Regardless of being scripted, professional wrestling is still considered a sport that involves a special kind of athlete. That athlete is expected to do precise movements and have a specific blend of strength, speed, agility and, most importantly, charisma. Now this athlete comes in different shapes and sizes. There are smaller athletes who focus on aerial athletics and larger men who focus on strength and power.
Professional wrestling can be viewed as a place where a variety of athletes come together to provide the most unique form of sporting entertainment possible. They come from various backgrounds. For example, several of the greatest professional wrestlers of the 1940s and 1950s also played professional football – Verne Gagne, Ernie Ladd, and Bronco Nagurski.
While most professional wrestlers who played another sport before going into the ring were involved in football, wrestlers come from other athletic backgrounds. Mark Henry was an Olympic powerlifter. The Big Show had a decent collegiate basketball career at Wright State University. Kurt Angle was an Olympic gold medalist in wrestling, “with a broken freaking neck.”
But while a number of successful athletes from other sports came to professional wrestling, a number of wrestlers came to the ring after failing in another sport. Sometimes, there was an injury that affected their ability to play at a professional level. Or maybe they had a difficult time adjusting to the change from college to pro sports.
The following are 15 professional wrestlers who struggled playing another sport professionally – including football, baseball, basketball and even mixed martial arts.
15. Jim Neidhart Struggled In Professional Football
While certainly not the biggest name in the Hart Foundation’s history, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart carved his own path of impact in the industry. But he was always a strong athlete, even as a young man growing up in California. He was strong in football and track and field, especially as an All-American shot putter.
He attempted to make a run in the National Football League and was invited to training camps and preseason games with both the Oakland Raiders and the Dallas Cowboys. The latter released him in the late 1970s, which put an end to his professional football career. But he still had the raw athleticism to find success once he discovered Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling promotion. From there, the rest is history.
14. Giant Gonzalez Couldn’t Adapt To The NBA
Jorge Gonzalez was certainly one of the tallest athletes in the world during the 1980s. He was seven feet and six inches tall. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that before entering professional wrestling, he would be recruited to play basketball. Gonzalez mostly played club basketball in Argentina in the 1980s and also for the Argentine national team that played in the 1986 FIBA World Championship.
Gonzalez would be drafted in the third round of the 1988 NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks. Someone that large is going to get an opportunity. He never made it to any regular season games as he was unable to develop the coordination required to play in the NBA. Some would question his coordination during his time in the WWE. Then again, the early 1990s was a time when the WWE was more intrigued by size than athletic ability.
13. Ron Simmons’ College Success Didn’t Translate Into NFL Success
Ron Simmons was an example of a college football star who wasn’t able to find the same level of success in professional football. Still, Simmons was worthy enough to be in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008. He played for Florida State University from 1977 to 1980, which included back-to-back appearances in the Orange Bowl under legendary head coach Bobby Bowden.
The two-time All-American would be selected in the sixth round of the 1981 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. Simmons never appeared in the NFL and would spend two seasons in the defunct United States Football League. With football leading to a dead end, Simmons started a 2-year wrestling career that saw him become the first African-American to win the World Heavyweight Championship in WCW.
12. Big Van Vader’s Short NFL Career
Leon White was a larger than life man as Big Van Vader. He was one known for his stiff style and brute strength as one of the best to work in Japan and WCW. It was unfortunate the same couldn’t be said about his time with the WWE. Regardless, he is known as one of the best big men in professional wrestling history. A young White was getting several scholarship offers to play college football before going to the University of Colorado.
White was a two-time All-American center who would be drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the 1978 NFL Draft. He struggled with a torn patella tendon for his short career that knocked his overall stock down. Still, White played with the Rams in Super Bowl XIV against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Another patella tendon rupture put an end to his football career.
11. Batista’s Underwhelming MMA Stint
There seem to be two different ways professional wrestlers can perform in the world of mixed martial arts – either winning championships like Brock Lesnar and Ken Shamrock did or fail miserably and be viewed as “an embarrassment.” The latter is what Dave Batista received for his one fight in MMA in October 2012 against Vince Lucero.
Batista’s opponent was certainly overweight and not at a peak physical condition. Considering Batista was certainly the much better prepared athlete in that regard, it should have been an easy win. But the former WWE world champion struggled with taking early shots and being pinned against the cage for a moment. While Batista won, he never looked to be 100 percent in control. He never fought again after that match and found his niche in movies.
10. Lex Luger Struggled In The CFL, NFL, And USFL
While Lex Luger was “The Total Package” for his professional wrestling career, he never had the same standing on the football field. Larry Pfohl was an offensive lineman at Penn State University but ended up transferring to the University of Miami (FL). He was on a successful team in 1979 that featured a number of NFL stars like Jim Kelly. He would not find his way to the National Football League, at least not right away.
He spent three seasons with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League before going to the Green Bay Packers. Pfohl spent the whole season on the injured reserve after a training camp injury. He then played for a few small football teams in the now defunct United States Football League until going into wrestling in Florida in 1985.
9. Roman Reigns Didn’t Last Long In Either NFL Or CFL
Before becoming Roman Reigns in the WWE, Joe Anoa’i showed a lot of potential as a young football star for the Georgia Tech University Yellow Jackets. During his time as a defensive tackle, Anoa’i showed a lot of athleticism in pursuit of the quarterback. Some of his highlights that were posted on YouTube by the ACC Digital Network showed how explosive he was on the football field.
In his final season in 2006, Anoa’i had 40 total tackles, nine for a loss, and four-and-a-half sacks. He would go undrafted in 2007 before being offered a contract and training camp invitation with the Minnesota Vikings. But he would be cut shortly after the team’s rookie camp. A short stint with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League in 2008, he then pursued professional wrestling.
8. Verne Gagne Left Football For Big Money In Wrestling
There was once a time when Verne Gagne, one of the greatest professional wrestlers of the old territory days, was a member of the Chicago Bears in the National Football League. The Minnesota native played for the University of Minnesota for college football in the 1940s. With the Golden Gophers, he was a successful two-way player as both a defensive end and tight end. This led to him being scouted for the NFL.
He would be chosen 145th overall in the 1947 NFL Draft by Chicago. However, he was still interested in the world of professional wrestling. Bears owner George Halas didn’t want him to do both. Gagne chose wrestling because the money was better than in the NFL at the time. It certainly worked out as he became a 10-time American Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Champion.
7. Kevin Nash’s Basketball Career Ends With Torn ACL
When Kevin Nash grew to nearly seven feet tall as a sophomore in high school at Aquinas High School in Detroit, Mich., he quickly became a highly recruited basketball player by many big college programs. From 1977 to 1980, he played for the University of Tennessee. Because of the competition within the Southeastern Conference, Nash averaged a little more than five points per game.
He would join the U.S. Army and play basketball for a base in Germany. That led him to being noticed by a German professional basketball club who picked him up. But in 1985, his basketball career ended after suffering a torn ACL in his knee. Several years after his rehabilitation passed before he was able to find a connection to WCW trainers. Nash would then become part of the New World Order and won multiple world championships in WWE and WCW.
6. Brock Lesnar: From WWE To NFL
Despite being one of the most popular superstars in WWE at the time, Brock Lesnar made the decision to leave the world of professional wrestling in 2004. After wrestling Goldberg at WrestleMania XX – one of the worst matches in the event’s history – he made the jump to sign a contract with the Minnesota Vikings of the National Football League. He was invited to training camp, even though he hadn’t played football since his high school days in South Dakota.
But Viking fans were rooting for him considering his ties to the Minneapolis area and as a NCAA champion wrestler for the University of Minnesota. Unfortunately, Lesnar never made it to the 53-man roster for the Vikings. His failed NFL stint saw him make the jump to New Japan Pro Wrestling and then mixed martial arts before his eventual return to the WWE in 2012.
5. CM Punk’s UFC Debut Lasted Less Than Two Minutes
His exit from the WWE was marred with controversy, which featured him venting about his concerns during a popular podcast with Colt Cabana. Some time passed with people wondering what Punk would do next, but he would make the jump to the world of mixed martial arts. Instead of signing with another company to get started, he went straight into the fire for his first fight in Ultimate Fighting Championship.
After nearly two years of preparation, Punk walked into the octagon to face Mickey Gall. Punk’s first match didn’t even make it past the first round as he lost via a rear-naked chokehold. It might seem unfair to say someone has failed after one fight. But he’s been criticized by many for his unsuccessful debut; including harsh words by UFC commentator Joe Rogan.
4. Goldberg Saw Limited Time With Atlanta Falcons
Bill Goldberg was certainly a gifted athlete when he was in WCW during the 1990s. Fans popped when he showed impressive feats of strength, including the time he lifted The Giant for the Jackhammer. Before his undefeated streak in WCW, Goldberg attempted a professional football career. He was valued after spending his college years at the University of Georgia. While he didn’t have All-American numbers, some teams still had an interest.
Goldberg was drafted in the 11th round of the 1990 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams. But he would see regular season action until 1992, when he was with the Atlanta Falcons. In three seasons, Goldberg played a total of 14 games and had just 11 total tackles on the defensive line. Football didn’t work out for Goldberg. But the NFL’s loss became WCW’s gain.
3. Dusty Rhodes Once Played Professional Football
Dusty Rhodes was billed as “The American Dream” in professional wrestling from the 1960s and well into the 1980s. He starred in the Florida area that didn’t have any professional sports teams at the time. But one interesting fact about his life before going into the wrestling world is that he actually played football. After Virgil Runnels played at West Texas State, he spent a brief stint with the Orlando Panthers, a team that played in the Continental Football League from 1965 until 1971.
Rhodes did tell Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel that he got to play in the famous Citrus Bowl. But it all worked out in the end for The American Dream. If he would have made it in football, we wouldn’t have had the great matches for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship with memorable promos about Hard Times and being the son of a plumber.
2. Randy Savage Was Prospect For Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals
The “Macho Man” Randy Savage has had quite the life both in the world of professional wrestling and in the world of film and television. Not only was he one of the biggest stars in the WWE and WCW, but he also lent his voice to various cartoons. He even starred as a minor villain in the 2002 Spider-Man film as Bonesaw. However, very few know about his past life as a professional baseball player.
Randy Poffo was a prospect in the farm systems for the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds – playing rookie-level ball and moving up to the Single-A level of minor league baseball. He moved around between catcher, first base and the outfield from 1971 to 1974. In four professional seasons, Poffo had a .254 batting average in 289 games. Not enough to advance to Double-A baseball.
1. The Rock Was Cut By CFL’s Calgary Stampeders
Before he was The Rock, Dwayne Johnson looked like he had the making of a football star in the early 1990s. Long before the movies and the world championships in wrestling, Johnson was part of the 1991 National Championship team at the University of Miami (FL). With the Hurricanes, he was a backup defensive tackle. While that might not look great, he was behind football greats in Warren Sapp and Pat Riley.
After finishing up college, Johnson would then walk onto the practice squad for the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League in 1995. Unfortunately, his professional football career ended after only two months. He returned to the United States, but was driven to find the success that has seen him become the “most electrifying man” in sports and entertainment.