Throughout the ages, all great teams have had one primary secret to success: chemistry. Professional wrestler Zach Gowen, 35, knows this better than most.
He’s kidding, of course, but the dramatic ups and downs of these two grapplers are truly the stuff of the best WWE plotlines. Together and as individuals, they’re determined to deliver more than muscle and trash talk; they’ve wrestled not just heels, but their own physical limitations.
Gowen and Iron are one of the more unique tag teams out there. Iron has cerebral palsy, a condition that has left one of his arms withered and with a limited range of motion; while Gowen lost a leg at age 8 to childhood cancer. They bill themselves as the “Handicapped Heroes.” (While the term “handicapped” is no longer recommended to describe people with disabilities, Gowen and Iron embrace the term, arguing that it gives their presence in the ring more power.)
As a child, Gowen struggled with medical issues and school bullies. For him, wrestling was an escape from the serious trauma of his home life. Gowen recalls watching a Royal Rumble one night right after getting out of the hospital for treatment. “As a welcome home gift, my grandmother ordered the WWF Royal Rumble 1992 for me as a way to say, ‘Hey, welcome back, let's have a great night as a family.’ And something magical happened for those three hours of watching this wonderful, historic event. I didn't feel the pain of cancer. I didn't feel the pain of not having my father around. This is all stuff that I carried with me as a kid.”
Gowen wasn't sure if he'd fit into the professional wrestling world. At 5’11” and 179 pounds, “in terms of professional wrestling, I'm under size,” he says. Additionally, prior to 2003, when Gowen made his debut, there was very little representation of differently abled bodies in the WWE, aside from the occasional little person who’d enter the ring to serve as “comic relief.” Nonetheless, inspired by the U.S. success of the small but tough wrestlers from the Mexican Lucha Libre leagues, Gowen decided to plow ahead, wrestling as an amateur in high school and then turning professional after graduation.
Iron’s path was a bit more circuitous. A longtime wrestling fan, he had initially planned to find his spot in the wrestling world as a broadcaster or journalist, but that changed one day when he spotted Gowen on WWE. “I was 16 and I saw Zach, who wrestled with one leg,” he recalls. “When I saw him, that was the first time in my life that I remember thinking, 'If this guy can do it with one leg, maybe I could do this with one functioning arm.'”
After successfully auditioning for a wrestling program his freshman year of college, Iron decided to drop out of school and pursue wrestling full-time. To get in shape, he had to use unique grips and lifting straps while pumping iron to help him work with his weaker arm.
Iron first met Gowen about four months into his career, when they were booked for the same show. Their first meeting was not the stuff of legend. “I was so excited to meet him, because he was the reason why I became a wrestler,” Iron recalls. “He just kind of brushed me off and didn't care.”
What Iron didn’t know at the time was that Gowen was struggling with a serious drinking problem. “I was ready to quit wrestling,” he says. Years later, after getting sober, he watched an interview with Iron where he saw Iron referred to Gowen as his inspiration for getting into wrestling. “I'm getting choked up just thinking about it,” he says. “That lit a fire in me, and I felt compelled to reach out and talk to him.” From that phone call, the Handicapped Heroes was born.
Differently abled athletes have concerns beyond the usual wear and tear that comes with being body slammed on a regular basis: to make up for missing or underpowered limbs, their healthy joints are forced to work harder, which may lead to joints and tendons becoming worn down much quicker than usual. For this reason, the Handicapped Heroes’ partnership is as much about balancing each other out as it is about strength and flash.
“When we're wrestling, what he can't do with his hand, I can do with my hands,” explains Gowen. “What I can't do with my leg, he can do with his legs.”
Training is also somewhat different for Gowen and Iron. It's not just about bulking up - it’s about preserving and extending endurance in a sport that can take its toll on even the healthiest of bodies.
To stay lean and strong, Iron swears by gym time with Fit Legit Training with coach Vincent Qurazzo near his home base in North Royalton, Ohio, regularly doing cardio intervals in addition to lifting weights. “We do a lot of burpees, a lot of box hops," he says. "There's also a lot of using our own weight for exercising and whatnot. It's really helped mold and shape my body to where it is now.”
Gowen’s approach is a little more laid-back. He’s the first certified amputee instructor of Diamond Dallas Page Yoga, a program developed by the eponymous former WWE star which integrates cardio and dynamic resistance with traditional stretch and strengthen moves.
Gowen credits yoga with rehabbing his shoulders, which were shot due to his “three-legged dog” stance, which involved him moving around on both arms and one leg in the ring. The move became his trademark, but it almost cost him his career. “I had all of that pressure on the shoulder joints, and they got so bad that I couldn't even go to the gym and lift weight,” he says. “After maybe two, three months in the program of DDP Yoga, my shoulders were strengthened, and long story short, I'm pain free.”
In addition to facing challengers in the ring, Iron and Gowen tour as motivational speakers at school assemblies and other events.
“The goal is to inspire greatness and change people's perspectives about the limits that other people put on them,” Gowen says. “We're similar souls in our pilgrimage. Our personalities are a little bit different, but we have all the important stuff in common, and we feed off each other well.” Because, in the end, it’s all about chemistry.