Wrestling news: WWE aids pediatric cancer research - Sports Illustrated

Children Battling Cancer Draw Strength From Their Favorite WWE Stars

The Week in Wrestling: WWE’s efforts to fight pediatric cancer, Chris Jericho’s new book and more.
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WWE provides inspiration for children battling cancer

The spirit of Connor Michalek lives on.

Michalek, who became a source of courage and inspiration during his heroic battle with cancer, died in 2014 at the age of only eight. A devoted wrestling fan, he will be forever linked to Daniel Bryan’s victory celebration at WrestleMania 30. Held by his father, Michalek cheered as Bryan accomplished wrestling’s version of the unthinkable by overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to become WWE champion.

Far from life or death, Bryan’s accomplishment was still important. He played the role of Superman to Michalek, who was forced to deal with an unforgiving foe as the cancer spread to his brain and spine. Though he died six years ago, his story left a lasting impression in the world of pediatric cancer. His battle led to a relationship with WWE, opening up opportunities for children around the globe living with cancer to receive some support from their favorite pro wrestlers.

Michalek’s fight now enters the next round. He never tapped out to cancer, instead tagging in other courageous children to help lead the fight against this horrible disease.

WWE’s new Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month video celebrates the bravery of children battling cancer, and it is full of incredible stories. One child playing a starring role is “Superman” Jimmy Spagnolo. The charismatic 10-year-old from Pittsburgh stole every scene on camera for that commercial, dancing and dabbing as he spoke, which shows why he has captured the hearts of every single person he has met from WWE.

“I love being friends with Stephanie McMahon and the WWE superstars,” Spagnolo says. “Next I want to have a dance contest against the Rock. I think I would win.”

Blissfully unaware of the magnitude of his role in bolstering the spirits of other children, Spagnolo also finds a way to continually surprise his parents as they deal with the unthinkable nightmare of their child fighting cancer.

“It’s very humbling to know other people are in this fight with you, and it’s been special to see their effect on him,” Jimmy’s father, Jim, says. He and wife Lacie are the proud parents of Jimmy and his sister Lily, and they have found themselves drying tears due to the resilience, innocence and indefatigable spirit of their two children, particularly when Jimmy starts making them laugh. “Jimmy’s case is special. We feel very lucky that he is able to let other families know that it might be OK. I hope it’s an inspiration to a lot of kids and their families that they can still go through this and live a normal life. I’m so proud of the way he represents every kid fighting this battle.”

Spagnolo’s cancer first appeared when he was only four months old when doctors discovered an inoperable brain tumor. He continues to overcome the odds and live a vibrant life. The chemotherapy he received was supposed to suppress his immune system, yet he ended up among the 1% whose immunity does not drop. He eventually rang the bell, declaring himself cancer free at the age of six, starting a joyful three-and-a-half-year reign that was cruelly interrupted when a small growth returned in June.

“He’s been through every rough thing, but he’s doing it and using it as an opportunity to help other people,” Lacie says. “Jimmy is the epitome of strength and courage. Every day we get a tough scan or have a rough day, every possible fear runs through your mind. But all I have to do is look at my Jimmy. He gives me the ultimate strength.

“And we’re so grateful for WWE, which is the ultimate stage for heroes versus villains. That’s what these kids are doing, being heroes fighting this villain in cancer.”

The Spagnolo family is not alone in their fight. They have also received support and love from Connor’s parents, a relationship dating back to their own time in high school.

Six years ago, as Connor’s health was deteriorating, he shared the playroom at Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital with a four-year-old Jimmy Spagnolo. Well aware he was in the company of two wrestling fans, Spagnolo’s father played a video of the famed WrestleMania VI match pitting Hulk Hogan against the Ultimate Warrior. The boys, temporarily forgetting the needles, pills, and various other painful but necessary treatments, smiled, laughed, and imitated their favorite pro wrestlers. There was no sickness in that room, only hope.

Like Hogan and the Warrior at the SkyDome, Connor and Jimmy ended their moment of serendipity with a hug.

“I really liked Connor,” Jimmy says. “He was my friend. I still wear his bracelet.”

Michalek’s story lives on with his family, and now through WWE. Stephanie McMahon, the company’s chief brand officer and a devoted mother of three, instantly fell in love with the charm of Michalek, and she is also enamored with the ebullience of “Superman” Jimmy.

“It’s such a privilege to see a child feel joy and not feel sick,” McMahon says. “That’s the greatest thing in the world. And in one of our first campaigns to support pediatric cancer awareness, ‘Superman Jimmy’ stood out, especially with his dancing. Nothing is going to hold Jimmy down, certainly not cancer, and he’s giving life everything he’s got.”

McMahon is determined to help in the fight against pediatric cancer. Under her leadership, WWE teamed with Basketball Hall of Famer Dick Vitale earlier this month to make a donation of $1.8 million to the V Foundation in honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

“One of the things that resonates so much with our fan base is that Connor was one of them, an eight-year-old boy that was a WWE fan,” McMahon says. “So is Jimmy. It is humbling to have the WWE platform, with all of our fans, our superstars, our partners, and help find a cure for pediatric cancer.”

Along with her husband Paul “Triple H” Levesque, McMahon donated $1 million to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh for a particular kind of radiation treatment called MIBG therapy, a form of intravenous radiation. She has spent time getting to know the children, making the hospital visits, also forging a bond with Spagnolo—even introducing him to her three daughters.

“There was an event for the hospital, and that’s the event where he met my girls,” McMahon says. “He hit it off with my youngest, who is the same age, and my two oldest daughters keep telling her they’re going to get married.”

McMahon’s passion for change in the pediatric cancer field is apparent through her actions, and she plans on doing more to advocate for the children and families of those affected.

“Only 4% of government funding goes toward pediatric cancer, so that’s four cents out of every dollar spent on cancer research goes to pediatric cancer,” McMahon says. “Kids shouldn’t even know what cancer is, let alone have to fight that fight. But for whatever reason, they have this huge challenge in front of them.

“For us to be able to give some type of bright spots to these kids and bring awareness and help raise money to find a cure, or even just to give a moment of levity to help a child smile, it’s truly a privilege.”

The fight against cancer is an uphill battle, but a much greater factor is in play. The platform given to Spagnolo, and Michalek before him, can inspire children forced to endure the same battle. No one ever loses when fighting cancer. Putting up a fight is courageous, and Spagnolo, and many other children, are seeking to tip the scales for all the universe, one that extends beyond the WWE’s sphere, by spreading kindness and cheer.

“We can do this,” Jimmy says. “We’re going to keep fighting.”

The (online) week in wrestling

  • Chris Jericho weighed in on Tuesday night’s… contentious presidential debate, comparing the proceedings to his own debate with Orange Cassidy. 
  • One more piece of insight connected to the debate, this one from one of Vince McMahon’s former top writers. 
  • Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson has weighed in on his choice for presidential candidate, an endorsement presumably at odds with the preference of Vince McMahon. 
  • On the subject of The Rock, he also accepted Ken Shamrock’s request for a virtual induction to the Impact Wrestling Hall of Fame.
  • The end segment of Monday’s Raw, with Randy Orton in a janitor’s outfit and night vision goggles, served as a reminder of why I prefer to watch pro wrestling that takes place in the ring.
  • The members of Retribution have done a tremendously effective job building their stature and message through social media. This is a perfect opportunity for WWE to give more creative freedom to its performers, whose livelihoods depend on connecting with viewers. 
  • This is an example of why it is so difficult to speak out, which has been on display during the #SpeakingOut movement. 
  • Lance Archer’s positive COVID-19 test forced him off last week’s Dynamite, though hopefully he has a quick recovery. He was replaced in the match against Jon Moxley by Eddie Kingston, who had a tremendous match—at times, telling the story through his eyes, a remarkable skill. Moxley won the match, but a wrinkle to the story is that Kingston now chooses Moxley’s opponent on this week’s Dynamite. As good as the match would be, I hope that Pentagon-Moxley is saved, and given a proper build, for pay-per-view. Whoever the opponent is, Kingston did a great job building anticipation with this promo. There are few better promos in the business than Eddie Kingston. 
  • Cody Rhodes returned last week on Dynamite, which was a great moment for AEW. 
  • John Cena’s WWE return is not imminent, but he noted during his appearance on The Tonight Show that his in-ring career is “not over.” 
  • Two extremely meaningful moments occurred last Wednesday, as Candice LeRae and Kyle O’Reilly each became the No. 1 contender for their division’s championship at Sunday’s NXT TakeOver 31.
  • Significant news out of New Japan Pro Wrestling as Harold Meij has resigned as president. Meij was in a much more secure position in January after a very successful two-night Wrestle Kingdom, but so much has changed in the past two months. 
  • If you are seeking a must-see match from this year’s ongoing G1 Climax, look no further than Tomohiro Ishii–Kota Ibushi from Sunday.
  • Roman Reigns opened up on CM Punk, stating, “I don’t like the guy, I don’t know many people who do.” As unlikely as it is that this match ever takes place, it would have a spectacular build, especially with Paul Heyman involved, if it ever came to pass. 

Chris Jericho on upcoming book: ‘I kept a list of every match I’ve ever had since the day I started’

The month of October will mark Chris Jericho’s 30th anniversary in the pro wrestling business.

The Oct. 7 edition of Dynamite will recognize Jericho’s three decades of brilliance, and there will also be a book, , that discusses every match he has ever had in wrestling.

“I kept a list of every match I’ve ever had since the day I started, which was Oct. 2, 1990,” Jericho says. “I still have the piece of paper from that night that I wrote on after the match was done.”

The book will have Jericho’s first-person account of 2,725 matches, and on paper, this looks to be appointment reading for wrestling fans.

“In an ideal world, this would have come out in October,” says Jericho, whose book is available for presale beginning Oct. 7. “We’re looking at before the end of 2020 or the beginning of 2021.”

Incredibly, there are still plenty of new stories for Jericho to write, including the potential for a one-on-one match in AEW against Mike Tyson. This book will capture the evolution of wrestling over the past three decades, and will include stories from notable promotions like WWE, New Japan Pro Wrestling, and AEW.

“I never stopped keeping those records,” Jericho says. “I found myself on the verge of my 30th anniversary in the business with a complete list of every single match I’ve ever had in my career. Nobody else of my stature or my longevity has ever done that, so it’s a perfect documentation of a very interesting career.”

Tweet of the Week

Looking forward to Sami Zayn resolving this issue in his SmackDown promo on Friday.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.