Another classic from the Sweet Phyllis days. Much respect to Zach for giving an unknown blogger a long and very honest interview. Zach’s still kicking it in the ring and inspiring young people with his amazing story. – KD
By KIP DOYLE
If you’ve been watching for long enough, you can spot patterns and scenarios that repeat over and over again, not just in individual matches, but in the pacing of a two hour show, or in the development of a long term storyline.
Another out-of-control authority figure? Can you believe it? Me too, because we’ve already seen it happen 20 times.
But occasionally, those magical moments occur when something truly unique happens, something you are very unlikely to experience in any other form of entertainment.
That was the case around 10 years ago when WWE debuted Zach Gowen. Gowen was unique in that he was 19, barely trained, and very skinny. Those factors didn’t make him a draw, but the fact that Gowen has only one leg did.
Back in 2003, WWE’s popularity was slowly cooling after reaching a fever pitch through the five previous years. Although the controversial and lucrative “Attitude Era” was coming to a close, the years that immediately followed were ripe with trashy stunts, sexuality and hardcore violence.
Maximizing his resources, WWE head honcho Vince McMahon made sure that his new one-legged wrestler would be part of all of it. McMahon even got in the ring with Gowen on pay-per-view and ended up with a blood-spurting wound on his head before winning the match unceremoniously. It may have been exploitative. At times it was hard to watch, but in all, it was totally captivating.
Gowen, who shocked audiences with his one-legged moonsaults and creative variations on traditionally two-legged maneuvers, was a fixture on WWE TV and pay-per-view for about half a year before being released. The story goes that Gowen’s attitude and immaturity lead to his dismissal. One has to wonder if WWE had much of a long-term vision for Gowen anyhow, considering that his rare victories generally came by way of his opponent’s mistakes, and that he was most often used to make WWE’s biggest monsters look even more monstrous.
Gowen fell fast and far after his release. The kid from Michigan, who lost his leg due to cancer at age 7, went from being ridiculed because of his handicap as a youth to reaching his greatest dreams in large part because of that very handicap, and now it was all over. After his release, he was simply left with the handicap, a damaged ego and a creeping addiction to alcohol and drugs.
A decade later, Gowen is sober thanks to a WWE-sponsored rehab program after receiving treatment in Ann Arbor, Mich. He has a wife, a family, and a new lease on life. He has side gigs as a motivational speaker and stuntman, and at 30 years old, Gowen is also in the best shape of his life. Gowen’s work in the ring still contains his adaptive creativity, but he now has the in-ring chops that only hard work and experience can build.
Gowen and his tag team partner, Gregory Iron, known as The Handicapped Heroes, will take on the Rochester Wrecking Crew at ESW’s “Retaliation” event on Jan. 18 at the St. Johnsonburg Fire Hall in North Tonawanda.
“Growing up, I always felt like I was looking at the world from the sidelines, like I was watching life go by. I never really felt like I was a part of the human race, almost. I kind of felt like an alien, you know?”
ABR: You’re struggles with drugs and alcohol have been well documented, and it’s good to see that you are now in a better place. Explain what it has been like to go through what you did and come out on the other side.
ZACH GOWEN: To get to the point where I am now I had to go to some pretty low places and some pretty dark places. I’m grateful that I had to go through those experiences.
Growing up, I always felt like I was looking at the world from the sidelines, like I was watching life go by. I never really felt like I was a part of the human race, almost. I kind of felt like an alien, you know?
I guess my whole journey, and I didn’t realize this at the time, but I was looking for a connection, right? And whatever that connection is. Whether it is a connection to God, or a connection to the universe, or however you want to describe it; I was just looking for a connection.
And in my journey to find that connection, I found other things that I thought were the answer. I found drugs and alcohol, I found women, I found wrestling. These served as my identity as a human being for a long time. And it wasn’t until all of those things went away and I was left with just the man in the mirror and I was literally forced to do some soul searching. That’s when I found myself and I found that connection.
That process started almost four years ago, at the beginning of 2010 and since I’ve been on this road of recovery, life has been just that: it’s been life. It’s incredibly challenging but it’s also incredibly rewarding. I thank God everyday to wake up with a clear head.
And yes, there is a lot of fear there because I am experiencing everything for the first time. I’m experiencing how to be a husband for the first time, I’m experiencing how to be a father for the first time. I’m experiencing how to start a business for the first time and how to be a sober, responsible adult for the first time, and it’s all very new exciting and rewarding, and I am just really happy to get through all that stuff to the point where I’m at now.
ABR: Most people can’t make it in the pro wrestling world because they don’t have the physical ability to perform at a high level. How did you know that you could do this, even with one leg?
ZG: I was always a really good athlete growing up, but it wasn’t until I saw guys like Rey Misterio, Ultimo Dragon, some of the lucha guys, on American television, where I saw guys that were a little bit undersized, but they made up for it with crazy athleticism and death-defying maneuvers.
And I thought to myself, “I can do that” because, physically, I could. Just watching these guys and seeing these guys do their moves, I knew I could emulate that, one leg or not, because of what I was doing at the time. I was in high school doing high school sports, I was a very good tumbler and I had very good balance, one leg or not.
I had been doing back flips since I was 10-years-old off the couch. It really wasn’t that big of a stretch in my head — in everybody’s else’s head they thought I was crazy, but in my head I saw these undersized guys performing these incredible tactics, and I thought to myself, I can do that.
ABR: How did your trainers handle the challenge of training the first ever pro wrestler with one leg?
ZG: It was new for them as well as it was brand new for me, too. It was a lot of trial and error because no one has ever trained somebody with one leg to be a professional wrestler. So that was brand new to everybody involved, including myself. So it was a lot of me attempting to do something, failing, or it not working, brainstorming, and then figuring out how I can physically do something for it to make sense in the ring or for it to be something spectacular for the people watching .
So basically it was trial and error, and now at 30-years-old, 12 years into the game, I’ve refined my act and I can honestly say that I’ve never been better at what I do. And I can say that from a place of humility because there were a number of years where I wasn’t very good, and I had to struggle, and I had to struggle to find myself as a performer.
But now, at 30-years-old, in shape, and performing a lot, I can say that I’ve never been better and I can say it’s a blessing every time I get into the ring, it really is.
ABR:You were back on television after a long layoff in October, taking on Ring Of Honor TV Champion Matt Taven in a great match. What was it like to get that opportunity?
ZG: Man, that was incredible, and it’s so funny, I didn’t know that was being taped for TV, I thought that was for a house show that they had in Detroit, so I didn’t know that I was on TV until some people started tweeting me saying that it was on TV. Then I got incredibly self conscious, thinking man, if I knew that was going to be on TV I would have done this or that, or I would have done that better. I always second guess myself. I’m my biggest critic.
But no, I’m really proud of that match. I was really excited to be in that locker room and I was really excited to wrestle Taven, who is incredible. He’s really, young, he’s tall, he’s got a good build. He’s charismatic. And to be out there with (Taven’s manager) Truth (Martini), the guy who originally trained me, that was a lot of fun.
It’s something that I’m really proud of and it was an excellent opportunity to wrestle for a company, that normally, you kind of see the situation and you don’t see me as a fit in that company.
So I’m glad I was able to go out there and basically reintroduce myself to the wrestling world and say, “Here I am, I’m working hard, I’m on the road every weekend,” and you know what, hard work pays off because when you do that and you do the next right thing and you try to help others you always get something back. What I got back was an opportunity to wrestler for a very respected company, and you know what, when I compare that to where I was four years ago, I couldn’t beg promoters to book me, and now my phone won’t stop ringing and emails won’t stop going off and really that’s a testament to how I’m living now, and a testament to not giving up.
ABR:You had some incredibly physical encounters with former UFC champion Brock Lesnar during your WWE run. What was it like to work with such a terrifying person, especially during that bloody match on Smackdown in front of your family?
ZG: I think now, at 30-years-old, I might be a little apprehensive, but at the time I was too young and too stupid to be afraid. What’s that saying, “If you’re going to be tough, you better be dumb”? And that’s kind of where I was at that point.
My thought process was, you know, at 20-years-old, nothing hurt, I could get slammed all day and nothing hurt. Plus, the excitement of being at the Joe Louis Arena, an arena I had been to about 25 times watching the Red Wings or watching WWE events.
Being in the middle of that arena performing before my hometown, my family, the adrenaline was flowing so hard that I didn’t feel a thing in that match. I didn’t. I think I went out and partied that night. The idea of doing that now at 30 is kind of scary.
To be in the ring with Brock, someone who literally, uh, he could kill me if he wanted to. That’s how powerful this man is. Have you ever rode on a horse, you can feel the horse’s power? You can feel how strong and how sturdy they are? That’s what it felt like when Brock would pick me up, it literally felt like an animal.
And that’s a testament to Brock’s professionalism, and that’s a testament to his talent and his skill, we were able to go and do that match, and he didn’t hurt me one iota.
ABR: That’s amazing because it is one of the scariest moments I’ve ever watched on WWE television.
“Have you ever rode on a horse, you can feel the horse’s power? You can feel how strong and how sturdy they are? That’s what it felt like when Brock would pick me up, it literally felt like an animal.”
ZG: It is amazing and Brock is amazing and he was always really, really kind to me in WWE and as a performer he’s one of those guys, when flipping through the channels, you have to stop and watch because someone like him comes along once in a lifetime, someone with his physical attributes, so you have to watch it. I have all the respect and love in the world for Brock.
ABR: Along with doing speaking engagements for the youth, I see that you have also moved into stunt work. How did you land that gig and what movies or shows can we see you in?
ZG: It’s kind of a neat story, like I said, in early 2010 was where my journey in recovery began. Part of that journey was making a decision to move into a sober living house. So I lived with, over the period of six months early in my recovery, I lived with 19 different newly sober alcoholics and addicts and it was an incredibly humbling and it was something that I needed to get to the point to where I’m at now.
So I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I was walking through the streets of Ann Arbor I run into a guy that looked familiar and I said, “Hey, my name is Zach.” And he said, “Oh Zach, so nice to see you.”
His name is Dan, Dan Lemieux, and he happens to be Will Ferrell’s stunt double. I knew Dan from 10-15 years before when he was my camp counselor every summer at a camp for kids who had cancer.
I got to talking to him, and one thing lead to another, and he put me in contact with another guy, and I got into some movies, which is pretty incredible to think about. I was in the most recent “Harold and Kumar” movie (“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas”) and “Hatchet 3,” which is a pretty big horror franchise. It’s out on Blu-ray and DVD now, and it’s an awesome movie, even if you’re not a horror fan it’s a lot of fun to watch.
ABR: Tell us about your “Handicapped Heroes” tag team partner, Gregory Iron, who you will be teaming up with against The Rochester Wrecking Crew in North Tonawanda?
“Instead of, like, sitting back and thinking, ‘Oh man, Greg’s got that market cornered, Greg has the handicapped market cornered, he’s taking my spotlight’ or whatever selfish thought I was thinking at the time, I realized that if we joined forces here this could be something bigger than the both of us…”
ZG: Greg is an amazing performer and I have to credit Greg for much of my recent success, or renaissance, in terms of pro wrestling.
Greg, I’m a major reason that he is a professional wrestler. Greg suffers from cerebral palsy and he didn’t think he could ever be a wrestler until he saw me on TV in WWE. And when he saw me on TV that lit a fire under him to get him off his butt, get in shape, and do his best to live his dream. I am the one who inspired that.
And I knew Greg’s story for a while, but it wasn’t until I was in a good place mentally and spiritually that I could truly understand the gravity of Greg’s story and my impact on his life. Once I understood that and saw how talented he was as a wrestler, and I saw that he didn’t live too far from me, I thought to myself, you know what, there is a built in story here.
Instead of like, sitting back and thinking, “Oh man, Greg’s got that market cornered, Greg has the handicapped market cornered, he’s taking my spotlight” or whatever selfish thought I was thinking at the time, I realized that if we joined forces here this could be something bigger than the both of us and we could actually help out a lot of people and plant seeds of inspiration all over the country and all over the world at every opportunity.
So I sat down with Greg and we put this idea together two years ago, maybe a year and a half ago. But I swear to God, I feel that our matches, you can put them against any tag team in the world.
Nobody can do what we do, and nobody can elicit, the visceral, emotional reaction that I can’t get on my own and Greg can’t get on his own either. But together, combining forces, man, it’s really powerful and really a sight to see and the fans have been incredibly receptive.
Any chance we get to go to a new venue to work for a new promotion to work for potential new fans is really incredible and we are grateful for the opportunity.
I think it goes beyond wrestling, man, I think it hits people on a human level.
ABR:What is your tag team finisher?
ZG: He does the jumping flatliner, he calls it the “Handicapped Parking,” and I hit them with that moonsault, man. We have to work in tandem to overcome, and that’s how we have to win our matches, by working together.
ABR:Is there anything else you want to say to your fans in Buffalo and around the world?
ZG: I just want to say thanks. A debt of gratitude to the fans who have remembered who I am and to the fans who are going to become fans hopefully.
Thank you for being a part of my journey. Without the support and without the love that comes from the universe and from wrestling fans, I wouldn’t exist as a performer. They are my foundation. I encourage everyone to come out to the show in Buffalo and to follow me on Facebook and on Twitter.