Matt Cappotelli was on the cusp of fulfilling a lifelong dream 12 years ago when he got the news.
A co-winner of WWE’s “Tough Enough” and a standout performer in the company’s developmental program, Cappotelli was scheduled to fly to WWE headquarters in Stamford, Conn., to shoot his debut videos. It was a ticket to the fame and glory he had longed for growing up a wrestling fan, regularly attending matches as early as the age of 8 with his dad and cheering on the likes of Rowdy Roddy Piper and Superfly Jimmy Snuka.
Later, as an undersized linebacker at Western Michigan University, the New York state football player of the year in 1996 and 1997 would make up for his lack of size with a big heart and a dogged determination.
Standing a shade under six feet tall, he was the embodiment of the All-American male, smart and athletic with an infectious personality that earned him the nickname “Flava.”
Always looking for new challenges, Cappotelli had been one of 21 semifinalists selected from a talent pool of hundreds for WWE’s Tough Enough 3 reality show in 2003. Cappotelli, along with John Hennigan (later known as Johnny Nitro, John Morrison and Johnny Mundo), ended up winning a WWE contract by outlasting all the other contestants.
Fast-forward two years, and the western New York native was on the verge of being brought up to the main roster in 2005 when he suffered a broken leg that sidelined him for nearly three months. He later returned for what he called a “really fun program” with partner-turned-rival Johnny Jeter. Dubbed The Thrillseekers, a revamped version of the original Jim Cornette-created team of a decade earlier made up of Chris Jericho and Lance Storm, the two formed one of the most celebrated duos in Ohio Valley Wrestling history during late 2004 and the first half of 2005.
It appeared that his tenure toiling as a developmental talent was nearing an end, and a promising career on WWE’s main roster was about to begin.
But again, on the cusp of something big, fate struck hard. That knockout punch arrived literally on the evening of Dec. 14, 2005, 11 days before Christmas and two days before he was scheduled to debut on the main roster, during a tag-team match pitting Cappotelli and Chris Cage (Kris Pavone) against Jeter and Mark Henry.
“A real stiff shot (from Cage) knocked me out. It was the kind of thing that I didn’t even have a headache afterward,” Cappotelli recalled at the time. “I wasn’t concussed, I had no problem, I was just knocked out.”
Backstage, however, the OVW heavyweight champion was urged to go to the hospital for medical attention.
“If it hadn’t been for people in the back that night pushing me to get it checked out, I wouldn’t have gone,” said Cappotelli. “I felt completely fine.”
Following a CT scan, however, the rookie received some sobering news. A mass in his brain had been detected. He was held overnight until an MRI could be performed. That MRI revealed that he had a large brain tumor.
A biopsy was scheduled, and the results were no better. Samples of the tissue showed that Cappotelli had a grade 2 malignant tumor. With grade 4 being the most aggressive, most dangerous and fastest-growing, grade 2 was a relatively slow-growing tumor that had the possibility of invading other tissues.
His promising WWE career was over. But his much bigger life story didn’t end there.
A greater purpose
Matt Cappotelli died on June 29, 12 years after receiving his initial diagnosis and after fighting two battles with brain cancer. He was only 38. And he was a warrior.
His courage was put on full display back in 2006 when he addressed a crowd at Davis Arena in Louisville, OVW’s home base, and told fans of his condition. It had been his first wrestling appearance since being diagnosed with brain cancer.
Then-OVW booker Paul Heyman and co-owner Danny Davis had given the young champion an open forum to say and do whatever he wanted. Unlike the scripts, storylines and matches that preceded, this segment was for real. It was a shoot, straight from the heart, and Cappotelli was given carte blanche as the entire OVW crew gathered around the ring, heels and babyfaces holding hands in a show of unity.
Few, however, knew exactly what was to come.
Cappotelli would later admit that he didn’t even remember how long the speech lasted. He only recalled there being about 25 minutes left in the show. He also remembered Heyman approaching him and telling him the rest of the show was his.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” said Cappotelli, who told the audience how his faith in Jesus Christ would sustain him. “It was totally unscripted and unrehearsed. It meant a lot for me to let everyone know what was happening. It’s hard to differentiate between reality and storylines and such, but I hope there was that much of a division to where everyone could feel what was going on.”
Only 26 at the time, Cappotelli left the arena in prayer and expressed his love for professional wrestling. Members of the OVW roster offered words of support as the crowd of nearly 400 chanted “We love you, Matt.”
By the time he was finished 20 minutes later, there were very few dry eyes in the house.
“It was from the heart,” he said. “It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I thought I was going to be able to hold it together, but the emotion of the whole night got to me. Just seeing everybody out there ... It was a very difficult thing to do.”
Afterwards, Heyman was visibly moved by Cappotelli’s heartfelt speech, saying, “It was surreal. It was amazing. It was divine.”
There was a greater purpose for Cappotelli. Like so many other times in his life, he would say, a rainbow followed the rain.
“From day one, I’ve wanted to make a difference and be a positive figure in sports or entertainment,” he confided. “I really believe I have the opportunity to do that now. And in a different way than a lot of people.”
And he did.
Keeping the faith
Over the next 12 years, Matt Cappotelli never lost the faith that would sustain him.
Though his initial brain tumor was removed, he underwent two years of radiation and chemotherapy, and continued to undergo yearly screenings. After nearly 10 years of remission, though, he began to experience headaches and “seizure activity” in June of last year. After further testing, his doctor advised that he undergo surgery to remove a tumor that had grown significantly since a February screening.
Cappotelli underwent a second surgery on June 29, 2017, and though doctors removed 90 percent of a mass pressing on his skull, results confirmed he had grade 4 glioblastoma, the most deadly form of brain cancer.
“That was the first time I had ever heard that word. In his words, that was the ‘worst case’ scenario,” wrote his wife Lindsay, who kept Matt’s fans and friends abreast of his status. “If it was GBM, and Matt chose not to have surgery or chemotherapy, he would only have about a month to live. Then he said that even with surgery and treatment, it’s usually about 6 months.”
Cappotelli spoke with WWE.com about his second bout with cancer. Despite the troubling outlook, he continued to publicly fight his illness in hopes his story might help others find the strength to keep fighting their own battles.
“Life is the most precious gift we’re given,” Cappotelli said. “If I can inspire others to not give up on the life they’ve been blessed to have, that’s what I’m trying to spread — hope.”
His wife also continued to share his journey on a Facebook post dedicated to Matt.
“We only hope that it will encourage others to cling to God, receive His grace, and rely on HIS strength to go through anything you face. Because the truth is, no matter what we go through, God is good, and He is faithful, and his grace will be there, always, just when we need it most. More than encouraging people to fight, to be strong, to believe in themselves, we want people to look at us and say, ‘I want to know the God they know.’”
Matt was hospitalized again last December when doctors determined that the remaining tumor was too close to his brain stem to operate. In May, after consultations with his neuro-oncologist, he ceased medical interventions for the tumor.
“That was an extremely emotional day for us,” Lindsay wrote at the time. “As is to be expected when you hear something like this, we had our moment of crying with each other. I remember standing in the kitchen, in his arms, me crying and him crying, and me saying that I couldn’t lose him, I couldn’t live without him.”
He began oral chemotherapy, but his symptoms grew worse. After getting the flu in December, he was hospitalized and “really never walked again.”
“Throughout all of this, Matt and I really never discussed death,” Lindsay wrote. “A part of me wishes that we had, but I just never wanted to make him think that I didn’t think he would make it. Because I still had hope, and I didn’t want him to give up hope.”
“So many times I’ve wished that it were me going through this,” she continued. “I would trade places with him in an instant. I always told him that I wanted to die before him because I just didn’t think I could survive without him, but I knew that he’d be OK without me. If you would’ve asked what my worst nightmare was, it would be losing him. So many times I’ve asked myself, how can this be happening? I can’t believe this is really happening. But it is. And this is part of life. People get cancer and people die. We can’t do anything about that, but we can control how we respond to these circumstances and how we allow God to work in us and through us. I can already see the growth and change in me.”
Even then, their faith never wavered.
“I know God is working and moving. All the both of us want is for Him to be glorified,” wrote Lindsay.
‘A true fighter’
Shortly after Matt passed away, his wife shared the news on social media.
“Today my love — my strong, sweet, beautiful love — took his last breath at 3:30 a.m. and went Home to be with Jesus … exactly one year after his brain surgery. You think you can be prepared for this when you know it’s coming, but you just can’t. The only person whose comfort I want right now is the one who can’t give it to me.”
While Matt Cappotelli never had the chance to bask in the spotlight of a WWE pay-per-view or vie for a world title, what he accomplished was far greater. He was an inspiration to thousands.
Hennigan, with whom he shared the Tough Enough title in 2003, posted: “My first best friend in the wrestling business and to this day one of the best people I’ve ever known, Matt Cappotelli, has passed on. I’m gutted about this news. Matt inspired everyone around him especially me early in my career. He is loved and will be missed.”
“You showed everyone what it means to never give up and to always stay positive. It was an honor to know you,” posted Stephanie McMahon.
Wrote veteran wrestler and trainer Bill DeMott: “I'm heartbroken with the news of the passing of Matt Cappotelli. He is an inspiring young man that touched so many with his smile, his heart and his faith. My love and prayers go out to Matt’s wife Lindsay and the family.”
“He was talented, passionate and possessed a heart of gold. Everyone should fight as hard as Matt fought,” wrote NXT star Kassius Ohno (Chris Spradlin).
Mike Mizanin (WWE’s Miz) noted on social media that he and Cappotelli were to be brought up to WWE Smackdown as the tag team “Reality Check.”
“One day out of nowhere he called me and said that he had just been diagnosed with brain cancer. On the phone, even with this scary news, he remained positive and was gonna fight to beat cancer. He has been fighting for his life ever since. Every time I saw him he was positive and always had a smile on his face. Today we lost a good one. A true fighter.”
“He was an all-state player, but he was an all American-person,” Mike Monacelli, a longtime family friend and Cappotelli's former football coach, told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. “Everyone wanted a son who could not only play like Matthew, but be like Matthew. That’s the biggest compliment.”
Matt once told me that he carried one particular verse in his wallet that he always liked to share. It was the one he recited in his speech a dozen years ago, from the Book of Acts, which he paraphrased, “I will not fear anything because I know the Lord is right here beside me.”
And he added: “One way or another, it’s going to be all right.”
OSCW show on tap
Old School Championship Wrestling will return to the Hanahan Rec Center on July 15.
Among those scheduled to appear are former WWE star Gangrel, OSCW champion Tracer X, Brady Pierce and John Skyler with his open challenge. E.N.D. will defend their OSCW tag-team belts against Logan Creed and Drew Adler, while The Ugly Ducklings will bring manager Coach Mikey to battle The Beautiful Bald Besties. “America's Sweetheart” Rebecca Reese will square off with OSCW women’s champ Stormie Lee.
Doors open at 4:30 p.m. Action gets under way at 5.
Adult admission is $12 (cash only at the door); kids under 12 $7.
For more information, visit www.oscwonline.com or call 843-743-4800.