“I’ve been in front of 18 thousand people, and I got into a fight that night on the ice, actually. People say, ‘The eyes aren’t all on you,’ but in that moment, they were. We squared up, took our gloves off and it was a bare knuckle fight on thin, ice hockey skates.”
Hunter Warner is switching gloves. He’s ditching the Winwells and slipping into a pair of Winning. After announcing his unusual switch from professional ice hockey to professional boxing, Warner caught up with Boxing Social to discuss the intricacies of both sports, his links to the Kronk Gym and the influence of his father, former pro wrestler and WCW star, J. W. Storm (Jeff Warner).
Warner’s announcement was met with both excitement and confusion, retiring from Iowa’s AHL squad, Iowa Wild. A feeder team of the NHL franchise Minnesota Wild, he’d been there for the past seven years, initially signing professional papers when he turned 18. It wasn’t just hockey that he and his siblings had excelled in, with older brother Colt currently an undefeated professional boxer himself, and with his youngest brother, Bronson, finding his feet playing American Football at a Division 1 college.
“It was an interesting dynamic [for us] because for my dad to be in wrestling, you have to be this big character. He was a big, big statured man – a large man. But also a huge character. He was an athlete his whole life, so by the time we were born, it was in his mind that we’d be doing athletics and he gives us a lot of strength, maturity, and he’s been there. He knows what it takes. It was fun to watch the videos of him [wrestling] and then he’s been with us doing athletics and sports our whole lives, all of us.
“My whole career, I’ve been boxing, sparring, and training because this has been the plan,” Warner explained. “Even throughout my hockey career, the plan has been that I will box. Now, my dad has said that it’s the right time. My younger brother, Dylan, he served our country in the war in Iraq, and he actually fights, too. He’s had two fights and he’s also 2-0. That’s non-commissioned fights though, through the State of Alaska, that’s where he was based during his active service.”
Loving father Jeff didn’t give the boys an option, but he never had to force athletic endeavours upon them. Hunter, Colt, Dylan, and Bronson took to whatever field selected with an unrepentant dynamism. For Hunter, now 25, boxing is his passion, while hockey was the day job. But he explained the importance of exploring life on the ice, building his own fan base, and becoming a man: “You start getting notoriety, you become a leader, you learn the system and you have your chance at playing for the big club. But it was always our plan to join my brother, and I wanted to do it for the last two years, retire from hockey and focus on boxing, but my dad wanted me in the gym. Finally now, he’s said, ‘You’re more than ready’. But any opinion or criticism is fair, and I can see where people are coming from.
“Hockey is so big here and I think for people, it might be difficult to understand why you’re leaving a promising career at 25-years old. I want the boxing public to know, I could have played hockey until I was 35, 37-years old. I’m in shape and I play with teammates who are 38. It’s a very promising career and they take care of you very well financially. I understand why some of the public are saying, ‘Why would he leave this career for boxing?’ But I also believe that you stick to the plan. It’s not because I didn’t like hockey – I love hockey. But the plan for me was to box.”
It was only recently that the other half of the intelligently named ‘Warner Brothers,’ Colt (2-0, 2 KOs), had linked up with reigning WBC heavyweight champion, Tyson Fury to help prepare for his next bout. Hunter joined his brother in the gym, training alongside Fury’s contingent of professional sparring partners, and he tasted life at the top of the table, strengthening his resolve and the pair’s determination to dominate the sport. The link to Sugar Hill Steward – Fury’s head trainer Stateside – draws the brothers back to their childhood, and again, reveals the influence of their father, Jeff.
“When my dad was boxing, he was also training at Kronk under the great Emanuel Steward because after he got done with wrestling he started boxing of his own accord. After about five or 10 fights, he was starting to pick it up and learn it, but he wasn’t seasoned as a professional. So, because he had the big name, Emanuel Steward called him and had him come up to Kronk to train and we were living in Michigan for a while. I was very young, but the family was wherever he was, you know.
“We’re still in touch with all of his people, the people he was circled with around Kronk. Colt, he was around all the time and actually something that’s really cool, Emanuel Steward told my dad when Colt was seven, eight or nine, ‘Bring me your son at a young age and I’ll make him the next heavyweight champion of the world’. It’s sad now because Emanuel Steward has passed, but it’s cool that it’s come full circle and Colt’s training, with Sugar Hill [Steward] overlooking everything.”
The Warner’s bloodline is intertwined with sport – combat, competitive, team, and individual sport. Hunter Warner, standing little under 6-foot 5-inches, has all the physical attributes required to make noise in the sport’s money division. A strong, physical specimen primed for boxing from his years’ operating as an AHL defenseman, he’s left without doubt when asked about the complexities of the transition. Most nights, he’d have a fight after purposely colliding with the opposition’s most threatening player.
In fact, colliding is soft terminology. Warner would stalk the movement of the player in question, gliding gracefully across the ice until finding himself in the face of danger. Bang. Into solid ice on the ground, scrambling amongst sharpened blades and fast-moving, vulcanized rubber pucks, or into advertising boards, bouncing off tenser barriers and struggling to their feet again, often taking time to regain their balance. It is that element of professional ice hockey that Warner believes will ease his entry into boxing – constant physical competition, hunting for conflict.
“The style of hockey that I played was very physical,” he tells Boxing Social. “Before the fights, I’d usually be seen in these videos smashing someone, then it’s up to someone on that team to try and police that situation or fight me to make sure I don’t do that for the rest of the game. In soccer, you have a top scorer, right? Same in hockey. I’m smashing their top scorers all night and they wanna try to fight me and force me to stop that. I’ve been boxing my whole life, so a quick hockey fight is nothing for me. It’s pretty hard, too. You lose balance, you wrestle a little bit, you’re standing on thin ice blades trying to throw punches.”
Thankfully, he can remove the slippery surface and the excessive padding from future bouts, with an eye on his professional debut in early 2022. In that time, he’ll be sharpening his skills and spending time with his team, comprised of Jeff, Colt and his management team, Hero Sports Management. They plan to travel for elite sparring, establishing themselves as a legitimate package, and Hunter rubbished the antics of the Paul siblings while exclaiming that this is no gimmick.
“We are going to be at the top, our goal is to become world champions one day. We want people to see that we care about people, we’re men of the people and that we care about faith and doing good in our community. That’s part of why fighting is so special because in life you have to fight, right?”
You do – and nobody knows that as much as the Warner’s patriarch, a reformed, born-again Christian and a pastor, preaching positivity and focusing on his family.
In conversation with Hunter, he spoke about his father’s upbringing, and his battle with life’s temptations: “My dad grew up very, very rough; he grew up as an ‘accident’ and his father wasn’t around, his mother was a drug addict, so he grew up in the hood and he was fighting – your typical story. He wanted something more. He wanted to be that father that he never had, and he wanted to create the family he was never fortunate enough to have. He grew up rough, so he lived rough. He met my mum and she showed him a different way of life. It wasn’t an overnight thing that he turned over this new life, so throughout my life he was changing.”
“My dad, one of his favourite things that he used to tell us boys is: ‘Here is prostitution, and here [just below it] is boxing’. That’s why we went with Hero Sports Management; we’ve known them our whole lives. My dad was in the boxing business, and he encountered some dirty stuff first-hand for himself. That’s his biggest thing, to protect us first. We’re keeping our feet to the pedal; we are here as a team, The Warner Brothers, Team Warner, Hero Sports Management, it’s a tight circle. I’m just telling you, we’re gonna make some noise.”
The profile that hockey has allowed him certainly breaks down a few of boxing’s barriers. With a ready-made fan base, Warner seems set for an exciting introduction to heavyweight boxing, and it appears Colt will be with him, featuring on the same cards and training together. Jeff told the former hockey star that he’s “more than ready,” so for now, we wait. If they do climb the rankings, breaking out of Iowa and onto the world stage, their story could well be a blockbuster. The Warner Brothers, who better to produce one?
Main image: NHL.