Ain't no mountain high enough for JBL
DAVE HILLHOUSE -- SLAM! Wrestling
JBL was never known as a wrestler for Iron Man matches or battling through lengthy tournaments; his best-known finishing move, after all, was a lariat that could end things seconds after a match began. In all likelihood, though, he has saved the best chance to showcase his stamina and determination for his post-wrestling years.
On Sunday, June 17th, the wrestler-cum-business magnate is set to tackle the first stage in a formidable (and a none-too-little intimidating) quest to ascend the slopes of the Seven Summits, reaching the highest mountain peaks of each of the world's continents.
Where exactly does this fit in for the heretofore beer-swilling, bullying businessman of wrestling? John Layfield has already branched out and found success for his post-WWE competition life: contributing to financial-focused shows on CNBC and Fox News; establishing his place in the energy drink market (since discontinued); and, as it pertains to his lofty new goal, he has become a fixture on the island of Bermuda as a supporter to the youth of that small country.
He recently spoke with SLAM! Wrestling about this endeavour.
Having lived in Bermuda for the past two years, Layfield did not foresee becoming a leader in caring for the youth of the island, but found himself almost inescapably drawn into what he considers to be the best thing he's ever done in his life.
"When I moved to Bermuda, I'd already seen a lot of things that had been helped by Beyond Sport," he recalls. Beyond Sport is an international organization headed by luminaries such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It seeks to use sport to encourage social change, focusing on the character-building and cooperation aspects of organized play.
Layfield saw an opportunity to combat a growing and not altogether recognized problem surrounding Bermuda's youth. "I tried to set up something to help the disenfranchised, at-risk kids in Bermuda," he explains. "You have a lot of gang violence, a lot of territorial drug violence, and 50% of black Bermudian males drop out of school."
"You're having a lot of people being put into society that really don't have any options."
Having a rich history of charitable efforts under his belt, including his annual golf tournament for the Make-a-Wish Foundation and his part in the genesis of WWE's Tribute to the Troops show, Layfield recognized the need for someone to take the lead in developing a similar sports-minded program for his adopted home. Thus, he partnered with an organization called the Family Centre and Beyond Rugby Bermuda was born.
"We try to help kids stay in school first, because that gives them options," Layfield begins as he describes the program. "It's a holistic approach to helping these kids who are falling through the cracks."
Layfield acknowledges that Bermuda doesn't usually come to mind when thinking of the troubled regions of the world. It's an island of only 22 square miles, with 65,000 residents -- yet he points out a great divide amongst the rich and the poor.
"People that come here see just what [Bermuda] is: a wonderful, beautiful island," he details. "The violence is black-on-black, and it's in gang-related areas, so it's just not seen by a lot of people."
William Griffith, Director of Tourism for Bermuda, concurs with the dichotomy found between the perception of life on the island and the reality. "The mid-Atlantic island has ample diving, golf (more per square mile than any other nation) and recreational activities," Griffith relates to SLAM! Wrestling via email. "It also combines a thriving culture, educational system and business atmosphere with a long, rich history. It's both a comfortable and respectable destination for raising a family."
Layfield stresses this point as well, obviously in agreement as he has chosen Bermuda as his adopted home. "I don't want people thinking it isn't safe, it's extremely safe," he insists. "The problem is when you have so many kids coming into society every year that drop out of school, this problem is growing."
Griffith agrees, citing Layfield's programme as a step in the right direction. "Beyond Rugby Bermuda works with kids at both Cedarbridge High School and Dellwood Middle School in Bermuda. These schools contain 'at risk' children that tend to drop out of school and make poor decisions. The main goal is to help these kids graduate and give them options for a brighter future."
The crux of the problem, it seems to Layfield, is in the growing chasm between classes. "You've got people who live on Billionaire's Row, in Tuckerstown near mid-ocean," he explains. "You've got some of the richest people in the world and some of the richest companies in the world, and then you have people in North Hamilton that are just completely disenfranchised from all of that. I think that adds something to it because they see so much money there, and they have such problems, that it exacerbates the problem."
Upon witnessing this "other side" to the tiny, popular vacation island, Layfield unexpectedly found his retirement on hold ("I planned on moving there and playing golf every day," he laughs) and began focusing on the youth, with no concern for his own public notoriety and absolutely no plans for launching from here into the political arena.
"I've no desire to be in politics in Bermuda or anywhere else," he states emphatically. "I don't care if my name is out there or not, this is 100% for the kids. They don't care if I'm on TV, if I've wrestled Stone Cold or The Rock!"
Still, adding Layfield's cachet of celebrity stature brings recognition to the project. Griffith is certainly enthused about having the former World champ take up the cause. "Mr. Layfield has an unbelievable strength of heart and character," he expresses. "He has become both an advocate for the families of Bermuda and an ambassador for the island itself."
The recognition that Layfield and Bermuda government seeks is something that Layfield credits the WWE with expanding exponentially.
"They're promoting all of this stuff on all their social pages, I'm going to appear on TV, and they're giving me all the technology I can take," Layfield excitedly reports when asked about his former company's involvement. "When I'm on the mountain and I see a yeti or a Big Show, it'll go directly to Stamford and they'll post it on the Internet for me."
"I don't think they get enough recognition for what they do charity-wise."
Layfield is in a position to garner support from the WWE, and similarly champion them in return, because he managed to part ways with them on amicable terms -- not something a lot of people seem to have success doing.
"I haven't burned any bridges," Layfield acknowledges. "I left on good terms, great terms I think. I was injured and just couldn't do what I did anymore, and they understood that it was just my time to step out to pasture. I never planned on doing anything again, but I didn't rule it out either, so when I reached out to them and asked if they'd want to do something for the kids, right away they said yes."
Still, despite his career in the ring and on the football field, it isn't a natural progression to turn to mountain climbing. Layfield explains that the decision to ascend the Seven Summits came about naturally through a progression of life's dreams and recognition of other's successes.
"I have a background interest, but no background in climbing," he openly admits. "I climbed a mountain in South America, but it was nothing on this level. I started feeling better after I retired, and I have always wanted to climb Mt. Everest since I was a kid."
"As I started working with the charity, I saw that Annabelle Bond out of London did the Seven Summits climb and raised a ton of money ($1.8 million towards the prevention of Ovarian Cancer), and I knew I had to climb a bunch of mountains to get ready for Everest, so it came together that way."
So, how does one prepare to go from climbing 15-foot high steel cages to tens and tens of thousands of cumulative feet over the course of his mission?
"I remember one really hard training camp when I was in the World Football League in San Antonio, and I didn't think that I would make it," Layfield remembers. "I just kept telling myself that time will pass. My first summit climb is 16 hours at half-oxygen, and doing something like that, from what I understand, you have to take your mind out of your own body and put yourself on auto-pilot, forget about what's ahead of you."
"I've done some really crazy-sounding training, where I've climbed stairs in a building for three- to three-and-a-half hours going up, going down, and it's really boring. But that's training my mind as well as my body to not quit and keep doing something which is part of doing anything endurance-wise."
Layfield describes his preparation as a man who has done his homework, while acknowledging that all the theoretical preparation might mean nothing at all depending on how his body reacts upon the mountain.
"I'm not nervous about my health, about dying," he states. "Fifteen to 30 people a year die on this mountain, but that many people die crossing the street in New York. I'm not worried about crossing the street."
"The acclimatization part is the only thing that concerns me. I don't think I'm going to get cerebral edema or anything else that some climbers die from."
Cerebral edema is a swelling on the brain, increasing pressure within the skull which can prevent blood flow and damage or kill blood cells. It is not, of course, the only risk that a climber faces, as a successful ascent has always stood as a testament to a human's ability to succeed where nature has deemed it nearly impossible.
Although Layfield is looking forward to finding out what the climb will be like, Pat Morrow is someone who can look back upon a litany of climbing accomplishments, including the Seven Summits, to offer his opinion.
Morrow, from British Columbia, found himself in a unique position to complete the newly recognized Seven Summits after he topped Mt. Everest in 1982: when talk of the Seven Summits made the rounds, he had already completed three of them, so he set about completing the circuit and finished in 1986.
Morrow spoke with SLAM! Wrestling to relay his experiences and offer insight into what awaits Layfield. "There's great risk not just for him, but for the guides and in the case of Everest, the sherpas," he flatly states. "There's risk with someone who doesn't know what they're doing."
Layfield readily gives great acclaim to Mountain Madness, his team emanating from Seattle. "They've been on this mountain for 20-something years," he expresses with evident gratitude for their coaching. "I feel very comfortable with them."
Still, Morrow draws a clear distinction between people such as himself, a lifelong climber who had been exploring the Canadian Rockies for 12 years before attempting his first high-altitude climb, and those who, while well-intentioned, are using climbing as a means to another end rather than for the achievement itself. Proper preparation, he warns, may take longer than the time that someone like Layfield has granted themselves.
"It doesn't matter how physically fit you are at sea-level, you never know what the lack of oxygen will do to you until you get up there, and each person has a different body chemistry," Morrow elaborates.
"It's not how fit you are, it's how psychologically adaptive you are. Combine that with the cold, while your digestive system shuts down and it's very hard to digest food, and dehydration takes its toll. It's really evident and you hit a wall."
Layfield, for his part, seems not unconcerned but perhaps unfazed by these challenges that await. "My only concern is that I don't acclimatize well, and there's nothing I can do about that," he says. "That's genetic. I'd hate to get up there and not complete the climb. That would be devastating, but I don't think it will happen. I've been up to 15,000 feet and had absolutely no problem."
Ron Simmons and JBL wearing their lifestyles on their shirts.
With much of the focus naturally on achieving that euphoric success upon reaching the first summit, Layfield is granting himself little time to rest before moving on. "I haven't had a beer in 70 days, but when I get down, if I make it, I might have a cold beer and a pizza," he allows. "But then I only have about 12 weeks until I go to Kilimanjaro, and then about eight weeks until I go to South America, and only three weeks between that and Antarctica."
Morrow, who has seen the act of climbing mountains become more of an act of marketing than a test of personal endurance (he describes the current state of climbing Everest as a "conga line" to the summit), has hopes for someone like Layfield to "fall in love with climbing and continue to use it as a personal challenge in the future".
For Layfield, though, it's quite literally becoming an act of training himself to think one step ahead and no further. "Three mountains this year, three next year, and Everest in 2014, but nothing matters if I don't climb the one mountain ahead of me," he makes clear.
For a man who thrived on jeers and catcalls to fuel his performance, John Layfield is now flush with support for his cause by the people of Bermuda, most especially the kids that he seeks to point in the right direction, his former employees, and even those that used to boo his brash and snivelling persona as the man they loved to hate.
If he succeeds in planting a Bermudian flag at the seven highest points of the world, then it will be a success by any measurable quality for the self-described "45-year-old-man with a broken back."
King of the mountain, indeed.
EDITOR's NOTE: John Layfield encourages readers to visit sevensummitsforkids.com, and his public Facebook page (featuring a picture of Layfield "in my 1970s Brisco Brothers t-shirt") for updated information on his journey.
JBL bio and story archive
Seven Summits Bermuda website
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Bermuda's Family Centre
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Dave Hillhouse is a screenwriter and teacher living near Niagara Falls, and hopes that Layfield arrives at the base of each mountain in his bull-horned limousine to full fanfare.