5 Most Influential MMA Fighters Who Moved To Wrestling

It's tiiiime for a career change.

Triple H Ronda Rousey

For wrestlers looking for a career change to liven things up, MMA has long been a viable option. Last week we looked at exactly that, the most important wrestlers who transitioned to MMA. But what about those who move the other way?

With wrestling-esque trash talking and over the top personas continuing to proliferate in MMA, trading the cage for the ring is increasingly becoming an option for fighters. Several major MMA athletes have moved over recently, albeit with mixed success.

Here, we will look at the five most important MMA to wrestling transitions.


1. Ronda Rousey

ronda rousey
Source: WWE

Rousey had a major impact on MMA, this really can’t be understated. Her PPV numbers within MMA are only bettered by cards led by Conor McGregor and Brock Lesnar, and more recently by Usman vs. Masvidal. Not to mention the fact that Dana White literally created the first UFC Women’s division just to sign Rousey, after publicly and repeatedly stating for many years that “women will never fight in the UFC”.

As for Rousey’s MMA career; she looked invincible. Right up until she didn’t. With a record of 12-0, all by stoppage, coming into the Holm fight Rousey looked set to take over the world. There was even talk of her beating up Floyd Mayweather and Cain Velasquez (more on him later). However a Holm head kick had other ideas, chiefly removing Rousey from consciousness.

An attempted comeback against Amanda Nunes went just about as badly as it possibly could have done, and sent Rousey barreling into retirement. However as a big fan of wrestling and having made several guest appearances, as well as being armed with the “Rowdy” nickname inherited from the late, great Roddy Piper, Rousey was well set to make the transition.

Rousey was an immediate fan favourite in the squared circle, and held the longest title reign as RAW Women’s Champion, until surpassed by Becky Lynch, who won the title from Rousey. Currently taking a break from wrestling to spend time with her family, plus some controversial comments about fans in early 2020, Rousey has remained away from WWE. Speculation is growing about a return however. Here’s hoping we see Rousey again, and soon!


2. Cain Velasquez

Cain Velasquez WWE
Credit: WWE

Cain Velasquez was once touted as the Heavyweight GOAT in MMA, with heaps of raw talent and athleticism, but also a level of technique not often seen in the division. A sad tale of what should have been, rather than what was. Rarely have fights left fans with quite as many questions as Cain Velasquez.He plowed through the competition, claiming some major scalps on his way to then-champion Brock Lesnar. In what was expected to be a close and competitive fight, Velasquez rag-dolled Lesnar in a vicious mauling of a contest. A shock KO loss to JDS followed, however Cain quickly avenged this in the pair of rematches which followed. After that everything would derail though.

Injuries plagued Velasquez’s career, only managing to fight 7 more times in the following eight years. With inquiries ranging from a torn meniscus to bone spurs on his spine, Velasquez just couldn’t catch a break. Seriously, the guy was held together by duct tape and hope. In a rare moment without injuries, Velasquez attempted to defend his title against BJJ pioneer Fabricio Werdum, but gassed out badly after failing to acclimate to the altitude in Mexico City,and was submitted in the 3rd round giving birth to the “sea-level Cain” meme.

A win against Travis Brown briefly reignited hopes for Velasquez before another crushing loss. This time Cain was knocked out by terrifying man beast Francis Ngannou. Velasquez blamed the loss on a knee injury, but it’s an odd knee injury that is caused by being punched in the face.

After this Velasquez decided his time in the UFC was done, and decided to move to the WWE in 2019, following a brief stint with Lucha Libre AAA Worldwide. You know, the WWE, where there is definitely no gruelling schedules or injuries. Unsurprisingly, the WWE decided to reignite his rivalry with Brock Lesnar following their fight years earlier in the UFC. Following some back and forth, the pair finally fought in an MMA-styled match up. It was super average, and Lesnar’s win was somewhat undermined by the beating he took back in the UFC. Fans were largely unconvinced however, and following yet another injury, Velaquez found himself on the chopping block as part of COVID-19 budget cuts.


3. Matt Riddle

Source: WWE

Matt Riddle is something of a footnote in MMA history. After appearing on The Ultimate Fighter 7and being eliminated in the first round, the UFC’s reality TV show, Riddle went on to have a bang average career. Some good wins, some poor losses, and a pair of silly No Contests after testing positive for cannabis left his career with little momentum. Following the second of these positive cannabis tests Dana White had had enough, and gave Riddle his walking papers.He does however hold the rare distinction of making his competitive debut in the UFC, and only fought outside the promotion once. Riddle’s career after the UFC is where things get interesting however.

With very little hype behind him, there was no fast-track to the WWE for Riddle. Following four years of gruelling hard work on the independent circuit, Riddle finally fought his way to the big show in 2018. He was a changed man; no longer the lanky, awkward youth we had seen in the UFC, Riddle was confident, cocksure, and possessed a herculean physique. Riddle initially appeared on NXT, WWE’s feeder slash talent development brand. Again putting in the hard work we saw during his time on the independent circuit, Riddle was able to make the shift to WWE-proper with an appearance on Smackdown.

With honed wrestling skills, a developed persona, and a naturally gained fanbase Riddle is arguably the poster child for the “right” way to get the WWE. Someone does need to have a word with him about those dodgy blonde locks though. Just because it worked for Ric Flair does not mean it will work for you!


4. Ken Shamrock

Ken Shamrock
Source: MiddleEasy

The historians out there will accurately call this one out as cheating. And rightly so! Shamrock was wrestling in independent promotions, and then later Japan, a full five years before he ever set foot in an MMA fight. However, these were smaller promotions, and notably the Japanese Wrestling shamrock partook in was a mix of worked matches and legitimate shoot fights (an odd mix of worked sections with real punches and submission holds).

Where Shamrock truly made a name for himself was in early UFC cards, appearing on seven of the first ten numbered UFC cards, including UFC 1. He became best known for his gruelling 36-minute rematch with Rocye Gracie, and became the first man to avoid losing to Gracie with the fight being ruled a draw. Years of moving back and forth between MMA and wrestling followed; a major stint with the WWE,then WWF, between 1997 and 1999 was well-received (Shamrock continued to appear in WWE video games as recently as 2016). Stints in and out of the UFC were sandwiched by appearances for independent wrestling promotions, and then TNA and Impact later on.

While not as notable as Brock Lesnar’s, Shamrock has certainly been an important name across both sports. At 56 with retirement surely approaching (please – not more MMA fights!) “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” may not have always won but he always put on a show, and he will leave behind a body of work he can be proud of.


5. Josh Barnett

Source: UFC

Barnett gets a mention here as he was amongst the first mixed martial artists to move over to wrestling without having a background in the ring. Back in 2003 Barnett was riding high, he had already won the UFC belt at only 24 years old (though in highly dubious circumstances by today’s standards), and then to Pancrase where he won their Openweight belt.

Choosing at this point to try his hand at wrestling, a childhood fixation for Barnett. Moving to New Japan Pro-wrestling (founded by none other than Antonio Inoki), Barnett fought several notables during this time including Ken Shamrock, Juyi Nagata, and Mitsuya Nagai. MMA beckoned Barnett, but he would return to the ring regularly throughout his career, with further matches against the likes of Bobby Lashey, Done Fry, and Naoya Ogawa.

Barnett is also notable for being amongst the first to employ wrestling style trash talking and a carefully honed persona in MMA. While he grew into this over time, and looks tame by today’s level of vitriol (see Conor McGregor or Colby Covington), it set off a chain reaction which marked a turning point in the popularity of MMA, and directly influenced other fan favourites such as Chael Sonnen.

Being effectively retired from MMA now, Barnett seems keen to continue his work in the ring competing as recently as 2019, and being scheduled to face Jon Moxley at Bloodsport 3 before COVID-19 decided we can no longer have nice things. Hopefully once the world returns to normal we’ll see plenty more of Barnett in the ring. At only 42, “The Babyfaced Assassin”, still has plenty more to give should he so choose.


Honorable Mention: Don Frye

As with Ken Shamrock, Frye is an early pioneer of MMA. Frye appeared on UFC 8,9, and 10, as well as the dodgy-named Ultimate Ultimate 96. After some shady business involving match-fixing, Frye was unceremoniously booted from the UFC. Frye chose this point to try his hand at wrestling, appearing in New Japan Pro-wrestling a full six years earlier than Barnett (the two would match up later on in their careers in IGF Genome, with Barnett coming away with the win).

With his All-American persona, Frye was a hit, and he continued to appear in wrestling sporadically until 2013. He also holds the distinction of having competed in MMA, Professional wrestling, collegiate wrestling including an Olympic qualifier, Kickboxing, and Boxing. Frye is also notable for his time in highly rated Japanese MMA promotion Price FC, where he fought Yoshihiro Takayama in an utterly outrageous slugfest, which is still named amongst the best fights ever. Seriously, go watch it.

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