WWE star Titus O’Neil talks about his time as a Florida Gator football star, becoming WWE champion, and how race plays a role in wrestling.
Titus O’Neil is doing everything possible to show the WWE he truly is one of their prime time players.
The University of Florida Hall of Famer, known during his days with the Gators as Thaddeus Bullard, would also like to call himself WWE champion.
“I am one-hundred percent confident that I am WWE world heavyweight championship material,” said O’Neil. “That is my goal. I won tag team gold, and while I’m in a tag team, that is my goal, but champion should be the goal of every single person on the roster. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time, and you’re wasting my time.”
O’Neil, who is one half of the WWE’s Prime Time Players, admitted he is aware that there has only been one African-American world champion in WWE history.
“I’ve never been involved in the creative process in any aspect of this company, so I couldn’t tell you why there has only been one,” explained O’Neil. “Is it disturbing in some cases? Yes, but it’s no different than any other form of entertainment. There aren’t a lot of places, whether it’s film or television, with African-Americans as heroes. I can’t answer the question of why there has only been one, but I would definitely like to be the next African-American champion. Not because I’m African-American, but because I’ve deserved and earned the right to be WWE world heavyweight champion.”
In addition to his work in the ring, O’Neil is putting his efforts into the “Gator Good” campaign, which will focus on the University of Florida’s impact in society.
“We’re partnering up to try to do some really amazing things,” said O’Neil. “We’re going to try to influence our alumni base. There are 400,000 active members of University’s alumni base who will go out and do good for their respective communities, with the hopes of bringing awareness to various important causes worldwide as Gators, but also as human beings. I can nominate anyone. I want to start predominantly with Gator alums, but it will definitely branch off to entertainment groups and other universities as well. We want to do it for various causes, and each week we’ll challenge people to do the 'Gator Good.’”
O’Neil backstory outside of the ring is even more compelling than the character he plays on television.
“I was a product of rape,” said O’Neil, who explained being a father is the important job in his life. “My mom had me at a very young age, and I never met my biological father. I take fatherhood as seriously as I do because I never grew up with a father. Even as a child, I knew even if I was nothing else, I would be a very active father.”
O’Neil, who played defensive end on the Florida football team that won the 1998 Citrus Bowl and ‘99 Orange Bowl, is grateful for the people who took an interest in his well-being when he was a child.
“People invested in me at a time in which they had nothing to gain in return,” said O’Neil. “Because of that, I’m in the position that I am in today, and I try to take that position very seriously when it comes to paying it back. I feel like I’m repaying those people who invested in me.”
O’Neil and his tag partner, Darren Young, finished their first run as tag team champions this past August when they lost the titles–without being pinned–to the New Day in a four-way match at SummerSlam. The Dudley Boyz returned on the following night’s Raw, and the WWE tag team scene has been infused with new life.
“We’re all learning from the Dudley’s, but we’re learning from one another, too,” said O’Neil. “Being able to go out and perform, and create storylines and create drama within those storylines, that takes not only the veterans–it also takes the young guys who are hungry and looking to prove themselves. I’ve learned a tremendous amount in a very short period of time from the Dudley’s, but I’ve learned a lot from New Day.”
Though the New Day–comprised of Kofi Kingston, Big E, and Xavier Woods–are rivals inside in the squared circle, O’Neil respects all of the work they have put into their characters.
“Those guys have definitely taken what was looked to be a doomed gimmick and made it gold,” said O’Neil. “I’m very proud of all three of those guys. They’re not only great representatives of the company as far as being educated and articulate and represent the brand of WWE, but they’re also very talented athletes and all have college degrees. I’m proud to say I have the pleasure of being able to learn from them.”
Part of the reason that the Dudley’s return to WWE was so meaningful is because the Prime Time Players and New Day had re-energized the division.
Despite rumors that the Hardy Boys will return to WWE to engage the Dudley’s in a “Tables, Ladders, and Chairs” match at WrestleMania 32, O’Neil wants that spot for the Prime Time Players and the New Day.
“I’d be interested in doing anything at Dallas Stadium for WrestleMania,” he said. “This is entertainment, so things change from week to week, and even day to day sometimes, but I know that if we had the opportunity to go out there with the New Day and the Dudley’s, we’ll make the most of whatever opportunity we’re presented.”
O’Neil is grateful to work with Darren Young, and while the two hope to regain the tag team gold, both have bigger objectives for later in their career. O’Neil plans to pursue the world title, while Young who is also a gifted performer in the ring–is gay and may want to one day become the WWE’s first on-screen LGBT superstar.
“Darren is obviously like a brother to me,” said O’Neil. “And this is something he’s wanted to do his entire life. After years of getting doors shut in his face, he finally got that opportunity in 2009 at a try-out among 75 other guys and girls, and he and AJ Lee got signed out of that try-out. He’s now living his dream.”
“If Darren wants to implement certain aspects of his community and sexual orientation, that’s a decision he, creative, and the WWE fans will have to make. It wouldn’t be something where creative would say, ‘We want you to do this and you have to do it.’ That’s not the case. If you don’t want to do something that’s morally or ethically against what you believe or represent, they’re not going to force you to do that. But whatever aspects of his character that he develops over the course of his career, I’ll support him 100 percent, no what matter what it is that he wants to do.”
O’Neil’s work with the University of Florida shows off another dimension to the 6’6”, 270-pound behemoth. More than just brawn, O’Neil is an articulate, thoughtful, and educated man looking to make an impact in society.
“We’re all linked, regardless of what team or college we cheer for, or our demographic or race,” said O’Neil. “We’re all in the same boat as far as humanity is concerned.”
O’Neil is an unstoppable force for the WWE outside the ring. He visits hospitals, helps raise awareness about breast cancer for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and was even invited to be the keynote speaker at a U.S. Navy SEALs event.
“None of those things have anything to do with anything past my personal character,” explained O’Neil. “The Rock is the ‘People’s Champion,’ but I like to call myself the ‘Man to the Masses.’ I could care less where you come from, or where you’re born, or your sexual orientation–we’re all people. I love people because people loved me when they didn’t have anything to gain.”
Hulk Hogan made headlines over the summer for use of a racial slur, and O’Neil admitted it is a difficult topic to discuss.“It’s a tough situation for me to talk about,” said O’Neil. “It’s been dealt with by the company, but for me, I’ve heard that type of talk from people who are way different than Hulk Hogan. He made a mistake, he’s paying for it, and it’s not my call to say what he is or he is not. I just try to live my life without having to worry about anybody calling me those names.”
Another former WWE champion, Dave Bautista, made waves when he tweeted that the WWE was wasting away a major talent in O’Neil.
“Dave made a comment based on what he’s seen and experienced,” said O’Neil. “I appreciate him making those comments. Again, at the end of the day, you can’t force people’s hands to do something they don’t want to do. I’m not here to force anybody’s hand. I’m here to be the best representative of the company I can be inside and outside of the ring. If they can appreciate that, then cool. If they don’t, that’s fine, too.
“Do I feel under-appreciated at times? You’re right, I do. But on the same token, I’m still given an opportunity to do some really cool things, and I’m proud to do that.”
Peyton Manning was the recipient of O’Neil’s first sack as a collegiate football player, but he wants to be remembered for more than just playing for some of Steve Spurrier’s best Gators’ teams. O’Neil wants to work his way to the top of the card and become WWE champion.
“I definitely consider myself championship material for various reasons,” said O’Neil. “I’ve tried to conduct myself as a champion and represent the company as a champion with or without a title. I’ve been very fortunate to receive a lot of accolades based on my humanitarian efforts, and that shows more so about my character than it does about my in-ring talent, and that’s one thing that should set anybody into a position of being able to be a champion.
“It’s a scripted program, and you can literally make a fork the WWE champion, if you wanted to. But I look at it like this–I’m just going to come to work every single day as long as I’m under contract, and do the very best that I can, with the hopes that I’ll get that opportunity to become WWE champion. I don’t know what goes into the process of determining who is going to be the next champion, but I’m not going to sell myself short.”
If O’Neil ever wins the title, he knows exactly how it should play out.
“I’d like it to go just like my life has gone,” said O’Neil. “I’ve overcome a lot, I’ve had to endure a lot, but I’ve succeeded. My goal is to be WWE world heavyweight champion. Do I feel like I can accomplish that? Yes. If everyone in position to make that happens feels the same way, we can go out and do some really, really great things. And not just inside of the ring, but I’m talking about with sponsors and beyond. But it takes a team effort, and I’m definitely a team player, so I’ll do whatever role they’ve got me playing.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.