There’s been no shortage of professional wrestlers who have decided to make the switch over to MMA. After all, it is frequently touted that wrestling is the best base for MMA. Whether for money or passion, MMA has proven to be an intriguing proposition.
Often sporting a strong collegiate wrestling background and an outrageous work ethic from gruelling wrestling schedules, they come well equipped to make a splash from the off. We’ve seen these crossover athletes have mixed success; from all time greats of MMA, to forgotten footnotes in history.
Here, we will look at a few of the most important crossover athletes to have tried their hand in the cage.
1. Brock Lesnar
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. Hulking half-man, half-bicep Lesnar made the switch to MMA back in 2007 after a failed move into football and a stint bouncing around Japanese wrestling promotions. With his career stalling, Lesnar decided to leverage his extensive collegiate wrestling background. This led to his first MMA match, in which he mauled poor Min-Soo Kim in just over a minute.
The impressive performance sold the UFC on Lesnar, setting up a fight with all-time great Frank Mir. Lesnar’s hype was momentarily derailed here however, with Mir on a totally different level to Min-Soo Kim and wasting little time grabbing a limb and yanking it until Lesnar tapped out. Not one to stay down, Lesnar returned by beating Heath Herring into an almost decade-long retirement, and following this up by knocking out MMA legend Randy Couture, after some initial difficulty, to win the Heavyweight Championship.
Lesnar would go on to defend this title twice, avenging his loss to Mir, and overcoming an absurd amount of damage to submit the equally monstrous Shane Carwin. However, the good times didn’t last long and one-sided beatdowns to Cain Velasquez and a prime horsemeat-era Alistair Overeem saw Lesnar barrel out of MMA. A brief return in 2016 saw a fight against Mark Hunt, but the less said about this debacle the better.
2. Bobby Lashley
Serving as the antithesis of Lesnar’s meteoric rise, Bobby Lashley is a somewhat unfortunate tale of a fighter who seemed to do everything right and still failed. After his release from WWE in 2008, Lashley decided to supplement his income from independent wrestling promotions by leveraging his collegiate wrestling background, which involved serious consideration of an Olympic bid. Despite offers from the UFC, Lashley wanted to do it the “right” way and earn his way to the UFC.
This initially seemed a good strategy, with decent wins over journeymen such as Wes Sims, Jason Guida, and walking meme Bob Sapp. However, tough losses to low level competition Chad Griggs and James Thompson, coupled with questions about Lashley’s heart and gas tank, left his career in tatters. Lashley remained fighting for several years, avenging his loss to Thompson, but never again seriously looked like threatening the upper echelons of the sport and has not competed since 2016.
Lashley does hold a 15-2 record, but with few noteworthy names amongst his victims. This all feels like a missed opportunity, as a fight between Lashley and Lesnar would have been amongst the first true superfights of MMA, and would have had serious crossover potential.
3. CM Punk
If Bobby Lashley is the tale of doing everything right and failing, CM Punk is simply the tale of comprehensively failing. After a public and occasionally ugly falling out with WWE, Punk expressed his desire to compete in the UFC, of which he was a fan. Dana White, never one to let a lucrative sacrificial lamb escape, agreed.
With a high profile fight set up on the main card of UFC 203 against newcomer Mickey Gall, CM Punk was ludicrously heavily promoted to the vocal chagrin of other MMA fighters. Punk remained confident however, trained hard, talked up his chances, and briefly looked like the real deal. Then the fight took place and Punk thoroughly outclassed in a mere two minutes and fourteen seconds. After charging at Gall and flailing with what may have been a punch, he was taken to the mat and submitted with ease.
Punk wasn’t to be deterred by this loss, however. Staying with highly respected gym Roufusport MMA, Punk spent 2 years training hard, talking a big game, and gaining grudging respect from those around him. This all led to his return at UFC 225 against MMA journalist Mike Jackson, where he was once again thoroughly outclassed. This time the fight was a 3 round, utterly one-sided affair. Jackson won by a wide 30-26 margin, but the fight itself was so bad that it marks amongst the only times in the history of the UFC that both fighters have been cut from the promotion afterwards. At 41 and with a 0-2 record in MMA, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see Punk in the cage again, minus a commentating gig with Cage Fury Fighting Champions.
4. Nobuhiko Takada
On initial inspection, Takada should have no place on this list. With a record of 2-6-2, Takada never threatened GOAT status or bothered the pound-for-rankings. The thing that sets Takada apart though is simply the calibre of competition he faced in his relatively short MMA career.
Between 1997 to 2002, Takada faced an absolute murderers row of opposition, squaring of against all-time greats Mirco Cro-Cop (managing a draw), both Rickson and Royce Gracie, Mark Kerr during his Smashing Machine phase, beating Mark Coleman (though with a large asterisk), and Igor Vovchanchyn. This may be the highest calibre of competition any MMA fighter has ever faced in such a short time, and is especially striking that it happened outside of the UFC during MMA’s formative years.
Despite losing all but two of his fights, Takada is still seen as a hero of Japanese professional wrestling. While there have been other, more successful, fighters to come out of the wrestling stables of Japan, no other fighter quite embodied the Bushido spirit of Takada. Well, except for perhaps one man.
5. Kazushi Sakuraba
There’s possibly no other man so beloved across both MMA and professional wrestling than Sakuraba. With a background in Japanese wrestling promotions (including Takada’s own Kingdom Pro Wrestling), Sakuraba’s star was already made prior to ever competing in MMA. Despite this, Sakuraba competed like a man possessed, and his list of achievements is staggering, and the veteran has faced a who’s-who of the sport.
He was the first man to beat Royce Gracie, and again in a 90-minute long battle of attrition rematch, earning the Gracie-Hunter moniker. In addition to Gracie, Sakuraba would also beat Quinton Jackson, Vitor Belfort, Carlos Newton, Ken Shamrock, and Kevin Randleman, all of whom would go on to be UFC champions. He is a hall of famer for both Sherdog and the UFC, despite only fighting for the promotion once (well, technically twice due to early UFC shenanigans).
Sakuraba was a true pioneer of the sport, and despite only fighting outside of Japan once in his whole career, his enduring popularity is testament to his unmatched importance to MMA.
Bautista only has a single MMA bout against unranked competition. However, with a burgeoning film career meaning Bautista was hardly short on cash, he simply wanted to give MMA a shot. Winning a grinding affair in the first round, Bautista deserves plaudits for simply stepping in the cage.
Alberto Del Rio
With an extensive professional wrestling background, Del Rio was another fighter with no need to step into MMA other than a desire to do so. Leaving the sport with a respectable 9-6 record, including a failed 2019 return against MMA great Tito Ortiz, Del Rio should still be proud of his achievements. However, his brutal loss against Mirco Cro-Cop, getting his head nearly roundhouse kicked into orbit while wearing a Lucha Libre mask, is perhaps best forgotten.
Jake Hager, or Jack Swagger if you would prefer, is early on in his career. A pair of decent wins under Bellator, and an odd no contest, have left him as one-to-watch in MMA. At 38, there are valid questions about how far Hager can go with him remaining time as a top athlete, but it will be interesting to see how far he wants to push into MMA.
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