with an Air Raid Crash, before he leaps into a rear naked choke that Hendry followed up with a PK for just a one-count. The crowd barely react as a pair of kicks from Henry gets a near-fall, before a folding powerbomb gets Henry the win. This was good, but it felt like it was just about to outstay its welcome as the strikes from Henry and Stallion got the crowd going, only for the rest of it to be hit and miss. Still, the strikes largely hit, so you’ll not see me thumbing my nose at this. ***¼

After the match, they slap each other again before hugging it out. Stallion looked decent in this, but his look is going to hold him back. I’m not saying he needs to be shredded, but bulking out a little will help immensely.

Fabian Aichner vs. Darby Allin
This was Aichner’s first match since he lost the EVOLVE title, and he came into it somewhat hot, immediately chopping Allin out of the ring as we embarked on a brief game of cat and mouse.

They head into the aisle, where Allin had to flip out of a suplex before rushing back into the ring, as he then tried to keep Aichner at bay, wiping himself out with a tope suicida! A follow-up Quebrada’s eventually turned into a crucifix bomb before a Trust Fall’s turned into a German suplex that sent Allin into the ropes. Aichner keeps up on him with chops in the corner, before Beele throws just tossed Allin nastily into the corners. A belly-to-back suplex is good for a near-fall, as Allin tried to chop his way back into the match, only for a lariat to send Darby corkscrewing to the mat for a near-fall.

Darby gets his feet up to block Aichner before a shotgun dropkick took the former champion to the corner, ahead of an O’Connor roll and a corkscrew crossbody that gets Darby some two-counts. Up top, Allin’s search for a superplex is avoided as Aichner comes back with a snap pop-up powerslam that swatted Darby down for a two-count. That seemed to wake up Darby, who had to resist some more strikes before he countered a powerbomb into a Code Red… but things go sour on the outside as some headscissors from Allin were caught, as Aichner swings him into the guard rails with some force.

Allin manages to avoid a charging knee as Aichner hits the ring post hard. He shrugs it off though, and drills Allin with a sheer drop brainbuster back inside for a near-fall as Aichner’s aggressive streak didn’t seem to be paying dividends… especially when his spinning powerbomb backfired thanks to his knee buckling. Darby keeps on top of him with a toe hold in the middle of the ring as he tried to exacerbate Fabian’s knee injury, but instead Aichner’s able to grab the ropes to save himself.

Undeterred, Darby just pulls him away from the ropes and reapplies the hold, almost pinning Aichner in the process… but again, Aichner gets to the ropes. The referee stops Darby doing the same thing, but Allin flips out of a German suplex before he’s pulled out of the corner nastily as he went for a Trust Fall… with Aichner rolling him up with his feet on the ropes for the stolen win. That was a hell of a finish, as Aichner ended up eking out a win against EVOLVE’s scrappy upstart. ***½

Post-match, Alin charges into Aichner with some hammer fists as he sent the Italian packing. Allin gets the mic and challenges Aichner to another go around, but instead Fabian walks off as Darby demanded to be pulled from his four-way match the next night so he could have another crack at Aichner.

Oh hey, WWN’s finally editing out intervals? Cool!

Cyrus Satin vs. Liam Gray
Satin’s been used very sporadically by EVOLVE; he was on EVOLVE 116 after a year’d passed since he was squashed by Dominic Garrini at EVOLVE 95. Whatever happened to Dom in EVOLVE?

Satin looked to take Gray down to the mat early, but Gray escaped and landed a headlock takedown of his own as we reached a standoff. A roll-up from Satin (pronounced “Sah-teen” apparently) gets him ahead as he was going for those pinning attempts rather than anything more offensive. Unlike Gray, who was throwing strikes ahead of a crossbody off the top that nearly won him the match. A missed neckbreaker from Satin opened the door for a uranage from Gray, who then headed up top for a frog splash for the win. By the numbers and almost in the realm of a “TV squash”. Baby steps, I guess. **

EVOLVE Tag Team Championship: The Skulk (Adrian Alanis & Leon Ruff) vs. Street Profits (Angelo Dawkins & Montez Ford) (c)
I do like how they’ve managed to segue the Skulk into their own thing in the past few months. They’re no longer the running buddies of AR Fox, which was a direction they needed to move away from. Meanwhile, this is my first look at the Street Profits in EVOLVE and while the definitely come across as big stars, they perhaps don’t have the aura you’d see of other guys “visiting” from NXT…

Commentary is thrilled at how the Profits got EVOLVE recognised on NXT TV, and we start with Dawkins getting under Ruff’s skin. He responds by “stirring it up”, which led to Dawkins taking down Ruff as Montez Ford howled on the apron. Yep, that’s a star making gimmick right there, my cynical self says. We quit the tomfoolery as Dawkins takes down Ruff briefly, only for Leon to rebound with a multi-jump springboard ‘rana out of the corner.

Tags bring in Ford and Alanis, with the latter landing a dropkick before the Skulk pair mocked the champions, and backed it up too as Ruff came in with clotheslines before Ford countered a reverse ‘rana with a simple Electric Chair drop. Ruff, the smaller of the two challengers, gets isolated for a spell, as Dawkins can’t help but do the “stir the pot” taunt, like he’s in a video game and getting played by someone whose got a stuck taunt button. A front facelock keeps Ruff down on the mat, as the Profits kept Ruff away from a tag. Ruff trips his way into a shoulder tackle as Ford followed up with a suplex as they, ahem, roughed up Ruff. Dawkins tagged back in and trapped Ruff in a Muta lock, before he got free… and when Dawkins missed a charge into the corner, Ruff had a chance to tag out, eventually doing so once he rolled past the tagged-in Ford.

Alanis gets the hot tag, but he’s got to fend off some double-teaming before he caught Dawkins with a belly-to-belly. There’s a Black Hole Slam and a back senton got Alanis a near-fall… but Ford’s right back with some shots as he set up for a backslide… a tag’s made out to Ruff to stop it, but he instead dives out as Alanis lands a Tiger bomb before a German suplex from Ruff gets a near-fall. Ford escapes a Burning Hammer attempt before Ruff dove into a shot from Dawkins on the outside as we seemed to enter a finishing straight, and sure enough, a spear from Dawkins gets the win. Entertaining as this was, there was plenty of rough edges around both teams – which concerns me more for one than the other, given what their regular base is meant to be! **¾

No Disqualification Match for WWN Championship: Eddie Kingston vs. JD Drake (c)
You know, I’m still sad we never got James Drake vs. James Drake before the American changed his name…

Drake starts out like a house on fire, wheeling into Kingston in the corner, but he’s quickly taken outside as Eddie came out with a tope as the hot start descended into the pair of them exchanging chops around ringside. Kingston posts Drake as the pair exchange clubbing forearms and more chops before Kingston continued to rough up the champion in and out of the ring. A backdrop suplex dumps Drake onto the apron, but the one-way Kingston offence eventually had the brakes put on it when Drake hit a low blow… but Eddie’s quickly back in with chops and eye rakes as he again grounded Drake. Anthony Henry comes out and slaps Drake to fire him up, concerned that this fight had been one-sided… so much so that Kingston managed to injure a finger in it all!

Henry’s influence worked somewhat as Drake launched into some clubbing strikes as he looked to target Kingston’s injured hand. A spinebuster’s good for a two-count, before Kingston hit back with an STO and a uranage for a near-fall. Drake ducks a backfist and comes in with a clothesline, leaving both men laying before Henry made the most of the no-DQ stipulation, attacking Kingston, softening him up as Drake started to get back into it.

A Vader bomb’s good for a two-count as Drake built up a head of steam… but we’re quickly back to the chop battles as Kingston and Drake looked to see who made the better noise. Kingston switches it up with a head kick and a DDT to nearly take the title, then again with a clothesline, only for Drake to hit back with a leg lariat and a cannonball… before he headed up top for a flash moonsault for the win. This was a weird one, originally starting out as more of a fight, Drake was getting his rear handed to him before Anthony Henry appeared… and while that turned the tide, it did little to strengthen Drake’s position in the singles division. A tag team guy with the singles title, eh? ***

After the match, Kingston ripped into the referee for allowing the two-on-one… in a no-DQ match. Ah well.

Austin Theory & Josh Briggs vs. AR Fox & Johnny Gargano
The main event saw a tag team match between “two WWN icons” and the “new generation”. Well, if you can count EVOLVE champion Austin Theory as new, given he’s almost about to enter his third year in the promotion! He’s still trying to do the David Starr-like list of nicknames, but it just gets charitable boos. And a pity streamer.

Of course, Johnny Gargano received an almost God-like reception on his return, some two and a bit years after his last match here (a tag team match that saw him tag with… Cody?!)

Fox and Briggs have a staredown before the match, but Gargano takes advantage and just stomps on Briggs’ foot to get us going. Of course, when Briggs gets the upper hand, Theory blind-tags himself in to stomp on Gargano, before he bailed out when Gargano threw a retaliatory punch. Briggs eats some clotheslines before Gargano tries to drag him into a Gargano Escape… that’s blocked, with AR Fox coming in to help out with an eventual enziguiri and a springboard armdrag/rana combo.

Fox stays on top of Briggs as he’s sent into the corner for an avalanche clothesline, with Gargano hitting an enziguiri from the apron as the WWN Legends team took control. Fox heads up top, but a distraction from Austin Theory meant that Fox ended up taking a big boot from Briggs. Theory tags back in now his trainer’s weakened, and after throwing him into the guard rail before an attempt to pin Fox ended when the referee rightly spotted Theory had his foot on the rope.

Theory keeps up the pressure with a suplex for a near-fall, while Briggs returned to easily bodyslam Fox. Briggs keeps Fox’s arms pinned behind him, but after he sent Fox into the corner, Briggs gets met with a rebound Slingblade, only for Fox to get cut-off as he tried to tag out to Gargano. A swinging backbreaker and a dropkick keeps Fox away from Gargano as Theory gets a near-fall as we inched closer to the eventual hot tag… which came when Fox snuck past both opponents, as Gargano came in and cracked everyone with enziguiri. A bulldog/clothesline combo has Gargano even further ahead, as does a Flatliner/DDT combo before Fox returned with a Coast to Coast baseball slide dropkick!

Fox followed that up with an imploding 450 from the top rope to the floor before the “legends team” went after Theory. An attempt at Lo Mein Pain’s blocked before Fox slipped out of Theory’s rack bomb… and Fox has to backflip out of Briggs’ M5 too as he ends up taking a knee strike ahead of Theory’s Three Seconds Around the World rack bomb. Briggs followed up with a M5, but Theory’s too busy to notice Gargano breaking up the cover as the momentum kept swinging. Gargano tagged back in next as he stared down Theory, then unloaded on him with right hands as a Parade of Strikes broke out. Superkicks stun Briggs as the “New Generation” were left on their knees ahead of two more thrust kicks, but it’s not enough to get the win. Theory’s got to slip out of a lawndart attempt as he almost rolls up Gargano for the win, before an attempt at Ataxia took him into a Gargano Escape… except Briggs blind-tags in as that latest crack had to be stopped in its tracks.

All four men flood the ring, before everyone was sent outside ahead of a cross-turnbuckle tope con giro from Fox, before he returned in with a 450 to Theory while Gargano’s slingshot DDT was missed by the camera crew… we at least saw Briggs caught in the Gargano Escape though, as he tapped out to give Johnny Wrestling the win. This was good, but it was hard to see any result other than Gargano getting the win on his big return back to EVOLVE. Strangely, Austin Theory’s appearance here was limited to just cameos, but since Gargano and Theory was on EVOLVE 120 the next night, that makes some sense… ***½

Gargano ended the show with a feel-good promo that looked to build to him celebrating with his old EVOLVE song… only for Austin Theory to attack him from behind and charge him into the ring post. Ah well, I guess we’ll be saving that for later…

Having missed a bunch of EVOLVE shows, I can say that at least the crowds have gotten hotter – even if they do seem to be there only to see the big stars. EVOLVE’s last few years have been characterised by two things: roster turnover and ideas being thrown against the wall. Remember the “proving ground” dark matches with a time limit? How about The End, or what feels like the perpetual “Darby Allin title push”? It’s been nearly three years since Darby debuted in EVOLVE, and a year since his last EVOLVE title shot – is it a case of a slow burn story perhaps being too slow? Still, at least this show wasn’t the Largo Loop Love-in that I was expecting to have seen after last year’s big shake-up… but other than the return of familiar faces, it didn’t feel particularly “must-see” either.