WWE began doing business with independent promotion Evolve Wrestling late last year. It eventually led to the WWE Global Cruiserweight Series, a top-notch wrestling tournament which the two parties have been working on extensively.
The first participants announced by Triple H for the tournament include NXT’s Rich Swann, Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano, as well as Zack Sabre, Jr., Noam Dar, Ho Ho Lun and Akira Tozawa from the international wrestling scene. The series will air on the WWE Network starting July 13.
Uproxx favorite Gabe Sapolsky is the man in charge at Evolve Wrestling, which will host qualifying matches for the series alongside Revolution Pro Wrestling and Progress Wrestling. Below, Sapolsky discusses the Global Cruiserweight Series, modern independent wrestling and the developing of WWE talent.
Evolve 61 takes place this Saturday, May 7. Qualifying matches for the WWE Global Cruiserweight Series include Drew Gulak vs. Tracy Williams, and T.J. Perkins vs. Fred Yehi. Tickets are available at EVOLVEwrestling.com. It will be held at La Boom on 56-15 Northern Blvd. in Woodside, Queens. Bell time is 6:30 p.m. If you do not live in the New York area, the event will air live on iPPV at WWNLive.com.
Explain how Evolve’s partnership with WWE came to be.
WWE got into a very progressive mindset when it came to the independents and started looking into where talent was coming from. When they did this, they looked at Evolve and guys like Dean Ambrose, Luke Harper, Kalisto, Neville and several other talents that came from Evolve, and they looked at me personally from my time at ROH when I booked guys like Seth Rollins, Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, and CM Punk going way back… so they looked at the track record and realized it was in their interest to support us and make sure this independent undercurrent of talent keeps flowing.
At the same time for them, they benefited from having this pipeline of talent. So, there was a natural synergy there and it made a lot of sense. It’s giving us a great deal of exposure and getting the talent ready to go for them and perform on a big stage. The relationship started slowly and is still slowly developing… we’re all in uncharted waters here, going step by step to see what possibilities make sense, and there’s really no telling what the next phone call or email will bring.
Do you think the Cruiserweight Series will end WWE’s sort of “unwritten rule” of not utilizing independent promotions?
I believe every rule from the past has already been thrown out at this point. I mean, we’re seeing things now that a couple years ago would’ve been impossible. From Samoa Joe being the NXT Champion… it didn’t look like there would ever be a time when he would even be in WWE, to them acknowledging the past with A.J. Styles… these were all things that were unheard of, but WWE has a cutting-edge mindset at this point and anything is possible. They’ve basically taken all those old rules and standards and completely thrown them out the window, which makes this such an exciting time right now for the fans and what makes 2016 such a mind-blowing year.
What’s the biggest thing WWE can learn from Evolve, and vice versa?
The big thing we can learn from each other is how to protect the future of the professional wrestling business, and to do that involves cultivating a new crop of talent all the time, and also changing the mindset of the wrestlers today. A big thing now is safety in the ring. After Daniel Bryan and the concussion issue… it’s our job now to protect the talent, and we do that with the Evolve style that focuses less on stunts and more on actual wrestling and grappling. It’s a huge thing to make sure that people’s careers begin with us and don’t end with us. We’re learning right now what it takes for our talent to end up in WWE, which is where I want everyone to go because that’s where you set up your family for generations, and hopefully we’re opening WWE’s eyes to the styles that are out there.
The name of the series… If you could, undemonize the term “cruiserweight” for people like me who believe it pigeonholes wrestlers into a lower status, as if they couldn’t be billed as main-eventers, or world title contenders.
It has been a lower-card term through the years, but now it’s about emphasizing wrestling. The fact that the cruiserweights are getting their own tournament and not relegated to a certain match on the show, that’s a significant investment from WWE. For them to put that kind of spotlight and emphasis on it means it’s gonna be taken very seriously and that these talents are gonna be showcased at their best.
Usually, cruiserweight refers to “high flying wrestlers,” or something like that, but when you look at a guy like Zack Sabre, Jr., he’s not a high flyer, he’s a guy that’ll twist someone’s body into a pretzel and make him tap out. That’s just an example of the new style of cruiserweights that’s gonna be featured in this. The old perception of a cruiserweight just doing a couple dives off the top rope in a three-minute match is gonna be completely changed by this tournament. It’s really gonna break every single mold that the term “cruiserweight” had before and take it in new directions.
I look at WWE’s infatuation with a guy like Roman Reigns, someone who may have the typical “superstar” look, but is clearly not over as a performer, and think “body guys” like him will continue to get the most attention from the company. How aware do you think Triple H is, being that he’s pretty much in charge of talent there, that a lot of these guys coming in, not being 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, have the potential to be top guys?
I think he’s very aware of it. He’s very open-minded. A.J. Styles is getting huge exposure on WWE TV right now, and they’re investing a great deal into him, and they wouldn’t do that if they didn’t see him as a main-eventer. Take a guy like Daniel Bryan… he paved the way for this. Then you take a guy like Finn Bálor, who NXT is built around and has huge things coming up for him, he’s a guy who by definition is a cruiserweight, but is obviously getting a main-event push. Roman Reigns has a great deal of charisma, whether the reaction he’s getting is what they want; obviously they want people cheering him… but, at the same time, it’s obvious with A.J. Styles and Finn Bálor, and in the past Daniel Bryan, that they are very open to pushing the smaller guys that don’t quite fit the traditional mold into the top spot in the company.
CM Punk is a guy you know well. What influence do you think he’s had on this influx of indie talent that may have never gotten a shot in WWE if not for his success?
He definitely played a huge role in breaking that mold. He was a trailblazer. There’s no doubt that his contribution to this is not insignificant. He was the first one to really push that door down, and that’s really opened the floodgates.
I think it’s great seeing independent guys and New Japan guys come into WWE under the names they used elsewhere. Do you think this is a trend that they will, or should, keep going with?
It’s an amazing trend and something I never thought I’d see. It’s creating a lot of excitement and, at the same time, a lot of awareness to what’s going on everywhere in pro wrestling, which is important for the overall health of wrestling. Everybody made the most money in the late ‘90s; ECW, WCW and WWE were all the most popular at the same time, and the competition created a lot of excitement among the fans, and we’re beginning to see that again with everything that’s going on out there. I believe WWE’s seeing the positive effects on that, and that’s one of the things that’s making this such an exciting year.
You hear people talk about the “WWE style” all the time. How does the Evolve style compare to it?
One thing I love hearing from WWE, and they’ve told me this several times, is they’re not trying to change who we are. They’re not giving us guidelines or restrictions or anything… they want us to keep doing what got us to the dance, and what got us this level of attention. That’s really been a great development with WWE. So, the Evolve style right now, we do have some high flying, maybe some hardcore-type stuff, but the emphasis is on pro wrestling; grappling, catch style, suplexes, submissions, striking, kicking… just a good, strong style of professional wrestling. The fans have been very receptive to it. Our business has done nothing but grow since we’ve gone to this style.
What we do at an Evolve show, we want every match to have meaning and substance behind it. There’s no four-ways or six-ways that are thrown together because we have the guys booked. Maybe they’re fun matches, but you forget about it a few minutes after they happen. Every match we do has a purpose behind it, and is part of a bigger story, which is the entire show. The bottom line is, when you sit down and watch one of our shows, it’s gonna be like a movie, something you can watch straight through in one sitting and feel like you got more than your money’s worth. That’s really what defines the Evolve style, and, from what I understand, that’s what WWE wants from us.
Does it concern you that, if any of these guys get signed to WWE, they could end up getting lost in the shuffle and may not have a clear direction?
That’s really up to the individual talent and what they do with the opportunities when they get there. To me, as long as you see a guy getting TV time, and if he’s making the most out of that TV time, you could never get lost in the shuffle there.
You’re suddenly in charge of NXT, essentially running the development of WWE talent. What’s your first order of business?
I wouldn’t even wanna speculate on anything like that. They’re doing a tremendous job. If they keep going in the exact same direction they’re going in right now… I believe they’re doing a perfect job with it. Everything from Samoa Joe winning the title at a house show… I mean, I watched that footage the other day, and the looks on the fans’ faces is something that you used to see. It reminded me of the ‘80s, when I grew up watching wrestling, when anything could happen at any point. Even bringing in a guy like Austin Aries, that’s a guy I thought I’d never see there. And the fact that you’re seeing so much talent move up to the main roster… I wouldn’t change a thing that’s going on there.