The Paul Heyman tree continues to grow and, fittingly, evolve.
For the past fifteen years, Gabe Sapolsky has served as the most successful, innovative and creative booker in wrestling. Sapolsky remains unknown among some wrestling fans only because he puts the focus on his talent and never himself. From Daniel Bryan to CM Punk to Seth Rollins to Kevin Owens all the way to Dean Ambrose, Sapolsky booked nearly every major wrestling superstar on the WWE roster.
And he learned the craft from Heyman.
“Paul always said, ‘Zig when everybody else zags,’” said the 43-year-old Sapolsky, who broke into wrestling in 1994 with Extreme Championship Wrestling. “You always have to make yourself different, and Paul stressed that you have to add to the market place, not add clutter to it.”
Sapolsky is adding to the market place as the co-founder and booker of Evolve, one of the only independent wrestling companies in the world working with WWE.
“We’re in unchartered waters with WWE,” explained Sapolsky, who also serves as vice president of talent relations, creative, and marketing for Evolve’s parent company, World Wrestling Network. “The WWE relationship has made for a very exciting time, which makes everything very unpredictable, so we’re taking it one day at a time.”
WWE and Evolve first publicly connected with Evolve in October by sending Sami Zayn to a show, and Paul Levesque appeared at an Evolve show the night before the WWE’s Royal Rumble in January.
“I didn’t receive a text until that afternoon that Triple H would like to come by,” said Sapolsky. “When he got there, WWE tweeted that picture [of Sapolsky backstage with Levesque], and that was the springboard that took us to the next level.”
Evolve will even host qualifying match-ups for the upcoming Global Cruiserweight Series, which will air exclusively on the WWE Network in July.
“The relationship with WWE originally started with a few discussions,” explained Sapolsky. “We’re still in the getting-to-know each other phase, and they’re very careful about what they go into. They do their research, they don’t just jump into anything, and they did their research on us.”
History is repeating itself with the connection between WWE and Evolve. Nineteen years ago, Paul Heyman and Vince McMahon agreed to a similar alliance for Extreme Championship Wrestling and the World Wrestling Federation.
“That relationship actually paved the way for what’s going on right now,” said Sapolsky. “ECW did have a relationship with the WWF back in the ‘90’s, and although it was completely secret at the time, it worked out well for both sides.
“That relationship was entirely between Paul and Vince, and there was a talent exchange. We saw guys from ECW steered to WWE if they were leaving, as opposed to WCW.”
Following in the footsteps of Heyman is an honor for Sapolsky, who served as his personal assistant during their time together in ECW.
“I take lessons from Paul all the time,” said Sapolsky. “Even now, he’s always there for advice.”
The relationship began serendipitously in 1994 when Sapolsky wrote a letter pitching the idea of an ECW newsletter.
“I was going into my senior year at Temple University and ECW had just started,” recalled Sapolsky. “I found their address, which was [original ECW owner] Tod Gordon’s jewelry store. I was a journalism major, and I wrote a letter asking if I could start a newsletter–which I saw as a hobby, not a way to break into the business–during my senior year.”
Sapolsky’s letter made an impact. He was hired to write the ECW Action Newswire.
“While I was doing that, I built connections, and my relationship with Paul Heyman grew. Paul saw this kid sticking around, doing whatever he was asked, and started to see what I’d be willing to do. If he needed me to drive from Philly to New York for a tape of something, I’d do it on a whim. That’s how I grew with the company and built a relationship there.”
Sapolsky watched with an open mind as he saw Heyman create a revolutionary force in wrestling. After ECW finally closed its doors in 2001, Sapolsky was hired as the head booker for the newly created Ring of Honor, and he looked to make an imprint on the landscape of wrestling.
“That’s another prime example of Paul Heyman telling me to zig when everyone else zags,” said Sapolsky. “Everyone was trying to recreate the hardcore style of ECW, so we went in the opposite direction with Ring of Honor while still incorporating ECW elements, and that’s what made us in 2002.”
Sapolsky’s life forever changed when he encountered Daniel Bryan, who was willing to sacrifice his body in pursuit of the perfect wrestling match.
“Bryan made my career as a booker,” said Sapolsky. “He was the ace pitcher, he was the Tom Brady, and he made me. I always recognized that and appreciated it.”
The bond between the two grew as Sapolsky would often write to Bryan after matches, pouring out his gratefulness into prose. He was in the crowd in New Orleans when Bryan captured the WWE championship at WrestleMania 30, and thought back to all of Bryan’s sacrifice and sweat on the indies.
“Bryan had a lot of special moments, but the one that stands out for me is the match he had against Shingo at Dragon Gate USA,” said Sapolsky. “That really gave us a shot in the arm and gave new life to the promotion in 2010.”
Sapolsky helped develop Dragon Gate USA after Ring of Honor nearly crushed him by letting him go in 2008.
“It was devastating in 2008 when [then ROH owner] Cary [Silkin] decided to go in another direction,” explained Sapolsky. “Ring of Honor was one-hundred percent of my life, and I thought I was done with wrestling at that point.
“Fortunately, during my time with Ring of Honor, I built up a relationship with the Dragon Gate company in Japan. The idea came for them to come over here for WrestleMania weekend. A big thing with them was they would bring over a six-man every year for our WrestleMania weekend shows, and their relationship with Ring of Honor dissipated, as well. They wanted to keep that tradition, and they knew I was a free agent, so they contacted me.”
Sapolsky helped form Dragon Gate USA, and then he was approached by Daniel Bryan with a new way to change the business in 2010.
“Daniel Bryan had some new ideas for a promotion,” said Sapolsky. “He was looking to start over again, and that is how Evolve started. Daniel Bryan was, in fact, the one who named the company Evolve. Then he got the chance to start with WWE before working with us, and I was thrilled to see him take it and accomplish everything he has.”
Success is also reaching an all-time high for Evolve, as the promotion delivered its WWN Live Experience this past weekend in Dallas. Over seven thousand fans poured into the shows, which included Evolve, the WWN Supershow, Shimmer women’s wrestling, Kaiju Big Battel, and Combat Zone Wrestling.
“The exposure from WWE has really brought us to the next level,” said Sapolsky. “That has changed our business.”
Evolve returns to live action on May 6 with a show, highlighted a Chris Hero versus Zack Sabre Jr. main event, in Joppa, Maryland before returning to Queens, New York on May 7 for a match between Drew Galloway – who is also TNA world champion – and Johnny Gargano.
“The next step for us is developing new markets,” said Sapolsky. “We are looking to build on the momentum from WrestleMania weekend, and the Joppa, Maryland show is especially important for us because it is our debut in the market. ”
Evolve, which can be viewed on the FITE App and WWNLive.com, was founded on pure wrestling. The company has never strayed from its philosophy of delivering the best wrestling possible.
“I was tired of those matches that had 50,000 things going on,” said Sapolsky. “It was boom-boom-boom-boom, and there were eight people involved and the shows were too long. I thought there was a lot of that going on, so we made an effort with Evolve to cut down five or six matches on a show and have them all be of substance.
“Matches should mean something and should all be part of a bigger story. Instead of a collection of individual matches, we have the matches form together at a show. At the same time, we want hard, realistic, and memorable wrestling behind our style. We want to give fans a story that is complex and that they can dig into and enjoy. We also wanted to put an emphasis on singles matches, which was us taking that Paul Heyman lesson from way back in the day from the original days of ECW of zigging when everyone else was zagging. We applied that to our style of wrestling.”
After watching Daniel Bryan’s physical decline with concussions and neck injuries, Sapolsky also made the decision that, even if it hurt business, Evolve would not feature a style of wrestling that led to head injuries. The company’s matches instead feature mat-based grappling and physicality.
“I don’t want anyone’s career to end with us,” said Sapolsky. “I want wrestlers to have their careers grow with us, and to go on and make a lot more money. The Daniel Bryan situation is significant because the WWE is going to be more aware of concussion and neck issues. People aren’t going to get signed with those issues.
“A lot of the real dangerous stuff is overdone and doesn’t have the same impact it once had. People want good, solid wrestling, good stories, good characters, and everything to mean something.”
Sapolsky’s twenty-three years of experience in the business provide him with confidence and conviction in his decisions. He knows the business, and his ability to elevate talent and keep them safe ultimately caught the eye of the conglomerate known as the WWE.
“The WWE has really changed its mindset toward the indies and independent wrestling talents, and that’s led by Triple H,” said Sapolsky. “A big part of that is NXT, which has opened up a lot of doors through its success. NXT is very cutting edge, and it’s really securing the future of WWE.”
Sapolsky’s track record of talent who transitioned from Ring of Honor to WWE is unparalleled. He booked Rollins, Owens, Zayn, Punk, Bryan, as well as newer talent from Evolve like Luke Harper, Kalisto, and Apollo Crews.
“Dean Ambrose is the big one,” said Sapolsky. “He didn’t come from ROH, he came from us. A lot had to do with our track record, and they scouted our events and they liked our style of wrestling. We have made a shift in our style of wrestling to a more mat-based, grappling, catch style of wrestling, and people at WWE really enjoyed it. That’s the style they’re looking to feature, so it helped that we have tight shows. The Evolve shows are all substance. There are no wasted matches, and everything means something. They enjoyed the style of our shows, and you couple that with the track record that’s been built for the last twenty-three years, and that’s where the connection was made.”
Sapolsky has performed nearly every backstage job in the business. He put flyers in parking lots, set up rings, cleaned buildings after shows, and answered phones. He has also helped startup independent wrestling companies succeed on three separate occasions, which is an extremely difficult accomplishment.
“This is far from an overnight success, but fortunately, it paid off,” said Sapolsky. “I learned everything from Paul Heyman in ECW, and then Ring of Honor was created from the lessons learned from ECW. The next step was Dragon USA, and then Evolve. Fortunately, WWE is very progressive now in terms of how they look at the independents. They recognize everything we’ve done, and respect what I’ve done in my career, and started this relationship with us. That’s really taken us to the next level.
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“I also made some shifts in my personal life. If I approached things with Evolve the way I did with Ring of Honor, I would be burnt out. A year after I left Ring of Honor, my son was born. Now my life is taking care of my son, and I have found balance in my life. Taking care of my six-year-old son keeps me fresh and motivated for wrestling.”
Sapolsky is in the midst of creating a shift in the business. Wrestling fans desperately want to be challenged creatively and intellectually, and that is Sapolsky’s top priority.
“People don’t want a stunt show any more, they want to feel good and enjoy watching,” said Sapolsky. “This is the next evolution of the business, and we’re at the forefront of it right now. We’re all on this roller coaster ride together.
“Most importantly, it’s exciting for the fans–when you watch us, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. We’re all going to find out together, and it’s most likely to be mind-blowing, just like every single development that has happened so far.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.