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Through it all, Zach Gowen still an inspiration
By CALEB SMITH - SLAM! Wrestling


Zach Gowen continues to strike an incomparable pose in the wrestling world. Photo by Christine Coons

Zach Gowen has lead an amazing life. At 31 years old he has seen it all: cancer, success, bright lights of television fame, drug and alcohol abuse, rock bottom, rebirth. His story is so riveting that it has been made into a documentary that holds nothing back. Here is Zach Gowen, ready for the world to see him as he is, imperfect and happy for it.

Wrestling has been a central theme in Gowen's life. Saturday afternoon wrestling on the TV was one of Gowen's earliest memories. "I was a wrestling fan since I can remember. It was something that me and my dad used to watch together," Gowen told SLAM! Wrestling. "My dad, I remember every Saturday morning sitting on his lap watching wrestling."

Wrestling became a happy place for Gowen, a refuge to retreat to when times got tough. His father left his son's life at an early age. "He took off when I was four. My parents got divorced," said Gowen. "He was abusive. He was a drug addict and alcoholic. My mom made the decision that she didn't want that in her home around her son. My dad made a decision too; he decided that drugs and alcohol was going to be more important then raising a son."

He dove into his love of wrestling to heal his broken heart. "I liked the Ultimate Warrior," said Gowen. "I was more of a Warrior guy than a Hulk Hogan fan. He caught my imagination. He was the guy I had posters of in my room. I loved the Rockers too, Macho Man Randy Savage. Come to think of it I liked the guys with the bright colours. Those guys really captured my imagination as a youngster."

As a boy Gowen was known as an excellent athlete who excelled at whatever sport he tried. One day that boundless enthusiasm came to a halt as Zach found out he was stricken with cancer at eight years old. "I was going through cancer and had my leg amputated, and this sounds crazy but three weeks after the amputation happened, and you have to realize that it is so difficult for someone to go through let alone an eight-year-old boy. I had no idea how deep I was in this thing or how serious this was or what the gravity of the situation was," recalled Gowen.



Zach Gowen, WWE superstar.
"What I knew was that I was in a lot of pain and I was very, very sick." Three weeks after the operation, three weeks after losing a leg, he was released from the hospital. "As a welcome home gift my grandmother ordered the 1992 Royal Rumble because she knew I was a big wrestling fan and she wanted to do that for me. So I went over to her house and watched the '92 Royal Rumble, one of the best events produced by the WWE in history," enthused Gowen. "For the three hours of watching that event I didn't feel the pain of not having my leg. I didn't feel the pain of battling cancer and I didn't feel the pain of not having a dad."

Watching the Royal Rumble was therapy for the young Gowen. It was his release from the suffering he had been experiencing. "When all of the pain that built up in me disappeared when I watched that event and for me that was a life-changing moment that I went through. From that point on it was just a complete love affair. I think all kids love wrestling but most grow out of it at a certain age and I was one of those guys whose love for wrestling just grew more and more with age."

Gowen held his passion for wrestling close to his heart over the coming years. As he entered high school he realized that he wanted to use his time there to prepare for professional wrestling. "When I was 13 I saw Rey Mysterio for the first time," remembered Gowen. "When I saw him I thought to myself, 'Wow, I can do that. I can do what he does one leg or not.' A guy his size doing the acrobatics and athletic maneuvers."

After he lost his leg his family didn't know how to focus his athletic skills or abilities because he couldn't keep up with the kids in sports that involved running. It wasn't until he attended Churchill High School that he found his sport. "I started amateur wrestling so that I could use my athletic ability and the fact that I have one leg to my advantage," said Gowen, native of Livonia, Michigan. "I was the biggest 119-pounder you had ever seen because I was missing a leg. Upper body wise I dominated the class. That really planted the seed and gave me hope that I could use my athletic abilities in other endeavours and be successful. The only reason I was an amateur wrestler was to have a base for professional wrestling."

At 18 years old, Gowen attended an independent wrestling show and saw an advertisement for Truth Martini's wrestling school. He realized that this was his opportunity to achieve his childhood dream. "I showed up there the next day, paid in full with the cash in my hands," laughed Gowen. "I knew if I paid all of my money up front, and I didn't tell them I had one leg either because I was afraid they were going to say no, but I knew if I paid them all of that money up front they were not going to turn me away. I knew they were not going to give me a refund and they would have to train me."

The first day of wrestling school Gowen popped his prosthetic leg off and the wrestling school that had once been boisterous became coated in silence. "It was like a scene in a movie where there is a huge house party going on and everybody is dancing then the record gets scratched off and the place just stops. Time stands still and everybody is just staring at me," said Gowen.

"At this point I was already committed to it so I just hopped into the wrestling ring. When I did that Truth asked me if I wrestled in high school and I told him I did and I think in his mind I think he said to himself, 'If this kid doesn't quit then we can make money off of this.' He was smart enough to see what kind of impact my story could have in the wrestling business. He really helped me out tremendously and he still does to this day."

Martini had never instructed a one-legged wrestler before and had to help his young charge learn the moves differently than his peers. "I knew one leg or not that I picked everything up quicker than everyone else and there were some challenges and obstacles, but I was so persistent and I showed up early and stayed late every day," said Gowen.

"I had to figure out things on my own because how do you train somebody in something that has never been done before? Truth would say, 'Alright, this is how we would normally hit the ropes or this is how we would normally fall out of the ring. How can you do it?'" It would take the teacher and student a few minutes to figure out how to apply the move to such a unique athlete. "I could do anything anyone else can do. Sometimes it took a little bit longer, but I picked it up pretty quickly. I was itching to have that first match and I was ready for it."

On March 16, 2002, Zach Gowen had his first wrestling bout against his trainer, Truth Martini. "I knew it was going to be good because with Truth there was nobody better than him at that time on the independent scene," said Gowen. "I knew we were going to have a great match and we did. I look like a goof, but for a first match it looks really, really good. At the end of that night, for the first time in the history of the world, in the ring was a one-legged professional wrestler."

"When I first saw Zach, it was before a smaller show in Detroit and he was rolling around the ring, working out and training with some other guys. To me, he was just another dopey looking new kid, but he just happened to have one leg," said wrestler Jimmy Jacobs. "I didn't realize the gravity of what I was seeing. Then over the next few months when we became friends, it didn't dawn on me how amazing he was. It was just Zach wrestling, and he just happened to have one leg. He was just a nice, shy kid who was breaking into wrestling. When TNA put him on PPV in early 2003, I still didn't grasp the special talent he was, until a girl I was dating told me she ordered the PPV, saw Zach wrestle, and cried. She didn't know Zach like I did; she was a stranger who heard his story and saw him perform and it touched her in such a real place that she cried. It really put it into perspective for me."

History had been made. Gowen had achieved his dream of competing in a professional wrestling ring. It wasn't long before other organizations wanted Gowen on their show. "I had no aspirations to wrestle for WWE. I didn't think it was possible, so I didn't entertain the thought," said Gowen. "I was a huge mark for Ring of Honor and TNA, specifically the X-Division guys. These smaller guys wrestled a more athletic style. It was a style that was cutting edge and that is what I found entertaining as a fan. I wanted to wrestle X-Division guys and I wanted to wrestle in Ring of Honor so I sent in my tape for TNA."

He called Bill Behrens of TNA and informed him that he had sent his tape in and could Behrens give it a look? Two days later Behrens called Gowen after he watched the tape and said, "Zach you didn't tell me you had one leg." Immediately Behrens offered Gowen a dark match at their next pay-per view and told him to bring someone to wrestle against. "I called Truth and asked him to come with me. We got a car and went to Nashville," recalled Gowen. "We had this match. This dark match was insane. They had to stop the match. Jerry Jarret was screaming at Scott Armstrong the referee, 'We can't follow this. Cut the match short.' The live pay-per-view was going to air right after our match and we had the place going crazy. It was bonkers. It was the first time I'd ever had that type of reaction at all. I was going nuts right with the crowd."

Gowen and Martini's dark match created such a stir within the industry that WWE signed Gowen off of the buzz that this match created. "They signed me without knowing what I looked like. They signed me because they heard that there was a guy who had a match in TNA with one leg and totally stole the show," said Gowen. "So what ended up happening is that they signed the wrong one-legged guy thinking he was me because how many one-legged wrestlers are there? They signed that guy, realized that I was somebody different. They let that guy go and signed me. I was bagging groceries the day before and the next day I have Johnny Ace calling my phone. It was an insane experience to go through. It was almost surreal."

Today young talent signed by WWE head to their Florida-based developmental centre. When Gowen was signed he went right to the big leagues. He was 19 years old, with one year of wrestling experience, and this new venture would prove to be overwhelming. "The whole thing was a giant experiment. I didn't know what I had. Now I do 12 years later; 12 years on the road and wrestling all over the world will give you a sense of your act," said Gowen. "We went week to week kinda by the seat of my pants trying to figure it out and trying to make it work. It was a live experiment right on TV."

"Later he called me to tell me WWE wanted to hire him," said Jacobs. "He was the first person I knew that was going to WWE. It brought tears to my eyes. I remember him expressing worry, like what if he's failure, what if he doesn't do well there. I reassured him that WWE has never seen anything like him, and no matter what, he'll be a part of history. It was exciting see him on TV, working with the top guys in the company. He looked out for us and brought me, Alex Shelley, Chris Hero and Truth Martini to a Smackdown taping in Detroit to try to get us looked at. But as cool as he was to all his old friends, the success of WWE was way too much for him. He was a kid. He got signed when he was 19 or 20. One week, he's working at a grocery store, a couple weeks later, he's working with Hulk Hogan. He had no idea how to handle it. I saw it. I saw how he acted, how he viewed the company, how he talked to people in the company. His heat is legendary."

The WWE universe's first exposure to Zach Gowen was as a fan in the audience who came to the rescue of Mr. America (Hulk Hogan under a mask) who was being beaten up by Sean O'Hare and Roddy Piper. "This is my first day on the job, too. It is nerve-wracking enough to be a fan in the arena before the show starts, then you are walking around backstage and bumping into The Undertaker, The Big Show or Rhyno, or any of these guys. That is crazy enough as it is because I watched these guys on TV every single week my whole entire life," said Gowen. "Then a production assistant grabs me and says I have to go to Hulk Hogan's dressing room and Vince [McMahon] is up there and Roddy Piper is up there and I walk in and I meet these guys and it is just so surreal and so amazing. I am so blessed and so happy that I was able to experience that because not a lot of people can say they have experienced that. I have a hard time putting into words what that was like if you can imagine a 19-year-old kid who is the biggest fan in the world with these cultural icons."

Gowen would experience many more highlights during his tenure in the WWE. He has one particular moment that stands out for him. "My first highlight is the match I had with The Big Show. It was my first official WWE match and it was in the main event spot of Smackdown," said Gowen. "Triple H actually put that match together and it was six or seven minutes with a lot of smoke and mirrors when you have Zach Gowen versus The Big Show. Triple H had a lot of foresight to work with the tools that we had."

The experience was overwhelming and at the end of the match he forgot what to do. "There is a moment after that match where I beat The Big Show and I am lying on the mat," said Gowen. "You can see referee Mike Chioda yelling in my ear to act shocked and surprised. I was so shocked and surprised that I forgot to act. I was so caught up in that moment because it was so real to me. That was my proudest moment in the WWE."

Entering the WWE as a full-time wrestler, at an age where his peers were going to college and learning the lessons of life, was too much for the immature Gowen. "I didn't handle being a WWE superstar well at all," said Gowen. "The thing is I felt so insecure and I felt like I didn't belong with these guys. My self-esteem was so low that I acted out. I tried to overcompensate in ways that people thought I had an ego and thought really highly of myself. I felt like a big shot and my actions were met with resistance and I retaliated against the resistance. It became this cycle not because I couldn't perform in the ring, but because I couldn't get along with anyone backstage. It was either I go or they were really going to kill me. Looking back a lot of my behaviour warranted that reaction from those guys. These were grown men and I was just a kid who felt like he didn't belong and acted out. It was way too much too soon for me."

Soon, the WWE had enough of Gowen's bad attitude and released him from his contract. "It was a huge shock to be let go because I didn't know where to go from there," said Gowen. "My whole identity was wrapped up in being this WWE superstar. I thought this is who I am as a person. When that was taken away from me I was lost; completely lost for a long time. I didn't handle being fired well at all and acted out in other ways through drugs, gambling, alcohol, you name it."

With the WWE behind him Gowen became bitter about life and abusive to himself. His opportunities to wrestle continued as promoters from around the globe wanted to capitalize on Gowen's name value and unique abilities. He wrestled for New Japan, TNA, Ring of Honor, also in promotions in Mexico and Europe. "I didn't stay in one place for too long and that is what sucks. They gave me so many opportunities to not only do some more cool stuff in wrestling and to work with really talented guys, but if you noticed I didn't stay anywhere too long because I was too hard to deal with," remembered Gowen.

"Nobody wanted me in their locker room and that is what really stinks, man. The talent and ability to connect with an audience was there, but emotionally and maturity-wise I was not there, so I burned a lot of bridges unintentionally. I didn't go to these places saying, 'Screw them, I am going to sabotage the entire locker room.' I was just full of all this inner turmoil and all of these resentments and fears and that just completely took my life over," said Gowen.

Gregory Iron, Gowen's tag team partner, remembers meeting Zach during the one-legged wrestler's darkest days. "I met him a few times when he was heavily into the drugs and alcohol and it was like night and day," said Iron. "He was very stand-offish. Physically he was very different. He always seemed spaced out. I was his first match after rehab. We teamed together for the first time and he was a totally different person. When I met Zach the first time he was not the guy I wanted him to be. When I met him after rehab he was complementing me on how my physique had improved and how good I was in the ring. That was very special to me."

He was out of control and didn't know how to stop his descent. "I was a tornado wherever I went man and left a wake of destruction. It wasn't until I reached that point where it didn't matter if I lived or died. That state of hopelessness that I was able to receive the messages and live life a little bit better."

Gowen had finally hit rock bottom, but deep inside of him there was a glimmer of hope that willed him to live on. At that time he had a spiritual awakening and tuned into a relationship that he had never known before. "I didn't have a spiritual component in my entire life. I didn't grow up in a church. I didn't grow up praying at all. Looking back I totally believe I was searching for a spiritual experience," said Gowen.

He was looking for something in his life that would steady him from his reckless life. "I would search for that in a wrestling ring and then that was taken away from me. I would search for that in women and they would leave. I searched for that in drugs and alcohol and that worked for a while and then it stopped working and I couldn't find that experience anymore," said Gowen. "So I exhausted all of my resources in my tireless search to find this spiritual experience that I was able to find the real thing. I don't belong to any particular faith or denomination. My relationship with God is the most important relationship I have and it is the foundation for all of my other relationships. I reached a point where, I don't know, I really don't know how I got to that point, but it was when my score card read zero. Mentally, physically, spiritually I was bankrupt. I was beaten into submission by drugs and alcohol. I had to surrender. I had to throw the white flag up, 'You win'. It wasn't the answer, there has to be a better way. I asked for help and for the first time in my life I genuinely meant it. At that point I received the help that I needed."

Where did the help come from that saved Zach Gowen's life? At that crucial moment the WWE rescued him. The WWE had started its wellness policy that not only included their current employees, but extended to past employees who needed help with counseling or even going to drug and alcohol rehabilitation. "I credit them for saving my life. I gave them a call and they sent me to treatment. That was the first month of my sobriety and that was the foundation I needed to springboard back into society and to living a useful life and they provided that for me," said Gowen.


A slightly more studious-looking Gowen in December 2011. Photo by Christine Coons
"From being nobody to being famous and realizing your dream then having it pulled from you. That's a lot for anybody, especially somebody not emotionally mature like Zach was at the time," said Jimmy Jacobs. "Over the next few years, Zach and I became real close. We both loved wrestling, drugs, and not living up to our potential. We moved in together and generally got high and tried to come up with schemes to take over wrestling. We didn't realize we didn't need a scheme to take over wrestling. We were plenty capable of doing it by ourselves. But we were also our biggest problems. Then it happened one day, as if the universe willed it. He had moved out and was living back in Detroit while I still lived in Kalamazoo. I was so sick of running on the hamster wheel, moving but not getting anywhere. Apparently he had had enough too. Without even talking to each other, we both quit taking drugs at the same time. I had enough, then he called me in February 2010 and said he was taking WWE up on their standing offer for rehab for any former contracted star. I was happy for him, and I was happy for me. When he got out of rehab, I know it was still hard. I told him to confide in me if he needed me, tell me if he relapsed or tell me if he wanted to, but he never did relapse, and he never did screw up."

"People don't understand how grateful I am to Vince [McMahon]. As an adult he gave me the job of my dreams and in my late twenties saved my life. He paid for treatment and that changed everything for me," said Gowen. "The seed of inspiration was planted in me and the seed of hope was planted in me as well and it has grown into a wonderful orchard. I can't be more grateful towards Vince for that. It was amazing that wellness policy."

Since his stint in rehab Zach Gowen has made the most of his second chance at living. He has started to rebuild the bridges he had burned with promoters and wrestlers. Ten years after appearing on WWE television Gowen is no longer a draw for promoters because it has been so long since his last national exposure. Today he is a draw for promoters because of what he brings in the ring.

"I have been able to do some amazing things in my wrestling career since I got sober," said Gowen. "One of them is to team up with Gregory Iron who is the only wrestler in the world who has cerebral palsy. We've teamed up and we connect with these audiences on a level that normal wrestlers cannot do. Our story transcends professional wrestling and we have done so many incredible things and affected so many lives and I am so happy that it happened. It took going to that low point to realize the impact my story can have."

Iron has known and worked with Gowen for many years. In fact Iron was inspired by Gowen as a young man. "For me working with Zach Gowen is an honour," said Iron. "He is the reason I wanted to be a professional wrestler looking up to him at 16 years old on Smackdown. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get to share the ring with him over and over. I am living out a childhood dream."

The team of Gowen and Iron is very unique in the world of professional wrestling. "We are two different guys in the ring," said Iron. "He is a wrestler with one leg and I am a wrestler with one arm. The things he can't do I can, and the things I can't do Zach can do. I think we complement each other very well. The most important thing is our story outside of the ring and I think people really connect with that."

Another door that has opened up for Gowen is professional speaking. "That is what I do Monday through Friday. I go to schools and I share my story with these kids. I feel I am making more of an impact doing that then if I were on TV going through the motions. I've been able to make this documentary. I am as happy as a clam sitting where I am right now."


The recently-released DVD on Zach Gowen's life.
Zach Gowen's story is so compelling that he has been able to share it in a new documentary that was released this year on DVD entitled Finding Zach Gowen. "The right opportunity came about with Joe Dombrowski and it just kinda happened," said Gowen. "Most things in my life just wind up like that. Whether I have the courage or willingness to go through with them is a different story, this time I did. So we pulled the trigger and it is something I am really proud of."

Wrestling personality Joe Dombrowski worked with Gowen on the documentary. "I went to Zach. I thought Zach has the most unique, emotionally gripping story in pro wrestling," said Dombrowski. "To have the opportunity to get to know Zach over the past four years, especially since he has been clean and to see his zest for life and his overwhelming positivity is really something inspiring to see all he has encountered from the cancer to the drug use and now he is so happy. Now Zach's story can be told in an accurate and truthful light. This story can touch and inspire a lot of people."

Professional wrestler and podcaster (The Art of Wrestling) Colt Cabana has an interesting view of Gowen's transformation. "I knew Zach when he was putting up the rings in Detroit. I knew Zach when he was a big star in WWE. I know Zach now and I knew Zach after he was a big star in WWE," said Cabana. "I saw the punk-ass kid that a lot of people know and the reputation he got for a long time. I am most proud that Zach has been able to overcome most of it, if not all of it and has become a great citizen and human being. He has become a great person, a father, a role model to so many people who had been told they can't do anything."

"It's a complete 180 from the kid I first met 12 years ago or the kid I lived with seven years ago who didn't even know how to write a cheque let alone take care of himself let alone take care of a family like he does now," said Jacobs. "I seek council with very few people; Zach is somebody I go to for advice and I listen to his world perspective. He is truly an amazing human being. And he's an amazing performer. He's literally in the prime of his career. If I had a wrestling company, he'd be my first round draft pick. Trust me, I've been fortunate to share a ring with some of the very greatest performers of all time, and Zach is truly one of the very best."

Dombrowski and Gowen wanted the documentary to be as raw and honest as possible. Gowen's friends and peers were asked to share their experiences about being with Zach during the good and bad times. It was not easy to hear their stories. "Yeah, they are brutally honest and it is quite interesting for [Pro Wrestling Torch publisher] Wade Keller. Wade watched it and thought it is interesting how I tell the story from my eyes didn't always line up with someone else's version like Rhyno or Jimmy Jacobs," said Gowen. "I think that is crazy interesting and for me I learned a lot. It was an eye-opening experience from my end. It was something I wanted to stay completely true to the story and be completely honest. Sometimes, we cover a lot of stuff that's uncomfortable for a lot of people. At the end of the day if one of my trials or tribulations or obstacles that I had to go through, if that could help somebody then it makes everything I went through worth it."

Zach Gowen has seen the bright lights of the WWE and he has been at the edge of desperation. The life that he has rebuilt is an inspiration to many. Zach Gowen would want you to keep on believing in yourself and to let nothing stop you.

RELATED LINKS

  • July 31, 2006: Zack Gowen moves on
  • Aug. 1, 2003: Zach leaps to top ... on just one leg
  • zachgowen.com
  • Twitter: @ZachGowen

    Caleb Smith enjoys coaching his daughter's flag rugby team and helping with Niagara Flag Rugby. He's planning on attending the State Wrestling show at St. Johnsburg Fire Hall in North Tonawanda, NY for "Meltdown," Saturday, August 23rd featuring Johnny Gargano, Sonjay Dutt, Jamin Olivencia and a mystery WWE star.