By Mike Mooneyham
Feb. 26, 2006
First of two parts
Matt Cappotelli was feeling particularly upbeat the evening of Dec. 14.
It’s not every day that a rookie is called up to the big leagues, but the 26-year-old had plenty to be excited about just 11 days before Christmas. He was winding up his tour of duty in Ohio Valley Wrestling, WWE’s boot camp for those fortunate enough to have reached that stage in the business, and was eagerly looking forward to the next chapter in his career.
Two days after that evening’s TV taping at Davis Arena in Louisville, Ky., Cappotelli was scheduled to shoot his debut videos at WWE headquarters in Stamford, Conn. It would mark the end of his tenure toiling as a developmental talent and the beginning of a promising career on WWE’s main roster.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]Since winning the MTV-produced Tough Enough competition three years earlier, Cappotelli had been quietly but efficiently paying his dues, taking his bumps and bruises along the way, and passing with flying colors working in the WWE’s farm system. Like Brock Lesnar, Shelton Benjamin and an assortment of other OVW alumni before him, Cappotelli had performed admirably, proving to camp taskmasters such as Danny Davis, Jim Cornette and Paul Heyman that he indeed had what it took to succeed at the next level.
He was good enough to be crowned the OVW heavyweight champion, a title bestowed upon the organization’s best and usually a favorable sign that one’s development status was soon headed for deeper and more lucrative waters.
Little did the rookie know at the time, but his greatest moment in professional wrestling was yet to come.
Matt Cappotelli is the embodiment of the All-American male. Standing a shade under six feet tall, he’s smart and athletic with an infectious personality that earned him the nickname “Flava.”
Born just south of Rochester, N.Y., Cappotelli grew up a wrestling fan, regularly attending matches as early as the age of 8 with his dad. He loved the old-timers such as Rowdy Roddy Piper and Superfly Jimmy Snuka. His had big dreams of being an NFL player or a pro wrestler.
An undersized linebacker at Western Michigan University, the New York State football player of the year in 1996 and 1997 made up for his lack of size with a big heart and a dogged determination that he will need now more than ever.
Always looking for new challenges, Cappotelli was 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 (now known as Johnny Nitro and one half of WWE’s MNM tag-team champions), ended up wining a WWE contract by outlasting all the other contestants.
“It’s tough to put into words. It’s something that I’ll have forever and can never be taken away,” Cappotelli says of the experience. “It’s all documented. How many people have something like that to look at years later? I learned a lot about wrestling and a lot about life.”
In what many regarded as the highlight of the show, yet another defining test for the rookie, Tough Enough trainer “Hardcore” Bob Holly took liberties with Cappotelli and roughed him up, leaving the youngster bloodied but unbowed.
While it may have made for compelling television, the incident created an uproar in the wrestling community. Holly, however, remained remorseless, saying, “I’m not sorry for what I did. I don’t regret what I did.” Of the cast, he would remark, “I’ve never seen a bigger bunch of crybabies in all my life.” While some defended Holly’s actions as merely a veteran testing a greenhorn’s mettle, most criticized the grizzled trainer and took him to task.
“That was just another thing for me to have to fight from behind and get through,” Cappotelli says, adding that he hasn’t harbored any hard feelings toward Holly.
“I try not to hold grudges. I was taught a long time ago to forgive, just not to forget. You learn from it and you’re smarter for it. Looking at it now, Tough Enough was an easy way compared to how these guys came into the business. I can completely see that. They wanted to make sure we knew what it was about. It wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.”
Like so many other times in his life, he says, a rainbow followed the rain. At his lowest point in the competition, Cappotelli had the chance to meet Shawn Michaels when the mat icon visited the set of the show.
“It was the first time I had actually met him, and I got to talk to him about his faith. I truly believed God sent him right after that to encourage me. Something has always seemed to happen right at the time I needed it the most.”
Cappotelli has heard all the talk about his injuries coming at inopportune times and about all the tough breaks he’s had to encounter along the way. He sees it as part of a bigger journey in the grand scheme of things.
The western New York native was on the verge of being brought up to the main roster earlier last year when he suffered a broken leg that sidelined him for nearly three months. He returned in October for what he called a “really fun program” with partner-turned-rival Johnny Jeter. Dubbed The Thrillseekers, a revamped version of the original Cornette-created team of a decade earlier made up of Chris Jericho and Lance Storm, the two had formed one of the most celebrated duos in OVW history during late 2004 and the first half of 2005.
But again, on the cusp of something big, fate would rear its ugly head. To Cappotelli, though, it was something far bigger.
“I really believe all those times were God trying to get my attention and letting me know that something was wrong. He finally had to knock me out.”
That knockout punch arrived literally on the evening of Dec. 14 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. I wasn’t concussed, I had no problem, I was just knocked out.
Backstage, however, Cappotelli 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,” says Cappotelli. “I felt completely fine.”
Following a CT scan, however, Cappotelli received some sobering news. A mass in his brain had been detected. Cappotelli 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 is a relatively slow-growing tumor that has the possibility of invading other tissues.
Cappotelli says he’s trying to avoid surgery, at least for now, while exploring other possibilities.
“I’ve spoken with a lot of doctors and read tons of articles. There’s so much risk to the surgery with them opening me up. A lot of things could go wrong, from paralysis to losing my vision. I’m not having a bunch of symptoms.”
For now, Cappotelli is staying in Louisville, trying to figure out what his next step will be. He will have to leave soon to meet with surgeons and other medical experts to determine how to proceed with treatment of the tumor. He won’t make any more appearances on OVW television, at least for the interim, since he sees no value in taking another active performer’s TV time. He says he’s happy just to get some other performers in the mix.
Matt Cappotelli faces the toughest fight of his life.