Matthew Akpan is a 33-year-old man living in Leeds, England in the United Kingdom. He is a proud wrestling fan with a remarkable story that he wanted to share with us.
Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in March 2013, Matthew is more living proof that autism is indeed a superpower. Graduating from Leeds Beckett University in 2015 with a degree in Sport, Leisure and Culture, Matthew not only speaks three different languages, he’s also a keen volunteer, having presented medals to competitors at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
And in October 2021, Matthew’s love of wrestling and his Asperger’s resulted in his greatest accomplishment. Competing in the 2021 York Marathon, Matthew dressed-up as his hero John Cena and achieved the Guinness World Record for fastest marathon dressed as a professional wrestler; recording a time of 2 hours, 56 minutes and 48 seconds.
Matthew partook in the York Marathon in tribute to his father, who sadly passed away in 2013 from kidney failure. Matthew and his father watched wrestling together for 20 years, which ultimately led to Matthew’s decision to compete.
Matthew’s story resonated with me on many levels besides that of a love of wrestling. As someone who also has Asperger’s Syndrome, I could relate to Matthew and the struggles, challenges and hardships he has endured. Matthew also competed in the York Marathon for the charity Victim Support; as well as raise awareness of autism. I was honoured to talk with him and discuss his life, love of wrestling and all the positive work he’s done.
A year has passed since you won the Guinness World Record. My first question must be…how did it feel after you achieved what you did? What was your family’s reaction?
I felt over the moon, literally. It was a massive achievement for me, and my friends & family were very happy for me. Although it felt very surreal to do this and I felt it put me in a completely different stratosphere.
How has your life changed since then?
I personally have felt that more people, especially friends and colleagues, have started calling me a celebrity. But my outlook has remained the same. I now use my public figure to try and inspire others to run. For example, setting up a junior parkrun in Leeds to get young people involved in sport from an early age.
You’ve stated in various interviews that you dressed up as John Cena because of all the charitable work he’s done, particularly for children and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. What else would you say is it that make Cena inspirational?
I think if you look at the WWE universe in the crowds now, the most common shirt I see people wearing is Cena’s shirt. I think he represents the Millennial and Generation X culture of kids becoming adults in the 21st century – where in my opinion in the 20th Century and before, it was more parents leading their kids into jobs – for them to be able to choose their pathway in life and go against the status quo, while also holding respect in the way they go about this.
John actually Tweeted your story! How cool was that?!
UNBELIEVABLE! That is when I really thought my efforts have put me into a different world. I do not think anyone could believe it apart from me.
What were your favourite memories/matches of wrestling growing up? Did you have any favourite wrestlers as well as John Cena?
The Rock and Booker T were always personal favourites. I used to pray the night before PPV’s for the Rock to win his match as per the time difference between US and U.K.. Wreslemania 17 stands out as does Wrestlemania 28 – Cena vs The Rock (apparently I read Nia Jax was inspired to wrestle after that match) in Florida. I suppose the first WWE Live event I went to with my Dad at Leeds Arena in 2013; the first WWE event ever to come to Leeds. And now the Rock’s daughter has debuted on NXT, which is amazing.
What would you say it is about wrestling that appeals to millions of fans worldwide?
For me – I will not speak for the others – it is the theatre-atmosphere and storytelling that WWE and other wrestling companies does so well. For me, you are enthralled by the drama like a box-set series that becomes so addictive you never want to stop watching. The appreciation for ALL the wrestlers and what they do in the ring and how they master their craft and how they use this platform to help people not connected with wrestling in many different ways. And that appeal I feel also allows them to grow their ever-growing fanbase.
You’ve discussed your Asperger’s Syndrome in various interviews and how because of it you’ve been able to achieve so much with your life. What you would personally say makes it advantageous to people?
I think having Asperger’s – and I have other friends who have other disabilities – is that it makes you work harder for success in life. Now granted, you certainly need a good family/friend base around you to activate this as I personally have felt a difference-in-treatment in different areas I have been in since my diagnosis. But because of this constant struggle and fight, I feel you become more rounded as a person; a person people want to be around and learn from. Not everyone will understand you (as I think could be said for people without disabilities as well) but the deeper understanding you have to understand yourself and analyse situations more deeply, I feel then most others without disabilities…it creates a unique pathway where people, employers, friends have a greater respect for you.
When you partook in the 2021 York Marathon, you competed in memory of your father and for the charity Victim Support. Please tell us what it was like training for the event and how much it meant to you.
The training was a standard procedure for me. By that, I mean I run 6 days a week and it was no different to what I had been doing for the past 10 to 15 years. Although we had come out of lockdown, I was more keen and eager than ever to do this and I used the Victim Support charity as people like Cena, the media and others support. Behind closed doors (like I felt my father was) are constant victims, where a lot them do not have a platform to tell their stories and in some cases this ends in death, serious abuse, rape and other horrible scenarios. So trying to support this charity and get this world record was about trying to limit and stop things that I mentioned from occurring as much, and in-time, eliminated completely.
It’s truly remarkable everything that you’ve achieved and what you continue to do. You’ve done a lot of voluntary work at the Commonwealth Games this year, you’ve been awarded a Blue Peter badge and you’ve told us about setting up this junior park run in Leeds to get young people into sport. What else are you hoping to do for the future?
I am awaiting my training to start in January 2023 – which has been confirmed by BBC – to work for BBC Sport, where I will be working as a Freelance Journalist. Hopefully now I have established myself, I can reach out to more people, and BBC Sport can (in-turn) help me branch my story to more people around the world and change their lives. I also hope that our conversation today has started that and people can follow me via links to my Instagram and Twitter account.
Count on it! You’re a WWE fan. Do you still watch WWE today and/or any other wrestling on TV like AEW?
I watch WWE – NXT religiously but mainly due to time, I only follow AEW, Impact, Ring of Honor and the indies, so I know what is going on in the wrestling world. The next WWE trip I will go on is WWE Live in Manchester, England in April 2023
Finally, what messages do you have out there for people with Asperger’s Syndrome and fellow wrestling fans?
Literally, NEVER GIVE UP. If something is too hard at that particular point, find a way around it, go for a walk/run, call a friend, watch a movie, and come back to the issue with a fresh perspective. That makes you look at the situational outcome differently than before. And if you like something, stick to it because you never know where something may lead especially when you have a passion for it. I never thought when I started watching wrestling in the 90’s that this pathway would occur. So stay consistent and ask and find help when you need it.
Check out his message on Dailymotion: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8e5uxp
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