When former pro wrestling superstar CM Punk, real name Phil Brooks, makes his UFC debut in September he won't be the first pro wrestler to attempt leaving the scripted theater of the squared circle for the real competition of an MMA ring or octagon. But as we take stock of the few pro wrestlers who have found success in mixed martial arts, a common theme soon emerges: all had amateur wrestling pedigrees. Unfortunately for CM Punk, he does not.
While pro wrestlers without amateur (Greco-Roman, freestyle, and folk style) wrestling backgrounds have had limited victories in the “real” fight game, it hasn't stopped fight promotions from trying to use their brand value to draw fans.
In 1997, popular Japanese pro wrestling star Nobuhiko Takada’s fight against Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Rickson Gracie helped successfully launch Pride Fighting Championship. Rickson would go on to beat Takada easily at the inaugural Pride show by his signature armbar. Pride would continue to bring back countless pro wrestlers to fight (in mostly legitimate competition,) against true MMA practitioners. (The roots of Japanese MMA were always firmly planted in pro wrestling soil. Pride fixed two of Takada’s fights to keep his drawing power high.)
The paradigm of pro wrestlers trying to fight in Pride is embodied in the story of Yoji Anjo, who went 0-4 as a fighter but is perhaps more famous for his unsuccessful dojo storm. Anjo challenged Rickson Gracie for disparaging pro wrestling and subsequently was beaten to within centimeters of his life by the BJJ grand master in the back of Rickson’s own gym. Anjo would later send flowers and a handwritten letter seeking forgiveness. Anjo learned what most would find self-evident: that pro wrestling is not a self-defense discipline.
That said, a few Japanese pro wrestlers who fought in these early Pride shows beat back the odds and went on to have great MMA careers, like Kazushi Sakuraba. But what did Sakuraba have that the others did not?
Sakuraba’s success in MMA was due in no small part to his collegiate wrestling experience in Japan. (Sakuraba then later added to that solid amateur base by learning catch wrestling with Billy Robinson.)
Pro wrestlers with amateur experience have done remarkably well in real fights. Alberto Del Rio earned a commendable 9-5 pro record, with wins in Pride FC. Bobby Lashley is 14-2 as a pro fighter. And of course Brock Lesnar became UFC champion, successfully defending the belt twice. Even obscure 1990's pro wrestler Sergeant Craig Pittman went a respectable 2-2 in his MMA career. All of them had amateur wrestling pedigrees: Del Rio was a decorate World
Juniors champion, Lashley was three time NAIA collegiate national champion, Lesnar was NCAA national heavyweight champion and two time All American, and Pittman was a decorated U.S. Marine Corps wrestler.
The pro wrestlers without amateur wrestling experience have typically found themselves in deep and choppy waters, face-to- face with sharks that smell blood. This list might be a good indication of the MMA career that lies ahead for CM Punk:
Tony Halme 0-4 Wrestled As Ludvig Borga
Halme had a pro boxing record of 13-6 before trying the UFC, where he went winless. Halme at least was a part of history: his first fight came against then up-and- comer Randy Couture in his UFC debut. Halme lost to The Natural via rear naked choke in 56 seconds and went 0-4 overall as a pro, with three of his losses coming from fights within the Rings organization.
Unfortunately, his wrestling alter ego, Ludvig Borga, was just as much of a loser.
Ludvig Borga was an evil foreigner – not an unsuccessful character gimmick in pro wrestling as long as the character is an Evil Russian, an Evil Japanese, or an Evil Iranian. Borga was an Evil Finlander. His character received a neutral reaction and Halme himself did not last long in “the business.”
Scott Bigelow 0-1 Wrestled As Bam Bam Bigelow
Bigelow lost his one MMA fight to Kimo Leopoldo at U-Japan in 1995, succumbing to a Rear Naked Choke in two minutes after spending the majority of the round defending off his back. Better than Tony Halme, but that’s not saying much.
Bigelow was no martial artist. He was just a large man from the mean streets of Asbury Park, New Jersey with flames tattooed to his bald head, and in the 1990’s, that’s all you needed to get an MMA fight. Bigelow would later claim the two minutes of hell earned him a $100,000 payday and was “work” (pro wrestling speak for fixed or fake fight). But if you look at the video, it looks real to me, dammit!
Dave Bautista 1-0 Wrestled As Bautista
Bautista earned a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu purple belt under Cesar Gracie, an unusual feat for most pro wrestlers, and one that helped him win his first MMA fight at age 41. Rather than fight again, Bautista launched a successful career in Hollywood, going on to star in Guardians of The Galaxy.
Bautista might have found a lot of success in MMA had he attempted the transition at a younger age.
Nick Mitchell 0-1 Known as Mitch Of The Spirit Squad
The Spirit Squad was a group of male cheerleaders whose gimmick was that they were so annoying you’d pay good money to see them get beat up. Only one of the five members went on to success in WWE, while the other four, including Mr. Mitchell, were released after the promotional ploy ran its course.
Mitchell, a former high school football standout, tried to compete in MMA in the Worldwide Gladiator promotion. He only fought once, losing to ‘The Black Beast’ AKA current UFC fighter, Derrick Lewis. As you can probably guess, Lewis won the fight via TKO.
So what are the chances that CM Punk can Punk history?
Punk has at least one potentially powerful variable on his side, proving that pro wrestlers can compete in MMA even without amateur wrestling experience: Money. His pro wrestling mega-success earned him lots of money and he has laundered that money straight into top-shelf training with Duke Roufus and, one can only imagine, nutritionists, the best training partners, and first-rate conditioning coaches. That kind of top flight training is a luxury that middling wrestlers like Nick Mitchell or Tony Halme could not afford when they attempted to enter MMA.
All questions will be answered on September 10th at UFC 203 when CM Punk fights mega prospect, Mickey Gall. If we look to the Far East where MMA and Pro Wrestling first crossed paths decades ago and trace our way forward to today, it seems safe to bet that CM Punk will be more Nobuhiko Takada than Brock Lesnar, less Kazuki Sakuraba and more Nick Mitchell.
But then again, if someone were going to buck a trend, they would most likely be a Punk.