WWE's Titus O'Neil on ESPN Humanitarian Nod, 'Hollywood Screen' Project
Outside the ring, 6-foot-5, 270-pound WWE Superstar Titus O'Neil is all heart, hosting food drives and fundraisers, helping provide school supplies and so much more. Now he's been named a finalist for ESPN's Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award—an honor that's especially meaningful for the 43-year-old, who idolizes the boxing legend.
“You come to my house, you’d see pictures of Muhammad Ali in various forms—whether it's him as a fighter or him with Malcolm X and the Beatles. This is honestly a full-circle moment for me," says O'Neil, who cites Dr. Martin Luther King and Michael Jordan as inspirations too.
Also nominated for the prize, which is part of ESPN's annual Sports Humanitarian Awards and brings $100,000 to the winner's charity: Major League Baseball's Nelson Cruz (Minnesota Twins), the NBA's Kevin Love (Cleveland Cavaliers), NFL players Devin and Jason McCourty (New England Patriots), and the WNBA's Maya Moore (Minnesota Lynx). "It's a great class of people," O'Neil (real name: Thaddeus Bullard) tells TV Insider. "Knowing the other nominees' backstories and what they've been able to do, I’m very humbled to be associated with them."
O'Neil grew up in poverty and spent five transformative years at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch before winning a scholarship to the University of Florida, where he was a defensive end for the Gators. Since then, his celebrity status has been a means to an end: paying it forward. We caught up with the charismatic do-gooder after the announcement.
How's quarantine life going for you?
Titus O'Neil: It's been good. I've turned into a modern-day chef. I've been doing so many home projects, we could start our own construction company.
It's amazing how you've been able to mobilize your charitable endeavors through the Bullard Family Foundation.
I just wanted to take ownership and have my efforts focused into one place. We established the Bullard Family Foundation about two years ago, but I've been doing work since college. Now it's about being able to [identify] and apply for grants and partner with the right organizations to continue to make the work greater. [O'Neil has lent support to the breast-cancer organization Susan G. Komen, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Special Olympics, among others.] It's nice when you can speak on the behalf of another organization, but it hits home a little better that it's my foundation.
You've gotten so many WWE Superstars on board. It’s not uncommon for Natalya or Sasha Banks or even Dave Bautista come out for one of your events. How does it feel to know you've inspired them to get involved?
We all have stories and pasts that have led to who we are today. Sometimes we want to go out and share that story, but travel schedules and work schedules might [make us] feel confined to just doing certain things with the company or organization. I remember Sami Zayn calling me on the phone a little over a year ago after he wanted to raise money for Syria. He said, "Do you think I would get in trouble for doing something like this since it's outside the company?" I said, "No, if anything, the company will embrace it and help you push it. You have to just make sure it's structured the right way, that the right people are associated with it and that you have a clear message of what you're trying to do.
People like Natalya and Sasha Banks, those are my sisters. I feel like the entire roster, whoever I’ve called upon to help has been there, whether it’s Cesaro, Sheamus, Seth Rollins or Becky Lynch. They do stuff all the time, making videos for kids or something else. They say, "Anytime you need me, let me know," or if they call on me to do something or need guidance, I’m there. It's the ultimate level of respect to me, but it’s also another level of responsibility. You don't need to be holding a WWE title to be presented as a champion. We're all champions.
— WWE (@WWE) May 20, 2020
You’ve been such a leader in Tampa and your community. Any thoughts on pursuing political office like other wrestling stars, such as Jesse Ventura, have done?
I have zero aspiration of doing anything in politics. I applaud those who want to go in that direction. I'm very cognizant of the fact that no matter how much work I do, the minute I call myself a Republican or Democrat, it changes things. We want to work in one direction, and that is forward. I have great relationships with political leaders actually doing the work, including our [Tampa] mayor Jane Castor and council members, the superintendent of schools. To me, it's about maintaining [those] relationships.
How is it running a nonprofit during these tough times with even more people and causes in need?
We just push forward. I believe in my foundation. We’ve been using our resources. [The Bullard Family Foundation and NFL quarterback Jameis Winston have pledged $50,000 to provide food deliveries to families in Tampa.] There are people who don’t have adequate transportation. We make sure we can provide groceries for those homebound, whether they're elderly or sick or disabled. Every Tuesday and Thursday, we’ve provided 400 food boxes to families. I made a commitment to feed thousands of teachers and staff members each week. I always believe when you’re doing great work, others will come on board.
You've made sporadic appearances on WWE television. Where does your career in the ring stand right now?
I'm still an active performer. Everybody can't be on TV at the same time. This business can be cyclical. When the right opportunity comes to present me in a storyline, I'll be more than happy to accept whatever role they want to put me in. At the end of the day, we're all entertainers, and I love entertaining. I’m far from retiring. Being a WWE Superstar is not just about wrestling. We are bigger than wrestlers. I'm very confident within the next six months, [fans] are going to see something come to fruition that really shows WWE Superstars are so much more.
I'm still waiting to find out what you and Dave Bautista are cooking up.
Like I said, in the next six months, you could see me on a Hollywood screen. You could see me on a Netflix film or TV show. You never know. You saw Becky Lynch on the season premiere of Billions. You see Roman Reigns on a Netflix movie and making cameos. We're so much more.
ESPN Sports Humanitarian Awards and 2020 ESPYS, June 21, 9/8c, ESPN
WWE Raw, Mondays, 8/7c, USA Network