Now chasing the world heavyweight championship in All Elite Wrestling, Stephen “Swerve” Strickland has great form when it comes to winning titles. The 6’ 1” man-mountain from Tacoma, WA, is a former NXT North American Champion and AEW Tag Team Champion, and, if he can take the crown from Samoa Joe at the AEW Dynasty 2024 pay-per-view on Sunday, April 21, this 33-year-old warrior will become the first black kingpin in the company, an achievement that is very important to the inspiring pro wrestler and rapper. M&F sat down with Strickland for a wide-ranging conversation, and we soon found out that his military training might be a deciding factor in the hotly anticipated heavyweight clash.

AEW Swerve Strickland wearing a leather duster inside the wrestling ring

Spending the majority of the first seven years of his life on an American military base in Frankfurt, Germany, where his father, a sergeant first class, was stationed, Strickland became enamored with the idea of service. While the family did return to the United States, and Strickland picked up a love of dance while also excelling in football, basketball, and track and field, the young prodigy soon followed in his dad’s footsteps. He entered the US Army Reserve at 17 and after completing basic training, developed himself even further, undergoing 22 weeks of Advanced Individual Training. Strickland served as a 25U Signal Support Systems Specialist for eight years, but the intestinal fortitude required to complete this type of training would undoubtedly become a great foundation for a career between the ropes.

“Mainly, it was a lot of endurance,” shares Strickland. “It was rucksack marches, going for nine miles and stuff. That was actually really taxing on the back.” The young upstart mastered his posture and form, and was soon blitzing across the field. Morning wakeup calls were 4am, and training began 4.30am. “All of that is mentally exhausting before it even gets to the physical (exercise)” he says. “I always made sure my strength came from my core and my thighs.” The soldier-turned-grappler says that deadlifts have always been an important aspect of his conditioning. At the peak of his lifting, Strickland explains that he could deadlift 425 pounds (193 kilograms) at a bodyweight of just 180 pounds (82 kilograms).

Incredibly, Swerve Strickland trained to become a pro wrestler early into his military career and was forced to keep his matches local to maintain his army reserve commitments. After leaving service and furthering his name on the independent wrestling scene, he appeared in Lucha Underground, Major League Wrestling, and countless other promotions until he signed with WWE in 2019. It was there that he held the NXT North American title for 105 days, but would soon be released from the company much to the disappointment of fans and wrestling critics alike. Stronger than ever, the powerhouse tells M&F that around this time, he was hitting deadlifts of 615 pounds (279 kilograms) while still weighing less than 200 pounds (91 kilograms).

Swerve Strickland Believes in a ‘No Excuses’ Mentality

Fortunately, after the disappointment of exiting WWE, Swerve’s spirit stayed the course and he held on to his dream of being a world class pro wrestling superstar. “Without the mental training (in the army), I don’t think I would have lasted, or I would have quit,” he shares. “I don’t think I would have had a consistent career in pro wrestling.” The wrestler explains that his military training meant that he was also able to stay mentally strong enough to sacrifice sleep when his daughter was born, and still chase his dreams, putting in the hard work required in order to move forward. “You don’t get excuses in the military, so you don’t get excuses in life,” explains Strickland. “It’s not gonna be fair, nobody’s gonna hand you anything, you are going to have to work hard, and you are going to have to block out a lot of negativity, a lot of doubt, and push through.”

Post WWE, Swerve Strickland competed in New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 2022, and signed with All Elite Wrestling that same year. Within months Strickland had earned gold once again by winning the AEW tag-team belt alongside Keith Lee, but it would be a brutal Texas Death Match against “Hangman” Adam Page that really put the grappler on the map. A bloodbath, the matches ruleless barbarity divided viewers, but it was praised with a five-star rating by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, and served to show that Strickland was a man who could hold his own in big-time bouts.

“That was the moment to go above and beyond,” he explains of the gutsy performance. “It’s that chokehold you wanna have on this industry.” The momentum earned during that match has helped drive Strickland to his current position as number one contender for the AEW title against Samoa Joe. But beating Joe at AEW Dynasty 2024 is not just about earning a title for himself, but more so about becoming AEW’s first black champion and providing some representation.

“I called it out on a promo,” says Strickland of voicing that desire. “I put awareness to it, not in a slight to anybody, it wasn’t to get back at someone, it wasn’t to slight Tony Khan, it wasn’t to slight AEW, or call out an issue. No, it was to put out that these are my dreams and aspirations, this is my motive, this is what I carry, this is what anybody who is from a different culture or a minority in any way, we all carry that. I have no problems with going out any saying it, because it’s true. No one (else) can speak my own truth. I want the responsibility to carry that on and make my in-print. Shout out to the other people that are doing it. I recognize you too, and I want you to know that I’m supportive of you guys too.

Of course, Swerve Strickland has fans of all colors and creeds. Already one of AEW most popular superstars, the No. 1 contender says that he lives by the words he once received from John Cena when he asked the icon how to become one of the best in the game. The answer? “One fan at a time,” responded the mentor. AEW Dynasty will be broadcast live on April 21, 2024.

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