Army veteran and amputee Chris Melendez had two dreams: to serve his country and to dropkick people for a living.
Melendez, a former infantry gunner who lost his left leg above the knee to a roadside bomb, has signed a multi-year deal with TNA Impact Wrestling, a rival to the popular WWE. His match debut in his native New York was Aug. 6 and viewers can see the outcome when the match airs on or near Sept. 11 on Spike TV.
"I'm very excited because there have been so many people who have not seen me perform, who are questioning my ability, whether I can go the distance," Melendez told Army Times. "Once I step in there, I will show the whole world what I'm capable of."
For other veterans, particularly injured vets, he wants to prove, "regardless of what happens, you can still succeed at whatever you apply yourself to."
Inspired by his father, a Vietnam veteran, Melendez joined the Army at 17. At age 19 in 2006, and with only 23 days of an Iraq deployment remaining, he was hit by an IED while on patrol in Sadr City.
"The hardest part when I came home was I wasn't with my guys on the ground," he said. "I wanted to be over there."
Melendez went to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. His jaw was rebuilt, the severed tendons in his left arm had to be replaced, and ultimately, his left leg was amputated above the knee.
According to Army records, Melendez got out in 2007 as a specialist with the Combat Infantryman's Badge, the Expert Marksmanship Badge with machine gun and rifle bars, and a Purple Heart. (Melendez says he left as a sergeant, and an Army official conceded that the record may be incomplete.)
Then Melendez connected with the Wounded Warrior Project, which he said, "did a great job of making me feel whole again, and being around veterans in a similar situation."
Today, Melendez is fitted with an X3, which manufacturer Ottobock markets as "the world's most technologically advanced prosthetic leg." Fitted with a microprocessor, accelerometer and a gyroscope, it has modes for swimming, running and standing — but not for wrestling.
"I prefer to work with it off because my agility's better, I move a bit faster, I'm able to do certain things that I can't do with it on," he said. "It's actually a hindrance to have it on."
Don't believe it? In a YouTube video, Melendez—hopping on one leg—delivers an arm bar, a fisherman suplex, and body slam after body slam. (His signature move has yet to be revealed, and Melendez says folks will have to tune in to see it.)
"I have my own unique way of doing things. For the most part, every single person I'm in [the ring] with says it seems like being in there with someone with two legs," he said. "They can't tell the difference. They definitely have their work cut out for them."
Still, professional wrestling is full of surprises (at least for the audience), and so Melendez plans to stay vigilant.
"I keep the same mentality that I had in the military," Melendez said. "I'm not sure exactly what will happen or what will come my way. Overseas, you can't be complacent, you've got to keep your head on a swivel and I'll keep that same edge."
As a kid from Spanish Harlem, Melendez was exposed to wrestling by his grandmother, who was a huge fan. It became his dream to become a professional wrestler, and he was not going to let that dream go just because of his injury.
"That ability to captivate the audience and tell a story, not with words, with our bodies," he said.
Melendez would not be the first amputee wrestler. He follows Zach Gowen, who lost his left leg to cancer as a child and became a wrestler in the early 2000s.
"I remember seeing Zach Gowen, a phenomenal wrestler on one leg, similar to what I do, but regardless of whether I got injured or not, this is what I was going to do," Melendez said. "I'm not letting it stand in my way, no matter how difficult it might be."
In 2012, Melendez met wrestler Bully Ray, who he credits for recognizing his potential and inviting him to move to Florida to train. At Ray's school, Team 3D Academy of Professional Wrestling, in Kissimmee, Melendez found a "civilian drill sergeant" in trainer Dan Carr, who he said kept him in top shape—while Ray taught him how to carry himself like a wrestler.
But most of all, he found a familiar sense of community and brotherhood.
"I had that discipline, because of my time in the infantry, to stick to a rigorous training regimen," he said. "And being in an environment similar to the military, with the camaraderie and the brotherhood, it's a very close-knit school, you help each other and boost each other up."