WWE Superstars don’t always get the credit that they deserve from the mainstream media for being amazing athletes. The professional wrestling industry is labeled by many as fake with a roster full of non-athletes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although most pro wrestling companies will admit to the scripted nature of sports entertainment, elite pro wrestling companies such as WWE boast an impressive roster of athletically-gifted performers who entertain fans night in and night out. These professional wrestlers perform high-risk maneuvers from daring heights, demonstrate amazing feats of strength, and show brilliant mat wrestling skills.
There are many WWE Superstars who come to WWE with a long and impressive athletic resume from a variety of sports. Some even incorporate their prior sports experiences into their gimmick or move set. Other WWE Superstars aren’t as open about their athletic pasts for a number of reasons with one of the main reasons being that it does not fit their gimmick. Fans might be surprised by the athletic pasts of some of their favorite WWE Superstars. Some fans might also be surprised to find out that some WWE Superstars played professionally in other sports. With that said, let’s take a look at 15 WWE Superstars that were amazing athletes before entering the pro wrestling business.
17 Dolph Ziggler
Dolph Ziggler has been showing off in front of WWE fans for over a decade. Ziggler is a two-time World Heavyweight Champion, five-time Intercontinental Champion, former United States Champion, and World Tag Team Champion. He is known for flashy, athletic moves such as top rope dropkicks, superkicks, the Famouser, and his finisher, the Zig-Zag. Ziggler also shows flashes of a brilliant mat wrestling game, the very same mat wrestling game that made him a champion amateur wrestler before his days as Dolph Ziggler in WWE. Ziggler, aka Nick Nemeth, was extremely successful in both high school and college. In his home state of Ohio, Ziggler attended St. Edward High School where he has the record for most career pins with 82. At Kent State University, he has the second-most career wins in school history with 121. Ziggler was recently inducted into the Kent State Athletic Hall of Fame.
16 Mojo Rawley
Since getting called up from NXT, Mojo Rawley has made steady progress on WWE's SmackDown Live brand. Rawley’s Hype Bros tag team with Zack Ryder looked to be primed for a run with the belts before an injury to Ryder derailed the team. Since going solo, he has won a Royal Rumble qualifying battle royal and the fourth annual Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania 33. At WrestleMania, Rawley received a helping hand from his football buddy, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Rawley not only rubs elbows with football players, but knows a little about the sport himself. Before WWE, Rawley, aka Dean Muhtadi, played NCAA and NFL football. He played for the Maryland Terrapins in college where he holds several strength and speed records. Though he never played a regular season game, Rawley was also briefly with the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals of the NFL.
Throughout his pro wrestling career, JBL has been a hard-hitting tough customer and it didn’t matter what gimmick he was using. Most of the time the gimmick matched his rough and tough ring style. JBL’s combination of take-no-prisoners power wrestling and solid mat wrestling helped him win numerous championships in WWE, including the WWE Championship and three WWE Tag Team Championships with his partner, Ron Simmons, aka Faarooq. JBL is also rumored to be a full speed ahead type of personality behind the scenes, which had him at the center of controversy recently. His hard-hitting, confrontational style is probably what had him going down the path of being a pro football player before WWE. JBL was briefly and maybe fittingly a member of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1990 and a member of the 1991 San Antonio Riders of the World League of American Football (WLAF).
14 Big E
Big E is a part of one of the most entertaining tag teams in WWE history, The New Day. The New Day (Big E, Xavier Woods, and Kofi Kingston) is not only entertaining but also record-breaking. The team has the longest tag team championship reign in WWE history with a record 483 days. They broke Demolition’s record of 478 days, which stood for over 25 years.
Breaking records isn’t new to Big E. Before he was power lifting WWE Superstars, Big E, aka Ettore Ewen, was a power lifting record breaker. Big E competed for USA Power Lifting and won the 2011 USAPL Raw Nationals. He broke multiple power lifting records at both the state (Florida) and national levels. The talented big man also played college football for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
12 Titus O’Neil
Titus O’Neil, at 6’6" and 270 pounds, is one of the most physically imposing WWE Superstars on the roster. O’Neil has found success in both single competition and in the tag team division. He is a former tag team champion in the Prime Time Players tag team with partner Darren Young. O’Neil uses an array of power moves that include several maneuvers that look to be football-inspired. They probably are because before WWE, he made a run at a professional football career. O’Neil, aka Thaddeus Bullard in real life, played football in college for the Florida Gators where he played on the defensive line for legendary head coach Steve Spurrier. He also played professional football in the AFL (Arena Football League) for the Carolina Cobras, Las Vegas Gladiators, Tampa Bay Storm, and Utah Blaze.
11 Mark Henry
Mark Henry is one of the most powerful WWE Superstars in history. Henry has put many opponents in his feared “Hall of Pain” on his way to winning the World Heavyweight Championship, ECW Championship, and European Championship. Henry has overpowered some of the biggest and baddest in WWE over the years such as The Big Show, Kane, Great Khali, and Ryback. Henry’s feats of amazing strength were on display well before he entered WWE in the mid-1990s. Henry was an Olympic weightlifter and legendary strongman. He won numerous strongman and power lifting championships. Henry won the 2002 Arnold Strongman Classic, WDFPF Powerlifting Championships in 1995 , and the USAPL National Powerlifting Championships in 1995 and 1997, in addition to many others. He also shattered many powerlifting records and at one time was officially the World’s Strongest Man.
9 Bill Goldberg
Bill Goldberg is synonymous with WCW and was a huge part of WCW almost knocking off WWE in the Monday Night Wars during the late-1990s. Goldberg also made his mark in WWE and recently returned for a successful feud with Brock Lesnar after a 12-year WWE hiatus. His ring style is straight-ahead power wrestling with intensity matched by few. Goldberg is known for his quick matches highlighted by overpowering opponents with his signature spear and Jackhammer finisher. His intensity and power-driven wrestling style may have been influenced by his pre-pro wrestling career as a pro football player.
Goldberg first made waves nationally as a college football defensive tackle for the Georgia Bulldogs. He was drafted by the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams in 1990. He also played in the regular season for the Atlanta Falcons and the CFL’s American expansion team, the Sacramento Gold Miners.
8 Baron Corbin
Since winning the third annual Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania 32, Baron Corbin has been an impressive physical presence in WWE. At 6’8" and 275 pounds, The Lone Wolf looks like a tough customer. Corbin not only looks the part but he is tough and has been well before his days as a WWE Superstar. Before he was dropping foes with big boots to the face and his finisher End of Days, Corbin, aka Tom Pestock, was dropping opponents with right crosses and devastating blocks. He was both an accomplished football player and amateur boxer. Corbin was a two-time Amateur Kansas-Missouri Golden Gloves Regional Champion, and briefly played in the NFL as an offensive lineman with both the Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinals.
7 Kurt Angle
Kurt Angle is one of the most decorated pro wrestlers in history. The current RAW GM is a former four-time WWE Champion, WCW Champion, World Heavyweight Champion, six-time TNA World Champion, IWGP Champion, and has held just about every secondary title that WWE and TNA had to offer. Angle debuted in WWE in 1999 after having one of the greatest amateur wrestling careers of all time. His greatest achievement in the amateur ranks was winning the gold medal in the heavyweight division of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, GA. Angle won the gold with what he describes as “a broken freakin’ neck”. During the Olympic trials, he suffered a severe neck injury, which included two cracked vertebrae, two bulged and herniated discs, and four pulled muscles. His victory was nothing short of extraordinary and has made him a true legend in amateur wrestling.
6 Braun Strowman
Braun Strowman’s rise to the top of the card in WWE has been nothing short of remarkable. After only a handful of matches in NXT and a few appearances as one of Adam Rose’s Rosebuds, Strowman debuted as a member of Bray Wyatt’s sinister Wyatt Family. The WWE Brand Split then left Strowman without a Family but with new-found freedom. The big man thrived in singles competition and is a featured member of the RAW roster. Maybe his climbing the ladder of success so quickly shouldn’t be a surprise.
Prior to becoming the Monster Among Men, the massive Strowman excelled in a different arena prior to WWE. He was an accomplished strongman competitor. Strowman, aka Adam Scherr, won several big time strongman competitions such as the 2010 Monsters of the Midland, 2011 Central GA Strongest Man, 2011 North American Strongest Man Nationals, and 2012 Arnold Amateur World Championship.
5 Roman Reigns
Before Roman Reigns was “The Guy” and an overall polarizing WWE Superstar, he was quite the football player. Before Roman Reigns the WWE Superstar, there was Joe Anoa’i the football player. Reigns found football success in both high school and college. He played linebacker at Pensacola Catholic High School in Florida and was an All-ACC defensive tackle while at Georgia Tech. Reigns was as ferocious on the gridiron as he is in the ring today. Despite going undrafted in the 2007 NFL Draft, he attempted to catch on with both the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars. After being cut by both NFL teams, Reigns gave professional football one last try north of the border for the Edmonton Eskimos. He played for the Eskimos for the entire 2008 CFL season before retiring from football and entering into the Anoa’i family business.
4 American Alpha
American Alpha has found great success since being called up to SmackDown Live from NXT. They won the WWE SmackDown Live Tag Team Championship from the Wyatt Family and are currently chasing The Usos to win them back. The team is drawing comparisons to one of the greatest tag teams in pro wrestling history, The Steiner Brothers. Like Rick and Scott Steiner, Jason Jordan and Chad Gable complied great amateur wrestling backgrounds before joining WWE. Jordan, aka Nate Everhart, wrestled for the Indiana Hoosiers in college where he won 89 matches and qualified for the NCAA Championships three times. Gable, aka Chas Betts, was an accomplished high school and college wrestler. He went onto to compete at the 2012 Summer Olympics in Greco-Roman wrestling where he finished with a 1-1 record.
3 Bob Backlund
Bob Backlund hasn’t been seen on WWE television since Darren Young was shelved with an injury. The WWE Hall of Famer was Young’s “life coach” and was attempting to make him “great again.” The 67-year-old Backlund has only made sporadic WWE appearances in recent years but was once a top WWE Superstar. Younger fans may not know that Backlund is a two-time WWE Champion and his first reign was one of the longest in WWE history at nearly six years (1978-1983). Whether he was a face or a heel, he was known for his solid scientific mat wrestling skills. Mr. Backlund was also an accomplished amateur wrestler at North Dakota State University where he also played football. He was both a national wrestling champion, and prior to that, a junior college All-American defensive end at Waldorf Junior College in Iowa.
2 The Rock
The Rock has been entertaining WWE fans for nearly two decades. He is an eight-time WWE Champion, two-time WCW Champion, five-time tag team champion, two-time Intercontinental Champion, and more importantly, one of the company’s top draws. The Rock also made a smooth transition into Hollywood and has starred in blockbuster action movie franchises such as The Fast and the Furious and GI Joe.
Before the road to superstardom, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson set his sights on a professional football career. After a successful high school football career, The Rock accepted a full scholarship to play football for the Miami Hurricanes. He was a member of Miami’s National Championship team in 1991. After college, The Rock was briefly a member of the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders before turning his attention to becoming the Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment.
1 Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar is unquestionably one of the most dominant combat sports stars in history. The Beast Incarnate, like Paul Heyman would say, is the reigning and defending WWE Universal Champion. Lesnar is also a former UFC Heavyweight Champion, four-time WWE Champion, and IWGP Champion. However, none of those accolades may have been possible if it wasn’t for his amazing pre-WWE accomplishments. Lesnar was an extremely accomplished amateur wrestler before hitting it big in front of the bright lights and capacity crowds of WWE. At Bismarck State College, he captured the NJCAA Heavyweight Wrestling Championship in his sophomore year as well as the tournament’s Ernest B. Gould Outstanding Wrestler Award. After transferring to the University of Minnesota, Lesnar added the 2000 NCAA National Heavyweight Championship to his trophy case. In an interview with ESPN, he said winning the NCAA title was the “most physical feat” of his athletic career.
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