A long time ago, professional wrestling was actually seen as a real sport. However, a few decades ago, Vince McMahon revolutionized the business and made it more about “sports entertainment,” finally admitting what most people are believed — wrestling was fake. However, just because professional wrestling isn’t a real sport doesn’t mean that it’s worthless — it takes real athletic talent and mental determination to get to the top of the industry. And the results being predetermined hasn’t kept the so-called “legit athletes” from heading into the squared circle. Over the last few decades, there have been many world famous athletes who have made the move to pro wrestling. Some made permanent career moves, while some just showed up for a brief cameo. This article will look back at 15 of the most memorable athlete/wrestling crossovers.
15. Kurt Angle
This might seem like a bit of a strange entry to put on this list, seeing as Kurt Angle has always been in pro wrestling for decades now. However, before he got his start in the world of professional wrestling, Kurt Angle was an accomplished amateur wrestler. He was a state champion during his senior year of high school and a two-time Division I NCAA champ in college. In fact, Angle actually won the gold medal in freestyle wrestling back at the Summer Olympics in 1996. Not only that, he did it with a broken (freakin’) neck! Within a few years, Angle had moved to the WWE and became one of the best wrestlers and biggest stars in the company. We has won almost every major WWE title in existence and was named to their Hall of Fame in 2017. He also worked for TNA Wrestling for a decade, before returning to the WWE in 2017 — even getting back into the ring on a limited basis at the age of 49!
14. Steve McMichael
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Steve McMicheal was one of the most terrifying defensive tackles in the NFL. He was named to two Pro Bowls in his career and even won a Super Bowl championship with the Chicago Bears in 1986. He was as rough and tough as they come, and he embraced the persona. When most people retire from the NFL, they try to enjoy a relatively calm life, free from the grueling physical demands of football. But not McMicheal; when he retired, he went and joined WCW and became a wrestler using his nickname “Mongo.” His foray into wrestling wasn’t that long (1995 to 1999), but he managed to win the WCW United States championship and even became a member of the mid-90s version of the legendary Four Horsemen stable.
13. Ken Shamrock
Ken Shamrock is one of the true legends of combat sports. In the early days of the UFC (which were a bit lawless and crazy), Shamrock became world famous as one of MMA’s biggest stars. He feuded with the legendary Royce Gracie early on, spent a few years in Japan competing for PRIDE, and eventually returned the UFC and engaged in a memorable blood feud with Tito Ortiz. His performances earned him the nickname “The World’s Most Dangerous Man,” a monkier that would stick when tried his hand at professional wrestling
Shamrock debuted on Monday Night Raw in 1997 and quickly found himself working rivalries with the likes of Vader and Bret Hart. He even had a WWE World Championship match against Shawn Michaels at one of those early In Your House PPV events. He wrestled The Rock on numerous occasions, winning the Intercontinental Title in the process. He left the WWE in 1999 to resume his MMA career, although the wrestling bug stuck with him — he made sporadic appearances with Ring of Honor, Juggalo Championship Wrestling, and TNA Wrestling through the 2000s. Very few have been able to do what Shamrock has done in both the UFC and the WWE.
When you first look at him, you might think of Butterbean as a bit of a joke. He is 5’11” and weighs over 400 pounds, and hardly looks like an elite althete. However, with 77 pro boxing wins (and only 10 losses), he is no joke. He also competed in seven kickboxing matches and 28 MMA fights in his combat career. Butterbean made two appearances in the WWF, both being boxing matches.
Although the first match was “worked,” the second was a legit boxing fight against Bart Gunn at WrestleMania XV, who had just won the Brawl For All tournament (the WWE’s terrible idea to have their fighters compete in legit fist fights to capitalize on the rising popularity of MMA). Against a real boxer, Gunn had no chance. Butterbean knocked him out cold in just over 30 seconds, giving him a concussion that likely shortened Gunn’s career by several years. While he didn’t have many appearances in the WWE, they were extremely memorable.
11. Kevin Greene
Kevin Greene is a Hall of Famer in the NFL and is one of the best linebackers of all-time. Only a few NFL players have more sacks than him in their entire career and he was a three-time All Pro and also was named to the Pro Bowl five separate times. So while football fans know him for his skills on the field, wrestling fans might know him better for what he has done in the ring. He had a few short stints in WCW and teamed with the likes of Roddy Piper, Ric Flair, and Bill Goldberg. However, his budding career in wrestling was cut short when NFL teams started putting a no-wrestling clause in his contracts. He’s worked for various NFL teams as an assistant coach since retiring.
10. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is definitely one of the most interesting stories in entertainment history. He became world-famous as a pro wrestler, and then went on to be one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood. He is a media giant and has seemingly excelled at nearly everything he’s ever tried. However, before he even stepped into the ring to become a wrestler, Dwayne Johnson wanted to be a football player. He was a standout during college for the University of Miami, but then was cut from the Calgary Stampeders (a CFL team), which led to him to begin training for a wrestling career like his father and grandfather. That turned out pretty well for young Rocky Mavia.
9. Pete Rose
To most people, Pete Rose is known as the man who has the most hits in MLB history and has played in more games than anyone else. He was a 17 time All-Star, won three World Series titles, and even took home an MVP. While his gambling indiscretions have kept him out of the baseball Hall of Fame (so far), people can’t deny his legendary skills. While Rose didn’t appear in pro wrestling as an active competitor like many others on this list, he appeared at multiple WrestleMania events between 1998-2000 in segments with Kane, in what would become a running gag. The near 60-year-old Rose even took a Tombstone piledriver on multiple occassions!
8. Lawrence Taylor
If you look at the best defensive players in NFL history, Lawrence “L.T.” Taylor should be at (or near) the top of the list. He won three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards and even an MVP award in 1986, which is an incredibly rare feat for a defensive player. He basically did it all for the New York Giants throughout his dozen years with the team, including helping them win two Super Bowls.
After he retired from the NFL, Taylor made the crossover to pro wrestling. He only had a single (yet memorable) match, a WrestleMania XI main event against the late Bam Bam Bigelow. While he only appeared once, to appear in the main event of WrestleMania in your debut is pretty huge.
7. Rob Gronkowski
When all is said and done, Rob Gronkowski might go down as the best tight end in NFL history. He holds several records, has won multiple Super Bowls, and been to five Pro Bowls so far in his career. His unique mix of size, speed, and strength makes him a nightmares for opponents to deal with.
As it turns out, Rob Gronkowski could be one hell of a nightmare in the WWE ring as well. During WrestleMania 33, Gronk jumped over the barricade and helped his real-life friend Mojo Rawley win the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. With ridiculous size and an over-the-top personality, don’t be shocked to see Gronk appear in a WWE ring more often as his football career eventually ends. He’s perfect for it.
6. Mike Tyson
Mike Tyson will go down as one of the single best boxers of all-time. His punching power was ferocious and very few people wanted to challenge him in his prime. His fame and star power was so huge that he transcended the sport of boxing and became a bonafide pop culture celebrity. His fame led to him making several different appearances in the WWE including as a host and as a special enforcer. He even appeared in the main event at WrestleMania XIV where he counted the pinfall win for Stone Cold Steve Austin over Shawn Michaels, and delivered a massive knockout punch to Shawn Michaels after the match (he was originally aligned with D-Generation X before turning face). He is even a member of the WWE Hall of Fame.
5. Dennis Rodman
While many think of him as a crazy character with crazy fashion style, outrageous hair, and multiple piercings, there was a point in time where Dennis Rodman was one of the most tenacious defenders and rebounders in NBA history. He won five championships and several different awards for his defensive play. Throughout his career, Rodman always liked pro wrestling and when he was suspended near the end of the 1996-97 season, he decided to take wrestling more seriously.
He made several different appearances in WCW over the years and feuded against the likes of Randy Savage, Lex Luger and others. He even joined the NWO alongside Hollywood Hogan. He even dragged another NBA star into the fray, when Utah Jazz power forward Karl Malone also joined WCW in order to have a PPV tag team match against Rodman: Hogan/Rodman vs. Malone/Diamond Dallas Page.
4. Shaquille O’Neal
You would be hard pressed to find a more dominant NBA player than Shaq. He was huge, and no one could defend him in the paint. He dominated the NBA throughout his career en route to winning four NBA Titles (and three Finals MVP awards), a regular season MVP in 2000, and just about every other accolade that you can win. He has since retired and taken on a career as an analyst for the NBA and is doing very well in the role.
Shaq was also a huge fan of wrestling and made several appearances in the WCW and WWE over the years. He made several bit appearances at various shows and was even a surprise participant in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania 32. Those moments were supposed to lead to a WrestleMania 33 match with Big Show, but those plans fell through through due to either scheduling conflicts or a breakdown in contract negotiations, depending who you believe.
3. Brock Lesnar
The case of Brock Lesnar is a very interesting one, as he has bounced around quite a bit. He was a legit monster in the ranks of high school and collegiate wrestling, and quickly transitioned into being the youngest WWE champion in history. When he got bored of the pro wrestling grind, he tried to walk on to an NFL team (and almost made the cut). When that didn’t pan out, he signed with the UFC and shocked everyone by becoming their Heavyweight champion in just his fourth professional fight.
After losing the belt (and almost his life due to an undiagnosed fight with diverticulitis), Lesnar returned to pro wrestling in 2012 with a lucrative part-time (and high paying) schedule. He’s been booked as an unstoppable monster since then, and remains one of the WWE’s biggest stars. In this case, Lesnar started with pro wrestling, then became a champion in a “legitimate” sport, before finding his way back to squared circle.
2. Floyd Mayweather
For my money, the best boxer of all-time is the 50-0 Floyd Mayweather. He has maintained a spotless record and has hardly taken any damage over those 50 fights. He has also became one of the richest athletes of all-time thanks to his ability to market himself and be a businessman (even if he is a bit of a jerk in real life). Not one to miss out on an opportunity, Floyd Mayweather appeared at WrestleMania XXIV where he beat the much larger Big Show (with the gimmicked help of some brass knuckles), and took home a cool $20 million for showing up. He also made other, albeit smaller, appearances in the WWE in 2009 when he was the host of Monday Night Raw
1. Ronda Rousey
This is the newest addition to the WWE roster and one of the most exciting in years, as Ronda Rousey is now a member of the women’s division in the WWE. While not much is known about her role or how often she will wrestle, her contract is believed to be a full-time one. This is a huge move as Rousey is perhaps the biggest female star in combat sports history. She was a massive draw during her time in the UFC, routinely headline pay-per-views as the undefeated Bantamweight Champion. Rousey is one of the only UFC fighters to cross over into being a full blown celebrity, also starring in movies and appearing on mainstream magazine covers. She’s been a lifelong wrestling fan, and some of her best friends already work in the industry. After her brief appearance alongside The Rock at WrestleMania 32, it will be interesting to see what Rousey can become in the sports entertainment business.