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
Jim Neidhart was always a standout athlete, it just took him a little while to find his true calling. A shot putter in high school, Neidhart pursued football after graduation, playing in practice and preseason games with the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys, before heading to Canada in the early ‘80s to begin his career as a pro wrestler with Stu Hart’s Calgary Stampede. When Vince McMahon bought the promotion a few years later, “The Anvil” (a nickname adopted after winning $500 in an anvil-throwing competition) moved to the WWE, eventually joining Bret Hart as the other half of The Hart Foundation.
15 Brian Pillman
Brian Pillman’s wrestling career was cut short by an undiagnosed heart condition, but he also had a football career that was cut short when he struggled to stick with an NFL team. At Miami University in Ohio, Pillman was a defensive tackle who set the record for tackles for a loss, and was a two-time Second Team All-American, but went undrafted in the NFL Draft. He later signed and played with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1984, and the Buffalo Bills for the start of 1985, but was the last player cut before the start of the season. He joined the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders in 1986, and while in Canada, hooked up with Stampede Wrestling, followed by WCW, ECW, and eventually WWE, up until his death at age 36.
14 Superstar Billy Graham
Before Superstar Billy Graham was a heavyweight champion with WWE, he was Eldridge Wayne Coleman, a bodybuilder from Phoenix who was friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and unsuccessfully tried out for the Oakland Raiders and Houston Oilers in the late 1960s. He also tried out for Canada’s Calgary Stampeders, but was cut and signed with the Montreal Alouettes instead. His CFL time was short-lived though, and Coleman went for the “easy money” in professional wrestling instead, joining promoter Dr. Jerry Graham’s fictitious family under the name “Billy.” His big break eventually came in 1977 when he got a call from Vince McMahon Sr.
13 Monty Brown
Monty Brown played for two teams (the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots) in two Super Bowls (1993 and 1996) in his NFL career, but only lasted four seasons, with the linebacker amassing 69 solo tackles and 41 assists in 43 games. The premature ending was due to an ankle injury, which exempted Brown from pro football, but not from pro wrestling. Under the training of UFC star Dan Severn, Brown began his career in Michigan’s All World Wrestling League in 2000, facing the likes of Sabu and Chris Sabin. He later signed with NWA-TNA in 2002, and had a short stint with WWE under the name Marcus Cor Von.
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.
Unfortunately, Simmons’ success in the NFL wouldn’t match that of his college and high school careers, and he ended up with the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits. It was here that he first met future NWA/WCW/WWE/TNA star Lex Luger and decided to take up a career in pro wrestling instead.
11 “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan
Before Jim Duggan was a wrestler nicknamed “Hacksaw,” he was a high school letterman in football, track, wrestling, and basketball. Although Duggan was recruited by Ohio State, he chose to play football for Southern Methodist University instead. The team captain later signed with the Atlanta Falcons, but his NFL career was cut short by knee troubles. However, a chance encounter with wrestling legend Fritz Von Erich would lead him to a career in wrestling, where Duggan was one of the only competitors to remain a babyface throughout his entire illustrious career.
10 Roman Reigns
Since Roman Reigns’ debut on the WWE main roster in 2012, he has been a popular figure, with some even dubbing him “the next Rock.” (Coincidentally, Reigns is actually a distant relative of The Rock.) But before breaking into wrestling, Reigns was known as Leati “Joe” Anoa’i, and was a three-year starter at Georgia Tech who racked up 108 tackles (29 tackles for loss), 12 sacks, and a first-team All-ACC selection in his senior year. Reigns went undrafted in 2007, but briefly joined the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars organizations. He failed to catch on, and instead followed in the footsteps of his father, Sika, the Wild Samoan.
9 Lex Luger
As scary as Lex Luger was as a wrestler, imagine facing him down on the gridiron. Many had to do just this, as Luger played offensive guard for Penn State and the University of Miami, where he was a teammate of future All-Pro QB Jim Kelly. After getting booted from the team for disciplinary issues, Luger joined Canada’s CFL, before eventually getting an opportunity with the Green Bay Packers in 1982. Unfortunately, Luger’s only NFL season was entirely spent on injured reserve. He joined a regional wrestling circuit after hanging up his pads for good, and the rest is history.
Before winning three WCW World Heavyweight Championships in the 1990s as Big Van Vader, Leon White was being recruited by several top universities as a football player, eventually playing for the University of Colorado, where he was named an All-American twice. The Los Angeles Rams picked him as number 80 overall in the 1978 NFL Draft, and if it weren’t for a torn patella tendon only three weeks prior, White would have likely been selected a lot higher. Vader played three seasons in the NFL, even appearing in Super Bowl XIV, before rupturing his tendon again and being forced to quit the game. Only two-and-a-half years later, Vader would find himself competing for a world wrestling title.
7 Kevin Nash
Although the football-to-wrestling route has been firmly established, Kevin Nash attempted to make it in another pro sport: basketball. Nash was the center for a solid Tennessee Volunteers team from 1977-80, and even made it to the Sweet 16 one season. Nash was never drafted into the NBA, but he played professionally in Europe for several teams. His basketball career ended with a torn ACL in 1981, and after two years in the military, Nash decided to try wrestling. He was a member of the WCW, WWE, and TNA throughout his career, but will be probably be remembered most as part of the nWo.
6 Brock Lesnar
Most people know Brock Lesnar the WWE wrestler or Brock Lesnar the UFC fighter, but not a lot remember his failed stint as an NFL player. It was only back in 2004 that Lesnar chose to walk away from wrestling (and a six-year, $6 million contract), hoping to spend more time with his family. He joined the Minnesota Vikings and played in several preseason games before eventually getting cut. He was recommended for NFL Europe, but declined the offer, again thinking of his family. Less than four years later, Lesnar joined UFC, and has been a force ever since, becoming the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion before returning to the WWE in 2012.
It’s strange to think that the owner of 173 consecutive wrestling victories, a WCW Tag Team Championship, two WWE US Championships, and a World Heavyweight Title wouldn’t have accomplished any of it if his first dream had actually panned out. Prior to wrestling, Bill Goldberg was a University of Georgia defensive end who was selected by the Los Angeles Rams in the 11th round of the 1990 NFL Draft. After two seasons on the team’s practice squad, Goldberg played his next two years with the Atlanta Falcons before getting cut, and eventually was picked 33rd overall in the 1995 Expansion Draft by the Carolina Panthers. Despite playing in 14 career NFL games, Goldberg’s most notable accomplishment is probably the fact that he was the first player ever cut by the new Panthers team.
4 Verne Gagne
When Verne Gagne was in high school, he was a district, regional, and state champion wrestler, an All-State football player, and a baseball star. In college, he was named to the All-Big Ten basketball team and won two NCAA titles as a wrestler. But after getting drafted in the 16th round of the 1947 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears, owner George Halas told Gagne he had to choose between football and wrestling. He picked wrestling because the money was better, and had a legendary career worthy of induction into the WWE, WCW, Professional Wrestling, and Wrestling Observer Newsletter hall of fames.
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.