Although this wasn’t the first time a pro-wrestler made good on the promise to “tear his opponent limb from limb,” this had been unlike anything my 11-year-old eyes had seen. When Diesel tore off the legendary “Mad Dog” Vachon’s artificial leg to swing at Shawn Michaels in 1996, everybody knew that Vachon had experienced amputation. Everybody knew “Mad Dog” Vachon. Nobody knew who this random fan was that Piper had assaulted on Smackdown in 2003.
But we knew that we would never forget him.
“What makes my story unique is that I lost my leg to cancer when I was eight years old,” Gowen, 30, said. “I didn’t really understand what was going on because I was just a child. All I knew was that I was in a lot of pain, and that I was very sick. I just wanted to get through it, and by the grace of God, I did. It was my love of pro-wrestling that got me through a lot of hard times in my life.”
While Hulk Hogan was masquerading as this wrinkly, tanning bed tortured Captain America, Gowen brought a sense of legitimacy that was missing from World Wrestling Entertainment. Hogan and Piper might be two old guys throwing fake punches for five minutes, but Gowen literally has one leg and he does moonsaults.
“I was signed [to a contract] when I was 19, and then I was on TV when I was 20,” Gowen said. “It was amazing and overwhelming all at once. Honestly, I wasn’t equipped mentally and spiritually to handle that lifestyle. Two weeks before I was on TV with the Hulkster, I was bagging groceries.”
Imagine not being allowed to drink a beer, but you’re appearing on national television every week with household names that have transcended wrasslin’.
“I didn’t have a father growing up,” Gowen said. “My father figures were Roddy Piper, Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon because I saw them every week. Piper was always kind to me and helped me out a ton when he didn’t have to. I will always be grateful of him.”
As for the Hulkster, let’s just say Gowen had a pre-screening of the infamous sex tape.
“I remember they took me to his locker room my first day on Smackdown to go over what we were going to do that night,” Gowen said. “When I walked in, he jumped out of the shower butt naked. The ‘Immortal’ Hulk Hogan walked up to me like nothing is out of the ordinary, saying ‘Hey, how ya doing brother?’ I was like ‘Hey, hey Hogan, nice to meet you.’”
Despite working for the man who could have destroyed his fond childhood memories, Gowen remains complimentary of McMahon.
“[McMahon] is very much like the character that he portrays,” Gowen said. “He is very assertive, demanding, intelligent and a maniac. Those are all terms of endearment because he has to be that way to handle all those egos and personalities in that locker room. I have all the respect and love in the world for [McMahon].”
Unfortunately for the overnight sensation, Gowen’s rapid downfall mirrored his meteoric rise. His last match with WWE occurred in October of 2003 where he lost to the “Japanese Buzzsaw” Tajiri. Gowen was written out of the storylines in order to nurse an injury, and then he was released from his contract in February of 2004.
“I was released because of personality conflicts with the other wrestlers and management,” Gowen said. “It goes back to my emotional immaturity and not being able to handle that type of responsibility. When I was fired, I was really bitter, angry and hurt for a long time. I saw myself as a big, bad professional wrestler and that’s not who I was anymore.”
Although Gowen’s story before the fame is unique, his post-limelight situation is all too familiar with former wrestlers, athletes and celebrities.
“I was lost for a long time and found the answer in external things such as drugs, alcohol, gambling and women,” Gowen said. “That stuff worked for a while, but the problem is when I crossed that threshold and my solution became the problem. Then I had to look internally for healing.”
Luckily, Gowen had a partner in his corner who was patiently waiting for the tag.
“I didn’t have any relationship with any kind of higher power until I was 26,” Gowen said. “I turned my will and life over to God. I lived for the rush and the thrill of the high and the drink for a long time, but it wasn’t until I was able to get outside of myself and ask for help that I felt relief. Now I’m just swimming in the benefits of this new way of living.”
That once pimply-faced kid now raises a 15-month-old son with his fiancée. He wrestles every weekend on the independent circuit and travels to schools during the week.
“Wrestling promoters wanted me to talk with students to boost attendance for the shows,” Gowen said. “After I spoke, I realized how good it felt to share my story with young kids. I tell them to work hard, be nice and help others. When I arrive, they don’t know who I am. It’s only when I tell them I wrestled John Cena that I have their attention,” Gowen said with a laugh.
Since the WWE currently promotes anti-bullying with its “Be a Star” campaign, I can’t help but wonder why Gowen hasn’t been asked to return.
“I don’t define myself by what job I have or how much money I make,” Gowen said. “I define myself by how much love I bring to the world on a daily basis. Ultimately, I can’t ask anything more from wrestling because wrestling has been overly kind to me. But if I went back to WWE, I think it would be an amazing opportunity and a match made in heaven.”
John Corrigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.