Gregory Iron wiped the sweat from his eyes, but the mirage in front of him did not disappear.
Were the synapses in Iron’s brain misfiring due to a concussion he suffered during the match, causing the illusion? These things happen in wrestling.
Iron shook his head to clear the cognitive fog, and took stock of his surroundings. Everything else seemed normal — or, as normal as can be expected at an independent professional wrestling show, anyway. A couple-hundred fans, mostly young men, were screaming inside the sweltering confines of the Berwyn Eagles Club in a suburb of Chicago.
But there, directly in front of Iron, looking him straight in the eyes, stood someone who shouldn’t have been there.
CM Punk. The champ. The single most popular professional wrestler in the world.
Then Punk offered a handshake. He extended his left hand, knowing that cerebral palsy had long ago curled Iron’s right hand into a limp claw.
Iron extended his good hand, and, the moment they clasped hands, clarity cut through the fog.
“This is actually happening,” Iron assured himself.
This kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen to him. He wasn’t supposed to be a wrestler at all, let alone one sharing a ring with the world champion.
He was supposed to be the disabled kid, forever watching from the sidelines. He was the runt born so premature that his one-pound body could have fit into an oven mitt. He was kid with the underdeveloped right side and the hooked hand, whom doctors said might never tie his shoelaces, let alone become an athlete.
Yet here he was, in a ring, wearing trunks and boots, face-to-face with the champ.
Then Punk spoke into the microphone, and he didn’t mince words: “You’re fuckin’ awesome,” he said, staring into Iron’s teary eyes.
The crowd roared in agreement.
It was July 2011, and Punk had recently performed one of the most talked-about wrestling angles in years: leaving WWE as the champion after winning the title at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view.
Because Punk was ostensibly between contracts with WWE, he wasn’t precluded from making public appearances on whim, so he accepted an invitation from his friend, indie wrestling impresario Colt Cabana, to hang out at the independent show in Berwyn. Cabana and Iron had just performed as a tag team that night, and Punk, watching from the locker room, was duly impressed with what he saw.
Punk continued: “You overcome more than I ever have just waking up every morning. The fact that you became a pro wrestler… you didn’t let anybody tell you that you couldn’t do it. I saw something special watching you in this ring.”
Punk and Cabana then hoisted Iron onto their shoulders and paraded him around the ring, awash in cheers from the audience.
The whole thing lasted only a few minutes. For Iron, though, its effects will last a lifetime.
“Looking back, I still can’t quite believe it,” Iron tells WrestleNewz.
“If you had told me as a kid that I’d grow up to be a wrestler, and that the WWE champion would be me ‘over’ like that, I never would have believed it.”
That night in the ring with Punk transformed his career. Though he’s still not a major star, he is one of the most in-demand performers on the independent circuit.
He goes by the nickname of the “Handicapped Hero,” and frequently tags with Zach Gowen, the former WWE headliner whose left leg was amputated at age eight.
Growing up, the undersized Gregory Smith escaped the the real world — where cerebral palsy robbed him of mobility and a violent, drug-filled household robbed him of childhood innocence — by losing himself in the fictional world of professional wrestling. He, like millions of other children, found a hero in Hulk Hogan, and dreamed of being just like the Hulkster (through his weakened arms prevented him from tearing off his “Hulk Rules” t-shirt the way his idol always did).
Wrestling was, and remains, a world dominated by giants, where a five-foot-five, 154-pound pipsqueak with cerebral palsy does not quite belong.
And that, Iron says, is precisely why he belongs there.
“I represent the underdog,” he says. “I don’t belong, but I persevere anyway. Will I always win? Of course not. Will I always try? Yes. Harder than anyone.”
It’s an inspiring outlook that has captured the imagination of many, aside from Punk. Sports Illustrated published a feature profile of him. He was recruited to a regular analysis segment on the Chair Shot Reality video show. A Cleveland TV news crew won an Emmy for a short documentary about him.
He got calls from journalists, from independent promoters, from fellow wrestlers.
The call he hasn’t yet received is the one he has dreamed about his entire life: the call from WWE.
Like practically every wrestler grinding it out for small crowds and even smaller paydays on the independent circuit, Iron has big-league aspirations. He knows his disability might preclude that from ever happening — or it could be exactly what gets him noticed by a company that rarely shies away from novelty and controversy.
An articulate and compelling writer, he is currently penning his autobiography, which he hopes will have an audience far wider than just the wrestling subculture.
“It’s much more than a wrestling book,” he says. “It’s a book for everyone who has chased a dream despite huge obstacles placed in their way,” he says. “It’s my story, but I think it’s also a universal story.”
Writing the memoir has required Iron to relive some of the trauma he endured through childhood: the bullying he endured because of his handicap, the violent fights between his parents, the downward spiral and eventual death-by-overdose of his crack-addicted mother.
Because of such childhood struggles, Iron says, his adulthood successes are even sweeter, albeit surreal at times.
Standing in the ring, being told he was “awesome” by CM Punk, was an enormously important moment in his life. But it won’t be the last, he says.
“If everything goes according to plan, the next time you see me in the ring with Punk, it’ll be on Raw.”
It would be unwise to bet against him, given how many odds he has already defied.