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How the Wrestler America Loved to Hate Won Back His Family

In the eighties, Ted DiBiase was one of the most popular wrestlers in the world. But his fame almost cost him his family. This is how he won them back.

Steve Taylor/WWF

Was there ever a greater villain in professional wrestling than The Million Dollar Man? He was the personification of ’80s affluence, a smug, smirking pretty boy garishly dressed in dollar sign-emblazoned golden tuxedos who proudly proclaimed that everyone had a price during an era when everyone did. He would clear out pools so he could swim undisturbed. He would kick out diners so that he could eat alone in world-class restaurants. He would bribe Superstars to wrestle on his behalf and then pay them handsomely for title belts. He was brilliantly hateful — and fans adored him for it.

But at the height of his wrestling career, the real Ted DiBiase was also grappling with his demons. Poisoned by fame, he abused substances and cheated on his wife, putting his marriage and relationship with his young sons in jeopardy. But DiBiase, who grew up in the shadow of a loving step-father who died too young, turned his life around, devoted himself to faith, and resurrected both his marriage and his relationship with his children. The documentary The Price of Fame,  chronicles DiBiase’s rise and fall. Told through personal accounts and interviews with wrestlers and DiBiase’s family, it serves as a portrait of a flawed man who worked to transform himself into the father and husband he always wanted.

Here, in his own words, DiBiase walks us through his ascension to WWE royalty, his eventual fall from grace, and how he achieved personal redemption.

My mother divorced my biological father when I was two. I was raised by my stepfather Mike DiBiase. And he was a wonderful dad who just happened to be a professional wrestler. He could’ve played professional football for the Buffalo Bills. Back then, he knew he could make more money as a wrestler. So that’s what he did.

He had a storied career and he was a good dad. One of the things he told me when I was very young was “Don’t follow the crowd.” He said, “It takes no courage to do that. Be a leader, not a follower. Be the head, not the tail. If you work real hard, you can be anything you want. If you’re willing to pay the price, make the sacrifices.” He never once bragged about that stuff. I always heard stories from other people about his college career and other achievements.

I wanted to be like my dad. Then, when I was 15 years old, he suffered a heart attack and died during a wrestling match. He was 45.

After he died, we moved to Southern Arizona to the little town of Wilcox where my grandparents lived. I ended up there with these big dreams of college and professional football or wrestling and wanted to know if my dreams could come true. I also watched my mother sink into despair in the bottle, alcoholism. It was a very trying time.

The thing that had helped me maintain my focus had been my dad. I would go to the cemetery where he’s buried. I’d shine a light on his grave and I’d go out there and I’d pray. He was my inspiration and I clung to that. It helped me become one of the first kids to ever graduate from this little school in Wilcox with a full scholarship to play college football. I went to college, played football, came out of college, and went into professional wrestling. Using that hard work and determination he instilled in me. I climbed the ladder and became very successful.

I become this big star with them and headline WrestleMania and now I’m traveling everywhere with jets and limousines and it’s exploded and I’m in the middle of it.

I married for the first time when I was 20. The reality is that I was much too young, but I didn’t have a father to speak any truth or challenge me. That marriage ended in divorce six years and one son later. When I met Melanie, my wife, I was wrestling in Atlanta, Georgia. We fell in love and got married on New Year’s Eve, 1981. This was the first time I started going back to church since I had left high school. I ended up having this intellectual relationship with God. I believed the gospel most of my life, but the difference between heaven and hell is moving it from your head to your heart and living it out. I certainly wasn’t doing that. My career was still in first place.

Melanie and I had two sons together. And soon, I rise to fame in regional wrestling and the then-WWF comes along and I go there and I become this big star with them and headline WrestleMania and now I’m traveling everywhere with jets and limousines and it’s exploded and I’m in the middle of it.

I tell people: Fame looks great from the outside because you go into a building and 30,000 people are screaming your name. But they don’t go back to the empty hotel room with you that night, or the next night, or the next night. They don’t realize how lonely that gets when you’re on the road all the time. And you start having a beer, and that turns to two, and all the other stuff comes along to fill the void. You’re filling the void.

Fame looks great from the outside because you go into a building and 30,000 people are screaming your name. But they don’t go back to the empty hotel room with you that night, or the next night, or the next night

It all came crashing down when I called home the day after WrestleMania XIII in March of 1992. My wife had discovered that I’d been committing adultery. I said, “I don’t want to talk about it on the phone, I’ll be on the next plane home.” She said, “No, you won’t. You don’t live here anymore.”

That was an enormous wake-up call. In an instant, I realized that I had put at risk the love and devotion of a committed wife, as well as, the future, the stability, and the wellbeing of my kids. And for what? To satisfy an ego? To fill a void in my life? You don’t get any more selfish than that. It was a defining moment in my life because I felt dirty.

A guy who’s my best friend now, a pastor I met in Baton Rouge shortly after Melanie and I married, arranged for my wife and I to fly to St Louis, where he was pastoring. He picked me up and took me to face the music. I came totally clean with my wife and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was the worst I’ve ever felt. I remember my wife saying to me, she goes, “God calls on me to forgive you. I forgive you.”

She said, “Understand, I’m not doing this for you, I’m doing this because I believe it’s what God wants me to do, it’s what Jesus wants me to do. So, I’m going to try.”

In an instant, I realized that I had put at risk the love and devotion of a committed wife, as well as, the future, the stability, and the wellbeing of my kids

I was overwhelmed by the opportunity and I was overwhelmed that she would stay, that she would try. For me, it was like Now that you’ve given me the chance, just watch. And the next couple of years were pretty hard. No pain no gain as they say. But my wife began to see the priorities in my life change as I took the helm and became this spiritual leader. She started getting up and seeing me at the table with a cup of coffee and my Bible open, one devotional after another. Leading my family in church, leading my family in prayer. In short, she noticed that I had put them number one in front of my job.

As those things began to happen, the restoration came. Today, my wife is my best friend. Absolutely, unequivocally, my best friend. We’re closer than we’ve ever been. My children, they never heard anything until I started sharing this in churches as a testimony. I just told Melanie, I said, if they have any more questions, they’ll ask me.

Today, my wife is my best friend. Absolutely, unequivocally, my best friend. We’re closer than we’ve ever been.

Those questions didn’t come. But when we decided to do this documentary, I opened that up to our sons — Ted Jr. and Bret — both of whom are married and have their own children. They know how much they love their wives and how much they love their children and it’s like, “Gosh, dad, how could you do that to mom?” I tried the best I could do to explain that. It’s really unexplainable in terms of selfishness.

But we got through it. I remember when the WWE inducted me into their hall of fame in 2010, they asked me, like they ask all inductees, who they’d like to induct them. Most guys will pick another wrestler that’s been a big part of their life. And I said I want my sons to do it. And during that induction speech, my son Ted said, “I love the man that my father is today. A man of strong character and a man of integrity.” That was a big moment for me.