Multi-sport athletes are something special. The most renowned are probably Bo Jackson, who played in the NFL and MLB, being named to the NFL's Pro Bowl and the MLB All-Star game in a single season, and Deion Sanders, who is one of the greatest defensive backs in the history of football but also played professional baseball. There are plenty more, but these are the most commonly looked to multi-sport athletes.
Plenty of pro wrestlers also competed in other sports, including Steve "Mongo" McMichael, Dwayne Johnson, Bill Goldberg and Larry "Lex Luger" Pfohl, all of whom played football (Dwayne Johnson's pro career was very short, just briefly playing for the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League).
But every so often, fuel gets added to the fire of wrestling haters when a performer decides to head over to mixed martial arts. Looking on any forum on the internet you can find people spewing "wrestling is fake, he'll get destroyed" like it's going out of style. I don't need to sell this idea to wrestling fans, but choreographed and fake are two different things. We all know these guys and gals are getting thrown around, are feeling pain and, outside of the ring, are training as hard as any other category of pro athlete.
What helps many of these wrestlers get into MMA is prior experience training in a martial art (obviously, right?), and of course natural athletic capability. These are by no means automatic guarantors of success, but work instead as great building blocks. Here is a ranking of prominent wrestlers who started fighting in MMA. This ranking will be based on longevity in the sport, record, belts held (if any), and extent/mastery of martial arts training.
23 Honorable Mentions
While we should point these guys out for being great competitors and entertainers, wrestlers who started out in MMA and then switched to wrestling and those whose careers in both sports started virtually simultaneously will not be featured here. So our honorable mentions include, but are not limited to fighters like Pride/Pancrase legend Ikuhisa Minowa (still fighting by the way), Daniel Puder, who won Tough Enough Season 4 but had fought in MMA a year before in 2003, Tank Abbott, who briefly wrestled in WCW around 2000, Don Frye, who took up wrestling in the late 1990s after winning UFC 8 and Ultimate Ultimate 1996, and finally Josh Barnett, former UFC Heavyweight champion and current top ten contender, who wrestled on and off for the past decade.
22 Bam Bam Bigelow: 0-1
Scott Bigelow, who tragically died of a drug overdose when some substances, combined with prescription meds and a pre-existing heart problem did him in back in 2007, only fought once. While he was a dangerously massive dude, (flirting with 400 pounds at times throughout his two-decade career), Bigelow was a gifted athlete. His career started out in the late 1980s with Continental Wrestling Association and in the 199's he had some memorable periods with WWE, ECW and WCW.
21 Ludvig Borga/Tony Halme: 0-4
Finnish Tony Halme, who wrestled for UWF, New Japan, and WWE in the early 90s should have been a solid prospect for mixed martial arts. He was an incredible athlete and briefly held the Finnish Heavyweight championship in boxing, but that was after both his wrestling and MMA careers. He fought four times and went 0-4. Three of his losses came in Japanese promotion RINGS, and his fourth came in his only UFC fight. He was the guy Randy Couture choked out in a minute for his UFC debut back in 1997.
20 Kid Kash: 0-2
We should offer up a disclaimer here: there are rumors that Kid Kash participated in some very early (pre-UFC), mixed martial arts style promotions, but we have been unable to find any reliable sources to back up his experience in unsanctioned bouts, so we can't really include those here. His wrestling career spanned over two decades and included memorable stints with ECW, TNA and WWE, where he held the WWE Cruiserweight Champinoship. He had some boxing experience in his youth and has fought in one official mixed martial arts fight.
19 Taka Michinoku: 0-1
The first of a few Japanese wrestlers we'll talk about here, Taka Michinoku (Takao Yoshida) has been wrestling for over two decades (since the early 90s), and has competed in both Japan and North America, including ECW in the late 90s, WWE in the late 90s and early 2000s, and more recently in All-Japan and currently New Japan Pro Wrestling.
18 Nick Mitchell: 0-1
Over a month ago, the WWE saw the return of a decent joke tag team known as The Spirit Squad. These wrestlers all started out in Ohio Valley Wrestling and became a tag team on the main roster of WWE in 2006. Consisting of Mitch (Nick Mitchell), Nicky (now Dolph Ziggler), Kenny (Kenny Dykstra), Mikey (Mike Mondo) and Johnny (John Jeter), only Nicky has gone on to have a notable wrestling career.
Nick "Mitch" Mitchell took up fighting briefly after his wrestling career was over. He's mostly known for his time with The Spirit Squad, his participation in Tough Enough and dating Torrie Wilson for a while. But back to the fighting; he trained under Texan fighter Rocky Long (nothing special, fought and lost once in Strikeforce, has had minimal some success in small promotions) prior to his single professional fight at Worldwide Gladiator in 2010. He took on Derrick "The Black Beast" Lewis, who we currently know from his current four-fight UFC win streak, which includes victories over Roy Nelson and former UFC Heavyweight challenger Gabriel Gonzaga.
17 CM Punk: 0-1
In one of the most anticipated events in MMA this year, Phil Brooks entered the octagon against Mickey Gall. Mickey Gall is an impressive wrestler whose two professional wins before facing Punk ended in first round rear-naked choke victories. Back at UFC 203, it was more of the same from Gall, who finished CM Punk in just over two minutes.
16 Rodney "Mack" Begnaud 1-1
Having trained with the military in his late teens and into his early 20s, it is safe to say Rodney Begnaud likely had some real-life hand-to-hand skills before he became a wrestler. He trained with the Junkyard Dog back in the late 1990s and started working for ECW in 2000. He worked for the WWE on and off throughout the 2000s and still remains an active face in smaller promotions to this day.
15 Mike "Bart Gunn" Polchlopek: 1-1
Mike Polchlopek wrestled as one of The Smoking Gunns in WWE, as Bart Gunn, whose brother (kayfabe) Billy Gunn (Monty Kip Sopp) made up the other half of the duo. They were a dominant force among WWE tag teams in the mid 90s and held the tag belts three times. Later in his career, he worked for TNA and in Japan. He retired in 2004 and then took up MMA.
14 Paulo Cesar "Giant" da Silva: 2-6
Brazilian seven-footer (7'2" to be exact) Giant Silva was a basketball player originally and played not only professionally, but also for Brazil's national team. He started wrestling in the mid 90s and made his official debut in 1997 for WWE. He was released in 1999 and found work with New Japan in 2001.
13 Dave Bautista: 1-0
Where the heck do we start with Dave Bautista? Batista has held WWE championship belts a total of ten times, including a World Title six times, so there's that. He's moved on to movies and has had some memorable performances since his acting debut in 2006, including playing Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy (and the upcoming sequel). He's a former body builder and while little of this will be new information to his fans, he holds a purple belt in BJJ practicing under Cesar Gracie.
12 Sylvester Terkay: 3-1
While he isn't technically retired (not formally, anyway), there is no indication that the wrestling world will be hearing from Sylvester Terkay any time soon. He was only on WWE's main roster for a couple of years and spent a couple of years in Japan and some smaller promotions before leaving the sport. He's been in some movies since and has appeared on a few sitcoms.
11 Sean O'Haire: 4-2
Another tragic story of a wrestler whose demons got the better of him, Sean O'Haire, who held the WCW Tag Team Championship a total of three times, killed himself back in September 2014. He had fallen into alcoholism and suffered from depression during his final years.
His wrestling career was entertaining and of course spider-infested, and along with his time in WCW, included stints in WWE and New Japan. While he was with New Japan Pro Wrestling, he got into MMA and kickboxing, fighting for K-1 in kickboxing, much like Sylvester Terkay, and a number of promotions, including Pride and K-1 for MMA.
He went 0-4 in kickboxing, getting knocked out all four times. He saw more success in MMA, winning his first two bouts by submission and TKO respectively. That TKO came over Shungo Oyama, who holds wins over two members of the Gracie family and former UFC champ Carlos Newton. O'Haire lost his next two fights; getting choked out by Kim Min-Soo (the first guy Brock Lesnar defeated in MMA competition) and being on the receiving end of a TKO from the hands of Eric Esch, who is better known as Butterbean.
10 Bob Sapp: 11-19-1
While a two-sport athlete is a rare and impressive thing, Bob Sapp is a three sport kind of guy, having competed briefly in the NFL, a couple of Asian wrestling promotions and, of course, a slew of mixed martial arts promotions. As a fighter, he isn't great, but promoters know he brings a huge crowd and usually puts on a good show, even in a losing effort, which makes them keep hiring him.
Playing guard for the University of Washington, Sapp won the Morris Award; a PAC-12 annual trophy awarded to linemen as selected by their opposition. Just to clear up any potential confusion, Bob Sapp has no relation to Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp. He wasn't able to secure a starting spot on either the Chicago Bears or Minnesota Vikings after being drafted in 1997 and ultimately gave up on his football dream after a steroid suspension. He started wrestling in 2001.
9 Alberto Del Rio: 9-5
Although he was recently released after some drama with WWE, it is hard to feel bad for Jose Alberto Rodriguez. Why can't we feel for a guy in such a position? He's engaged to one of WWE's hottest divas, Paige. Everything else could fall apart, but if you've found yourself a woman like that, things can't be too bad.
He practiced Greco-Roman wrestling in his youth and was named to the Mexican national team. Around 2000, he started working with some Mexican promotions and then in Japan, before making his WWE debut in the late 2000s.
8 Naoya Ogawa: 7-2
Saying that Naoya Ogawa was a professional wrestler prior to his mixed martial arts career is basically a technicality, as his two debuts were mere months apart. He started wrestling for New Japan in April 1997 and had his first scrap at Red Devil Free Fight 1 in Holland on September 27 of that year. He'd go on to wrestle for over seven years, winning the NWA Tag Team Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship as well.
His move to MMA, like quite a few on this list, was barely an issue, as he was already a world champion judoka, having won four world championships in the late 80s and early 90s, not to mention an Olympic silver medal.
7 Bobby Lashley: 15-2
After wrestling in college, winning a few national college championships, and wrestling while in the armed forces, Bobby Lashley joined pro wrestling after an injury caused a major hiccup to his Olympic dreams. He was trained at Ohio Valley and made his WWE debut in 2005. He's since held belts for ECW and the United States Championship in WWE, and has held five different titles while in TNA, where he has been on and off since 2009.
6 Minoru Suzuki: 29-19
Now 48 years old, Minoru Suzuki started out in amateur wrestling in his youth, joined the ranks of NJPW in the late 1980s and worked for the Universal Wrestling Federation during that time as well. In 1993, he was one of the men involved with founding Pancrase. His first seven fights ended in victory, including a win over Ken Shamrock. His first professional loss was against Bas Rutten and nobody can really hold that against him. His wrestling was always a strong point to his game, but Suzuki always suffered against elite strikers.
5 Brock Lesnar: 6-3
It's hard to know where to place Lesnar on a list like this and we'll discuss why that is a bit later. He's a freak athlete and has been on an NFL roster, competed in NCAA wrestling, Pro Wrestling and MMA. The only sport he didn't conquer was football, but he was on the Vikings roster briefly and how many people can say that?
Lesnar has a 6-3 record in MMA and has been a UFC Heavyweight Champion. There are reasons to admire his time in the UFC and reasons to be skeptical of his place within MMA history. On one hand, he beat Randy Couture, Heath Herring, Shane Carwin, Mark Hunt and Frank Mir. Furthermore, he fought a couple of fights while suffering from the effects of diverticulitis; a bowel disease that causes severe abdominal pain.
On the other hand, he was given a title shot after one UFC win and while defeating Randy Couture is impressive, he glided past Cain Velasquez (who would brutalize him later), Junior Dos Santos, Gabriel Gonzaga, and a few others who could have given him a challenge. Was he spoon-fed the title? No. Was he spoon-fed Frank Mir twice (Mir is an incredible fighter, but that matchup is a tactical nightmare for Mir and Dana White knew it)? Yes and he failed to capitalize once. What about Mark Hunt? We all knew why he was given Hunt. Hunt can't wrestle and has comparatively poor cardio. Hunt was a gift from Dana White to a big draw for UFC 200.
4 Masakatsu Funaki: 39-13-2
Now getting into his late 40s, Masakatsu Funaki started training for his professional wrestling career at age 15 and made his debut in the same year. Needless to say, he's a solid athlete and his martial arts instruction and experience went back to a young age. After just over eight years in pro wrestling (New Japan and UWF) he switched over to newly formed Pancrase in 1993.
His first fight ended with him being choked out by Ken Shamrock (arm triangle), but he followed it up with seven wins. Over the next two years he'd fight Ken Shamrock two more times, splitting these meetings 1-1, leaving him with two losses and a win against him. He tapped out Bas Rutten and Frank Shamrock both with toe holds, and fought for King of Pancrase in September 1996, coming up short, getting knocked out by Rutten. He'd later be crowned the king of the promotion twice and retired for the first time in 2000 after a loss to Rickson Gracie. He'd return in 2007 to fight Kazushi Sakuraba; a fight which he lost.
3 Dan Severn: 101-19-7
For those of you now red in the face, thinking "wait a minute, Severn fought in MMA before he started wrestling with NWA" this is untrue, after his success in amateur wrestling at the collegiate level in the 1980s he became a member of UWF (Union of Wrestling Forces) in Japan, where he competed from 1991 until 1993.
In 1994, however, he made the switch to MMA and I shouldn't need to explain his time in the UFC to fans. He's a Hall of Fame inductee, won UFC 5, lost UFC 4 to Royce Gracie, and won UFC 9 over Ken Shamrock, in the worst thing combat sports could ever call a "superfight."
Severn retired from MMA after 2012 at age 54, after having appeared in 127 official fights. He was scheduled in early 2016 to face off against Ken Shamrock, but he pulled out and then Tank Abbott was going to take his place, but couldn't get cleared to fight. Severn was pissed. Even at age 58, Severn is still itching to get in there. He won his last championship at age 52 at Elite-1 MMA in New Brunswick, Canada.
2 Ken Shamrock: 28-17-2
After an eventful (eventful to say the least, including drugs, fighting, getting kicked out of home, and crime) youth, Ken Shamrock found competitive sports and came to dominate in football and wrestling during high school. He played football and wrestled in college and he chose professional wrestling afterward.
1 Kazushi Sakuraba: 26-17-1-2
For those of you who soiled yourselves after seeing Ken Shamrock not listed at number one, forgive us, clean your shorts and hear us out. He was an avid martial artist throughout his adolescence and chose pro wrestling as his competition in the early 1990s. He worked in UWF International for a couple of years before competing in Pancrase.
A major part of the reason we chose Sakuraba over Shamrock (and everyone else) for number one here is that one-of-a-kind style. It wasn't that he did anything people had never seen before, but rather that he was so consistently unpredictable. Watch his fights, it is nearly impossible to watch one without exclaiming to yourself at least once "...did he just do that?" He won UFC Japan back in 1997 and was one of the best fighters in the early days of Pride. If his incredible style is one reason he's our number one, his list of victims is another.
He beat a young Vitor Belfort in '99, eventual UFC Welterweight champ Carlos Newton, King of Pancrase and UFC champ Guy Mezger, Kevin Randleman, and Ken Shamrock. We should also mention his victories over members of a certain family. If you're new to UFC fandom or a casual fan, Kazushi Sakuraba beat four Gracies. Royler, Royce, Renzo and Ryan Gracie all fell to Sakuraba via kimura, corner stoppage, kimura again and UD, respectively. His 90 minute fight with Royce Gracie is up there among legendary events in MMA history.
Sakuraba's list of wins is impressive even without these guys, but four members of possibly the greatest family in the history of MMA is something special. The epic nickname "The Gracie Hunter" or "Gracie Killer," whatever you prefer, is well earned.
It should be noted that the Gracie family did have some revenge, as a juiced up Royce beat him in 2007 and Ralek beat him in 2010. If Sakuraba does/did have a weakness, it would have to be guys named Wanderlei, as "The Axe Murder" Silva knocked him out three times.
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