After a month off, EVOLVE were back in New York, as they returned to a rather controversial venue, with Queens’ ELMCOR Center playing host to a highly-lauded show.

It’s your usual hosts of Lenny Leonard and Ron Niemi opening the show in the ring, and we’re opening with a trio of prelim matches as EVOLVE have changed up their formula. Oh, and tonight’s main event? Keith Lee vs. WALTER. Tasty! Timothy Barr and Trevin Adams are on the call for the prelims at least, and it sounds like Niemi’s our ring announcer for now.

Joey Lynch vs. Dominic Garrini
We’ve a ten minute time limit, but I doubt Dominic will need all 600 seconds. From the bell he charges into Lynch with a flying knee, then follows in with some German suplexes. Lynch actually gets some offence in, by way of an enziguiri, then a tope as Garrini went outside for respite.

Back inside Lynch tries a Fireman’s carry, but Garrini escapes and lands a backbreaker for a near-fall. More elbows and strikes from Lynch see him take Garrini into the corner, where he continued to strike Garrini and follow-up with a Falcon arrow to almost get the shock win. However, that comeback was inevitable, and when Garrini shoved Lynch off the top rope, you thought he’d go in for the kill… instead he was knocked down for a moonsault from Lynch that got a near-fall… but from the kick-out Garrini grabbed a rear naked choke until Lynch forced a rope break.

Lynch tries another moonsault after landing a roundhouse kick, but that moonsault misses and Garrini followed in with a cross armbreaker for the win. Enjoyable, but man, it’s jarring to see Garrini going from two squashes to a competitive opening match. ***

KTB & Shane Mercer vs. Matt Knicks & Stevie Fierce
We’ve seen KTB – Kyle The Beast – in Beyond and GCW, and it seems he’s getting a crack in EVOLVE, while Knicks is back having previously appeared when Freelance Wrestling have helped promote EVOLVE shows. Hopefully he doesn’t crash and burn here…

We open with KTB and Fierce in what was anything but a fierce opening for the Freelance guy, as Mercer and KTB cornered him for an early shoulder charge. Mercer dumps Fierce with an X-plex before KTB’s Quebrada planted Fierce, forcing him into a tag out to Knicks, whose idea of chopping the two big guys… was a very bad one.

Mercer instantly replies with an overhead belly-to-belly on Knicks, before he press slammed him with one hand while clotheslining Fierce with the other. Bugger me that’s impressive. His tassles still look stupid though… A neckbreaker on the sly from Fierce barely gets Knicks a one-count, but the Freelance duo’s comeback starts there as they try to double-team Mercer, leading to some rope-walking from Fierce, which ended in a chokeslam instead.

Mercer tagged back out to KTB as Knicks ate a bunch of clotheslines, but a backhand almost stopped things… only for KTB to hit a massive spinebuster instead. A blind tag brought Mercer back in after KTB was low bridged to the outside, and things get a little spotty as a fallaway slam sent Knicks to the outside, before Fierce is thrown from the outside back into the ring, as Mercer finished him off with a moonsault fallaway slam off the middle rope. See, when you have big guys doing an explosive squash, the crowd gets invested! **¾

Stephen Wolf vs. Jarek 1:20
Wolf’s been here before, in a losing effort to Austin Theory at EVOLVE 92. Considering the push that Jarek’s getting, I don’t envisage him losing here, especially now he’s got… an assistant? Oh goodie, they found something new for Candy Cartwright to do. Well, they’ve done a 180 on him not being portrayed as a magician, but it’s a million miles better than the “bonus giver” act he originally had.

Wolf starts by taking down Jarek with a waistlock, but Jarek swiftly gets up with a headlock as he worked over Wolf’s head and neck, before an armbar’s flipped out of with Wolf kipping up in the corner. There’s way too much posing from Wolf, but he does manage to get in a rope-walk ‘rana… before chopping Jarek down into the corner for a handstand dropkick there. Jarek heads outside for respite, but Wolf joins him… and quickly gets distracted by Cartwright as Jarek pulled him into the ringpost ahead of the flagpole elbow drop. Back in the ring, Wolf tries a fightback, slipping out of a powerbomb before throwing some kicks and knees for a near-fall.

Wolf tries to follow up off the top rope, but he’s caught… and his plan B of a slingshot into the ring’s met with an Ace crusher from Jarek, who laid out Wolf with that left hand for a near-fall. The Blue Thunder Bomb from Wolf keeps the momentum swinging, but he again takes too long as he went up for a shooting star press… which whiffs as he land in Jarek’s knees, as a sit-out Dominator gets Jarek the win. Solid stuff, and credit to the camera crew for not always switching to Candy at ringside. You can tell this ain’t the SHINE director… ***

We’re onto the main card now, with Timothy Barr moving to ring announcer, as Lenny Leonard and Ron Niemi moved to commentary.

Zack Sabre Jr’s out first, as he swears that he’ll end the year as EVOLVE champion. He swears that there’s no new stars in EVOLVE, nor will there be until they prove themselves against him. That’s the cue for DJZ to head out as we’re opening the main show with a non-title match.

Zack Sabre Jr. vs. DJZ
A possible clash of styles here, as Sabre’s forced to ground the high-flying DJZ early with his grappling, but DJZ’s more than even to it, as he quickly heads to the ropes at the first sign of a submission attempt.

Sabre’s back to the submissions though, almost teasing DJZ with a rope break as he wrenched away with armbars, before he tried to sink in a stranglehold… which DJZ was able to flip out of with relative ease. The knuckle-lock’s held onto as Sabre goes back to the hold, before DJZ gets free and lands a lucha-style arm drag! Sabre ends up eating some more chops as DJZ threatened to coast ahead, tripping Zack with a pratfall before a wacky lucha roll-up picked up a near-fall. DJZ stays on top of him… but a leap over into the corner sees him land into a cross armbreaker as Sabre’s search for a submission ends with DJZ getting to the ropes.

It’s back to the arm as Sabre lays into DJZ, wrenching away on it with more submission attempts, throwing in a Jim Breaks-style lift to take DJZ back to the mat as more torque was applied to that arm. Eventually DJZ’s able to get free, and he’s able to knock down Sabre with a clothesline following some misdirection. A crossbody off the top keeps things going for DJZ, as some jabs rock Sabre… as does a neckbreaker, as Sabre’s attempt to fight back was quickly thwarted.

A Quebrada nearly does the job for DJZ, but Sabre’s swiftly back in with an Octopus in the middle of the ring, before getting a near-fall out of the roll-up. Man, Sabre’s stuff is massively explosive at times… but DJZ has some tricks in his bag too, pulling Sabre into a grounded armbar until the EVOLVE champ got a foot on the ropes. Going to strikes looked to be DJZ’s undoing, but a superkick kept him ahead, as did a springboard Ace crusher out of the corner, only for Sabre to hit straight back with a PK to leave both men laying. Sabre goes back in with a roll-up, before tying up DJZ in knots after the kick-out, eventually watching on as DJZ’s legs were able to overpower him and make it to the ropes.

The momentum continued to swing, but eventually it was the Euro Clutch that trapped DJZ, with Sabre countering out of a tornado DDT into the pinning predicament for the win. A hell of an opening match, with DJZ showing what’d been hidden for so long down in that other promotion. Good luck following that! ****¼

Jason Kincaid vs. AR Fox
This was Fox’s first match in EVOLVE in over a year, having last been seen at EVOLVE 70, going down to Matt Riddle. Fox has his own posse with him too, mostly made up of his WWA4 trainees, whom you’ll have seen on Style Battles in the past.

Kincaid tries his usual offer of friendship at the bell, but Fox isn’t interested… shoving it away before swinging and missing with a bunch of kicks as Kincaid instead went to meditate. A handstand sees Kincaid avoid a springboard cutter, before floating away from a powerslam and into a double stomp as Kincaid looked to be chaining some stuff together.

A suplex dumped Fox across the top rope, for a handstand knee drop, sending Fox rolling outside for cover… which didn’t really work as Kincaid took him crashing into the railings with a tope that turned into an armdrag in mid-air. Out of nothing, Fox rebounds with a moonsault off the apron and started to wear down Kincaid from there, and despite a cheeky roll-up, he’s able to drop Kincaid with a sliding cutter.

Fox crashes and burns with a senton bomb after Kincaid got the knees up, and it’s Kincaid who’s back with a facebuster, a trip and a springboard forearm to the outside, as he set up for that somersault stomp on the apron… but Kincaid allows himself to get distracted by Fox’s posse, and that led to him getting shoved off the top rope as Fox went flying with a massive plancha! Back inside, a 450 splash misses, but Fox is back with an enziguiri before trapping Kincaid in the ropes for a somersault cutter that almost gets him the win. Fox tries to win with Lo Mein Pain, but Kincaid gets a boot up to stop it, before going flying with what I can only describe as a Diamond Dust-like flip neckbreaker that sent Fox crashing into his posse.

Kincaid tries to capitalise back inside with a tornado DDT, and rolls through into a Falcon arrow, but it’s not enough… and just like that Kincaid’s caught on the top rope with a Lo Mein Pain, before a 450 splash gets Fox the win. Pretty decent, although there were parts that you could call as being straight out of the “heavily choreographed” school of thought. An impressive return for Fox, as Kincaid collects yet another loss. ***¼

Austin Theory vs. Darby Allin
The polar opposites of each other – guys with a push, but with differing styles… so someone’s going to have to lose here. Theory’s gotten new gear and a haircut in the month he’s had off, but he’s still miscast as a bad guy with no real edge.

These two wrestled at EVOLVE 78 in February, in a match that Theory won in just over five minutes, and perhaps that’s why Theory took Darby lightly, as a teased test of strength just earned him a slap and a dropkick. A lucha-style armdrag gets Theory to the outside, where he needs Priscilla Kelly to calm him down as whatever he had planned clearly wasn’t working. Darby joins him outside with a tope before peppering Theory with strikes around the guard railings, eventually breaking those railings as Theory was left laying. Allin tries for a Coffin Drop off the top, but Theory catches him and throws Allin into the ringpost like he was nothing… and that’s where the match shifted, as Theory began to wear down Darby.

A release gutwrench powerbomb keeps Darby flying as the crowd got on Theory’s back… even more so when he catches another Allin armdrag and turns it into a backbreaker for a near-fall. Darby’s able to sneak in an armbar, before he chains together an O’Connor roll and a corkscrew crossbody for another pinning attempt… but Theory hits back with a vicious back elbow.

Commentary starts to rail on Theory for not following up as quickly as he perhaps could, but that’s quickly silenced courtesy of a release suplex that flings Allin across the ring. A springboard suplex, followed by a Fujiwara armbar from Allin turn things back around, but Austin’s able to make it to the ropes, only to get caught with a Code Red that almost got the pin as Brandon Tolle’s hand hit the mat just after the kick-out.

Allin goes up top for a Coffin Drop, but he crashed and burned ino Theory’s knees as Priscilla caused a distraction. Still, Allin’s able to kick out from a TKO… so Austin goes for an avalanche TKO, per Kelly’s orders, but Darby elbows free and turns it into a crucifix bomb instead!

That barely gets a two count as Allin crawled over to Theory’s body, before the pair engaged in some more strikes before a jack-knife pin, following by the Last Supper cradle gets Allin the win! As someone who’s hardly struck by Austin Theory, this was a really good match – but I can’t help but get the sense that the EVOLVE crowd are turning on him like they did with Timothy Thatcher (when he was champion). In his current role, Theory’s got the tools, but they’re just not in the right places. ***½

After a brief interval – to mask an appearance from William Regal for the live crowd – we’re back with Jason Kincaid in the ring as he’s still trying to “save Theory’s soul”. Austin just laughs at him as the Kincaid’s mic work is barely audible… Priscilla Kelly jumps him and lands a superkick, as it’s Theory turn to be the restrainer, before Kincaid calms himself and exits.

During the interval, they play a mini documentary showing Darby Allin sleeping in his car, in which he’d spray-painted the word “champ”. Apparently he’s living out of his car now, with commentary in his last match tying in that it was perhaps a homage to one of the slogans his trainer had passed on to him. “The road will own you,” as the late Buddy Wayne kept saying…

EVOLVE Tag Team Championship: James Drake & Anthony Henry vs. Catch Point (Tracy Williams & Jaka) (c)
Tracy Williams filled in for the “suspended” Chris Dickinson, who was taken off these shows because of his reaction to a missed catch on his tag team partner in that three-way at EVOLVE 95. I can’t say I noticed anything, but here we are with a WCW-style replacement, and already the alarm bells are a-ringing.

So this is the “Work Horsemen’s” rematch, and we start with Henry and Williams locking up, looking for a hold or something, before Williams started to work on the heel of Henry. Things quickly break down as all four men end up outside as commentary explains the Dickinson “incident”, as everyone trades punches and chops on the floor for a spell. Henry and Jaka return to the ring, where a double stomp misses, before Henry peppers Jaka with some body blows as they staggered around the corners. Williams returns to intercept a charging Henry, while Jaka dives out to Drake on the outside, returning to land a big splash for a near-fall.

Commentary notes that Jaka’s got an EVOLVE title shot tomorrow after having beaten Zack Sabre Jr. last time out, and Henry’s staying in there for an awful long time without any kind of hope… or even a chance of tagging out, and just as I say that, Henry manages to chain together an enziguiri and a backdrop suplex before tagging in James Drake. Drake neuters an Irish whip attempt as Williams tried to take advantage, but instead we get the powerslam/neckbreaker combo as Drake gets a near-fall. Curiously, the pace of this match doesn’t look to be picking up, and although the challengers are pulling off some big stuff, like a slingshot into a spinebuster, it never really gets a chance to click.

The champions manage to get back into it, eventually taking down Drake with a double-team back suplex, but Henry makes the save as Dominic Garrini starts to peer at the back for some reason. Drake gets free and makes the tag, with Henry’s missile dropkick taking down Jaka and Williams at the same time, but there’s some random hesitations thrown in here as Henry eventually suplexes Williams into Jaka in the corner.

Henry keeps up with a pull-up into an Ace crusher for a near-fall, before Jaka’s squashed with a Drake cannonball. All four men end up in the ring as Williams tries to fire into a comeback, and succeeds a little with a lariat, before Drake plants him with a swinging butterfly suplex! Drake heads up top for a moonsault, but he crashes and burns… and then we’re interrupted by The End.

Parrow, Drennan and Odinson hit the ring and lay out everyone for the no-contest, with Henry taking a particularly nasty bump into the corner. So that’s why the match ambled.. Eh, it was fine for what it was, but it was a bit of a letdown considering what we could have had. *½

As the beatdown completed, the camera cut away to someone jumping the barrier. Nobody in the crowd seemed to notice, until Chris Dickinson leapt off the top rope and wrapped a chair around Drennan’s head. All by himself, Dickinson laid out The End, which is a little too soon to be having these guys show any weakness, particularly at the hand of ONE PERSON. The End do get back to their feet as the three-way brawl between Catch Point, Henry and Drake and The End resumed… and all I’m wondering is why they didn’t all gang up on The End. Things pick up again as Parrow powerbombed Henry into a wall, before Jaka got rid of Odinson with a chair as The End wiped out Jaka and Henry with the Super Collider double powerbomb.

A bloody good and vicious brawl, but I’d have rather they’d have done this before the match rather than have a meandering match that petered out.

No Rope Break: Fred Yehi vs. Matt Riddle
That’s “no rope break”, as opposed to “no ropes”, which ring announcer Timothy Barr erroneously announced this as. On the last show, Yehi beat Riddle in a regular match, so we’re getting this under no rope break rules – so the only way to break a submission or a pin is to kick out or free yourself. Kinda like the old ROH Pure title matches when you ran out of rope breaks.

Before the match, Riddle interrupts Brandon Tolle’s rule-reading to trash talk Yehi… who throws a little back as we got going. They mention Yehi’s the current FIP champion, a belt that’s barely been mentioned in EVOLVE for months, so you have to think that’s going somewhere. We start with the usual grappling, with Riddle sinking in a choke, before he used the ropes to propel out of a counter as the two found out an alternative use for those cables. The crowd are into it as Yehi takes Riddle into the ropes, before a headlock takedown’s quickly nullified as the pair stood up.

The crowd chant “take off your shoes” as Riddle got the idea to ask Yehi to go barefoot… that’s going to stop those stomps, right? It takes way too long for Yehi to take off his shoes, but at least the crowd’s easily pleased! From the restart, the pair trade German suplexes… yeah, Riddle no-sells his and rushes back in with a knee to Yehi, before going in for a cross armbreaker as the crowd still seems to be enamoured over the “no shoes” spot. Riddle tries for an ankle lock, but Yehi’s up-kicks just get him in more trouble as Riddle swaps the legs, only for those up kicks to come off.

After those, Yehi tries for the cross armbreaker, but Riddle rolls out of it and uses his knees to force himself free. A side suplex and a series of back sentons get Riddle a near-fall, but Yehi puts a stop to those by getting his knees up as he’s quickly back to the cross armbreaker… a submission attempt that Riddle escaped before blasting Yehi with a forearm to send him to the outside.

The pair trade chops around ringside, before Riddle’s kicks to the apron got caught as Yehi fires back with strikes and a stomp as they narrowly beat the ref’s count out. Another stomp gets Riddle down for a near-fall, before Yehi rolled into the Koji clutch… Riddle rolls into the ropes, but of course it’s moot, although it did help Riddle escape the hold. After getting free, Riddle headed for a Fisherman buster and the tombstone slam, but Yehi’s up at two, firing back with a suplex into the corner as he nearly eked out a win from that… but instead he’s taking Riddle into the corner for some chops, then some up-kicks as the no-rope break rule was made use of.

Yehi stops though, and ends up running into the corner, where Riddle catches him with an avalanche Fisherman’s buster for just a one-count… so Riddle goes straight to the elbows and the Bromission, despite Yehi being in the ropes, and with no prospect of escape, Yehi taps! A decent enough match, but I didn’t feel like they played up the rule enough – no “armbar, grabs ropes, pulls self outside for the break” or anything like that. I stand by what I said before – both these guys need a new direction, as these are currently bodies that in the olden days of territories would have been long shipped out for pastures new by now. ***¼

WWN Championship: WALTER vs. Keith Lee (c)
This be my graps. All my graps.

Duelling chants for Keith and WALTER actually forced the ring announcer to stop mid-flow. There’s a hot crowd for a change!

This strangely wasn’t Lee’s first defence of the title, which made for awkward phrasing on commentary. Thanks IPW, for booking one of those “the title change is never gonna happen” title matches when Lee faced Dave Mastiff in Milton Keynes in November. Yep, that’ll be a trivia question somewhere. Anyway, we get going with Lee taking WALTER into the corner, but the Austrian comes in with a headlock takedown as the two grappled until Lee got a foot on the ropes, forcing a break… and a breather followed as Lee tried to regroup. Back inside, we get the clunking shoulder tackles, with WALTER doing something rare in knocking Keith Lee down.

We’re back into the corner, but this time WALTER doesn’t break cleanly as he throws in some forearms before we get those Newton’s cradle shoulder blocks, ending with some misdirection, a Keith Lee leapfrog, then a dropkick. Holy hell! Stokely Hathaway appears in the aisle as commentary suggests that he’s watching WALTER to try and scout the man who “stole Timothy Thatcher from him”, as I’m sure someone’s writing fan fiction based on THAT scenario… meanwhile, Lee gets the upper hand, throwing forearms at WALTER before building up to the double-hand chop… except WALTER gets his in first, before dumping Lee with a German suplex!

A bodyslam follows from WALTER, who gets a surprising two-count from that, before a version of the Shankly Gates forces Lee into the ropes for a break. WALTER doesn’t let up though, exchanging chops with great gusto, mixing it up with some uppercuts before throwing in the Earthquake sitdown splash for another two-count. The Lee comeback starts as he finally gets in the double chop, but he goes a little too soon for a powerbomb as WALTER escapes and goes back to the arm with a Fujiwara armbar attempt. WALTER heads further down the arm, as he rams the spread-open fingers of the WWN champion into the ropes as the pounding continued en route to a butterfly suplex.

It’s looking pretty one-sided for WALTER, who throws chops towards Lee with relative ease, but Lee’s still got enough in him to throw forearms back, before headbutting WALTER into the corner… as the Austrian rebounds with a big boot to the face as the pair collapse to the mat! More strikes ring around the ELMCOR, with WALTER’s European uppercuts sending Lee staggering into the corner as he invited some form of a comeback… and after absorbing some clotheslines, we finally get it as Lee pounces on WALTER! The pop up rolling elbow follows for a near-fall from Lee, but WALTER’s quickly back in as he back body drops out of a piledriver and tries for one of his own, before instead switching to a rear naked choke.

Lee rolls out of it, but WALTER’s back in for a powerbomb, before doing the slit-throat gesture as he grabbed that Gojira clutch in the middle of the ring. WALTER relinquishes though, and instead changes plan… and instead gets hauled into a Spirit Bomb for a shock near-fall! The retaliation sees Lee pop up out of a German suplex, only to eat a lariat for a near-fall, as WALTER goes back to the Gojira, which Lee teases escaping, before backflipping into a pinning predicament as WALTER nearly pinned himself.

Another boot to the head wakes up Lee, as WALTER seemed to be vulnerable… and sure enough, a double handed chop then Ground Zero was enough to complete the defence, as nearly twenty minutes of my kind of wrestling came to an end. Marvelous stuff, and I’m now inclined to hunt out their match from BOLA 2017… but not before campaigning for more rematches between these two! ****½

Keith Lee’s celebration is cut short as AR Fox came out with his posse… it seems he’s back because he wants a shot at Lee’s WWN title. Well, historically he’s got a point given his history within the WWN family. Fox’s group surrounds Keith Lee and try for a five-on-one attack, but the trainee geeks are made short work of, as Fox uses his wife Ayla as a human shield to stop Lee short. The WWN champion stands tall to end the show… and now it’s time to draw breath!

EVOLVE 96 was bookended with great matches – on the main card at least – as the promotion’s rebuilding continued. A hotter than usual crowd at the ELMCOR helped things, while the presence of rapid-fire pre-show matches is a nice touch, and allows for some proper development up and down the card – but overall there’s still work to be done. I’m not sold on Austin Theory, while the likes of Riddle, Yehi and Kincaid quickly need to get some traction otherwise there’s a very real risk that they’re going to become proverbial millstones around the booker’s neck here… and no, having “he’s looking for his killer instinct” is not a way of getting traction, especially when there’s multiple guys in the same bucket!