Former soldier Chris Melendez follows his dream all the way to the ring
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 2, 2014
Chris Melendez has had two dreams since he was a kid: to serve his country on the front lines and become a professional wrestler.
Impossibility never crossed his mind, even after an IED took most of his left leg in Baghdad’s Sadr City in 2006.
The 4th Infantry Division soldier tackled rehabilitation with unusual resolve, walking within 40 days and leaving the hospital in eight months.
Now — fitted with a prosthetic — Melendez, 27, is taking his talents to the squared circle.
He signed a multi-year wrestling contract in June and will make his television debut Sept. 10 with TNA Impact Wrestling, the second-biggest wrestling promotion in the world.
The hulking, tattooed veteran hopes to inspire fellow wounded warriors to achieve their dreams despite their injuries. The only question when the bell sounds is not whether Melendez will be ready, colleagues say, but whether his opponents will see him sprinting at them from across the ring with or without his prosthetic.
“I want to inspire hope,” Melendez told Stars and Stripes in a recent phone interview. “I’ve accomplished my dreams. I want to show people they can do it, too.”
Melendez grew up in a rough Spanish Harlem neighborhood in New York City. As far back as he can remember, wrestling was his escape. His grandmother, Norma, would sit him on her lap and they would watch superstars such as Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
Melendez papered his walls with pictures of his favorite wrestlers and practiced moves with his friends on the sly. He was voted “most likely to become a professional wrestler” in his high school yearbook.
“I was always attracted to it, these larger-than-life characters,” Melendez said. “I could see myself being one of them one day.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, his world was turned upside down, when his father, a Vietnam veteran, went radio silent while on the job in lower Manhattan. He came home later covered in debris.
“That upset me,” he recalled. “It felt like someone knocked on my door picking a fight.”
Melendez quit high school early and joined the Army the first chance he got in 2004, at age 17.
During his first deployment to Baghdad, where he served mostly as a machine gunner, roadside bombs were an almost daily occurrence. His unit would get hit, and everyone would pause for a moment to take stock of their injuries, then move on.
He was 23 days shy of finishing his year-long deployment when he was hit on Sept. 29, 2006.
“I thought I was fine,” he recalled. “My helmet was cracked. I was like, ‘Wow, this is a bad one.’”
He tried to help his comrades through the smoke and metallic particles that lingered in the air when he made a horrific discovery.
“I was like, ‘Someone’s laying there,’ ” he recalled. “Wow, that’s someone’s leg. Something isn’t right. I’m getting woozy.”
Moved first to Germany for treatment, then Texas, he recovered quickly from his physical wounds, but internal injuries posed the biggest challenge — post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. He separated from the Army because he couldn’t see himself behind a desk, but he lost the safety net of the military and people who understood what he had been through.
“I got home and felt out of place,” he said. “You have to learn to deal with yourself again.”
Part of the challenge was coping with nightmares and insomnia.
“It took awhile for that to fade away,” he said.
In 2009, Melendez was referred to a union job working on film sets by the Wounded Warrior Project. He asked for the most physically demanding position, so he became a grip, which includes lighting and camera setups. The pay was great, and he went on to work on TV shows such as “Law and Order” and “Person of Interest” and film sets for Tyler Perry and The Smurfs.
The itch to get on the wrestling mat didn’t fade.
In 2011, Melendez began training at a small school in Brooklyn called the Doghouse. The Wounded Warrior Project stepped in again and introduced him to former WWE and current TNA wrestler Ken Anderson.
Anderson put him in touch with fellow TNA star Mark “Bully Ray” LoMonaco, formerly of the WWE championship tag team The Dudley Boyz.
LoMonaco was inspired by Melendez’s story and his passion, so he offered free training at his wrestling school in Florida if he would drop everything and take the leap of faith.
For Melendez, it wasn’t even a question.
“I didn’t doubt myself one time,” Melendez said. “I packed everything a month later and I took off.”
LoMonaco said they threw him right into the fire of training with professionals.
“We never treated him differently,” LoMonaco told Stars and Stripes by phone. “I’ve never seen him struggle one day [with his disability]. He’s never used it as an excuse. He’s kind of like the bionic man.”
Melendez continued to work hard and improve, LoMonaco said. With a great story and ring charismatic, he’s the complete package.
LoMonaco felt so strongly about his star pupil that he approached TNA about signing him. TNA executives were equally excited.
“Chris Melendez is an American hero and an incredible inspiration,” John Gaburick, executive vice president of TV production and talent for TNA Entertainment, wrote to Stars and Stripes. “Chris now has a significant platform to inspire millions by sharing the message that with persistence and determination achieving one’s dream is possible.”
Melendez is excited about his debut and what he hopes will be a long career in the industry he loves. He said opponents will be in for a rude awakening if they take him lightly because of his disability. He said he is faster and jumps higher without his prosthetic, and he knows there’s a chance someone will take it from him at some point.
He feels at home under the lights, surrounded by the crowd, a modern gladiator.
“You have to completely give yourself to this to be successful, like the battlefield,” he said. “I fight and I push. I do not stop.”