Recess at school is supposed to be fun for kids. It’s a time to get away from class, play with friends, and think about anything other than schoolwork. But on a day in 2003, that was not the case for then-fourth-grader Alton Cunningham.
“Literally the whole fourth grade class was surrounding me, making fun of me,” Cunningham, now 26, says.
Born in nearby Memphis, Tennessee, Cunningham grew up an only child in the small town of Marion, Arkansas. He had a sister who died at the age of two months. He was two years old at the time, and doesn’t remember her much at all. Life was difficult in Marion, which Cunningham described as “ghetto as sh-t.” There, opportunities to make it in this world were few and far between.
“It was nothing but rough,” Cunningham says. “It was nothing but gang-banging, playing basketball or football, or going to the military. Your options are really limited. There’s only a couple ways you can go.
“It was country as hell. You go down a road and see nothing but liquor stores, a McDonald’s. You don’t have much. That’s ghettos in America. It was all I knew.”
Cunningham was a die-hard pro wrestling fan as a kid, so much so that he wanted to be a pro wrestler himself when he got older—far from the ordinary for someone from Marion.
“When you come from the ghetto, and the people you are influenced by are rappers, basketball players, the local people that are in the ghetto, you don’t have anybody to have any positive influence on you, or anybody that was successful you can look up to,” Cunningham says. “I always felt like I had to change the dynamic of my family and the people in my city by doing something different.”