Gregory Iron: what can a pro wrestler teach us about bullying?
by Ron GrahamWhen I met up with Gregory Iron at the Great Northern Mall on this particular evening, I started right off with the hard question:
Isn’t pro wrestling really a form of bullying, where the audience buys a ticket?
Iron, born Gregory Allen Smith and based in Cleveland, is no stranger to the tough questions. He’s had cerebral palsy his whole life, and its most visible result is that his right hand is almost useless. This really stands out on a guy who’s 150 otherwise chiseled pounds. Combine that with a profession that calls for him to face fully-abled challengers – sometimes even 300-pounders like Brodie Lee and Tursas – and you can see he’s got hills to climb.
So he gives me a straight answer: “oh, yeah, of course it is!”
You have to rewind to his childhood to really understand how he comes to reach this point. “My parents figured out there was something up with me when I was about ten months old. That’s when cerebral palsy usually becomes noticeable – when a kid starts really becoming active. And when they saw that my right arm was always cradled up against me, and that I was always reaching for stuff with my left, that was when they took me to the doctor.”
Fast forward to elementary school. Kids will quickly notice anything that’s different, and they will focus in on that. Sometimes boldly and loudly. Iron’s right hand, and an occasional limp, would cause a lot of focus:
- what’s wrong with you?
- that’s weird.
- are you a retard or something?
- [imitations of monsters with clawed hands]
But the young Gregory Iron didn’t really notice anything unusual about himself. This was, after all, something he’d lived with all his young life, so he’d come to think of it as normal. It’s not easy for a young kid to let this roll by, but that’s just what he did. “By the time I was 12, that’s when I started to see this condition as never going away. I was always going to be like this. And in middle school, that’s when kids will pick on someone who’s different.”
And Iron came up with his first bullying coping skill: be the joke before anyone else makes you the joke.
- yeah, my hand is kinda stuck this way – makes posing easier. Take a picture?
- I’m all ready to wave when I see you coming!
- I like your new $100 basketball shoes! How do you like my $5 specials? They’re new!
“The thing about making fun of yourself before others can is, it takes all the fun out of it for the others. Especially once you find out you’re funnier than they are. I’ve lived with this my whole life, so I had time to work on it.”
At this point in his life, Iron was watching a lot of pro wrestling with his grandmother, who was a big Hulk Hogan fan. And as a teenager, he began to think: “I can do this too.” Of course that’s not easy by any means, not even for young people whose body parts all work they way they’re expected to. But with this dream, he developed his second bullying coping skill: work on the parts that work. He became a gym rat, and surprised himself with how good his discipline made him feel.
As he developed his body, Iron began to discover that pro wrestling was to a large extent story-telling. “And the guys who entertained me most were the ones who were the good storytellers. The really popular wrestlers, like Hogan and Ultimate Warrior, their interviews were a lot of yelling. But there were guys, like Jake ‘the Snake’ Roberts, who could tell a good story in an interview, and use those matches to develop that story.”
So here was Gregory Iron, with a newly-minted wrestler’s physique, and a built-in story that could be told in and out of the ring. And he combined that with proper ring training – the kind of training that minimizes injuries while at the same time maintaining the fans’ attention. He got this training from accomplished Cleveland-area wrestlers Johnny Gargano and Josh Prohibition, and Iron still considers these guys among his best friends.
“I think every wrestler wants to be ‘discovered’ by the WWE, and so do I. But I found that wherever I wrestle, I had a chance to work on the story I tell, and on giving the fans a show.” And this was Iron’s third bullying coping skill: have a story to tell, and tell it. He became essentially a full-time “face” (the match’s good guy), and uses his sense of humor to sell the story of an underdog, bullied in a profession full of bullying.
- I may be disabled now, but you’ll be the one disabled when this match is over.
- Maybe I can’t use my right arm, but I’m ‘One-Armed and Dangerous!’
Even when he was in a new town, with a strange crowd, he found the fans wanted to be on his side. In the drama that is pro wrestling, the fans will often look for an underdog to get behind. “And even though I’d be really nervous, once I’d land that first shot, and the fans would start chanting ‘Iron, Iron,’ I’d be fine. Pumped!”
At 150 pounds, his dream of getting to the WWE might be a little much of a dream, and he knows this. “But I also really wanted a chance with Chikara Pro (an independent promotion based in Philadelphia).” And Chikara’s booker, Mike Quackenbush, was not only intrigued by Iron’s back-story (as many have been), but according to Iron, “Quack is a master at putting guys in matches that really play to their strengths.”
This was how Iron came to wrestle Lince Dorado on a Chikara card, with both wrestlers in their roles: Iron as the underdog, and Dorado as the bully – Dorado came complete with his own “gang,” the Bruderschaft des Kreuzes – who were at the time establishing themselves as bullies throughout the promotion. The BDK wasted no time in supporting Dorado, bullying Iron as well. Dorado ultimately won the match, but Iron won the hearts of the fans, earning a standing ovation. This is how Iron learned his fourth bullying coping skill: give back to others from what you’ve been given.And Iron struck up another important friendship: with popular independent wrestling star Colt Cabana. Cabana is well-known as both an accomplished wrestler and an entertainer always focused on the fans – someone who looks for a chance to make them laugh. This was an ideal match for Iron, who is still developing the story he tells and practicing the wit with which he tells it. After a tag-team match involving the two of them, Cabana gave Iron a special surprise – the then-WWE World Champion, CM Punk came to the ring. “Those guys are best friends,” Iron told me, “and at the time Punk was looking to make videos that would go viral. Colt just told him he had just the thing.” Punk came out from backstage, entered the ring, and praised Iron: “you overcome more just getting up in the morning than I ever did.”
At very close to 100K viewers as of this writing, it looks like this has gone viral, and Iron, Punk and Cabana all come out winners: “I’ve got a whole new audience! And now I know that my story can inspire others – so that’s something I really want to do,” says Iron.
And here’s Iron’s fifth bullying coping skill: make a few good friends who understand how you feel. You just never know where that will go. In this case, it made a bullied kid from Cleveland a name in pro wrestling all over the world. Stay tuned – before long he’ll be podcasting or vodcasting and using those tools to extend his reach.
You have my permission to copy this article wherever you want, as long as you don’t change it, and as long as you retain this note showing me as author. – Ron Graham
Do you like this article? Here’s a related one: Iron’s Shoes