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LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- A wounded soldier is living out his dreams despite his limitations. He battles through depression, crippling injuries, and sadness to find purpose in a most unusual place.
"It was the first thing that I grew attached to," Michael Hayes says.
The wrestling bug bit Michael Hayes at a very young age -- when he was 5 years old, and "little enough to sit in my grandpa's lap and watch USWA with him.
His mother Vickie explains, "He said, 'Mom, you're going to be mad at me, but I'm not going to college. I'm going to wrestling school.' And I thought, please just let it be a phase."
It was not a phase. And little did the family know the bug would eventually help save Michael's life.
He says, "I think for most people the answer is the same thing. Usually the people who want to be a wrestler start out watching it growing up, and they see that one that they want to attach to and emulate."
In a world filled with storylines of good guy versus bad guy, where the wrestlers want you to believe even the most unbelievable things -- his story is real.
He has no left leg.
Michael Hayes had tabled his dreams of wrestling for a life in the military, enlisting straight out of high school in 2004.
The Louisville native was stationed at Fort Knox: "I knew after September 11th happened, it was one of those things that you can't miss for my generation," he says.
"I couldn't even talk to him in the beginning," Vickie says. "It was kind of like, we'll talk later, 'cause I knew."
Vickie says she also knew where he would go and what could happen.
And it did happen, on August 4th, 2006. Even now, Michael says, "It's kind of a weird thing. To this day, I wake up on August 4th at 10:20 in the morning." His voice cracks and Michael grows silent.
On that date, his unit was attacked by an IED in Ramadi, Iraq. Three men died, and Specialist Hayes was the only survivor. He received the Purple Heart.
Michael describes his feelings whenever he looks back on that day: "That's not so much sadness, I guess, as it is frustration."
And his mother says, "Don't ever let anyone tell you mothers don't have intuition either, 'cause I spent the whole day before upset....It was just like if I could just hear his voice...and it was probably already happening."
Hayes spent 18 months in rehabilitation at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. The blast took his left leg and burned 38 percent of his body. He endured 19 surgeries and learned to walk again, with his parents there the whole way.
"I just wanted him to know he'd be okay. We'd be okay," his mother says.
But when Michael returned home, he was not okay: "I didn't know what I was capable of doing -- what my body would allow me to do and how long it would allow me to do it," he says. "So I kind of just took a break from everything."
While he was lost in depression, wrestling re-entered his life. About a year ago Michael started training with Ohio Valley Wrestling, one of the most well-respected wrestling schools in the country.
In the OVW locker room they have what you might call a Wall of Fame. The biggest superstars in wrestling in the last 15 years trained right there, and when they make it to the top their picture goes on the wall. Michael Hayes hopes to fill a spot.
He admits, "The first day, it was a little surreal. This ring seems so much larger on TV as a little kid." Though the classes are challenging, Michael works twice as hard as his classmates for half the result and sometimes his body gives out.
Ever the soldier, he doesn't know how to quit, finding himself rolling back into the ring again and again.
Wrestling trainer Nick Eugene Dinsmore says of Michael, "To watch him get beat up and knocked down as does everyone in the ring and get back up, and get back up when other people that signed up the same time he did...they had excuses...he's really a one-of-a-kind character in a business full of characters."
And his mother VIckie says, "I noticed a change in him. There was a change in his voice, it was an excitement."
The dreams of a 4-year-old boy who sat on his grandfather's knee have come full circle, as his grandfather now watches him in the ring.
Michael says, "I get my story, I understand the effect it has on people because if I stepped out of my shoes and heard this, I would think it's pretty cool. So I want to give kids the moments that I had when I saw those matches. If I can reach that moment -- that's my goal."
In a world filled with good guy versus bad guy tales, where the wrestlers want you to believe even the most unbelievable things, his story is real.
"We underestimate the human body," Michael says. "We underestimate the will of people. And that's what I've realized. I'm more capable than I thought."