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#PunkWeek: CM Punk's wrestling-to-MMA path was blazed by many others

Punk vs. Lesnar

As part of our #PunkWeek coverage leading up to former WWE champion CM Punk's UFC/MMA debut Saturday at UFC 203, Paul Fontaine takes a look at other pro wrestlers who have forged into the world of MMA.

Although CM Punk will be one of the rare competitors to step right into the premier mixed martial arts organization in the world for his first fight, he will continue a long line of professional wrestlers who have tested their skills in legitimate fights.

Of course, the most obvious example that would spring to the mind of anyone who has even been a casual fan of MMA or pro wrestling in the last 15 years would be Brock Lesnar. Lesnar left WWE during his athletic peak to pursue a career in professional football. After giving up on that dream, he did some pro wrestling in Japan, and eventually made his way into MMA as promoters felt that his legitimate athletic background might translate into stardom in that sport.

Lesnar became the biggest draw in UFC and MMA history, winning and defending the UFC heavyweight title before losing it and a follow-up fight with Alistair Overeem, later returning to WWE. A run like this would obviously be the best case scenario for Punk, but it would be the exception to the rule.

Bobby Lashley

Other than Punk, the most successful pro wrestler turned fighter would be Bellator heavyweight and current TNA champion Bobby Lashley. Like Lesnar, Lashley had a background in amateur wrestling which translated well into the sport of MMA. Lashley has been protected very well in booking, racking up a 14-2 pro record. He is currently on a 7-fight win streak and even at 40, he has a realistic possibility of becoming Bellator’s next heavyweight champion.

Lashley has been a bit of a needle-mover in terms of television ratings for both Bellator and Strikeforce. The two Strikeforce on Showtime shows he was on averaged 442,000 viewers. For comparision, Strikeforce averaged 293,000 over 12 shows for that year, so clearly he made a difference. 

He has fought on four Bellator shows in 2014-15, and is currently scheduled to fight again this November of this year. Those four shows have averaged 954,000, well above the average of all Bellator shows (720k) during that two year stretch.

Lesnar and Lashley are far from the only pro wrestlers to make the switch, although they have been the most successful.

Ken Shamrock first made his name in UFC after having started in the Florida indies in the early days of the sport. After gaining a reputation as the “World’s Most Dangerous Man” in UFC, he returned to pro wrestling and was a mid-level star during the hottest period in WWF history.

Since returning to MMA from professional wrestling in 2000, Shamrock’s record is just 6-12 with his most high-profile bouts being in PRIDE, UFC, and Bellator. He was still a big draw on both PPV and TV, however. The two PPV shows he fought on in 2002 and 2004 were the most purchased shows of those years by a healthy margin.

In 2006, his two fights with Tito Ortiz were feature attractions on UFC's biggest PPV show and biggest TV show of the year. A decade later, he proved that he was still a television draw as he headlined two TV shows for Bellator that both broke all company records.

ADR

Jose Alberto Rodriguez, aka Alberto Del Rio, is another pro wrestler who found some success in the world of MMA. After leaving AAA in 2001, he fought for the DEEP promotion in Japan, putting together a 3-2 record. He went on to his most high-profile MMA fights for the legendary PRIDE. Competing under a mask as Dos Caras Jr, his pro wrestling persona prior to coming to WWE, he lost via first round KO to Mirko Cro Cop, and followed that up with a decision loss to Kazuhiro Nakamura.

He returned to Mexico and professional wrestling with the CMLL promotion but continued to fight sporadically over the next several years, scoring six stoppage wins in a row in Mexican and Honduran regional promotions. His last pro fight was in 2010 in Spain, where he lost via KO. When he left WWE in 2014, he was rumoured to be making a return to MMA and was in negotiations with several companies. However, nothing ever materialized.

Bart Gunn, former multi-time WWE tag team champion and the winner of the promotion's one and only “Brawl for All” tournament, also tried his hand at MMA in 2006. Competing under his given name of Mike Polchlopek, he won his debut fight against former UFC fighter Wesley “Cabbage” Correira. He went on to fight in Japan for PRIDE, and went to a decision against the much smaller, and still active, Minowaman.

Another former tag team champion in pro wrestling, the late Sean O’Haire, dabbled in the sport between 2004 and 2007. His biggest fight was against gimmick pro boxer Butterbean on a PRIDE show, and he was knocked out in less than a minute. He also lost via first round submission on a show in K-1 in 2005. Sandwiched around those losses were four KO wins on smaller regional shows. His last fight was a KO win over Frankie Parkman in December 2007.

Tony Halme, aka Ludvig Borga in the WWF, also had a short MMA run in the very early days of the sport. After losing his first three fights in the Japanese promotion RINGS, Halme was brought into the UFC for a tournament matchup against Randy Couture at 1997's UFC 13. Halme was submitted in 56 seconds in what would turn out to be his last MMA fight. He passed away in January 2010.

More recently, a couple of products of the WWE Tough Enough series have ventured into the world of MMA on a lower level. Jeremiah Riggs was on the 2011 version of the show, but prior to that appearance, he had tried out for The Ultimate Fighter, and appeared on Strikeforce and Bellator undercards. After failing to secure a WWE contract on the show, he returned to MMA, losing three straight in Bellator. He last fought in September 2013 at Bellator 101.

A potential future opponent of CM Punk might be Tanner Saraceno, should Punk decide to continue after this weekend. The fellow welterweight was on the 2015 version of Tough Enough, and made it to the second to last week of eliminations before being cut. He made his professional MMA debut shortly after leaving the show, and has a 2-1 record with two stoppage wins.

Finally, there is someone whose situation is probably the most similar to Punk in that he was a top star in WWE who left at the height of his popularity.

Batista MMA

Fighting had been something of a bucket list item for Dave Bautista, and his one and only foray into fighting was a successful one. Bautista KO’d journeyman Vince Lucero in the main event of a CES show in Rhode Island in 2013. He returned to WWE for a short run after that, and more recently has had great success in the acting world, including a highly regarded star-making performance in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy as well as the latest James Bond film, Spectre.

**********

As you can see, the results have been mixed thus far for pro wrestlers in mixed martial arts. With no athletic background past the scripted world that he made his name in, the deck is certainly stacked against Punk. It’s unlikely that he will ever compete for a title, but if he can help UFC draw a buyrate for this show and not embarrass himself in the process, it will likely be considered a win.

Should he surprise the oddsmakers (and most fans) and score a win over Mickey Gall Saturday night, the odds are pretty good that Punk could be a short-term draw for UFC. Personally, I feel that he’d be more likely to draw on television but we’ll know fairly soon if he’s a UFC PPV draw as most of the promotion for this show has centered on his fight and not the actual main event.

Check out WrestlingObserver.com daily this week for more content dedicated to CM Punk's debut at UFC 203.