Professional wrestling’s status as a sport is often up for debate. That’s not a knock on the talents and abilities of the performers, but rather a note on the predetermined nature of wrestling, such that matches are not legitimately competitive, but rather have predetermined outcome. In order to actually succeed in wrestling, strength, athleticism, and skill are necessary, not to mention that imposing physical side is a key element in selling the spectacle of the business and drawing in viewers to the dream that they are watching larger than life combatants legitimately go to war with one another.
Given the talents and attributes necessary for a wrestling performer to succeed, it should be no surprise there are serious athletes who transient out of more transitional sports worlds into the realm of professional wrestling. Basketball, in particular, tends to feature tall players whose stature would lend itself well to pursuing professional wrestling, besides the power, cardiovascular conditioning, and coordination that would allow them to thrive in the squared circle.
Whether it’s a matter of scholastic or even professional basketball players who have made one off appearances in the world of wrestling, or people who transitioned more fully or from one endeavor to another, there are men and women who have successfully made the transition. There are, however, also those parties who don’t translate from one pursuit to the other. Maybe it was just their size or celebrity that got them through the locker room door; maybe it’s a lack of commitment or limitation to skills, but there are those basketball players who failed in wrestling.
This article takes a look at eight success stories, and seven basketball players who should have stayed clear of the wrestling business.
15 Thrived: Kevin Nash
Though Kevin Nash is now a certified wrestling legend, and has successfully transitioned into the world of acting, he actually took his first stab at stardom via basketball. It may not be such a surprise that the seven footer would thrive playing center at the scholastic level. Nash went to college on a basketball scholarship, but a combination of injuries and a lackadaisical attitude (he’s told stories of openly smoking a joint in public at college) put a ceiling on his hardwood career.
Things probably turned out for the best for Nash. He was known to be a bit injury prone in wrestling, but his personality helped carry him and make him and keep him relevant in the pro wrestling world even when he couldn’t go in the ring. In the end, he goes down as a Hall of Famer, and among the elite who collected world title gold in both WWE and WCW.
14 Failed: Shad Gaspard
Shad Gaspard was a natural athlete, widely reported to have been a star for his high school’s sports teams, who would go on to play basketball at Georgia Perimeter College. He would go on to serve as a body guard and bouncer before he committed himself to pursuing professional wrestling.
It’s unfair to call Gaspard a failure, as he did make it to WWE, and hung around for a number of years there. He most memorably teamed with JTG as Cryme Tyme before a short run as a heel singles performer. Through it all, he never won a championship on the main roster and never advanced much as a performer. For a guy with a great look, athleticism, and plenty of opportunities, that’s not a great look.
13 Thrived: The Undertaker
When you think about the physical skills that have helped The Undertaker arrive as one of wrestling’s biggest legends, you have to consider his sheer size. You can combined with surprising balance and agility, particularly as demonstrated by his “Old School” maneuver in which he walks the top rope only to rain down punishment on his opponent. Taking these abilities into account, it may be of little surprise that he thrived as a basketball player before getting into wrestling.
The Deadman played high school ball before wearing a scholarship to play at Angelina College, and then go on to Texas Wesleyan University as a center. Those close to him have suggested that there came a time to choose between pursuing a professional basketball career abroad or wrestling. He wound up reportedly dropping out of school to pursue his life as a wrestling star.
12 Failed: Giant Gonzalez
While many of the biggest names on this countdown were tall men, none could compare to the man who wrestled as The Giant Gonzalez for WWE, and El Gigante for WCW. He was a legit eight-footer whose size alone earned him notoriety. He first played the good guy cavalry to back smaller faces like Brian Pillman in WCW, then debuted for WWE as a monster heel rival to The Undertaker.
The trouble for Gonzalez was that his height was really his only dimension that lent itself to wrestling. Despite having had some success as an Argentinian basketball player, he never demonstrated much in the way of coordination or skill necessary to succeed as a wrestler. He was also so thin as to look absurd as a fighter. WWE felt compelled to dress him in a suit with muscles airbrushed on it to create the illusion he was built. Gonzalez never really had a good match to his name, and promoters seemed to catch on within about five years that there was no real hope for him as a wrestler.
11 Thrived: The Big Show
As his ring name would suggest, The Big Show is a wrestler who built his legend on being a giant. The guy’s commitment and ability to adapt allowed for a two decade long career in the mainstream, including WCW and WWE world championships, and a surefire Hall of Fame induction down the road.
Before Show got into wrestling, he enjoyed respectable high school and college basketball careers, making it as far as NCAA Division II play. Show commented in WWE’s documentary about him that he never worked out in this time—relying purely on his size and natural athleticism to succeed. Sure enough these tools were enough to facilitate a good scholastic basketball career and success in his early years as a wrestler before he got more serious about his fitness.
10 Failed: Darryl Dawkins
Since Vincent Kennedy McMahon took over his father’s business, WWE has always demonstrated an infatuation with celebrities who might draw more attention or muster more credibility for the company’s product. Celebrity appearances have been a standard part of WrestleMania, in particular, from the beginning but in those early days of the event, the company was particularly liberal about whom it brought in and for what purposes.
NBA veteran Darryl Dawkins was booked not to wrestle, referee, commentate, or even stand in somebody’s corner, but rather as a judge for the worked boxing match between Roddy Piper and Mr. T. It’s a bit of an absurdity to bring in guest judges for this spot (and particularly ones with no known boxing background), but it became even sillier given the outcome of the match. There was no decision from the judges, but instead Piper was disqualified for body slamming his opponent.
Dawkins contributed nothing of any value—there strictly to add another famous face to the proceedings.
9 Thrived: Jazz
Though she tends to get overlooked now in favor of her contemporaries with greater longevity and star power, Jazz was a top shelf women’s talent for WWE in the early and mid-2000s. She posed a particularly intimidating obstacle to top face Trish Stratus at the time.
Long before Jazz stepped into the squared circle, however, her biggest claim to fame was as a basketball player. She played high school ball, and performed well enough in the sport to earn a scholarship to go on to the collegiate level. A knee injury would reportedly cut short her hoop dreams, but she transitioned her size and power nicely to the world of sports entertainment as a bully of a heel, and an underrated technician between the ropes for both WWE and ECW.
8 Failed: Lonzo Ball
When the Ball family made its infamous appearance on Monday Night Raw in the summer of 2017, the purpose was to build hype around Lonzo Ball, who was heading into the NBA draft and looking to be an early pick. Coming out of their segment with The Miz and Dean Ambrose, Lonzo probably emerged as the least memorable of his family members. His father LaVar made a spectacle out of taking his shirt off and getting in The Miz’s face. Younger brother LaMelo stole the show by using the n-word on live TV—the final straw in WWE scrapping plans and yanking the family off camera sooner than originally intended.
Maybe it’s best that Lonzo didn’t make a fool out of himself like his father and brother. Still, in an appearance meant to generate buzz around him, he stayed in the background, totally forgettable in his role.
7 Thrived: Big Cass
Years before they were paired as a tag team in WWE’s developmental system that would wind up promoted to the main roster together, Big Cass met Enzo Amore playing basketball in New York City. As you might protect given his stature, Cass’s basketball career would go further as he starred playing high school ball before going on to play center for New York University.
It’s unclear where Cass’s wrestling career is headed, but just before he suffered a major injury, he was booked to crush Amore in their feud, and even get the better of The Big Show at SummerSlam. All of this suggests big plans for the big man. When he returns to action—presumably later this year—there’s plenty of reason to believe he’ll be slotted back into an upper mid card spot, and given the chance to sink or swim and potentially rise up to main event status.
6 Failed: The Yeti
There’s an adage in basketball and wrestling alike that you can’t teach height. The saying suggests that while so many skills are coachable, and can be built up via practice, height is an innate gift, and an attribute to build a star around. As such, it’s little surprise that 7’2” Ron Reis, the son of an NCAA Championship winner, would go on to a reasonable scholastic career of his own that included playing for Santa Clara University’s team.
Reis made his way to the world of wrestling, where his size afforded him more opportunities. A lack of skill, charisma, or a coherent push put a ceiling on his progress, though. He peaked as a secret weapon for the Dungeon of Doom—billed as The Yeti, dressed like a mummy, and most famously joining The Giant in dry humping Hulk Hogan at the end of Halloween Havoc 1995.
5 Thrived: Karl Malone
Diamond Dallas Page has famously told the story time and again of attending Utah Jazz NBA game, and discovering that Karl Malone was a wrestling fan. Being the outgoing personality he is, of course DDP made sure to connect with The Mailman, and after exchanging pleasantries, was sure to make the offer that if Malone ever wanted to get in a ring and mess around, he had an open invitation.
This chance encounter would give way to Malone getting in the ring to team up with Page at WCW’s Bash at the Beach 1998. You could easily dismiss this as a silly celebrity match, and publicity grab—at heart, that is why WCW booked it. Just the same, Malone had both a believable powerhouse wrestling body, and the enthusiasm of a legitimate fan to make him a success in his wrestling endeavors.
4 Failed: Shaquille O’Neal
Shaquille O’Neal flirted with the wrestling business for over a decade. This included serving as a corner man for Hulk Hogan in his debut match for WCW, and much later appearing as a guest host of Monday Night Raw and trading goozles in the middle of the ring with The Big Show.
Rumors abounded about Shaq wrestling a match. Word was that management from the teams he was playing for wouldn’t allow him to do so and put his body at risk, but after his retirement from the game that became less of a concern. Finally, he did get in the ring at WrestleMania 32 as a surprise entrant in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, where he most memorably had another confrontation with The Big Show. The prevailing theory was that the two would go one on one at WrestleMania 33—a fitting capstone to Show’s career, and a good place for O’Neal to actually get in the ring in front of the Orlando crowd where he had first played professional basketball.
The deal fell apart. Show suggested Shaq had chickened out of doing it, while O’Neal publicly alluded to more complex legal issue being at stake, and that if it were up to him he would wrestle. Whatever the case, Shaq’s time to get in and wrestle seems to have passed, specifically with his would be rival Show inching closer and closer to retiring once and for all.
3 Thrived: Dennis Rodman
While he has largely faded from the public eye today, there was a point in the 1990s when Dennis Rodman was one of the biggest celebrities in the world. Yes, he was an outstanding basketball player, particularly gifted at rebounding and playing defense. But he was also a pop culture icon whose dyed hair and sexual exploits with the likes of Madonna and other famous women made him the center of water cooler talk even for non-sports fans.
As such, it makes sense that Eric Bischoff would make overtures for Rodman to be a part of WCW’s product. A celebrity wrestling role fit The Worm nicely, as it was edgy, outlandish, and offered a platform for him to behave badly. He joined forces with the New World Order for a fine match. While Rodman was never a polished in ring performer, he did as well as could be expected, particularly in teaming with Hollywood Hogan against Diamond Dallas Page and NBA rival Karl Malone. Interestingly, Rodman may have been more committed to wrestling than basketball for a time—infamously skipping out on a team commitment once and incurring the wrath of Chicago Bulls management, in favor of appearing for WCW.
2 Failed: LaMelo Ball
Had basketball not been such a passion, there’s reason to believe that LaVar Ball might have pursued his livelihood in professional wrestling. He’s known for his big personality and loud mouth, which he has put to use in promoting his sons as basketball stars of the future. So it was that he brought sons to Monday Night Raw, ostensibly to hype Lonzo for his upcoming NBA debut.
LaVar wound up creating quite the spectacle, ripping his shirt off and going off script to get in The Miz’s face. It was LaMelo who would deliver the most memorable line of the segment, though. In cheering Dean Ambrose on in a brawl against The Miz, he more than once encouraged the Lunatic Fringe to “beat that [n-word]’s ass. That sort of language was a nightmare for PG WWE. Reports indicate that the Ball family was supposed to stay ringside and back up Ambrose for the match to follow, but wound up ejected, never to appear on WWE TV again after the segment gone horribly wrong.
1 Thrived: Mercedes Martinez
Mercedes Martinez was a very good high school basketball player, reportedly lined up to play at the college level before injuries waylaid those plans. She’d go on, however, to become one of the top indie women wrestlers in the world. Timing wasn’t on her side as she peaked during a period when WWE privileged models trained to be wrestlers, and didn’t put much stock indie bred, serious workers.
Martinez did get a moment in the sun with WWE, though, cast as standout for her run in the WWE Network’s Mae Young Classic tournament. She went deep in the bracket, and was consistently treated like a tournament favorite. It’s probably too late for her to have a real run on the WWE main roster now, but it’s telling that she was well established and respected enough on the independent circuit to get a featured spot in at least that context.