You could be forgiven for buying into the stereotype that all professional wrestlers are simply juiced up muscle-heads who would be lost without finding a field of work that enabled skills like breaking chairs over another human’s back. Wrestling’s not-too-distant history has included gimmicks like the gross, vile Bastion Booger, story lines that include an elderly Mae Young giving birth to a hand and scads of sophomoric humor that Vince McMahon is believed to find hysterical.
But believe it or not, there is intelligent life within the WWE. And no, I’m not talking about ‘I’m smarter than you’ gimmicks such as “The Genius” Lanny Poffo and Dean Douglas. In it’s efforts to find a broad range of not only athletic talent but also charismatic, quick-thinking talkers, WWE has been able to recruit a fair share of impressive, high-IQ’ed over-achievers who have built a formidable out-of-ring resume.
It isn’t easy to reach the main roster within WWE, but once you get there, salaries range from about $100,000 all the way into the millions per year. Therefore, even the sharpest minds with the brightest futures would be hard-pressed to be dismissive of pro wrestling and not see it as a viable and lucrative career option. Here are ten people who possess the intellect, skills and track record to do anything they wish – and have chosen to ply their trade within the squared circle.
10. Dolph Ziggler
One of the hottest current WWE superstars, the ‘Show-Off’ is much beloved by fans for his charisma and well-honed in-ring skills. Ziggler, whose real name is Nick Nemeth, has finally found success after years spent toiling in the developmental system and facing rejection with gimmicks like the Spirit Squad and as a caddy to Chavo Guerrero’s Kerwin White. But Ziggler had plenty of fallback options as a political science major and pre-law minor at Kent State University. He was reportedly accepted into law school before signing his WWE contract.
9. Michelle McCool
Also known to be the real-life wife of The Undertaker (Mark Callaway), McCool had an eventful seven-year run in WWE during the 2000s, resulting in four Divas championships and a memorable run as part of the heel duo LayCool with Layla El. Whereas most Divas enter the WWE through channels like modelling and bodybuilding, McCool had already earned a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership from Florida State University and taught a seventh grade science class in Palatka, Florida.
Even in the digital age, we all have a mental picture of the stereotypical tech nerd implanted in our brains. Skinny, gangly and awkward, perhaps with a pair of thick-rimmed glasses and a nasally voice, we undeniably lean towards a certain geeky conceptual image. Sheamus, the WWE’s pasty, muscle-bound Irish brawler, doesn’t quite fit the bill. But before he became the Celtic Warrior, Sheamus served as a technician for a handful of different IT companies, including Symantec and Hartford Life in Dublin.
7. Wade Barrett
Wade Barrett has gone through a variety of different identity changes over the course of his WWE run, including Bad News Barrett, King Barrett, the leader of the Nexus and even spending a brief stint as a bare-knuckle boxer. The bare-knuckle character was based on part of Barrett’s real-life background, but thankfully WWE writers have yet to delve into his other pre-wrestling passion: marine biology. Barrett earned his degree in the field from the University of Liverpool and even spent time working in a science lab. Maybe Biology Barrett isn’t far behind!
6. Jack Swagger
The All-American American wasn’t just a heelish gimmick attached to Jack Swagger when he entered the WWE, but was an authentic recognition of his University of Oklahoma two-sport pedigree (no, not that pedigree). When Swagger wasn’t playing football and wrestling at OU, he was completing a degree in Finance. Jake Hager, as Swagger is known outside the WWE universe, even got a job with a firm in Dallas, but agreed to a contract offer from Jim Ross on the day he was set to start.
5. Xavier Woods
Through his work as part of the New Day heel trio along with Kofi Kingston and Big E, Xavier Woods has demonstrated a clear understanding of how to manipulate and rile an audience. Clearly, Woods’ extensive background in psychology is paying off, albeit maybe not in the way he had initially expected. After graduating from Furman University with degrees in both Psychology and Philosophy, Woods kept up his educational pursuits even as he launched a wrestling career that also featured a stop in TNA. He now has a Master’s in Psychology and is currently working towards a PhD.
4. Matt Striker
WWE loves to incorporate little real life tidbits into their characters’ personas, so it was no surprise to see Matt Striker assigned an evil teacher gimmick upon his debut on the main roster in 2005. Striker really was a high school teacher prior to joining the company. In fact, he had to resign from his post as social studies teacher at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Queens, New York when he was found to be using sick days to maintain his wrestling commitments. Striker now works as the lead announcer for Lucha Underground.
Most wrestling fans are well aware that Kane, the WWE’s Big Red Machine, also has a politically minded alter ego in Glen Jacobs (okay, maybe that’s his real name). Jacobs has long been an outspoken supporter of Ron Paul and the Republican Tea Party and helmed a political blog and podcast even as he doled out chokeslams, tombstones and hellfire and brimstone in the ring. More recently, he received a groundswell of support to run for office as a Tennessee senator in 2013. The seven-footer even owns The Jacobs Agency insurance company along with his wife.
2. David Otunga
Few wrestlers who reach the WWE main roster experience greater success in other facets of life and even fewer wrestlers are overshadowed by their more famous, non-wrestling spouses. The rarely seen David Otunga, however, checks both boxes. Having experienced precious little success in a WWE ring, Otunga has found plenty of fulfillment outside of it. Not only is he a Harvard-educated lawyer who left a promising legal career at Sidley Austin LLP in pursuit of a superstar career, but he is married to R&B star Jennifer Hudson.
1. Chris Nowinski
Chris Nowinski’s WWE legacy can be separated out into two distinct components. There was his two-year in-ring career, which included a Hardcore title reign and multiple concussions. Then, there was also the post-WWE publication of his transformative book, Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis and the career spent dedicated to head trauma research that followed. The Harvard-educated Nowinski continues to work as a consultant for Trinity Partners while serving as president of the Sports Legacy Institute’s board of directors.