The gruelling nature of the sport of football has been a topic of much discussion recently, as the medical community shines a spotlight on the dangers of concussions in the sport. It’s not a consequence that the professional wrestling industry is unfamiliar with, though wrestling may be somewhat ahead of the game with their wellness policy programs exploring the long term health of its athletes.
Given the similarities in the physicality of both sports, it’s not surprising that wrestling has drawn some of its most successful stars from the gridiron. Among them some were mavericks who didn’t readily conform to the structured discipline of football with personalities too big to be contained beneath the shoulder pads and helmet. Others were eager to continue a career in sport when their football career came to a close.
It will come as no surprise to readers that many of the wrestlers featured on this list ascended through the ranks of wrestling to become world champions. Here are the 20 greatest football players to make the transition to the ring.
20 Steve McMichael
Say what you will about “Mongo,” but the former Chicago Bear carved out a credible career in World Championship Wrestling as a member of the fabled Four Horseman and later as a broadcaster. Among a flurry of pro footballers that seemed to find their way into WCW matches and pay-per-view appearances during that era, Steve McMichael rises above Kevin Greene, Reggie White and others who tried to make the switch.
19 Ole Olsen
Winnipeg’s Albert “Ole” Olsen could have done anything. As an amateur wrestler he competed nationally, almost securing a spot on the Canadian Olympic team (meeting another future wrestling great Maurice Vachon on the mats). Olsen was recruited by the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 1943 and played for three seasons. When professional wrestling first opened up in the River City in 1946, Olsen was a featured performer on the cards. Given his skills as an amateur, Olsen rarely allowed a foe in the pro ring to ever throw him for a single fall.
18 Siegfried Steinke
When Texan Bill Lehman played for the Canadian Football League in Saskatchewan in 1960, nobody could have predicted that he would go on to be one of pro wrestling’s greatest villains a decade later. Whether it was as a thorn in the side of Dusty Rhodes in Florida, the Funks in Amarillo, or Don Leo Jonathan in Vancouver, Steinke became an even bigger star between the ropes than on the football field.
17 Joe Blanchard
These days, we recognize Joe Blanchard as the patriarch of a three generation wrestling dynasty. His son Tully rose to be a top star in the 1980s and now his granddaughter Tessa is making her ascent in the wrestling world as well. However, it was because of football that Joe first got introduced to the sport. Playing in Alberta for the Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos from 1951 to 1954, Blanchard met Stu Hart, and the rest, as they say, is history.
16 Curtis Iaukea
It may surprise many wrestling fans to learn that one of the most gruesome ring villains of all time had a career in organized sport before wrestling. Portrayed as a Wildman for much of his career, Iaukea’s two seasons in the Canadian Football League playing for the B.C. Lions and Montreal Alouettes respectively in 1958 and 1959 is forgotten in contrast to some of his legendary bloodbaths in the ring in all corners of the globe.
15 Ron Simmons
Fans who remember Ron Simmons’ introduction to wrestling fans in the Universal Wrestling Federation and his ascent in World Championship Wrestling can still vividly remember Jim Ross touting his outstanding college football career. However, Simmons’ time in the pros is often overlooked. In 1981, he played a season for the Ottawa Roughriders. Simmons would go on to become the first African American to win the WCW World Heavyweight Championship and has held multiple singles and tag team titles throughout his career.
14 Stu Hart
The name Stu Hart is synonymous with professional wrestling. As the founder and promoter of Stampede Wrestling as well as the patriarch of the Hart wrestling clan which directly produced Bret Hart and Owen Hart, and continues today with a third generation of Hart wrestlers. However, Stu was not only an outstanding amateur wrestler before jumping to the pro ranks. Stu also played professional football in Edmonton in the 1938-39 season. Stu is inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame, but his legacy was cemented in wrestling boots not football cleats.
13 Lex Luger
At the start of the 1990s, few wrestlers had more hype surrounding them than Lex Luger. Featured in headline matches with the likes of Ric Flair, and laying claim to multiple championships, including the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, Luger was one of the biggest names in the sport. However, long before he laced up his first pair of wrestling boots, Larry Pfohl was an aspiring football star, scouted and recruited for the NFL but cut before ever playing a single game due to injury. He was able to secure a deal with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes where he played for two seasons from 1979 to 1981. However, right from his earliest matches, it was clear that there was a bigger sports legacy to be cemented for the former footballer.
12 Wahoo McDaniel
Edward “Wahoo” McDaniel has often been recognized as one of the toughest competitors of his generation and perhaps one of the greatest native American athletes of all time. His reputation preceded his entry into the squared circle after years on the gridiron for multiple teams in the NFL. Wahoo donned the jerseys for the Oilers, the Broncos, the Jets and the Dolphins during his NFL career. However, his lasting reputation in sport was made between the ropes.
11 Angelo Mosca
There can be very little doubt that nobody in Canadian football was prepared for the Massachusetts-born Angelo Mosca. Headlines from the newspapers of the day often featured stories about Angelo’s run-ins with the law off the field. It seemed like a natural transition to take one of the most notorious and uncontrollable athletes from football and sign him up to wrestle. Not only did he identify an affinity for it, the fans ate it up. Mosca is revered in football circles for a 14-year football career, but just as many fans recognize him as “King Kong” Mosca, a terrifying villain who made his presence felt across North America and around the world.
10 Ernie Ladd
The world was wide open to Ernie Ladd after his football career with the San Diego Chargers. That he chose to pursue professional wrestling was a blessing for both his own occupational longevity as well as a delight to the fans. Dubbed “The Big Cat,” Ernie Ladd was a successful heavyweight performer during the territory days of pro wrestling and wisely transitioned to an administrative role when his days on the mat were done. Ladd continued to be a visible alumni in the WWE in his final years.
9 Brian Pillman
The coach of the Calgary Stampeders had a problem. He had this brash kid from Ohio on his roster who had played for the Cincinnati Bengals and he had no idea what to do with him. He called Stu Hart to see if Stu might have some use for this renegade and it was an immediate fit. Brian Pillman trained in Stu Hart’s dungeon under the watchful eye of Bruce and Ross Hart and became one of the territory’s fastest rising stars on a roster that included Owen Hart, Chris Benoit, Johnny Smith and others. Pillman was soon signed by WCW where he was a key figure in launching the junior heavyweight division there, saw tag team success alongside Steve Austin, enjoyed a short membership in the Four Horsemen, and was still climbing to greater career heights in the WWE at the time of his unexpected death in 1997.
8 Tito Santana
The WWE Hall of Famer with claims to the Intercontinental title and WWE Tag Team titles during his career is one of the most recognized wrestlers from the 1980s. He was even one of the handful of wrestlers selected to be featured in the Hulk Hogan’s Rock and Wrestling cartoon series during the WWE’s meteoric national climb. Santana was recruited by the Kansas City Chiefs but was cut before the season opened. His pro football career happened in Canada, where he played a season for the B.C. Lions in 1972.
7 Billy Graham
A 2004 inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame, Billy Graham quickly points to the influence of Stu Hart for turning him in the direction of professional wrestling. Graham was in Calgary, looking to find success on the Stampeders football team and things weren’t looking promising. He was re-directed to Stu, who at the time had another former footballer, Angelo Mosca working for him. Mosca and Graham (under his given name Wayne Coleman) were partnered up for six months as Graham learned the ropes. His career sky-rocketed and within seven years, he upended Bruno Sammartino to claim the WWE World Heavyweight title.
Verne Gagne appreciated athletes with an amateur wrestling background as well as credible experience in other sports, so when former L.A. Ram, Leon White showed up on his doorstep, he was more than happy to welcome the rotund mauler to his organization. White got his big break in Japan, where he was cast as a comic book super hero, Big Van Vader. Returning to the states, he dominated WCW with a World title run and later made an equally stirring impact in the WWE.
5 Gene Kiniski
The self-professed “Canada’s Greatest Athlete,” Kiniski certainly did have a wealth of sports experience and success to point to in support of his claim. He played College football in Arizona and enjoyed two runs with his hometown Edmonton Eskimos in 1949, then again in 1952-53. Kiniski was lured to the sport of wrestling while playing football in the southern States by promoter Rod Fenton. Kiniski started his ring career in southern California and within a decade found himself in main event matches with world champions. Kiniski himself enjoyed a three year reign as NWA World Champion and remains today, even after his death, one of the most recognized names in the history of Canadian professional wrestling.
4 Bronko Nagurski
Born in Rainy River, Ontario but best known as hailing from International Falls, Minnesota, Bronko’s inclusion on this list marks one of the most unique of all the wrestlers acknowledged. Nagurski reigned as NWA World Champion on two occasions and headlined cards across North America during his ring career. However, following his retirement from sport, he chose to downplay his wrestling success in favor of having fans remember him for his football career. Nagurski is an NFL Hall of Famer and his name is still discussed on lists of the greatest players of all time. Still, there is no disputing his success in the ring, or his successful transition to wrestling.
3 Roman Reigns
Without a doubt, Roman Reigns’ ranking on this list will ring out as the most controversial of all listed. The current and three-time WWE World Heavyweight Champion has become one of the most polarizing WWE superstars of all time – endorsed and heavily promoted by the WWE machine, yet reviled and disliked by the fanbase. Reigns, whose bloodline is rooted in the Samoan wrestling legacy, played a single season of professional football with the Edmonton Eskimos in 2008. Shortly thereafter, he was signed by the WWE and his star power in the ring has eclipsed his previous sport success.
2 Bill Goldberg
Without a doubt, Bill Goldberg’s meteoric rise for the Atlanta-based World Championship Wrestling had a great deal to do with his reputation and success on the football field in the NFL for the Falcons. However, under Eric Bischoff’s watch, Goldberg’s debut and rookie year campaign have been cemented into the annals of wrestling lore as one of the most dominating entries to the sport of wrestling in all of history.
1 The Rock
It has almost become a bit of a joke on the Calgary Stampeders that they cut Dwayne Johnson from their team in 1995. “How bad do you have to suck to be cut from Canadian football?” Johnson once joked when reflecting on his journey. A year later, he was signed to the WWE and after conquering professional wrestling is now emulating that success in Hollywood. The Calgary Stampeders yearbook and media guide still features the name Dwayne Johnson among their alumni, sometimes including a smiling photo of “the most electrifying man in sports entertainment” wearing their jersey. Wrestling fans are grateful for the fate that was played out in this instance.