Signed by WWE in 2003, 20-year-old one-legged wonder Zach Gowen got an opportunity of a lifetime. With limited ring experience, Gowen was thrust into storylines and matches with some of the biggest stars in the history of wrestling. But it turned out to be too much too soon.
How Zach Gowen Lost Everything to Find Himself
Zach Gowen faced a massive setback early in life when diagnosed with cancer at only eight years old. It was so advanced that the only option at the time was cutting it at the source, so he lost his left leg.
While many kids lived "normal" lives, Gowen was trying to figure out how to cope with this seemingly insurmountable challenge.
Unable to fit in because of his disability, school days became a nightmare. He also suffered through debilitating chemotherapy, constantly feeling ill.
But looking back, he’s grateful for this happening at a young age and not later because he considers his past the pathway to all he is presently doing.
A Royal Rumble Remembered
One of Zach Gowen’s earliest memories involves wrestling. Sitting on his father’s lap when only a toddler, he remembers watching Saturday morning WWF programming and being enthralled, although not entirely understanding everything.
A couple of weeks after getting discharged from the hospital, he sat in front of the TV and witnessed with friends and family Ric Flair outlasting 29 other opponents at the 1992 Royal Rumble to crown himself world champion.
For those couple of hours, he found comfort in the magic of wrestling. The bullying, pain, and sense of inadequacy, along with his father leaving him at the age of four, was temporarily forgotten.
So how did Zach Gowen become the first one-legged wrestler in WWE?
"Wrestling was my escape, especially as a kid!"
Getting His Start in Wrestling
Zach Gowen never doubted his ability, drive, and passion, but he needed to know if someone would be open-minded enough to give him a chance to become a professional wrestler.
Enter Truth Martini, an Al Snow protégé best known for his run as a controversial manager in Ring of Honor with Jay Lethal.
He threw Zach a lifeline because he also believed the youngster could make it in wrestling and saw his disability as something unique, a selling point, instead of a hindrance.
And how different was his training because of his disability?
For ten years, he had adapted and played sports with able-bodied (note: his term instead of non-disabled) peers.
As for wrestling, he’d observe a move and see how he could get the same effect despite his limitations. His brain interpreted what he saw, and Zach adjusted accordingly.
It wasn’t so much the physical aspects of wrestling that were the most challenging. Moves requiring both legs were out, and Gowen realized the psychological part had a steeper learning curve.
In a revealing interview with Devon “Hannibal” Nicholson, Gowen, now two decades removed from his eventful, albeit brief, journey through TNA and later WWE, opened up about his wrestling career and his challenging life.
“A lot was trial and error. Of course, working the ropes didn’t make sense, so I didn’t do it. I’d ask myself before doing something, ‘Okay, does this make sense for someone with one leg?’” Gowen pondered.
“Just because I could do it, should I? But the physicality of it came naturally thanks to my genetic attributes of being a good athlete, balance, and being used to hopping on one foot already."
A New Style of Wrestling
Zach Gowen didn’t hesitate to say who his major influences were when asked if there was a wrestler he patterned himself after.
"I wanted to be the one-legged Sabu when I started wrestling! I was a huge ECW fan. My biggest influences other than him were Rob Van Dam, Rey Mysterio, and The Hardy Boys. I wanted to be a combination of all those put into a one-legged package!” said Gowen.
"When we were coming up, it was all Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, Big John Studd, and I was like, ‘Okay, I can’t be 6’8" and 300 lbs,’ but when I saw guys smaller in stature compared to most wrestlers of the time, doing all the high-flying, acrobatic stuff, I knew I could become a wrestler too."
“Here we have Rey Mysterio still wrestling for WWE at a highly insane level all these years later. So, this whole perspective shift and the changing dynamics of how we view wrestling has evolved in front of our eyes.
“Now, the smaller, high-flying guys are no longer the outcasts. It’s not so much about gimmicks anymore but about competitive, high-flying, and hard-hitting matches."
Zach Gowen’s Incredible Start with TNA Wrestling
"I started wrestling in March of 2002 but never dreamed of becoming a WWE wrestler. I never thought it was possible. My goal was to be an X-Division wrestler like Lo-Ki, Christopher Daniels, Jorge Estrada, and Jerry Lynn or wrestle for Ring of Honor, which was starting up."
But when contacting TNA’s Bill Behrens in late 2002, who was helping book talent for the company along with the Jarretts, he estimates that he may have had only 15 matches under his belt. He politely told him they weren’t looking for people but maybe next year.
But their curiosity peaked when they received Zach Gowen’s VHS tapes with promos and matches, so they urged him to come in ASAP.
"All of a sudden, this turned from something that might be happening in May to something that is happening in three or four days," remembers Gowen.
They told him to bring somebody he could have a good match with. And he chose the person who helped train him: Truth Martini.
An Instant Star
When recounting how incredible his dark match in TNA went, it’s as if he was reliving the momentous occasion anew. Wrestling as Tenacious Z, he and Martini almost brought the house down.
"About a minute and a half in, they had to stop the match because the crowd was going insane.
“There at the Nashville Fairgrounds was the first time I had wrestled in front of a crowd of that size.
“There were, I don’t know, 700 to 1,000 people when I was used to wrestling in front of 30 people at my local mall inside an abandoned music store!
“They had Mike Tenay and Don West, and I high-fived them after I hit my moonsault. I was soaking up the moment, thinking that things would never get any better than this!"
"And then referee Scott Armstrong told us, ‘Take it home. You got to take it home now.’ Jerry’s [Jarett] is in my ear telling me that they can’t follow this!"
And we’re like, ‘What? We’re only a minute and a half in of an eight-minute match. We haven’t even done anything except for three things."
They later explained to Gowen that since this match was happening shortly before the live pay-per-view feed, they were worried that since the crowd was going so nuts over their match, they would be dead for the first two or three segments of the pay-per-view.
They sent Raven and the Harris brothers to the ring to ensure the match didn’t continue.
"I didn’t know what the hell was happening,” remembers Gowen. "It was the most surreal moment of my life."
In the back, almost immediately, TNA offered him a contract and wanted him to sign it.
"Although I was young and naive, I wasn’t that young and naive!” admits Gowen.
"I wanted a lawyer to look at it and weigh my options. Martini suggested I not sign the contract because he felt WWE would call soon."
TNA flew him and Martini down so they could wrestle each other once more, but this time for a pay-per-view. But at the last second, they scratched the idea and inserted Gowen in an angle with BG James (Road Dogg) and his brother Scott Armstrong where he emerged victorious in his official TNA debut.
Gowen expressed sadness for Truth because this would’ve been an opportunity for him to shine in front of a live national audience too.
Zach Gowen Mistaken for Another
Word quickly got around about a one-legged wrestler getting an insane crowd reaction in TNA, and WWE was on the move to hire the novelty.
They quickly picked up a person sight unseen who they assumed had to be Tenacious Z. How many one-legged wrestlers could there be? Well, actually, there were two!
So they accidentally signed an older and larger wrestler training in Florida under Steve Keirn named Steve Chamberland. The main difference was that he wrestled with his prosthetic leg while Gowen didn’t.
But soon afterward, Gowen made his television debut, and once they saw what he looked like, they realized their blunder.
After his second official match with the company, WWE contacted him, and negotiations commenced.
Once committing, Gowen called Jeff Jarrett to express his gratitude for the opportunity given, and although he was sorry to see him go, he showed support and wished him the best.
"Without TNA, the WWE thing wouldn’t have happened,” says Gowen.
"To this day, Jeff is still a dear friend who always appreciates my appearance on TNA at only 19 years old."
But it all came full circle when a couple of years ago, Zach Gowen got a new prosthesis through the 50 Legs Foundation, started by Steve Chamberland.
WWE Debut for the Ultimate Underdog
In a classic case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, WWE management caught wind that their now-defunct magazine planned to publish a piece before Zach Gowen’s official debut. So, they went into panic mode and pushed his debut to the May 15, 2003, edition of SmackDown.
Although Gowen claims he wanted to go to developmental to improve, he says that WWE feared word getting out before his debut and tried to keep him a secret.
In preliminary meetings with the writers, it was Gowen’s understanding that he’d take part in a storyline similar to the 1-2-3 Kid angle with Razor Ramon from 1993. But these plans got modified.
On a Piper’s Pit segment where Piper and Sean O’Haire had Hulk Hogan A.K.A. Mr. America laid out, thanks to several stiff chair shots landing squarely on his overly tanned back, a teenage fan wearing a Mr. America T-shirt jumped over the guard rail and into the ring.
He then twice cracked Roddy Piper across the back with a flagpole.
But O’Haire viciously speared him to the ground, and Gowen’s head grazed a wooden chair before landing face-up in the ring.
Almost immediately, an incensed Piper, uninterested in a reprieve, was on him.
In the melee, though, Piper yanked off Zach’s prosthetic leg.
Maybe it wasn’t as shocking as Mae Young "birthing" a rubber hand or as tasteless as Snitky punting a "baby," but Piper and O’Haire sold it well, and an odd mix of boos and laughter reigned down upon them.
Everybody was left with more questions than answers.
It wasn’t the classiest debut for Zach Gowen on the big stage, but he was in, and the sky was the limit, right?
Watch Zach Gowen’s WWE debut:
A Funny Encounter, Childhood Ruined
In wrestling, sometimes you meet your heroes in the oddest of circumstances.
In his SmackDown debut storyline, Zach Gowen was a Make-A-Wish kid whom Hulk Hogan visited shortly after losing his leg, which inspired him to want to become a wrestler like Hogan.
In real life, his encounter with him was hilariously different.
"I walk into this dressing room, and there’s Vince McMahon; the first time I ever met him, and as he shakes my hand, he says in his iconic voice, ‘Hey kid, how you are doing? Great to have you on the team.’ I was dumbstruck.
“‘Thank you, sir, thanks for the opportunity.’
“On my right was Roddy Piper! I was just like, ‘This is nuts!’
“Then, I hear the shower turn off.
“Hulk Hogan walks out naked as the day he was born. With a towel around his neck, he sticks his hand out and says, ‘How are you doing, brother? Nice to meet you; glad you’re here.’
“I’m asking myself, ‘What is happening right now?!’ I’m looking for cameras. Maybe somebody was punking me.’
“I’m thinking, ‘Put some clothes on Hogan;’ he had his flip flops, but that was it!’ That’s how I met Hulk Hogan!"
"Did he stay that way when you all went over the angle?" joked Hannibal conducting the interview.
“I was so traumatized, I don’t even remember,” answered Gowen. “Thanks a lot for ruining my childhood, brother!"
In terms of working with them, he describes all three as highly generous.
His Rise and Subsequent Fall
Zach Gowen, all 150 pounds of zero muscle tone and plenty of jutting bony ribs, had minimal in-ring experience, but that didn’t stop WWE from thrusting him into angles with Hulk Hogan (as Mr. America), Roddy Piper, Brock Lesnar, Sable, John Cena, Matt Hardy, or even Mr. McMahon; all this without even going through developmental.
In an unlikely win over the Big Show (with much outside interference), the WWE awarded Gowen a storyline contract.
His first "official" match was against Mr. McMahon because WWE fired Piper after disparaging remarks in an interview with Bryant Gumbel’s Real Sports.
Later, Hogan left due to disagreements with Creative’s direction.
In Gowen’s match versus Mr. McMahon, the boss bled buckets of blood that would’ve made the likes of Freddie Blassie with his filed fangs proud.
A crimson-masked McMahon ultimately scored the victory in a brutal affair where Zach remembers McMahon urging him to punch him for real by saying, “If you’re going to f*****g punch me, kid, then punch me!" to which Gowen granted his boss’s wish.
"So, there I was in the middle of the match, punching Vince McMahon in the face as hard as possible because it was the only way to get him to register and sell!"
But it was all downhill for Gowen from there on.
Brock Lesnar and the Destruction of Zach Gowen
Next up is perhaps the most infamous match Zach Gowen had during his WWE stint.
Whether as a heel or babyface, Brock Lesnar is one of the true monsters of professional wrestling. "The Beast Incarnate" is a legitimate athlete with a frame that seemed to have been forged in iron and ready for battle in gladiatorial times.
The problem was that although WWE pushed him as a heel, they still cheered him. So, how to punctuate to the fans that this is someone not worthy of their support?
Ah yes, throw the kid with a disability into the lion pit and destroy him in front of his hometown, and as for the cherry on top, have his mother, younger brother, and grandmother at ringside. Perfect!
Instead of the scheduled match with Matt Hardy, it seemed they wanted to end Zach’s career then and there at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan.
The match held no surprises. It was a massacre from beginning to end as Gowen put an exclamation mark to the slaughter after gruesomely gigging for the first time.
Gowen’s mother cried while her son bled profusely and begged Lesnar to stop. The fans seemed to plead with him too. It was overkill.
But according to Gowen, the brutality shown on TV wasn’t nearly as bad as it seemed.
"Brock took care of me in the match when he didn’t have to and was so professional. I’m grateful we created that moment that’s burned into the physique of many wrestling fans’ minds."
To the untrained eye, it was a murder.
In another dubious segment, Lesnar- who seemed genuinely enjoying himself and urged on by McMahon- launched a wheelchaired and injured Zach Gowen down a flight of stairs.
Remind me to ask Gowen how you “work” that stunt without feeling it years later.
Zach Gowen Gets Let Go By WWE
Zach Gowen not paying dues like the other boys but still working with some of the biggest stars in wrestling created resentment in the locker room and made him a pariah.
Years later, Gowen admits he didn’t handle his enviable push the best way he could. Neither did he appreciate or understand how lucky he’d been in WWE. And nobody is expendable.
It got to a point where he almost went to "Wrestlers’ Court" headed by The Undertaker.
Before being let go, though, Gowen suffered an injury, and WWE sent him home for a stretch. They suggested he go to Ohio Valley Wrestling to improve his ring skills and allow the heat in the locker room to cool down.
He refused. And so, his eight-month run with WWE ended on February 4, 2004.
Jim Ross had a fatherly sit down with him and gave him the disappointing news.
After his dismissal from the WWE, Gowen fell into an abyss of painkillers, alcohol, and self-pity. His money ran out, and his fame evaporated.
He embraced his lousy reputation on the independent circuit and continued his destructive behavior.
With his WWE dream gone, Gowen became severely depressed and lost his identity and almost his will to live.
Zach Gowen was looking like he would become yet another wrestling tragedy.
An Unsuspecting Helping Hand
With Zach Gowen at his lowest, his mother suggested he speak with WWE.
Although it had been years since he last wrestled for them, he still reached out, and within minutes of receiving his email message, the company responded.
The horrific Chris Benoit double-murder family tragedy in 2007 was the final straw in a constant string of wrestler deaths and drug abuse that finally sparked a significant change within WWE.
The WWE Talent Wellness program aims to help their talent, whether active with them or not. At least on paper, the WWE feigns care. It worked for Gowen.
"Even though I hadn’t made them a dime in seven years, they took care of the bill that allowed me to get the foundation to build the rest of my life," says Gowen gratefully.
Zach Gowen Today
When Zach Gowen performs today, he does so in front of much smaller crowds, almost back to where he started. He couldn’t be happier and is a much better wrestler for it.
Zack has inspired many and often works as a tag team with Gregory Iron forming the Handicapped Heroes.
Iron has Cerebral Palsy and limited use of his body’s right side, and the fingers on his right hand are curled and rigid. Both superbly complement each other in the ring, and the fans love it.
In the Kenny Johnson-directed documentary The Handicapped Heroes, Gowen says, "When we’re wrestling as a tag team, the reactions are stronger, the connections are deeper when we’re together, and I think I found more success, satisfaction, and gratification as a tag team with Greg [Iron] than I ever had with WWE or anything beyond."
He continues, "The response to my wrestling has been overwhelming. At first, I didn’t understand why. But I realized I’d tapped into something greater than just good guy versus bad guy, bully versus victim.
“I tapped into the human condition because no matter who you are, you’re going through something. There are obstacles to overcome, and I’m a physical representation of that."
In 2016, Gowen competed in American Ninja Warrior, where he says around 20 million people watched.
"They tuned in because they connected with my universal story. Not because of me or my name.
“My story represents what can happen when we never give up, what happens when we struggle, and we reach out and ask for help and take action based on the advice we get. And what happens if we serve others and are dedicated, passionate, and disciplined."
No longer an aimless teenager thrust into the wrestling spotlight, he is now a family man. And thanks to DDP Yoga, Gowen is in the "best shape of his life."
Gowen’s positivity is contagious. His calm demeanor and newfound maturity might have served him well in his early wrestling career. However, his disability has strengthened his resolve and given his life a laser-like focus.
He wants platforms to help others and does it through not only wrestling but youth engagement by working with thousands of students of all ages with Cool Speak.
Here we have someone who had it all, lost it, and became an inspiration years later.
"I refused to let my disability become my disability. I’m sharing my story to make an emotional connection to elicit change. Sometimes you have to lose everything to find yourself."
You can keep up with all the latest on Zach Gowen on Twitter.
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