Remembering Virgil

Mike Jones, famously and infamously known as WWF and WCW star Virgil, died today after a bout with a variety of health issues, as well as a dementia diagnosis.

Jones, a native of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, a town just outside of Pittsburgh, broke into the sport in the mid-80s in the Memphis territory as Soul Train Jones, a spinoff of the Apollo Creed persona in the Rocky franchise. As we know, he found perhaps his biggest success in the late-80s as the bodyguard of “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, a role that saw him work with the biggest stars of the era. The fact that DiBiase would be accused of federal fraud years later is irony to be discussed at a different time. Still, working with DiBiase more or less gave Virgil a career, as he eventually turned baby face to feud with The Million Dollar Man, and worked for the WWF until early-1994.

To say that his in-ring skills were limited would be somewhat of an understatement. Similar to many guys of the era, the real-life Mike Jones looked great in the cut off dress shirt as the hired muscle for DiBiase, but when the bell rang, it was more or less downhill in terms of in-ring performance. Perhaps, that’s why he was relegated to a lower mid-card spot after the subpar matches with Ted during their feud for the million dollar championship, as DiBiase was known as a tremendous worker so if Virgil couldn’t have a good match with him, it’s doubtful that he’d work better a contest with other opponents, especially the more gimmick-based performers in the company at the time. A series of soft jabs and unconvincing hooks are more or less the only offense Virgil brought to the table.

But again, he played a key role in the late-80s and did very well at it so it opened the door for him later in his career.

The prime example of that being when, “Vincent” debuted in WCW in 1996 as another former WWF star to join the newly-formed NWO faction. One of the urban legends of the industry suggests that Mike Jones was given the name Virgil as an inside joke on then-Crockett booker, Dusty Rhodes, real name Virgil Runnels, so as a response Jones was named Vincent as a playful jab at McMahon. As WCW was crumbling in the later years of the organization, he was even renamed “Shane” as a rib on the younger McMahon generation.

In truth, Vincent was merely cannon fodder in the NWO, despite the fact that he used that accomplishment to shill autographs for two decades afterwards. That said, the faction needed cannon fodder, as it kept the stars strong, but gave the baby faces a small measure of revenge to fuel on-screen rivalries. Granted, the stable became completely bloated with C-level cannon fodder, but the argument could be made that Vincent was the best at the role. When The Giant needed to choke slam a foe during the course of an angle with The Outsiders or Hollywood Hogan, Vincent made him look like a million dollars.

Again, Jones was limited so you won’t find many classic WCW bouts from him, but to be fair, he wasn’t put in the position to be anything more than a secondary player in an organization that skyrocketed ahead of the WWF at one point in the late-90s and then fell off a cliff just as fast before it was sold just a few years later.

In more recent years, and arguably what he became known for more than his wrestling days, was Virgil’s almost unbelievable commitment to hustling some cash based on his past fame. Specifically around Pittsburgh, you’d see Virgil literally anywhere that there might be a gathering of a crowd of people, regardless of if he was scheduled to be there or not. There were comic cons, flea markets, and even the Home and Garden show that saw Virgil shamelessly set up a merch table to try to sell autographs at insanely inflated prices to anyone in the area. It wasn’t just his hometown, though. There were infamously pictures of Virgil set up in the New York subway, trying to sell signatures for $20 on glossy photos of him with his peers in the 80s. Among his slick or carny, depending on your perspective, tactics saw him display the “Wrestling Superstar Virgil” sign that claimed that Ted DiBiase was there, too. Of course, the million dollar man wasn’t actually there and his last name was misspelled on the banner. Jones also had a series of completely outlandish claims about his accomplishments in the industry.

Sam Roberts, panelist on some of the WWE kickoff shows, launched the “Lonely Virgil” trend in 2012 when pictures of the former wrestling star without a line at autograph shows, and his stories of trying to get cash from less-than-enthusiastic potential customers, made the rounds on social media. The same group that managed the late Iron Sheik’s social media accounts that gave him a second act in his career, also produced content for Virgil’s social media presence. Virgil didn’t achieve the same social media fame of the aging Iranian, who made a dent in pop culture in his 70s, but the real-life Mike Jones achieved a level of notoriety that he hadn’t seen since his wrestling days.

Instead of being viewed as the carny trying to con cash at card shows, Virgil became a comical figure that was just trying to hustle. He proclaimed his passion for Olive Garden and bread sticks, while forming what he called “the meat sauce mafia” as a reference to the phony Italian restaurant.

When his declining health was reported online, fans came together to raise money for his medical bills. About a year and a half ago, my wrestling pal, the brass-voiced “Trapper” Tom Leturgey, ring announcer of the KSWA group, wrote a feature about Virgil’s status for Slam Wrestling. According to Leturgey, the real-life Mike Jones was almost homeless before a roommate took him in as a way to look out for the well being of the former wrestler.

Not long before Trapper Tom’s story, I actually saw Virgil at a local autograph signing in May 2022. D&E Collectibles hosted a signing with Tug Boat and Jimmy Hart. Virgil was added to the line-up, but I had met him years earlier so wasn’t going to consider a purchase from him. As I was in line to meet the other two WWF stars, Virgil randomly began talking to me and tried to sell me an NWO lunchbox. He said, “here’s some old school.” I politely declined his sales pitch, but in the brief interaction, the reports of dementia appeared to be accurate. Virgil didn’t seem to be all there and it was sad.

Perhaps, that’s why there’s such a level of sadness with the news of his passing. Sure, Virgil could’ve been a sleazy carny that tried to con people with a crooked sales pitch for autographs. But, the other side of the coin is that he might’ve just been a guy that fell on tough times and was desperately trying to make some money. Too often, especially in the social media age, the public often assumes the worst about people, and sometimes that might be true, but I’m not sure if that was the case with Virgil. His outlandish stories were such tall tales that nobody other than the real-life Mike Jones would’ve known his intentions with his merch table. At least in the latter stages of his life, Virgil’s hustle obtained a level of endearment from the social media audience. One thing is for sure, in a business that was built on over-the-top personas, Virgil will be known as one of the most unique and memorable characters in the history of the industry.

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Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

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