For nearly a decade with the then World Wrestling Federation, Ted DiBiase virtually rewrote the book on being a heel as the reviled Million Dollar Man.
He was brash. He was cocky. He was smarmy and vain. If you didn’t like him, he didn’t care. He flaunted his millions, humiliated fans, paid off his opponents and hired protection at will. And if that weren’t enough, when push came to shove, he backed it all up inside the squared circle with a wrestling skillset as good if not better than any of his generation.
In his time, Ted DiBiase became one of the most recognizable wrestling talents on Earth. His is a legacy that lasts to this very day, sometimes even surprising the WWE hall of famer himself.
“Last year, I went to Scotland,” DiBiase said over the phone ahead of his scheduled appearance at Old School Raw on Monday. “I was walking into the equivalent of like a Walmart in Scotland, and a six-year-old boy was walking out and he had his grandmother by the hand and as he passed me, I heard him say this: ‘Grandma, that was the Million Dollar Man.’
“I turned around and I looked at him, and my mouth was wide open, and I said ‘you recognize me?’ And he said yes.”
At 59 years old, DiBiase was completely caught of guard to be recognized by the young fan, admitting he hardly resembles his younger self these days.
“I had highlighted blonde hair, I was younger, I didn’t wear glasses and I was also 20 pounds thinner, maybe 30 pounds thinner,” he said with his trademark laugh.
“I said ‘how do you know who I am?’ DiBiase said. “He said ‘video games,’ ” DiBiase revealed, adding that “the job that Vince (McMahon) and the WWE has done in marketing this product is just phenomenal.”
While the Million Dollar Man had what on the surface appeared to be a perfect life, such was not the case for the man behind the man, especially early in his life.
DiBiase was the adopted son of (Iron) Mike Dibiase. Mike DiBiase married Ted’s mother, Helen Hild (also a professional wrestler), then legally adopted and raised the then five-year-old DiBiase, until his tragic death inside the ring at the age of 45 in 1969.
Following her husband’s death, DiBiase’s mother would fall into depression, eventually turning to drinking, forcing the young boy to go live with his grandparents.
Hardly the stuff of fairy tales.
Even then, life tested the faith of DiBiase, now an ordained minister.
“I relied on my faith in God,” DiBiase said when asked how he was able to overcome such extreme adversity a very young age. “When Mike DiBiase came into my life, I was five years old and I didn’t know anything about his background,” DiBiase said, before proudly recounting his late stepfather’s legacy.
“My stepfather was a national amateur wrestling champion, a legitimate (Amateur Athletic Union) heavyweight wrestling champion at the university of Nebraska. Lettered seven times there, four years in football, three in wrestling, he could have played professional football, but actually back in the ’40s and the early ’50s, he could make more money as a professional wrestler than he could playing football. So he was a wrestler,” he said, pausing, before adding “but more than anything, he was a dad and he was a great role model. So when I lost him, at the age of 15, it was devastating. Then to watch my mother sink into alcoholism and despair, it was very tough.”
DiBiase says he was driven by two things in overcoming that early adversity.
“I leaned on my faith in God, but I also had this burning desire to be that guy,” he said, referring to the man he called dad. “I measured every man by my dad.”
After moving to live with his grandparents, DiBiase attended Creighton Preparatory High School and later West Texas State University, on a football scholarship.
It was during his college years, DiBiase said, where he lost sight of his faith.
“I had a very strong faith in God when I was young,” he said. “I tell people, when I got all the things that I wanted, when I got the scholarship to go off to college and play football out of this little no-name town in southern Arizona, everything was great. Then when I got there, two things crept into my life and then controlled me for 20 years: my pride — my male pride — and my ego. The Bible says it, the Bible is right: the pride goes before the fall. In other words, when you’re riding on the ego, you always edge God out. So I started caving to the things in college that I wouldn’t do in high school. I didn’t drink, didn’t party, didn’t do all those things in high school.”
An injury in his senior year would necessitate a career change, to his true calling, pro wrestling. As a pro wrestler, DiBiase would go on to hold 30 titles with various promotions and his Million Dollar Man character would go on to literally make millions, for DiBiase and the WWF, now WWE.
But success was not without its struggles for DiBiase. With fame and fortune came temptation, DiBiase said. Spiritually, he was lost.
“Basically for 20 years, life was about me,” he said, citing “a failed marriage. And then my second marriage, at the very pinnacle of my success as the Million Dollar Man, when I’m riding around in learjets and limousines, and enjoying more fame and prosperity than I ever dreamed I would, that’s when it all came caving in, when I was confronted by my wife for adultery. And that’s the hard long look in the mirror (where you go) ‘what are you doing?’ ”
DiBiase again turned to the one thing that had comforted him his entire life, the Bible.
“That’s really when I turned back to God and to my faith and to the principles and the ideals that I grew up on and realize and believe very firmly to this day that that’s what it’s really all about. Those things changed me. They saved me. They saved me from ending up unfortunately like several guys in my industry have. And that’s not just wrestling. Oh my gosh, just pick up any tabloid magazine and read about it.”
DiBiase would father three boys — Mike, Ted Jr. and Brett — all of whom would enter the business, finding varying degrees of success.
While Ted DiBiase, the son, wanted nothing more than to follow in the footsteps of the man he called dad and become a pro wrestler, Ted DiBiase, the father, didn’t want the same for his boys.
“I didn’t want my boys to wrestle,” DiBiase admits. “And not because I don’t love wrestling. I loved what I did. The reason, as a father, that I tried to steer them away, was because of all the things that go along with it.”
While DiBiase does acknowledge that times, and working conditions, have changed, he still secretly wished his kids would stay away from pro wrestling.
“To the WWE’s credit and credibility, it’s a lot better workplace today than it was I when I was there. Vince was building his empire and we were building it with him. At one point, we worked three weeks on — every day, 21 days, 21 cities — and then be off for a week and go back and do it again. And then they changed it to 10 days on and three days off and then four days on and three days off, but anyway you look at it, you’re only off at home six days a month, so that’s very hard. And today they work four days a week, but even with four days a week, if you’re a top guy, you might only be wrestling four days a week, but a couple of those other days, I guarantee you you’re going to be doing something that’s promoting the company.”
Of his three children, Ted DiBiase Jr. found the most success, carving out a moderately successful career in the WWE.
“Basically, Ted Jr., he’s the one who had the most success,” DiBiase said, adding that had his son not suffered an injury during his big push, things might have been different.
“He was doing really good and then he got hurt, he came back and timing’s everything, he was wrestling in live events almost for year and hadn’t been back on television. They didn’t put him back on TV because they didn’t want to waste him. He was good, they didn’t want to throw him out there and abuse him, they were trying to find something to do with him that was significant. In the meantime, he had a son. And when his son was born, that was the trigger. He called me and he said ‘dad,’ he said ‘you know what, I figured this thing out. You’re right.’ He said ‘you didn’t want me to wrestle and it didn’t have anything to do with wrestling. It had everything to do with this lifestyle.’ He said ‘I just realized that as much as I love the business, I don’t care how much money I make, being away from my family that much, isn’t worth it.’ And he made that choice. So when his contract came up, he just respectfully declined. That’s the hard thing as a dad … I had to let him make that choice.”
Pursuing a career in pro wrestling today is difficult in and of itself. Pursuing a career in the business as the son of a hall of fame legend only compounds the difficulty, DiBiase says.
“Where a lot of people think (being the son of a former superstar is) going to make it easier for you, it makes it 10 times as hard.”
Where 20 years ago Ted DiBiase was travelling the world over stuffing $100 bills in the mouths of his defeated opponents and buying the 30th and most coveted spot in the Royal Rumble, today DiBiase travels the world over spreading the word of God, the other passion he’s carried with him his entire life.
Still, every once in a while he gets to bust out that trademark Million Dollar Man laugh and climb back inside a ring. His next chance to do that comes Monday at Old School Raw.
DiBiase admits he can’t wait.
“I’m excited. It’s a nostalgia thing. I’ve said this forever: wrestling fans are some of the most loyal fans of all. Once they’re with you, they’re with you for life. From my understanding, the whole set, the set is going to be like it used to be, the old logo and the whole deal. We’re excited about that. No great big ramp, and what have you. It’s going to be walking through the curtain,” he said, followed with his hearty and trademarked Million Dollar Man laugh.
Anyone who knows anything about wrestling and the Million Dollar Man knows to expect the unexpected come Monday night. Could, DiBiase was asked, fans expect the Million Dollar Man to pay off the likes of The Shield or The Wyatt Family to ensure his protection and to give him an edge?
“With the Million Dollar Man, you never knew what was going to happen. That’s all I can say. You never know when I show up, who I’m going to buy or what I might do. But the one thing I can guarantee you won’t see, is you will not see this almost 60-year-old man standing in that ring in tights and boots.”
He paused, then continued.
“Well, now I take that back because … everybody’s got a price.”