Indie Wrestling's Growing Influence on WWE

Evolve wrestling's Gabe Sapolsky on pro wrestling's changing landscape

Evolve's Timothy Thatcher. Credit: PamElla Lee

2016 has been a wild year in wrestling. We've seen huge names from outside of the WWE, like AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura get signed by WWE, more or less keep their characters, and take home championships in their new roles. We've seen the Cruiserweight Classic, where independent talent from all over the world come in and compete under the WWE banner. We've seen independent organizations partnering up, and major WWE stars choose to leave the company to compete on the independent scene.

Gabe Sapolsky has found himself in the middle of all of this. As a 23-year veteran of the wrestling industry, he's seen a lot over the years, from his start at ECW, though the peaks of the late 90s, to creating Ring of Honor, to the latest resurgence of the independent scene with his latest company, Evolve. Last summer, rumors started to crop up that WWE was interested in forming a relationship with Evolve, and over the past year, we've seen some of that relationship come to fruition. People like Triple H, William Regal, and Sami Zayn have shown up to Evolve events, while Evolve has started to show up on WWE television, both by the company using footage, as well as stars showing up in NXT and the Cruiserweight Classic. Evolve was also recently mentioned by name on the WWE website as a place where Heath Slater could end up when he wasn't drafted by either show.

Rolling Stone had a chance to talk to Sapolsky about his start in wrestling and what he learned from his mentor Paul Heyman, his view of what Evolve is, what he sees happening with the relationship with WWE, plus what else could come in 2016.

How did you get your start with ECW?
I got my start with ECW in 1993. I wrote them a letter asking if I could do a newsletter for them. This was just when it was getting off the ground. They probably didn't get a lot of letters offering help at that point. They gave me an opportunity. My first show was the first show that Paul Heyman booked for ECW. Over time, I grew to be his personal assistant.

How did your relationship with Paul Heyman develop?
I really built my trust with him over the years. It's not something that happened over night. I just did everything that was asked of me in ECW. I handed out fliers, put up chairs, I drove tapes from Philadelphia to New York, whatever needed to get done. I kept my mouth shut and listened and learned and grew into that role.

What are some of the most important things that you learned from him?
There were countless lessons all the time, that I still learn from him to this day. The main principle, and this is what ECW was built on, is to under-promise and over-deliver. Always give the fans more than their money's worth. If you send the fans home happy, they'll come back. Fans have lots of places they can spend their leisure time and money these days. For them to pick you is an honor. It's something that we need to respect, and then deliver. That's what we try to do with Evolve and what I've always tried to do in my career. That's what Heyman tried to build ECW on.

After ECW, you were a co-creator of Ring of Honor. Did you expect what it would go on to become?
What it is today is much bigger than I ever envisioned it. So a lot of props to Sinclair and the people running it right now. They've taken it to places that I would have never gone to in 2002 when we created it. It followed the vision during my time there. I was really happy with everything that happened when I was there.

When you were laying down the groundwork for ROH, what were the major keys in bringing it to life?
Another Heyman principle was to add something different to the market place. Don't just do what everyone else is doing. ECW had gone out of business, and there were a lot of promotions trying to be ECW in 2002. We recognized the new breed of talent that was coming up. Guys like Low Ki, guys like Bryan Danielson, Christopher Daniels, just to name a few. These were a new type of wrestler. We saw a chance to create something new and add something new to the marketplace, instead of just copying ECW. That's what Heyman did when he took over ECW, find what the marketplace wasn't doing, and that's what we did to ROH.

So fast-forward to 2010, and starting EVOLVE. What were the principles in play there?
Evolve was once again seeing what had been done and played out, and recognizing that there was a new generation of talent coming up. Guys like Johnny Gargano and Ricochet, Kota Ibushi was on the first show, just to name a few. These guys were taking wrestling in a different direction, just like the guys who helped create ECW like Sabu and Taz and Tommy Dreamer. These guys were coming up and adding new things to the mix. It felt like it was time to change the pace of wrestling again. We saw that opportunity with EVOLVE. The original purpose of EVOLVE was really to be a sister promotion of Dragon Gate USA, which was the other promotion I was running at the time. Dragon Gate USA had the wrestlers from Japan, the Dragon Gate wrestlers, and that was the main focus of the promotion. At the same time, we found all these great Americans who needed a spotlight, but we couldn't give that to them in Dragon Gate USA, because of the focus on the Japanese wrestlers. We decided to start EVOLVE to give them that spotlight and that stage.

How much focus was there on specifically being different from Ring of Honor, especially with some of the same guys, like Bryan Danielson, being involved in both?
That definitely was a focus. Especially since we, once again, were trying to add something new to the marketplace, and not trying to clutter it. Bryan Danielson was actually the guy who gave EVOLVE its name, because he had a vision for how he wanted to evolve wrestling in 2010, or really 2009 since we started to plant the seeds then. A lot of it was based around changing the pace of what he was doing in Ring of Honor. He did get signed to WWE before we got started, so a lot of that stuff didn't quite happen the way he had envisioned. Ironically, here we are in 2016, and what we're doing with the Catch Point group, guys like Drew Gulak, Timothy Thatcher, Matt Riddle, Tracy Williams, they're doing exactly what Bryan Danielson had envisioned in 2009 when he came up with the name. So we've come full circle.

You talk about the pace a lot. Was that what you saw as the primary difference between Evolve and the other groups, or were there a few other things sprinkled in?
A lot was about the pacing. We wanted to go with a more sports feel. You're seeing that a lot now with the Cruiserweight Classic. We wanted to get away with some of the things that had been a bit played out in the indies. We just wanted to move wrestling in a new direction, really evolving it.

One thing that took people a bit by surprise in the past year has been the growing relationship between Evolve and WWE. How did this all happen?
It started with some simple phone calls. They grew a very progressive attitude towards the independents. That was really led by Triple H. It's very important to him to keep the independent undercurrent strong, as he put it. They realize that a lot of their talent now comes up through the independents. You look around at the guys from the main roster who have been in Evolve. Guys like Dean Ambrose, Apollo Crews, Luke Harper, Kalisto. The list goes on and on. You look at guys who have worked for me whether it's been Evolve or Ring of Honor or Dragon Gate USA, and you add Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, and Sami Zayn. Go back to CM Punk or Daniel Bryan. You're dealing with some of the big players in WWE, and they look to where they came from. They had an attitude that they wanted more guys like this, so how can they help the process along. They took an interest in us and we obviously were really receptive to them. They've been really generous in helping us out and shining a spotlight not just on Evolve, but on other indies too. It's just their way of having this progressive attitude of keeping the undercurrent strong and help it grow. It works for everybody. It helps us because of the exposure that we receive, and it helps them because they have a closer look at the talent. It's a perfect relationship when you get down to it.

This is a very new attitude for the WWE. If you had to guess, what would you say is most responsible for the change. Is it just Triple H gaining more power, is it the success of indy wrestlers, or a combination of things?
I think it's a perfect storm of everything. Triple H leading the way with it definitely helps. The popularity and growth of the NXT brand can't be understated in their view. The impact of guys like Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins also is huge. You look at the contributions of guys like them, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, even Neville, who also was a part of Dragon Gate USA. That's the type of wrestler that they're going for now. All of those are a perfect storm of factors that have led to this.

When they originally came to you, do you remember at all what their initial suggestions were?
Yeah, it started very small. There was no long-term plan, it started very small. Both us and them realized that we were in uncharted waters here. We really didn't know what was going to happen next. We were basically exploring this new land together. As an idea or opportunity comes up, it can be presented and then we'd see what would work for everybody, and see what happens from there. There's no telling what form it's going to take next. You look at the Cruiserweight Classic shows and there's footage from EVOLVE and Dragon Gate on there. If you had told me a couple of months ago that it was going to happen, I wouldn't have believed it. We've had William Regal on our shows, and Sami Zayn at our shows, Jason Jordan and Chad Gable. If you told us that a year ago, I would have never believed it. The day that Triple H showed up at an EVOLVE show in January...I wouldn't have believed it the morning of the show. With every passing day, I wake up, and I look forward to checking my email or my voicemail to find out what the day is going to hold. It's really a big adventure, and we're all on it together. It's making everything a lot of fun.

You mention the Cruiserweight Classic. In your wildest dreams, did you think the WWE would or could put on an event like this, where so few of the wrestlers are contracted to WWE?
That's part of the really mind-blowing 2016. There's just one thing after another that has been completely mind-blowing. I've been saying that over and over, and it's at the point where I can't even call it the mind-blowing 2016 anymore, because it's pretty much a given fact that all the rules are out the window. We're in a very special time. I've been doing this for 23 years, and I've seen very special times, and you think they'll last forever, but they don't. I've seen some terrible times when we've had shows in front of 25 people and you're on the verge of quitting, and you think it'll last forever, and it doesn't. The key is to really live in the moment. When you get in one of those special times that we're in right now, you need to enjoy it. You need to make the most out of it in every possible, and that's what I'm in the process of doing right now.

How special is it for you to not just see the footage from Evolve shows be part of the Cruiserweight Classic presentation, but to see so many guys who have competed for you take part?
It's so awesome. I love it, it's what keeps me going in this business. I never fear losing talent. I've seen everybody come and go over the past 23 years. It's always exciting for us because it gives us the opportunity to give new talent an opportunity and create new stars. That's my favorite part of doing this. At the same time, I'm thrilled to see the guys get what they earned. When you see guys come up through us, and we've worked with them for a long period of time, it means that they're a quality person. We don't stick with people who aren't quality people. We don't just push people based on talent, but also what their work ethic is, how dependable they are, if they're good quality people. When you see these guys be with us for a while, and then they move on, you know they're that kind of person. So you're happy when you see these guys get the success that they deserve. So it's absolutely awesome.

Right now Evolve is running one of the hotter angles on the independent scene, as Drew Galloway leads a group that some fans have dubbed an "anti-WWE" group. It drew a lot of attention, particularly when Ethan Carter III showed up and joined the group. How was this angle conceived?
It was really a natural thing. I wouldn't call it an anti-WWE thing though. It's more that Drew Galloway is a guy who was our champion for a year. He took our belt all over the world. He helped spread the name of Evolve and independent wrestling. Now he sees another influence coming in. It's not the independent wrestling that it was. At the same time, there are the guys on the other side who realize what an important thing this WWE relationship is, to our growth. It's a simple issue. I wouldn't say it's an anti-WWE thing. There are other people who say it's a TNA thing, but it's not a TNA thing. They've been great to work with too. They've been really exceptional when it comes to letting their talent perform for us and other places. So that's been a huge factor. We're so fortunate to be in a great position to take advantage of that.

While it's not truly anti-WWE, a lot of fans were surprised at some of the things that have been said towards WWE, particularly from EC3, considering the relationship you have. Did you ever have to talk to WWE about the angle?
One thing about WWE in this whole relationship, is that they don't want to change who we are. That's been the best part of everything so far. They want us to be us. They're not trying to change who these wrestlers are, or influence anything. They want us to do our thing, and they strongly encourage that.

Speaking of bringing in outside talent, the first show that Cody Rhodes is going to do is with you, facing Zack Sabre Jr. How did that happen, and why do you think he came to you first?
I'll give Cody Rhodes a ton of credit. Paul Heyman took me Raw a few years ago in Philadelphia. This was before the big indy push really happened. Cody Rhodes came up to me unsolicited and said, "Look at all these guys around here who came up through you, you should be really proud of that." I had never met Cody before that, and I thought that was really awesome of him to go out of his way to come up to me and say that. Now, fast-forward to now, and Cody has made a gutsy, and I think brilliant, decision to go out on his own. He's only 30 years old and he's been in the WWE system for ten years. It's time for him to have some freedom to do what he wants to do, and not just be part of a company. He never got to be part of the independents, and I feel it's very important for every wrestler to do that at some point in their career. He's definitely doing it in the opposite way of most people, but he's going to get his chance to do an indy run. It was a natural connection for him to come to us to do that. He made it immediately clear that he didn't want to mess around. He wants to come in and wrestle the best. He wants to prove his value, not that he has to prove his value to a place like Evolve, but he wants to show that he can be The Man. In order to do that, he insisted on wrestling the best right away. I have a lot of respect for that. So on August 19, he's wrestling Zack Sabre Jr, arguably the best technical wrestler in the world right now. On August 20, it's him vs. Chris Hero. Chris Hero is perhaps the best wrestler in the world right now. The guy is like a god when he gets into the ring at this point. Cody jumping right in the fire, and going for it.

The other name that's making some waves in regards to you is Heath Slater. When WWE.com ran a story that said he was a free agent, that he may be negotiating with you in particular, as well as some other companies. Now I know you can't comment too much on it, but how wild is it that you are being referenced, by name, in a WWE storyline?
To see them mention Evolve on their website, is once again one of those things that a year ago would be unheard of. It just shows how progressive they are in their thinking. It's a great thing for everyone involved.

You've been in the business for 23 years now. You've seen the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows. Is this as exciting of a time for wrestling that you can remember?
When I think of exciting times, I think of 1997-1999. I think of 2004 when ROH really started gaining a reputation, and the Summer of Punk in 2005. Now we're getting back there. I think it's really comparable to any of those time periods.

While 2016 has showed us that we can't predict anything in wrestling anymore, what are your goals, particularly for Evolve, in the next couple years?
Our goals are to keep going where the fans take us. Our goals are to using the fans investment in us to make the product better for them. Hopefully that means going to new cities. Hopefully that means more shows. That WILL mean the new WWNLive.com, which is going to be a game-changer. All of those things are forward progress, and that's what we're about.