Michael Hayes’s story is, by now, familiar.
Fresh-faced kid joins the army right out of high school, zips through basic, posts somewhere safe for a little while, then gets deployed to Iraq.
Then his Humvee gets caught in an IED blast. He suffers severe burns over large portions of his body.
He loses his left leg.
Hayes then goes through eighteen months of physical therapy and rehab at Brooke Army Medical Center before coming home to Louisville.
He tries college. He works at a Bath and Body Works. He drinks too much. He starts getting into trouble.
So far there’s nothing surprising here. The plight of our returning vets is heart-wrenching. But sadly, the longest war in US history has told us this tale many times over.
It’s what Michael Hayes does next that makes him so remarkable.
He’s pumping iron one day when he meets a couple of guys who work for Ohio Valley Wrestling. He decides to sign up for the training class offered at the OVW, and maybe get a chance to wrestle onstage.
The OVW isn’t a full time gig, but it’s a feeder league for TNA Wrestling and a great place to cut your teeth if you dream of glory in the ring. And it’s located right here in Louisville.
It has everything you expect from professional wrestling; huge personalities, outrageous characters, operatic story lines, team ups, rivalries, betrayals and more.
The OVW started in 1997 as an affiliate of the National Wrestling Alliance. In 2000 the World Wrestling Federation (now the WWE) began using the OVW as a training league and source of talent. More than a hundred OVW wrestlers have gone on to the WWE.
In 2008, the WWE severed ties and moved their training school to Florida. The OVW remained unaffiliated until 2011 when it became official territory for Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA).
Hayes avoids bragging when asked about the difficulties of learning to wrestle with a prosthetic.
“It’s hard to say, I was never a professional wrestler with two legs,” he says.
He will admit that it was hard, and that he had to adapt a lot of what he learned.
Hayes worked his way through the beginners’ class and got his chance to wrestle onstage.
Some wrestlers create elaborate backstories and spend years finding a character that audiences respond to.
Hayes already has an incredible story.
He gets in the ring, swinging his prosthetic leg over the rope, and you know he’s for real. He almost always wrestles with the prosthetic in full view.
The audience responds to this reality, no fiction needed. He is a guy who conquers adversity every time he steps into the ring.
His backstory has also given birth to some intense onstage conflicts.
Take Hayes’s on-again-off-again rivalry with a Mohamed Ali Vaez, a wrestler of Persian descent.
Hayes is the ‘good guy,’ the audience cheers for him.
Vaez is a ‘bad guy’ the audience loves to hate.
Hayes says the OVW “Never openly acknowledged the racial or geopolitical undertones.” But with an American war hero fighting a Middle Eastern guy, there’s no need to spell it out.
In a notable string of matches, Vaez took Hayes’s leg from him, and at one point beat him with it onstage.
It’s hard not to watch this fan-made video without getting a little uncomfortable. The wrestling is all in good fun, and there are some really amazing bits when Hayes is wrestling on one leg, but then there are these intercut images of burning American flags and anti-American forces abroad, brandishing machine guns.
But the OVW hasn’t only looked abroad to provide enemies for the war hero. Hayes’s newest rivalry is with a group of bad guys called The Coalition, also real-life veterans themselves.
Their jingoistic characters brag constantly about their time in the Armed Forces, and claim to guard against terrorists who are “infiltrating the OVW.”
They have a team of paranoid militants followers that include Joel Coleman, Raul LaMotta, Shiloh Jonze, and Ghillie man. They all dress in camo. Shiloh Jonze wears bullet belts criss-crossing his chest. Ghillie Man wears a full Ghillie suit.
The Coalition’s paranoia and bombast brought them into frequent conflict with Hayes. There is a definite shift going on here. When Hayes was fighting Vaez there was a racial stereotype at play. Now that Hayes is fighting the Coalition, it’s ideologies that are clashing.
This is highlighted by the fact that Vaez has now teamed up with Hayes to fight The Coalition. The out of control pro-American thugs are the bigger threat than the man from the Middle East; difference of belief trumps difference of skin tone.
When Hayes and The Coalition first began to clash in the ring, it was with words and not wrestling. Hayes was in the middle of getting a new round of skin grafts to cover the burns he sustained in Iraq.
“The real drama was, am I going to be able to wrestle?” he says.
If the skin grafts weren’t successful, he wouldn’t be able to step into the ring to wrestle again. Hayes is realistic about the wear and tear that wrestling puts on him. “My body won’t hold on as long as most,” he admits.
He thinks a spot on TNA would be great but “the end goal, the dream, is Wrestlemania.”
In conversation Hayes doesn’t dwell on painful facts or worrying about the future. He focuses instead on the dramatic situations of his onstage life. Like his rivalry with the Coalition.
At the most recent Saturday Night Special Vaez and Hayes faced Crimson and Jason Wayne for the title of Southern Tag Team Champions.
It was a close match, but Hayes and Vaez triumphed. Then, inevitably, the ring was flooded by Coalition forces who “illegally” beat Hayes and Vaez.
It went on, kick after kick, punch after punch, the audience on it’s feet, screaming, yelling, howling at the Coalition.
Eventually all the other “good guys” who wrestled throughout the evening arrived to drive the Coalition away.
As Hayes lies on the mat in the ring, children are standing on their tip toes to see, grown women are wiping tears. They are all waiting to see if Hayes can stand up.
This moment is what they really came to see. They came to see Hayes conquer this adversity, just like he conquered the loss of his leg, just like he conquered the inner darkness that beats so many vets who struggle when they return home from war.
“The first time I stand back up, that’s the connection. The first time I’m back on two feet,” he says.
After several moments of suspense, Hayes is helped to his feet. He holds a fist up in the air to let the audience know he is not broken.
His struggle against the Coalition will continue.
You can catch Michael Hayes and all the stars of the OVW at Davis Arena, 4400 Shepherdsville Road every Wednesday night at 7 p.m. for a live-taping, or check out the broadcast on WBNA-TV 21 on Saturdays at noon. The next Saturday Night Special is July 6th at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $10 for the Saturday Night Special and $5 for Wednesday nights.