Yes, wrestling might be scripted – in most instances anyway – but it’s still hardcore and brings in the money. People watch wrestling to see amazing athletic feats – guys that are 300 pounds and exerting their dominance over their competitors, or the Lucha Libre style of wrestling. Athletes show off their superb athletic abilities, jumping off ropes and soaring through the air in that customary high-flying style to which we’ve all become accustomed and have grown to love. Who wouldn’t want to see that, scripted or not? It’s why the millions of fans tune in every week and spend their hard-earned cash on pay-per-view events because wrestling makes for an enthralling spectacle.
But over the last few decades, the combat sport of MMA has really taken off, and of late, there’s been a resurgence of the sport with many prominent wrestlers expressing their love for all things MMA, with some actually making the switch from the ring to the octagon. After spending years fighting in scripted events, a number of prominent wrestling stars have found themselves craving a go at the real stuff, and have begun training, studying the sport, and taking the appropriate steps needed to make the move.
Here’s a list of the top 15 wrestlers who have studied MMA and have been involved in the industry at one point or other.
15 The Undertaker
Mark Calaway is a true legend of the business, but how many of you know that he’s a diehard MMA fan? Not only is Calaway a fan, but he could also probably hold his own in the octagon – against some competitors anyway – as he’s trained and successfully earned a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He earned it very quickly in just 19 months – it’s amazing to think he had the time to train, given his WWE commitments.
Calaway also has a background in kickboxing, taught to him by his wife -- former wrestler Michelle McCool -- who used to teach kickboxing before getting contracted with the WWE.
Calaway also loves everything about MMA and has a tremendous amount of respect for the competitors – except perhaps Brock Lesnar – and is tight with Rashad Evans and many other fighters.
Mark Calaway is getting on a bit, so although it’s unlikely to see him make the switch to the octagon, he still puts his MMA skills to good use. Those with astute eyes would have noticed Calaway integrating his MMA skills in the ring from time to time.
Batista was an utter beast in the ring, definitely a force which which to be reckoned. Batista certainly had the x -factor, and was one of the highest-grossing wrestlers to have fought in the WWE. But in 2010, things weren’t going Batista’s way and he had a number of disputes with prominent individuals in the company about...well, let’s call it creative disputes and differences. He left the company for three years, during which time he lived his dream of becoming an MMA fighter.
Cesar Gracie took Batista under his wing and trained him up to purple belt standard in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Then, after a couple of years of contract negotiations with Strikeforce, the date was set for what was to be Batista’s first and only professional MMA fight, against the veteran fighter Vince Lucero, on October 6th 2012. Batista won the fight by TKO, but for some reason stopped fighting after the victory. Perhaps he wanted his 100% professional win record to remain intact?
13 CM Punk
Along with Brock Lesnar, CM Punk is probably one of the most prominent wrestlers to have made a go of it in MMA. He became disillusioned with the WWE – probably due to his long-running feud with Vince McMahon - and fell out of love with wrestling in general, wanting a taste of the real action.
After he left WWE, he was quick to announce his intentions to fight and later that year, he announced he had actually signed a contract to fight with UFC, despite having no formal training in martial arts of any kind whatsoever. But he was obviously serious as he quickly hired famous striker and former kick boxer Duke Roufus, who took Punk under his wing and trained him up at the Roufusport gym in Wisconsin. Due to an injury, he has kept everyone waiting and his long-awaited debut is set to take place in September.
12 Giant Silva
MMA was already big in Asia before it started becoming more widespread in the United States and in Europe. After fighting with New Japan Pro Wrestling, Silva remained in Japan, where he signed with the now defunct Dream Stage Entertainment company and began fighting in the Pride Fighting Championships, one of the biggest MMA promotions at the time in the early 2000s.
Initially, Silva trained under the watchful eyes of the Gracie family – one of the most prominent MMA families from Brazil – and learned their style of Brazilian jiu-jitsu before debuting in the Pride Shockwave event in 2003. By his own admission, his training was pretty rushed and he only had limited Brazilian jiu-jitsu experience before being thrown into the deep end. Silva lost his first fight, but emerged victorious against sumo wrestler Henry "Sentoryu" Miller. Unfortunately, this didn’t really kick-start Silva’s MMA career in the manner he’d have hoped; he won only once more in 2006 – his second and last victory in MMA.
11 Bam Bam Bigelow
Bam Bam Bigelow was big, strong and agile – the ultimate combination for any wrestler. After exiting WWE in 1995, Bigelow was called up to fight in a "U-Japan" MMA event against MMA competitor Kimo Leopoldo. Many people were puzzled as to why he fought in an MMA competition, as he had never previously trained in any martial art or expressed a desire to compete in an MMA event. It all occurred pretty suddenly and out of the blue, with many saying that he used his feud with The Kliq as an excuse to take a one-year hiatus from wrestling and earn a nice juicy pay packet with U-Japan. In an interview, he once revealed he received $100,000 for the event.
He also revealed he did do some form of training – a minimal amount of training – mainly to stop himself from getting obliterated. Needless to say, Bigelow lost his one and only fight to Kimo Leopoldo in the first round, a rear naked choke-hold getting the better of him, before he returned to ECW.
10 Nathan Jones
Nathan Jones is a man who doesn’t do things by halves, although his brief MMA career was less than remarkable. He has many strings to his bow and has made a success out his acting, power-lifting, strongman and wrestling careers.
Unlike many of the wrestlers on this list, Jones actually dabbled in MMA first before getting into the ring and becoming a professional wrestler. Jones did, therefore, study MMA, albeit before wrestling, and probably used a few of his techniques while being contracted with the WWE.
He participated in an event at the Pride Fighting Championships in Japan in 1997, facing Japanese MMA competitor and professional wrestler and sumo champion, Koji Kitao. He had trained a little bit for the fight, but his lack of experience was evident as he tapped out after being submitted in an Americana Armlock. That loss was to be his one and only professional fight, although he surprisingly went backwards and fought in an amateur event a decade later, losing to Aaron Pile in the first round.
9 Sylvester Terkay
Sylvester Terkay got into MMA just after his amateur wrestling days. Terkay wrestled with the likes of Kurt Angle during university wrestling and according to the wrestling Hall of Famer, was pretty decent too. So when Terkay signed with WWE, he certainly had the pedigree. After spending time with the developmental promotion, Ohio Valley Wrestling, his achievements. however, were less than remarkable and he was released and went on to fight in Japan. It was during this time he got involved in MMA and fought with K-1 – the kickboxing and martial arts promotion. His first fight on New Year’s Eve received top billing and Terkay showed what he was made of and knocked Mauricio da Silva out in just 13 seconds.
He went on to fight a few more times in Japan and Korea, finishing MMA with a record of 3-1, but wrestling was always Terkay’s passion. He went back to Ohio Valley Wrestling and worked his socks off, which eventually resulted in him getting a place on the main roster, as an MMA gimmick no less.
8 Sean O'Haire
Sean O'Haire was someone who just loved to fight; he fought with a number of different wrestling promotions around the globe, having a few – what many people would consider to be – minor successes in the process. But O’Haire eventually got bogged down in the world of wrestling and quit New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2005 to focus his attentions on becoming an MMA fighter.
He fought with the Pride Fighting Championships in Las Vegas in 2006, but his initial foray into the octagon wasn’t anything to rave about. He lost after just 29 seconds, after being felled by Eric "Butterbean" Esch. This didn’t dampen his spirits and he went on to fight in various events over the next year. Like his wrestling, O’Haire didn’t achieve anything of note in his short-lived MMA career.
Before getting involved with MMA, O’Haire also did a little bit of kickboxing, and reportedly racked up a decent 10/1 win/loss record.
7 Bart Gunn
Mike Polchlopek - known to wrestling fans as Bart Gunn - made his wrestling debut way back in 1991 and is probably best remembered as being a member of The Smoking Gunns tag team with Billy Gunn. He won a few championships here and there around the world with various promotions – mainly tag team titles – before retiring from professional wrestling in 2004 after a stint in New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Two years later Japan was calling him back – Polchlopek returned, this time as an MMA fighter. He won his first fight pretty easily in the first round due to a technical knockout - Wesley "Cabbage" Correira suffered a nasty cut and the contest had to be stopped. After that initial performance, everyone was thinking Polchlopek had found his calling. He went back to Japan to fight in a Pride Fighting Championship event and lost by unanimous decision to Ikuhisa Minowa, and that was that. Polchlopek’s MMA career ended just as quickly as it had started.
6 Alberto Del Rio
Unlike the majority of the other wrestlers turned MMA fighters, Del Rio got involved with MMA around the same time as he made his professional wrestling debut, and really made a go of it. He didn’t just have a couple of fights and call it quits. He made a conscious effort to stick to it and try and make his MMA career a success. He lost his last fight in 2010, a fight that marked the end of a 10-year career – we presume so as he hasn’t fought since – which consisted of a 14-fight record with nine victories, a pretty decent career considering he was fighting with Asistencia Asesoría y Administración (AAA), Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL) and the WWE developmental territory Florida Championship Wrestling at the time.
On June 17, 2010 was when his wrestling career really took off and he signed a three-year contract with WWE to be a part of their main roster. This came four months after his last MMA fight when Del Rio decided making a success of being a professional wrestler was his main priority, understandably so, and a decision that paid off as he’s still fighting with WWE today.
5 Kid Kash
Kid Kash was one of the biggest names in ECW during his time at Paul Heyman’s company. There, he earned the respect of the wrestling fraternity, which ensured he had no problems fighting in WWE once ECW became defunct. He became a cruiserweight champion – his only notable achievement during his short stint with the world’s premier wrestling promotion – before being released from his contract and going on to fight on the independent circuit for the rest of his wrestling career (except for a brief return to TNA), a career which ended in 2015.
It might come as a surprise to many of you that while finding his way on the independent scene, during which he spent a lot of time working with European promotions, he stumbled into MMA. He fought once against Bryan Brown and looked like he had the skills and was easing to victory, except that he didn’t know the rules. He performed some illegal moves, was docked points and lost via judges decision – that was the end of his short spell as an MMA fighter.
4 Masakatsu Funaki
Masakatsu Funaki (not Kaientai's Funkai) might not be well-known to many of you who only follow WWE and the major promotions in the U.S., but there’s also a big professional wrestling scene in Japan, a scene in which Funaki has been a fixture since 1985. He began his career at New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1985, then went on to fight with Newborn UWF and Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi until 1993 before taking a break from the sport. He returned to the professional wrestling ranks in 2009 and has continued wrestling for various Japanese promotions ever since.
Wrestling is big in Japan, but obviously so is martial arts and MMA. Funaki, who idolised the style of Bruce Lee, wanted a piece of the action and to emulate his hero, but in the octagon. With a record 39 wins in 53 fights, veteran MMA fighter Funaki is widely considered to be the best Japanese MMA fighter in the sport’s history – something that makes Funaki a deserved entrant on this list. No doubt Bruce Lee would have been proud!
3 Bobby Lashley
Bobby Lashley was expected to do big things when he got picked up by the WWE in 2004 after a strong amateur wrestling career. Initially, WWE certainly put him through his paces and didn’t hand anything to him on a plate. They made him work his way through the ranks and fight with various developmental territories before giving him a shot at the big time – putting him into the WWE draft in 2007. In July 2008, Lashley was released from his contract after a six-month injury lay off and never fought with WWE again.
It was shortly after he recovered that Lashley embarked on a career in MMA and made his debut with the Mixed Fighting Alliance. He won that opening fight and went on to fight with Strikeforce, Titan Fighting Championships and various other promotions over the next seven years. With a record of 14 wins from 16 fights, Lashley certainly had the skills in the octagon and loved MMA so much, he actually formed Lashley Management – an MMA management company representing MMA competitors.
2 Ken Shamrock
Shamrock started off in wrestling back in 1990 and debuted with WWE seven years later. He officially retired in 2013, but for the vast majority of his professional wrestling career, he was also a professional MMA fighter, and quite an accomplished one too. Three years into his wrestling career, he competed and won his first MMA fight within 45 seconds, a feat which made people sit up and take notice. Shamrock, along with Funaki and Suzuki, formed the promotion, Pancrase. Shamrock actually fought in his own promotion and went on to fight in UFC three years later with a record of 17-3.
He became UFC champion and went on to fight around the world and is now a veteran of 47 fights – not bad for someone whom many people didn’t believe would be successful in MMA after starting out as a professional wrestler.
His fighting style has gained him a lot of plaudits and criticism. Initially, he was a grappler, but then adapted his technique and learned shoot wrestling from Funaki and is now more of a striker.
Shamrock looks to be nearing the end as an MMA fighter after 12 losses in his last 16 fights.
1 Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar is arguably the biggest name to have made the switch from wrestling to MMA, although amazingly, he still trains and competes at a professional level in both.
After winning a plethora of titles in wrestling and gaining a massive fan following after just seven years in the sport, Lesnar announced his intent to begin training in MMA. Things then began to get whirring into motion. He headed out to the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy and began training under Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt holder, Rodrigo "Comprido" Medeiros. After four months of hard work and dedication, Lesnar earned his blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and got what he wanted – a contract with K-1 promotion. He won his first MMA contest, after which things took off for Lesnar. He brought a new set of fans to the sport, plenty of razzmatazz and interest, and continued fighting in MMA over the next decade.
After a five-year hiatus following back-to-back defeats in 2011, Lesnar returned to fight in a packed T-Mobile Arena in Vegas for UFC 200, breaking records left right and center; he got the highest ever fight purse, and contributed to making the event the highest pay day for any event in UFC history.