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MMA Fighters Transitioning to Pro-Wrestling: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

(Let me guess, it’ll sound something like “Tito Ortiz, The Huntington Bad Beach Boy: Future NTA world TNA heavyweight champion of the world.” Capture via ProWresBlog.Blogspot.Com.)

For some MMA fighters, professional wrestling was just a one-time cash grab. For others, it became a second career. Inspired by yet another week of TNA Impact Wrestling’s efforts to get anyone to care about the professional wrestling experiments of two broken-down MMA legends, we’ll be examining fighters who took up professional wrestling after they made their names in MMA in our newest installment of The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.

Bear in mind that this article is focusing on mixed martial artists who transitioned to professional wrestling careers, and not fighters who started off as professional wrestlers. So that means fighters like Brock Lesnar, Ken Shamrock, Bobby Lashley, Giant Silva, Bob Sapp, Dos Caras Jr. (aka Alberto Del Rio), Dan Severn (Google it) and Sakuraba will not be covered here — although a few of these men will make appearances in this article. Let’s start off on a positive note…

The Good

The Professional Wrestling Career of Josh Barnett.

When you’re thinking of good instances of an MMA fighter turning to professional wrestling as a second career choice, Josh Barnett should immediately come to mind. There have been other fighters who dabbled in professional wrestling, but Barnett is one of the only ones to be just as popular and successful in it as he was in MMA.

Before his transition, Barnett became the youngest heavyweight champion in UFC history by defeating Randy Couture at UFC 36. After being stripped of his title due to a positive drug test, Barnett set his sights on the Japanese professional wrestling scene, where the fans value legitimacy and toughness from their wrestlers more than mic skills and charisma (although Barnett has both in spades). He immediately challenged for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, and although he came up short, he went on to enjoy the most relevant crossover career of any fighter on this list before his return to the UFC earlier this year put a halt to the wrasslin’ for the time being.

It’d be easy to call his work with the incredibly underrated Perry Saturn or the technical wrestling clinic that he put on against Hideki Suzuki his most impressive stuff, but it’s probably not. Honest to God, Barnett’s biggest accomplishment may be the fact that he managed to pull Bob Sapp — who has the same cardio and technique in wrestling as he does in MMA — through a watchable match. How many people can claim that?

See Also: Don Frye

…and Bas Rutten.

With Frye’s “rematch” against Yoshihiro Takayama being one of the few exceptions, the professional wrestling careers of Don Frye and Bas Rutten have been exactly what you’d expect them to be. If I need to explain why that’s a good thing, you’re obviously new here.

The Polar Bear Fights Taz at ECW Hardcore Heaven.

(Enjoy the video while it lasts. Seriously, WWE’s lawyers will probably have it taken down soon.)

By 1996, a stocky, Brooklyn-born judoka by the name of Peter Senercia — better known as Taz — was one of the most talented, respected wrestlers on the independent circuit. Dubbed “The Human Suplex Machine,” Taz brawled his way through most of the ECW roster and was looking to take on some credible new opponents. This led to a problem for ECW owner Paul Heyman: Despite its success among hardcore wrestling fans, ECW was still very much an independent promotion that couldn’t afford to bring in established wrestlers just to job to one of their top stars. Always one to embrace new ideas, Heyman solved this dilemma by bringing Paul “The Polar Bear” Varelans in from the upstart Ultimate Fighting Championship to challenge Taz to a “real” fight at Hardcore Heaven.

At 6’8” tall and tipping the scales at 300 pounds, Varelans was the perfect fighter for Heyman to utilize. He was big enough to be seen as a formidable opponent, but his MMA record wasn’t too impressive for anyone to buy that Taz could actually beat him. The strong-style nature of the match hid The Polar Bear’s lack of professional wrestling training, yet also wasn’t out of place in ECW — especially not while Taz was in the ring. And while Taz obviously won the fight, he relied on outside interference. Having heels bend the rules in order to defeat larger, more skilled opponents is not only a common way to generate heat, but it also makes the ending more realistic in the eyes of the ECW fans who were familiar with those early UFC events. Well, at least as realistic as a fight that ends by Tazmission after an outsider dropkicks one of the fighters can look, I guess (work with me, people). Basically, everyone involved benefited from the situation and the fans actually cared about the angle — something that rarely happens when MMA fighters infiltrate the world of professional wrestling.

Bonus: According to wrestling legend, it was Taz who brought tapping out to professional wrestling. Taz was a huge Royce Gracie fan, and thought it would be more authentic if wrestlers tapped out at the end of their matches instead of just verbally submitting. If you think wrestling looks fake now, just imagine what it looked like when wrestlers verbally submitted to choke holds.

Brian Johnson Reinvents Himself in Japan

I’m willing to bet that, like most MMA fans, you’ve all but forgotten about Brian Johnson — the man who punched out a hapless Reza Nasri in under 30 seconds at UFC 11 before being emphatically tackled by Big John McCarthy. In terms of his real fighting career, you didn’t miss much — Johnson retired barely one year after he started fighting and lost to everyone he’s fought that you’ve heard of. However, with few other career options available for hulking spandex-clad athletes, Johnson turned to fake fighting and quickly excelled at it. He enjoyed success as a tag-team wrestler, pairing up with guys like Don Frye and Kazuyuki Fujita in the Japanese professional wrestling circuit.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s professional wrestling career would eventually serve as a brutal reminder that even though the fights are fake, the injuries that plague wrestlers are all too real. A series of concussions led him to retire in early 2001, and later that year, at only thirty-two years old, he would suffer a severe stroke. Though Johnson is alive and well today, he has wisely stayed away from the squared circle.

Hit that “next page” link for god awful gimmicks, the career that should have been, and the partnership that never should have…

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