Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is to wrestling what rugby is to (American) football: far more dangerous, high-risk, and bad-ass. Some people even consider MMA to be ‘real wrestling’, in that it combines multiple martial arts disciplines into one coherent fighting sport that features real fights without predetermined outcomes. It’s that unscripted nature and possibility for shocking wins and losses that has led to many professional wrestlers trying their hands at MMA.
Of course, MMA isn’t for everyone. It takes considerable training and expertise to even prepare for an MMA fight, which is why CM Punk hasn’t debuted in the octagon yet despite having announced his interest in MMA a year ago. Even the most skilled and reputable MMA fighters go into each fight not knowing what will happen. Just ask Ronda Rousey, who lost her first match in a high-profile bout against Holly Holm in under a minute.
By now, everyone knows about the successful MMA careers of people like Brock Lesnar, Dan Severn, and Ken Shamrock. But there are many other wrestlers who’ve also tried MMA in the hopes of amplifying their reputations as tough guys, with mixed results.
Some of the wrestlers on this list achieved mild success in MMA, some achieved great success, while others failed to make their mark on the growing sport. What’s most important, however, is that each one of these ten men was brave enough to participate in a sport that’s far more dangerous and unpredictable than wrestling.
10 Alberto Del Rio
Final Record: 9-5
There’s a very good reason Alberto Del Rio’s finisher in WWE has always been the Cross Armbreaker: he was a successful MMA fighter prior to his WWE debut. He specialized in submission holds throughout his MMA career, and seven of his nine wins were achieved through submission.
But since WWE frowns upon the use of choke holds (which Del Rio used most during his MMA career), he went with the tried-and-tested Cross Armbreaker instead. That hold, coupled with his own MMA reputation and the move’s legitimacy as a dangerous hold in Japan, made him a very credible WWE superstar from his first match.
So for those wondering why Brock Lesnar will be facing Del Rio on the December 19th live event, it’s because both men are successful mixed martial artists, and Lesnar’s in dire need of someone who actually has experience in that discipline as well as wrestling.
9 Sean O'Haire
Final Record: 4-2
Sean O’Haire’s unfortunate departure from WWE highlighted one of the WWE’s biggest missed opportunities. O’Haire had a lot of skill and potential, but WWE didn’t make use of his skills. Thankfully for him, O’Haire managed to adapt to his sudden departure by taking part in MMA fights during the mid-2000s.
In his matches, O’Haire managed to combine the strength-oriented training he received in WWE with a submission-oriented approach to MMA, which led to some early success for him. He was doing quite well for a wrestler-turned-MMA fighter, which made his decision to stop fighting after 2007 interesting. He could’ve had a bright future in MMA, but from the looks of it, things just didn’t work out for him in this venture, either.
8 'Dr. Death' Steve Williams
Final record: 0-1
It made sense for a wrestler as tough and reputable as ‘Dr. Death’ to try his luck at MMA. After all, Steve Williams was long considered one of the toughest and most dangerous fighters in Japan, and his stellar career in AJPW was proof.
Unfortunately, Steve Williams didn’t learn from his earlier mistakes (particularly his involvement in WWE’s Brawl For All Tournament), and was convinced that he could do well in MMA. Sadly, his one MMA match proved to be just as devastating as that aforementioned tournament, ‘Dr. Death’ lost to Alexey Ignashov in 2004 in only 22 seconds.
So while he could be considered brave for dabbling in MMA, he really didn’t need to try it, especially since he had already suffered big-time in WWE for trying the same thing.
7 Yuji Nagata
Final Record: 0-2
Yuji Nagata was the glue that held NJPW together during the late 1990s and early 2000s during the failed ‘Inokism’ era. He was a technically-gifted pro wrestler that excelled in submission holds, which made him the perfect choice for Inoki’s MMa crossover experiment.
Unfortunately, it ended up doing more harm than good for Nagata’s career. His only two MMA matches were losses, one to Mirko ‘Cro Cop’ Filipovic in 21 seconds and another to Fedor Emilianenko in just over a minute. Nagata’s reputation as a tough guy was damaged because Inoki tried to push this submission wrestler as tougher than genuine MMA fighters.
The good news is, Nagata managed to bounce back by putting on several outstanding wrestling matches after that failed MMA phase, and has since gone on to become one of the best submission wrestlers on the planet.
Final Record: 1-0
Yes, Batista was an MMA fighter at one point, and planned on following in the footsteps of Bobby Lashley and Brock Lesnar. At first, he seemed comfortable in the octagon; he dropped down to 265lbs., trained in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu under Cesar Gracie, and adopted a far more ‘fluid’ style than what people were expecting from him. In his one and only MMA fight, Batista defeated 40-fight veteran Vince Lucero in just over four minutes, after a back-and-forth contest in which either man looked like they could win.
It wasn’t the dominant victory Batista might’ve envisioned for himself, but he still managed to look good in his first fight. Why he didn’t choose to pursue that venture further is anyone’s guess, but at least he can say that he managed to enter, and leave the octagon in one piece.
5 Shinsuke Nakamura
Final Record: 3-1
Don’t let his over-the-top flamboyance and wackiness fool you; Shinsuke Nakamura is a dangerous wrestler.
The ‘King of Strong Style’ earned that nickname by focusing on NJPW’s ‘realistic’ philosophy of the past, which included dabbling in MMA. He only took part in four MMA fights, but they were ‘vale tudo’ fights, which means ‘anything goes’. It was through these tough contests, in which Nakamura defeated the likes of Alexey Ignashov and Jan Nortje, that his reputation as a bad-ass managed to bloom.
Today, while Nakamura’s more of a gimmick-based wrestler, he’s still taken very seriously as an opponent because of his MMA success. His flying armbar and Boma Ye knee strike are among the most dangerous moves in NJPW, and have helped him score many victories over the years.
4 Yoshihiro Takayama
Final record: 0-4
It was thanks for his foray into MMA that Takayama became a legendary figure in Japanese wrestling. Though he had always been known for being one of the toughest wrestlers in Japan, he really proved that statement true at Pride 21, when he took on Don Frye in what later became 2002’s Fight of the Year. Takayama and Frye beat the hell out of each other, each one holding the other’s head and smashing it with right hand punches.
Even though Takayama lost after an incredible 6-minute fight, his tough guy reputation was immortalized in that bout. To this day, Takayama’s known far and wide as one of the most indestructible wrestlers on the planet, one that can absorb an inhuman amount of punishment.
Words don’t do justice to the absolute insanity that took place during this fight.
3 Bobby Lashley
Final Record: 14-2
Surprisingly, this jacked-up muscleman has a better MMA record than even Brock Lesnar, who has become the living symbol of the MMA-wrestling crossover in the United States. Lashley’s impressive career so far features 14 wins to two losses, and most of those have been either by knockout or submission, making Lashley a very dangerous fighter.
Clearly, being a soft-spoken striking machine ended up being an asset for Lashley in MMA, while it was considered a hindrance in WWE. Lashley has managed to transition from pro wrestling to MMA very quickly and with few roadblocks, and while he’s no Brock Lesnar, he’s still a very powerful fighter in his own right. It also helps that Lashley’s much larger and stronger than most fighters, which has allowed him to overpower his opponents with greater ease.
2 Jushin 'Thunder' Liger
Final record: 0-1
Believe it or not, legendary high-flyer Jushin Liger once dabbled in MMA. He took part in a single match against Minoru Suzuki (yes, that Minoru Suzuki), and lost via rear naked choke in under two minutes. He wasn’t originally intended to fight Suzuki; he was booked as a replacement for Kensuke Sasake, who had injured himself before the match.
While Liger didn’t do so well in MMA, it goes to show just how tough and determined he was. Liger tried his absolute best to adapt to this new environment, and held his own against Suzuki for a short while at first. So even though he lost, he still ended up looking good after the match, especially when Suzuki showed him great respect. After all, one would have to be absolutely crazy or incredibly brave to have their first MMA fight against Minoru Suzuki.
1 Masakatsu Funaki
Final Record: 39-13-1
Masakatsu Funaki started off as a wrestler in NJPW, but quickly transitioned to MMA while the sport was still in its infancy. He founded Pancrase, the first MMA promotion in Japan, along with Minoru Suzuki, and went on to become one of the best mixed martial artists in Japan.
For many years, Funaki was so good at MMA that he began to focus on ‘entertaining’ the fans during his matches. This meant that he would give his opponents an opportunity to gain some momentum before finishing them off. That’s right: in an ultra-dangerous sport like MMA where injuries are far more likely, Funaki essentially gave his opponents free shots at him.
That’s how good he was. It was thanks to this approach and his fight against Rickson Gracie, that led to an explosion in interest in MMA, allowing the sport to overtake professional wrestling for the first time.