Christopher Melendez was a typical New York kid, growing up in Spanish Harlem and watching pro wrestling with his grandmother. But, like many typical New York kids, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, changed his life forever.
His father was a veteran who had served his country in Vietnam, and Melendez wanted to do the same. As soon as he was 17, Melendez enlisted in the U.S. Army. After basic training, he was sent overseas to serve first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. He distinguished himself as an infantry gunner and rose to the rank of sergeant.
"I enlisted in 2004, spent 3 years in Iraq, and was sent home in 2007," recounts Melendez, but it was the events of his final days that would change his life forever.
With only 23 days of his deployment remaining, the unthinkable happened. An improvised explosive device detonated on his platoon outside of Sadr City, tearing his left leg from his body. Field medics struggled to save his life, resuscitating him three times. He survived, but his leg was lost. Melendez was flown back to the United States, where a bed was waiting for him at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
In addition to the loss of his leg, the wounded soldier needed to have the tendons in his left arm replaced and his jaw rebuilt. Melendez didn't stay down for long, though. 40 days after the injury, he was already walking on his new prosthetic leg.
Once he returned to America, Melendez took some time to recover mentally and emotionally. The experience was jarring, but he knew he wanted to be a productive member of society. That's where the Wounded Warrior Project came in.
Wounded Warrior was founded in 2003 to honor and empower veterans of the conflicts following the 9/11 attacks, and they have distributed over a hundred million dollars on programs helping thousands of veterans. Their donations have enabled music therapy programs, college scholarships and stipends, and emergency financial assistance to veterans and their families.
The Wounded Warrior Project hooked Melendez up with TNA wrestler Ken Anderson. Anderson, an Army veteran himself, was impressed by the Sergeant's physical conditioning and can-do attitude and made some phone calls.
One of those calls was to wrestler Bully Ray, who along with long-time partner Devon runs the Team 3D Academy of Professional Wrestling in Kissimmee, Florida. In September of 2012, they accepted Chris Melendez as a student.
Professional wrestling training is incredibly grueling. Everything that looks natural and "real" in the ring has to be rehearsed dozens if not hundreds of times to commit it to muscle memory. Melendez took to it with the same intensity and drive that characterized both his time in the military and his recovery.
He was a quick student, learning the ins and outs rapidly. Like most wrestlers, Melendez worked for a little while in independent promotions, getting real experience in front of small crowds. But it wasn't long before TNA came calling. He signed with the promotion in July of 2014.
For his first matches in TNA, taped in front of a rabid hometown crowd at the Manhattan Center, Chris wrestled while wearing his lightweight prosthetic leg, but he'd rather work without it. (Watch video highlights of his debut below.)
"Most people would assume it's a disadvantage, but the truth is the leg makes me more cumbersome and slows me down. When I have it off, I can move faster and jump higher. If someone wants to try and remove it, it's fine by me."
For the time being, though, his new leg will be joining him in the ring when he competes. It certainly didn't seem to hinder him in his debut outing against DJ Zema.
"Every time I have the leg off and I'm standing tall on one leg, that shows other guys, other amputees, civilians and veterans that you can overcome these things. You don't need to be embarrassed. And if I have to be the guy who gets up there and says it, so be it."
Melendez isn't the first disabled wrestler to compete in the squared circle - Zach Gowen, who had his left leg amputated when he was eight years old, had a short run in both TNA and the WWE, and Ohio-born Gregory Iron suffers from cerebral palsy. But Melendez is confident that he will attain a level of success that others have not.
"Wherever I am, I aim to rise to the top and be the best at what I'm doing. Here in TNA, I plan to go straight to the top. I have the same mentality I had in the battlefield, the same mentality I had during my recovery. I'm going to be the best."