Worst To Best: Pro-Wrestlers to Transition to MMA

By JB Brask

Pro-wrestlers get a bad rep these days. This is something you can’t really argue with as ever since the public reveal of kayfabe (ed note: that wrestling is “fake”) any endeavour a pro-wrestler takes on will basically get killed in the crib. Wrasslers who attempt to transition into MMA are faced with overwhelming hostility from it’s fans and fighters, as if the very prescence of a pro-wrestler would ruin MMA’s image.

As history tells us this couldn’t be further from the truth and, in fact, modern MMA has a lot to thank wrassling for.
Ever since modern MMA started appearing wrasslers have tried to transition from their theatrical performance to competitive fighting and today we’re going to look at the highs and the lows; the champs and the jobbers; the Misawas and the X-Pacs.

And just to make it clear: we’re going for people who made their bones in wrassling before moving on to MMA, so count Josh Barnett, Ikuhisa Minowa and Ken Shamrock out!

Honourable Mentions:
Antonio Inoki – One of the founding fathers of MMA and undoubtedly the main man in Japanese MMA. Not only a legendary wrassler, having basically created the Strong Style of wrestling which is still going strong in the puroreso circuit, Antonio Inoki was also an accomplished catch wrestler with pretty solid submission skills; not strange seeing how he was one of Karl Gotch’s students! This guy even had the balls to challenge Muhammad Ali who realized in the nick of time what he was getting into and had the rules of the fight changed to the point where Inoki couldn’t really do anything.
He fought Ali to a draw in an incredibly boring fight thanks to the new restrictions set up by Ali’s management.
He doesn’t quite make the list though as some of his fights are a bit… dubious but he still gets the mention for laying the groundwork and for his plentyful balls.

The Worst: Yoshihiro Takayama – “The Hotness” is probably best remembered for being on the receiving end of a legendary beatdown courtesy of American bruiser Don Frye back in Pride 21 and has yet to win a mixed martial arts bout. What you can congratulate Takayama for is his superhuman toughness and that’s something you see a lot of in the Japanese wrasslers who make it over to MMA. Toughness isn’t enough in the end though if you don’t bring any actual fighting skills to the table.

So why is Takayama placed as the worst you might ask? Surely there are other wrasslers out there who made the transition and amassed worse records! I’ll admit, there really is only one reason for this placement: Takayama lost to Bob Sapp. By armbar.

No shit.

Where is he now: Takayama has been MIA since his loss to Sapp eight years ago and that’s probably for the best. For all the ridiculing he gets though, at least he had the balls to step into the ring not once but four times! That counts for something in my book.

The Bad: Giant Silva – This guy is arguably the biggest punchline in MMA, no pun intended, standing 2.12 meters tall and with a head of ginger hair that makes him look like a cross between Annie and a wookie. You might have seen him in the WWE during the late 90s as he made some appearances there. What most people remember him for however is getting his ass handed to him in the ring by smaller yet more skilled martial artists who all made it seem so easy.

Making his debut in a squash match at Pride Shockwave 2003 against then rising star Heath Herring he ended up on the wrong end of a choke and… consequently got a buy in to the Heavyweight tournament. That’s Japan for ya.

Despite winning his first fight in the tournament by submitting American sumo wrestler Henry Miller with a kimura he was next seeded against Japan’s heavyweight golden boy Naoya Ogawa who made short work of Silva. Since then he’s made his bones on the freak-show circuit of MMA, usually by getting his ass handed to him in a high hat by Asian grapplers (and James Thompson).

Where is he now: Silva last competed in MMA four years ago when he defeated American sumo Akebono Taro by kimura… am I the only one spotting a pattern here? In any case “The Yankee Sumo Killer” Silva is currently taking wrassling jobs where he can, usually for NWS.

The Good: Brock Lesnar – And we have controversy! Yeah, you guys were expecting me to put him on top of this list, didn’t you? Well then jog on because from where I’m standing Lesnar has shown great promise in MMA but has far from convinced me that he is the be all, end all of wrasslers-turned-fighters!

Now that that’s out of the way is there really anything I can say about Brock Lesnar that the UFC’s almightly hype-machine hasn’t already forced into our heads? A legendary stint in the college wrestling circuit paved the way to a huge contract with the WWE, where he played the big monster for a while until leaving for a brief NFL career. Sometime during this he realized that he wanted to fight in MMA now that it was a sound economical decision. He made his debut in K-1 Dynamite!! against Korean Min-Soo Kim who tapped out from strikes in just over a minute, a win I’m sure someone thinks is impressive.
Lesnar’s inexperience was shown in his first UFC fight though where Frank Mir caught him in a kneebar from out of nowhere and this loss sent Lesnar back in the gym, working harder than before.

Fast forward to today and Lesnar sits on the UFC Heavyweight throne awaiting his next challenger in Cain Velasquez, a man whom many feels has the tools necessary to dethrone the giant. Then again the same was said of Shane Carwin.

What keeps Lesnar from a higher spot here is that despite his accomplishments he’s still fresh in the sport and is still growing as a fighter. Yeah, he’s only gonna get better from here. Let that sink in for a bit.
Right now though his record wouldn’t justify it and his performance in the ring has also been a bit too shaky to make claims like “the best ever”. Maybe one day though…

Where is he now: Oh sod off!
The Great: Masakatsu Funaki – This is where the fanboys go crazy and start sending me hate mail; “how can a guy I’ve never heard of place higher than Brock Lesnar?!”
You’d be forgiven for not knowing who Funaki is if you were never into Pancrase or Japanese MMA. If you were you know exactly why this guy is placed where he is.

An extremely gifted submission wrestler and a student under Fujiwara, Funaki quickly established himself as a name on the NJPW circuit. Not content with this though he and training partner Minoru Suzuki founded the MMA organization Pancrase, which kept many of the trappings of wrassling – rope breaks, palm strikes, no striking on the ground etc – but only staged shoot fights. Pancrase was the early proving ground for fighters like Bas Rutten, Ken and Frank Shamrock and even housed future greats like Josh Barnett and Nate Marquardt. Back in the day though Funaki was one of the organization’s most dominant fighters.

How dominant was he? He tutored fighters he’d beaten, like Bas Rutten, in submisson grappling so that fights would get more challenging! Funaki would also use his wrassling background to “carry” opponents through fights, letting them mount an offense simply to make the fight more entertaining (a strategy that backfired every now and then) and thus founded a style of fighting that was perfected by a certain other Japanese fighter…

Where is he now: In 2000, body pretty much destroyed from his long career in wrassling and MMA, Funaki came out of retirement to face Rickson Gracie. Funaki did shockingly well, breaking Rickson’s orbital bone during the fight, but eventually succumbed to a rear naked choke, refusing to tap out.
In 2007 he subsequently came out of retirement again to fight some other MMA stars to varying success.

The Best: Kazushi Sakuraba – “The IQ Wrestler”; “The Gracie Hunter”; the man who single handedly dismantled the mythical status of MMA’s founding family started out as nothing more than a pro-wrestler! Trained in catch wrestling by Billy Robinson (look it up!) during his stint in the kayfabe shoot promotion UWFi he later moved on to Nobuhiko Takada’s promotion Kingdom Pro Wrestling. During his stint there it was announced that the UFC, still in it’s early days, would be making it’s first appearance in Japan and Sakuraba jumped at the chance to join in and represent his country.
There was only one problem: the UFC at the time had a minimum weight requirement of 200lbs. Sakuraba was only 183lbs.

He ended up facing a 240lbs black belt in BJJ, Marcus Silveira, twice that night; the first fight ruled a No Contest thanks to a rare mistake made by Big John McCarthy and the second time submitting the much larger Silveira with an armbar.

From there Sakuraba joined the upstart MMA promotion Pride FC and laid the foundation for a style of fighting that would be practiced by fighters like Genki Sudo and Urijah Faber – improvising in the middle of the fight and showcasing highly unorthodox moves against top competition with astonishing success. From 1997-2000 he was undoubtedly the top pound for pound fighter in the world, beating four of the top fighters in the Gracie family, fighting Royce for a total of 90 minutes before breaking him, and later making his bones on fighting Heavyweight and Light Heavyweights, never weighing much more than 190lbs!

Unfortunately Sakuraba ran into a brick wall that he couldn’t get past in Wanderlei Silva and nagging injuries started a sharp decline for the legend who went on a slump including a shocking upset loss against Nino Schembri at Pride 25.

Where is he now: Sakuraba is still in the game at 41 years of age and his body isn’t close to being what it used to be. His go for broke style, years in pro-wrestling and let’s not forget the many beatings he’s taken from huge guys en route to submissions has aged him more than father time could ever hope to. While it’s kind of sad seeing Saku competing as a shadow of his former self I feel it’s important to not forget his legacy and what he did for the sport. Without Sakuraba a young jiu jitsu student like me would probably never have realized the depth of grappling and the importance of thinking outside the box.
His next fight will be against Jason “Mayhem” Miller and only time will tell if Sakuraba’s technique will outweigh the pure physical advantage that Miller will hold over him. Regardless, Sakuraba is without a doubt the most successful wrassler to transition into MMA so far!

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