Titus O'Neil on his Muhammad Ali Award nomination, addressing social issues in WWE and mission to give back

Sporting News

WWE Superstar Titus O’Neil probably shouldn’t be here right now. Much less, be a finalist for the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award that will be presented during ESPN’s annual Sports Humanitarian Awards show alongside Nelson Cruz (MLB), Kevin Love (NBA), Devin and Jason McCourty (NFL) and Maya Moore (WNBA).

Born out of a sexual assault when his mother was raped as an 11-year-old, O’Neil had the proverbial deck stacked against him. Mad at the world for the circumstances he couldn’t control, O’Neil’s outlook on life was bleak.

“I was told I would be dead or in jail by the age of 16,” he recalls. “I was told that I would never be able to accomplish our members go to graduate high school or go to college.”

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However, he found a source of light during the five years he spent at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch when the ranch’s former regional director Pat Montague told him that he loved and believed in him.

O’Neil turned his life around with a renewed focus on school and sports. He also dedicated his life to giving back because he understood the significance of someone giving back to him.

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He overcame the odds, played college football as a Florida Gator and found his way into the wonderful world of pro wrestling in the WWE. And while those accomplishments on the field and in the ring were great, nothing could surpass what he’s done when there aren’t arenas filled with cheering fans.

A tireless philanthropist who has a seemingly endless list of charity initiatives that he’s involved himself in, O’Neil’s purpose goes beyond entertaining from bell to bell. He’s an inspiration who has dedicated himself to helping improve the lives of those who are less fortunate. Among those initiatives is the "Love Walk" that will take place in Tampa, Florida on June 27 alongside former WWE superstar Dave Bautista. The pair will lead a march across Tampa's Fortune Taylor Bridge that will bring together Tampa Bay business leaders, elected officials, and families in support of the peaceful protests against racism and police brutality.

"I think everybody should be included in this change," he said. "It's not a one race issue, it's a human race issue. Now we have the opportunity to walk in love and have this be a symbol that we are capable of great human beings."

The nomination is a culmination of the 43-year-old's efforts and means the world to him considering that he looks at the late heavyweight champion as one of his heroes that he's modeled himself after.

“If I ever got the opportunity to be in a position to be like someone, it would be him," he says. "He was very unapologetic about being a black man in America, very unapologetic about his faith and what he stood for. It's an honor to be nominated for an award named after such a great individual."

The author of “There’s No Such Thing As A Bad Kid” spoke with Sporting News about his philanthropy, addressing social issues in the WWE locker room and using his platform to make a change.

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SN: When did you realize that your biggest contribution in the WWE would not be what happens inside of the ring?

Titus O’Neil: It was long before I got into WWE when I realized that what I do for a living is not who I am. There should always be a separation because, at some point, what you do for a living is going to change. But who you are as an individual defines what you can contribute to any company, organization or community for the rest of your life. It’s your legacy. WWE is just another platform for me to be who I am. Sometimes that’s not popular or people want to question whether or not you are genuine with your motives. But I have proven who I am. It’s not about a paycheck or fame. It’s about who I am.

SN: We’re in a climate where people ask entertainers and celebrities to speak on social issues. Can you talk about the significance of using your platform from your point of view?

TO: I've been around some of the wealthiest people in the world, and none of them knew how to dribble, run or shoot. I think their greatest appreciation is that I was able to get them to think outside of their comfort zone. They are accustomed to write a $100,000 check and say that they are doing great work. You can’t keep thinking that you can just throw money at an issue and it will solve it. It takes everybody involved in the process. You have to do more than write a check or post something on Instagram. Celebrities have a hand in influencing people to change. But, at the end of the day, the people have to see the work of influencers put into action. If you have a platform and want to make a change, put your boots on the ground and do something. I truly believe that when “me” becomes “we” amazing things happen.

SN: Just like any other workplace, the WWE is made up of people from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs. Considering the current racial climate in America, have you had to have conversations with talent to explain the significance of Black Lives Matter and what’s currently happening to Black people in this country?

TO: Yeah, I’ve had to have conversations with people prior to the George Floyd incident simply because they didn’t understand. When it comes to minorities and those who are oppressed, it’s always easier for those who are not oppressed to say to “get over it,” “that’s so long ago,” or turn “Black Lives Matter” into “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter.” They don’t realize why Colin Kaepernick took a knee or that there are conversations that happen in Black homes (about race) that don’t happen in white homes.

I am the father of two black sons and our conversations are different. They are about trying not to ruffle feathers or putting on the good hat. There is systematic racism in this country that needs to be dealt with. I don’t agree with a lot of things that Donald Trump says or does, but I will not put the full responsibility of where the country is today on him. Our country has been like this when Obama and Bush were president.

Systemic racism has been an issue since the beginning of America and something needs to be done about it. I 100% agree with what Kaepernick took a knee for and I am happy that it’s not just Black people who are fighting against racism and bigotry today. Sometimes, people need to see what's happening like they did with Martin Luther King Jr.'s second march in Selma. Had George Floyd’s death not been filmed, I don’t think the world would have been in any different place than it is today.

SN: It seems that many in this country who may have been against the idea of Colin Kaepernick kneeling, police brutality and Black Lives Matter have finally come around. One of those people is WWE Superstar Randy Orton who recently stated that all lives can’t matter until Black Lives Matter. Have you had conversations with him about this?

TO: I have had conversations with Randy about this. He didn’t understand it because he looked at it through a different lens. He was in the military for a period of time so what that flag means to him is different. But it was never about the flag and I explained that to him and others in the locker room. We’ve had some very candid conversations and, to be honest with you, I love the fact that I can call him a friend. Over the last two years, I have seen him grow so much as a human being. He has been more open to listening and admitting that he didn’t get it at first.

There are fans who have followed this industry for years and if any of them claim that systematic racism doesn’t exist, it would be a bald-faced lie. This business has had stereotypical characters and you can’t deny that. Now, I can say that this company has grown leaps and bounds with trying to be more aware of social issues in regards to race and to not perpetuate certain stereotypes. Randy Orton, Seth Rollins, The Bella Twins and others have taken a stand for what is right. When Randy Orton said that, there were so many Black and Brown people who understood that he’s not just standing with us, he’s getting a better understanding of what the movement is really about. That’s encouraging.

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