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The Wrestling and MMA Overlap

by Kevin Marshall   October 08, 2012 at 2:00PM  |  Views: 4,425

(Kevin Marshall's opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of Spike.)


King Mo made his debut for IMPACT WRESTLING this past Thursday.

It seems like a natural fit for a guy as bombastic and charismatic as King Mo. His elaborate entrances, ability to engage a crowd, and sense of style seem tailor-made for professional wrestling. Yet he's also dangerous in the cage, a strong grappler and heavy hitter considered one of the best Light Heavyweights in the world and a future champion.

This year, he signed with Bellator and IMPACT WRESTLING. The simultaneous endeavor may seem foreign to American audiences. In fact, for the most part, we don't see very many MMA stars make the transition to professional wrestling. If anything, we see the opposite with guys such as Bobby Lashley and Dave Bautista leaving behind their former careers as pro wrestlers to pursue careers in MMA.

It's fairly common in Japan. That's because MMA and professional wrestling are more intrinsically linked than fans of either sport likely realize and/or would like to admit here in the United States. The Japanese pro wrestling and MMA industries, however, have long flaunted the connection.

The blurring of the line between real fighting and pre-determined entertainment dates back to the early days of pro wrestling in the United States, where carnival barkers would often have their wrestlers and particularly their champions take challenges from members of the audience. Although many were obviously plants (the oldest and still most reliable angle is the guy who comes out of the crowd to pull off an upset), there were still some for the sake of legitimacy who would be allowed to step in and compete. As a result, most wrestlers in the early and mid twentieth century were legitimately skilled grapplers who were trained in catch submission wrestling. That way they could handle themselves in a situation with someone who wasn't in on the con, or if say they were on their way out of a territory and a promoter with an axe to grind decided to have one of his guys try to take liberties during a match.

Although the latter part of the twentieth century saw that tradition dissipate in the United States, it continued in Japan. Antonio Inoki, the star and promoter for New Japan Pro Wrestling, regularly challenged legitimate martial artists to matches and billed himself as the World Martial Arts Champion. That evolved into the marketing of pro wrestling in Japan as the ultimate form of martial arts, serving in a very real way as a precursor to what eventually became MMA.

To this day, that history has lent itself to a blurring of the line between pro wrestling and MMA, with plenty of stars starting in one and moving into the other (though pro wrestlers who become MMA fighters have by and large saw far less success).

What seems like a novelty to American fans, then, is largely par for the course in Japan.

Let's take a look at some MMA competitors who attained glory in MMA but also stepped through the ropes of the squared circle.

King Mo

We've already discussed his prospects. Needless to say, fans should be excited to see what he can do.

King Mo Makes an Impact
Get More: King Mo Makes an Impact

Ken Shamrock

Perhaps the first big, high profile name to come out of MMA in the United States, Ken Shamrock signed with the (then) WWF in the mid 90s following a legendary run during the early days of the UFC promotion. But his time as a pro wrestler actually predated that, having been trained in 1988 and wrestling for various independent and Japanese organizations as Wayne Shamrock or simply Shamrock. During his career he held the WWF Intercontinental and Tag Team Titles and is recognized as the first ever NWA-TNA champion on what is now known as IMPACT WRESTLING.

Dan Severn

Severn was another star in the early days of the UFC that made the successful transition to pro wrestling, competing for various independent wrestling promotions, the UWFi promotion in Japan, and briefly for the WWF where he had a stint as European champion. His most notable title reign, though, was as the NWA Heavyweight Championship, a title he held for over four years.

Josh Barnett

Like King Mo, Barnett seems tailor made for professional wrestling. An avid fan who litters interviews with references, Barnett has competed in Japan for New Japan Pro Wrestling as well as the IGF, the promotion started by former New Japan star and promoter Antonio Inoki.

Bas Rutten

Is there anything this man hasn't done at least once? Rutten wrestled a handful of times for New Japan Pro Wrestling in the early 2000s as part of their effort to 'legitimize' pro wrestling and stay competitive with the surging MMA scene. Many of the same injuries that prevented him from continuing his MMA career likely led to his limited experience with New Japan. His likeness appears in the video game "WCW vs. The World" as "Thunder Dome." Shame that moniker never caught on.

Don Frye

As a pro wrestler, nobody on this list saw more success in Japan than Don Frye. Frye competed for nearly five years for New Japan Pro Wrestling, becoming one of its top stars and main eventing several major cards including Antonio Inoki's retirement match in 1998. Frye made a handful of appearances in the mid 2000s for All-Japan Pro Wrestling and New Japan, and worked a match with Josh Barnett in 2007 for the IGF.

Kevin Randleman

Randleman made several appearances for the HUSTLE promotion in 2004, which if you haven't seen it is a combination of pro wrestling, musical theater, and insanity. In one of his more amusing appearances, he teamed with his Hammer House mentor/trainer Mark Coleman as a tag team under masks and billed as Randle Man and Cole Man.

Mark Coleman

Coleman also worked for the aforementioned HUSTLE promotion, run by Nobuhiko Takada. What's interesting is that at the fifth Pride event, the two met in what was marketed as an MMA fight but was, in actuality, a fixed bout. Coleman earned $50,000 to lose to Takada via a heel hook. In their defense, however, it was not uncommon for Japanese events to promote pre-determined pro wrestling bouts and legitimate MMA fights on the same card. Japanese pro wrestling at the time still enforced kayfabe (insisting to the general public it was real), and many in the press and general public played along, but in private accepted the pre-determined nature of the industry. The problem here, however, is that Pride was thought ostensibly to be fully legitimate. But it was, essentially, a pro wrestling match duplicitously presented as legitimate.

Jerome Le Banner

The former MMA competitor and K-1 kickboxing legend entered the pro wrestling game late. He had his first match in 2011 in the IGF (Inoki Genome Federation), a promotion that largely features former legitimate fighters in pro wrestling contests. For nearly a year Le Banner was a top star in the promotion, becoming its first ever champion until dropping the belt this past July to another hybrid star, Kazuyuki Fujita.

Brock Lesnar

His inclusion on this list may seem tenuous since he was a star in the WWE before joining the UFC. However, he arguably attained more notoriety during the latter stint and solidified himself as an MMA guy first and foremost before returning to the WWE this year. His new multi-million dollar deal only requires him to make a few appearances on television, wrestle a small handful of matches, and restricts his time on the road (Lesnar notoriously hates traveling). Unfortunately he's been largely wasted during his current tenure. It hasn't helped either that much of his character thus far has been as a guy who keeps quitting the WWE out of frustration, which with maybe one or two notable exceptions has never gotten anyone over.

Image: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/ Getty Images

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