For Staff Sgt. Anthony Valentin, the Air Force core values not only help him excel at his official duties, they also help him in his extraordinary off-duty pursuits. (U.S. Air Force video/Staff Sgt. Chris Pyles)
Staff Sgt. Anthony Valentin is a man living two wildly different lives, each with personalities that are opposite of each other. By day, he’s a polite, professional combat operations controller at the 624th Operations Center at Joint Base San Antonio – Lackland. When he leaves work, he sheds his Air Force uniform and dons his pro wrestling attire, transforming into “Brooklyn’s Finest” AJ Summers – the cocky, boisterous cruiserweight wrestler, who is reviled by fans of San Antonio’s Branded Outlaw Wrestling organization.
This split personality didn’t happen overnight. As a 5-year-old living in New York, Valentin dreamed of joining the military and becoming a G.I. Joe. Then, he witnessed the entrance of one of the most electrifying wrestlers ever to grace the World Wrestling Federation, sparking another dream in his heart.
“I saw The Ultimate Warrior run across my TV set with all those crazy, colorful fringes on his arms, shaking the ropes and being all crazy,” Valentin recalled. “I saw the way the crowd reacted, the attention he (received) and any little thing he did everyone watched him. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a wrestler.”
His mother still remembers that moment just as vividly as her son. “I didn’t even know what an Ultimate Warrior was, but Anthony was jumping up and screaming and saying he wanted to be just like him,” Denorah Marcial said.
A couple years later, she took Valentin to his first live wrestling match at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It was then that Marcial really took note of Anthony’s passion for the sport; but it wasn’t until he was older that she realized just how strong his love for it really was.
“He would talk about becoming a wrestler in middle school, but I really didn’t think he was serious until he went into high school and joined the wrestling team. That’s when I knew he was going to put me through it with this sport,” she said.
While his interest in wrestling had grown over the years, Valentin had not given up his military dreams.
“He came home, said he had spoken to a recruiter and was thinking about joining the Air Force,” Marcial said. “The next thing I knew, he graduated high school and was off to the Air Force.”
After graduating basic training and seeing her son for the first time in months, she knew he made the right choice.
“I went to Texas when he graduated boot camp. I saw (what looked like) a 6-foot-tall man in front of me, when a mere boy left,” she said. “His whole demeanor had changed. He was always respectful before, but now he showed respect in a new way.”
His pro wrestling career began in 2005 when he was stationed at Warner Robins Air Force Base, Ga. A friend told him about a wrestling school in the area.
“I went one day and realized it was what I wanted to do,” he said. “I went from an inexperienced person who couldn’t tell the difference between a wrist lock and waist lock to learning not only those moves, but also how to wrestle and carry myself,” he said.
The evolution of AJ Summers continued concurrently as Valentin grew into an Airman. After leaving Robins AFB, he moved to Davis Monthan AFB, Ariz., and then to Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C. At each of those assignments, Valentin joined small, independent wrestling organizations where he continued to dedicate his off-duty time to honing his wrestling craft and perfecting AJ Summers’ persona.
“I went the bad boy route (with AJ Summers) because I’m a good guy all the time,” said Valentin, who has now been wrestling for more than seven years. “As AJ Summers, when I’m performing, I’m able to say exactly what’s on my mind, both good and bad. I can walk out, look at a guy and say, ‘You need to hit the gym.’ As a good guy, you can’t – you have to smile, you have to nod and be cordial. It’s not fun, but when you’re the villain, it’s fun.”
His mother is proud of the accomplishments he’s made in the ring but wishes his wrestling persona more closely matched his real-life personality.
“When he first started, I would ask him; ‘Why can’t you be a good guy like John Cena or The Rock?’ but he would say ‘No, mom. There’s more animation and excitement with being a bad guy,’” Marcial said. “He tends to lean toward the bad guy because it’s totally opposite of his nature. He’s not a bad guy; it’s just him playing a role, which he does very well.”
While on the surface these two lifestyles appear to clash, Valentin said that excelling at both takes the same work ethic, professionalism and commitment to excellence.
“During the day, when I have that uniform on, my heart and soul is Air Force. I’m there to do a job, I’m there to do it well and to give it my all,” he said. “On my off-duty time, I’m in the gym, I’m training, wrestling, watching film and constantly learning. I’m giving an equal amount of time to both my careers.
Valentin said the similarities between the Air Force and wrestling are actually more apparent than some might initially think.
“In the military, you’re taught to take care of your brothers and sisters who work right next to you and make sure you’re taking care of each other,” he said. “In wrestling, you’re putting your life on the line, and you’re putting your life in the other person’s hand. Essentially, you want to take care of that person because that’s what they’re giving you.”
In 2010, he moved to San Antonio, where he currently resides. For a time, he was a member of a tag team known as “Excellence” with a fellow Airman, Staff Sgt. Gregory Gauntt, in the River City Wrestling organization, which happens to be the cross-town rival to BOW.
Gauntt, a military training instructor with the 324th Training Squadron, was more inexperienced than Valentin, but his large size and similarly aloof personality made the two Airmen a great tag team.
“Being a training instructor, I’m used to telling the trainees that I’m a subject-matter expert, and we act like we’re experts in the ring,” said Gauntt, who’s known as Ryan Oshun when he’s wrestling.
But as perfect as “Excellence” might have been, one night in early January changed everything. Current reigning BOW cruiserweight champion Rudy Russo just won a match when a hooded figure ran into the ring and attacked him. With the champion lying motionless in the center of the ring, Summers drew back his hood, surprising everyone in attendance and changing the landscape of the cruiserweight division in San Antonio.
In wrestling circles, Summers’ action is what’s known as “jumping promotions,” which was kept under wraps so well, Gauntt didn’t even know. With the two Airmen now wrestling in competing organizations, their partnership has dissolved.
“I called AJ and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” said David Schulze, one of the owners of BOW. “I saw AJ work at a different promotion about a year and a half ago. I thought he had a good look and work ethic and I’d been wanting to bring him in for awhile.”
In his first match in his new promotion in late January, Summers won a “four corners” bout that included former World Wrestling Entertainment star Shoichi Funaki.
“I didn’t hit my frog splash as perfectly as I would have liked, but everything else went pretty well,” Valentin said after the match.
Standing just a few inches taller than 5 feet, he knows his small stature will be a hurdle for him to make it to a top promotion, but he believes he hasn’t achieved his full potential and uses his naysayers as inspiration to fuel his drive to success.
“I didn’t believe the people who said I’d never make it, the people who said I was too small or the people who said I was going to quit. I use that to help me push harder,” he said.
“(The Air Force) is the closest thing to being a G.I. Joe as I’ll ever get, and I’ve accomplished the dreams I set out 23 years ago. Not many people can say they’ve done that.”
For now and the foreseeable future, Valentin plans to keep living out his two childhood dreams, and AJ Summers, his cocky alter-ego, will continue to follow him along for the ride.