Originally published on August 25, 2021
Featured image by Earl Gardner
AJ Gray is climbing the top rope.
He’s 470 days away from ending Nick Gage’s near three-year reign as GCW World Champion. It’ll be even longer than that until he helms the For the Culture series of events that exclusively highlight Black wrestlers.
For now, he’s wrestling in the opener of AIW WrestleRager 3 while dressed in a yellow and black jumpsuit reminiscent of Bruce Lee and The Bride from Kill Bill. He soars off the top, nailing a moonsault onto all five of his opponents on the concrete below.
It’s a crazy spot to behold, especially from someone of AJ Gray’s size. The crowd goes wild at the athleticism. This opening six-man scramble has been filled with similar high-flying antics. One can find similar matches on most any independent promotion’s card. Just something fun and flashy to get the crowd going.
Wild as the action might be in the ring, however, there’s nothing like the frenzy of six men putting a scramble together in the back.
“Oh my god. I have nightmares on every time I’ve ever been in a scramble,” says AJ. “If everyone wants to do this crazy, wild, internet-breaking idea, you’re going to go forty-five minutes when you have eight! It’s a headache!”
By the time the process of brainstorming and editing gets finished, the actual match itself is mostly a breeze. With so many moving parts, AJ spends most of the time waiting on the outside for his turn to hit a spot. But as with any wrestling match, things can still get difficult if someone refuses to cooperate.
A few minutes after his spectacular moonsault, AJ breaks up a pin. He nails Ryder Reid with stiff chops but Reid stays standing.
“He’s getting a little weird on the things that we’re doing,” says AJ. “We already talked about it in the back but he’s kind of like shying away. And he’s making me look bad.”
AJ hits Reid with a forearm but it barely registers.
“When something goes wrong and it’s already gotten me to a point, it’s like a white rage.”
AJ grabs his opponent by the ears and headbutts him. The solid thunk of skull on skull comes through loud and clear on the footage despite the open air setting. Both men still woozy from the headbutt, proceed from there. AJ nails a thunderous lariat onto Reid before dropping him with a crucifix powerbomb. The brutality provides the slightest hint of the wrestler AJ Gray would become.
In a match filled with big spills and huge bumps, it’s this small moment of real violence that speaks the clearest.
AJ Gray is built different.
It’s probably for the best that AJ Gray’s initial plans for his in-ring persona never saw the light of day.
“I was going to paint my face and be like Vampiro,” says AJ. “I can’t even speak Spanish but I was going to call myself a Spanish word, it wouldn’t make any sense!”
Fresh off a college football career, AJ Gray began training to become a professional wrestler after being inspired by the likes of Samoa Joe, Nigel McGuinness, Steve Corino, Raven, and Jay Briscoe. Although he enjoyed the wild athletics of the more high-flying wrestlers of the time, it was the brawlers and the heavy hitters that connected with AJ the most.
“If you send them out there in a bar fight, they’d wipe the fucking floor with people.”
As AJ began building his profile through independent bookings, it wasn’t a heavy artillery and stiff strikes that got him noticed at first. Rather, his crazy dives and flips off the top rope were instantly eye catching and helped him sustain regular bookings in promotions like AIW.
“I hear a lot of people cheering now that I’m jumping off the top rope,” says AJ. “I’m like yeah, I’m just going to do this.”
With his deceptive agility drawing eyes, AJ was naturally booked to wrestle in multiple scramble matches early on. The wild multiman matches provided him a platform to showcase his acrobatics. Looking back, however, AJ recognizes that these matches may not have been the ideal setting for a young performer looking to master their craft.
“I personally don’t like [scrambles] because I feel like you’re robbing a lot of kids of their youth and of their primes. Because they’re so athletic but you can mold them into something so much easier if you threw them in there with that veteran who’s been around the block, who knows how to get the best out of everybody.”
In today’s independent scene, AJ Gray cites wrestlers like Tony Deppen, Kyle the Beast, and Chris Dickinson as the kind that can maximize the potential of anyone they’re in the ring with—especially those with less experience. In AJ Gray’s own career, the veteran influence of people like Eddie Kingston, Nick Gage, ACH, 2 Cold Scorpio, Shawn Schultz, and Colin Delaney played similar roles in shaping the wrestler he would become.
“They all would show you how to do something to make it seem bigger than what it really is. But you get so much more mileage out of that than you would doing all these long overconvoluted things.”
“I wish that I could have been in there a lot earlier with someone who’d calm me down, who’d pull the reins back a little bit and show me the smaller things that meant more. Cause that would have saved me two or three years of just keep jumping off of shit just trying to get big, just trying to make a name out there.”
With the help of the veterans around him, AJ soon found that trying to match the abilities and athleticism of other performers was a losing game. His large frame meant that every bump off the top to the floor did far more damage to him than it would to a smaller wrestler. It meant that when he ran the ropes, he blew himself out quicker from carrying more weight than others.
AJ Gray was built different.
“I’m big, I’m strong, I’m a menace of a human being. Why am I fucking running?” says AJ. “It finally clicked. People don’t want to see these overconvoluted bullshits, they want to see good wrestling.”
“They don’t want corny bullshit or just doing shit just to do shit. They give you the golf claps [for that]. What do you want? Do you want the golf claps? Or do you want them going crazy like literally out of their seat for the whole entirety of a match?”
Few things on the independent scene can send a crowd into hysterics quite like AJ Gray’s entrance. Once the first few notes of Waka Flocka Flame’s “O Let’s Do It” start blaring on the speakers, fans know that The Motherfucking Truth is in the building and ready to dole out a beating.
“The only reason I picked the song as my entrance music is cause before my Beyond debut, they’re like, ‘What do you want to use as entrance music, AJ?’ And I’m like, ‘Fuck, I don’t know.’ And I look down at my phone and I see what I’m listening to and it’s that and it’s like, ‘Oh I’m going to use this right here.’”
AJ bursts through the curtain, rapping along to the song, hyping himself up on the way to the ring. Unlike many other wrestlers in the world, AJ doesn’t choreograph much about his entrance. There’s no perfectly timed spin, no extended posing. Rather, he just lets the energy of the song dictate his movement. The music courses through him, driving him onwards.
“Sometimes you got to let things grow on people,” says AJ. “You got to let it be organic.”
AJ’s entrance music isn’t just some surface level addition to his presentation either. It’s an extension of his own personality. Music doesn’t just underscore AJ Gray’s life, it actively shapes it. Endless hours listening to the likes of DMX, Gucci Mane, Decapitated, and more have affected how AJ carries himself, how he views the world, even how he fights in the ring.
“I listen to a lot of abrasive fucking music,” says AJ. “I’m an uppers guy, not a downers guy. I don’t like being fucking mellow all the time. I like being fucking hyper and ready to go cause I never know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if someone’s going to try to stab me or someone’s going to try and shoot me, I don’t know what the fuck’s going to happen in life. So I always want to be on my fucking toes.”
Music helps cut to the core of who AJ Gray is—an aggressive and intense man. It’s in the way he walks and talks. Once he’s between the ropes, it’s in the way he wrestles too. An angry man with violence on the mind doesn’t take the time to learn how to do a perfect flip off the top rope. He tears through his opponents instead.
“I’m noticing, hey, fuck, these motherfuckers love it when I’m fucking angry. I don’t have to change shit. I don’t have to act happy.”
With that kind of honesty, matching the man outside the ring to the performer within, it’s no wonder that they call him The Motherfucking Truth.
AJ Gray’s renewed dedication to authenticity does far more good for his career than conforming to what he imagined promoters wanted. Instead of trying to learn every move in the book, AJ focuses on techniques that express his own personality through the medium of professional wrestling.
“I have more success now by throwing a forearm and just making a mean face than fucking any fucking acrobatic flip I could ever fucking do.”
Focusing his in-ring work in this way not only makes him more efficient, it also helps broaden his appeal to more than just the hardcore wrestling fans. Simplifying his work allows him to translate to everyday people who may not be familiar with pro wrestling. An angry big man nailing his opponent in the face with a forearm taps into simple, universal ideas of hand-to-hand combat much quicker than a Phoenix Splash might.
“They’re feeling it not because you’re a wrestler, they’re feeling cause [they’ve] met somebody in life like that,” says AJ. “You know people like that in real life and you root for them or you jeer them. You know people like that. It’s not cause they’re wrestling, it’s cause of them as a person.”
Achieving that emotional connection with as many people as possible is a key priority for AJ. It’s that emotion that can turn a simple pro wrestling match into a high stakes battle. Whether gold is involved or not, if the connection is there, nothing in the world feels more important.
“Everyone wants hope,” says AJ. “It could be one person in there. You need to give that one singular person that hope that you can pull that son of a bitch out until the very fucking end.”
For AJ Gray, creating that sense of hope in the crowd should be a key priority for any wrestler, no
matter their place on the card or even their face and heel alignment.
“Don’t die in the ring. Make your opponent kill you,” explains AJ. “Cause if you die out there, no one’s ever going to get behind that. But if you make your opponent kill you, they’re going treat you as a folk fucking hero.”
In a recent match with Bryan Keith, AJ Gray put that philosophy into practice. Both men drew on their love for Japanese wrestling in this match to create a brutal fight filled with stiff strikes, power moves, and above all, great selling. When AJ hits Keith with a big chop, one can see Keith grit his teeth on screen and fight to regain his bearing before striking back.
“I just think wrestling like that has a real fight feel to it,” says AJ.
Neither man refuses to die in this match. At one point, AJ is slumped in the corner as Keith casually kicks him in the face. To die would be to sit there and let Keith have his way. Instead, AJ rushes back to his feet and drops Keith with a brutal shot.
“Everybody thought I reared back and punched him in his jaw,” he says. “It was a forearm, it was just a simple forearm. He sold it like a fucking million bucks.”
Late in the match, it’s Keith that must prove that he refuses to die. Try as AJ might in the finishing stretch, he can’t quite put Keith away with too much ease. At last, AJ nails his brutal signature lariat. Keith kicks out at two. Only after nailing two more lariats does AJ get the victory.
As predicted, the crowd greets the fallen Bryan Keith like a hero.
In July of 2020, AJ Gray wrestles his first deathmatch for GCW. It’s only the third time in his career that he’s dipped into this style of wrestling that pushes the limits of a wrestler’s physicality through extreme acts of violence. Shattered lighttubes, barbed wire, gusset plates—these are commonplace tools of the trade in deathmatches.
AJ Gray doesn’t let that intimidate him. It’s just another challenge.
“It was really me just trying to be like, hey motherfuckers, you all see me do every fucking style of wrestling now, how about I incorporate this in myself?” says AJ. “I don’t want to be the best pigeonholed wrestler. I want to be the best fucking professional wrestler that ever fucking lived. No matter what genre.”
Preparing for this match is like preparing for any other. With the fundamentals of pro wrestling and an understanding of escalation, AJ Gray has no trouble approaching this new challenge. He knows what journey he wants to take the crowd on. He has no better opponent to help him complete that journey than Alex Colon, one of the best deathmatch wrestlers in the world.
Before he’s set to go out, AJ listens to his favorite aggressive music again. It gets the blood flowing within. Soon, that blood will be pouring out.
“By the time I hit that fucking curtain, I might as well have been already bleeding cause I was already seeing red.”
AJ fits into the deathmatch environment like a natural. Part of that is by simply enhancing traditional wrestling tropes and techniques with weapons. The match opens with a standard lock up before Colon sends AJ out to the floor and hits him with a dive. Only difference is that Colon is holding lighttubes as he soars right into AJ Gray on the floor. As Colon carves him up on the floor with glass shards, AJ cuts him off by hitting a lariat on Colon through a lighttube.
The violence only escalates from there. There’s stiff elbow strikes as one might expect from an AJ Gray match. There’s also gusset plate-assisted headbutts and bumping into wooden boards covered in barbed wire.
“I’ve been stabbed before so it didn’t bother me at all.”
AJ Gray gives as good as he gets through the whole match. At the very end, he seems just on the verge of victory. He’s perched with Colon on the top rope. Below both men, a hellish contraption of a pane of glass covered in barbed wire propped onto steel chairs. It’s a struggle for control that, in the end, Colon wins as he drives AJ through the glass with a Spanish Fly for the victory.
A loss for AJ Gray, but not without Colon having to kill him first.
AJ Gray is climbing the top rope. He is seconds away from becoming GCW World Champion.
It’s December 8, 2019 at the Long. Live. GCW. event at The Basement East in Nashville, Tennessee. The show is being held in AJ Gray territory. His friends make up a good chunk of the crowd that evening. They’ve all come to see him challenge a living, breathing legend in Nick Gage.
Earlier that night, before he steps through the curtain, AJ Gray is told that tonight he will become champion.
“I’m like, ‘Oh shit. Y’all going to get me booed out of my own fucking city, bro. What the fuck is this? What the fuck is this? Man, fuck! Fuck!’ I’m going to have my friends, my fucking people I hang out with on the fucking regular, fucking throwing shit at me.”
It’s a natural reaction to have. After all, AJ Gray’s run in Game Changer Wrestling has barely even begun. At this point, he’s only wrestled seven matches for GCW in 2019. None of them have been one-on-one competitions. Now, he’s tasked with ending the near three-year championship reign of a man whose name is synonymous with GCW.
“I don’t even have a run yet. There’s no build up to it. I’m like fuck! Fuck! Goddamn it!”
Nick Gage lies motionless in the ring, felled by an attack by Atticus Cogar and Gregory Iron. AJ Gray doesn’t need the help—he fought off both Cogar and Iron once he saw the attack—but he’s no fool either.
AJ soars off the top rope.
He nails an Alabama Jam leg drop off the top that would have made Bobby Eaton proud. Three seconds later, he’s the new GCW World Champion.
“And the place fucking erupted!”
The crowd chants AJ Gray’s name. They aren’t furious at him for cutting off Gage’s title run, they’re ecstatic. AJ is handed the title belt. The letters RSP are spray painted onto the gold in garish red.
“That went the exact opposite way that I thought.”
AJ Gray seems stunned as he holds the title. He delivers a speech thanking the hometown crowd and talking about how meaningful the victory is to him.
That’s when Rickey Shane Page attacks.
RSP comes through the crowd and nails AJ Gray with a steel chair. He cashes in his anytime, anywhere title shot then. The writing’s on the wall as the bell rings to start the impromptu title match. But still, AJ Gray fights back.
AJ Gray peppers RSP with elbows, a lariat, even an Alabama Jam but it’s not enough. RSP claws at AJ’s eyes and hits a Chokebreaker to win the title. Over a year and a half later and AJ Gray is still to win the title back.
“It’s wild to the point where other promoters ask like, ‘Oh shit, when they going to fucking give you the belt back?’ I’m like, ‘Ni**a, I don’t know!’”
Despite having a World Title reign that lasted mere minutes, AJ Gray’s no loser in the eyes of his fanbase. Still, they sing his song in venues all over the country. In fact, since he was screwed out of the title, they sing it even louder. For many, it’s just a matter of time until AJ Gray takes back what’s his.
GCW World Champions, be warned. Be ready to kill a man to keep that gold.