In the year since C.M. Punk—on temporary hiatus from WWE but serving both as the company’s champion and its most talked about figure since the height of the late-90s Attitude Era—christened him as being “fucking awesome,” Gregory Iron has been called an inspiration so many times the words have lost their meaning. Iron, a six-year veteran of professional wrestling, does the same things many men and woman scraping out an existence in independent wrestling do. He trains. He takes brutal road trips for bookings that don’t pay much. He has learned to shoulder nights of physical abuse before a paying crowd. Iron does these things exceptionally well, insisting that he is no different from any other professional wrestler, but he does them with one crucial difference: he suffers from cerebral palsy. His right arm is withered, his range of motion is nowhere near that of your typical wrestler, and he’s had to adapt many of wrestling’s most basic maneuvers to work through his limitations. In short, that Gregory Iron excels at something most able-bodied human beings fail at is incredible.
But, in an industry that’s been around as long as wrestling, that a skilled competitor would come along with a severe disability isn’t exactly new. In fact, Iron has wrestled against and partnered with perhaps the most famous such individual in wrestling, Zach Gowen, who lost one of his legs at a young age to cancer and went on to an improbable run on WWE television where, every week, he was involved with titans like Hulk Hogan, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Vince McMahon, and Brock Lesnar. Iron has dreams of reaching World Wrestling Entertainment and has tried out for them in the past, always with the same response: “Maybe next time.”
So Iron continues to grind, sacrificing his weekends and logging endless hours on the road to work for outfits like CHIKARA, Absolute Intense Wrestling, PRIME Wrestling, and Chicago’s AAW. Iron’s moment with C.M. Punk, as described by Colt Cabana on his popular Art of Wrestling podcast, was a mitzvah, a celebration of somebody who’d officially made it. Punk’s speech, the parade he and Cabana gave Iron around the ring, the standing ovation from the crowd, all of it was a gift, a springboard from which Iron could launch a bigger, better career. In short order, the video of Punk, Cabana, and Iron went viral on YouTube. Features on him appeared on ESPN and Sports Illustrated‘s websites. A story about him from a Cleveland television station won an Emmy. He was a guest on FOX News Network’s Fox and Friends.
For an independent wrestler, this level of coverage was unprecedented. Buoyed by his new-found semi-fame, Iron launched a social media campaign where he lobbied for inclusion in the WWE’s annual Royal Rumble event, a battle royal that typically features anywhere from 30-40 wrestlers, including past favorites who aren’t on the regular WWE roster. Needless to say, Iron didn’t compete in the Royal Rumble, though there’s certainly a possibility that he will. To Iron, signing a WWE developmental contract would be the fulfillment of a life-long dream, something he’s wanted since his grandmother introduced him to the exploits of Hulk Hogan, but in 2011, with the eyes of the wrestling world upon him, it wasn’t meant to be. This, however, is not the story of a dream deferred. It’s the story of a curious side-effect of Iron’s quest, that fans in his hometown of Cleveland would look at Greg and his accomplishments and do the unthinkable: boo him out of the building.
Wrestling is not without its share of unusual villains. Greg’s hero, Hulk Hogan, lectured his fans on the importance of training, praying, and eating vitamins for a decade before turning his back on a legion of Hulkamaniacs, and many diminutive ex-WWE superstars—Gowen among them—continue to ply their trade in bingo halls and National Guard armories as brash, cocky egomaniacs, indignant that they’ve been “reduced” to wrestling in a high school gymnasium. Iron is unique among wrestling’s unusual heels in that he was forced into his villainy by a fan-base that rejected him and sided with his tormentor, Iron’s teacher-turned-bully, Josh Prohibition.
To understand fan indifference to Gregory Iron is to understand the atmosphere of your typical Absolute Intense Wrestling event. Here is a crowd that cheers for the high-flying, hard-working exploits of Johnny Gargano, who laugh along with the practiced comedic flow of a Colt Cabana contest, who lust for the blood of hardcore legends like Madman Pondo, but, when given a feel-good, hometown story like Iron’s, are unreceptive to the point that it bears asking if wrestling’s Crippled Crusader personally wronged them. In wrestling terms, Cleveland ranks as a “smart” crowd, but to listen to them debate wheather or not the participants in a no-holds-barred death match employed the use of enough fluorescent light tubes is to wonder if the Cleveland audience is too smart for its own good. Their attitude certainly contributed to the weird atmosphere during Iron’s “Dream Tag Team” match at last year’s Nightmare Before X-Mas 5, where Iron and hand-picked partner Cabana—mere weeks removed from Iron’s christening in Berwin, IL—took on Prohibition and his dream partner, “M-Dogg 20” Matt Cross. The storytelling of that match was exceptionally clear. Prohibition, already a bully, sought to ruin Greg’s good story by calling on his friend Cross, reforming a tag team from pornographer Rob Black’s doomed XPW project. To make matters worse, Cross had just recently attempted to break into WWE by participating in its Tough Enough reality show, getting eliminated early despite a decade of experience because he didn’t show enough flash. No matter. Cross and Prohibition—otherwise known as Youthinazia—are Cleveland-area legends and were cheered as such. Colt Cabana, ever the crowd favorite, was showered with applause. Gregory Iron, in a theme that remained constant for many of his AIW appearances in late 2011 and early 2012, was heckled mercilessly by the crowd. He and Cabana lost the match. What was slated as a Dream Tag Team Match was, for Iron, the beginning of a long, puzzling nightmare.
Though many experts and insiders point to wrestling as a cyclical business—something that’ll be around regardless of popular favor or the economy—wrestlers live by a singular creed: adapt or die. This applies to all facets of the wrestling business. If an injury robs a high-flying luchador of his speed and agility, he must adapt. If a big company goes out of business, the community must adapt. If the crowd in a certain building doesn’t like you, you either adapt or are swiftly run out of town. Parallel to the case of Gregory Iron is that of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who made his World Wrestling Federation debut in 1996 under the name “Rocky Maivia,” a tribute/cash in on the legacies of his father, “Soul Man” Rocky Johnson, and grandfather, “High Chief” Peter Maivia. Everything about Rocky Maivia screamed “babyface,” from his clean-cut hair to his beaming smile to the tassels adorning his gear. The WWF was on the verge of seismic change, much of which happened on the shoulders of Dwayne Johnson, but in 1995 they were still a few steps behind their audience, who did not take well to the future smiling star of Hollywood blockbusters, mercilessly chanting “Die, Rocky, die!” in arenas across the country. Maivia eventually turned on the crowd, spoke of himself in third person, adopted the nickname “The Rock,” and spurred the Attitude Era, becoming arguably the most popular wrestler of all-time. On May 11th this year, taking the microphone after losing to a wrestler named Ophidian in the first round of the J.T. Lightning Invitational Tournament, Greg was looking to do something much smaller, but no less noble, than The Rock: he was looking to turn fan attitude against him into a positive. He was looking to stick in Absolute Intense Wrestling.
Iron’s tirade that evening was a classic bad guy promo, its vitriol towards the audience couched in truth, much like the classic heel lectures of Cactus Jack in ECW, Steve Austin in 2001, and the C.M. Punk currently on television every week. As Cactus Jack, Mick Foley once intoned that “wrestling will never be respected,” the obvious offshoot of that being that professional wrestlers, too, would never see the respect they deserved. Foley’s revelation came to him in a hospital room in Germany, where a nurse threw a piece of his ear into a garbage can while laughing about wrestling’s public image as a theatre of the fake and bizarre, never mind the lump of disembodied flesh in her hand. Iron’s was much more public—a group of like-minded people who previously cheered him screaming “Fuck you, Greg!” and worse during his every appearance—but the common thread linking Iron to Foley, Austin, and Punk—respect—is no less powerful because an odd subsection of wrestling fans congregating in one city have chosen unilaterally to hate his guts. Iron’s a man who got the crap kicked out of him by J.T. Lightning, Prohibition, and others far beyond the point when most members in the audience would have quit. He’s suffered debilitating injuries, nearly died for the sport that he loved and participated in, often for no money. In short, Iron’s a man whose dues, cerebral palsy or not, were paid long ago; who are you to tell him otherwise?
Before that evening, had you voiced your doubts about the ability of a crippled wrestler to turn full-blown megalomaniac, you wouldn’t be alone. In wrestling, everything’s a gimmick: a cocked eyebrow, a blown knee, a punishing disease. On The Art of Wrestling, Iron acknowledges that cerebral palsy, like the t-shirts he sells at shows, is something that he’s used to get noticed. Considering Punk, considering his bookings in Chicago, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York, it’s worked. Sure, Iron has talent, but cerebral palsy’s a kicker, something most people haven’t seen in wrestling before. When Iron says that he doesn’t want his affliction to be a crutch, he means it. One only needs to witness his springboard somersault splash—a move he uses utilizing his shins, rather than his feet, as is customary—or the way he’s been suplexed, kicked, and piledriven by much larger men to realize that Iron is very much a wrestler’s wrestler. There are no easy paydays for him. But his disability has been the fous of Iron’s run in CHIKARA, the point of his feud against Zach Gowen in PRIME, his good humor and determination in the face of such an ailment engendering sympathy where an otherwise healthy wrestler of his size and skill is perhaps looked over by a shrewd promoter or tired crowd. It’s something Iron realizes has a limited shelf-life—both in the independents and should the WWE come calling—something he’d eventually need to shed or use differently to truly succeed.
In Absolute Intense Wrestling, Iron is using his cerebral palsy as a tool to further provoke an already incensed crowd. He’s also using the notoriety gained from Punk and Cabana to stoke the AIW audience’s hatred of him. Referring to the pair as “Phil and Scott,” Iron makes a show of the things he’s accomplished without the use of his right arm. He’s smashed the glasses of a contest winner, assaulted a fan, and has turned to the legal advice of fellow wrestler, Veda Scott. Scott’s another wrestler who has achieved tremendous success despite the obstacles placed before her. She completed her training at the prestigious Ring of Honor wrestling academy and began touring the United States while pursuing a law degree, taking on an unfathomably busy schedule despite the rather limited set of opportunities given to women wrestlers at both the national and independent level. (Recently, a number of articles have questioned if there are too many promotions featuring mostly or exclusively women’s wrestling, something that’s never been asked its male counterpart.) On Ring of Honor television, she’s merely the promotion’s interviewer. In most promotions, she’s a snide hipster chick whose disdain for the crowd is palpable. In Absolute Intense Wrestling, she is Gregory Iron’s legal adviser, a concerned citizen with a Juris doctorate who believes that Iron is discriminated against by the company and its fans due to his disability. Not only has Scott won her client regular time on the microphone, but headed into AIW’s last show, she arranged stipulations unprecedented in the history of professional wrestling: by rule, opponents seeking to beat Gregory Iron by pinfall must keep his shoulders to the mat for a four count, a world of difference from the traditional three.
The result of this new rule couldn’t have played out any better for Iron, who took to the microphone at Point Break to challenge Josh Prohibition to one last match to settle their long-standing issue. Despite being jumped, despite the distraction of Veda Scott, Prohibition took control of the contest, obliterating Iron with his Drunken Driver double-underhook piledriver. With Prohibition covering the former Handicapped Hero, the referee counted to three and called for the bell, only to be told by Scott that he had to adhere to the Gregory Iron Rule and count to four. Prohibition, arguing with Scott over the referee’s shoulder, was in perfect position for Iron to pick him off and roll him up for the traditional three count, the AIW fans justifiably upset.
As unlikely as it sounds, he and Scott are the hottest act in the company. Currently without a match at Absolute Intense Wrestling’s Hell on Earth 8, their appearance, along with the promise of a statement by the two, has been advertised, the speculation being that Scott will argue for a title match on behalf of her client. Given their success, the way they’ve steamrolled through AIW’s management figures thus far, it’s hard to see a scenario where Iron or Scott lose their argument, where a crowd that has come to hate Iron goes home happy. Backstage at Point Break, Gregory Iron explains his recent actions to the camera by sarcastically reciting the lyrics to “Real American,” the song that played Hulk Hogan to the ring countless thousands of times. “When it comes crashing down and it hurts to hide,” Iron sneers, “I’ve got to be a man, it don’t help to hide.” The message is clear: Gregory Iron will go on being an inspiration, whether you like it or not.