Iwakuni Marine pursues pro-wrestling dream
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan — Sgt. Gaylon Summers is big. Like, 6-foot-7, 260-pounds big.
But that doesn’t properly describe how he towers above all of his fellow Marines at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, nor how his width resembles a brick wall, how his neck is thick like a tree trunk, how his shoulders resemble football shoulder pads, and how his forearms resemble the thighs of a lesser man.
At MCAS Iwakuni’s IronWorks Gym, just ask the guy behind the counter where you can find the “big guy” and you are immediately brought to Summers, an avid weight lifter. Camouflage-clad Marines who walk past him in the halls turn and stare, then whisper among themselves about his immense size.
Summers, the 26-year-old ground safety manager for Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 12, has parlayed his size into the world of professional wrestling. This summer, he’ll get the opportunity to live out his dreams as a professional wrestler when he begins training in the dojo of the top Japanese professional wrestling promotion — New Japan Pro-Wrestling. If all goes according to plan, Summers is looking at a six-figure wrestling contract and possibly an inside track to the major leagues of wrestling. New Japan has an established relationship with top American promotion World Wrestling Entertainment.
“It’s almost like winning the lottery,” Summers said last month. “It’s a very small chance [of getting signed by a top promotion].”
It’s been an arduous five-year journey, one that has taken Summers from wrestling inside storage units and shopping malls to being booed for playing a token “American heel” in a foreign land.
Summers was 3 when he caught the wrestling bug. Growing up in Dyersburg, Tenn., the toddler followed professional wrestling giants like Bill Dundee and Jerry “The King” Lawler from Memphis’ thriving wrestling scene with his grandfather on Saturday mornings, he said.
“I didn’t know anything besides that existed,” he said during a break from a workout at the IronWorks Gym. “It was very family oriented.”
Then, Summers bucked his mother’s wishes and began watching the more storyline-oriented and salacious World Championship Wrestling, National Wrestling Alliance and World Wresting Federation, with stars like Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
“He loves wrestling,” said his wife and high school sweetheart Sarah Beth Summers. “I found out it was a big part of his childhood.”
Summers joined the Marines in 2004 and was stationed at Cherry Point, N.C. But becoming a leatherneck did little to assuage his dreams of becoming a professional wrestler.
He started training, and wrestling, with smaller independent groups in 2007.
“I’m kind of doing it the old-school way,” Summers said of his hard-fought rise. “I would drive six hours in the States [and wrestle] for $20 and a hot dog. I would do it just because I love it. I would say, ‘I just gotta suck it up and pay my dues.’ I did what I had to do to get noticed and get booked.”
And he didn’t let an assignment to Japan in 2009 derail his plans.
He started by sending promoters tapes of his previous experience and pictures, trying to get a gig, but nobody would give him a chance.
“Everyone ignores you,” he said. “They’re used to [similar public relations pushes].”
By chance, a Japanese wrestling enthusiast added Summers on Facebook and asked him why he wasn’t wrestling. He hooked him up with a friend who was a promoter in Japan, and the rest is history.
In the last three years, Summers has wrestled for DDT, Zero 1, Dove, Kyoto and FTO, among other Japanese promotions, he said.
He was asked to play the bad-guy foreigner, used names like “Maverick,” and came out to the U.S. national anthem. He used his hulking stature to mow through opponents with boots to the face and a variation of a jack-knife power-bomb.
Summers said he enjoyed spitting, swearing and choke-slamming his way around the independent circuit, as he worked to earn the respect of his Japanese fans and fellow wrestlers.
Summers is still a Marine. He’s also married and has an 8-month old son, Gunner.
“There are times when you want to do things as a family and it’s hard; he’s not there,” Sarah Beth Summers said. “It’s not easy [for him to balance his dreams, work and family].”
But his wife is supportive, and she said she enjoys watching Summers interact with young fans at events.
His big break came last month, when he announced he had been signed by New Japan.
Despite his character being a perennial bad guy, the Japanese fans gave him a standing ovation.
It was the first time he was asked not to be the heel and broke character to thank the fans. He posed for photos and signed autographs.
Summers said former WWE champion Alberto Del Rio previously wrestled in Japan, and he hopes that’s a sign of what’s to come. He also dreams of following in the bootsteps of the “Road Dogg” Jesse James and Chuck Palumbo, former Marines who became professional wrestlers.
It’s Summers’ massive size that has gotten him noticed.
“He is so big, unlike the Japanese [wrestlers],” said Danshoku Dieno of DDT Pro-Wrestling in Tokyo, who wrestled against Summers last year. “Even though his skills are not so high since he doesn’t have a long career, he has a power that makes up for it.”
Dieno said Summers has the potential to become even stronger.
“I think he will improve since he was born with great physical constitution,” he said. “Skills can always come later.”
Because of his physique, the audience seemed to like Summers, Japanese wrestlers and promoters said. When Dieno wrestled him twice in May 2011, he said there was a stir in the audience even though Summers is not well known.
“They seemed to be astonished of his size and powerfulness,” he said.
“He is big, knows Japanese manners and is dynamic,” said Yoshitada Okita, of Tokyo-based pro-wrestling organization Zero 1. “He is a great wrestler.”
Summers got his big break while working out at a Hiroshima gym known in professional wrestling circles in Japan. The Japanese owner would call New Japan to tell them about Summers every time he went there.
Summers jokes they must have gotten tired of the old man calling, because they gave him a tryout on May 3 in Fukuoka. He was offered a contract on the spot.
“All they cared about was my height and weight,” he said. “They said, forget everything. We’ll teach you our way.”
Officials from New Japan would not comment on Summers until he appears in his first match for them.
Summers plans to leave the Corps a year early in August, taking advantage of their programs designed to trim their ranks. He will then join New Japan at their dojo where he will be unable to leave for three months.
Summers will lift weights for almost three hours a day with four hours of ring training, he said. He will train for six months before making his debut.
He credits the Marines for instilling in him confidence and discipline and teaching him to thrive under pressure.
“You really have to have a passion for wrestling to do this,” he said.
Then, Sgt. Summers hit the weights.
“I would be perfectly happy wrestling here in Japan,” he said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.