Marcus ‘Mook’ Cunningham excels in hip-hop and pro wrestling

STYLE PROFILE: Marcus Cunningham strikes a pose as his popular pro wrestling persona, The BTSG. The Asheville native is also a respected rap artist, social worker and father. Photo by Joe Pellegrino

Carol Cunningham Hill can’t catch a break.

The daughter of local education legend Wardell Cunningham moved her family from Asheville to Columbia, S.C., and then to the Orlando suburb of Clermont, partly because she felt as if she didn’t have her own identity. Upon returning to Western North Carolina years later with her now-grown son Marcus Cunningham, she jokes about having to contend with a new question: “Are you Mook’s mom?”

Considering the number of fields in which her son — who’s been called “Mook” since middle school — has made a name for himself, the query is understandable. A standout in music and wrestling — the latter where he can next be seen Saturday, Aug. 3, at the Fairview Community Center — Mook Cunningham also excels at work and as a father, achieving a status that would make any mother proud.

Getting personal

A native of Asheville, Cunningham spent what he calls his “definitive years” in Florida. After earning a degree in finance from the University of Central Florida, he relocated to the city of his birth in 2010 to help his grandparents.

By day, Cunningham holds the title of income maintenance case worker II for Buncombe County’s Department of Health and Human Services in the Economic Services Department. His job involves maintenance and maintaining of food stamp eligibility — and, unlike many people in the workforce, especially those in social services and casework, he loves it. Driving that professional passion is his own history, which, in appropriate circumstances, makes him an approachable, relatable asset for people experiencing a rough stretch.

“Before I was out of high school, I was homeless three times — with my whole family, just my mom and then myself,” Cunningham says. “So, having the opportunity to extend a hand to people who are in similar situations, or even who haven’t gotten there yet — to prevent that situation — it [brings] everything full circle in a sense.”

The desire to never be homeless again and not put his son, Carter (who turns 6 in October), in that situation, informs Cunningham’s dedication to his 9-to-5. But it also propels him to be the best he can be in his artistic and athletic passions, rocketing him awake each day at 5 a.m. and remaining committed around the clock.

Focus

In high school, a group of Cunningham’s friends started gathering to freestyle rap on a regular basis. After watching a few times, he decided to give it a try. Six bars into his eight-bar composition, the crowd went wild, preventing him from finishing what he’d written. He was hooked on rapping.

In college, a reunion with a high school acquaintance led to the formation of a rap/rock group in the vein of Gym Class Heroes that achieved a sizable audience in the Orlando area. But, being what Cunningham calls “kids and irresponsible,” he and his bandmates didn’t show up to a gig they’d booked and “basically lost all opportunities [they] had lined up after that.”

The evaporated chance at success made Cunningham’s move back to Asheville all the easier, and the sting from the experience kept him from wanting to rap for several years. A few months into his current position with the county, his mom swung by work and mentioned his musical past, which caught the attention of his colleague, Spanish-born Jacob “Bipolar Bear” Moya.

The producer/engineer and Cunningham quickly became best friends, learned how to mesh their different styles and recorded two songs, including “Focus,” which was nominated for Best Sound Track at Music Video Asheville in 2016. The partnership was short-lived, however, as Moya moved away, though not before Cunningham established himself as MOOK! the BTSG. The acronym stands for “Bowtie Stand-up Guy,” a phrase that originated in one of his lyrics.

Cunningham has since found a “new partner in crime” in Davaion “Spaceman Jones” Bristol. The duo’s collaborative album, produced entirely by Bristol, is titled MOOK! the BTSG and Spaceman Jones present: The Working Man and is slated for a late August or early September release.

“If I don’t see Spaceman at least once a week, it’s a weird week,” Cunningham says. “He’s seen a lot and been through a lot and respects that I’m not trying to portray something that I’m not, but I’m still part of our culture and still a necessary part of the culture here in Asheville.”

Taking bumps

Contributing to Cunningham’s and Bristol’s meetup frequency is a ride together to Chuckey, Tenn., every Sunday for a pro wrestling show (either aired live on The CW or taped for future broadcast), practice or planning with the School of Morton. The company is run by WWE Hall of Famer Ricky Morton and features stories written by Bristol and often starring Cunningham, who’s taken his bowtie-wearing persona into the ring as, simply, The BTSG.

Like his path into hip-hop, Cunningham was pulled into the world of pro wrestling as a high schooler and trained with Hall of Famer Dory Funk Jr. at the Funking Conservatory in Ocala.

“It was basically traveling an hour to get beat up,” Cunningham says. “But as you get older and further in the business, you realize they do that to make sure that you’re tough enough to handle all of the things that happen in the business. They don’t want some kid coming in and ruining the business because wrestling is a very traditional environment.”

Consistent with the reignition of his musical interests, it was a casual work conversation that got Cunningham back into wrestling. Both as a teen and now, as a 31-year-old, his toughness and ability to take a bump — industry-speak for learning how to fall properly — have helped set him apart in an entertainment field where, he notes, only the outcomes are predetermined.

“There’s no way that I can fake doing a gainer — a jumping backflip — where I’m moving forward and my opponent moves out of the way,” he says. “There is no faking the pain that I feel when I hit the mat. There’s none of that. It’s all training so that when I’m doing it, I fall correctly and don’t break all my ribs and my sternum or crush my neck.”

In conjunction with School of Morton, Cunningham and Bristol have formed Urban Combat Wrestling, which features urban storylines. The venture had a successful debut earlier this month at Ole Shakey’s and will return there on Saturday, Aug. 24, for its second installment.

WHAT: TriState Championship Wrestling
WHERE: Fairview Community Center, 1357 Charlotte Highway, tcwprowrestling.homestead.com
WHEN: Saturday, Aug. 3, 8 p.m. $7 general admission/free for children ages 5 and younger

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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