An eight-year-old Zach Gowen woke up from surgery without his left leg. By the time doctors discovered the cancer in the limb, there was no choice but to amputate.
In pain, uncertain, worn down by chemotherapy, the young boy could have no idea that a future in pro wrestling awaited him. At that point, all he wanted to do was go to recess and play Nintendo.
Three weeks after the amputation, he left the hospital and returned home for the first time. His grandmother ordered the 1992 Royal Rumble pay-per-view for him as a gift. Packed into a trailer, friends, family and neighbors watched as Ric Flair outlasted 29 other opponents to become the WWE world champion.
The in-ring artistry and orchestrated chaos soothed Gowen momentarily. Watching the matches helped him forget the traumatic life change that fate forced upon him.
"For those three hours, I didn't feel any pain at all. I didn't feel the pain of missing my leg. I didn't feel the pain of cancer, of chemotherapy, of looking different, of not fitting in, of being sick. All of that went away when I engaged in the magic of professional wrestling," Gowen told Bleacher Report.
Wrestling served as medicine that day and would continue to do so years later, once Gowen became a participant rather than a spectator.
The squared circle provided an escape from reality, a stage on which he could forget his brokenness. This is where he rose rapidly to stardom in what felt like an instant. Gowen had gone from unknown to the underdog trading blows with some of the industry's top stars.
Like Icarus, though, his upward flight ended poorly.
WWE cut him, sending him into an unsettled state where he stewed in self-pity and gulped pills from his palm. Wrestling would play his savior, too. It was the place where he found himself, where he found creative fulfillment and learned the power of inspiring others.
But he was a long way from that point when the wound was fresh, when he was just a boy trying to understand how different his life had suddenly become. He couldn't run with his friends anymore. He couldn't keep up with the other boys.
That wore on him. It warped his sense of self.
"I felt ugly, weak, defeated, not good enough," he said.
Luckily, he wasn't alone. Even with his father gone since he was three, he had a strong support system to lean on. Gowen's aunt moved in to help out. His mother "played both roles," as Gowen put it.
"My family unit rallied around me. The community rallied around me. My school rallied around me," he remembered.
Beyond that, wrestling provided something to lean on. As a teenager, he lost himself in the medium that he had long admired as he began to train himself. In an empty ring, he began to learn the basics, his back smacking against the canvas.
Early on, he trained while wearing a prosthetic leg. He found it awkward, dead weight hanging off his body as he worked.
He moved to wrestling without it. That meant reshaping the art form, to a degree.
Wrestling moves that require two legs—hurricanranas, flying headscissors—had to be shelved. Instead, he leaned on submission holds and bounding from one leg, throwing his body at his opponent. Gowen's signature move eventually became a one-legged moonsault.
After perching himself on the top rope, he leaps backward, flipping his body over and crashing onto his prone foe.
Gowen was attempting to do something that had yet to be done—become the first one-legged pro wrestler. So at first, he chose to venture down this new path alone.
"How could anybody with two legs teach someone with one leg if it's never been done before?" he asked.
Eventually, though, he needed guidance beyond what he figured out on his own. Gowen became a student of fellow Michigan native Truth Martini. Martini would later become well-known as a smooth-talking, controversial manager for Ring of Honor.
Gowen's goals during that time were small-scale. He had no aspirations of grand stages and world championships. "All I wanted to do was wrestle on the weekends and teach high school math during the week," he said. If he got to mix it up with Sabu, a fearless wrestler famous for dangerous dives, he would be ecstatic.
But Gowen would be in for far more success than that.
He took to the craft, partly a result of great passion for it, partly because of Martini's tutelage. "Truth was the one who really pushed me and believed in me and thought that I could do something in wrestling," Gowen said.
When he got good enough that he thought he could perform for a bigger audience, he reached out to TNA (Total Nonstop Action) in early 2003.
The Tennessee-based promotion had only just begun to do business months prior. One of TNA's most intriguing features was its X Division, a showcase of high-flying and dynamic wrestlers. Gowen saw himself in the men who made up that division.
When he emailed TNA in January, an official told him they were all booked. Maybe something would open up in March. He sent them a tape of his work, and their tune changed.
A waiting period of four months turned into four days, and Gowen was soon working an untelevised tryout match with Martini.
That dark match became legendary, in a way. There was no footage for fans to see, only rumors of how electric it was. Gowen benefited from this happening before the days where everything is filmed and then shared.
WWE apparently caught wind of it. Sight unseen, the company called and offered him a deal.
He didn't try out. He didn't send them any footage. WWE just brought him aboard.
Jimmy Jacobs, a wrestler best known for his work with the Ring of Honor promotion and current writer for WWE, has known Gowen since 2002. Gowen's longtime friend remembered how anxious the new signee was about what was to come.
"He was super-nervous. He said, 'What if it goes bad? What if the experiment fails?'" Jacobs said.
Gowen believes that WWE signing him the way it did could just have been the company's way to keep him away from TNA, which would have given the upstart promotion something unique with which to hook viewers. That theory seemed to hold water as he spent the early part of his contract on his couch.
From '0 to 100'
In the early '00s, WWE's developmental system was based in Louisville, Kentucky. Ohio Valley Wrestling served as the company's farm territory. This is where megastars John Cena, Batista, Randy Orton and Brock Lesnar all started out.
Gowen didn't follow their lead.
WWE didn't send him to developmental. He just collected checks from home. He was stashed away, a bench player the coach didn't even look at.
The odd arrangement soon changed thanks to the WWE Magazine staff. The now-defunct publication wanted to run a story on him. The piece was set to come out before he had ever appeared on TV.
When word got around that the magazine was going to feature a wrestler who hadn't yet debuted, WWE hurried things along. It shot Gowen from his house to the bright lights of SmackDown.
He soon found himself in a segment involving some of the biggest names in the industry—Hulk Hogan (as Mr. America) and Roddy Piper. On May 15, 2003, Piper protege Sean O'Haire teamed up with Hot Rod to pummel Hogan in the ring.
This set the stage for Gowen's introduction. In a tactic that WWE had used in the past with grapplers like Earthquake and Hillbilly Jim, he played a fan who stepped out of the crowd and into the chaos of the ring.
Gowen rushed in with an American flag in hand, playing the part of an incensed fan looking to help Hogan. Piper floored him and yanked off his prosthetic leg.
And with that, Gowen had been thrust into a fray involving two legends at a hard-to-fathom pace, or as he put it, going from "zero to 100."
But this was new territory for both wrestler and promoter. There were no past examples of how to showcase a one-legged wrestler. "Nobody knew what to do with him. He didn't know what to do with him," Jacobs said.
In the next few months, WWE wrote a new playbook, presenting Gowen as the ultimate underdog as he faced off against Big Show, Vince McMahon, Matt Hardy and John Cena.
These were some of the biggest names in the industry, and here Gowen stood with them on center stage. All of this was hard to take in. Gowen described the experience as "incredibly surreal."
A fan had become a part of the show in rapid time. With that came pressure. With that came working alongside his heroes. It was "more anxiety than enjoyable," he recalled.
The idea behind his debut and his involvement in the Piper-Hogan drama was supposed to lead to a tag match with Piper and McMahon against Hogan and Gowen. But plans had to change in a hurry.
Piper held nothing back as he disparaged WWE in an interview on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. Then, as David Shoemaker of Grantland wrote, "WWE fired him after the interview aired."
Hogan quit the company in the midst of this narrative involving Gowen. Wade Keller of Pro Wrestling Torch reported that the exit was "due to disagreements over creative issues."
And so that left Gowen and McMahon alone in this storyline, a 20-year-old kid asked to take on the most prominent heel in the business, a man who also happened to be his boss. What ended as a bloody, brutal match began with Gowen delivering light wrestling punches and McMahon yelling at the kid to hit him harder.
On the V2 Journal Wrestling podcast, Gowen said:
I got scared because I didn't want to punch Vince in the head, but I realized that he's not a wrestler, and he can't really sell or register what I'm doing if I'm not connecting with him. So I took that as a very cool opportunity. I got carte blanche to punch Vince McMahon as hard as I could in the face, and I did that repeatedly! To me that felt really good. But that came from Vince himself, that's what he wanted because it was best for business.
His next high-profile match made him the victim, the one shedding blood for the sake of the show.
In August 2003, Gowen's scheduled fight with Matt Hardy got changed. WWE wanted to instead punctuate Brock Lesnar's heel turn and needed a martyr for The Beast Incarnate to slay. Despite being a villain, the audience treated the powerhouse like a hero.
WWE needed a way to shift that reaction, to cement how cold-blooded Lesnar was. That role went to Gowen.
With his mother sitting at ringside, Gowen received a vicious beating. To make the crowd stop treating Lesnar like a babyface, WWE had him maul a skinny, one-legged kid in his hometown, with his mom crying in the background. Gowen knew the bout had to be brutal and was plenty willing to let that happen.
"I offered my one-legged, 150-pound body to him," he said.
He remembered how much he could feel Lesnar's power. When the beastly man picked him up for an F5, Gowen said it felt like he was "on the back of a horse." What was supposed to be three consecutive powerbombs was lessened to two on the fly after Gowen hit hard on the first one.
Lesnar smashed him with a steel chair and twice flung him into the ring steps. Soon, Gowen lay on the mat surrounding the ring, blood covering his face from ear to ear.
This was an underdog story turned on its head. Through much of his career, WWE sold Gowen as an uplifting example of the power of determination. He was the dark horse defying the odds, but in the narrative with Lesnar that horse crashed into the rails.
Despite the barbarity of that match, Gowen remembered Lesnar not taking any liberties with him. "Brock took care of me," he said.
When his dream career ended in early 2004, Gowen didn't do the same for himself. His darkness overtook him. He spiraled downward without WWE to hold onto.
When WWE flew him to New York for the sole purpose of firing him, Gowen wasn't surprised. "I'd fire me, too," he said.
Things were tumultuous backstage during his tenure. He freely admits that he was to blame for much of it. He was immature, brash and took his spot for granted. "I didn't comprehend the gravity of the gift I was given," he said.
Wrestling locker room etiquette is built around respect and a built-in, unspoken hierarchy. A rookie doesn't come in and act like he is an indispensable asset. Gowen did just that.
"My attitude sucked," he explained.
Many wrestlers took issue with him as a result, which bothered him. That only worsened his attitude, as he reacted to their reaction, immaturity acting as his quicksand.
And so he "walked around with the pain of not being liked," as he put it.
His friend Jacobs saw plenty of Gowen's struggles to adapt to his success, to this new world he had been thrust into.
Jacobs explained, "I remember him copping an attitude at WWE. Being 19, 20 years old, not knowing how to handle success, how to treat his co-workers, not knowing how to respect the environment he was in."
Gowen soon got a forced break from that environment. After suffering an injury, WWE sent him home for a stretch. The company suggested that he go to Ohio Valley Wrestling to work on his ring skills. It would allow him to let some of the heat die down, improve his physique and get better as a performer.
Defiant, ballsy, foolish, he refused.
Then came a meeting with Jim Ross. Gowen described the Hall of Fame announcer as "gracious" and "professional" during the fatherly sit-down. Ross explained that the door would be open for the young wrestler after he improved his body in the gym and his craft on the independent circuit.
The WWE run ended right there, and the shock of that separation stung.
Gowen's drinking got out of hand. He began to swallow pills to self-medicate. "My whole life I was looking for relief for what was wrong with me," he said.
Wrestling so often provided that relief. But now that he was unemployed, he filled the void with drugs and booze. Losing his WWE position made him lose his identity. His self-worth faded, money went away, fame dissipated.
So, like his father, who left when he was a toddler, had done before him, he soothed that pain with intoxication. He had always promised to never be like his dad but ended up stepping into the same bear trap as him.
Gowen said that he suffered the "descent into the insanity of drug addiction." His life was better momentarily when he was high or when booze buzzed in his veins, but then ultimately it would be worse again when those sensations ran their course.
The wrestler lived with his mother, scraping money together for pills.
Jacobs was there for much of that. At one point, the two friends lived together. Jacobs said that what began as casual partying had morphed into something darker. "It got to the point where it wasn't fun," he said, noting that Gowen was worse off than he was, that Gowen was far from high-functioning then.
Having known Gowen before and after his descent, Jacobs understands why things unfolded as they did.
"He got a lot really quickly when he was really, really young," Jacobs explained. He went from a nobody to a star, from a wrestling trainee bagging groceries to appearing on TV to seeing his dream end in a poof.
Jacobs said, "It takes a super-well-balanced human being to handle that kind of change."
Gowen got to the point where he didn't want to be alive. "When I woke up, I was pissed off that I hadn't died," he said.
The first step to recovering from that dark place was to reach out to his mother.
Admitting to her that he had a problem kick-started his self-restoration. She asked him if he was high, and he told her, "Mom, I'm not high, but next week, I will be high. And I don't know what to do."
She suggested he speak with WWE, even though it had been years since he last wrestled for them. He did. And within minutes of sending an email, the company called him at home.
The WWE Talent Wellness program was designed for situations like these. After watching so many members of the wrestling family fall victim to drugs and death—most horrifically Chris Benoit—the company made a change. It suspended active wrestlers who did drugs and lent a hand to those who couldn't shake drugs' magnetic pull, whether they were active or not.
WWE paid for Gowen's rehab. That and a divine source guided him back to normalcy.
"God intervened before I could truly kill myself," he said.
Gowen's current tag team partner and friend, Gregory Iron, credits WWE for helping his story avoid a tragic end. "WWE and their rehab program saved his life. We might not be having this conversation right now if not for that," Iron explained.
But even when Gowen was in the program, Jacobs had doubts about his friend's future.
"I didn't think coming out of rehab he would make it, because I think most people don't," he said. But Gowen proved him wrong. Jacobs credits Gowen's self-awareness, dedication, will and perseverance for being able to break away from his addictions.
Luckily, that healing began before Gowen became another cautionary tale. As Gowen put it, the WWE-sponsored rehabilitation planted the "seed of recovery." He has been cultivating that seed ever since.
The Peak After the Peak
When Gowen performs today, he does so in front of much smaller crowds, inside rec centers and churches, in places like Warren and Chesterfield, Michigan. Lesnar or Hogan or Vince do not stand across from him in the ring anymore. He doesn't make nearly the money he did during his days on SmackDown.
None of that matters. "I could not be happier," he said.
Today, Gowen is healthier physically and mentally. Wrestling on the independent circuit allows him freedom he didn't have early in his career.
When he was with WWE, the vibe was much different. He was often "handed a script and told what to do" and sometimes "felt like an actor for a TV show," he explained. While Gowen is incredibly grateful for his opportunities on wrestling's biggest stage, he savors his current freedom and autonomy.
He's progressed as a wrestler, experience helping him advance as an in-ring artist. Gowen said he has "never been better" as a performer.
While some wrestlers may view Gowen's disability as a challenge, Jacobs thinks of it as an advantage. "It's easier because the guy's only got one leg. It makes the storytelling. It's right there, and it connects with the audience," he said.
Some of Gowen's best work has come alongside Gregory Iron. Cerebral palsy has left Iron with limited use of the right side of his body. The fingers on his right hand curl in a rigid pose.
Together, he and Gowen form The Handicapped Heroes.
It wasn't until after seeing Gowen fly from a turnbuckle that Iron decided to enter the business. That image of a one-legged man in flight motivated him to step into the ring, disability or not.
Iron explained, "Before I saw Zach wrestle in WWE, I didn't think becoming a wrestler with a disability was even a possibility. I loved wrestling and desperately wanted to be a part of it, so I set my sights on things like writing or production in wrestling. When I saw Gowen do that moonsault off of the top rope with one leg for the first time, though, my mindset changed. I thought if he could do it with one leg, I could wrestle with one arm."
Now he and Gowen form an inspiring pair, a symbol of what's possible in the face of overwhelming odds.
For Gowen, his and Iron's disabilities aren't gimmicks; they are tools to reach an audience like no other wrestlers can. In Kenny Johnson's documentary The Handicapped Heroes, Gowen said, "I tapped into something greater than just good guy-versus-bad guy, bully-versus-victim or whatever the story may be. I tapped into the human condition."
Iron has similar thoughts about their act, one built on authenticity, as the two wrestlers share their real-life struggles and touch on the obstacles they have faced during wrestling promos. "I think our human connection sets us apart from every other act in wrestling," Iron said.
Gowen makes connections when he's not wrestling, too. He is an empowerment speaker, carrying a message of hope to schools around the country.
Gowen has become philosophical and introspective in his 30s. He shares his story of his father abandoning him, of bearing the weight of cancer as a kid and how drugs and alcohol fueled a tailspin. He sees himself and the narrative that followed all of that as a source of hope.
During a speech at Le Roy Jr.-Sr. High in LeRoy, New York, he told the students in attendance, "I represent what can happen if you never, ever give up. I represent what can happen if you define yourself. I represent what can happen if you reach out and take your shot."
He's continuing this kind of mission with Wrestling for Warriors, a nonprofit that will raise money through wrestling events for causes like pediatric cancer, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy.
Wrestling for Warriors' first event is scheduled for June 4.
The connection with the community that Gowen has established is part of the positive place he finds himself in. And so is wrestling.
Gowen remembered he and Iron wrestling in front of 200 people in Philadelphia, where The Handicapped Heroes had "a once-in-a-lifetime synergy with the crowd." Afterward, deep into the night, the two friends drove home.
Iron asked Gowen what the highlight of his career had been so far. Perhaps he wanted to hear stories of him clocking McMahon in his bloody brow or rescuing Hogan in his first WWE appearance. Gowen instead said, "Tonight was my highlight."
The crowds have shrunk and the spotlight has dimmed, but Gowen is experiencing an up-close-and-personal response from the audience each night. He has found peace in and out of the ring.
A part of that comes from gratitude from his stay with WWE.
Iron said of Gowen, "I think if you asked him 10 years ago, he might be dwelling on what went wrong with things in the WWE. With hindsight, I think he can look back and, though it was short, he can really appreciate the life the eight-month run in WWE gave him."
Gowen has become someone far different than the drug-addicted, cocky kid he once was. Jacobs said of him, "He's got such a level head now compared to the maniac that he was. You would never have guessed that he would have come out the other end such a respectable member of society."
Clearheaded and contented, Gowen has since found a new challenge, a new venue where it wouldn't seem possible for him to succeed with only one leg. The wrestler signed on to compete on the American Ninja Warrior game show. He braved the show's obstacle course on April 27.
For much of his life, Gowen said he felt like "the world had a secret, and they wouldn't tell me." Today, he now freely shares the secret to overcoming opponents internal and external. It's a philosophy of positivity.
"Life isn't about what happens to you. Life is about how you react to what happens," he said.
Ryan Dilbert is the WWE Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted.