Chad “Gunner” Lail appeared in the biggest pay-per-view match of his pro-wrestling career.
Doing so on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks made the moment even more special.
Like fellow Impact Wrestling grapplers Jesse Neal and Tommy “Crimson” Mercer, Lail is a proud U.S. military veteran who is looked forward to performing on Sunday night’s No Surrender show emanating from Orlando, Fla.
“This isn’t just a big deal for me, but my friends who served with me, too,” said Lail, who faced Robert Roode in one of the marquee bouts.
“Unfortunately, some of those guys didn’t make it home. This is a really good opportunity for guys like Jesse, Crimson and the company in general to show our patriotism.”
Lail can remember the exact moment when he learned about the 2001 attacks.
“I had just finished working the third shift at a grocery story (in Hickory, N.C.) when my grandmother woke me and told me one of the (Twin Towers) had fallen,” Lail said. “I turned on the television and saw that the second tower had just gotten hit hard.”
By that point, a 19-year-old Lail was already in the process of joining the U.S. Marines as well as training to become a pro wrestler. He served a four-year military stint that included deployment in Europe and Kuwait followed by four years of inactive duty.
“Going through the Marine Corps boot camp was a big confidence-builder for me,” the 1.87-metre, 113-kg (6-foot-2, 250-pound) Lail said. “You get screamed at, broken down and turned into a Marine over 13 weeks. This showed me that if you set your mind to something, you can do it.”
Lail took the same determined approach toward his pro-wrestling career. While stationed at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, Lail would use his weekend off-time to perform for independent promotions in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Those appearances further whet Lail’s appetite to pursue a full-time grappling career when active duty ended.
“It was something I’d wanted to do since I was five years old,” said Lail, who remembers watching wrestling with his father throughout his childhood. “I also knew I had to give everything to this. There are times I’ve missed reunions and birthday parties. I’ve had to sacrifice, but my family understood.”
Those sacrifices began paying dividends in 2007 when he landed on the radar of Impact Wrestling management. At the time, Lail was building a name for himself on the independent circuit under the name “Universal Soldier” Phil Shatter.
Lail later began working for Impact (then known as TNA Wrestling) as an unnamed “security guard” who would help break up grappler melees on television tapings and pay-per-views in Orlando. Lail made the same biweekly 1,200-mile round-trip drive from Winston-Salem, N.C., for 1-1/2 years before finally landing on Impact’s main talent roster in June 2010.
“I think I showed them by driving down that this is what I wanted to do for a living,” Lail said. “I’m not complaining. I’m just happy I got the opportunity.”
Before debuting in the Impact ring, Lail and fellow security-guard-turned-wrestler Mikael “Murphy” Judas were given the choice of several new stage names by lead scriptwriter Vince Russo.
“(Judas) grabbed ‘Murphy’ and I snagged ‘Gunner,’ “ said Lail, who still works some independent dates as Phil Shatter.
Lail has steadily moved up the Impact ranks. He has held the Impact television title and scored pinfall victories over headliners Steve “Sting” Borden and Mr. Ken Anderson.
Lail said working with Impact’s top talent has helped him grow as a performer.
“The psychology part of pro wrestling is huge,” Lail said. “You’ve got to put together a match that tells a story in the ring and keeps the fans wanting to see it. From being around guys like A.J. (Styles), Ken and Hulk Hogan, I can already see a big difference. These guys have shared knowledge that I couldn’t get in six or seven months with the independent (companies).”
Lail said he hoped he can put those lessons to good use at No Surrender with a performance dedicated to the 9/11 victims.
“The hard work is paying off,” he said. “I’m living my dream.”
Alex Marvez takes a ringside look at the latest in professional wrestling in LIFE on Thursday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.