The connection between fighting and professional wrestling stretch back over a century. Both forms of entertainment share a basic premise, combat with a victor emerging, whether authentic or rehearsed.
They also share many, many fans. Many MMA fans, myself included, started out as professional wrestling fans, and since combat sports undisputedly hit more common chords with a pro wrestling fan than any other sport, we gravitated to that.
Same goes for athletes, as well. Collegiate wrestlers have long turned to professional wrestling, as there is no actual “professional” league for amateur-style wrestling. Now, with visibility for wrestling and MMA never higher, some wrestlers have done the opposite and transitioned from pure combat sport to pro wrestling.
So over the next two days, I’m going to look at ten of them. Fighters-turned-wrestlers and wrestlers-turned-fighters.
We looked at Part I yesterday.
I’ll break it down like so:
- Credentials: Championships from major MMA and wrestling promotions.
- Best Win: Purely subjective on my part, but in my opinion, who was the best fighter they’ve defeated in their career.
- Best Match: Based on Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s famous (or infamous) star-ratings.
- And my opinions on their impact on both professional wrestling and MMA, scored 1-5.
Credentials: WWE World Heavyweight Championship (3x), WWE Championship (x2), WWE Intercontinental Championship, ECW Championship, ROH World Championship, IWA Mid-South Heavyweight Championship (x5), IWA Mid-South Light Heavyweight Championship (x2), IWC Heavyweight Championship, OVW Heavyweight Championship, OVW Television Championship
Best Win: N/A
Best Match: vs. John Cena, WWE Championship, Money In The Bank ’11/vs. Samoa Joe, ROH Joe vs. Punk II, 2004 (*****)
Pro Wrestling Impact: 5: After the close of both WCW and ECW in 2001, combined with the thousands of wrestlers that started training during the Monday Night Wars, there were a ton of wrestlers with nowhere to wrestle. That led to the rise of the independent scene in the early 2000s. By the mid-2000s, the major independents (Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerilla, Combat Zone Wrestling, IWA-Mid South, CHIKARA, etc…) had some of the best wrestling in the world and some of the best performers that WWE wasn’t interested in because of their size, body type, look, or being anything other than the cookie-cutter John Cena/Randy Orton types they were looking for at that time. Punk was the first true indy star to break through. He looked different, acted different, wrestled different, and talked different from anything that was on WWE television at that time. His success against all odds opened WWE’s eyes to seeing value in independent scene wrestlers. Over time, stars from the indie scene like Daniel Bryan, Cesaro, Samoa Joe, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Jon Moxley (Dean Ambrose), Luke Harper, and Seth Rollins, amongst many others, found their way to WWE. He changed the entire landscape.
Mixed Martial Arts Impact: 1: After leaving WWE and after a couple years of training, Punk was gifted a spot in the UFC and bouts were fought to see who would have the “honor” of facing him. Unlike Brock Lesnar, Punk had no combat sport experience, and unlike Lesnar, he was never known for his athleticism whatsoever. He was also in his late-30s. Also, he never even had a professional (or amateur) tune-up fight like Lesnar had. He walked into the UFC cage twice, and twice was humiliated. He is, without question, the worst fighter to ever fight in the UFC.
Credentials: NJPW NEVER Openweight Championship (3x), RevPro British Heavyweight Championship
Best Win: Ikuhisa Minowa
Best Match: vs. Kazuchika Okada, IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, NJPW Sakura Genesis 2017/vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi, NJPW Destruction in Kobe ’14/vs. Tomohiro Ishii, NJPW G1 Climax 2013 Night 4 (*****)
Pro Wrestling Impact: 3: You may remember after reading the Nakamura profile, that he, Shibata, and Hiroshi Tanahashi were the new “Three Musketeers” of NJPW, tasked with returning it to glory. Yeah…about that… Nakamura and Tanahashi withheld their part of the bargain, and even with Nak dabbling in MMA, his clear focus was pro wrestling. In January 2005, Shibata left NJPW to pursue his MMA career. Meanwhile, New Japan was battling every single event to regain relevence, with Tana and Nak on the front lines. After a substandard career in MMA, Shibata returned over seven years later to New Japan, to both actual and storyline heat (most notably from NJPW lifer Togi Makabe) for leaving when times were tough, and returning when New Japan was back on top. Unfortunately, once he finally earned back the respect of his peers and the fans, he was forced to retire in April of 2017 after severe brain injuries in a match. However, since then, he’s the head coach of the NJPW Dojo in Los Angeles, and his impact will be felt by future generations. Still, his entire career is a big what-if. What if he never left to pursue MMA and stayed with NJPW during the lean years, cutting his teeth with his fellow musketeers. And what if he tuned down his style a little bit in his second run, and quit using a fucking headbutt so much? We’ll never know.
Mixed Martial Arts Impact: 1: To Shibata’s credit, he gave it his all, cut off an extremely promising wrestling career, and committed himself totally to his MMA career. Unfortunately…he wasn’t very good. 4-11-1, and although he was probably pushed too hard, too fast, and a win over Minowaman is a decent scalp, it was pretty much a failure.
Credentials: Shark Fights Heavyweight Championship, XFN Heavyweight Championship, TNA/Impact World Heavyweight Championship (4x), ECW World Championship (2x), WWE Intercontinental Championship (2x), WWE United States Championship
Best Win: James Thompson
Best Match: w/Baron Corbin and Drew McIntyre vs. The Shield, Fastlane ’19. (****1/4)
Pro Wrestling Impact: 2: The nickname of “Black Lesnar” that Lashley has gotten since he came into WWE certanly fits him. He came in to WWE a year after Brock Lesnar had left and was pushed to the moon immediately. He looked the part, but was incredibly boring in the ring and on the mic. He earned some critical and fan acclaim with a nice run in TNA, by having an MMA gimmick and looking like an unbeatable legit monster. His WWE return has been pretty rank, including the worst ongoing angle of the year, his angle with Lana and Rusev.
Mixed Martial Arts Impact: 2: Although he never reached the acclaim or success of Lesnar at MMA, I’ll give Lashley that he dedicated himself to being a full-time MMA fighter, compiling a record of 15-2 and fighting for promotions all over the world. Strikeforce, Super Fight League, Bellator, XFN, Titan FC, and more. He wasn’t given a handout like CM Punk, he dedicated himself and fought from the bottom up.
Credentials: Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight Championship (defended 1x), UFC Women’s Bantamweight Championship (defended 6x), WWE Raw Women’s Championship
Best Win: Miesha Tate
Best Match: w/Kurt Angle vs. HHH/Stephanie McMahon, WrestleMania 34/vs. Charlotte, Survivor Series ’18 (****1/2)
Pro Wrestling Impact: 3: Was an immediate success, advanced to an alarming-degree in the ring. Her charisma and mic work were never her strong suits, because Ronda’s acting has gotten entire movies scrapped, but inside the ropes? A dynamo. A very hot angle with Charlotte and Becky Lynch took her to Wrestlemania, where those three were the first ever women’s main event of Wrestlemania. Had an unbelievable year and change, and brought in some casual fans, but was gone too soon to really cement herself as a tentpole in women’s professional wrestling.
Mixed Martial Arts Impact: 5: Immeasurable. Sure, there had been female MMA before Rousey (we’ll get to that later), but through sheer force of will, and a wide lead on 99% of female fighters because of her judo experience, Ronda got women into the UFC, she got women headlining PPV cards, she unlocked an entire viewing sect, inspired lots of young women, and legitimized WMMA to the point that entirely female promotions in the States like Invicta were formed (and succeeded!). I detest her as a person, but even I can’t deny the massive, massive impact she had on the sport.
Credentials: The Cage Inc Women’s 140lb Championship, AIW Women’s Championship, NXT Women’s Championship (x2)
Best Win: Roxanne Modafferi
Best Match: w/Bianca Belair/Io Shirai/Kay Lee Ray vs. Candice LeRae/Dakota Kai/Rhea Ripley/Tegan Nox, NXT Takeover: War Games ’19 (****1/4)
Pro Wrestling Impact: 2: Was just a few years too late to join the women’s revolution and the real Four Horsewomen of Charlotte, Bayley, Becky Lynch, and Sasha Banks. Those four, along with Paige and Emma before them, jump-started women’s pro wrestling and legitimized it, just as Rousey had done for WMMA. From those four, wrestlers like Asuka, Ember Moon, and Kairi Sane carried the torch until Baszler arrived in NXT. To her credit, Shayna has carried the torch as well as anyone, and might be the best women’s champion in NXT history. So while she’s been outstanding in the ring (and on the mic and charismatically, unlike Rousey), as far as an impact, the timing just didn’t work out.
Mixed Martial Arts Impact: 4: As I noted above with Ronda, she did not start women’s mixed martial arts. There are many, many female fighters that don’t get credit despite being true groundbreakers in the sport, and keeping it alive in promotions like Strikeforce before Ronda could come in and carry that baton the rest of the way. Fighters like Baszler, Gina Carano, Miesha Tate, Julie Kedzie, Cyborg, and my personal favorite fighter of all-time, Marloes Coenen, deserve recognition for doing the heavy lifting to keep women’s fighting relevant.