Gregory Iron, the Handicapped Hero, chases his wrestling dreams
Gregory Iron 24, who has cerebral palsy, is driven to become a top pro wrestler
Wrestling was a refuge for Iron, who was taunted and whose family had problems
Praise from WWE star CM Punk at a summer event has helped raise Iron's profile
Gregory Iron is hurting. He's shirtless and barefoot, blue jeans sagging from his hips as all five feet and four inches of him limp out of the Pro Wrestling Ohio locker room at The Arena, a 27,000-square foot entertainment complex in a strip mall a half-hour south of Cleveland. On this mid-September Saturday night, Iron and the rest of PWO have just finished a three-hour taping for a local cable channel. The 25-year-old Iron leans on a small circular table 30 feet from an idle mechanical bull, his face dimmed with disappointment. Some two hours earlier he had been beaten down in the ring by the Dead Wrestling Society, a trio of heels who struck him in the head with a folding chair.
A blond boy in a camouflage shirt, about 12 years old, sheepishly approaches the table and asks the so-called Handicapped Hero for an autograph. Iron obliges. "You got banged up pretty bad," the boy says.
The boy is right, but the chair shots are just some of the most recent blows. Surely the boy is not referring to the real-life basis for Iron's character -- the reason his right wrist is contracted, fingers clenched or bent at odd angles, forearm unable to turn over. If he tucks his right arm at his side or obscures it from view, you'd never guess that there's anything disabled about the upbeat kid whose pectoral muscles stretch his T-shirt -- no, Iron is not your average person with cerebral palsy. And few would guess how he's been otherwise banged up over the years: the poverty, his mom's addiction, the unplanned beatings he's taken in the ring.
But none of that is hurting him after the PWO taping. It's his damn left ankle, swollen from an awkward landing during a match in Wisconsin the weekend before. During the taping, the ankle acted up as soon as he planted to throw his first forearm. He couldn't run or jump and now he fears he might need to see a doctor. It's probably a sprain, he tells himself, and that's nothing compared to everything else he's endured. But the pain casts doubt on his next show for CHIKARA, an East Coast promotion, in New York City. And if Iron can't wrestle, what does he have?
On the afternoon of the PWO taping, Iron is sitting on his bed in a second-story room in West Cleveland that he rents from PWO owner Wally Klasinski, the stepfather of his on-screen rival and best friend, Johnny Gargano. Cats roam the stairwell. Graffiti'd garages bookend the alley out back. On one of his walls is a pinboard filled with photos of him meeting grapplers Jake "The Snake" Roberts, the Sandman and others. Against another wall rests a bookcase lined with hundreds of wrestling VHS tapes and DVDs. On a third hangs a framed Hulk Hogan poster. The rest of the wall is bare.
"I don't live a life of luxury," Iron says, seated on a WWF Attitude blanket and WCW/nWo sheets. "I don't need much. Wrestling makes me happy."
Long before he was Gregory Iron, professional wrestler, he was Greg Smith, one-pound baby born one month prematurely. He was diagnosed with spastic cerebral palsy at 10 months after his father, Dwane, noticed he only picked up toys with his left hand. Greg spent his first eight years in weekly therapy sessions, happily rolling Play-Doh and tossing bouncy balls, never realizing he was doing exercises to strengthen his muscles, and unaware that his struggles with the right side of his body were uncommon. He drew pictures in his backyard clubhouse, played in the sandbox behind his house, thought himself just like anyone else -- until he started school. There, kids thumped their curled hands into their chests, calling him a retard or a cripple or gimpy. After that, Greg mostly kept to himself.
Home wasn't much more comforting. Dwane was a maintenance worker for the Cleveland school board and his wife, Gloria, worked as a printer while they raised Greg and his brother, Mike, a year his junior. By the time Greg was 8, the Smith family began unraveling. After her mother died, Gloria's longtime dalliances with drugs became a full-on habit. Items around the house began disappearing -- the microwave, the boys' Sega Genesis -- sold for a fix. Strange men turned up at the house, demanding money. Greg and Mike were too young to know that their broken TV antenna had been used to smoke crack, too naive to put things together when a man would spend the night while their father was gone and slip their mother cash when kissing her goodbye. The rent money Dwane left Gloria never made it to the landlord. After his cash also started vanishing, Dwane slept in jeans with his wallet in the front pocket.
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