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Posted: Thursday November 10, 2011 1:09PM ; Updated: Thursday November 10, 2011 2:30PM

Gregory Iron chases his wrestling dreams (cont.)

By Dan Greene, SI.com

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Mike Smith, Dwane Smith, Greg Smith
Gregory's father, Dwane (center), worked to keep the family together (with Gregory on right and brother Mike on left).
Courtesy of Gregory Iron

When the couple separated, their sons chose to live with their mother; she convinced them that Dwane was a monster and won them over with candy. "She had us brainwashed," her oldest son says now, "but it turned out to be the worst decision possible." Gloria and the boys bounced up and down Cleveland's West 50th Street, boiling water for baths after the water was shut off, chased out whenever landlords realized their money wasn't coming. Greg and Mike spent long nights alone wondering where their mother was as they took care of their baby brother, Zach, hiding his formula in the closet so she couldn't sell that too. They spent a stint with an aunt and uncle 45 minutes away in Wellington, before Gloria went to jail in 1999 and Dwane won custody in the divorce. Finally the boys' lives began to steady.

Amid the whirlwind of taunts and evictions, wrestling was Greg's refuge. He had become a fan at his grandmother's house before he was old enough to read, watching the weekly TV shows and ordering pay-per-view supercards. He remained enthralled after her death, paying classmates with allowance money to tape shows he couldn't afford. He found sanctuary in his gargantuan idols, loving none of them more than Hogan -- Grandma's favorite too. At her funeral, an 8-year-old Greg slipped a Hogan action figure into her casket. As Iron remembers now, "He was that larger-than-life superhero that I wanted to be like someday."

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At the age of 19 -- just after WrestleMania 22, as Greg marks time -- he took his first steps into a makeshift ring in the basement of a brick box of a building called Turner's Hall, home of bingo games and Cleveland All-Pro Wrestling. After studying communications for a semester at Cuyahoga Community College, hoping to be a wrestling announcer, Greg missed spring registration because his car had broken down. That's when he scrapped the sideline plans and aimed for the ring. By then he'd packed 30 pounds onto what was once a 115-pound frame through creative weightlifting -- unevenly gripped bench presses, pull-downs with his back to the machine -- with a grip he couldn't break if he wanted to, forced by applying pressure to his palm to curl his fingers down. He called the number on a flier for CAPW and paid $50 to get what counts as a tryout in wrestling. ("I basically got beat up," he says.) He passed the test when he came back a second time for more.

His stage name plucked from his youth, when he'd call himself an "iron man" before anyone could call him worse, Iron took to learning the craft of hip-tosses and Irish whips and locking up an opponent with one dependable arm. Iron's trainer, a gruff man called J.T. Lightning, would challenge him before each new assignment, warning him that if he couldn't do this, he couldn't be a wrestler. Iron found a way to complete each one, adjusting as needed, turning to his left to bounce off the ropes with his good arm, jumping back up from every bump.

When his first opponent, an old-school tough guy named Michael Hellborn, asked him after his match if he hit him too hard, Iron snapped back, "Don't pity me." When Lightning took liberties with him in the ring, he took the bloodying and never asked why. When some guys slammed his head to the canvas so badly during a battle royal that he couldn't remember the match when he got backstage, he resisted going to the hospital. When he eventually gave in, he ended up staying in the ICU for three days with a bleeding brain -- the doctors said that if he'd gone to sleep, he might never have woken up. And when he ignored his doctor's advice and returned to the ring two months later, PWO turned his post-concussive fragility into a storyline.

Dwane comes to some shows; though predetermined outcomes be damned, he hates to see his kid lose. Mike makes it when he can. Zach, now 13, shows up to nearly all the local ones to root on his big brother; he wants to be a wrestler too someday. Gloria used to come from time to time, wincing when her son took a beating. She stopped coming a couple of years ago when she moved away. The last time Iron spoke to her was at the beginning of 2010 when he called to discuss Zach's missing Xbox. "In this life you only get one mama," she warned. "Maybe you'll appreciate me when I'm gone." She hung up.

Six months later, on July 4, 2010, Gloria overdosed on cocaine in a homeless shelter. She was 49. Iron was a pallbearer at the funeral. Afterward his aunts and uncles wanted to catch up with Gloria's oldest son, but Iron wanted to escape. He drove to a punk rock festival downtown, where wrestling matches served as sideshow to bands he'd never heard of. It was 95 degrees and humid when Iron wrestled Dave Crist outdoors before a small crowd that couldn't have cared less. After 10 minutes Crist pinned him and he went home.

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This summer had been rough for Iron. He'd lost his job at a local hardware store after clashing with a new manager who told him to choose between selling handsaws and his dreams. Others pitched in to help, Dwane taking him out for groceries, Klasinski no longer collecting rent. Mike, an assistant manager at a Chipotle, lent his brother $50 to help get him to an All-American Wrestling show he was working July 23 in Berwyn, Ill., a suburb 10 miles west of Chicago. It was there that WWE star CM Punk lent his hand to Iron's cause.

After Iron wrestled a tag-team match with Colt Cabana, one of the indie circuit's biggest names and Punk's real-life best friend, Cabana lauded Iron on the microphone, and then went backstage. When he returned to the ring he was accompanied by the man at the center of the wrestling universe, CM Punk himself. Punk quieted the crowd, which had begun chanting his name, then apologized for his language and turned to tell a weeping Iron, "You're f---in' awesome." Punk gave a speech of his own before he and Cabana lifted Iron in the air for a lap around the ring. There was the newborn in the incubator now pointing to a rowdy audience in appreciation, the kid they called a gimp hoisted on the shoulders of greats.

The moment was a YouTube hit, its multiple iterations totaling about 150,000 hits. New fans reached out to him on Facebook, Twitter and however else they could, telling Iron how much his story meant to them. Says Dwane, "The stuff that that guy said about him, it just broke my heart -- but it was a positive breaking my heart. I started tearing up. I was very proud of him."

 
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