While professional wrestling is full of stories of family legacies with multiple generations of wrestlers coming from the same clan, it is startling to learn just how many wrestlers also came from broken homes. Dozens of top stars in the business can point back to the earliest days of their youth when they had to build up their own resilience without a male role model in the picture to help them become a man. In some cases, it is perhaps the turmoil in their home lives that inspired them to create their own marks on the world.
Most wrestlers' biographies begin with the first time they saw a professional wrestling match, or with the day they started training, but an increasing number of top stars have been open about their childhoods and separation and divorce within their families at a young age. In many cases, these stars would never even meet the man that sired them. The following list of twenty celebrated professional wrestling stars consists of wrestlers who have been open about their childhoods and the early influences that shaped their lives and ultimately their careers. In each case, these stars have risen above adversity to create their own success.
20 Angelo Mosca
To read of Angelo Mosca’s exploits while he played football for the Canadian Football League, seemingly always finding himself in the news for some kind of public disturbance, it is difficult to imagine that he ever faced an opponent that would give him a rough time. However, in his autobiography Tell Me To My Face, Mosca describes a volatile relationship with his father. Angelo doesn’t have a kind word for the man, relating abuse and bigotry within the home, and his father's berating of his mother for her Afro-American heritage and doling out physical abuse to his son.
At age 16, Mosca left home and found refuge in the home of an aunt. Mosca wrote that when he learned of his father’s passing some years later, he didn’t even return to his family home in Massachusetts for the funeral, such was the long-held bitterness of the home he knew as a child.
19 Ric Flair
It’s difficult to conceive that the flamboyant wrestler who self-identified as a “jet flyin’, limousine ridin’, kiss-stealin’ son of a gun” was actually born Fred Phillips in Tennessee. Nature Boy Fred Phillips? It doesn’t really have the same ring to it as the name that we have come to celebrate as fans. As a baby, he was adopted by the Fleihr family of Minnesota and that led to the eventual path that he would take to superstardom in professional wrestling. However, while Flair may not have known his own birth parents, his pack instinct was certainly apparent as a leader of the Four Horsemen.
As a father himself, he has seen two of his children follow him into the ranks of professional wrestling. Slick Ric has been a visible corner man and sometimes tag team partner for his son David and more recently, for his daughter Ashley (Charlotte). With his success and self-confidence between the ropes, one would never expect Flair’s uncertain beginnings.
18 Bobby Heenan
Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, who is famous for his stable of wrestlers dubbed as the Bobby Heenan family, may be a nod to his youth in Chicago and later Indianapolis. Heenan was raised by his mother Millie and his grandmother after his father fled the scene while Bobby was still a toddler. The man who would become the scourge of many fan favorites during his career left school in the eighth grade to pick up work to support his family. One of those early labors was as an usher at the Indianapolis Coliseum, which gave him his first direct exposure to professional wrestling and an opportunity to find an opening for himself in the ranks as a manager.
Heenan, who took on a patriarchal role with many of the wrestlers under his charge over the years, was also fiercely supportive of his mother, especially as his fortunes changed for the better and he was able to ensure her care.
17 Freddie Blassie
“Classy” Freddie Blassie declared himself “The King of Men” during his wrestling career. It was certainly not a distinction that the WWE Hall of Famer would credit to his first male role model. In his biography, Listen, You Pencil Neck Geeks, Blassie describes his father as an abusive drunk who was prone to take out his frustrations on his wife and son. He reports that by the age of 13, he’d withstood the abuse long enough and stood up to his father with a baseball bat. Blassie soon fled the home to live with a relative. His mother soon after escaped the marriage and went on to remarry six years later. Blassie, while a terror on television screens around the world, was well regarded by his peers as a doting husband to wife Miyoko. Blassie remained one of the most visible wrestlers of any era in the WWE right up to the time of his death.
16 Mildred Burke
Born in Coffeyville, Kansas in 1915, Mildred Burke would see her father walk out on her mother and five older siblings in her teens, just as the United States was about to enter one of the worst economic downturns in the country’s history. With her elder brothers and sisters staying behind in California to make their own fortunes, Mildred returned home to Kansas with her mother. She would drop out of school at age 14 and find herself married and separated by age 19. The following year, she entered the ranks of professional wrestling – initially introduced as a novelty act, often pitted against men as a carnival attraction. She went on to become the first women’s wrestling mega star, commanding top dollar wherever she appeared. From the depths of poverty to wearing diamonds and fur coats, such was the life for the wrestler who author Jeff Leen dubbed “Queen of the Ring.”
15 Seth Rollins
During his rise to the apex of WWE success, Iowa’s Colby Lopez has been known by a few different names. As Tyler Black, he rose to capture the Ring of Honor World Championship. Under the WWE umbrella, he has achieved championship success in FCW, NXT and the WWE main roster, holding the distinction of being one of the only wrestlers to do so. However, while searching out Seth’s bio, there is little information available about his childhood prior to age 14 when he started to pursue his interest in wrestling in earnest.
Rollins, who is of Armenian and Irish descent, takes his surname Lopez from his Mexican-American stepfather. There is no documentation identifying “The Architect’s” birth father in any of the media reports available online or in interviews that he has conducted since reaching the WWE. Perhaps we’ll learn more when it comes time for Rollins to release a biography in the years to come.
14 Missy Hyatt
Melissa Hiatt has enjoyed both fame and infamy in her career in professional wrestling. With plenty of twists and turns in both her personal and professional life around the industry since her teens, it’s not surprising that very little is offered about her childhood in her 2001 autobiography Missy Hyatt: The First Lady of Wrestling. However, while Missy is billed from Tallahassee, Florida, she was actually conceived in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her mother was in Florida, presented with the challenge of being a single parent when she elected to give her daughter up for adoption.
Missy grew up in a home with two sisters who were also adopted. Could the fractured relationships at the beginning of her life have contributed to the personal turmoil which seemed to overshadow her on camera performances? With dozens of high profile relationships with wrestlers and wrestling personalities, Hyatt’s life and career has seemed to unravel despite immense success in the 1980s and early '90s.
13 Ron Simmons
It wasn’t until the end of his career that fans really got a glimpse into the early life of Ron Simmons. A man who excelled in college football, became the first Afro-American WCW World champion, and cemented his professional wrestling legacy with a lengthy and evolving role in the WWE, Simmons, now best known for a single exasperated exclamation “Damn!” seemed to have lived a charmed life. However, during an episode of “Legends with JBL” on the WWE Network, Simmons opened up to identify a day from his youth when his father left, seemingly on an errand, and simply never returned.
Simmons found parental influences in his grandparents and demonstrated an iron resolve to ensure that the negative circumstances which defined his youth would not limit his later success as an adult. Simmons points to his own journey as an example for others to not allow themselves to make excuses simply because of the hand you’re dealt early in life.
12 Dean Ambrose
The leader of the WWE’s “Lunatic Fringe,” Dean Ambrose is one wrestler whose journey could best be described as one who did it his way. Growing up in a single parent household in Cincinnati, Ambrose shared details of his upbringing on the Stone Cold podcast. Ambrose told Steve Austin that while his mother was holding down multiple jobs to provide for Dean and his sister, it allowed Ambrose the freedom to get into predicaments that perhaps his mother would have frowned upon.
At 16, he was roaming the streets and stumbled upon a poster for a local independent wrestling card and when he went to check it out, it led to an introduction to Les Thatcher, who would later train him for a career in the industry. Ambrose is proud to report that as his fortunes began to change, and he was able to create a better future for his mother as well.
11 Ted DiBiase
The name DiBiase has a three generation family legacy in professional wrestling, but it may surprise some to learn that the Million Dollar Man was actually adopted by celebrated grappler Mike DiBiase. Ted’s mother, Helen Hild, while a pro wrestler herself, had actually conceived Ted during a relationship with entertainer Ted Wills. While DiBiase would know of his birth father and have occasion to meet the man in his youth, he was adopted by Mike DiBiase after he married his mother. Sadly, Ted would lose his second father in his teens as Mike died of a heart attack while competing in the ring one night in Texas.
Mike had forbidden Ted from pursuing a career in wrestling, prompting the young man to go to college and secure a career in another field. However, not only would Ted find himself in the ring and become one of the best of his generation, his three sons would also follow him into the ring as well.
10 Sean Waltman
As his WWE career was on the rise in the 1990s, fans would have no idea about the troubled childhood of the wrestler known to them as the 1-2-3 Kid. Raised by a single mother, Waltman has identified that he was “unsupervised since age 5” and found himself the victim of abuse on multiple occasions as a youngster. In his teens, he grew interested in wrestling and he would train at the Malenko wrestling school, which gave him a great launch for a career that would see him achieve success in both the WWE and WCW. However, his early career successes could not help him escape the trauma of his youth.
His personal and professional life have been riddled with setbacks, sex tapes, and some unfortunate public visibility which has tarnished his reputation. Drug arrests, suicide attempts and other situations illustrate a troubled beginning that has manifested itself into adulthood.
9 Roddy Piper
In an inside zippered pocket of the leather jacket that Roddy Piper often wore to the ring during the later years of his career was a weathered photo of his four children and his wife that he kept in a Ziploc plastic bag. Piper’s childhood did not set the example for the life he would enjoy later. By Piper’s account, he spent some of his youth on the streets after leaving home at 16. Piper was always tight-lipped about his early life except to say that he was subject to some abuse in his formative years. What is known is that Rowdy Roddy left home at 16 after a dispute with his father, and didn’t return to his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba for more than a decade.
8 Ultimate Warrior
One of the touching moments of the Ultimate Warrior’s Hall of Fame acceptance speech was a shout-out to his mother. Warrior thanked his mother for being there and shared with the crowd that he had learned his work ethic from his mother who provided for him and his siblings even after his father had abandoned the family. While the Warrior’s career was filled with both meteoric highs and destructive lows, he seemed to have found peace in his years after he left the industry.
In the same speech, Warrior addressed his daughters to identify that while he had achieved success in wrestling, his greatest achievement in his life was as a father to his two daughters. Though he did not have a positive male role model in his life during his own childhood, Warrior was devoted to his own children.
Former WWE world champion Dave Batista has been pretty open about his rocky childhood and it involves more than just surviving a tough neighborhood that lends to his street cred. Batista’s parents divorced when he was young and after that, his mother only had relationships with women. She fought fiercely to provide for her children though, and when their neighborhood in Washington, DC got so rough that there was violence and deaths on their block, she moved her children to the west coast to escape the dangerous setting.
However, even without a male role model in his home life, Batista has no regrets. In a 2015 interview, he said “[My mother] was a tough woman who did her best to keep me out of trouble and alive.” In recent years, Batista returned to that Washington DC neighborhood with his mother with TV cameras rolling to recount some of those early trials faced by their family.
Joanie Laurer’s fractured family life as a youth is outlined in unsettling detail in her 2000 autobiography that seems somewhat fitting to have been released during the WWE’s “Attitude Era.” In fact, we wonder how differently that book may have been had it been slated for publication after the WWE became a publicly traded company. It’s possible that her story might never have been told.
Chyna relates in detail the short and tumultuous relationship between her birth parents, as well as the step parents that would play a role in her life. In her book, If They Only Knew, she shares an incident while touring with the WWE when her father had left a note hoping to see her while she was in town, but that even the prospect of seeing her father in person was an unsettling and uncomfortable notion for the “9th Wonder of the World.”
5 The Rock
As a third generation wrestler himself, when Dwayne Johnson entered the WWE in 1996, his persona included a nod to both his father Rocky Johnson and his grandfather Peter Maivia. While the relationship between father and son seems to be great in adulthood – with The Rock even inducting his dad into the WWE Hall of Fame – that relationship was not always so solid. Very recently, Star Magazine reports a time during The Rock’s youth that relations were strained between father and son, particularly when Dwayne and his mother were separated from Johnson, who was still actively on the road wrestling from territory to territory.
There are accounts of a relationship with another woman which may have contributed to the divorce of Johnson and Ata Maivia. It was a situation that the future “People’s Champion” took very personally, with The Rock even pleading with the Maivia family to leave his dad alone, in the hopes of mending his parents’ crumbling marriage.
One of the most successful superstars of his generation and perhaps one of the youngest inductees every into the WWE Hall of Fame, Orangeville, Ontario’s Adam Copeland has entertained audiences both with his in-ring performances as well as his off-the-wall humor. However, there is no levity in Edge’s matter-of-fact approach to the subject of his childhood and the relationship with his father. Quite simply, there was no father in the picture by the time the future “Rated R Superstar” was born.
In his autobiography, On Edge, Copeland says that he never met his father or has even seen a photo of him. While noting that during his youth, he harbored some ill-will towards his dad, there is no other mention of him throughout the narrative of Edge’s life. Instead, Edge points to one of his greatest successes in wrestling as reaching a point where he could buy his mom a new home.
3 Steve Austin
Steve Austin personified the WWE’s Attitude Era. Cast as a popular anti-hero, Austin’s rally against the boss Vince McMahon underscored the era in professional wrestling during the height of the Monday Night Wars. The “Texas Rattlesnake” was born Steve Anderson. Austin’s father sired two sons with his mother, then bolted from the relationship.
Austin’s mother remarried and the boys were adopted by her new husband, Ken Williams. With his parents divorcing when he was only a year old, Austin rationalizes his father’s behavior, but we wonder if it did not serve to give him that added edge needed to propel his career from an under-appreciated mid-carder in World Championship Wrestling to one of the biggest stars in WWE history. The world may never know, however.
2 Jake Roberts
Those closest to Jake “The Snake” Roberts are quick to recognize him as having one of the keenest minds for ring psychology, but also that much of his adult life has seen him tormented by his own demons. While this wasn’t open to the public during Roberts’ rise in the 1980s, he was more open about it in the 90s, actually spending time in classrooms to talk about his unconventional upbringing and the painful truths about his father, wrestler Grizzly Smith, that haunted him throughout his life. “How can you become a good man, without a good role model there to show you what a good man is?” he once opined.
Roberts’ battles with addiction and a string of fractured relationships with his wives and children have often been attributed to a youth that Jake has never been truly able to leave in his past. In more recent years, it appears that The Snake has come closer to finding peace.
1 Vince McMahon
Even the Chairman of the Board isn’t immune to family turmoil in his past, which many feel he has channeled to become one of the most focused and aggressive businessmen in the history of the professional wrestling industry. Vince, known as Vinnie or Junior during his father’s tenure in the business, didn’t even meet his biological father until age 12, and it was only after being exposed to colorful characters such as Dr. Jerry Graham in his youth that forged his future destiny.
In an interview with Playboy Magazine in February 2001, Vince’s early childhood in Havelock, North Carolina was described as living with “an abusive stepfather with a mean streak wider than a country road.” Vince said in the interview that it is a shame that his stepfather, Leo Lupton, died before he had a chance to kill him. “I would have enjoyed that,” said Vince. However, just as in his professional life, McMahon would adapt and overcome his most perilous challenges.