Ted DiBiase – The Art of Being a Million Dollar Heel

Over the course of his career as the “Million Dollar Man,” Ted DiBiase flaunted his money, proving to the world that everyone has a price.

Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase showing off his Million Dollar Championship belt.
Ted DiBiase showing off his Million Dollar Championship belt. [Photo courtesy of WWE.com]

The “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase

When you think of the make-up of a perfect heel (or bad guy in wrestling), it’s hard not to think of one man who was a mainstay on WWF television throughout the late ’80s to mid-’90s — the "Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase. He wore a gold-studded, dollar-sign-covered suit and, in time, a custom-made, diamond-encrusted, and self-awarded "Million Dollar Championship" belt.

Ted DiBiase would often throw money around in and out of the ring — buying drinks for entire bars, overtipping, and purchasing small items with $100 bills in a bid to make his “Million Dollar Man” persona seem more real. DiBiase would also invite fans (including a young Rob Van Dam and a then-unknown Linda McMahon) into the ring to perform humiliating acts, such as kissing his feet in a bid to win some of his money.

In one memorable moment, DiBiase invited a young boy onto the stage and told him if he bounced a ball 15 times in succession, he would pay him $500. After the 14th bounce, DiBiase kicked the ball away, sending the boy home without pay.

In “good guy” fashion, according to DiBiase’s autobiography, everybody who wasn’t paid on-camera was paid off-camera. This young fan was no exception.

“We didn’t really jilt the kid,” DiBiase explained. “Now, I did a lot of that at live events, where there was no television. It was improv. I had 300 bucks at my disposal all the time that help get the character over. I would hand-pick somebody out after an event and do something stupid to see if I could buy them. But anytime we did it on television, it was pre-arranged and determined. The kid got the money before we ever did the show."

He recalled joking backstage that he would need an armored car to get out of the building after that basketball skit.

“I keep waiting for that kid to come up and walk up to me. He’s probably about 6’5″ now. He’s going to walk up one day, ‘Remember me? The one that dribbled the basketball for you?’"

As it turns out, Ted DiBiase did end up meeting this kid by sheer chance at a car rental place in Omaha, Nebraska!

In an interview with WrestleZone Radio, DiBiase said, “I am renting a car, and this guy taps me on the shoulder, so I turn around. I am looking at his chest. I look up at this guy who is about 6’6.″ He looks at me and goes, ‘Good to see you, Mr. DiBiase. Can I help you find a car? I am the manager here.’

“I said, ‘Sure, help me find something that can fit both of us!’

“He said, ‘By the way, do you remember that kid you did that thing with the basketball?’ It was just the look on his face, and I go, ‘No way!’ He goes, ‘It’s nice to see you again!’ (Laughs) I ran into that little boy as a full-grown man.”

“It got better,” DiBiase continued. “He goes, ‘I actually went to college on a basketball scholarship!'”

“That was too much. I said, ‘See what I did for ya!’ We both laughed, and he said, ‘Well, I got drafted by the Lakers, but I didn’t make the final cut.’ He was obviously doing pretty good for himself.”

Was the Money Ted DiBiase Had in WWE Real?

So were the wads of cash his character flashed around his own money? Ted DiBiase explains:

"That was [the WWF’s] money! I told Vince that I couldn’t possibly keep track of all this money. And he would always tell me: ‘Where the opportunity presents itself to get the gimmick, overdo it.’ In other words, if I walk into a bar and the situation’s right, I buy a round for the house.

"I’ve literally gone in and just picked up a pack of gum and thrown a C-Note down or gone to a quarter toll booth and given them a hundred dollar bill. The guy goes, ‘Is that all you got, pal?’

"I go, ‘Yeah. That’s all I carry – I’m the Million Dollar Man!’ (laughs ) They’d mumble under their breath and then make the change.

"I’d pick up people’s hotel bills and expenses just off the cuff—many, many things just like that.

"At the same time, I’ll say this; I appreciated the fact that Vince would have faith in me to do that and realized that I would not abuse the privilege. And I never did."

Playing the Role of Heel

It took dedication on the part of Ted DiBiase to master the art of being a bad guy. In an interview with WNS Podcast, DiBiase described:

Ted DiBiase and Sherri Martel in Dublin, Ireland.
Ted DiBiase and Sherri Martel in Dublin, Ireland.

"There are two different types of heels.

"There’s the ‘tough-guy’ bad guy…and the tough-guy heel will always eventually become a good guy because people love tough guys.

"But if you’re [like me] a…what I call a…(laughs) well, there’s no other word for it, a ‘chickenshit’ heel…

"In other words, when I go out there, I show the people that I can wrestle, I show them that I can go, I show them I’ve got the skill, and yet, I take the shortcuts.

"And not only do I take the shortcuts – I’m a coward.

"I talk real big, and then when somebody gets in my face, I kind of back off and send [bodyguard] Virgil in to do the work for me.

"That’s the best kind of heel. Because people never, ever get tired of seeing somebody kick that guys butt.

"A tough guy heel, eventually the fans get behind him.

"The fans never got behind me – they always hated me. And I was very proud of that."

"DiBiase continued, "It’s all about entertaining the people. It’s good to know when you make that connection.

"Being a heel is more fun because you’re not really being yourself – well, most guys aren’t anyway (laughs) – you’re going out of your way to make the people hate your guts.

"It’s funny though, at the arena they yell and scream at you, even throw things at you, and then, 15 minutes later when the show’s over, you get back to the hotel lobby, or like back in the old days we’d stop down the road to, you know, get a sandwich or something, and the same kid that was screaming profanities at you walks up to you with a pen and a piece of paper and says, ‘Can I have your autograph?’" (laughs)

Why Ted DiBiase Was Never a Champion in the WWF

Despite having an in-ring career spanning almost fifteen years with various championships outside of the WWF and many notable feuds with main-eventers such as Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and Jake’ The Snake’ Roberts, the Million Dollar Man never held a world title in the company.

While there was discussion about him winning the title at WrestleMania IV, those plans were ultimately scrapped. Was the Honky Tonk Man to blame? Here, Dibiase and Honky Tonk Man give their versions of the story:

Ted DiBiase with the Honky Tonk Man.
Ted DiBiase with the Honky Tonk Man. [Photo courtesy of WWE.com]
TED DIBIASE: 

"There was a lot of talk that at WrestleMania IV, the tournament – that I would win it. That was the initial plan. I would win it and have my run with Hogan…”

HONKY TONK MAN: 

"[Ricky] Steamboat was leaving.

He was the one that got the [Intercontinental] belt from Savage and up and quit the company, saying, ‘I want to go home and spend time with my wife and children.’

Of course, if you have a championship belt, you don’t go home and spend time with your wife and children. You have to be on the road, and [Vince] said, ‘This guy wants to go and do this, and I got to have the belt in a town.’

I just happened to walk by [in the hallway], and Hogan said to Vince, ‘What about him?’

Vince pulled me aside and told me what he wanted to do.

I said, ‘Listen, if you give me that belt, I don’t want a day off.’

And I ran with that belt for 64 weeks…"

TED DIBIASE: 

"You gotta satisfy a lot of people, and someone said Honky Tonk Man didn’t want to drop the Intercontinental belt to Randy Savage. And they wanted to make Randy happy too, so somebody came up with that idea to turn Randy babyface…”

HONKY TONK MAN: 

"[Refusing to drop the title to Savage] wasn’t the fact of losing the belt [itself]…I had a deal with WWE and Vince – a handshake deal. There were no contracts back then. ‘I’ll do anything you want if you give me an opportunity. If I do good, pay me. If I don’t do good, I’ll pack my bags and move down the highway.’

All I said was, ‘Treat me good on TV. Take care of me on television.’

Back in the old days, us old guys always believed that if they destroy you on television, you’re pretty much destroyed.

It did Savage’s career better than mine because he became World Champion as opposed to being the Intercontinental champion again.

For that reason, Ted DiBiase – who still has a little animosity towards me – though not a lot – Ted never got to be world champion…"

TED DIBIASE: 

"Wrestling is a business, and of course, I guess if you’re given the title, you’re getting marked as the best…but that’s not necessarily always true.

A belt is a gimmick in our business. It’s a status symbol.

So the question was posed to me: ‘What would get you more heat, Ted, If you didn’t win the belt? Or if in your arrogance you thumbed your nose at it and created your OWN belt…’

And I said, ‘That’s the ticket.’

And it was.

Today, you talk about a conversation piece. Everybody wants to take a picture with the Million Dollar Belt and me.

The Million Dollar Belt made me more money than the WWF Title ever would have…”

HONKY TONK: 

"I don’t see why he was mad…the Million Dollar Man got the same perks as the world champ anyway!"

After a few runs with the WWF Tag Team Championship with Irwin R. Schyster, DiBiase’s in-ring career ended in 1993. However, his’ Million Dollar’ persona lived on for some years as a manager and mouthpiece for Bam Bam Bigelow, Sycho Sid, and of course, ‘The Ringmaster’ Steve Austin. He would later jump ship to WCW and temporarily join the nWo as "Trillionaire Ted," a play on "Billionaire Ted," the WWF-given nickname of Ted Turner. After stepping away from the ring completely, DiBiase was on the WWE creative team for a year and a half, and in stark contrast to his on-screen (and sometimes off-screen) persona, he is now a Christian minister.

The Inspiration Behind the “Million Dollar Man” Character

As for the "Million Dollar Man" character, it is no secret where the inspiration behind the character came from. On the recommended Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard podcast, Prichard told the story of the time he was sitting in the first-class cabin with Vince McMahon on a flight, back when smoking was permitted on planes.

"We were flying along, and the guy sitting back in 2B takes a cigarette out [and] lights the cigarette. And then, he starts to smoke his cigarette. Vince turns around, and he goes, ‘Hey pal, I’ll give you $100 if you put that cigarette out.’

"The guys said, ‘No, man, I’m good. I want to have my cigarette. I’m in the smoking section. I want to have my cigarette.’

"‘I’ll give you $200, pal. Put the cigarette out.’

"The guy keeps smoking. He goes, ‘Look, I want to have my cigarette, okay? I’m fine. I paid for this seat.’

"[McMahon] goes, ‘I’ll give you $500, pal. Put the cigarette out, alright?’

"The guy says, ‘Hey man, I paid for my seat. I just want to smoke my cigarette.’

"[McMahon] goes, ‘I’ll pay for your seat, and I’ll still give you another $500. Just put the cigarette out.’

"The guy finally puts his cigarette out, and Vince is peeling off hundreds to give this guy money to put his cigarette out. And I just looked down, I go, ‘Fuck, man, you are The Million Dollar Man!’ And that’s when it all clicked [for] me because it was, ‘Everybody’s got a price, pal. Goddamn, it doesn’t matter. Everything’s for sale. Everybody’s got a price for The Million Dollar Man. Do you understand now?’ And it clicked. But that was Vince in real life. That was real life shit that actually fucking happened."

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JP Zarka
JP Zarka is a teacher, singer/songwriter, producer, executive producer of The Pro Wrestling Stories Podcast, former co-host of The Genius Cast with Lanny Poffo podcast, and editor-in-chief of ProWrestlingStories.com. Originally from Chicago, he has called London home since 2008. He can be reached on Twitter @pws_official.