Tuesday July 21st, 2015

If you were passing through Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal sometime last Wednesday afternoon, particularly near the escalator leading up toward the MetLife Building and 45th Street, you might have noticed a small clamor by the entrance to Track 26. It revolved around a fifty-something man in a red World Gym sweatshirt and black-and-red basketball shorts, who held a flap of gold metal encrusted with fake diamonds in his left hand while standing in front of a pair of glossy promo photos he had taped to the station’s marble wall. In his vicinity, one young man filmed him from a camera on his shoulder; another lofted a conspicuous boom mic overhead. A steady stream of passersby glanced over or stopped to gawk, each quickly greeted by shouts from the figure at the scene’s center: “What’s up?” or “Brings back old memories, huh?!”

For pro wrestling fans of a certain age, the sight likely did. The man was Mike Jones, who in the late 1980s gained fame in the World Wrestling Federation as Virgil, the sidekick and servant of the villainous “Million Dollar Man,” Ted DiBiase. More recently, Jones has gained online ignominy through displays like Wednesday’s public appearances in unexpected places, where he goads strangers into paying him for an autograph or to have their photo taken alongside him. His typical asking price is $25.

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“This is him,” said Page Magen, 35, a Toronto-based event promoter who is trying to help Jones revitalize his public image and who orchestrated the Grand Central appearance. “This is honest. This is what he has to do. Don’t make fun of it. Don’t call it pathetic. This is his real life.”

The autograph and convention circuit is a familiar one for former wrestlers, many of whom trade on nostalgia to ask similar prices for similar offerings. What has cast Jones as unique is the unconventionality of his ventures, showing up not only at Comic-Con and the like but also at Miami boat shows, Lobsterfest in Maine, and car expos in Nova Scotia. Then there are the photos of Jones set up in a booth behind his signature white-on-black “Ted DiBiase & Virgil” banner, absent both the higher-wattage headliner and, in most cases, consumer interest.

In 2012, satellite radio personality Sam Roberts began collecting such images on a Tumblr called Lonely Virgil. That summer, a Deadspin post declared Virgil “the single saddest former pro wrestler,” linking to the Tumblr’s gallery of “nothing but photos of the poor bastard looking bored and alone, waiting for someone to come over.” That post begat the site’s Virgilbag,” where readers could submit stories of their encounters with Jones, at Coney Island or in mall food courts, during which Jones often regaled them with tall tales, made overtures to women, and hawked his photos. A full-blown meme was born.

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Where so many saw a joke, Magen saw an opportunity. Along with his brother and business partner, Jian, Magen had already worked to turn the reputation of Khosrow Vaziri (aka the Iron Sheik) from that of a drug-addled, short-fused has-been into one of an irreverent, foul-mouthed cult figure with appearances on The Howard Stern Show and an immensely popular (if ghostwritten) Twitter account. The brothers, lifelong wrestling fans and family friends of Vaziri’s, began developing relationships with other wrestlers while promoting independent shows in the Toronto area. Six or seven years ago, one of their shows became the impromptu site of a Virgil autograph session. “The first time he showed up at my shows I was like, Okay, he’s here. Cool,” said Magen. “He just plopped his ass down.”

Earlier this year, Jones explained to Magen his philosophy: The more people he got in front of, the more chances he had to make money. The Grand Central appearance was part of the week’s shotgun approach, which also included appearances on Roberts’s SiriusXM show, Tiki Barber’s CBS radio show, and a taping for a WWE Network countdown program. “Maybe I’m crazy, but my hope is I can show people a human side to the hustle,” Magen said. He had also recently landed Jones a night as a “bodyguard” for a bachelor party at Niagara Falls. For $1,000, Jones held a championship belt and blew on dice at a craps table.

“I’m trying to find ways to get him present, be out there, and be, in his own way, relevant,” said Magen. He mentioned a planned comedy roast at Caroline’s on Broadway. “He’s a great target,” Magen said, then turned to Jones. “No offense. You’re a great target to hit up.”

While meeting outside of Grand Central that afternoon, the duo scored a social media breakthrough. “Literally five minutes ago Virgil got verified on Twitter,” said Magen, holding his iPhone. Jones, who doesn’t own a cell phone, leaned over Magen’s shoulder to see the new blue checkmark next to his @TheRealVirgil handle. “So that means you’re a real person,” Jones said, approvingly. Magen began crafting an ornery welcome message from the Iron Sheik’s account: “VERIFIED JABRONI.”

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Inside Grand Central, Jones opted to set up near the commuter rails rather than by the subway, allured by a wider-ranging clientele. “Hudson, Harlem—trains everywhere,” he said. “The subway just goes here, here, here, here. The trains go everywhere.” He quickly settled into his routine, calling out to anyone who glanced in his direction and engaging those who stopped for a closer study. A bespectacled man around 30 years old in a striped polo and a black backpack lingered about 15 feet away, glancing at the 8” x 10” promo shots taped to the wall. “Blast from the past, man,” he said.

“That blast from the past is for sale,” Jones told him. “You wanna get one? Twenty five.”

The man’s eyes widened. “Twenty-five?” he said. “Jesus.”

“I’ll take a picture with you too, man,” Jones said. “I gotta get paid, baby.”

Magen leaned over and said something to the man, who nodded. “How about 20?” the man asked. He had a deal.

In Jones’s hour in the main concourse, it would be his only sale. One man took a photo but did not pay. An eight-year-old boy approached and stared upward, nodding hesitantly as Jones peppered him with general questions about being a fan, before the boy’s patient mother eventually whisked her son away. Two men said they would return for autographs after visiting a nearby ATM; neither did. At one point, a burly businessman smiled as he walked past. “Want an autograph?” Jones asked.

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“Nah,” the man said. “Million Dollar Man coming?”

“Ted ain’t here,” Jones told him.

“Good luck, man,” the businessman said. “Good to see you.” He disappeared up the escalator.

It seemed an emotionally trying way to pay the bills. “You can go eight-to-five in a job, or you can go eight-to-five in the San Diego Comic-Con,” Jones explained later. “The hardest thing is going out and putting in eight hours a day jackhammering concrete. You’re out there by yourself, jackhammering concrete.” Jones hasn’t wrestled in more than three years. His last major, full-time wrestling gig ended when World Championship Wrestling folded and was sold to WWE in 2001, though he said that his contract still paid him for several years thereafter. He said that he then taught math and science at Central Catholic High in Pittsburgh, where he lives, but a woman in the school’s business and p.r. office said they have no record of a Mike Jones having taught there. He works the autograph circuit as a full-time job, typically from Thursday through Sunday, paying his own way to events as far away as London.

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Despite the rejection, Jones maintained a salesman’s optimism. Earlier, as they stood curbside on 42nd Street, Magen praised his friend’s attitude. “If there was a big puddle splash now, he’d still be working through it,” Magen said. “That’s the beauty of it. There’s some humor in it, but also harshness. That’s what you gotta do in life.” Added Jones, “You do what it takes to get over.”

Jones’s mood only soured when the group relocated downstairs to the tunnel by the 42nd Street Shuttle, which connects Grand Central to Times Square, for a segment on the local cable news network NY1. “Cheaper people ride the subway,” Jones said. He was also concerned many of the commuters wouldn’t speak English.

After the brief TV interview, Jones’s afternoon was done. He had come away from his two hours at the station with $21 - $20 from the man who posed for a photograph, and a dollar from a second who had a brief conversation with Magen and said he could help out. That morning, Magen had launched a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe, hoping to get a million fans to donate a dollar each. By 3 o’clock, they’d cleared $15.

“It was pretty cool,” Jones said of the Grand Central session. His merchandise was now neatly packed back into a black rolling suitcase alongside dozens of Sharpies, bound together with thick rubber bands. “It’s a piece of your puzzle,” Magen said. “This is not meant to define him anymore.” Then Jones mentioned he was hungry, so they set off to find something to eat.

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