WWE Evolution started with a bang and ended in a torrent of cheers on the same Sunday night, but the promotion’s first-ever all-women’s pay-per-view event began in earnest some time before that. At a match in Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Tennis Stadium last December, Alexa Bliss and Sasha Banks, both former women’s champions, became the first women wrestlers to compete for the WWE in the Middle East. During their match, the crowd—how much of the crowd and for how long has been the subject of some dispute—began the chant, “This is hope.”
The McMahon marketing machine would later use that chant—WWE surrogates later repurposed into the more rhetorically useful “This is change”—to justify its otherwise unjustifiable ongoing entanglement with Saudi Arabia. But it debuted as the promotion’s tagline for the ongoing women’s revolution in the WWE. With the addition of Ronda Rousey and the growing popularity behind the promotion’s female superstars, including those in NXT, the company saw an opportunity it could not pass up—not to be a “change agent” or inspire hope, but to make some money off the promotion’s best performers, many of whom currently happen to be women. Stephanie McMahon promised to take the women’s revolution and turn it into Evolution, and she was right at ringside, announcing the event, as that came to fruition. It wasn’t just decades of hard work (or, lord knows, the committed feminism of Stephanie McMahon) that got WWE’s women to this point—it was the tangible support of the WWE universe. Fans have been buying more merchandise from women wrestlers, they’ve demanded longer matches, and most famously in 2015 they asked the world to #GiveDivasaChance.
And so, at a sold-out Nassau Coliseum, fifty of WWE’s women proved that it’s not just the men who are comfortable slapping each other around with steel chairs, or who can put on a show that absolutely burns a venue down. The cynicism of the promotion was never far away—just the appearance of the logo for Crown Jewel, WWE’s next Saudi event, elicited wild booing from the crowd—but the show itself was undeniable.
The first match of the night, which pitted Hall of Famers Trish Stratus and Lita against Alicia Fox and Mickie James, brought the crowd to its feet. Alexa Bliss, who was originally scheduled to face Trish and Lita, was present ringside as she was pulled at the last minute due to concerns about a concussion. Fox was no true substitute for Bliss’s five feet of fury, but Stratus and James thrilled fans by reigniting their former rivalry. The two took turns tossing each other across the ring and exchanging elbows to the face, but it was Lita, the retired 43-year-old superstar, who stole the spotlight with a somersault from the top rope onto both Fox and James. The match was bursting with acrobatics and ended with stratusfaction—Trish pinned Mickie for the three-count and reminded the suits behind the curtain that being a mother need not be the end of a wrestling career.
And then: chaos. Twenty women entered the ring for a battle royale that would grant the last woman left in the ring a championship opportunity. The ring was occupied by members of the current WWE roster—The IIconics, Ember Moon, Nia Jax, Zelina Vega—as well as such icons as Molly Holly, Alundra Blaze, and former Divas champion Kelly Kelly, all of whom began the evolution in the sport. With 20 women trying to take each other out, the scene was predictably a madhouse. But in the midst of that madness, Tamina and Nia Jax, who are cousins in real life, took a moment to honor their cousin Roman Reigns, who announced last week that he’s stepping away from the ring while getting treatment for a recurrence of leukemia, by doing Reigns’s signature huuu-ahhh scream. They honored him further by working together to eliminate half of the women remaining in the ring. Eventually, the match came down to Nia and Ember Moon. They were working to take each other over the top rope when, surprise, Zelina Vega emerged from nowhere and pushed both girls onto the edge of the ring, yet not fully out of it. That last part matters: while Bae-ga celebrated what she thought was a win, Nia came from behind, picked her up and threw her—yes, threw her—into Tamina, who was heading back to the locker room. It’s still TBD whether having a full-grown woman thrown into her face will affect Tamina at all going forward, but other results came faster: Nia made quick work of Ember to claim her victory and a title shot.
The remaining matches were reliably exciting and technically sound. The Riott Squad was defeated by the odd threesome of Bailey, Natalya, and Sasha Banks; Toni Storm beat out Io Shirai to finish out the final round of the Mae Young Classic; Shayna Baszler beat Kairi Sane for the NXT Women’s Championship. A special honorable mention goes to Jessamyn Duke, who kicked Kairi in the face to make that last win possible. Jessamyn’s assistance in the match added to speculation that the four horsewomen—Jessamyn, Shayna, Marina Shafir, and Ronda Rousey—are assembling and will debut on the main roster any day now.
The hotly anticipated Last Woman Standing match between Smackdown Women’s Champion Becky Lynch and her former best friend and (I will be nice) polarizing legacy case Charlotte Flair threatened to eclipse the entire show. The two women hit each other with everything they could find. Literally: Becky rained down on Charlotte’s back with a steel chair relentlessly, Charlotte somersaulted onto Becky and put her through a table, and Becky later returned the favor by slamming Charlotte into a ladder. They fought a match with the same intensity and wrestling violence as any man in any tables, ladders, and chairs match, and they did it with twice as many sequins for about half the pay of, say, an AJ Styles or Daniel Bryan. That the women got their own show doesn’t change how messed up the WWE is where the women are concerned—about money, but not just about that—of course. But it was a hell of a match, which ended when Becky with the good hair power-bombed Charlotte onto a table.
There was no time to come down from the high of that match before Raw Women’s Champion Ronda Rousey took on the longest reigning Divas Champion Nikki Bella. This is the same Nikki Bella that literally broke her neck a few years ago and is now competing again, and the same Ronda Rousey that changed the face of the UFC. As expected, Ronda ragdolled Nikki across the ring for most of the match. But Nikki, who showed shockingly few signs of ring rust, didn’t go down easily. She pulled out all the stops for this one, including Twin Magic, which is when her twin sister Brie, for lacks of a better term, helps her cheat. It was to no avail—Ronda submitted Nikki with her signature arm-bar and retained the championship title—but it fit that three hours of lit women’s wrestling ended with a little show of sisterhood.
The night itself was always going to be significant, just as the culmination of decades of blood, sweat, and tears pouring out from the under-appreciated bodies of the WWE’s women’s roster. The women who were managers, valets, pillow fighters, and Divas were the suffragettes of their industry. They kept fighting through injuries, through embarrassments, and into motherhood until they got to this moment. But while that’s meaningful, it’s just as important that Evolution was also amazingly good. There was not a single man around to absorb the shine that the women so richly deserve proving the show they put on was strong enough to stand on its own. Evolution was everything fans hoped for, but it was less a gift from the WWE than a test to see whether women alone can bear the weight of the brand on their own. The short answer is yes. The longer answer is “yeah, duh.”