In our society, sports have been an integral part of our entrainment for hundreds of years.
Whether it was the gladiators in the colosseum or actors in a Shakespearean play, humans have always been drawn to storytelling. Combat sports and entertainment have evolved drastically since the days of the colosseum and theatre though. Gladiators became mixed martial artists, and the world of theatre evolved into many different forms, like pro wrestling.
Even back in the day, combat sports and pro wrestling have always been inseparable. One of the earliest examples would be legendary boxer Muhammad Ali appearing at Wrestlemania 1 as a special guest referee in 1985. While fighting and professional wrestling are two different forms of entertainment, these worlds share more in common than you may think, as both are extremely physical and feature athletes competing at the highest level.
In the UFC’s nearly three decades of existence, there have been plenty of names that have transitioned from the Octagon to the squared circle.
Here’s a sampling of some of them…
In 2011, it was announced that the UFC would be purchasing the popular MMA promotion, Strikeforce. Strikeforce housed a ton of elite talent and a handful of future UFC champions such as Daniel Cormier, Fabricio Werdum, Luke Rockhold, Tryon Woodley, Miesha Tate, and Ronda Rousey. Yet the most important story to come out of this purchase was that the fact that women would finally have the chance to compete in the UFC.
Since Rousey was already the champion of her division in Strikeforce, the judo Olympian was promoted to UFC women’s bantamweight champion as a result of the acquisition. In the main event of UFC 157, Rousey and Liz Carmouche made history by being the first women to fight inside the Octagon.
A close family friend, “Judo” Gene LeBell, happened to be the grappling coach for pro wrestling legend Roddy Piper, and when Rousey saw Piper, she asked her childhood hero for permission to use his famous “Rowdy” nickname for her first amateur MMA bout. Piper gave Rousey his permission to use the nickname.
Rousey’s time in the UFC was dominant, as she successfully defended the UFC women’s bantamweight championship six times. After her eighth fight in the Octagon, Rousey decided it was time to end her fight career, officially retiring from MMA. In 2017, it was announced that Rousey had signed with the WWE on a full-time basis. Just as she did in the UFC, Rousey made history in the WWE by being in the first women’s main event at Wrestlemania. “Rowdy” is back in the squared circle this Saturday at Wrestlemania 38.
Before he became UFC heavyweight champion, Brock Lesnar dominated the world of collegiate wrestling. Representing the University of Minnesota, Lesnar became NCAA heavyweight champion in his senior year, and mirroring Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle’s path in combat sports, Lesnar took his athletic talent to the WWE. In no time, Lesnar was pushed as a big-time star, main eventing pay-per-views at the age of 26. Lesnar would even go on to defeat Angle at Wrestlemania 19 to become WWE champion.
In 2008, Brock Lesnar’s pro wrestling career was starting to fizzle out and he decided it was time to leave the wrestling ring and return to the world of combat sports by testing himself in MMA. After winning his debut in a regional promotion, Lesnar caught the attention of UFC President Dana White. At UFC 77, commentator Joe Rogan announced to the world that Brock Lesnar had signed with the fight company.
While he may have lost his debut against Frank Mir, Lesnar would eventually avenge that loss to Mir and defeat Randy Couture to become the new UFC heavyweight champion by his third fight in the UFC. In 2012, Lesnar made his way back to the WWE. At UFC 200, Lesnar returned to the Octagon to take on Mark Hunt, but earlier this year, Lesnar announced that his days of professional fighting were now behind him, marking his retirement from MMA.
At end of 2013, the UFC announced that they would be adding a 115-pound strawweight division. For the first time ever on The Ultimate Fighter, the show featured an all-female cast. The 16 competing on this season would battle to become the first UFC women’s strawweight champion. While fans may not have known it because it never came to fruition, strawweight Paige VanZant was originally casted for TUF, but at 20 years old, she was just one year shy of the age requirement to compete on the show. Luckily, VanZant was still signed to the company and would later make her debut against Kailin Curran in November 2014. VanZant was successful in her Octagon debut, beating Curran by TKO in the third round. After winning her debut, VanZant went on to beat Felice Herrig and Alex Chambers. VanZant’s four-fight win streak was ended by future UFC women’s strawweight champion Rose Namjuans in December 2015.
After losing to Namajunas, VanZant would go on to win two of her next five. In the summer of 2020, VanZant and the UFC parted ways, and in September of 2021, she started making appearances on the new pro wrestling show, All Elite Wrestling. After months of teasing the idea, VanZant announced that she had officially signed with AEW and she is scheduled to make her debut in the coming months.
At the age of 22, Matt Riddle was selected to compete on the seventh season of The Ultimate Fighter. Riddle made a statement in his first bout, knocking out his opponent nine seconds into the second round. While he wouldn’t end up winning the tournament, Riddle was still signed to the UFC afterward and he made his Octagon debut at The Ultimate Fighter Finale in June 2008. He won his debut against Dante Rivera by unanimous decision and went on to win four of his next five.
After defeating DaMarques Johnson, Riddle lost his next two fights. In 2012, Riddle was able to bounce back to the win column with a win over Henry Martinez. Riddle then went on to win his next four fights. However, Riddle’s wins against Chris Clements and Che Mills were changed to no contests after Riddle tested positive for Marijuana. In 2013, after his second failed drug test, Riddle and UFC parted ways.
In 2014, Riddle announced that he had started to train for a career in professional wrestling. After competing on the independent circuit for four years, Riddle made it to WWE’s developmental brand, NXT. When his time in NXT was over, Riddle made his way to WWE’s main roster. He is currently a tag team champion alongside Randy Orton. The pair will be defending their belts this Sunday on night two of Wrestlemania 38.
Junior Dos Santos (with American Top Team)
For the past few years, the world-famous MMA gym, American Top Team, has been dipping its toes in the world of professional wrestling. Most recently, ATT gym owner Dan Lambert and his team of fighters have shown up on All Elite Wrestling. Lambert’s team of fighters consists of Junior Dos Santos, Jorge Masvidal, Paige VanZant, and Andrei Arlovski. Most recently, Dos Santos and Arlovski had their first pro wrestling matches, participating in a tag team match. Pro wrestling may not have been something JDS saw in his future, but it was clear that the former heavyweight champion is really enjoying his experience.
For the 18th season of The Ultimate Fighter, it was announced that for the first-time, women would serve as the head coaches. Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate were selected, and when it was time for Rousey to pick the members of her team, she was quick to pick Shayna Baszler.
A veteran of the game, Baszler had already been competing as professional mixed martial artist for a decade. After appearing on The Ultimate Fighter, Baszler competed in the Octagon two more times. For two years, Baszler had been bouncing back and forth between pro wrestling and fighting, but eventually, she decided to shift her focus to professional wrestling. In 2017, Baszler signed with the WWE’s developmental brand, NXT. A year later, Baszler won the NXT women’s championship, and in 2020, Baszler made her main roster debut. The former fighter will be competing this weekend at WrestleMania 38.
Before any of the men and women on this list competed in pro wrestling, Ken Shamrock was one of the first ones to do it. The UFC Hall of Famer is one of the earliest pioneers in MMA, and fighting at UFC 1 in 1993, Shamrock and Royce Gracie’s rivalry was the first to ever transpire in the Octagon. Before stepping into the cage, Shamrock had already been wrestling in Japan, showing that he was a once in a generation athlete who excelled in every sport he competed in. At UFC 6, he defeated Dan Severn to win the inaugural UFC superfight championship. Through the years, Shamrock would continue to wrestle in Japan, fight in the UFC, and even wrestle for the WWE, where he feuded with The Rock, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, and The Undertaker. “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” has continued to wrestle, most recently competing in Impact Wrestling in 2020.