Professional wrestling, at its core, is simply a form of entertainment. However, there are moments when wrestling can transform into much more, creating moments that are more genuine and sincere than what we can find in other forms of entertainment. Zack Sabre Jr.’s championship victory over Timothy Thatcher at Evolve 79 this past weekend was one of those moments.
For 596 days, Thatcher was the only person who could call himself the EVOLVE championship. No matter what situation he was put into and no matter who he faced, Thatcher thwarted all attempts to knock him off his throne as the king of Evolve. No one seem more incensed by this than the fans, who had vociferously been calling for a new champion. Every single time that Thatcher retained, crowds emptied out, deflated that they had to deal with what they deemed to be an unqualified champion. There was a real palpable sense that the crowd was not simply jeering him, but felt legitimate derision towards him.
Manager Stokely Hathaway, fresh off losing his client T.J. Perkins to the WWE, saddled up with Thatcher after an extended courtship and began to sing the praises of a man who had carried the EVOLVE title for the better part of two years. Hathaway ensured that not only would the fans be reminded that Thatcher was champion, but that he had held the title for an absurdly long amount of time. Heading into Evolve 78 and 79, the narrative was one of the length of Thatcher’s reign. On commentary, Lenny Leonard went on to list changes we have seen in the world since Thatcher had claimed the title as his own. Thatcher’s entire reign seemed to be simmering to a boil for his match with Zack Sabre Jr.
The match itself had it all. The crowd was vociferously behind Sabre Jr., groaning when it appeared that Thatcher would retain. The champion seemed emboldened by every jeer that was uttered, relishing in the hatred. Then it happened—it actually happened: Zack Sabre Jr., a participant in last summer’s WWE Cruiserweight classic, the lanky lad from the Isle of Sheppey, did what everyone in that crowd wanted him to do. He beat Thatcher and become Evolve champion. As he won he tumbled into the crowd and soaked up the adulation, but what he did afterward easily trumped anything that he has accomplished in the square circle.
Sabre Jr. grabbed the mic and took what would normally be a well-deserved moment to recognize himself and his inspiring victory to instead deliver a hopeful message of inclusion and acceptance. After thanking the crowd, he said that he felt he was in the right city to say what was on his mind.
“Pro wrestling is for everyone. We welcome everyone. We do not discriminate.” Sabre Jr. emphatically continued to thunderous applause, “the Earth is for everyone and professional wrestling is for everyone.”
For a form of entertainment that often encouraged and pandered to the fans’ bigotry, portraying the worst stereotypes of myriad ethnicities, sexual preferences and genders, a moment like this has been needed. As emotionally gripping as professional wrestling can be, in many ways it has long been the old racist, misogynistic and homophobic uncle that much of the audience had to tolerate, even as beliefs and mindsets changed within that audience and the wider world.
In a sound bite of less than 30 seconds, Sabre Jr. catapulted LGBT rights and issues to the forefront of the wrestling consciousness, letting everybody know they were welcome, and directly challenging the minds and hearts of those stuck in the past. Sabre Jr., and, by extension, Evolve and promoter Gabe Sapolsky, sent a crescendo of good will into the world. Forget notions of “bravery” or “boldness”—this was a fundamentally decent moment, a much-needed expression of humanity and unity in an industry with a history of inhumanity and division, at one of the most fraught times in our nation’s history.
Rich Laconi is a writer whose specialty lies in professional wrestling. Aside from his work being found regularly at PWPonderings.com, LastWordOnProwresting.com and ROHWorld.com, you can follow him on Twitter and listen to him on RunningWildpodcast.com.