It wasn’t just the big boys that put on amazing matches this month. Evolve touched down in San Antonio this weekend for a series of shows to say goodbye to Chris Hero. Chris Hero had one of the most amazing runs in the history of the business in 2016. From a match quality standpoint, regardless of the promotion, type of match, or opponent, no one was more consistently excellent than Chris Hero. Kenny Omega might have had a higher peak, but he also had the benefit of only having to do one great match a month (G1 excluded) where Chris Hero was doing it almost every weekend last year. And his hard work was rewarded with an offer to return to the WWE. Chris Hero bet on himself and is about to cash in. But he still had a weekend of work to put in, and he put a full shift in on these cards, and he wasn’t alone.
Evolve 76 will be remembered as the show where the ring went into business for itself. It’s too bad because in the middle of the show there were two excellent matches. Ethan Page, who is a guy that I used to loathe watching, took on Zack Sabre Jr in an intense match that really showed a different side of Sabre. Everyone is used to watching ZSJ work holds and do amazing technical wrestling, and he is great at it. However, on Friday night, he came to fight and he brought the fight right to Ethan Page and his gate keepers. They brawled outside the ring, in the ring, and just had a great knockdown drag out brawl. Zack Sabre Jr won, but kept the hold on too long so the decision was reversed. This was a great angle because it helped build to the main event the following night and also helped keep Ethan Page strong. Sabre needed to come out good because he was wrestling Chris Hero on Saturday in the main event, and Page needs to stay strong because he is one of the true heels in Evolve that people want to see lose. It also continued the story of Ethan Page being undefeated against Zack Sabre Jr, so if Sabre does win the title as many think he will, there is a great title match that is ready made. This match delivered on both fronts. I had this right around **** and I have actually watched it two more times already since it took place. This was a really fun match.
The best match of the show followed, with Matt Riddle taking on the debuting ACH. Matt Riddle is amazing. He’s been in the business for a little over a year and he is simply amazing. ACH is a vet of the indy scene, and he is consistently very good to great and can really deliver when needed. And he delivered here. The match was different from the normal ACH match, where he didn’t fly and didn’t hit a bunch of dives but he used strikes and suplexes and grappling to try to counter Riddle’s style and at the end, it was Riddle who used those skills to get the win. The thing that is amazing about Riddle is how smooth everything looks at this point in his career. He moves from hold to hold in the most amazing way, and his selling is great too. I will touch on Riddle a little more at the end of the column, but this match was ****1/4 and easily the best match on the show, although I think you could put an asterisk on that one.
The main event of night 1 was Chris Hero vs. the debuting Keith Lee. Lee had been in ROH as part of the Pretty Boy Killers and has been touted as Evolve’s big signing going into 2017. He showed why here. He hung with Hero strike for strike and move for move. Unfortunately, about 5 minutes into the match, the top rope broke for the second time in the match. They worked around the top rope missing as good as anyone you would ever see. They brawled outside, they exchanged strikes and throws in the ring, and they seemed to be building towards a hot finish when Keith Lee tried something off the second rope and that rope broke. After that, they went to the finish and Hero won. The second rope break really took the crowd out of the match and really hurt the finish of the match. Even with all that the match was still around ***1/2 and even in the loss Keith Lee came out looking like the next big star in Evolve.
Hero’s weekend wasn’t done. I haven’t watched all of night 2 yet, but I did make sure to watch the main event of Chris Hero vs. Zack Sabre Jr. These two had the indy feud of the year last year, and all the matches were amazing and this was the culmination of this feud. This was another ZSJ match that was different from the norm, and this weekend felt like a big step forward for ZSJ. There were little call backs to their old matches in Evolve and little details that if you watched their old matches you would appreciate, but if you didn’t watch the matches they stood out on their own as great spots. For Hero, 5 days before returning to Full Sail, to have a match this hard hitting says a lot about his work ethic and his character. No one would have faulted Hero if he would have come in this weekend and put on a *** performance, had some nice matches and said goodbye. This was a weekend to celebrate Hero and everyone would have been happy to clap and see him one last time and see him off. Instead he delivered another amazing performance went out having the type of match that got him back into WWE. ZSJ went over and Hero put him over huge post-match as the next guy to carry the indy wrestling banner. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sabre Jr holding the Evolve title leaving the February shows and having a big defense against Page at Mania weekend. They need to get the title off of Thatcher (that’s a complaint column for another day) and Sabre is the perfect guy for it. He proved this weekend that he can have matches other than the “ZSJ match” and he can put a company on his back. This was a ****1/2 match and worth going out of your way to see.
Finally, to close my month of wrestling, I went to the Beyond Wrestling show in Worcester MA on Sunday afternoon. I went for one reason only: Matt Riddle. Riddle was wrestling Brian Cage on the show, and in my mind Riddle is a guy worth going out of your way to see. Also, he was wrestling Cage, who is amazing, and there were a lot of other talented guys on the show, like Donovan Dijak, the American Wolves, The Crist Brothers and The Pretty Boy Killers.
The show took place in a hookah bar in a part of Worcester that I might not usually frequent, but this was a case of not judging a book by its cover. The show was fantastic. Everyone busted their asses in front of the 100 or so people in attendance. Riddle and Cage had an amazing match, and David Starr took on Joey Janela in a hardcore match that has to be seen to be believed. Everyone at the show, the crowd, the staff, the wrestlers, was top notch and really made the event feel like something special. There was nothing that I would call a MOTYC or anything, but I had the Starr/Janella match at **** and there is an INSANE 8 man tag that included one of the most unique spots I have ever seen, so it was another excellent show to close a month of great show.The shows are already up on Beyond’s on demand service, Beyondemand, and you can sign up for a free 14 day trial. I would recommend signing up for the trial and watching the matches from Paying Paul, and then I would recommend keeping the service to watch the extensive collection of matches available. The company returns to Providence on 2/26 and tickets are on sale now. I will be there, and if you can make it you should be there too!
So, that was January in graps. The crazy thing? There are shows that I didn’t watch that people are raving about, so it’s possible there’s even more excellent wrestling out there. Hopefully this is a harbinger of things to come in 2017. I will continue to watch crappy wrestling, but I am happy to know that the industry continues to put on excellent shows as well. If there’s anything you think I missed that I need to see, hit me up on twitter @OMGlancy and let me know!