Being a professional wrestler is an interesting career for a multitude of different reasons. Besides the often odd spectacle involved in the industry, it’s simply not a usual path in life, and people tend to wonder how one gets involved in it. When kids dream of their future grown-up jobs, being the next Stone Cold Steve Austin, Undertaker, or Mankind isn’t usually a top pick, and even when it is, guidance counselors tend to frown upon this decision. So how does it happen?
Oftentimes, pro wrestlers are former athletes of other sports, but injuries, substandard performances, or too much competition can derail their dreams before they are fulfilled. Folks with giant frames are suddenly left with tough decisions when they’ve been training their whole lives to be competitive athletes but suddenly face uncertainty. Although it may be unconventional (save for individuals with wrestling in their blood), pro wrestling can offer a unique opportunity to use one’s strength and athleticism, be in the spotlight and perform for fans, and get a steady (and sometimes lucrative) salary.
Still, it’s important to remember that just because someone made the transition to pro wrestling, it doesn’t necessarily mean the athletes were total failures at their respective sports beforehand. (Especially the ones that went the reverse route and attempted a pro sport after being a pro wrestler.) Quite the contrary. A surprising number of wrestlers were former high school or college stars, and a few made it to the professional level but simply failed to stick. An even smaller percentage actually excelled in the big leagues, but had to call it quits for other reasons. In the end, the good news is that everyone on this list eventually found success in the squared circle at some point, even if they are one of the top 15 wrestlers who failed to make it in pro sports.
16 Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart
15 Brian Pillman
14 Superstar Billy Graham
13 Monty Brown
12 Ron Simmons
WWE legend Ron Simmons (a.k.a. Faarooq) started his athletic career as a football player who would go on to be lineman of the year in high school, an All-American defensive nose guard at Florida State under Bobby Bowden, and an Orange Bowl Hall-of-Famer who had his number retired and finished ninth in the 1979 Heisman Trophy voting. Simmons was later picked in the sixth round of the 1981 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns, where he would play for two seasons.
11 “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan
10 Roman Reigns
9 Lex Luger
7 Kevin Nash
6 Brock Lesnar
4 Verne Gagne
3 The Rock
The Rock's father, Rocky Johnson, never wanted his son to be a pro wrestler. Instead, he had dreams for his son Dwayne to be an NFL player, and it seemed for a while The Rock was on that path. He was a highly sought after recruit out of high school and received a scholarship from the University of Miami to play defensive tackle. Johnson would be on the Hurricanes' national championship team in 1991, but a knee injury sidelined him, and his spot was replaced by the legendary Warren Sapp. Johnson went undrafted in the 1995 NFL Draft and no offers came his way, except from the Calgary Stampeders, who signed him to their practice squad. He was cut two months into the season. Rather than toil away up north, Johnson decided to follow in his family's footsteps and pursue wrestling.
Coming home from Canada with $7 in his pocket, The Rock is now the wealthiest pro wrestler of all time.
1 Randy Savage
Although football makes the most sense as a segue into wrestling, not everyone took this route, including Randy Poffo, a kid from Illinois trying to make it in the MLB. Although he never made it above A-ball in the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds organizations, Poffo managed to hit a passable .254 average throughout four seasons as an outfielder, first baseman, and catcher. Although his raw talent was questionable, his dedication was not: After suffering a separated right shoulder in a 1973 home plate collision, Poffo taught himself to throw left-handed in order to “make [himself] more valuable.” In the end, he wasn’t quite valuable enough, and chose to instead pursue his father’s former profession, changing his name to “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
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