EVOLVE closed out their 2017 in Melrose, MA with a card that continued their rebuilding – and featured the end of an 18-month long title reign.

It’s the same deal as EVOLVE 96 – Lenny Leonard and Ron Niemi open the show, before throwing to Trevin Adams and Timothy Barr for the prelims.

Craig Mitchell vs. Dominic Garrini
In yesterday’s prelims, Garrini had a more involved squash match… Mitchell’s had one prior EVOLVE match, going down to Darby Allin at EVOLVE 90.

The bell goes, and Garrini instantly goes for Mitchell with armbars… but the big guy escapes tem and goes after Garrini with a forearm in the corner and a low dropkick. He takes too long, although he does succeed with a standing moonsault, Garrini quickly pulls him into a rear naked choke, which is broken via the ropes, before a running knee and the Mighty Mouse – a dragged down cross armbreaker – forces the squash win. Short and sweet, and just how you should be establishing someone with Garrini’s background.

The End hit the ring as soon as the bell goes, with Drennan, Odinson and Parrow wiping out Mitchell and Garrini… Odinson’s pounce knocks Garrini down, before Parrow’s sit-out tombstone puts paid to Mitchell as Garrini took a powerbomb/back cracker combo.

They explain the lack of a save from Catch Point by saying that they’re not at the building yet… never be early, Dominic!

Brandon Watts & Stephen Wolf vs. Matt Knicks & Stevie Fierce
We’ve got a battle of the “undercard” guys now, with all four of these men having appeared previously in losing efforts on EVOLVE cards.

Fierce gets an early shoulder tackle on Wolf, as commentary tears into the Freelance pair for not taking this chance seriously, citing the fact that the guys who beat them at EVOLVE 96 made it to the main card tonight… and they didn’t. Wolf manages to hit a lucha-style armdrag before Watts tagged in, with the latter taking down Knicks with headscissors and a dropkick for a one-count.

A cannonball senton off the top from Watts saw him crash into Knicks for a near-fall, as the Freelance pair remained in trouble, with a double hiptoss leading to a shooting star press from Wolf for another two-count. The Freelance pair start to work together a little, as Fierce pulls Wolf to the outside before charging him into the apron… but the ref’s too busy admonishing Watts to notice a pinfall attempt was being made.

Knicks and Fierce hit a double hiptoss/backbreaker combo for a near-fall as Wolf looked to be struggling. He does manage to leap over Knicks, turning it into a ‘rana as Stevie Fierce tagged back in… only to eat a Capoeira-style kick as Brandon Watts returns as well. Watts catches a kick and slaps Knicks, then flies into action with a tornado DDT for another solid near-fall.

Knicks and Fierce continue to struggle as the referee doesn’t enforce the concept of the legal man, but the ring’s down to two men when Wolf hits a handspring lungblower to Fierce before making a blind tag to Watts… whose flying legdrop grazes Fierce for a near-fall. That series looked a little weird, especially with the ref not realising if he was giving the blind tag or not!

In the end, Wolf tries to drag Fierce into a German suplex, but instead rushes into a double stomp from Fierce as the Freelance pair hit an assisted Unprettier on Wolf for the win. This had its moments, but on the whole this was an enjoyable, if not frantic, undercard match. ***

Jarek 1:20 vs. Jason Kincaid
Commentary’s fawning over Candy Cartwright, whose name plate now credits her as Jarek’s “lovely assistant”… meanwhile Jason Kincaid is… in a wacky Christmas vest? Kincaid’s been busted down to the pre-show following a run of three successive losses.

Unlike EVOLVE 96, the producer does focus heavily on Candy, but it’s not too intrusive as we see Jarek get taken outside via an armdrag, as Kincaid began to annoy the magician. Jarek starts to mount some offence though, taking Kincaid into the corner, only to get outsmarted as Kincaid flipped around into a meditative pose.

Jarek isn’t up for meditating, or handshakes, as Kincaid just trips him for a back senton as the spiritual one kept up his offence, taking Jarek into the corner with a sunset bomb. The coast to coast dropkick follows as Jarek rolls outside for a breather, but he seems to be taking his time… and Kincaid’s more bothered with taking Candy’s top hat than he was with getting a quick result.

That costs him as Jarek shoves him into the ring post for that flagpole elbow drop, as it was Jarek who started to show some urgency. A gamengiri in the corner drops Kincaid as we pass the five minute mark, before Jarek throws his foe all the way to the outside and into the guard railings.

Jarek seems to be happy to wait to collect a count-out, but Kincaid beats the count with ease, so Jarek goes back to the stomps… before he almost slipped while exiting the ring. That ends up being a distraction as Kincaid press slammed Jarek off the top rope, before he mounts a comeback with a facebuster and a diving leg trip, as he set up Jarek for a springboarded forearm and a flipping stomp on the apron.

After the stomp, Jarek was pulled off the top rope into a stunner, but he’s able to save himself by putting his foot on the rope. Commentary gives away that Candy forgot the spot, as Timothy Barr mentioned that “she got involved” (nope), before Kincaid dove into the ring… and into an Ace crusher as Jarek punched him out for a near-fall.

We get the one minute countdown, prompting Jarek to start going for the big stuff… Kincaid popped right back up from a Tornado DDT, before his attempt at a grounded Octopus almost got him pinned as Jarek turned it into a pin… Kincaid pivots to a crossface, then an ankle lock, before stomping on the magician and locking in the Compassionate Release as the time ran out. If only he’d shown more urgency in the opening stages… and despite the crowd booing, this is ruled a time limit draw. Another fun match, but man… how many chances do you give someone? Especially if you literally have only one thing to do in a match… ***

Everyone trades places for the main show, with Timothy Barr ring announcing, while Lenny Leonard and Ron Niemi return to commentary.

KTB & Shane Mercer vs. Anthony Henry & James Drake
Drake and Henry are in the opener after their shot at regaining the tag titles last night ended up being ruined by The End.

KTB opens up by showing off his power against Henry, shoving him into the corner before catching an attempted leap-over… which Henry saves with an armdrag as he goes semi-lucha on us. Henry’s outsmarted with a bodyslam, before KTB popped his partner Shane Mercer into a big splash on the former tag champion.

Eventually Henry makes the tag out to Drake, who levelled Mercer with a lariat… then KTB with a dropkick as he started to isolate Mercer from his partner. Some double-teaming offence from Drake and Henry leaves Mercer down for a near-fall, as does a sliding Drake lariat, but this match is being played out to almost silence from the crowd in Melrose, MA.

Henry tagged back in and tries to take shots at Mercer, but be runs into a massive pop-up powerslam as the “Iron Demon” put the brakes on, before both men tagged out. Commentary noted that Mercer appeared on NXT once (as Riley Apex, in a squash against the Street Profits)… and speaking of squashes, an atomic drop from KTB set him up for a nice splash on Drake… but the former tag champ came back with a spin-out butterfly suplex for a near-fall.

Henry’s back in for a double stomp, but he misses as KTB replies with a springboard moonsault into both opponents, before Mercer returns to try and take out the former tag champs. Although he eats a superkick, Mercer’s able to press slam Drake off the top rope, before catching Drake’s fallaway slam and taking him back into the corner for that impressive moonsault fallaway slam!

Drake narrowly makes the save from that, before he kicks away KTB and Mercer ahead of an accidental DDT/neckbreaker combo. THEN Drake tags in for real, as he waffles Mercer with a cannonball in the corner, leading up to a Henry stomp and a moonsault from Drake to seal the win. Pretty fun stuff, with Mercer and KTB looking good – although those gimmicks… there’s quite a few not sold on those, but it’s a matter of taste. ***¼

AR Fox vs. DJZ
Fox is back with his posse, who may as well be the new generation of Special K (there’s a ROH reference for you!), and after signalling his intent to go for the WWN title last night, this could well be a tune-up for him, even if DJZ took Zack Sabre Jr. to the limit recently.

Commentary’s making a point of running through Fox’s credentials in WWN, and for someone who was part of the early days of EVOLVE, it’s easy to think “man, he’s still here eight years later, he must be getting past it”. Fox is 30. Mind… blown.

We get the love-it-or-leave-it rolls and flips early, before some Fox leapfrogs ending up with him taking a crucifix as DJZ almost snuck in the win. Fox tries to shake DJZ’s hand, but the attempted cheapshot is caught, as the match heads outside and into Fox’s posse, who of course distract DJZ.

A superkick, then a flip dive off the guard rails knock DJZ down, before he’s taken inside and into the corner for a “skin the cat” dropkick in the corner. Fox has to abort a split-legged moonsault, but he’s still on top, at least until DJZ ducks a clothesline and instantly hits back with a neckbreaker. DJZ keeps calling for his airhorn, which is starting to grate, and that playing around lets Fox back in, with a short Ace crusher changing the tide once again.

With DJZ outside, Fox lands a nice plancha, before he backflips over and lands another Ace crusher to the former TNA X Division champ. The top rope senton gets nothing but DJZ’s knees, before a ‘rana from DJZ led to a headstand for a near-fall as we didn’t figure out whether he was selling or countering.

DJZ tries a roll-up DDT but instead counters out into a wacky armbar while standing on Fox’s back, turning it into a Code Red as DJZ looked to lose his footing. Fox hits back with a big noot, then a spin-out Twister suplex, but it’s not enough yet, as DJZ led another fightback… only to knock Fox into his posse, whose celebrations were way too early.

DJZ looked to continue his aerial onslaught, but he’s caught on the top rope as he’s forced to block Lo Mein Pain, and instead nails Fox with a neckbreaker for a near-fall – with Fox breaking in the ropes. An instant reply nearly came, but Fox has to counter out of a sunset flip, before catching DJZ up top again with a Lo Mein Pain, then a Fisherman’s buster for the win. Good, back-and-forth stuff, with EVOLVE clearly putting a little bit of steam behind Fox… but man, that projected match with Keith Lee is going to look wacky. ***

Darby Allin vs. Tracy Williams vs. Keith Lee
The winner of this triple threat’ll be allowed to pick any match of their choosing in 2018. High stakes, indeed, although Keith Lee’s WWN title not being on the line doesn’t telegraph the result.

Keith Lee stood tall early, battering Allin and Williams from the off, as those double-handed chops left the other two reeling in the corners. They quickly gang up on Lee though, as they don’t quite want to bask in his glory, but Allin ends up getting suckered in by Williams, thinking they were going to work together for a while. A top rope DDT onto Allin quickly put paid to that, as did the crossface… which Keith Lee nonchalantly pulled Williams off of.

We’re back to Keith Lee beasting everyone now, with him Beel-throwing Allin before going back to work over Williams with more chops. Eventually Lee’s back-and-forth offence led to him getting double-teamed, with a Coffin Drop elbow and a dropkick from Williams taking the big man out, leaving us with Williams and Allin for a spell. Problem was, they couldn’t finish the match before Lee got back in… and when the WWN champ returned, he took them both down with a double suplex instead.

Lee’s back to the chops, but he misses an avalanche in the corner as Allin and Williams pepper him with clotheslines and elbows in the corner… before Keith Lee escaped and German suplex’d Allin into Williams, who countered that into a suplex for a near-fall. Allin’s back with a flying ‘rana, but Lee catches him and looked to turn it into a Spirit Bomb, but Darby switches it into a Code Red as we’re back to breaking up pols and what have you.

Williams’ crossface gets broken up again, but he escaped a Spirit Bomb, only to get taken to the top rope… where Darby returns to try and land a legsweep to Lee off the middle rope. It fails, and instead Lee just splats him, landing hard as a superplex also took down Williams as well.

The hard camera shows Matt Riddle on the stage behind the ring – with a couple of fans hanging around him – so we’re switching to a lot of the mobile cameras as Lee tries for another superplex to Williams… but Tracy escapes and instead lands a powerbomb fo a solid two-count. Another crossface follows, with Williams using the ropes to help roll himself into the middle of the ring, but Allin dives in with a Coffin drop to break it up as he steals the win with the Last Supper. A beautiful finishing run, but this match felt like it never really got going… I’d have loved another five minutes of this, but we get what we get. ***¼

After the match, Stokely Hathaway got into Keith Lee’s face… Lee stalks Stoke, and it’s only when Chris Dickinson emerges that the threat’s removed. Ah, remember Dickinson’s meant to be suspended? It’s good that EVOLVE beefed up security after his run in yesterday, especially as it led to Keith Lee taking the Death Trap doomsday chokeslam. The end result of this: they declare Catch Point the best faction in EVOLVE history. Moving on…

FIP World Heavyweight Championship: Austin Theory vs. Fred Yehi (c)
Uh-oh… I smell a title change. The FIP title had been long-forgotten in EVOLVE and was only mentioned on EVOLVE 96. The fact that Yehi’s suddenly had it mentioned and now it’s on the line makes me think something’s afoot.

Before the match starts, it struck me how odd the whole FIP situation is. Yeah, I know FIP’s part of the WWN group, and if you look at it like this, it’s sort-of a feeder promotion to EVOLVE… but at this point FIP was on another familiar hiatus, with the company not having run since August (thanks to the FloSlam issues).

EVOLVE’s been strapping the rocket to Theory since his debut earlier this year, and while I’ve repeatedly said I’m not enamoured with his current character, he does have the tools. Just not for the sort-of bad guy he’s playing here. There’s a brief shoving match before the bel, presumably with Theory being shocked at how wacky that FIP title looks these days. Justin Barrasso of Sports Illustrated is on commentary for this match for… reasons.

Yehi starts off by working the arm of Theory, but the early pinning attempt insults Theory, who quickly avoids some stomps as they keep it grounded. A trip from Yehi almost led to the end, but Theory’s quickly back with some forearms as the match entered a back-and-forth period until Yehi finally got to grips with his stomps.

Yehi’s back suplex barely gets a one-count, so he’s back to the stomps as a unique way of looking for a submission. A low dropkick nearly ends it after those stomps, but Theory’s quickly back in it, chaining together some moves as I’m actually floored at how he’s finally showing a little explosiveness.

Theory grounds Yehi with a chinlock as the crowd try to get behind the champion, which he does by way of some chops, only to turn around into a forearm from Theory. An attempt at a slingshot into the ring goes away as Yehi boots away Theory mid-roll, before he busts out some Mongolian chops and those upkicks from the mat.

Another comeback from Theory’s thwarted as Yehi busts out a German suplex, before catching his challenger in a reversed suplex for another near-fall. A Fisherman buster gets a similar result as Theory was almost put away.

More of those upkicks follow in the corner as Yehi really had Theory in trouble, but one forearm turns it around as a Destroyer-like neckbreaker put Theory back in front. A Theory Driver (torture rack bomb) gets another near-fall, only for a Theory KO to get countered into a lungblower and a Koji clutch… then a crucifix pin as the match entered its final stretches. Yehi keeps on top of him with a series of back crackers, then a Dragon suplex as the high impact stuff would have ended the match… but Priscilla Kelly puts Theory’s foot on the rope, just in time.

Kelly’s laughter ends up distracting Yehi, as he’s rolled up for a near-fall, before a cross-legged over-the-knee brainbuster continued to rack up those two-counts for Theory. The Theory KO does the same, getting a near-fall – and a busted nose – as he busts out a cradled flatliner to get the win! We have a new FIP champion, and with Theory having beaten the longest reigning FIP champ ever, I guess that’s a new feather to add to his bow. This wasn’t as much of a drag as some of Theory’s matches are, but there still doesn’t seem to be a crowd connecting with him. ***½

One last word on this: how odd is it for the hardcore FIP fan to be told “hey, thanks for coming to our shows, but our world title’s been traded on another promotion in another state… and won by a guy who’s never been a major part of this promotion”? But if FIP’s “stagnant” (as commentary called it) then I’ve no issue with this becoming a midcard belt…

No Rope Break: WALTER vs. Matt Riddle
Riddle’s asked for another no-rope break rules match, and WALTER accepted that with glee. This is another match that’ll have to be special to not be good, if that makes sense…

Riddle’s out in SPLX’s finest, and this is far from their first meeting in singles matches, with PROGRESS and wXw playing host to several matches – and title changes too. WALTER unseated Riddle for the PROGRESS Atlas title in July, while Riddle won it back the following month in New York.

There’s plenty of grappling early as WALTER stuffed a takedown, instead choosing to lift up Riddle into a gutwrench lift, only for Riddle to slip out as he attempted to go for an early Bromission. WALTER forces Riddle into the ropes, and kicks the former Atlas champion as he’s bent around that bottom strand, before he starts to lay in those chops.

The gunshot-like chops are exchanged between the two, before WALTER just changes tack and boots Riddle in the face. They swap chops and start trading gutwrenches instead as Riddle edges ahead, landing a back senton before more of those WALTER chops again sent Riddle into those useless ropes. Well, I say useless, as far as getting a break, they were useless. For wrapping limbs around, WALTER found them quite handy.

Riddle flashes back into life with some strikes, but WALTER’s in a hurry to end this, as he threw some of his own before landing a powerbomb for a two-count. A knee-bar, with an accidental bit of hair pulling, nearly forces a submission as Riddle forces free and starts throwing some kicks to a cornered WALTER. Riddle popped up from a German suplex, but gets run over with a lariat, as WALTER continued to leather Riddle with chops.

Another powerbomb is escaped by Riddle, who starts to throw some chops of his own, before surprising the Austrian with a Bro to Sleep and a bridging German for a close near-fall! Riddle keeps up the pace with a back senton before heading up top… and he’s caught with more chops that ring around the auditorium, before Riddle escapes a butterfly superplex and powerbombed WALTER instead.

One running knee strike puts WALTER down again, but Riddle heads up top for the exclamation mark… and back sentons into some knees! A Gojira clutch from WALTER almost teases a finish, but Riddle escapes and mounts WALTER’s back in search of the Bromission… instead he just pounds WALTER repeatedly with forearms to the back of the head, and the referee’s forced to stop the match as all WALTER could do was drag himself across to the ineffective ropes. Wonderful stuff – a change of pace from the rest of the card, and a hell of a sprint. To borrow the phrase from a podcast, this was obviously, definitely my graps! ****¼

After the match, Riddle offers a handshake… and just gets booted in the face by WALTER instead. The crowd still chanted for him though…

EVOLVE Championship: Jaka vs. Zack Sabre Jr. (c)
After beating Zack Sabre Jr. at EVOLVE 94, Jaka’s got a title shot… although you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s little hope he’ll repeat that feat here tonight. Commentary noted earlier that Chris Dickinson had been ejected from the building during intermission, so Jaka’s all on his lonesome.

The tense open saw Sabre initially take down Jaka as he went for an early submission, but Jaka escapes as Sabre was in no rush to keep on top of him. We get plenty of rope breaks, with Jaka being the first to cheapshot away from the ropes, and that sparks some European uppercuts from Sabre, with plenty of pausing inbetween.

Sabre ends a slap exchange by grabbing a guillotine as his search for a submission resumed, wrenching away on Jaka’s arms until the challenger got a hand free to rake the eyes. A cheeky kick to the injured knee of Jaka fired up the challenger, who took Sabre down in the corner for some stomps, before a full-on kick to the leg dropped Jaka as Sabre… went back to the submissions, with Jaka biting his way free this time.

A modified Figure four keeps Sabre ahead, but Jaka uses his heel to get free, before a spinning heel kick into the corner’s easily caught and turned into a single leg crab. Sabre is in form here, using every chance he can to try and end things out of nowhere. Jaka does try and mount a comeback, but his ground and pound’s quickly turned into a triangle armbar, forcing him to pull Sabre into a powerbomb to get some freedom.

Jaka manages to come back with that spinning heel kick into the corner, then an Exploder… which barely gets a one-count, as Sabre starts to go for the arm and leg of Jaka, trying to keep his challenger away from any kind of a vertical base. On the mat, Sabre tweaks away at Jaka’s toes, as that Rolodex of submissions was spun through once again – although this time a front suplex sees Jaka get out of a guillotine choke.

A running knee from Jaka gave him his first near-fall as he headed up top – but his knee drop misses, proving the point of high risk offence. Sabre rushes in with a PK, but Jaka’s able to kick out, before they traded strikes… ending when Sabre again kicked out at Jaka’s knee. Another missed kick from Jaka left him laying for a PK, but he rebounds and goes for the choke bomb… which Zack countered into a triangle choke!

Sabre continues to float through submissions, but Jaka’s able to get to the ropes before he tapped to the knee bar. All of a sudden, Chris Dickinson returns to aid Jaka… by slapping him? The slaps fire up Jaka… as he shakes off more kicks from Sabre and returns in with a German suplex out of nowhere. Another choke bomb’s countered into a Euro clutch, which gets Sabre a near-fall, before he turned into the choke bomb at the third attempt for a near-fall!

Jaka keeps on absorbing kicks, but he’s able to counter a cross armbreaker into a roll-up for a near-fall, as he then took Sabre up top for a presumed superplex. Sabre wrenches away at the fingers again though, as they trade slaps on the top turnbuckle, ending with Sabre slipping away and pulling Jaka back into the ring for another bad landing for the challenger’s knee.

A simple headbutt from Jaka knocks away Sabre, who turned around into a lariat for another near-fall… but another missed kick from Jaka led to him being tripped into a kneebar as Sabre mashed up a leg grapevine with a Stretch muffler, and that wacky submission forced Jaka to tap! Another masterpiece of a different kind, with Jaka’s fire in the final moments being a sight to behold. When the time comes to move Jaka away from tag competition, he’ll have plenty under his belt… but for now, this felt like a tease of something that’s nowhere near being delivered. A worthy main event to close out EVOLVE’s 2017. ****¼

After the match we had the return of The End, with Sabre again (conveniently?) bolting awa. Dickinson once again counters their offence, planting Odinson with a death valley driver, before Drennan’s chair helped put The End back in control, as Jaka and Tracy Williams were left laying. Dickinson returned as The End looked to leave, but the numbers game meant he was overwhelmed as they all brawled to the back.

With EVOLVE steadying themselves at the end of 2017, it’s going to be interesting to see where the company will head in 2018. Austin Theory as FIP champion is a new wrinkle, but the questions we raised in our EVOLVE 96 review remain – with the bulk of the talent not in title contention largely being held to 50/50 booking, there’s a lot of folks who can quickly look rudderless. Fred Yehi being the case in point, as even the tiny slither of good left about his current run was taken away here. Of course, the long game could see Yehi rebound in style in 2018, as he’s still got his spot in that Style Battle final… but for someone who was frequently branded the “MVP of WWN”, he’s perhaps got the most to do in the new year.