Pro wrestling has always featured an uncomfortable duality, a raging battle between show and sport. Wrestlers are athletes, men and women who defy gravity and confront pain few could even imagine on a nightly basis. But for all their astounding feats in the ring, wrestling is also show business. The competition that exists is behind the scenes. In the ring, it's a dance, two individuals working as one to control the audience's emotions.
Some never understand the beauty of this athletic soap opera, too focused on the legitimacy of the competition to recognize the brilliance of the performance. But before he ever put on a shimmery green suit, dollar bill sign prominently on the lapel, it was a duality the Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase didn't always quite grasp.
Wrestling is in Ted DiBiase's blood. His mother Helen Hild was a model before journeying into the wild world of wrestling. While others relied on gimmicks, Hild was a beauty, a brawler and a technician, every bit the brute in the ring as any of the men, despite weighting just 125 pounds. Stepfather Mike DiBiase was also a serious wrestler, a notorious shooter and former University of Nebraska star.
Is it any wonder, for much of his career, that DiBiase was more focused on his snap mare than snappy interviews? Wrestling, as promoted by Vince McMahon and his WWF, was foreign ground for DiBiase. And despite his struggles with a vision so different than the one he had known all his life, he thrived as the Million Dollar Man, creating one of the sport's truly iconic villains.
Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer Jonathan Snowden caught up with DiBiase, days before his return to WWE Raw, to talk about his career, how he came to join the WWE Universe and how he came up with his trademark evil laugh.
Bleacher Report: I grew up in St. Louis and then moved to the Southeast, home of the Super Station. So, while many people remember the Million Dollar Man or the Ted DiBiase who starred for Bill Watts, I have very different memories.
Before WWF, before your really big run in Mid South, you got the call to come to St. Louis in 1978. That was a big deal. Was being hand selected by NWA godfather Sam Muchnick as close as you could get to being a made man in that era?
Ted DiBiase: Absolutely. St. Louis was like a one-city territory, and the talent they used there came from territories all over the country. If you were featured in St. Louis, that was one of the best ways for you to get noticed and become nationally known.
I got that opportunity. My first major main event was at the Kiel Auditorium wrestling Harley Race for the NWA World title. I was Missouri State champion...
B/R: ...stepping stone to the big prize, right?
DiBiase: I was actually one of the few Missouri champions who didn't. Most of the guys who were Missouri State champion ended up going on to be NWA World Heavyweight champion. Of course, I didn't get that call.
But as a matter of fact, my going to St. Louis in 1978, ended up with Sam Muchnick recommending me to Vince McMahon Sr. That led to me coming to the WWWF for the first time. I was only there nine months and then I went back to Mid South. The last match I had in WWWF, I wrestled this new guy named Hulk Hogan. (Laughs). It was the first match Hogan had at Madison Square Garden. Of course, the rest is history.
B/R: Small world. It's interesting to me, having lived in different parts of the country, you realize how different it is in different places. In St. Louis it felt like it was a real sport and was treated with a certain respect. They treated wrestling differently in other places, like Georgia Championship Wrestling, where everything was so crazy.
How did that help you as a young performer? Early in your career did you find yourself growing a little bit as a wrestler with every stop you made?
DiBiase: Absolutely. You have to adapt. Even in a given territory what would work in one city in front of one crowd might not work in front of another crowd. Every crowd is different in what they are looking for and what they'll respond to.
Most of the time what you're doing works. But sometimes it was tougher. It's adaptability. That's how you learn. The real art of what we do, at least back in the old-school days, was improv. If you were a great worker, you were able to adapt and that skill developed over time because of all the traveling and working in different areas. You learned how to read a crowd.
It's hard to explain to someone. At some point it becomes innate. You can just read the crowd and realize "OK, I need to shift gears here and do something else." You develop an ear for that crowd and what's going to work and what's not.
B/R: One of the times it really worked was in Georgia when you teamed with the Junkyard Dog against the Freebirds. This was more than 30 years ago and I can still remember Terry Gordy piledriving you on the floor. Have you ever had the people, the crowd, in the palm of your hand the way you guys did in that angle?
DiBiase: That was one of those times. That particular angle, at the time, really resurrected me. When I first went to Georgia Championship Wrestling, the promoter at the time Jim Barnett brought in Robert Fuller, who later became Colonel Rob Parker in WCW, as the booker. Everybody has their own style and way of doing things, and I was just not impressed with Robert Fuller. As a booker. As a talent he was fine. But as a booker, I just didn't think he had it.
I felt like I was getting lost in the mix, and the whole reason I went to Atlanta was to get the exposure on what was, at the time, the only national broadcast wrestling show in the Super Station.
B/R: To get you ready for a run as champion?
DiBiase: The idea was to get that national exposure and get over. Because I was being touted as possibly being one of the next NWA world champions.
But then Fuller was out and Buck Robley came in as booker and came up with that angle, which brought me a lot of sympathy. The good guy goes down and makes the big comeback. That really did resurrect me.
It was one of those moments. People always ask "What was your greatest match. What was your favorite moment?" Not realizing, you wrestle so much in a career that you can't pick one. (Laughs). There isn't just one. But there's a lot of mile markers. And that particular angle was a mile marker in my career.
B/R: I've talked to a lot of wrestlers and, to a person, they all say they liked being a heel, the bad guy, better than they liked being the good guy. But there's got to be something special about a situation like that. Knowing that folks who probably should know better than to think Terry Gordy actually hurt you badly on television, they cared so much that they were calling the hospital and sending flowers. As a person, that has to make you feel like you matter?
DiBiase: Oh yeah. And the way it was done, even though it was an angle, we played this thing off like it was real. When the ambulance attendants showed up, they were real ambulance attendants who came from a real hospital.
I went and I actually spent four days in an Atlanta hospital before they released me (laughs). You talk about working. I had these doctors telling me "We can't figure out what's wrong with you." Well, the truth was, there wasn't really anything wrong with me. But we wanted the people to believe I had really gotten hurt. It was a huge angle.
B/R: Around this time, in the early '80s, you were everywhere. Mid South, Georgia Championship Wrestling, tours of Japan and a monthly shot in St. Louis. It was a crazy schedule. But in the end, do you think it was just a warm-up for the craziness that was to come with Vince? As crazy as your schedule was, the WWF's schedule in those days was even wilder wasn't it?
DiBiase: It was. It was amazing.
B/R: Is it true that you almost turned it all down for a regular gig in Japan?
DiBiase: Just prior to going to WWE and becoming this Million Dollar Man character, I had a contract with All Japan Pro Wrestling and had teamed up with Stan Hansen.
B/R: That was as big as it got in Japan. He was the best.
DiBiase: Stan Hansen is arguably the most popular, most famous, foreign wrestler in Japanese wrestling history. One of the absolute biggest names in wrestling. After Bruiser Brody left to jump to the other company there, New Japan, Stan came to me and said "Do you want to be my new tag team partner?" (Laughs).
B/R: That was big money too, right?
DiBiase: Are you kidding? I jumped on that. It was a great thing. I was going to Japan as many tours, as many weeks as I wanted. When I sat down with the boss, who was Giant Baba, I said "How many weeks?" He said "How many do you want?" (Laughs). I could go every tour. I was like "wow."
B/R: But something drew you to New York?
DiBiase: (Japan) was a good thing. But when the opportunity came to go to WWF I just knew that that was where wrestling was going. That was the future.
It's funny. I grew up in the wrestling business. Coming from the old-school mentality, even though, like you said, most educated people and anybody who has ever been in a real fight, if they watch wrestling long enough they go "Wait a minute. Something is not right here."
But there are guys in our business who can put on a match that is extremely believable. It's kind of like going to a magic show. You know that nobody can really make an elephant disappear. It's illusion. But how in the heck did they do it? It's the same thing in wrestling.
You go into a movie theatre, and you know it's just a movie. But the actors are so darned good they draw you in. And that's what we did with people. Wrestling fans are the best, because they are so loyal. You can play on emotion. The good guy gets knocked down, and the bad guy takes advantage. And the good guy comes back from the very bottom to make that explosive comeback and overcome.
B/R: A classic story.
DiBiase: That's always been the story. And coming from that old-school mentality, I've always tried to make my matches look real. That was one of my things. I was going to do my dead level best to make sure that nobody could see through my work. When I throw a punch they're going to think it's real. You're never going to see me throw a punch that doesn't look real. That's the way I approached the business
So, when I first saw what Vince was doing with wrestling I was kind of like "what's going on here?" The music, the over-the-top characters—I thought the guy was killing our business. In reality, it was a stroke of genius.
He made it very family driven, good guys and bad guys. Cartoon characters. Vince came out and said "Yeah, we're sports entertainment. So what? We're good. We're very entertaining."
When I picked up a newspaper in Baton Rouge and it said WrestleMania III sets indoor world attendance record, 93,000 people at the Pontiac Silverdome, that's when I knew wrestling was the WWF and I knew that's where I needed to be.
Even though I had this tremendous deal in Japan, I knew that was where I needed to be. What I didn't know was, a year later, I would be in the main event of WrestleMania IV.
B/R: All those hours perfecting your armdrag. The punch like you talked about. Then you come to WWF. You were still a perfectionist. How many times did you practice that perfect evil laugh in the mirror to get it just right?
DiBiase: That's funny. The laugh. That laugh is actually an extension of how I laugh. I naturally laugh kind of like that, though not to that extreme.
We used to do separate interviews for every market back then. They would set up a little sound booth area, a room in the auditorium. And Vince happened to be walking by when I was doing mine, and I cocked my head and laughed at the end of my interview.
He stuck his head in the door, and he looked at me and said "That's it. That is the Million Dollar Man." And he said "I want you to start and end every interview with that laugh." And that's how it happened. (Laughs).
Ted DiBiase and a handful of wrestling legends make a special appearance on WWE Raw Monday on the USA Network. Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer and the author of Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling.