For Virgil, the million dollar quest continues
"Where are the hot dogs at?"
Mike Jones is feeling optimistic. The performer wrestling fans remember as Virgil – the buff, scowling man-servant of "Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase from 1987 to 1991 – stretches in a cut-off World Gym shirt on a patch of 42nd Street in Manhattan, in front of Grand Central Station. It’s just after midday, and Virgil’s feeling a little hungry. Not more than 20 yards away, on the corner of Vanderbilt Avenue, there’s a vendor selling franks and salty pretzels. But Virgil needs to take care of business first.
Gripping the handle of a cumbersome, gray Tumi suitcase packed with 8x10s, the former on-screen bodyguard repositions himself by the curb. Hundreds file by: office girls on cell phones, tourists with backpacks, mothers with toddlers in strollers. At one point, he nearly bumps a Catholic priest walking behind him on a narrow strip of sidewalk. A gray-haired man steps forward, holding a street map of midtown Manhattan, and he and Virgil briefly make eye contact.
Virgil flexes. "That’s right."
But the man stares past Virgil to contemplate a street sign.
"One kid looked," Virgil insists. "‘Oh, s**t. Yeah. That is him.’ There’s got to be 30 million people here right now. As soon as they see me, as soon as they know me, they’ll say, ‘I want to do a photo with you.’ And I’ll say, ‘Hey, I don’t do no photo for free.’ I’m going to get paid," he jabs a finger dramatically at the sidewalk, "right … now."
I never smoked a cigarette, never drank a beer, never drank a wine. Never, never, never, never. How many guys can tell you they never took a pain pill? I didn’t. You can live a long life this way.
The scene plays into the "Lonely Virgil" pictures that started appearing on the Internet in 2012, featuring a forlorn-looking Virgil alone with his 8x10s at fan conventions, store openings and, in one case, a New York City subway station – sometimes to the accompaniment of the 1975 Eric Carmen tune, "All By Myself." But it’s not entirely accurate.
Although he lives frugally in an apartment in his hometown of Pittsburgh – often driving to car shows, flea markets and Comic Cons in his personal vehicle — Mike Jones is neither destitute nor desperate. He’s college educated, always had a fallback position after wrestling, and took advantage of it — teaching math for a period at his alma mater, Central Catholic High School.
And there’s no tragic story to blame on the wrestling business. At 53, he still looks great, largely because – even when he was earning well over half a million dollars a year, and too many people around him were indulging in the wrong things – Virgil’s idea of partying involved a few extra bread sticks at the Olive Garden.
"I never smoked a cigarette," he boasts, "never drank a beer, never drank a wine. Never, never, never, never. How many guys can tell you they never took a pain pill? I didn’t. You can live a long life this way."
For the last few months, he’s been managed by Jian and Page Magen, the same Canadian twins who helped turn the Iron Sheik into a Twitter sensation. During this particular visit to New York, the Magens have booked Virgil on Sam Roberts’ Sirius XM program, a WWE Network interview segment, and a corporate event in New Jersey.
And, that morning, they launched "Make Virgil a Million," a GoFundMe campaign to transform Virgil into a millionaire.
First, there are more 8x10s to sell. Relinquishing his spot on the sidewalk, Virgil grabs the handle of his suitcase and rolls it into Grand Central, passing through the archway into the main concourse, where the suburban commuter trains dislodge.
"I’ve made you happy," he explains regarding the GoFundMe drive. "Now, it’s time for you to make me happy.
‘I think we’re here for the same thing’
There’s a reporter from TMZ waiting outside Da Silvano when we walk up to the Tuscan-style, West Village eatery the next night. I’m tempted to write that a source has called in a sighting of Virgil heading downtown on the F-Train, but the reality is that the Magens have tipped the guy off.
"You’re going to like this place," the reporter, Adam Glyn, tells Virgil. "It’s Rihanna’s favorite restaurant."
Glyn turns on the camera, and Virgil starts talking — like he’s cutting one of the promos WWE used to insert into its syndicated programming. Almost immediately, he mentions the GoFundMe effort.
After a day and a half, it’s up to $25 (as of this writing it has reached $135).
Noticing the exchange, Silvano Marchetto, the landmark’s silver-haired owner, introduces himself to Virgil and leads us to a table. Knowing Virgil, he’d be as happy at Papaya Dog, a few blocks up. Yet, Marchetto is being extremely gracious, and Virgil appreciates it. It kind of reminds him of the way he was treated when he was doing his routine with the "Million Dollar Man."
"(WWE owner) Vince (McMahon) opened the books for us," he remembers. "We had the whole Million Dollar lifestyle – Lear jets, limos picking you up. We ate at the nicest restaurants in every city, and Vince wanted us to be seen there. I had to get an advance of $15,000 in hundred dollar bills, and when I’d come out to ringside, I’d be throwing out money," he places one hand on top of the other and claps twice, "like this.
"If you’re selling out an arena, how much money are you making? Think about it. So what’s really $15,000? Vince was smart.
"We’d go to the airport and when the red caps would take our bags, Ted would go, ‘Give him 100 bucks, Virgil.’ We kept our character."
It was a task Virgil never minded performing. The red caps worked had, and exhibited the ethic he’d learned from his parents in Pittsburgh’s Church Hill neighborhood.
As a child, Mike Jones always expected to go into the military. His father had been in the Navy, he says, and both of his brothers were SEALS. But his school teacher mother may have been the most regimented one in the family. "There ain’t no drinking, no smoking, in that kind of house," he says.
He claims to have run track and played wide receiver at Central Catholic before graduating from the University of Iowa as a math major. But he knew little about professional wrestling until he stopped at a Howard Johnson’s one day to buy a soda, and ran into 1980s stars, "Mr. USA" Tony Atlas and Sika the Wild Samoan – father of current WWE headliner, Roman Reigns.
Standing just under six feet, Virgil was a shredded 250 pounds, and both wrestlers commented on the recent graduate’s size.
"I tried talking to Sika," Virgil says, "but his English wasn’t good at all. I couldn’t really understand him. But then, (Sika’s brother) Afa came up, and told me about a wrestling school they were running in Hamden, Connecticut."
It was that one simple twist of fortune that set his life on a new course. Knowing that he could always teach school, Jones began training with the Wild Samoans and their nephews, Rodney Anoa’i and Solofa Fatu, Jr. Both would end up in WWE as Yokozuna and Rikishi respectfully. Occasionally, Solofa’s little brother, Eddie, would also participate in the drills. Later on, he’d also appear on WWE cards as Umaga.
They made me part of their family, and taught me everything — grab a hold, work a hold, no punches, no kicks. Before you start doing anything else, you have to learn how to put on a show by wrestling.
To this day, Virgil refers to Afa and Sika as "Pops." "They made me part of their family, and taught me everything – grab a hold, work a hold, no punches, no kicks. Before you start doing anything else, you have to learn how to put on a show by wrestling."
In 1985, after five months of training, he began working in the now-defunct Memphis wrestling territory as Soul Train Jones, teaming with an aging Rocky Johnson — father of The Rock. It was during this period that he took some publicity photos, wearing a top hat with a chiseled arm grasping the side of a train, and sent them to Afa.
Afa mailed the pictures to WWE. Although Jones had appeared on WWE television – billed as Luscious Brown, and losing a long-forgotten, televised match to Paul "Mr. Wonderful" Orndorff – the photos seemed to arrive at the right time.
"I remember talking to my mother on the phone, and she said, ‘This guy called two times. His name is Pat Patterson. Do you know him?’ I didn’t know, so I called Afa."
Afa said that Patterson, the first WWE Intercontinental Champion, was a top WWE official and one of Vince McMahon’s closest confidantes. When Jones called his mother back for Patterson’s number, she mentioned that McMahon himself had left a message.
"He flew me up to (New York’s) LaGuardia Airport, and when I got off the plane, someone was waiting there with a sign that said, ‘Michael Jones.’ That was brand new to me. We drove up (to WWE headquarters in Connecticut), and the receptionist said, ‘Can we get you anything, Mr. Jones? Anything at all?’"
The meeting with Vince went well. Jones was instructed to return in two weeks. When he did, he noticed a man with blonde highlights also waiting in Vince’s office.
"Hello," he said, extending his hand. "My name is Ted DiBiase."
"My name is Michael Jones."
"I think we’re here for the same thing."
A few minutes later, McMahon entered and sat down behind his desk. His eyes shifted from one guest to the other. Then, a small smile appeared on his face.
"This is going to be the baby right here."
‘Dusty even called me Virgil’
From that point forward, Michael Jones would forever be known as Virgil. It was a rib directed at Dusty Rhodes – then the booker, or creative force for rival Jim Crockett Jr.’s Charlotte-based promotion – whose real name was Virgil Riley Runnels Jr.
Virgil had no idea that he was part of a joke. He was a newcomer to the business, and understood nothing about its politics. "I didn’t know Dusty’s real name, and no one told me," he says. "Not (announcer) Gene Okerlund. Not (manager) Bobby Heenan. And those guys were my good friends. Then, later on, when Dusty came to the WWF and we had matches with him, Dusty even called me Virgil.
"I never thought about the whole Dusty Rhodes thing. You have a job and you roll with it."
Wearing an outfit that enhanced his 21-inch arms, Virgil was supposed to stand next to DiBiase and look menacing. "I don’t even want you to crack a smile," Vince directed.
That wasn’t always easy. During interview segments, Heenan would find a spot out of camera range and try tickling the back of his friend’s head with a feather attached to a mop handle. When fans attempted to shake hands with Virgil outside the arena, he’d stiffen up and shoot them a glare. "The honeys would look at you, and I might give them a slight wink," he says, "but nothing else."
The attitude complimented DiBiase’s character, a moneyed showoff adversaries couldn’t vanquish because he was smarter, worked harder and didn’t mind reaching into his pockets to acquire the things he wanted. "Teddy was Vince," Virgil says. "There were wrestlers (in rival organizations) who said they wouldn’t work for Vince if hell froze over. But everybody had a price."
Vignettes featrured Virgil doling out money – to get Ted to the front of the line in the emergency room, or clear out a public pool – while DiBiase looked into the camera and boasted, "Everybody has a price – for the Million Dollar Man."
In one memorable segment, the pair called a small boy out of the audience and promised him $500 if he could dribble a basketball 15 times. The child got up to 14 before Virgil kicked the sphere away.
The kid walked away, crying.
During a cage match, DiBiase and Randy "Macho Man" Savage were battling at the top when Virgil began to scale the enclosure to interfere. "I felt someone grab my foot," Virgil recalls, "and this kid’s climbing right with me. I thought it was a little boy. But when I kicked my foot and the hat fell off, I saw it was a little girl. I looked down at her and she ran back to her seat. And I said, ‘I’m glad she didn’t get hurt. I’m the one who’s supposed to take the monster bump off the cage.’"
If someone jumps off the Empire State Building, you have to do it, too?
There were a lot of guys on the WWE roster who Virgil considered friends: DiBiase, Bret "Hit Man" Hart, Junkyard Dog, Paul Roma, referee Joey Marella and others. Yet, he was also a loner and didn’t follow the crowd. If other people were drinking, he volunteered to be the designated driver. When drugs were offered, Virgil always said no.
"I didn’t want it," he says. "You’re telling me you have to snort something to be happy? If someone jumps off the Empire State Building, you have to do it, too? I had my vitamins – B-complex, B-12 – every day. I’d eat a proper breakfast, a proper dinner. What anybody else was doing, I can’t say."
Or he won’t say. But he will talk about the practical jokes, particularly a malicious one that consisted of dropping a sleeping pill into the drink of an unsuspecting companion. "It doesn’t work when you’re drinking orange juice," Virgil maintains. "You’re sober. Your senses are so keen. You’d see that thing fizzing up. And you can smell it." He gesture at the table. "Like you smell this vinegar."
It was more than self-defense that kept Virgil abstemious. He contends that because he never had children, he didn’t struggle with the guilt of leaving them behind while he was on the road. "When you beat up on yourself like that, what are you doing?" he asks. "How many drinks you have? How many pills are you popping? I didn’t have that pain to take away."
Since the debut of the Virgil character, DiBiase – whose mother and step-father were both in the business, and passed on an understanding of crowd psychology — told his storyline charge that, eventually, the fans would want the servant to rise up against the master. "You’re doing a great job," he assured Virgil. "And we’re going to build this up. And then, we’re going to go at it."
This finally occurred at the Royal Rumble in 1991 when Virgil tired of DiBiase and bashed him in the head with his diamond-encrusted "Million Dollar Belt" during a tag team match with Dusty and his son, Dustin – the future Goldust. With Virgil being encouraged by Rowdy Roddy Piper, the estranged partners feuded for much of the next year, with Virgil pinning DiBiase at SummerSlam and winning possession of the Million Dollar Belt.
"The roof came off Madison Square Garden," Virgil recounts. In the ring, he did a forward roll onto the mat, then mounted the turnbuckles in celebration. "And I did something you didn’t see before. I held up the belt and I smiled. Some people even wondered, ‘Could I smile?’"
Business is business
Of course, there wasn’t much to do with Virgil once he’d conquered DiBiase. He hung around for a few more years, generally working the middle of the card and losing to personalities the company hoped to build. In the meantime, he compiled a list of schools in the Pittsburgh area and began sending out resumes. "I wasn’t just Virgil the wrestler," he says. "I was Mike Jones the teacher. Everybody thought I was ghetto. But they didn’t see my GPA."
Still, there was plenty of work on the indie circuit when he finally left WWE in 1994. While he worked in church basements and high school gymnasiums, though, a wrestling war was starting, with Ted Turner’s WCW acquiring some of the biggest names in WWE. In 1996, DiBiase arrived. He called Virgil a few weeks later.
"Virg, we’re going to do this thing down here and run," DiBiase pronounced with Million Dollar Man grandeur. "You might like it."
Mike Jones’ new persona: head of security for the N.W.O., the renegade faction challenging the established stars in WCW. Creatively, the role was similar to the one he’d played in WWE. The one difference was the name.
Instead of Virgil, Mike Jones was now Vincent.
This time, he understood the reference. "I never had anything against Vince McMahon personally, and everybody knew that," he says. "Hey, I was being paid. And later on, when I talked to Vince about what happened down there, I told him, ‘The paychecks said, ‘Michael Jones.’
"Vince said, ‘Business is business.’"
Surrounded by DiBiase, as well as Hulk Hogan, Ray "Big Boss Man" Traylor, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash and others, Jones liked how he felt in the dressing room. "It was the same old crowd." Younger wrestlers were quick to introduce themselves, especially Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit. Jones had missed Lex Luger during his WWE run, and now, the two became friends.
He’d come to understand that nothing is permanent in wrestling.With characteristic disorganization, WCW regularly changed Jones’ name, if not his character. By the time the company was absorbed by WWE in 2001, he’d become a nostalgia act at indie shows.
‘No day is given to no one’
Outside the restaurant, a certain gloom seems to set around Virgil. He was OK when we were talking about his trepidation about a "green jabroni" injuring him on an indie card. But once we began discussing the deaths of old friends, his face hardened.
"First, Junkyard Dog died in a car crash. Then, (Rick) Rude died. Then, Yokozuna, Mr. Perfect, (Road Warrior) Hawk. The Big Boss Man died. Eddie Guerrero died. Very cool guys. Strong-willed guys. It didn’t put me in a mind to take a handful of sleeping pills, but …" We’re walking down the steps into the subway station now, and his voice gets hoarse. "You can’t let your depression drive you …" He pauses. "You think about the good times, the nice things.
"You’re around these guys more than your family. You’re in this state of mind where you don’t want to be the next."
Given the way life has turned out for so many others, he’s grateful to still be around, selling his 8x10s, even if it means that the social media crowd has a few laughs at his expense.
He claims not to care about the "Lonely Virgil" posts. "How’s a picture going to make you a weaker person?" he asks, sounding agitated. "It’s just a bulls**t picture of me by myself. Nobody takes a picture when the fans stop to talk to me. And they do stop. You saw it. You know it." He shakes his head. "So what?"
He’s much more positive about the GoFundMe campaign. It’s certainly keeping his name in the public eye, and he likes that. In order to meet the anticipated 8×10 demand, he was recently spotted, dragging his suitcase behind him, when his name was announced at a corporate event. But will the latest Virgil gimmick turn him into a millionaire?
"Maybe." He shrugs. "No day is given to no one. And you can’t know those days before they come."
Well, I ain’t going there again. The people are nice, but next time, I want to go to the Olive Garden.
We’re upstairs from the subway now, moving down West 47th Street toward Times Square. Virgil taps his stomach, complaining about the meal at Da Silvano. He didn’t like the spaghetti, he says, or the sauce.
He’s reminded that we dined at a place regularly touted for both its cuisine and atmosphere.
"Well, I ain’t going there again. The people are nice, but next time, I want to go to the Olive Garden."
He smiles, hearing some joke in his head, then emits a low but satisfied chuckle.
Keith Elliot Greenberg is a "New York Times" bestselling author and television producer. His next book, "Too Fast to Live, Too Young To Die: James Dean’s Final Hours" will be released in September.