Gregory Iron chases his wrestling dreams (cont.)
More people now recognize Iron and approach him at shows -- he's more accessible at the gymnasiums, ballrooms and bingo halls where he works than performers in the 10,000-seat arenas of TV pro wrestling. Like thousands of other fledgling independent wrestlers, Iron hopes for a WWE contract and a chance to work the big-time shows he grew up watching. His supporters think he's a perfect fit, his cerebral palsy a ready-made storyline. "You wanna to see him get the crap kicked out of him," says fellow wrestler Rickey Page, "and then see him come back." It helps that the kid can work: Klasinski says he's as good as anybody on his roster. "If you look at a guy like Greg and don't see dollar signs and marketability, you're missing the point," says Joe Dombrowski, PWO's producer and play-by-play announcer.
In the parking lot after the AAW show, when Iron asked Cabana why he and Punk did all that, Cabana said "it was a gift," and now it was up to Iron to run with it. But there's only so much a wrestler can do. Iron has taken all the bookings he can get, wrestling whenever and wherever he can to gain exposure and get noticed. In 2010 he worked a pair of tryout camps in front of WWE officials in Kentucky, hoping to land a developmental deal. At the first he over-rehearsed his speaking and screwed up some drills, but at the second a trainer said he was the hardest-working guy there. The head of WWE talent relations even told him he could be a good fit if they brought back the cruiserweight division, or maybe as the underdog buddy of a guy like John Cena. Yet the cruiserweight revival remains a rumor. Cena's still a solo act.
"I know it doesn't happen overnight," Iron says, then shrugs. "But I want something to happen."
"I don't know what I'm gonna do," Iron says. It's Sunday morning, some 12 hours after the PWO TV taping. His black 1999 Taurus is cruising on Interstate 280 in New Jersey, faded Hulk Hogan air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror. Two empty cans of Monster sit in the console cupholder, remnants of an overnight drive Iron's done most of himself, handing over the wheel to Boone for only 90 minutes. Iron's sore ankle spent much of the ride swaddled in a plastic bag filled with ice from the gas station where he paid $10 for a shower at 4 a.m., and now he's wondering whether he and his opponent can work around his ankle to put on a compelling match at the CHIKARA show in Manhattan that afternoon. And what if when he arrives he finds out he's supposed to win?
"It's a little bit dumb for you to come out here today," says Boone, himself no stranger to wrestling through pain, "but it's how you roll."
The wrestling life is cruel. All those falls take a toll on even consenting bodies, the long road trips doing no favors. The industry has taken its lumps in recent years thanks to steroid and human growth hormone scandals and a rash of premature deaths, many caused by the drugs some use to build muscle or for energy to perform night after night or to sleep at odd hours or to dull the pain. Like most of his wrestler friends, Iron shuns pills and doesn't drink or smoke. He pounds energy drinks. He ices whatever ails him.
Some guys get out while still relatively intact. The beat down at the PWO show was part of a storyline to write Hobo Joe, Iron's tag-team partner, out of the company. But even many who walk away end up coming back for more, never quite saying goodbye. Josh Prohibition, Iron's friend and mentor since Turner's Hall, now teaches high school government full-time and coaches baseball, but he got the OK from his principal and came back for a match against Iron this summer. Hellborn, Iron's first opponent, retired two years ago before his weakened knees got even worse, but he's working an upcoming charity show. Even the legendary Ric Flair, given an emotional send-off ceremony in 2008, is still flopping around at age 62.
Iron imagines his future differently. His underdog story comes with a shelf life. "It works now because I'm still a kid," he says. "I can't be 30, 33, 36 and doing this." Besides, he wants to walk normally when he's 50. He hopes to get signed to the WWE, wrestle a few years and then move to a role backstage. If he gains some fame, maybe he'll parlay that into motivational speaking. If none of that works out, well, he doesn't like to think about that. He's teaching himself video editing. He still has just that one semester of college credit. "There would always be an empty part of me," he says of leaving wrestling altogether. "I can't imagine it."
The CHIKARA match in Manhattan goes fine. Iron spends the preshow hours limping in circles around Highline Ballroom, testing his freshly wrapped ankle and nervously telling any willing listener about his injury. But he and Icarus, assigned by the promoter to concoct a win for the underdog, keep most of the match on the ground. It's only during a pair of top-rope leaps that Iron's ankle truly hurts, though he's still able to roll Icarus up for the pin after eight minutes. The match is enough to impress a well-known wrestler in the audience known as Homicide, who pulls Iron aside during intermission and tells him, "Everything Punk said was true."
Later that night Iron recounts the show while walking gingerly past blocks of Manhattan brownstones, flanked by Boone and Gargano, who wrestled on the show and will ride back with his friends to Cleveland. Iron describes the way the pain shoots from his ankle up to his toes, then mentions how another wrestler speculated Iron might have hurt his Achilles tendon. He distrusts such guesswork but fears even the suggestion. "That's, like, career-ending," he says. "I can't afford to have that."
Iron gets behind the wheel of his Taurus, stomach full after a 20-McNugget dinner and ready to put 450 more miles on a car that's racked up nearly 2,000 in the past week. By morning they'll be home, where Iron will continue to ice his ankle and begin walking in a brace. Soon he'll begin working at a Vitamin Shoppe, but that's just something to do between shows to pay the bills. After two weeks of rest he'll be back in the ring, ankle still sore, following Punk's advice to wrestle as much as he can, hoping to catch the right person's eye, waiting for a phone call that will change his life.
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