While on a path that he hoped would lead to wrestling stardom, Chad Lail’s journey took a four-year long detour when he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps during the Iraq War. The decision forced Lail to scale back on wrestling and shift his focus to the real-life dangers of serving his country.
As a Marine, Lail’s duties included being a truck driver and machine gunner while enduring deployments to countries in Europe and the Middle East. Lail, going by the name Phil Shatter, still wrestled on the independent circuit when he wasn’t deployed or undergoing 14 grueling weeks of boot camp on Parris Island. Even though it cost him years of development, Lail has no regrets
“I don’t regret serving my country at all,” said Lail. “It got me out of my hometown (Hickory, NC), it was 2001 when I decided to join so I was right out of high school. I didn’t know what to do or where to start or how to go about being a professional wrestler. So I decided to join the Marine Corps and it got me out of my hometown and let me see the world and let me realize there’s a lot more to this thing (life). So I don’t regret it at all.”
However, that doesn’t mean Lail hasn’t thought about how differently his career would’ve turned out. The 33-year-old native of Hickory, North Carolina, believes he potentially would’ve been in the same class of some of WWE’s current stars.
“I would’ve probably gotten signed quicker, I would like to think so. But being in the Marine Corps from 2002-2006, that kinda hinders me for about four years.
“I definitely think I would’ve been signed quicker, maybe like OVW or something like that. It would’ve been awesome to be in the same class as Ken Anderson, Batista, and Randy Orton.”
When he was finished with the Marines, Lail returned to wrestling full-time, at which point he began experimenting with several characters. Implementing a “loose cannon” vibe into his character, similar to Brian Pillman, something Lail envisioned would work best for him. Changing his moniker to “Universal Soldier” Phil Shatter, Lail became one of the more recognized names on the indies.
It took almost a decade and Lail’s unconventional route to being a superstar got a huge break when he debuted with Total Nonstop Action in 2010. Lail portrayed a TNA security guard for Jeff Jarrett when the former owner of TNA was in the midst of his MMA gimmick. Lail – now known as Gunner — finally got his foot in the door.
“We started in 2008, Terry Taylor actually got us the opportunity, me and Murphy, to come down there, kinda getting seen and get our feet in the door. That’s how we had to do it, we had to do the security for Dixie (Carter), we had to do security for Immortal and then all of sudden, they let us have a match. They thought they could make us a tag team.”
“But you gotta look at how Batista came into WWE, come in wearing a suit and he was Deacon Batista and he’s doing something different,” Lail said. “It doesn’t always go as you planned, but that was my foot in the door. I took it and ran with it, unfortunately, they didn’t really give Murphy an opportunity to show what he could do in the ring but fortunately for me, they did.”
As Gunner, the tattooed, long-haired, and bearded former Marine began carving out a niche for himself in the organization after splitting away from Murphy. Not only did Gunner have the roguish features to set himself apart, he had the physical tools, sporting a chiseled physique and sizable six-foot, two-inch, 250-pound frame.
Not even one year into his stint, Gunner was already TNA Television Champion and in the popular stable known as Immortal alongside the likes of Jeff Jarrett, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, and others. Although the faction was relatively short-lived, Gunner enjoyed his time and the opportunity to be a student of the game.
“As a child, obviously, five years old, (I) was a huge Hogan fan,” said Lail. “Getting a chance to be in Immortal with him and getting the chance to pick his brain as well — he was a lot like Eric (Bischoff) to me, he believed in me a lot. The childhood part of it, standing in the ring with Hogan or get punched by Hogan or stuff like that, it’s really cool. But to say that I stood in the ring with one of my childhood heroes — it don’t matter all the media stuff about what he said or what he did, I steer clear of that — but I don’t have a bad thing to say about him.”
Arguably Gunner’s best time in TNA was his extensive work with TNA original, “The Cowboy” James Storm. Gunner had always been a bad guy (heel) during his run with TNA, but after forming an on-screen alliance with Storm, it was his first foray into being a good guy (face).
Gunner and Storm’s partnership culminated with TNA Tag Team Championship reign that last 140 days. But great friends make better enemies, thus, the only natural progression was for Gunner and Storm to engage in a singles feud.
To say that Gunner and Storm’s feud was personal would be an understatement. It all started as innocent competition as two men fighting for Gunner’s Feast or Fired briefcase. With time, it evolved into personal, bitter attacks as Gunner’s father became one of Storm’s targets and the matches were some of the most physical TNA ever showcased.
“To me it was great, I think that they did a really, really good job of building the story between me and James and the animosity of the story. It wasn’t like one week we were teaming the next week we’re turning against each other, I liked that it was a six-to-seven month feud. But to get to wrestle James, always one of my good buddies and somebody I respected there. Since day one, when I started as security, he was always there as a helping hand, really believed in me and saw that I was driving down to Orlando on my own to try and get my foot in the door.”
“Getting a chance to have these matches with him….some of my favorite matches, a cage match at Lockdown, an I Quit Match, bringing my father in, it’s really cool,” Lail said. “The writers gave us a lot of free will with our characters and our matches. It’s definitely one of my favorite feuds.”
Coming out of that feud, things seemed to be on the upswing for Gunner. He was always featured on the show and it seemed like the main event was the next destination. Why not? After he solidified his place on the TNA roster, Gunner was always near the TNA World Heavyweight Championship, competing for it on several occasions — without actually winning it.
For months, Gunner was relegated to one-off appearances and was rarely seen on TNA television.
In surprising fashion, Gunner was released from TNA in mid-June last year. Gunner took to Twitter to confirm the move, thanking everybody at TNA and adding, “let that new chapter begin, I ain’t worried.” Several months have passed since his departure but Gunner is unclear as to why his first tour of duty with TNA didn’t have a more profound impact.
“I was never given a reason why they wanted to release me. The writers were pretty straightforward about going ‘hey, you need to work on this and you need to do this and this better.’ There were a few times during my run with TNA where some young guys and I, like Sam Shaw and Bram, were given the ball and told to run — like when I wrestled Magnus for the title in Manchester in 2014. They give you that ball, you do nothing wrong and pull off a great match, or storyline, or have a great character and then all of a sudden, they jerk the rug out from under you.”
“I don’t know if I was the flavor of the month one month or somebody else was the flavor of the month the other month,” Lail explained. “I wasn’t sure, I was always told ‘hey, you’re doing the right thing, you’re doing what you’re supposed to do.’ But I felt there was no rhyme or reason to some of the writing or some of the things they did — it was like throwing darts at a dart board. It’s not bashing the company, or bashing the writers, some of those guys down there are my friends and I wish them all the best. But for me personally, it went wrong.”
Looking ahead, Lail isn’t famished for work. He’s a mainstay on the independent circuit once again. Aside from wrestling, Lail has also discovered a passion for acting and is taking on movie roles in addition to wrestling. Navy Seals vs. Zombies was Lail’s first movie last year, and he made the front cover of the DVD. Lail revealed that he met an actor through AJ Styles during their TNA stint together which got him interested in his new endeavor.
But Lail’s main focus is wrestling and in an ideal world, WWE will be his next stop. Numerous media reports, including this one from Ringside News, reported last November that Gunner was backstage at an NXT taping – along with Austin Aries and James Storm. Since then, Aries has signed with WWE and made his NXT debut. Storm competed in a few NXT matches but has since re-signed with TNA.
Lail could be closer to following in Aries’ footsteps than his former arch nemesis’ footsteps as there has been some dialogue between him and WWE. While his age (33) may not be ideal for a WWE newcomer, he isn’t concerned about it holding him back.
“They’re pretty honest with guys,” said Lail. “There’s been buddies of mine who are 35, 36 (years old) that were told ‘absolutely no, you’re at the cutoff age.’ I’m only 33 and if that was the case, I think (William) Regal would’ve told ‘we’re not going to waste our time.’ What I hear is that 35, 36 is the cutoff unless you’re somebody different, unless you’re AJ Styles, who’s a little older. I’m still pretty young, you can probably get another 10 years out of me if my body holds up.”
In a perfect world, Lail would love to tangle with Triple H at Wrestlemania, calling it a dream match. In a realistic world, Gunner sees himself sharing a ring with Randy Orton. But Lail is open to anything, from a lengthy run to NXT to being the fifth member of the Wyatt Family.
The old saying is you “never say never” in the wrestling business. A return to TNA is certainly not impossible for Lail. Maybe even Ring of Honor (ROH), a place where Lail wrestled once in 2010. Jeff Jarrett’s Global Force Wrestling is another possibility, considering their TNA connection. But once again, if Lail has his way, he will be shooting for the top of WWE’s food chain.
“I’d like to see myself in WWE, it’s still a childhood dream of mine. I just want to have that moment, I just want the chance to step in one of their rings and work for one of the greatest companies in the world. Whether it be NXT or the main roster, I definitely see myself in WWE in 2016.”
Audio of the interview is available at this link.
[Featured Photo by Mike Kalasnik/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons]