By Des Delgadillo (@Desdelgadillo)
It’s a September morning in Cleveland and a motivated Gregory Iron is more hungry than he has ever been. His wrestling schedule for the next three months is stacked. Weekends in Texas, Colorado, Toronto, and a handful of weekday shots are all on the docket.
With his left hand, he swipes through his phone and continues messaging promoters. They’re messaging back. They know who he is and they want him on board.
He checks another message from Aaron Bauer, co-host of Iron’s new “Iron on Wrestling” podcast. It’s a project Iron has been hesitant to do, but he hopes his fans can “pick up what he’s putting down.” He knows his fans. He knows they will.
With the safety net of a nine-to-five fresh out from under him, Iron’s surprisingly not stressing. Even he’s a little surprised. After all, just 15 years ago, a full schedule of wrestling and a solid fan base waiting for your first podcast to drop seemed like a pipe dream for an angsty kid from a broken home.
Most kids who dream of becoming pro wrestlers won’t end up in a wrestling ring. Those with the ambition and money to try might be run off after their first day of training. But most won’t try at all. Most kids just grow out of it. Gregory Iron was not that kid.
Iron, real name Greg Smith, was born on October 12, 1986, a full month before his due date. He was born choking on his stool and had to be rushed to a different hospital, where he spent three months in an incubator due to lack of oxygen. On the day he was born, he weighed just one pound.
It wasn’t until Smith was 11 months old that his family saw something was amiss.
“My dad began to notice that any time he took me out of my crib and he put toys around me, I would grab them with my left hand and kind of keep my right hand clenched at my side,” Smith says.
Doctors ultimately told Smith’s parents he had suffered a stroke at birth, a misdiagnosis Smith carried with him for 11 years.
“Nobody ever conveyed to me properly what a stroke was,” he says.
The underdog story Gregory Iron often tells in the ring began long before his first day of wrestling school. With a home life riddled with drug use and domestic violence and constant bullying at school, Smith found his escape in watching wrestling with his grandmother.
“She always just told me, ‘If you pray every night to God, your hand will get better,’” Smith says.
For 12-year-old Smith, a fateful doctor’s visit would shatter an already splintering worldview.
“The doctor examined me and said ‘Well, you have Cerebral Palsy, which is technically brain damage, so unless you figure out a way to fix your brain, you’re always going to be like this,’” Smith says.
“I remember going to my uncle’s truck and having that sentence sink in. It was the first time it hit me that it didn’t matter how hard I prayed, or how positive I was. I was always going to be stuck like this.”
Smith’s teen years were a whirlwind of angst, depression, and self-doubt — not an uncommon cocktail of teenage emotions, but one compounded by the dreaded teen status symbol of being different.
It wasn’t until around 2003 when he glimpsed one-legged wrestler Zach Gowen on an episode of Smackdown that Smith started to put the pieces back together.
“Either I take this negative thing and I continue to make it a negative, or I take control and try and make it as positive as I can,” Smith said. “And I guess that’s where wrestling comes in.”
“There was this feeling that I wanted to try and train, but it wasn’t even a mindset of ‘I don’t know if I can do this because I was disabled,'” Smith said. “It was more of ‘I don’t know if I can do this because I’ve never done anything athletic in my life.’”
But a rare uplifting conversation with the notoriously surly JT Lightning convinced Smith to take the plunge. From then on, Smith found himself facing a new take on what for him was a lifelong challenge.
“Once I actually started training with JT, he would always pull me aside and say ‘Today I’m going to teach you a collar and elbow tie-up, and if you can’t do this, I can’t continue training you,’” Smith says. “So I busted my ass trying to figure out how to make a collar and elbow tie-up with one arm make sense, or how to make a wristlock make sense.”
Wrestling’s unique physicality put Smith’s lifelong knack for adapting to the test. And his creativity did not go unnoticed.
“His disability has become a positive for him,” says Aaron Bauer, a longtime commentator, manager, and most recently the co-host of Smith’s new “Iron on Wrestling” podcast. “It has made him put more thought into stories, not just rely on his athleticism.”
Bauer, real name Aaron Simmons, recalls working with an upstart Gregory Iron in a not-so-common venue.
“It was him and Johnny Gargano versus MDogg 20 (Son of Havoc) and me inside an Ohio prison,” Simmons recalls.
“My only gripe was him hitting me very stiff with a backhand. It was his bad hand, so he can’t control it, so no problem. I just literally saw stars after the stiff shot.”
Commentator and producer Joe Dombrowski manned the announce desk in Cleveland All Pro (later Pro Wrestling Ohio and eventually Prime Wrestling). Dombrowski and Simmons would play off each other during Greg’s matches, with the heel Simmons scoffing at Iron’s attempts in the ring only to have to eat his words later.
Dombrowski played things more straight but made sure to call Smith’s matches in a way that would serve the then-rookie.
“Typically, you’d want to try to hide the weaknesses of a performer, be it size, inexperience, physical affliction, etc.,” Dombrowski says. “But in Greg’s case, his weaknesses were his story. So many of the stories we told about Greg were him proving people wrong and showing he can hang on any level with an opponent.”
Since his start in 2006, Smith has more than handled those initial nerves. Today Smith’s catalog of confrontations includes notable names like Johnny Gargano, Brian Cage, Lince Dorado, and a very memorable 2011 segment with the WWE Champion CM Punk.
Whether he’s leading cheers as an inspirational babyface or hamming it up as a heel, Smith takes pride in every connection he creates with fans.
“It’s not just about the art that I create in the ring,” Smith says. “Because I’m so open and honest, and I share my story, people are connecting with that, and it gives me a greater meaning as a performer to not only share my message of defying the odds but that anyone can defy the odds.”
But perhaps the most powerful connection was one that took over a decade to come together. After watching Zach Gowen back in 2003, Smith eventually formed a tag team with Gowen called The Handicapped Heroes, an act they took to several promotions as well as motivational speaking appearances.
“Our stories seamlessly weaved together,” Smith says. “I needed Zach as a kid, and he didn’t realize it, but he motivated me. And when Zach needed me as a performer as he got older to drive him as a wrestler, I didn’t realize it. But I was there for him.”
Whether you call him Iron or Smith, Greg is not slowing down. In between wrestling, training, and motivating, his new podcast, “Iron on Wrestling,” features interviews that usually span upwards of two hours. His first three episodes have featured NXT superstar Johnny Gargano and women’s wrestling sensation Kimber Lee.
“The podcast was an idea I brought to Greg several years ago, and one that was seconded by “Stone Cold” Steve Austin when he did Austin’s [podcast] last year,” Simmons says. “Greg and I work well together. He has a brilliant mind for the business and should be in a bigger company like WWE, AEW, Impact, whatever. When we decided to do a podcast together, it felt like a winning idea. And it is.”
“Iron on Wrestling” is available on Apple Podcasts with new episodes released each Wednesday.