Take one look at the wrestler known as Gunner, and you might run away in fear. Ripped to the gills without an ounce of fat on him, covered in tattoos including a monstrous back piece and beard that looks like it were made from chain mail, Gunner’s picture might as well be next to the word scary.
But, get him on the phone, and you’ll find out that the former Marine lance corporal and current TNA Wrestling star, is just like every other wrestling fan out there. Well, if every other wrestling fan looked like a viking warrior. Seriously.
We recently spoke with Gunner about TNA Wrestling’s upcoming outdoor show at FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood, N.J., on June 29 as well as dream opponents, beards, tattoos, heavy metal and pro wrestling as live theater.
Gunner: I started wrestling, which is something I had wanted to do since I was five or six, in 2001 before I joined the Marine Corps. I was in the Marine Corps from 2002-06 and I was traveling back and forth every weekend that I could to independent shows two or three times a weekend. It was something than when I got, I wanted to do full-time.
PB: Do you think you’re experience in the Marines helped you as a wrestler?
Gunner: My father instilled in me when I was a kid to work hard to get what you want. The Marine Corps taught me that “go get it” attitude, especially in boot camp. It wasn’t easy, 13 weeks of brutal training, both mental and physical activities. It taught you never to give up, because you really can’t give up in boot camp or they would kick you out. That wasn’t an option.
PB: Speaking of your dad, did your he get you into wrestling?
Gunner: It was something when I grew up we’d watch together. Me, him and my mom watched it together, but it’s something me and him got into more. He took me to the events when I was kid, so yeah, he did get me into it.
PB: Your dad was involved with your angle on television with “Cowboy” James Storm. How was it having your dad work with you and how did he feel about being on TV?
Gunner: It was cool. I mean. James did hit him in the head with a beer bottle. [laughs] As far as being able to have my father there and experience what I do for a living, something he always supported me doing since I was a kid, was really cool. He was really cool being on TV and doing what they needed him to do. He had a blast. He thought it was cool meeting some of the guys we grew up watching ike Bully Ray and guys like that. He still loves wrestling and still watches me every Thursday night.
PB: When you started in TNA, you debuted as a security guard with Murphy which soon became a tag team. Now, you’ve been there for about three-four years, do you feel you’re career since your debut has gone the way you had hoped or did it taken any unexpected turns. Also, are you happy with where you are in TNA right now?
Gunner: I’m very thankful first of all for where I am in my career and my ultimate goal, of course, is to be a World Champion. Even four years ago with the security thing with Murphy, I feel I’ve evolved a lot. With TV wrestling is a lot different than the indies because there’s a lot of factors you have to take into consideration like: timing, camera positioning, the audience at home. I’ve come a long way and that’s due to the guys I’ve been in the ring with like AJ Styles, Ken Anderson, Sting and all these guys who’ve been around and know what they’re doing. I’m happy where I am now but I know I have more to learn. I’m only 32, so hopefully I have another 10 years in me if my body holds up, being the world champ is what I want to be. But, being the world champion has a lot of responsibilities. You’ve got to out there and put on the main event match they expect of you. You gotta cut those main event promos, which I’m still learning how to do. There’s nothing but bright things ahead of me, so I’m going to take it as it is, I just signed a three-year extension with TNA so they believe in me and I believe in myself as well.
PB: Who have you learned from the most in TNA, in-ring wise?
Gunner: That’s hard to pick just one guy. I’ve worked with AJ when he was there. I can name 15 different guys, but the most in the ring is AJ. But, I travel with Ken Anderson a lot. We travel together on house shows and live events. To me learning doesn’t just come inside the ring, it comes from traveling to towns and talking about what goes in the ring, in terms of character. Ken’s really helped me a lot because he’s really good when it comes to acting and promos. His outlook on wrestling is the same as mine. I attribute my learning to those two guys.
PB: Speaking of AJ Styles, there have been a lot of changes within TNA. He and a lot of mainstays are no longer there. Now, you’re solid, having re-signed for three years, but when all these guys starting leaving the company was this a point of worry or did you see it as a great opportunity.
Gunner: Honestly, you hate to see those guys leave. Guys like AJ, Frankie Kazarian, Chris Daniels those guy are all gone and they’re good friends of mine. But honestly you’ve got to look at pro wrestling being that we’re all expendable. Sometimes you go on … AJ’s doing great in Japan, Frankie and Chris are doing stuff with Ring of Honor. But you gotta think that this is an opportunity and you can step up. I look at it as an opportunity. I know AJ and those guys would see it the same way. I still talk to them now and they still wish me luck and ask how things are going, but I look at it like this — if one guy’s door closes another opens for a guy like me.
PB: There’s been a lot of reports of the future being pretty dim for TNA. Do you see that or do you see a bright future for the company?
Gunner: I don’t say this because I work there, but because I believe in the company. I think the keyboard warriors have been saying that since day one that “we’re in trouble.” I don’t see it, but I don’t handle the behind the scenes stuff either. The morale is up and we all go out there and work hard. There’s critics for everything. Our ratings stay the same, our SpikeTV deal is still there, so as far as that, we’re still young. All companies start somewhere and we’ll keep progressing.
PB: This interview is coming in advance of your show at FirstEnergy Park in New Jersey. One thing that I’ve always wondered about as a long-time wrestling fan is this: is wrestling outdoors that much more of a different experience than wrestling inside. Do you have to work differently from both an in-ring stand point and from working with the crowd? I mean a stadium is such a huge, cavernous space.
Gunner: It’s totally different. You don’t have the acoustics of a closed-in arena, so that’s not there. And some of these stadiums don’t let Impact Wrestling set up chairs around ringside, which is understandable because you don’t want to tear up the field. It’s very hard at times because the ring is in front of home plate and the crowd feels like they’re 100 yards a way. I mean they’re probably only 30 but it’s still hard to interact with them. Outdoor shows unless you have 80,000 people, you don’t really hear the roar of the crowd.
PB: Is that a challenge that you look forward to?
Gunner: I look forward to those challenges. Sometimes an opening match happens and the crowd is ‘eh’ but you don’t let that distract you from going out there and performing. We just had one recently in Maryland where the crowd wasn’t all that great but me and EC3 had a match and he and Spud were vocal with the crowd. All these crowds want is that bad guy to antagonize them so they feel like they’re involved. And that’s what Spud, EC3 or whoever is the bad guy is supposed to do — interact with the crowd. I like a challenge that.
PB: There’s a school of thought out there put out there by wrestlers and fans a like that professional wrestling is live theater. Do you agree with that?
Gunner: Absolutely. Me and Ken talk about that all time. We’re professional athletes but we’re doing live theater, a live movie and if you mess up on live TV there’s no do over, you gotta go with the flow. There’s no cut scene let’s re-do it. I absolutely think it’s theater because we’re portraying characters in a live action movie.
PB: Why should people come out to see TNA in Lakewood next weekend? We’re kind of spoiled in the Northeast by having so much wrestling every single week, so why should people come check out TNA?
Gunner: I think it’s the fact that we give the crowd a 110% but also there’s interaction. When I was a kid I wanted to meet the wrestlers and that didn’t happen very often. With Impact Wrestling , something we pride ourselves on at live events is doing meet and greets. Before the show and intermission, adults can bring their kids and take pictures with us and ask questions. We two different meet and greets at a show so if you don’t get to meet one person, you’ll probably meet someone come intermission. I don’t ever mind taking pictures or answering questions. I try to keep up with my fans on Twitter and Facebook. For me, as a fan, if I had the opportunity to buy a ticket for a company like Impact Wrestling, get to meet the wrestlers, take a picture, get an autograph and have a conversation with them, my dad would’ve been right on top of that. It’s a really good sale point that makes us different.
PB: One thing you’re known for is your ink. I mean it’s some of the most intense ink in wrestling today, particularly your massive back piece. Can you talk about what was running through your head when you decided to get your back inked like that?
Gunner: I originally started the center piece skull in 2005 when I was in the Marine Corps. When I got out I started talking to my tattoo artist who is out of Asheville, North Carolina named Marty O’Bell. We were like “let’s add some stuff to it” and then I told him to map my whole back out. We’re not done with it yet. I want to add some reds and blues and some color here and there. I don’t know what was really going through my mind. I was really into tattoos when I was a kid but I never thought I would get sleeved out. But once I got one, it became an addiction of mine. We just sat down one day, it was about eight hours, and it was the most pain I ever felt in my life. I definitely am in love with tattoos. I had no idea going into it, so I let him mess around.
PB: Is there one that has a personal message that you hold really close to your heart?
Gunner: Me and the guy who trained me and another guy I traveled with on the indies when I broke in 2001, we all got tattoos. It’s a cross with three skulls, like the Guns N’ Roses cross. We put the initials in the middle of it and we ran with it like a little faction on the independents. It was our brotherhood. The guy who trained me is one of my best friends and like a father figure to me in professional wrestling. One day we decided to get the same tattoo and carry it around with us.
PB: Let’s do some fantasy booking. If you could book yourself in a match with any wrestler, currently wrestling today, regardless of the company they work for, who would it be?
Gunner: Kurt Angle. I have yet to wrestle Kurt Angle. Well, we were in the ring together for 30 seconds in a six-man tag one time. He was one I watched while I was in the Marine Corps and I pray I get to work with before he retires.
PB: Nice, there was literally no hesitation on that one. Now let’s go back through history. Who’s a guy, an all-time great, who you grew up idolizing you would want to wrestle?
Gunner: Alive or dead?
PB: Doesn’t matter, I can bring them back to life.
Gunner: [laughs] Well as long as you can do that. Well, then it’d definitely be Macho Man. I grew up watching him and I still watch today. He was way ahead of his time, so much charisma. If you talking about someone who’s still alive — The Undertaker. I respect him greatly and if you’re in the pro wrestling business and don’t respect him, there’s something wrong with you.
PB: Finally, TNA has added a ton of new names to the roster. So who is one new guy you want to work with?
Gunner: I think Bram, man, the guy running with Magnus. A lot of fans are saying they’d like to see me and Bram work with each other. I really enjoy his work, he’s intense, looks like he knows what he’s doing and he’s hungry. I think we’ll get in the ring before long.
PB: Now, I must say, as the owner of a beard, you might be the purveyor of one of the best bears to there.
Gunner: [laughs] I had to shave it off.
PB: God, Gunner, you’re killing me!
Gunner: It wasn’t my call! The creative team asked me to change up my look a little, so I said, ‘okay, okay I’ll take it off.’ I still have a goatee. They wanted me to go clean shaven, but I was like “Ehhhh … I don’t know guys.’ The beard will be back one day.
PB: Alright, while that is disappointing, who do you think has the best beard in pro wrestling today.
Gunner: EY’s [TNA Champion, Eric Young] is pretty intense. It’s well-rounded. I always preach about the modern day viking and he really seems like it. He looks like a true biker as well. He’s the one who got me thinking about growing mine out to see how it looked.
PB: His is perfectly coifed though.
Gunner: Yeah, it’s like a pillow or something.
PB: I feel like if I threw a quarter at it, it would either bounce off or get lost in there.
Gunner: I’m telling you, it’s perfect man.
PB: Are there still plans for you to team with Samuel Shaw?
Gunner: Not sure about the whole teaming thing right now. They’ve got me mentoring him right now. So I’m curious to see where the storyline goes. But, he’s a guy who has worked their tale off and I respect a lot. He’s logged the miles on the indies and whether we feud or team I’m looking forward to seeing what happens. He’s a good guy, a good hand.
PB: You’re super into metal. If money isn’t an object, who would you want TNA to go out and get to record your theme music?
Gunner: Man, I’m good friends and in with these guys and I hope it can become a reality, I’m good friends with Sevendust. I’m hoping TNA lets me work with them one day.
PB: What’s the great thing working with TNA has done for you?
Gunner: Getting a chance to travel overseas. I got to go to Mexico and work with AAA. I had the chance to go to the U.K. especially in May when I did the media. It was basically like a vacation. I got to hang with a lot of cool people. TNA ha given me the opportunity to travel and do what I love to do. It’s not a job because I’m doing what I love and it gives me forum to spread a lot of different messages. I’m doing some anti-bullying stuff and Wounded Warrior Project stuff.
TNA will be at FirstEnergy Park, home of the Lakewood BlueClaws, in Lakewood, N.J., on Sunday, June 29. For tickets, click here.
Bill Bodkin is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Pop-Break. He can be read weekly on Trailer Tuesday and Singles Party, weekly reviews on Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Hannibal, Law & Order: SVU and regular contributions throughout the week with reviews and interviews. His goal is to write 500 stories this year. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English and currently works in the world of political polling. He’s the reason there’s so much wrestling on the site and is beyond excited to be a Dad this coming December. Follow him on Twitter: @PopBreakDotCom