Life of Hardship Inspires WWE’s Titus O’Neil to Help Others

The Week in Wrestling: Titus O’Neil’s quest to make the world a better place, WWE’s positive coronavirus test and more.
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Titus O’Neil: ‘Through my work, I hope people will believe they have the power to influence change’

Titus O’Neil is a finalist for the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award.

The other nominees are Major League Baseball player Nelson Cruz, NBA power forward Kevin Love, the NFL’s Devin and Jason McCourty, and the WNBA’s Maya Moore. The award will be presented this Sunday during ESPN’s annual Sports Humanitarian Awards show.

Winning the award would certainly be meaningful for O’Neil, who has spent his life admiring Ali, but his life will never be defined by a single accolade. And despite some memorable moments in the ring, his greatest impact will never take place in wrestling.

O’Neil has starred in football and pro wrestling. He played for the Florida Gators under famed coach Steve Spurrier and enjoyed a title reign in WWE when he and Darren Young won the WWE tag titles in 2015. But his most meaningful contributions have occurred off-screen and away from the field, believing in people from all over the world and doing his part to ensure no child he encounters is ever weighed down by shame.

Before embarking on his life’s calling, O’Neil first needed to understand that he had a purpose, eschewing the harmful notion that he was a burden on society.

“For those that don’t know, I’m the product of sexual assault,” said O’Neil. “My mother was raped at 11 years old and had me at the age of 12 against the wishes of many. Life was very tough for me growing up impoverished in government housing, and I was mad at the world.”

Now 43 and the father of two sons, O’Neil takes enormous pride in being a father to his children, as well as a father figure to anyone in need. He is a long way removed from the darkest points of his life, though he still recalls them with clarity.

“When I was 12 years old, I went to a place called the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch in Live Oak, Florida,” said O’Neil. “I was an angry, lanky kid. I’d been abused, I’d been bullied. I was mad at the world.

“I had a conversation with a man named Patrick Monogue. I just signed a contract that I was not going to get into any more fights. The contract stated that if I got into any more fights, I would be sent home.”

Thirty minutes later, O’Neil got into another fight.

“So there was a meeting, where the decision was made that I would be sent home. But then Patrick Monogue called me into his office.”

Monogue did not use his words to berate, nor did he even shout. Instead, he asked O’Neil why he thought he was constantly in trouble.

“I said I didn’t know,” recalled O’Neil. “I told him I was just a bad kid. And he said, ‘There’s no such thing as a bad kid.’”

Those words forever changed O’Neil’s life.

“I asked how he could say that,” said O’Neil. “I’d been told I’d be dead or in jail by the time I was 16, and I was about to be sent home. That’s when he cut me off and told me I was going to stay.

“Then he said to me, ‘I’m not going to tell you the answer of why there are no bad kids. I truly believe in my heart you’re going to find out for yourself. But in the meantime, I’m going to tell you something and I want you to believe it.’ He told me he loved me and he believed in me. A lot of people had told me they loved me, then turned around and beat me and abused me, but no one had ever told me they believed in me.”

O’Neil slowly began a new journey at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch. Though it was not always easy, his mindset was significantly impacted by that conversation.

“That moment was pivotal for me,” said O’Neil. “Slowly, I started to believe in myself, and that’s when I learned there were people in the world who wanted to help me for no other reason than to see positive outcomes.”

The words “There’s no such thing as a bad kid” continue to resonate for O’Neil, and it also serves as the title of his book. He has dedicated his life to investing in the well-being of children, making a difference in his work with the Boys & Girls Club of America and Susan G. Komen. He also created the Bullard Family Foundation, making it his mission to help transform Tampa’s Sligh Middle School into an environment that provides advantages to the community.

“I’ve been able to help thousands of kids,” said O’Neil. “Through my work, I hope people will believe they have the power to influence change. And I’m not talking about transactional change, I mean transformational. Some people may invest financially, write a check, and then you never see them again. For me, I have to see things through. Whatever situation I go into, I believe it will be a more blessed situation because I’m going to put my heart and soul into it, and I’m going to invest in it.”

A week from this Saturday, O’Neil and fellow WWE star Dave Bautista are leading a “Love Walk” across Tampa. Those walking will cross the Fortune Taylor Bridge and will be met with the Love Wall, an interactive mural.

Opportunities like those serve as an opportunity for O’Neil to help bring people together in a forum that fosters equality and open discussion, including interactions between citizens and law enforcement.

“Not having a father when I was growing up was detrimental in a lot of ways,” said O’Neil. “I didn’t have anyone teach me how to talk to women, I didn’t have anyone teach me to manage my emotions. As a young black man, there were things I needed to be aware of culturally and socially, and I needed to learn my history of dealing with law enforcement.

“I’m not in love with the justice system, I’m not in love with what the court system and justice system has done to several people of color for years, but I am in love with the fact that there are men and women that wake up every single day and put their lives at risk and make sure that we can live in safe neighborhoods and safe communities.”

In a society dealing with continual civil unrest, O’Neil is doing everything he can to make an impact in society—he was just named as part of a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee in Florida—and there is no expiration date on his mission to give back and set an example.

“People ask me all the time how I make so much time for others,” said O’Neil. “My consistent response is, how can I not? If it wasn’t for others, I wouldn’t be in the position I am in today.

“Regardless of age or background, my message for everyone is to take a moment to make a moment. You never know the power of your act of kindness.”

WWE talent test positive for coronavirus

WWE released the news on Monday that one of their developmental talents tested positive for COVID-19.

This is already a significant story, but it also has the chance to further taint the WWE if the virus spreads.

It is alarming to think this powerful, influential, closely watched an publicly traded company would allow itself to be put in this position. Testing protects talent, as well as the investors’ investment. If the virus spreads, the immediate thought should be about the well-being of those affected. And as a business, that also has the potential to drastically alter the show, whether with on-air talent or the production team.

WWE’s official statement on Monday, which was signed by WWE Associate Medical Director Dr. Jeffrey Dugas, read: “A developmental talent, who was last on site at WWE’s training facility on Tuesday, June 9, has tested positive for COVID-19. Since that time, no other individuals that attended the facility have reported symptoms. However, out of an abundance of caution and to ensure the health and safety of the company’s performers and staff, all talent, production crew and employees on site at the training and production facilities will be tested for COVID-19 immediately. Following the test results, WWE plans to proceed with its normal television production schedule.”

That statement does not clarify whether the developmental talent received a COVID test from WWE, or if it happened separately due to having noticeable symptoms. If WWE was only taking temperatures and not administering COVID tests at the Performance Center (as was reportedly the case), then that was a massive mistake. To further complicate matters, there were instances when WWE talent went into the crowd during Monday’s Raw, flouting the rules of social distancing. The company needs to take stricter steps to keep everyone safe. In addition to safety, it would also be better for their business–had proper testing occurred, then this week’s taping schedule would not have been all askew while waiting for COVID test results.

There is a difference between taking someone’s temperature and administering a COVID test. Ric Flair was on this past Monday’s Raw, and he is 71 years old and has a staggeringly worrisome recent history of medical issues. This also vindicates some of the people that have been unfairly maligned by staying home. WWE takes pride in entertaining its fanbase and has been able to work throughout this pandemic, but it is inexcusable that the company has not done more to properly test its employees.

The (online) week in wrestling

  • Jerry McDevitt, who leads WWE’s outside legal counsel, responded to the class action lawsuit that revolves around the long delay following the WWE’s trip to Saudi Arabia last November.
  • This week’s edition of Monday Night Raw was action-packed, and could lend support to the notion that the show is better without Paul Heyman. The TV ratings saw an increase from last week, but proclaiming the show is in better hands without Heyman after this Monday is jumping to conclusions. In addition to a fantastic performance from Randy Orton, this week’s Raw had a number of storyline payoffs that were already set up during the Heyman era. The payoffs are the fun part, but the week-to-week development is far more difficult to do.
  • The New Day’s kneel last Friday on SmackDown was powerful. I hope Kofi Kingston, Big E, and more WWE talent continue to promote justice and stand up against inequality. 

Friday’s SmackDown match pitting Daniel Bryan against AJ Styles did a tremendous job of reestablishing the importance of the Intercontinental title. Long known as the belt for the best wrestler in the company, the IC title has nothing but potential with Styles defending his newly-won belt against Bryan. Running nearly 40 minutes, the match was given the time it deserved. I hope we see some separation between Styles and Bryan in terms of wrestling, as there should be a big build to that rematch. 

  • Could there be a worse use of the wildly talented Akira Tozawa than what we are currently seeing? 
  • Raw ended with some brilliant work from Randy Orton, whose work over the past week has likely catapulted him to the top of Drew McIntyre’s list of opponents for the WWE Championship. 
  • For the first time since February, New Japan Pro Wrestling returned to action this week, working the “Together Project Special” on Monday and the beginning of the New Japan Cup on Tuesday. 
  • Contrasting New Japan’s return was last Friday’s SmackDown segment featuring Jeff Hardy hurling urine in the face of Sheamus. 
  • Focusing back on wrestling, the New Japan Cup is a perfect opportunity to elevate Sanada into the world title picture. Gedo, New Japan’s booker, loves adding in a few surprises, so it is hard to make any steadfast guarantees in this tourney. And he may decide it is better to wait on Sanada’s singles push until the G1 Climax, but pitting Sanada against Los Ingobernables de Japon partner Evil in the New Japan Cup semi-finals would be extremely compelling. 
  • This injury is terrible news about Kris Statlander, who was (and hopefully still is) destined to be a star in AEW. 
  • Before we go on summer break, Raj Giri, Jesse Collins and I will have our final watch-along on Thursday, and it’s the Saturday Night’s Main Event where Andre The Giant defeats Hulk Hogan for the World Wrestling Federation title. 
  • “All lives do matter, but like I said on Twitter until Black lives matter, all lives can't matter,” Randy Orton told CBS Sports in a powerful interview earlier this week.

PJ Black details life-changing moment that was nearly life-ending

PJ Black wrote an incredibly gripping piece on the first-hand experience of his near-fatal BASE jumping accident that took place in June of 2017.

The piece is the latest entry in Ring of Honor’s “Word of Honor” series, and Black goes into detail about the accident that spurred a spiritual awakening.

Well-known as Justin Gabriel from his seven years in WWE, the 39-year-old Black had been producing some of the best work of his career before ROH halted shows due to the pandemic. He remains one of wrestling’s most talented, daring risk-takers, but had his accident ended slightly differently, he would not have survived the crash.

“This is my second chance,” said Black. “I don’t think I’m supposed to be here right now. Ever since that day, my life has been on a completely different path. It’s the worst thing that ever happened to me, but it’s also the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Even for those (like myself) with minimal knowledge about BASE jumping, Black crafted a story that was extremely relatable. Through his attention to detail, you can feel the rush of his jumps and the agonizing pain when reality sets in after his adrenaline wears off in the hospital.

“I’ve never told the whole story in detail until now,” said Black. “There are only 2,000 people in the world that BASE jump, so it’s a small community and we all know each other, and everything I wrote in that piece came from questions people have asked me over the past three years.”

Despite all his training and meticulous planning, Black’s jump did not go as planned.

“I should have done everything differently that day,” he explained. “I should have taken a longer delay, I should have pushed off harder, I should have put my head up slightly more and dropped my right shoulder. I should have also listened to my gut feeling. That is very important, and I’ve learned to listen to that more.”

Black’s body position was awry when his parachute opened, leaving him over 50 stories high with precious few options. But he stayed shockingly calm while his ankle shattered and right ring finger was stripped to the nail. Extensive training, and having dealt with multiple malfunctions in his skydiving, has allowed Black to remain extremely calm in panic-ridden situations. He even had the peace of mind to catch a glimpse of a woman in a nearby window eating her breakfast.

“Everything was moving in slow motion,” said Black. “I’m just extremely lucky I didn’t end up going through that window.”

Doctors informed Black, who refused to use painkillers during his recovery, that his wrestling career was finished. But despite potentially career-ending injuries, Black is now stronger than ever.

“My entire outlook on life has changed,” said Black. “It’s almost like I downloaded knowledge from the universe. It was tough, and it’s still an ongoing process, but now I want to teach, motivate, and inspire.”

The 23-year wrestling veteran is also working on his first book, which will detail biohacking.

“When I was injured, I started reading about spiritual healing and biohacking was a big topic,” said Black. “And I also have a background and a master’s degree in nutrition, and I want to write a lot about that, too. I gave myself a six-month deadline, but there is a ton more research I need to do. Realistically, it will be next year. I’ve always wanted to write something, and it’s a wonderful task.”

Much to the surprise of some, Black has continued BASE jumping, refusing to let a setback define his time in the sky.

“Even my mom asked me, ‘Are you going to stop jumping now?’” said Black. “The analogies I explained to her on why I keep jumping are the ones I used in my writing.

“The butterflies are still there when I jump, but they’re also there before a big match in wrestling. For me, it’s all about how you respond. That’s how you grow.”

WWE Creative Humor’s Robert Karpeles now part of Total F’N Marks podcast

The brilliant mind behind the WWE Creative Humor page on Twitter has returned to the podcast airwaves.

Robert Karpeles is now part of the Total F’N Marks podcast, joining Dan St. Germain and Scott Chaplain.

“Podcasts are much like the wrestling business, where no one ever retires,” joked Karpeles, who formerly hosted The Writers Room podcast. “It’s an industry that gets into your blood whether you’re in the ring or creating content around it.”

Karpeles’ imprint in wrestling still exists, as he spent time working in WWE creative but more recently as a producer in MLW.

“This is a chance for me, someone who’s been on the WWE payroll and worked with MLW for two years, to speak about so many young talents currently populating NXT, WWE, and AEW,” said Karpeles, who embraced every opportunity to work with MJF and Shane Strickland in MLW. “MJF is incredibly creative and collaborative, and he is someone I genuinely root for success in this business. It’s the same thing in NXT with Isaiah Scott [formerly Strickland], who was our inaugural MLW champion, beating Matt Riddle. It’s such a crazy thing to think where we were a few years ago to where those guys are now.”

The Total F’N Marks podcast is a chance for Karpeles to share his humor and analysis, which his platform on Twitter does not always allow.

“I love getting to do the Creative Humor account and coming up with humorous takes on what I’m watching in the product, but it’s very rare that I get to speak too in-depth about the shows or the talent or what’s going on in the industry,” said Karpeles. “And if I were to tweet, ‘Wow, Drew McIntyre is doing really incredible work in the ring and on the microphone—he’s a real talent,’ people might think it’s tongue-in-cheek and that I was taking a shot at him.

“The idea behind the Total F’N Marks with Dan and Scott is that it’s two established comedians who’ve been on Conan, Jimmy Fallon, Comedy Central, and they have a love and appreciation for pro wrestling. They’re very funny, but they take the business seriously, which leads to an intelligent conversation about wrestling that weaves in humor.”

In other words, Karpeles fits right in.

“As soon as I finished a show as a guest, it felt very natural, and we discussed me joining and being part of it every week,” said Karpeles. “It’s fun to talk about every aspect of the wrestling world, so I couldn’t possibly have said no.”

Covering the top ten wrestling stories of the week, the show drops every Thursday night. A second show, exclusive to Patreon, also airs once week. And Karpeles will not be shy about sharing his ideas, including areas that could be improved upon.

“Let’s take MJF, for example, when he sits in the crowd during the AEW shows,” said Karpeles. “That should be an entire production. When we had him ringside for a match in MLW, he had a table, a bottle of champagne, a pretty woman, and a bouncer. But since this is taking place during COVID, it would be perfect if he was in his own plexiglass box. He could still have people with him, but they’d have to wear masks.”

There is a plethora of wrestling podcasts on the market, but Karpeles believes this show is especially unique.

“This is the total package,” said Karpeles. “It’s not Lex Luger, you’re not going to be hit with a steel plate to the head, but this is a chance to feel like we’re sitting there and watching the show with you. And never say never in this business, but the odds are high that none of us are going to be stolen away to become the next head writer of Raw or SmackDown. Wrestling is a weird and beautiful business, so maybe this podcast will lead me to writing Raw, while still running the Twitter account and burying whatever I come up with.”

Tweet of the Week

Between seeing Dustin Rhodes and Kenny Omega share the ring on tonight’s Dynamite, as well as Matt Riddle’s SmackDown debut this Friday, there is a lot to look forward to watching.

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