Titus O’Neil is the living embodiment of a WWE superhero – and not just because he stands a formidable 6 feet, six inches tall and is made up of 120kg of hulking muscle.
The former WWE tag team champion represents the larger-than-life, never-give-up, triumph-against-all-odds spirit that has turned a conveyor belt of WWE wrestlers – from Hulk Hogan through to Stone Cold Steve Austin, John Cena to today’s iconic fan favourite Roman Reigns – into household names all over the world for decades.
Titus isn’t just a heroic figure when the cameras are switched on, the fans take to their seats and he steps between the ring ropes, however. No, he’s much more than that.
O’Neil, who will be part of WWE’s two-day tour of Abu Dhabi this weekend, is living proof that dreams can come true and, ultimately, the good guy can win after all.
He is totally honest about his tough upbringing in Florida – born into a life in which he was raised by his very young single mother, with many believing he would be in jail or even dead by the age of 16.
O’Neil, now the charismatic mouthpiece behind the Titus Brand group on WWE, was himself determined not to be branded a failure in life and is now working to ensure others avoid the same fate.
The wrestling star is heavily involved in charity work and has helped scores of students in the Tampa Bay area of Florida get into college and taken part in various after-school and voluntary programmes.
O’Neil explains: “I came from a troubled past and had a troubled youth. I was expected to fail but there were people in place that wanted to see me succeed.
“I went from being a kid who was supposed to be dead or in jail by 16 to now being a person pretty well known for being a good person of character and that is what I want to duplicate with other people.
“I want to help kids go to college who would never have that chance and see people cure cancer or fight it.
“I think it’s important for everyone to try to make a positive change in people’s lives.”
As a WWE performer, O’Neil has a unique opportunity to enthral and inspire others and says watching the live experience is a spectacle like no other.
O’Neill adds: “It is commercial free, so you get full matches. The matches will often be longer than what you see on TV. You will see things at a live event you don’t see on TV. It is more engaging.”
WWE’s status as a global juggernaut affords its performers the unique opportunity to visit parts of the world they might otherwise never see – and it is a chance O’Neil grasps with both of his huge hands.
He adds: “I always find time when in a new city to have a look around. We are here for work but is a free trip so I like to see the historic sights and places that the city is famous for.
It is always something I try to do, it’s interesting to see that kind of stuff.”
The super-fit 40-year-old says his previous career as a pro American football player has given him a strong athletic grounding for life in the ring, but admits nothing can quite prepare you for the challenges presented by being part of a hugely physical and theatrical show.
He says: “It definitely helps athletically, but it is different. Each match is different. It’s not just about learning to wrestle, you’ve got to learn how to entertain, get the charisma and the character. It is all about the crowd and what they want, you have to learn to respond to them. You just don’t know what will catch on.
“It is something you don’t have to worry about when playing football, you just play your position. In WWE, every night and every crowd is different.”
O’Neil signed up with WWE back in 2009 and says the highlight of his career was clinching the WWE tag team title as part of the Prime Time Players with Darren Young.
He says: “Darren Young and I had broken up as a team and had come back together.
We were able to achieve what we wanted to first time around so that is definitely the highlight of my career.”
Just as prestigious as that title win, however, was being voted Celebrity Dad of the Year in 2005, an award made all the more poignant by his own childhood.
“It was one of the greatest honours I’ve had,” O’Neil says. “Being a father is more rewarding for me because I never grew up with a father. I never met him. So to be acknowledged as being a great role model for kids is definitely an honour.”
O’Neil still has plenty to give in the ring but admits he has one eye on a future in Hollywood – and he has star support from former WWE champion Dave Bautista, now a screen idol as Drax the Destroyer in the hugely popular Guardians of the Galaxy series.
He said: “It is something that I have spoken to Dave about on a couple of occasions. It is something that he feels I could do, just like I could be a part of WWE. He was the one who encouraged me to try it out and I’ve been here for almost eight years now.
“Dave is someone who thinks I can do pretty much anything I put my mind to. I do believe I can be successful in Hollywood as well.”
Tinseltown may beckon in the future – but for now O’Neil will be bringing his skills to Abu Dhabi for a colossal clash in the capital. The ultimate good guy will be worthy of every cheer.
From Dhs250. Thu Dec 7, Fri Dec 8, 8pm. Zayed Sports City Tennis Stadium, www.abu-dhabi.platinumlist.net.
It’s ‘Game On’ as WWE lands back in Abu Dhabi – after more than two years away.
The phenomenon will be taking over Zayed Sports City Tennis Stadium for a double date of destruction on December 7 and 8, and wrestling icon HHH will be joining the party.
The 14-time WWE champion will square off against newly-crowned Intercontinental champion Roman Reigns during the Abu Dhabi dates – in a hotly-anticipated rematch of the Wrestlemania 32 main event.
The two competitors will be the main event of the second show on the tour, on a star-studded card also featuring Roman Reigns’ Shield team-mates, Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins, in a steel cage match for the WWE Raw tag team titles against Sheamus and Cesaro.
It will be history in the making – as the daunting structure has never previously been used in a WWE show in the capital.
The rivals have been involved in a series of thrilling clashes in recent months and they may well be saving the best for the UAE.
A galaxy of WWE stars – including the fearsome Kane, sinister Bray Wyatt, high-flying Finn Bálor and the behemoth Braun Strowman – are already set to take over the stadium on Thursday, December 7 in a show which will also feature a WWE Women’s Championship match between Alexa Bliss and top contender Sasha Banks.
The WWE was last in Abu Dhabi in February 2015 and fans will now have a chance to see the fresh crop of new ring talent that has emerged on the scene since the company’s previous trip to these shores.
Tickets for the two shows, which start at Dhs250, can be purchased via PlatinumList.net and UAE Exchange outlets.
Carlo Nohra, WWE Middle East vice president and General Manager, says: “We are excited to bring WWE LIVE back to Abu Dhabi following overwhelming demand from our large, passionate fan base in the region.
“Fans can look forward to a spectacular show of non-stop, family-friendly entertainment for WWE’s only Abu Dhabi shows this year.”