After a long month, WWE did something very right with Sunday’s Evolution show. It was the first all women pay-per-view in WWE’s history and it was probably the best show they’ve put on since Royal Rumble, and quite likely since last year.
Right off the bat, it must be said that WWE tried very hard to make the whole thing mawkish. Not by allowing the wrestlers on the show to speak about what it meant to them—they were all genuine and rightly proud of what they were involved with—but by insisting on placing the corporation at the center of a larger global feminist movement in more vaseline-lensed intrusions featuring Stephanie McMahon than necessary. The focus should’ve been kept on the workers doing the ringwork, rather than the extended McMahon family showing up to talk about the greatness of the WWE.
That said, it’s a testament to how good this show was that even the eyeroll-worthy insertion of McMahons into the proceedings didn’t dampen things a bit. It moved at a blistering pace, with fewer matches over about 3.5 hours than normal. This is the second pay-per-view in a row which has had fewer than 10 matches— Hell In A Cell had eight—and it is, perhaps not by coincidence, the second pay-per-view in a row which has been thoroughly enjoyable. Matches at Evolution had time to breathe, and so did the crowd. It’s remarkable what shows with very little fat can do for your quality.
One thing which persisted throughout was the lack of snickering at the returning older women. This is one of the subtler things which signals a real change, because it seemed so unscripted and natural in a company which doesn’t do that as well as it used to. Middle-aged and older women don’t have it easy in our culture; they’re too often considered used up and targeted for ridicule. Hollywood is notorious for disappearing all but the most acclaimed actresses after their 40th birthdays. WWE sure as hell used to do this, with Mae Young giving birth to a hand and female wrestlers usually disappearing in their mid-30s.
From the opener, where Trish Stratus and Lita were given their due, to the battle royal stocked with legends like Alundra Blayze and Ivory (54 and 56, respectively), there wasn’t a hint of condescension. They were just wrestlers, with their returns treated the same as any nostalgia return. On top of that, those who could still go at something approaching full tilt were allowed to; Ivory, in particular, can still wrestle like hell, and if the jumps were a bit shorter than they used to be, her timing and ring presence were impeccable.
The matches themselves, with the exception of the Trish/Lita vs. Mickie James/Alicia Fox, ranged from enjoyable to scintillating. When your show has a nostalgia pop tag match which is merely “perfectly fine” as its low point, you’re in good shape.
It’s impossible, given word count limitations, to go through every match in the good to great category. Kairi Sane vs. Shayna Baszler had a rematch which didn’t quite reach their NXT heights, but it was still up there with the best matches WWE’s put on recently. Io Shirai and Toni Storm faced off in the finals of the Mae Young Classic tournament, with both women announcing themselves to a broader WWE audience in what, on any other night, would’ve been the best match on the card.
The reason why it wasn’t the best match on the card is that Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair had WWE’s best match of the year. I’m not certain it’s even close, and I thought the Sane/Baszler match was going to run away with it.
WWE has lightning in a bottle with Lynch, who’s so good at her job that they can’t turn her heel despite her best efforts (they dubbed in boos during the replay of her epic promo last week). Her feud with Charlotte is based on a sundered friendship. The women in WWE are invariably funneled through this lens, where everyone is friends and hatreds don’t last because of some combination of women being in touch with their feelings and mean girls just act like mean girls. After the first dozen times, it starts to fall flat.
Not here, though. The simmering resentment played perfectly for the camera in their last woman standing match and the violence started immediately. It wasn’t a technical masterclass, but it wasn’t supposed to be: it was a match where Lynch and Flair were supposed to beat hell out of one another.
It was delightfully, deliriously old school. The camerawork wasn’t WWE’s usual queasy standard, and something about the longer shots, darkened arena, and insane bumps made it feel like something out of Greensboro Coliseum in the 1980s. That sense of timelessness, that you’ve been here before and will be again, is the mark of a great match. This was it, and it was the first time that Charlotte Flair—who is usually booked like a monster—felt like Ric Flair’s daughter. She was wrestling a Ric Flair match.
I’m not joking about the insane bumps. There has never been a WWE women’s match where there was more physical punishment, real physical punishment, meted out. Over not quite 30 minutes, tables were broken, kendo sticks were swung, and Flair took a powerbomb to the outside, through a table.
It was magic. Ideally, WWE wanted this show to be so good that nobody operating in good faith could point at it and say the words, “It was good for a women’s show.” The wrestlers at Evolution made sure that happened.
WWE certainly likes to mess things up, though. Towards the end of the show, WWE flashed a hype video for Crown Jewel on their big screens in the arena. The crowd erupted in boos. It was a tone deaf moment: not only is Crown Jewel horribly unpopular on its own terms, but to bring up a show which the women putting on your best stuff of the year can’t go to is plain arrogance.
That it has to be noted how blinkered WWE is about all of the stuff outside Evolution is annoying, but it’s part of the story. But it cannot be, and won’t be, the story. The story is that Evolution was great, one of those events you’d show to people who aren’t wrestling fans to make them get it. Let’s hope they make it yearly and give this talented, irrepressible women’s roster its due going forward.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.