As last week’s blog discussed, there has always been a close link between the UFC and WWE. If you have had a career in Collegiate or Freestyle Wrestling, moving toward one or the other is a logical step. But a surprising number of athletes have done both. Given that this weekend’s WWE Summerslam will be headlined by current UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar and co-headlined by ex-Women’s Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey, we thought it might be time to see who else may have transitioned from squared circle to octagon and back again.
We start at the very beginning. UFC 1 was held in Denver, Colorado on 12th November 1993. There were no weight classes or rounds, and only two rules: no biting, no eye-gouging. The entire card consisted of a single eight-man tournament featuring fighters with a diverse array of skills and backgrounds, including Art Jimmerson, a boxer who wore only one glove, and Teila Tuli, a Hawaiian-born sumo wrestler. Shamrock would prove to be a capable shootfighter, beating his first round opponent via heel-hook in under two minutes. But then he would run into a serious problem in the next round: Royce Gracie. Royce Gracie dominated the early years of MMA, bringing Brazilian BBJ into the limelight and cementing a legacy for his family name. Gracie won, and the feud between the two fuelled hype for several more UFC events. But the UFC was viewed as an unnecessarily dangerous and violent sport and after UFC 9 in 1996, US Senator John McCain was instrumental in ensuring that further PPV broadcasts were ceased.
With no UFC to keep him occupied, Shamrock transitioned to the WWF, as it was known at the time. Billed as ‘The Most Dangerous Man In The World’, Shamrock’s signature move was the heel-hook he’d used to such great effect at UFC 1. He had a very successful run as both babyface and heel for four years and left to resume his MMA career in 1999. By now the UFC had cleaned up its image, adding more rules, gloves and rounds to its structure. His success here was mixed, the high point being a three-fight feud with Tito Ortiz which he eventually lost and after which he announced his retirement. He has fought for just about every wrestling and MMA outfit since then, retirement apparently not an option for this UFC Hall of Fame inductee.
The very first fighter with a wrestling background to enter the UFC was Dan Severn, who made his debut during UFC 4. He was defeated in the final by Royce Gracie after 15 gruelling minutes inside the Brazilian’s guard. He won UFC 5, which set up a meeting with Shamrock at UFC 6. Shamrock won this encounter, but it was Severn who took the rematch – albeit in a terrible manner. The political pressure was piling on before UFC 9 took place and right up to the day of the event UFC organisers were in court, attempting to come to an agreement with Michigan lawmakers as to the rules. Amazingly, the fights were allowed to go ahead as long as closed fists were not used. In other words, no punching. Shamrock and Severn were informed of this decision in the locker room and the ensuing fight is considered to be one of the worst in MMA history as the two men circled each other for half an hour. Severn got the split decision, but no one really won that one, least of all the crowd.
His WWF career was less impressive. Signed on to provide opposition for Shamrock, Severn gamely took part in several events. But his patience ran out when he was apparently asked to tattoo ‘666’ on his forehead as part of a storyline where he would be The Undertaker’s disciple. Severn left the company, never to return. Both he and Shamrock were the first inductees into the UFC Hall of Fame.
We don’t know if Brock Lesnar wants to be a wrestler or a UFC fighter. It’s entirely possible that he doesn’t really want to be either. It seems that all he really wants to do is play football, going so far as to leave the WWE in 2004 to pursue a career in the NFL. That did not work out and apart from a brief trip to Japan to work in the New Japan Pro-Wrestling Promotion, he has returned to both the WWE and UFC in a part-time superstar capacity.
Brock Lesnar is one of only two fighters to take part in both UFC 100 and UFC 200 (veteran Jim Miller being the second). UFC 200 was a mess from start to finish. The headline fight was supposed to be a rematch between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz, but this bout was cancelled due to McGregor not meeting his media obligations. Also on the card was a Light Heavyweight Unification bout between Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones (DC being the current holder after Jones was stripped of the title). Three days before the event took place, Jones was pulled due to a doping violation, and Anderson Silva fought DC instead. Lesnar was brought in to bring a bit of star power to proceedings and beat Mark Hunt in what became the new co-main event. This victory was overturned as he too was found to have violated anti-doping measures. He may be back to fight DC for the Heavyweight title at some point, and his diminished (yet still vast) frame indicates that he’s complying with USADA regulations.
‘Rowdy’ Ronda Rousey’s fall from grace is one of the most spectacular in all sports, let alone MMA. It’s hard to think of it now, but she was once considered indestructible. No one could touch her. An Olympic Bronze medallist, she won 12 UFC fights in succession, 11 of which were over in the first round and nine of which came by way of armbar. At the height of her fame, she was ranked as the most dominant active athlete in any sport by two separate magazines in 2015, the same year that she became the third most searched name on Google. But then it all went wrong, largely due to this extraordinary video of her shadow-boxing. Consecutive thrashings from Holly Holm in 2015 and Amanda Nunes a year later broke her spirit and she never fought competitively again.
Rousey made no secret of her love for professional wrestling, having made a scripted appearance at Wrestlemania 31 in 2015 and maintaining something of a heel persona when performing UFC media obligations with her opponents. Even her nickname, ‘Rowdy’, came from ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, a former WWF star. So the fact that she ended up in the WWE is no surprise. She fights this weekend at Summerslam and will be part of the first all-female PPV event in November.
Dave ‘Batista’ Bautista began his WWE career in 2002. Unlike most of the other people to make the list, his background was in bodybuilding as opposed to professional sports. He had a long and successful career in the WWE, holding the heavyweight title four times and facing all the greats, including The Undertaker, John Cena and Shawn Michaels. The storied world of professional wrestling has prepared him well for his current role, that of actor in some huge franchises. Bautista has appeared in the Blade Runner sequel, a Bond movie and is one of the best things in the Guardians Of The Galaxy series.
In MMA terms, the story is not so good. He has fought just once, in the CES MMA: Real Pain promotion. Never heard of it? It’s probably just as well. He was slated to face Rashid Evans (not the same person as the UFC’s Rashad Evans) but a probation violation saw Evans taken off the card. Instead, Bautista faced professional can Vince Lucero and still took over four minutes to beat him by TKO. But hey, he wanted to try out MMA, and he did so at a level that was appropriate for someone fighting for the first time. CM Punk, take note.
Another pro-wrestler making an appearance at Summerslam will be Bobby Lashley. The story of how he became a pro-wrestler is a bit more tragic than most. While training in wrestling with the goal of joining Team USA’s 2004 Olympic team, Lashley was caught up in a bank robbery. Throwing himself to the ground to avoid getting shot, he suffered a knee injury, and that was that.
Like Shamrock before him, Lashley has fought for several promotions, both in professional wrestling and MMA. He has had 16 professional fights, with only two losses. As well as working for the WWE, Bobby is also under contract with Bellator, although they don’t seem to be in a rush to line something up for him.
Phillip Jack Brooks, AKA CM Punk, was an excellent professional wrestler and an absolutely awful MMA fighter. He was a dominant figure during his 15-year pro-wrestling career but walked out on the company in early 2014. UFC president Dana White saw an opportunity to trade on his name, and signed him up. His tenure with the UFC consisted of one very fast and one painfully slow loss, to Mickey Gall at UFC 203 and Mike Jackson at UFC 225 respectively. Dana White has stated that Punk “probably won’t fight in the UFC again”, and we should all be thankful for this instead of asking how on earth an untested, ex-wrestler made his way onto two PPV main cards in the first place. Will he return to the WWE? Well, that also seems unlikely given that Punk burned every bridge that he could find on the way out of the door, and the WWE, when they did eventually fire him, did so on Punk’s wedding day. Ouch.
You would need to be a serious fan of both MMA and WWE to have heard of our next entry, but Shayna Baszler has a better record than most of the wrestlers on this list. A kickboxer by trade, Baszler started her MMA career at some of the smaller promotions including Invicta and Strikefore, facing Cris Cyborg in the EliteXC promotion (she lost by TKO in round 2). She has also faced Julianna Pena, Amanda Nunes and Bethe Correia in her MMA career, and been beaten by them all.
At present, Shayna is currently the NXT Women’s Champion, and now that Rousey is on board, is sure to have a big future in the WWE. In 2013, long before either dreamed of doing moonsaults off the top rope, Rousey and Baszler, along with fellow MMA fighters Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir, called themselves ‘the Four Horsewomen’, a nod to the WWF’s wrestling stable that gained huge fame in the 1980s. Now that all of them are in the WWE, there’s a strong chance that the name will be revived.
Alberto Del Rio
Mexican professional wrestler Alberto Del Rio has had a long and storied career both as a wrestler and an MMA fighter. Fighting under the name Dos Caros Jr, he has a professional record of 14 fights, with nine wins and five losses. There aren’t many people who can bring the WWE flair with them to the MMA ring, but Del Rio certainly tried, wearing a Mexican ‘luchador’ style mask to his Pride fights. Unfortunately, the mask proved no defence against one of MMA’s most deadly strikers, Mirko Cro Cop. Cro Cop’s devastating head kicks were described as ‘right leg: hospital, left leg: morgue’, so it’s no wonder that Del Rio went down. He is returning to professional wresting for the AAA Promotion, fighting under the name Alberto Del Patron.
We end this list with one of the most popular professional wrestlers competing today. Shinsuke Nakamura is a global superstar, a huge name in his native Japan, and quickly becoming one of the most popular fighters in the WWE. His fighting style, which he names ‘strong style’, take a great deal of inspiration from MMA, featuring flying knees, elbows and kicks.
At the start of his career, he could have chosen either route to go down. While he was making a name for himself in the New Japan Pro-Wrestling circuit, he was also fighting in MMA at heavyweight. He lost his first bout to Daniel Gracie but won the next three by submission. In 2005, the UFC made him an offer, but he turned them down, preferring to stick with pro-wrestling. In 2016, having achieved almost everything it is possible to achieve in NJPW, he made the move to the USA, signing first with NXT and then moving onto the big show, Smackdown in 2017. He will be facing Jeff Hardy at Summerslam, and given his reputation for putting on a huge show, it should be an absolute slobberknocker.
Honourable Mention – Cris Cyborg?
Poor Cris Cyborg just can’t catch a break. No one really takes her seriously, mostly due to a career dogged by doping violations and accusations of steroid abuse. She has one of the most stellar records in any sports, with victories in 20 out of 22 MMA fights, 2 out of 3 kickboxing fights and two gold medals from the world Jiu-Jitsu Championships. And still, no one wants to fight her. This is mostly because no one wants to have their head punched off by a skilled fighter who is physically bigger and stronger than everyone else in her weight class, which seems fair enough, but finding opponents for her in the UFC is proving a slow and frustrating process for her. She never got a chance to fight Rousey for real, but now that the WWE are trying to tempt her away, maybe she will get her wish in a different arena. Watch this space!