The first half of 2014 could not have gone much better for TNA Wrestling’s breakout star. From undertaking the biggest match of his career in Manchester in late January, to being a part of one of the most extreme and fearsome feuds in the company’s history; over the course of the last six months, everybody associated to the TNA Wrestling franchise is talking about Gunner.
While the 31-year-old may have missed out on the World Heavyweight Championship during the second leg of TNA’s 2014 UK Tour, he has reaped the benefits of his instant connection with the British fans.
Without exception, the entirety of Manchester Arena howled with despair that night, when the intervention of Gunner’s former tag team partner James Storm, cost him victory over defending title holder Magnus. And since returning home to the U.S., the so-called Modern Day Viking has only continued to enhance is ever-growing reputation.
It is impossible to feel anything other than respect for a man who epitomizes his characters never say die attitude. A former member of the U.S. Marine Corps, as well as a World Tag Team Champion and Television Champion during his time with TNA, the World Heavyweight Title is the stand-out accolade that Gunner is still chasing.
“I’ve always wanted to be a World Champion,” said Gunner. “I’ve always wanted to be thought of a guy that could perform and deliver. Between now and Bound for Glory, or whenever I get my opportunity, being a World Champion is the goal.”
Bound for Glory will take place in October, and will be the fourth and final pay-per-view on the 2014 TNA calendar. It follows the recently aired Lockdown and Sacrifice, and the upcoming Slammiversary – which takes place on the 15th June.
Gunner received his maiden shot at the World Title came during the 2014 UK Tour, when he cashed in his Feast or Fired briefcase, only to be defeated by Magnus. Having recently been named as one of the wrestlers who will definitely be competing in the 2015 edition of the tour, he hopes that the next time he visits Britain he can do so as World Champion.
“I love coming to England, I love wrestling here, it’s my favourite place in the world because the people treat us like rock-stars. The fans are always energetic and they always give us 100% - they’re loud, they’re into the stories, they’re into the characters.
“I always tell people, if you give me 100%, I’ll give you 110%. I go out there every night, and I try and break the ring every time I hit it. And I think that in 2015 they can expect me to be ten times better than I was this year, and hopefully I may even be a World Champion by then.”
One man that may be standing in Gunner’s way is one of TNA’s longest serving veterans. A perennially popular figure who despite his recent heel turn is still favoured by a percentage of the U.S. fans. That man is the Cowboy, James Storm.
After losing their World Tag Team titles to the Bro Mans in October 2012, the pair began to show signs of discontent in each other’s company. Storm reacted angrily to Gunner throwing in the towel during his match with Bobby Roode, when he was about to be hurled onto a board of barbed wire.
Upset by Storm’s reaction, Gunner put their friendship aside during the Feast or Fired match, climbing over the Cowboy to win the briefcase that proved to contain a World Title shot.
The pair briefly reconciled before Storm turned heel, hitting Gunner with the Last Call Super Kick as he prepared to pin Magnus in Manchester. A multitude of matches have followed between the two, including two brutal pay-per-view events – a steel cage match at Lockdown, and an ‘I Quit’ match at Sacrifice, with Gunner the victor on both occasions.
“It’s something that they [TNA] put a lot of time into,” Gunner revealed. “I’ve been very proud: it’s been the biggest storyline or feud I’ve been a part of thus far. It’s been a great feud and I’m very proud of what we’ve done."
During the fallout from Lockdown, Gunner’s real-life father – Rick Lail – also got involved in the action, with Storm hauling him over the crowd barriers to ringside, and hitting him over the head with a beer bottle. Gunner explained why the TNA writers chose to get Lail involved: “It’s something they’ve wanted for some time now – to get my father down to a show and get him involved a little bit.
“He’s a big part of my life; I grew up watching wrestling with my father so it meant a lot to me for him to be there,” he added. “Things just kind of escalated from there. James kind of took it a little too far with the beer bottle shot. He’s okay now, but I don’t know if he’ll come back to a show anytime soon!”
Gunner went onto admit that while he and Storm might not always see eye to eye, he has nothing but respect for the man that helped him make his name within TNA.
“Obviously we have our differences, we don’t really like each other,” he acknowledged ruefully. “But James knows what he’s doing inside the ring. He can fight, he likes to tell a story, and give it everything every time we go out there.
“We had a blast being a tag team, but I think when it’s all said and done we both want to be remembered as singles guys, and obviously singles World Champions.
“I think I’m ready for a new challenge. I am looking forward to some new stuff; I always enjoy wrestling different guys and getting involved with new story lines. But I’m sure James isn’t going to disappear anytime soon.
“The Bound for Glory Series is coming up, and all the singles guys are going to be wrestling for a shot at the World Title. I can still see me and him having to confront each other once again.”
TNA has been making rapid changes both on and off screen of late. Several high-profile departures have confirmed the belief of many that the company has chosen to embrace its younger stars and build for the future, rather than press on with several of its veterans.
Last month, Gunner put pen to paper on a new multi-year contract, and now looks set to be one of the cornerstones that TNA will build their latest era of the company around.
“It was a very easy decision,” he said of his contract signing. “I enjoy Impact Wrestling, I’m happy with my job. I don’t wake up every morning hating having to fly to do a show. Everyone that I work with is respectful, it’s one big family. We take care of each other, we all have one big goal in mind and that’s to give the best product that we can, and that’s the kind of company that I want to be a part of. I don’t ask to be rich; I just ask to be happy. I want to enjoy my job, and I do.
“I was really happy with my contract offer. I don’t think the company’s struggling by any means – they’ve been saying that about TNA since it first started, and we’ve been around for almost 13 years now. The internet’s going to say what they want, they say it about other companies, they say it about actors, and they say it about everybody. There is a lot of pressure to keep performing and delivering, but I think they’re finally giving me my chance, and I’m going to grab it.”
Many comparisons can be drawn between Gunner, and current TNA World Champion Eric Young. Both are extremely popular with the fans, both are fighting wrestlers who only wish to win by legitimate means, and both had to fight hard to get where they are today.
“He can do anything and everything in the ring, he can wrestle anybody. He’s very much underrated,” Gunner said of Young. “Not only that, he’s got his own TV show, so you know he can entertain people.
“The fans love this guy, and he’s been around since practically day one – he and Bobby Roode started together 10 years ago, and I think it’s great that they’ve given him the opportunity to be champion. I don’t know how long he’ll have it, but he can carry it, and you know he can go out there and wrestle anyone from Kurt Angle, to Ken Anderson, to James Storm.”
Gunner made his name on the Independent Wrestling Circuit, competing at weekends while also serving with the Marine Corps – touring Iraq in 2005. After starting out as a pro wrestler in 2001, it took him almost a decade to earn his first contract with TNA – a journey that he firmly believes he would not change in any way.
“I can’t think of one thing that I would want to change. I feel like everything that I’ve done as happened for a reason, and got me where I am now,” he said passionately. “I know that I can lay my head on my pillow at night and know that I worked hard for everything that I have.
“During the time I was in the Marine Corps, I was travelling back and forth about 15-20 hour round trips to wrestle as well at the weekends. I think my time with the Marines taught me discipline, it taught me that if you want something you’ve got to work hard for it.
“Boot camp for the Marine Corps was like 13 weeks of living hell – it was hot, you were hiking with 50-60 pounds on your back, you were tired and you were beaten and you were broken. But in the end, I didn’t want to quit because I wanted to be the best. I’m glad I did it, I served my country, I met cool people, saw cool places, I came home alive, and I think it’s very honourable to do what I did.
“For us, in our military, the marines are the best, they’re the elite. In wrestling there were many years where I lived pay check to pay check, I was broke, I was miserable, I never would have quit but sometimes you were like: ‘what am I doing’. The Marine Corps taught me to just keep going.”
And Gunner believes that it is that attitude, and those values, which he has carried into his wrestling: “It goes along with my character, and how I portray myself on TV – the Gunner character would never say quit. I think that is what wrestling is now – it is you as a person amplified. That’s what people want to see, the real you.”
Gunner has poured his heart and soul into everything that he has done in life, and has deservedly been rewarded for his many years of hard work. He admitted that, after all he has done, it can still be frustrating when people continue to question the legitimacy of what he does for a living.
“A lot of people still think it’s ketchup on my face rather than bleeding and that’s pretty ridiculous,” he said with a wry smile. “I’ve had that since I was a kid. I had friends who would pick on me because I watched the quote unquote fake pro wrestling. And I always stuck up for it – they’ve got me and Storm hitting each other with steel chairs and suplexing each other onto guard rails… you can’t fake that stuff.
“It is tough, during the UK Tour we would leave an arena and be on a bus for four hours or so, get to the hotel at 3 or 4 am, I would sleep till about 9 am probably, work out – which includes having to get up and eat, train and do cardio, and then be at the next arena by 12 or 1 pm. So all of us were running on fumes, the last night I think my fuel was a bottle of wine!
“It’s a physical form of entertainment, and it is entertainment, but the beating in the ring and everything we do is real. You’ve got guys that have broken their necks, we all have back and neck problems, I’m not complaining because I chose this job, but a lot of people don’t respect what we do, and until they get in here and hit the ring and feel what we feel, they never will.”
Despite everything that he has already been through, Gunner is already planning for life after pro-wrestling, and is determined to ensure is next career step is a good one.
“Obviously you’ve got to take care of your body, but you’ve still got to entertain the people because they’re the ones that buy the tickets. I’m trying to dabble in acting and stuff like that too. I’m looking at a back-up plan, because not everyone is going to last as long as Kurt Angle on Ric Flair, guys like that. I’m 31; I’d like to be able to do it until I was at least 45 if my body holds up. But I want to have kids one day, and I want to enjoy being able to play with them too.
“I’ve been doing a lot of auditions for action roles and stuff like that. Acting is a hard business to get into as well, but if you can get your foot in the door, get small roles, kind of like The Rock started out – he started off with small roles and look at him now, he’s one of the biggest box office hits there is.”
Gunner cut a striking figure, as he confidently handled his media obligations during a promotional trip to Britain, a country that he very much enjoys travelling too, despite his difficulties in finding adequately sized steaks to eat.
He is a man who can justifiably hold his head high – he is in the prime of an exciting career, and his best moments within TNA are surely still to come.
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