Professional wrestling is a form of sports-entertainment which includes staged matches that are choreographed with predetermined outcomes. Those who enjoy professional wrestling will probably know it best from WWE programming – the mecca of the professional scene.
Amateur wrestling is a competitive sport that is not predetermined but abides by a scoring system. In amateur wrestling, the common formula involves grappling, throws, takedowns, joint hooks, and pins – all of which contribute in their own way to a competitor’s score.
Despite, the real versus fake aspect of the two, the correlation between professional and amateur wrestling is vast. Amateur wrestling maneuvers are very often visible on a professional wrestling program as a number of performers have amateur wrestling experience.
While the popularity of professional wrestling is far greater than the popularity of amateur wrestling, the amateur scene has become a large part of high school and collegiate athletics as well as a prominent Olympic event.
While wrestling purists will not consider the professional circuit as a legitimate form of wrestling, many of the amateurs themselves have been caught up with the lure and luster of the circus-like world of professional wrestling.
This article will attempt to breakdown the best professionals wrestlers who once competed at the amateur level – some to a higher degree than others – and some who have achieved a higher level of success. However, we must not disparage the accomplishments of any man on our list.
Our list will include some of the biggest names that have ever competed in WWE, WCW, AWA, and NWA – some of whom you may recognize as legends, some as recent professional stars, and some as complete unknowns.
Now, let’s get into our list of the top 15 professional wrestlers with amateur wrestling backgrounds:
15. Steve Williams
“Dr. Death” Steve Williams was one of those professional wrestlers who never quite attained the stardom he could have in the big wrestling companies – having achieved his greatest success in Japan while building a reputation as one of the toughest men in the wrestling business. He was a duel-sport athlete at the University of Oklahoma, earning All-American status in football and making the finals of NCAA amateur wrestling tournament.
14. Larry Hennig
Larry “The Axe” Hennig is the father of the late Curt Hennig, better known as Mr. Perfect, and the grandfather of WWE superstar Joe Hennig, better known as Curtis Axel.
Hennig was a fixture on the wrestling scene during the 1960s, having worked the Southern territories and most notably the AWA. However,before the patriarch of the Hennig family turned professional, he was an accomplished high school amateur wrestler.
In 1954, Larry Hennig managed to win the Minnesota State High School Heavyweight Wrestling Championship. He even earned a wrestling scholarship to the University of Minnesota.
13. Mike DiBiase
“Iron” Mike DiBiase was a professional wrestler who tragically died in the ring in 1969 when he suffered a fatal heart attack during a match against Man Mountain Mike.
The adoptive father of “The Million Dollar Man,” DiBiase spent the bulk of his professional wrestling career with the AWA and NWA. Prior to his participation with said companies, DiBiase was a skilled amateur wrestler.
In 1946, DiBiase won the AAU Championship while representing the US Navy. DiBiase would then wrestle at the University of Nebraska.
12. Gorilla Monsoon
Younger wrestling fans may only remember Gorilla Monsoon best as the President of WWE back in the ’90s. Others may remember him best as a WWE play-by-play commentator. Others may remember him from his super-heavyweight professional wrestling years.
However you may remember the Gorilla is sure to be a fond nostalgic trip. Monsoon left a lasting impression on the WWE that will not soon be forgotten.
Of course, before his wrestling/commentator/Presidential days, Monsoon was a standout amateur wrestler at Ithaca College where he set a number of school records and was inducted into the Ithaca College Athletic Hall of Fame.
11. Ric Flair
Ric Flair is perhaps the most celebrated professional wrestler who has ever lived. “The Nature Boy” is a sixteen-time World Champion and in a league all his own.
However, before Flair was mastering the figure four leg-lock, running with the Four Horsemen, kiss-stealing and wheeling-dealing, The Natch was first introduced to wrestling through amateur competition during his high school years at Wayland Academy in Wisconsin.
Who would have thought while watching a young Ric wrestle on the high school mat that he would turn out to be The Man?
10. Jack Swagger
“The Real American,” Jack Swagger still looks like an amateur wrestler today while performing in a WWE ring where he incorporates amateur style moves.
In high school, Donald Hager (real name) was a two-sport athlete playing football and wrestling. During this time, Hager would join the Junior National USA wrestling team before heading off to the University of Oklahoma where he continued with both sports.
While attending college, Hager was introduced to Jim Ross who convinced him to get in contact with him when he was finished with his schooling – which he did – and thus, Jack Swagger was born.
9. Dolph Ziggler
“The Show Off,” Dolph Ziggler is currently one of the most beloved superstars on the WWE roster – a crowd favorite who really can steal the show with his charismatic persona and excellent in-ring ability.
Ziggler has taken a long hard road to get to where he is at today and in many way, there are still miles ahead. Perhaps a future WWE World Heavyweight Champion? I know the fan support is there, but something tells me that those in charge do not view Dolph in that light.
Before he was Dolph Ziggler in WWE, he was Nicholas Nemeth – an amateur wrestler at St. Edward High School in Lakewood, Ohio where he set the school record for most pins. Following high school, Nemeth would attend Kent University where he became a three-time All-Mid -American Conference Champion.
8. Shelton Benjamin
Shelton Benjamin is best remembered for his time in WWE as one half of The World’s Greatest Tag-Team, along with his partner Charlie Haas. Benjamin is a naturally gifted athlete whose WWE singles push never quite came to fruition.
While attending the University of Minnesota, Benjamin was roommates with another future WWE star named Brock Lesnar. Benjamin would excel in college as an amateur wrestler, posting a record of 36-6 throughout his tenure.
In 2000; Benjamin would decide to not make an attempt at qualifying for the 2000 Summer Olympics but rather pursue a career in professional wrestling.
7. Rick Steiner
Rick Steiner is the lesser-known of the Steiner Brothers tag-team – the fierce duo that captured the Tag-Team Championship on seven separate occasions in NWA.
If you can recall Rick’s ring-gear, you will remember that he would come out wearing amateur wrestling headgear. This was due to the fact that Rick was a strong amateur wrestler during his time at the University of Michigan.
When his collegiate wrestling career came to a close, his final record stood at 125-51-2 while also setting the school record for fastest pin at fifteen seconds.
6. Mad Dog Vachon
The Montreal born Mad Dog Vachon was one of the early great heels of professional wrestling – an intense man with a massive wild side, Vachon was a five-time AWA World Heavyweight Champion.
Before he became the Mad Dog of professional wrestling, Vachon accumulated some rather successful amateur accomplishments.
In 1948, Vachon competed in the Summer Olympic Games. While in 1950, Vachon would capture the gold medal at the British Empire Games.
5. Bret Hart
“The Excellence of Execution,” was taught everything he knows down in his father Stu’s dungeon back in Calgary, Alberta. However, Bret Hart would also fine-tune his wrestling abilities through amateur competition.
Long before Hart was ever a screwed-over WWE Champion, he was the Calgary City amateur wrestling champion. Hart would also win a championship at Mount Royal College where he was studying film.
“The Hitman” is widely regarded as one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time.
4. Bob Backlund
During his run with the WWE, Bob Backlund would put together the second longest title reign in the history of the company – second only to Bruno Sammartino.
Backlund who was a fighting champion would garner a respectable reputation in the world of professional wrestling.
Prior to his success in WWE, Backlund was a successful amateur wrestler at North Dakota State University where he was a Division II NCAA Champion.
3. Jack Brisco
The older of the Brisco brothers, Jack is a former NWA World Heavyweight Champion and considered by many to be one of the best of his era.
Brisco would make history while attending Oklahoma States University where he competed as an amateur wrestler. He was also an promising football prospect, but rejected a football scholarship to pursue wrestling. In 1965, Jack Brisco became the first ever Native American to win the NCAA National Championship.
2. Brock Lesnar
The man we know as “The Beast” lives up to that nickname in every single way. Brock Lesnar is an ass-kicking machine.
Growing up on a diary farm in South Dakota, Lesnar took up amateur wrestling in high school where he posted an perfect 33-0-0 record in his senior year. He would then attend Bismark State College where he would win the Nation Junior Championship. This would capture the attention of the University of Minnesota who then offered Lesnar a full wrestling scholarship to attend their school.
Following his transfer, the dominance continued. In 2000, Lesnar would win the NCAA Division I Championship.
1. Kurt Angle
Kurt Angle made his WWE debut in 1999 and would quickly establish himself as a top superstar – going on to become a six-time World Champion. Angle found great success as a professional wrestler but was also a highly successful amateur. In fact, the most successful and decorated amateur wrestler to have ever turned professional.
Kurt Angle attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania where he would become a two-time NCAA Division I Champion. Angle was a master of the mat and his mastery did not end at the collegiate level.
Despite fractured vertebrae, herniated discs, and pulled muscles in his neck, Angle managed to compete at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia where he won the gold medal.
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