Shane Strickland takes independent wrestling by storm

After making his return to EVOLVE during their recent trip through the Midwest, Shane Strickland will face Matt Riddle for the EVOLVE championship Saturday in Brooklyn. Leonard Brand / WWNLive

Shane Strickland knew as he was looking through the scope of a sniper rifle in a desert on the outskirts of Los Angeles that his pro wrestling career would never be the same.

The lanky high flyer, who'd been wrestling for six or seven years to that point, was used to making long drives every weekend to wrestle for various small-time promotions in the Northeast United States. He was putting in full-time work for part-time pay. He knew it wasn't a sustainable living, even if his passion for wrestling never wavered. Strickland needed his big break.

Now, on the opposite side of the country, Strickland was learning how to wield high-grade weaponry on a makeshift military site. Though that isn't a traditional means to accelerate a wrestling career, it turned out to be exactly what Strickland needed to jumpstart his dreams.

"It was one of the first few times I actually felt like a true wrestling star," Strickland said of his introduction to Lucha Underground in an interview with ESPN.com. "I was very fortunate, but it was also very nerve-wracking."

Strickland has come a long way over the last few years. Not only did he become one of the key figures in the world of Lucha Underground, where he appears regularly on the El Rey Network, but Strickland is now one of the most in-demand performers in the world of independent wrestling. He holds the top title for a number of different promotions, including Major League Wrestling, and after a three-year hiatus from EVOLVE, Strickland has returned to that fold as well and hopes to add the EVOLVE championship to his collection.

He'll get that title shot, against Matt Riddle, in the main event of EVOLVE 106 Saturday night in Brooklyn. That show comes just over a month after Strickland's return to the EVOLVE fold during their shows in the Midwest in late May -- and it's another step forward in Strickland's journey to the top of the wrestling world.

So how did Strickland's meteoric rise start to get its legs? It began when Strickland debuted for Lucha Underground during the second half of Season 1, as Killshot. Beyond his name, which he came up with, and his mask -- a leather, lucha-inspired design with a sniper target stitched into the forehead -- Strickland was given little other direction early on. Heading into Season 2, he needed something to stand out on a show rich with over-the-top characters and extraordinary athletes. He wasn't going to sit around and wait for Lucha Underground to come up with that something for him.

"I asked head writer Chris DeJoseph if I could write the character. Write the background, a little story for the character, and he gave me permission and I wrote three different backgrounds for what Killshot could be," Strickland said. "He took a little bit of all of them and combined them together and that's how Killshot with the military background and the little backstory came about."

Through the brainchild of Strickland, Lucha Underground fans learned Killshot was a code name for a former military sniper who was part of an elite unit sent into hostile territories. The El Rey Network spared no expense filming the action-movie-quality vignette that aired early in Season 2, hiring a stunt coordinator, stunt doubles, and even a weapons instructor who showed Strickland how to properly hold a sniper rifle. The shoot went on for five "exhausting" hours and the final product was only a couple minutes long, but it delivered in making fans care about the Killshot character.

The military background Strickland laid out for Killshot was no coincidence -- he was borrowing from his own experiences.

Strickland, born in Tacoma, Washington, was raised in a military family. His father, a sergeant first class cook in the Army, moved his family to Frankfurt, Germany, when Strickland was 2 months old to live on an American military base. Strickland spent the next seven years growing up around American families of other soldiers living in Germany. Though he didn't learn how to speak much German, he spent time in their major cities absorbing the unique culture and customs.

When he returned to the States he moved to Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, and attended Donegal High School, where he excelled in football, basketball and track. After graduation, Strickland felt it was time to follow in his father's footsteps and enlisted in the Army Reserve.

"I was a 25 Uniform, which is a signal support communications specialist," Strickland said. "Pretty much that was working on radios and ordinates. I did that for eight years."

The eight-year journey started two weeks after graduation, when Strickland went down to South Carolina to start his basic straining. From there, he headed to Augusta, Georgia, for 22 weeks for his advanced individual training. Strickland was away from home for seven or eight months before he was stationed in York, Pennsylvania, to complete his basic training. While the military was a worthy pursuit for Strickland and something he always wanted to do, it wasn't his dream in the long-term.

After spending a big chunk of his young adulthood dedicated to military life, Strickland could no longer ignore what he felt was a void in his life.

"[I] wasn't really going anywhere," Strickland recalls. "I was pretty much just hanging out, had a mediocre job, and wasn't making a lot of money. I really wanted to do something with my life, so I checked out professional wrestling on a website, [and] Ground Breaking Wrestling came up."

In 2008, Strickland packed all of his stuff in a car he bought a couple weeks earlier and made the 200-mile drive to Richmond, Virginia, where his mother was living, to train at the nearby Ground Breaking Wrestling. It didn't take Strickland long after he started training to start getting booked around the Maryland and Pennsylvania areas.

That's where he met Sami Callihan and Adam Cole, and together they thrived at the Northeast-based CZW. Strickland was starting to get noticed, but he still wasn't making enough money to leave the military until a conversation with a close friend opened his eyes to a different corner of the wrestling world.

Strickland was driving from New York to Rhode Island alongside Ricochet for an indie show in late 2014 when the current NXT star began to rave about a show called Lucha Underground. Ricochet had just finished filming the first half of Season 1 as the show's star, Prince Puma. Strickland, whose interest was piqued from the get-go, asked if Ricochet knew anyone who could help him get onto the show. Strickland then sent some of his matches to Konnan, who passed them onto Lucha Underground management. After a tryout match against Willie Mack and three months of waiting, Strickland was offered a contract.

Signing with Lucha Underground and gaining national TV exposure for the first time in his career gave Strickland the confidence to leave the Army in January of 2015.

"I always wanted to wrestle primarily but I knew financially it was impossible, especially being the father of two little girls," said Strickland, whose daughters are now 6 and 8 years old. "It was good to have the military help supporting me for so long while helping me pursue my dream at the same time. I was very fortunate to have good leadership help me along the way."

Killshot has become a central character to the fabric of Lucha Underground, as one of a small group of characters to appear in every season. He prides himself on not just keeping up with the athletically-gifted performers sprinkled throughout the roster, but establishing himself as one of the most well-rounded workers the show has to offer. In part, he has the military to thank for that.

"During my time in the military I learned level-one combatives, which is a form of jiu-jitsu. I try to incorporate that into a lot of the things that I do in the ring with my submission style, my ground-and-pound striking ability, my defensive techniques," Strickland said. "I take little things that I learned from there. The little that I did learn, I grasped it and incorporated that with the Lucha Underground aspect of my style and the character that I portrayed there. It all pretty much came full circle."

Killshot's military backstory helped him reach new heights during Season 3. Strickland spent the season building a feud with Dante Fox, who in Lucha Underground lore Killshot left for dead as brothers in the military. The feud was settled at Ultima Lucha Tres in a "Hell of War" match, with the first fall decided by first blood, the second no disqualification, and the final fall requiring your opponent to be carried off in a medical evacuation vehicle. The match, which main-evented the first of the four-part finale, exceeded even the most avid "believers'" expectations in one of the most brutal contests to ever be televised in professional wrestling.

After a half-hour of exhilarating but increasingly hard-to-watch action, the Temple was littered with shards of glass, barbed wire boards, broken tables, and chunks of human flesh. Strickland won after smashing a beer bottle over Fox's head, sending him to free fall from the perch of the Temple onto a supersized pane of glass. The usually riled-up Temple was left in a stunned silence.

"Me and Fox putting that match together, our mindsets, we were always on the same page with anything we had ever done in the ring -- [but] we had to be on 12 pages. You can't just be on one page anymore, we gotta be on 12-15 pages to make sure we execute everything on point," Strickland said. "That we protect each other, that we don't get seriously hurt, that everything just comes off perfect. That match came off exactly how we both envisioned it. We couldn't have done it any better. To me, that whole story between me and Fox culminated the perfect way."

The two were showered with praise upon entering the Lucha Underground locker room. AAA owner Dorian Roldan told Strickland and Fox they had "just made wrestling history" and "nobody is ever going to do anything like that on television again." He rewarded the two bloodied competitors with bonuses for the sacrifices they made to their bodies.

"I wanted to make a statement that no one could outperform me," Strickland said. "Season 1 I got introduced, I didn't really stand out. Season 2, the wheels started turning a little bit and understanding the character and my place in the show, but once again I didn't outperform anybody. Season 3 was the staple. I knew who I was, I knew how I was going to outperform, and I feel like me and Fox and Sami Callihan as Jeremiah Crane outperformed every single other character on that show. That Ultima Lucha match was the exclamation point."

Strickland used the exposure he received for that match and everything else he'd accomplished with Lucha Underground to increase his bookings around the world. Outside of the temple, he goes by the name Shane "Swerve" Strickland -- a character vastly different from the masked, introverted Killshot.

"You vibe with Shane Strickland a lot more than you do with Killshot," Strickland said. "There's a lot of sorrow and pain in the Killshot character and you can see that and feel that when he performs. With Shane Strickland, there's not as much sorrow, there's excitement. He wants to perform because he wants to be the big showman, but at the same time there's an aggressive side when he turns that gear. Killshot is always on that gear shift. That shift is always on."

Major League Wrestling took notice of Strickland and reached out to him and Ricochet to main-event their One-Shot event in October of 2017. MLW secured a TV deal with beIN Sports months later, after the success of their first event, and Strickland is currently their world heavyweight champion. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Strickland defeated Riddle in a tournament final to win that title as well, bringing things full circle.

It was a long way back into the WWN fold for Strickland, who first appeared for EVOLVE in 2013. He says he had to "make amends" with EVOLVE and owner Gabe Sapolsky to come to terms on his WWN return, but he's ready to show EVOLVE, Riddle, and anyone else who's followed his journey that he's changed professionally both inside and outside the ring.

"I love working with Matt Riddle," Strickland said. "Matt Riddle has been one of the big cornerstones of WWN Live/EVOLVE for the past two-three years. It's been amazing to see where he's grown as a performer and as a professional, and WWN Live had a lot to do with that. Now me coming back, I feel like he hasn't faced anybody in WWN like me. I wouldn't say I'm better or worse than any other competitors, but I'm different. I'm unique in my own way."

Shane Strickland challenges Matt Riddle for the EVOLVE championship Saturday at 8 p.m. ET in Brooklyn. The show can also be watched live and on demand.