To be perfectly honest with you, I can't see how any observer of the wrestling profession can objectively say, without hesitation, that 2012 was anything other than an outright awful year for the business as a whole. Virtually every company at every level of the business spent the year being crippled either by a bad economy, a shrinking number of venues, waning fan interest, a loss of talent (either to injury, or to another company), or due simply to their own laziness or incompetence. From the silver stage of the WWE to the Indy show at your local armory, just about everyone took a beating in 2012, and now, we're going to talk about it, company by company...
Before we can really discuss the year in Dragon Gate USA and EVOLVE, I first believe that I need to establish for you, the reader who may only be vaguely familiar with the brand, where exactly these brands lie in the grand scheme of the current wrestling scene. As 2008 came to a close, and Ring of Honor was trying to secure itself a spot on national television in order to expand its audience, the decision was made to remove long time creative head and co-founder Gabe Sapolsky from the company, and replace him with multi-time NWA champion, Adam Pearce. This is not a decision that particularly settled well with Sapolsky, or, for that matter, many Ring of Honor fans, who feel that the promotion has taken a serious nose-dive since Sapolsky left. Anyway, following his departure from ROH, Sapolsky began working on a pair of new promotions. One was an American spin-off of the popular Japanese promotion, Dragon Gate, home to such stars as CIMA, Shingo Takagi, Dragon Kid, Naruki Doi, and Masato Yoshino. The other, the brainchild of both Sapolsky and current WWE Tag Team Champion, Daniel Bryan, would look to bring pro wrestling into a more realistic setting, with stricter rules and an emphasis on win/loss records, presented more as a legit combat sport than as an entertainment extravaganza. This second promotion would be called EVOLVE, and for the first two years of its existence, Dragon Gate USA and EVOLVE were meant to be completely separate entities, despite sharing essentially the same staff, running the same buildings, and using most of the same talent. Needless to say, one of these companies took off almost immediately, thanks to Gabe Sapolsky's strong relationships with ROH talents like the aforementioned Bryan and Davey Richards, alongside the Dragon Gate regulars who had already made a name in the states a couple years earlier in Ring of Honor. The other company... not so much. By the time EVOLVE was set to hold its first show, Bryan Danielson had already been signed to WWE. Meanwhile, Ring of Honor was doing everything humanly possible to secure their talents and make sure none of them would be showing up on either of Sapolsky's spin-offs, slowly but surely stripping the EVOLVE roster down to bare bones in a matter of 6 months. By the end of its first year, EVOLVE was essentially floating on a pair of relative unknowns in Chuck Taylor and Johnny Gargano, both good wrestlers in their own right, but hardly major drawing names going into 2011, where things only seemed to get worse for EVOLVE, as they would only hold 3 shows that year. A planned 4th event had to be canceled at the last minute due to legal issues surrounding the ACE Arena in Union City, New Jersey, which has essentially closed the arena to this day.
At the end of 2011, perhaps realizing that EVOLVE was a doomed entity, or possibly looking to hedge their bets in case their relationship with the parent Dragon Gate promotion in Japan ever turned sour, the powers that be in Dragon Gate and EVOLVE decided to merge the two brands into a single continuity. Dragon Gate USA would now be the primary brand, featuring both Sapolsky's American talent and the stars of Dragon Gate in Japan. Meanwhile, EVOLVE would be used to fill in the gaps between DGUSA shows, featuring the American DGUSA roster, as well as up-and-comers looking to break into DGUSA. The idea of the merger was that EVOLVE would still maintain its concept, while DGUSA would no longer be shackled, necessarily, to the availability of the Japanese stars. It's not a bad idea, in theory. Unfortunately, the execution has left a lot to be desired over the past year.
It needs to be said that the brand merger of DGUSA and EVOLVE is, quite frankly, the best thing that's ever happened to EVOLVE. Those of you who remember reading my review of
EVOLVE 5: Danielson vs. Sawa or watched my video review of
EVOLVE 9: Gargano vs. Taylor may recall me mentioning how the first 6 EVOLVE shows may, in fact, be the most boring wrestling shows ever committed to film. The concept, focusing on win/loss records, stricter rules, and a more realistic view of the business as a whole, has merit, but EVOLVE's execution of this concept has a lot of problems. For one, there's no individual entrance music for the talent, just a handful of dull, generic riffs, giving fans no clue whatsoever as to how to react to the out-coming wrestlers. The interviews are often done briefly after matches, lacking any sort of color or flair to them, often coming off flat to live audiences, and boring the ever-loving hell out of those watching on DVD or iPPV. A lot of the undercard talent is hit and miss, leaving no impression as to whether they are meant to be babyfaces or heels, which, of course, leads to live crowds who have no idea how to react to anything but spots, and fans watching at home wondering who the hell any of these guys even are and why we're supposed to care about them. Essentially, EVOLVE's concept, and, in a lot of ways, Gabe Sapolsky's style of booking overall, works off of the impression that the only thing you're really interested in seeing is the match itself. The problem with this thinking is that, unless you have some seriously talented storytellers like Bryan Danielson or Austin Aries in-between those ropes, you're not going to hook an audience without giving them a reason to care and react. Spots are
not enough. If all you have to offer are guys who can do cool spots, chances are, they'll watch your match maybe once, and then forget about you altogether. You have to
leave an impression, which is something that is much harder to do in EVOLVE than in most places, because the concept and the booking of EVOLVE does you absolutely no favors. All you get in EVOLVE, really, is an outfit, a few minutes in the ring, and, if you're lucky, a minute after the match with Lenny Leonard in order to convey anything to the live audience and the fans watching at home. You don't get the luxury of a storyline, a promo, or even f*cking entrance music in order to make any lasting impression on the audience, whatsoever.
Unfortunately, under the banner of Dragon Gate USA, the improvements to EVOLVE have been minimal. Competitors still are not allowed individual entrance music, unless the match itself is sanctioned by DGUSA, and not EVOLVE. For those of you scratching your head right about now, don't worry, you're not alone. Fortunately, EVOLVE now does actually have on-going storylines attached to it. The down-side, of course, is that these are all DGUSA storylines, so unless you're a DGUSA guy with a DGUSA story, you're still kind of screwed. The merger between DGUSA and EVOLVE has allowed for heel managers and ringside seconds to accompany competitors to the ring, which helps the presentation a little, but the lack of entrance music and the mandate against elaborate entrances really hurts acts like The Scene, whose gimmick is almost entirely dependent on an over-the-top, hyper-sexualized, gaudy, overly-elaborate entrance. Just to use the Scene as an example, compare any appearance of the Scene in EVOLVE to any appearance of the Scene in DGUSA in 2012, and watch the crowd. Notice just how much stronger a reaction fans have to the Scene, both before and during their matches, at the DGUSA events. Why is that? Because the Scene was allowed to convey their gimmick to the audience in a way that the audience would easily understand, accept, and react to. You can't tell a wrestling fan that you're a narcissistic womanizer with a headlock. You can, however, tell them that while bumping and grinding on a half-naked Amber O'Neal as your manager is handing you a martini on the way to the ring. This is something that EVOLVE still refuses to grasp, and whether they choose to accept it or not, this is a practice that is only going to continue hurt their product until it is finally addressed.
Ultimately, all the DGUSA merger has done for EVOLVE is make it about a million times less boring by incorporating the characters and storylines of DGUSA. It, unfortunately, still suffers from virtually every single one of its setbacks, and even managed to pick up one more in the merger by officially becoming what many fans always assumed EVOLVE was, anyway, even before merging with DGUSA - the DGUSA "B" Show. By merging EVOLVE with DGUSA, EVOLVE will now and forever will be considered the inferior brand. For one, you don't see many, if any, of the contracted stars from Dragon Gate in Japan appearing on EVOLVE show, unless, of course, they're American. Yes, Ricochet and Rich Swann will work the EVOLVE shows, but you won't see Akira Tozawa. There's no BxB Hulk. There's certainly no CIMA or Masato Yoshino. No, instead, you just get the guys who live in the States, a bunch of rookies, and, if we're lucky, maybe Low-Ki and El Generico will stop by. EVOLVE has now become the excuse for Gabe and company to hold a DGUSA show when they can't get the Japanese guys, and with the impending establishment of an EVOLVE championship coming in 2013, its becoming clear that EVOLVE is also serving as a backup plan, in case the relationship with Dragon Gate in Japan ever goes south. EVOLVE is, essentially, conditioning fans to accept a DGUSA without the Dragon Gate stars. It's actually a smart idea, considering Sapolsky's prior issues with Ring of Honor, and the volatile nature of relationships between wrestling promoters in general. The possibility of a falling out between the parties, however small, will always exist. The problem is that, in the process of conditioning fans to accept EVOLVE as a potential DGUSA without Dragon Gate, they're also inadvertently reinforcing fans' perception of EVOLVE as a secondary product to DGUSA. There is, unfortunately, very little that Sapolsky or those around him can do to stave off that perception until and unless he actually does sever ties with Dragon Gate (which I wouldn't want to see happen, nor recommend) and is forced to carry on the DGUSA continuity under the EVOLVE name. It's one of those situations you can't control, and you have to make the best with what you have.
Now, when it comes to the overall DGUSA continuity, 2012 has been a rough year. Fortunately, DGUSA's year isn't anywhere near as bad as Ring of Honor's, dealing mostly with factors beyond DGUSA's control. For one, DGUSA lost a lot of talent over the past year, most notably Bobby Fish and Silas Young, who jumped to Ring of Honor, and PAC, who is now making his home in WWE's Developmental Territory, NXT. Injury and scheduling conflicts made it virtually impossible for DGUSA to keep their United Gate (Tag Team) Titles on one team for a prolonged period of time, mirroring a similar problem SHIMMER faced over the last two years, as scheduling conflicts, Daizee Haze's sudden retirement, and WWE's acquisition of Sara Del Rey forced their tag titles to change hands in rapid succession over a period of 3 weekends before ending right back where they started, with the Canadian NINJAs, this past summer. For DGUSA, it was an injury to CIMA that vacated the titles over WrestleMania Weekend, before CIMA's partner Ricochet regained them, this time with World-1 International stable-mate, Masato Yoshino. The title was vacated once again in June when DGUSA was unable to schedule Masato Yoshino for a return in order to defend his title until at least 2013. A freshly healthy CIMA was then able to get his chance to regain the title he never lost by teaming with AR Fox to defeat CIMA's former partner Ricochet and World-1 International stable-mate, Rich Swann. So, yes, you read that right - DGUSA was forced to vacate their tag team titles twice over the span of a mere two months, as well as compensate for stable readjustments in Japan, which essentially split up the team of CIMA and Ricochet in the first place, just to put the title right back on CIMA and a new partner just as soon as he got healthy.
Another major issue with DGUSA, creatively speaking, was the disappointing end of DGUSA's most popular trio to date, Johnny Gargano, Chuck Taylor and Rich Swann, collectively known as Ronin. The break-up began well, with Chuck Taylor hinting at
dissension as early as 2011's
Chasing the Dragon, where he openly questioned Rich Swann's loyalties, as Swann was, at the time, a member of both the Ronin faction in DGUSA, as well as the Junction Three stable in Japan. It was followed up in November of 2011 when Chuck Taylor stole the Open the Freedom Gate title belt from champion YAMATO after failing to defeat him for the title in Philadelphia. The next night in New York, after Johnny Gargano was able to do what Taylor could not, and defeat YAMATO for the Freedom Gate title, there was a tease of a Taylor turn, as he hesitated to hand the belt over to Gargano after the match was over. Taylor ultimately did give the belt up to Gargano, declared that he and Rich Swann were going to go after the United Gate titles, and all seemed well. Taylor and Swann even won their initial bouts together as a tag team, looking to become the top contenders and take the titles from the Spiked Mohicans, CIMA and Ricochet. Unfortunately, Taylor's ego wouldn’t have anything of it, and, once again, Swann's loyalties again came into question. By the time WrestleMania Weekend came about, the Blood Warriors, Ronin's chief rivals, was no more, taken over and renamed Mad Blankey by new leaders Akira Tozawa and BxB Hulk, expelling both CIMA and Ricochet from the group in the meantime. Mad Blankey then went on to defeat the members of Junction Three in a massive tag match in Japan, forcing them to dissolve, as well. From this, CIMA formed an alliance with Masaaki Mochizuki, leading to the reformation of the Veteran Army, while Masato Yoshino made up with long-time rival, Naruki Doi, and along with PAC, reformed the World-1 faction as World-1 International, recruiting Rich Swann and Ricochet along the way. This, of course, allowed Chuck Taylor to, once again, question Rich Swann's loyalties, as now he's paling around with CIMA and Ricochet, who had been, up to this point, Blood Warriors, and Ronin's predominant enemy. From this, Taylor is able to get a scheduled United Gate title match for him and Swann changed to one for him and Freedom Gate champ Johnny Gargano at
Open the Ultimate Gate 2012, only to see Taylor's ego get the best of him, yet again, and screw Gargano over, costing Ronin the tag titles. Ronin dissolves as Swann remains part of World-1 International, while Gargano decides to go it alone, embracing his fate as the Freedom Gate champion to always be a target for those looking to take the championship from him. Chuck Taylor then goes on to form his own faction, the Gentlemen's Club, which, quite frankly, is about as serious a faction as Brodus Clay is thin. In the meantime, Chuck Taylor's greatest flaw as both a character and a worker in DGUSA comes into play something fierce - his complete inability to take anything, including his own career, seriously enough to be respected.
I really hate to be this guy, but it needs to be said - Austin Aries brought up a extremely valid point about Chuck Taylor when he went off on him in a series of videos leading into
EVOLVE 6. Taylor, who is an incredibly gifted performer who takes to wrestling better than most, whose psychology between the ropes is remarkable considering his experience, who has a natural gift with people and can connect with them in ways better athletes only wish they could, does not take wrestling all that seriously. It's a factor that greatly contributed to the failure of what should have been the greatest blood feud in the history of DGUSA and EVOLVE - Gargano vs. Taylor. Both had been initially disrespected, in their minds, by EVOLVE management and the Dragon Gate Elite, namely CIMA, forming an alliance in DGUSA that saw them both rise up the ranks and earn the respect of both fans and veterans alike. Meanwhile, in EVOLVE, they had a somewhat friendly rivalry over the title of wins leader, being the man with the most victories under EVOLVE's banner. With the companies merging at the end of 2011, Chuck Taylor, who was currently leading Gargano in wins in EVOLVE, was seeing his partner and friend doing what he could not, winning the Freedom Gate championship they both coveted. In Taylor's mind, he knew he was better than Gargano, and he had the record and the match at
EVOLVE 9 to prove it. Instead, it's Johnny with the belt. It's Johnny that's keeping Taylor aligned with a perceived traitor in Rich Swann. After all, Swann's hanging out with Ricochet, now. So screw Swann! And while we're at it, screw Johnny! It's all about Chuck Taylor, because he's better than Johnny. He knows he is. He beat Johnny. He can beat Johnny again. So why does Johnny get to have the belt? That belt belongs to Chuck Taylor!
But that's not what we got. We didn't get the jealous Chuck Taylor who knew he was better than Johnny Gargano and even had the record to prove it. Instead, we get the same old goofball Chuck Taylor we see everywhere, with his cavalcade of equally-silly comedy wrestlers, insisting on working only trios matches in order to avoid one-on-one encounters with CIMA or Rich Swann, and failing to be anything even remotely close to a credible threat to either Johnny Gargano or the Open the Freedom Gate championship, so much so, the blow-off match for this feud didn't even see the Freedom Gate title put on the line. Taylor, who should have been headlining the annual
Freedom Fight event against Gargano in a knock-down, drag-out, Match of the Year contender for the Open the Freedom Gate Championship, culminating a year-long rivalry full of jealousy, hatred, and awesome, career-making matches, ends up being relegated to a midcard feud with Rich Swann, playing a cowardly goofball, and watching on the sidelines as Jon Davis ended up getting the spot that should have been Taylor's from the word "go". Needless to say, everything I, as well as many DGUSA fans, hoped the end of Ronin would be not only didn't happen, it died before it ever even got off the ground, and unfortunately, it's most likely all Chuck Taylor's fault. Instead of coming at this angle as the jealous, bitter rival who knew, deep in his soul, that he was the better man and had proven it, he just did the same old sh*t he always does...
Now, don't get me wrong. I like Chuck Taylor. I think he's a tremendous talent. I've also come to the sad realization as to why Chuck Taylor, despite his obvious gifts and talent, has never managed to get beyond the regional territories. It's him. He doesn't take himself or his craft seriously enough to be respected, preferring to be the hipster slacker who cracks jokes instead of actually trying and giving a damn. The worst part of this is that Taylor himself may read this and ignore it the same way he ignored Austin Aries in 2010 when he said many of the same things, and more, about Taylor and his lack of work ethic. He'll brush me off as some keyboard tough guy or whatever, and not take the serious look he really ought to at the sheer awesomeness that could have been if only Taylor took himself, and his profession, more seriously, which is a shame, because he really should be a lot higher up on the totem pole than he is. Hell, even Bryan Danielson was saying it to him on
EVOLVE 5, that he could be the face of this company if only he'd get his sh*t together! Johnny Gargano did it, and is enjoying the best push of his career for it. There's no reason Taylor can't do the same, if not better.
Ultimately, when it comes to Dragon Gate USA and EVOLVE in 2012, there's a lot of good, but just as much bad. For every great thing we saw this year out of the likes of AR Fox or Sami Callihan, you get a dream match between PAC and Low-Ki that under-delivers, or a deflating disappointment of a feud in Gargano and Taylor. Add to that the loss of the ACE Arena in New Jersey, the old ECW Arena in Philadelphia, and apparently now BB King's in Manhattan, as well, and DGUSA's stronghold in the Northeast is basically shot. It's the hope that in 2013, this new arena in Voorhees, New Jersey will remain open and allow DGUSA an opportunity to set a foothold in the Northeast, once again. In the meantime, Chicago has emerged over the last several years as the new big wrestling city, looking to overtake Philly now as the hottest market in the business. DGUSA does well there, but its standing in the Midwest isn't nearly as strong as its closest rivals, Ring of Honor and CHIKARA, struggling to draw in markets outside the Chicagoland area. Either way, 2013 for DGUSA remains uncertain, as support for Johnny Gargano as champion weakens, faith in the brand fades with their incredibly slow DVD production rate, and its once-strong foothold in the Northeast all but gone. On the plus side, with the advent of WWNLive.com, DGUSA stands on the cutting edge of the iPPV market, as their service has remained consistently strong, reliable, and user-friendly. They even have pricing options that allow you to reserve copies of the eventual DVD, as well as on-demand access to your shows in the meantime, which has certainly helped DGUSA among DVD collectors who have more than become frustrated with the insanely slow rate in which DGUSA and EVOLVE DVDs have been produced.
Meanwhile, EVOLVE, as a brand, showed some massive improvement in 2012, but only because it now featured and expanded upon characters and storylines that were presented in Dragon Gate USA, which has been and continues to remain the superior of the two brands. EVOLVE's presentation still leaves a lot to be desired, as its concept continues to needlessly handcuff workers who only find it just that much harder to convey their personality into their matches and connect with an audience. There's nothing wrong with EVOLVE's concept, in theory. You want a more realistic, combat-sports inspired presentation. That's fine. But guess what? UFC fighters get entrance music. They have entourages. Chael Sonnen and Ronda Rousey are go-to examples of how an interview in a combat sports environment can convey character and sell a fight. Sure, they don't have pyro. There isn't some gaudy multi-media stage blasting a highlight video on a stadium-sized wide-screen in 1080p HD. But they have entrances. They have interviews. You actually can get a feel for who the hell these people fighting are, and the fights that get the most media attention and make the most money are the ones where people are talking the most smack and making the biggest asses of themselves, publicly. You can still have the win/loss records, the stricter rules, the post-match interviews, and even the documentary crew in the locker room. All I'm saying is that you can have all of that, and have Johnny Gargano come out to "Don't Die Digging" and let Amber O'Neal figuratively give Caleb Konley a blow job on the way to the ring while Larry Dallas drinks a martini, too. If it's good enough for sports, it ought to be good enough for EVOLVE, right?
So, here you go, proof that I can, in fact, be critical of a product that I actually like and enjoy. You know, like I used to be with TNA before TNA management trolled me and the rest of the fanbase so hard over the course of 2011 that it became impossible to support the company in any real way. Speaking of which, that'll be the next installment of this series,
2012: The Year in Wrestling - TNA. See you then!