As the largest MMA promotion company in the world, UFC draws in large crowds and valuable pay-per-view audiences and has grown exponentially over the past couple of decades – in fact, since its inception back in 1993. UFC events only feature the best, the star names and the top-ranked fighters, and it’s certainly ultimate fighting – an apt name for such a championship.
As the audiences for UFC continue to grow, the world of MMA is evolving tenfold. Fighters are learning new skills, different techniques and are employing a mixture of styles – they’ve realized what needs to be done to be successful in this ever-changing, ever-growing sport, and to triumph on the biggest stage – UFC.
It’s the fact that MMA has continued to evolve over the years. Add that to the razzmatazz, glitz and glamour surrounding UFC events, and it’s little wonder that many athletes have made the switch and have transitioned to UFC. Some have done quite well, while others not so good. It has us wondering who else could make the switch and possibly fight in UFC?
These are 17 top athletes that we feel are capable of making the switch, stepping into the octagon, competing, and possibly making a name for themselves in another sport, another industry.
18 Rob Gronkowski
Standing in at 6'6" and weighing in at a massive 265 lbs of rock-hard muscle, Rob Gronkowski’s someone who sparks fear into the hearts of those opposing him on the NFL field. Everything about Gronkowski says fighter – he’s physically imposing, just an all-round massive guy. He is also quick and nimble and has shown a tremendous amount of athleticism over the years, which hasn’t diminished in any way.
From a young age, Gronkowski’s life has always been about football. He knew what he wanted to achieve, mapped out a career path, and then put everything in place before he went about achieving his goal of turning pro. He certainly has the dogged determination – the mental side of things needed to make the transition.
Train and study MMA, put on a couple of pounds, and there’s no reason why Gronkowski couldn’t fight as a heavyweight in UFC. Even UFC president, Dana White, has said he thinks the transition – if it were to happen – would be a success for Gronkowski. Perhaps he knows something we don’t – possible move in the cards?
17 Zdeno Chara
NHL monster, 6'9" 260+ pound Zdeno Chara is an utter beast of a man, an imposing figure on the ice and off. Those of you who know a thing or two about the NHL know that apart from the hockey, it’s the fights – often brutal fights – that attracts people to the sport, and Chara has been in a few fights over the years.
Despite what you might think, hockey fights aren’t just about sheer brutality. They’re largely about balance, coordination, and using the lead power hand to unleash the power and inflict pain. There’s an art to fighting in hockey, and those of you who have seen Chara know that he’s one man who has it down to a tee.
So, could Chara hold his own in UFC? You bet. He’d have to learn to channel that aggression, refine his fighting style and of course, train in MMA, but he certainly has the raw skills, which, if harnessed, could make him a force with which to be reckoned in UFC.
16 James Harrison
This isn’t the James Harrison from the UK – a newbie on the MMA scene. Here we’re referring to the beast from the Pittsburgh Steelers – the American Football linebacker who’s been a pro since 2002. At the age of 38, he’s still going strong and has remained resilient after injuries and a few years of inactivity. Now in 2016, he’s back with the Steelers and is looking better than ever.
Harrison is a perfect example of someone willing to turn a weakness into a strength. When he started out in the NFL in 2002, he went undrafted as teams couldn’t see past his height and weight – 240 lbs – considered too light to play defensive line. But today he’s evolved – just look at his workout videos and you’ll know that this guy is hardcore. It takes something special to play in the NFL in your late 30s. Whether it's speed or brute power, Harrison has it in abundance, so after his NFL career comes to an end – probably after the next season – Harrison will be looking for something else to do with his time. Harrison for UFC anyone?
15 Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Mayweather announced his retirement from boxing in 2015, after defeating Berto to finish with an amazing 49-0 professional record. Ever since then, the notion of a Mayweather comeback has never been too far from anyone’s lips, mainly Mayweather’s, who takes delight in teasing the fans and starting these rumors. One thing’s for sure, if he did return to boxing, the comeback fight would certainly break all records and it will become the highest grossing boxing PPV fight of all time. Love him or hate him, you can’t help but watch him – Mayweather certainly draws in the crowds.
The fighting skills are there, that much is obvious – you don’t get to 49-0 without near-perfect fighting ability. Now that his boxing days are supposedly over, Mayweather’s left twiddling his thumbs; this is a man that needs to be in the limelight, needs to fight, so if he makes the transition to UFC, he’ll do so solely for this reason – God knows he doesn’t need the money.
Since his retirement, there’s been speculation that a fight with professional trash talker and MMA star Conor McGregor could be in the cards. As of yet, nothing’s happened, but that will definitely be one awesome fight not to be missed. If it happens, will it be McGregor coming into the ring, or Mayweather stepping into the octagon? We’ll just have to cross our fingers, wait and see.
14 Wladimir Klitschko
Klitschko is another boxer who, until recently, dominated the heavyweight division for well over a decade until he was knocked off his pedestal by British pro, Tyson Fury.
As one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time, Klitschko is an artist, a student of the game, schooled in the sweet science of boxing. He has the punching power, but is also a master tactician, often decimating opponents and frustrating them with his infuriating style, then capitalizing on their mistakes. He may not be the most attractive fighter out there, but he gets the job done and has the ability to emerge victorious from fights without getting badly hit himself; it’s all about longevity for Klitschko – being the best for as long as possible.
Klitschko’s more than capable of transitioning to UFC, but as of today, his journey in boxing isn’t yet complete. He’s said that he has a huge amount of respect for MMA fighters: “You need to be flexible, mobile, need to wrestle, box, have good conditioning” – basically describing yourself there Klitschko.
Klitschko’s style may not be glamorous, but he’d still bring glitz and glamour to UFC events, with Hayden Panettiere in his corner as well.
13 Deontay Wilder
Dubbed the next Iron Mike Tyson, Wilder is regarded as one of the most brutal fighters in pro boxing today. His fights are short, exciting and brutal, just like Mike Tyson’s were, but unlike Tyson, Wilder has never lost a professional bout – 37 wins, 36 by way of knockouts. Need I say more?
Wilder has awesome physical presence and the fighting skills to back it up. He still has the world at his feet and a lot he needs to accomplish in the boxing industry, but if he ever does make the transition to UFC, those in the heavyweight class better get ready for a world of pain.
The majority of Heavyweight boxers are just big guys – often tall, with a little bit of muscle under layers of fat. Wilder is anything but that. People compare him to Mike Tyson because he resembles him in every which way, except that Wilder has a little bit more up top between the ears. Imagine if Iron Mike ever got into the octagon in his prime – Deontay Wilder would have the same sort of impact.
11 Phil Mickelson
This may seem like an odd choice for this list, but we’re certainly not adding Phil Mickelson just to get some variety to this article.
The American golfer, Phil Mickelson, has been a pro for over 20 years, during which he’s won 42 events on the PGA tour, including five major championships – one of the world’s greatest ever golfers, and a deserved World Golf Hall of Famer. But enough about golf.
You’re probably thinking, how are golf and MMA related? Well they’re not – they couldn’t be more different. Instead, it’s what Mickelson does in his spare time which leads us to believe he’ll be more than capable of holding his own in the octagon. The aggression certainly isn’t there, as far as we know anyway, but Mickelson does something else behind closed doors – practices martial arts.
He trains in both Kung Fu and Taekwondo and has been doing so for many years. Still, don’t worry you golf fans, it doesn’t look like Mickelson will be swapping his sophisticated golf attire for UFC apparel anytime soon.
10 D'Brickashaw Ferguson
Those gearing up to play in the NFL this season must have been thanking their lucky stars that Ferguson decided to call it quits on his career in the pro leagues a few months back. Ferguson’s the definition of a mass monster; seeing over 300 lbs of muscle charging at you at full pelt would make even the bravest of souls pee their pants.
He might have been – probably still could be – a force to be reckoned with on the football field, but it’s safe to say that not many people would be lining up to have a sparring session with him either, and that’s not just because of his size. Ferguson has some serious fighting skills, and we’re not just talking about backyard brawling. He learned the art of karate from his dad – a certified instructor – from a young age and has been practicing since he could walk, gaining a black belt in the process.
He’s got the footwork and the skills from karate and the power from over 10 seasons of NFL action. If he does step into the octagon at one point, all the other super heavyweights will be seriously dieting to get into another weight class.
9 Adeline Gray
UFC competition isn’t just about who’s the biggest and the best – competitors come in all shapes and sizes, and genders, so although there’s quite a lot of big hulking men on this list, it’s time to discuss some potentially awesome female competitors.
Adeline Gray is a highly accomplished wrestling world champion, and not wrestling as in WWE wrestling or anything like that – although she would be more than capable of holding her own in the ring against the current crop of women – but Olympic style wrestling, freestyle wrestling to be exact.
Her accomplishments in the sport at the young age of 25 have those in the MMA industry talking. If she does make the transition, her wrestling background – she’s been wrestling since the age of 6 – will certainly give her a solid base, possibly a springboard onto bigger and better things in UFC.
Still, despite people constantly asking her about a possible switch, it doesn’t look like she’s up for it quite yet: “Mom says she likes my nose, so she doesn't really want me to fight! But if the price is right, I can see it happening. I just don't know ... I don't have a killer instinct.”
After her quarterfinal match at this year’s Rio Olympic Games, which she lost, she’s looking to step away from the sport, so who knows what the future holds for Gray. If it’s UFC, she’ll have to get working on that killer instinct!
8 Elena Pirozhkova
Elena Pirozhkova is another decorated wrestler who, despite not winning a medal at this year’s Rio Olympics, has already cemented her place as one of the world’s best freestylers. It’s her hunger for success, mighty work ethic, and of course her wrestling ability that sets her apart from the rest. She’s been wrestling from a young age, and when she made the move to the U.S. from her native Russia – she must be thanking her lucky stars her family made the move given the current state of things in Russian sport! – she spent eight years with the American nation team.
Her longevity and success over these years could easily translate to plenty of accomplishments in the octagon. Her aggressive style of wrestling could make her a force with which to be reckoned in UFC. It’s also the right time in her career to make the switch and she’s currently perfectly placed to jump straight into the bantamweight division in UFC.
7 Gabi Garcia
You may not hear "woman" and "monster" in the same sentence too frequently, but there’s no other way to describe Gabrielle Garcia. Gabi has awesome physical presence – she’s a mass monster and seriously intimidating.
Gabi’s a fighter through and through; she’s a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, grappling world champion, and has been inducted into the IBJJF Hall of Fame – just a few from her extensive list of accomplishments.
The world saw this monster for the first time when she was unveiled as a guest coach at The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 3 event, so she has had some UFC involvement, although she’s never gotten in on the action herself – good news for those other heavyweights in the UFC.
Gabi’s put those Brazilian jiu-jitsu and grappling skills to good use, and in the past year, has started fighting MMA. She’s been victorious in her first two fights, fighting in Japan, and must be targeting bigger and better things in terms of joining UFC – no offense to the Rizin Fighting Federation, but UFC is the world’s premier promotion. Gabi must be using the experience gained in Japan as a stepping stone onto some UFC involvement in the future.
6 Kyra Gracie
Kyra Gracie has pretty much everything – the skills, the reputation, the connections – so getting a gig with the UFC, should she want it, shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Let’s start off with her experience; she’s a Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner and grappling world champion, has fought at the ADCC submission championships, also trains in judo and wrestling, and began learning boxing back in 2010. She’s equipped with everything a woman who could potentially transition to UFC could hope for – she’s a fighting machine.
Gracie currently earns her corn as an instructor – no doubt there’s plenty of people wanting to pick her brain. She’s a member of the famous Gracie family – a prominent MMA family from Brazil – so anytime she wanted to step into the octagon, you’d think it would be a pretty easy transition. Understandably she’s a massive MMA fan and was actually training in preparation for a debut bout, but her pregnancy has put all that on hold, for the time being anyway.
If and when she eventually does make the transition to UFC, she’ll have no problem adjusting to everything that comes with it; she’s pretty, yet a beast when it comes to fighting, and has a proven track record of success. No doubt Dana White will be giving Gracie a call pretty soon.
5 Clay Matthews
Back to the beasts from the more mainstream sport of American football. Matthews (III) is a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers; his hulking physique and skills on the football field have meant that he’s been a mainstay of the Packers line-up since 2009, but they’ve also got him noticed in other industries - WWE came calling in 2011 and he made a special appearance as a guest referee.
Yet Matthews wouldn’t potentially be successful in UFC just because he’s big. He’s also fast-footed, powerful – all skills gained and honed from years of NFL action – and also trained in MMA Athletics. Matthews is always looking for ways to improve and add to his already vast skillset. He embarked on an MMA Athletics program, which was created by UFC legend Randy Couture. During the program, Matthews trained like a cage fighter, learned the art of MMA and got that killer instinct, pushing his limits beyond what he thought was humanly possible. After that program, Matthews has continued to train in MMA to enhance his football skills, but who knows, one day they could be put to good use in UFC.
4 Shaquille O'Neal
At 7'1" and weighing in at 325 lbs, get in O’Neal’s way at your peril. Now retired, O’Neal lugged that muscle around in the NBA for 19 years, and was unsurprisingly one of the heaviest guys ever to have played in the NBA.
Looking at his attributes, you’d think O’Neal would be better suited to a career in WWE; wrestling promotions have recognized his star quality and he’s made numerous appearances at various wrestling events, from 1994 right through to this year, when he participated in his first ever match at WrestleMania 32.
O’Neal retired from pro basketball back in 2011, but has kept himself in shape and can certainly still be considered an athlete. He just loves to fight, something he’s balanced alongside his NBA career since 2000. He’s trained in boxing, jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai and wrestling during this time under the watchful eyes of Jon Burke and other established pros.
O’Neal’s been retired for many years now, but is keeping busy, keeping in good shape, keeping sharp. If he can muster the strength to tear himself away from his business ventures – of which there are many – there’ll surely be a place for him in UFC in the future.
3 David Akers
Here’s another former pro football player who could certainly cut it in UFC. He may not be the biggest, most physically imposing guy, but could still hold his own as a heavyweight.
Akers, just like Clay Matthews, was willing to step out of his comfort zone and learn new skills away from football that could have a positive impact on his on-field game. He stepped into the world of MMA to sharpen his combat arsenal, embarking on gruelling offseason training camps to ensure he was mentally and physically ready for the rigours of the following season.
However, Akers didn’t just train MMA for fitness purposes. He actually learned the art of MMA and to this day studies and practices Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Shaolin Kempo Karate. He’s actually a black belt in Shaolin Kempo Karate and possesses a skill set that would rival that of any pro UFC competitor. Akers in the UFC? He certainly wouldn’t be out of his depth and could make quite a success out of it.
2 Rich Piana
Piana’s the only bodybuilder on this list. That’s because most bodybuilders are sheer mass monsters and don’t have the capacity to do anything else but lift weights. Despite how they look, most wouldn’t last 30 seconds in a UFC octagon. Although Piana may look the same, he’s one of the most flexible and athletic – not to mention biggest guys out there – and he trains in MMA.
In the bodybuilding world, Piana was once Mr. California, but then decided to stop killing himself – literally because he’s a self-proclaimed steroid user – just to get his hands on a $5 trophy and concentrate on his business ventures. Today, Piana’s a money-making machine and is one of the most popular guys on social media, making cash as a 5% athlete – and he’s not even competing! He’s got a massive fan base, which will translate to money through merchandise sales and PPV if he ever transitions to UFC.
Piana also has the skills. In addition to pumping iron, he’s also in tight with boxing and bodybuilding trainer Alex Di Ciero. He regularly posts footage of them training together on his social media accounts, and he looks like he’s more than capable of holding his own if he tries his hand at professional MMA.
1 Kayla Harrison
Harrison is an American judoka who has one impressive résumé. Her mom, who’s a black belt in judo, introduced her to the sport when she was six, and from that moment on, Kayla’s been winning championships and medals for fun. Her most recent success was winning the gold medal in the women’s 78 kg category at the Rio Olympia Games – she retained her medal after also winning in London 2012.
She’s won pretty much all there is in judo – and she’s only 26! MMA’s also been on her mind for quite some time. Apparently she’s already turned down multiple offers from various promotions because she wanted to concentrate on her judo career, but has admitted the prospect of a potential MMA career is really tempting because of the fame and money, the glitz and glamour and the prestige competitors get – especially if fighting with the world’s biggest promotion, UFC.
“I’m just going to focus on being two-time Olympic champion and decide about punching people in the face at a later date,” said Harrison after the summer Olympics, and rightly so. Bathe in the glory of your success, Harrison, but since you're about to retire from judo, getting into MMA seems like the natural route of progression. It's an especially logical transition since she’s interested and has already had offers.