Professional wrestling has long had a tradition of bringing in professional athletes to take part in big marquee matches. Back in the height of the "Monday Night Wars," WCW took advantage of the on-court animosity between Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman during the 1998 NBA Finals for a tag-team match at the Bash at the Beach event. WWE (then-WWF) has done it time and time again with everyone from Super Bowl champ Rob Gronkowski to basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal, and now it looks like former NFL punter and current talkshow host Pat McAfee will be joining their ranks.
As the wrestling world anxiously awaits in-ring debut of the longtime Indianapolis Colts punter against former NXT Champion Adam Cole at NXT Takeover XXX, now is the perfect time to look back at some of the biggest names in the sports world who made a major appearance in the professional wrestling.
Pat McAfee hasn't technically made his in-ring debut with WWE's NXT brand, but the two-time Pro Bowl punter has been a major part of a storyline involving his upcoming Takeover opponent Adam Cole more than two years after caused the Undisputed Era leader a victory at an Indianapolis house show. The feud went mainstream in July 2020, when Cole appeared as a guest on McAfee's podcast and the two did what so many of the greats before them did, they had a blowup that blurred the line between reality and kayfabe (wrestling make-believe) and sent the internet ablaze. Not long after, the two got into another heated discussion at a taping of NXT which ended with McAfee punting Cole's head. The match between the two was made official the next day.
There has never been a professional athlete better suited to enter the world of professional wrestling than five-time NBA Champion Dennis Rodman, who was part of two major WCW pay-per-view matches at the height of his career. Starting in March 1997, the colorful defensive mastermind of the Chicago Bulls formed a lasting bond with NWO leader Hollywood Hulk Hogan and even served as his tag-team partner in a losing effort at that year's Bash at the Beach. Rodman would return the following year for another match as Hogan's partner, this time squaring up against his NBA Finals opponent Karl Malone, who teamed with Diamond Dallas Page. The match wasn't anything to write home about, but back in the summer of 1998, it was all anyone could talk about and resulted in a great number of the pay-per-view buys for the company's big summer event.
Dennis Rodman may have been effective as a heel, but his 1998 Bash at the Beach opponent Karl Malone seemed to be more up to task for the wrestling side of the performance instead of the sensationally effective heel work (there's no question that Rodman was the biggest villain in the league at the time). Like I said earlier, their tag-team match wasn't must-watch television by any means, but WCW wasn't really known for its ring work at the time, except for the outstanding and underutilized cruiserweight division. Rodman, the NWO, and millions of wrestling fans around the world knew that Malone was serious about his commitment as soon as they saw him enter the ring and treat the match the same way he'd treat an NBA Finals matchup.
It should be no surprise that Shaquille O'Neal has been involved with professional wrestling throughout his career, but it's crazy that he has only had one match, especially for someone who would have fit in so well back in his glory days. Sure, Shaq made a few appearances here and there in the 1990s and beyond, but he didn't officially enter the squared circle until WrestleMania 32 where he participated in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal and had a confrontation with Big Show before being eliminated by a large group of wrestlers. It looked like the two would meet face-to-face for real the following year at WrestleMania 33, but nothing came of it.
Rob Gronkowski is undoubtedly more well-known for being a three-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots or his appearance as the "White Tiger" on The Masked Singer Season 3, but the lifelong wrestling fan has shown up on WWE television multiple times throughout his career and is even a one-time champion. "Gronk" first appeared at WrestleMania 33, where he helped his real-life friend and WWE superstar Mojo Rawley secure a victory in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. He would show up again three years later to host the two-night WrestleMania 36, during which he would become the 24/7 Champion, a title he would until being pinned in his backyard by R-Truth two months later.
Unlike just about everyone else on this list, former UFC champion Ronda Rousey had a lengthy run in WWE, during which time she was involved in one of the best matches at WrestleMania 34 and was a part of the first female-headlined WrestleMania the following year in her triple threat match against Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair. During that time, Rousey had a series of stellar matches against everyone from Alexa Bliss (who she squashed at SummerSlam 2018 to secure the Raw Women's Championship), Sasha Banks, Bayley, and the aforementioned Lynch and Flair. With only one loss during her one-year run at the top of the division, Rousey cemented herself in the hallowed halls of wrestling history.
Floyd Mayweather is another one of those personalities from the world of professional sports that was made for wrestling, and that became a reality in 2008 when the undefeated boxing superstar went up against the much larger Big Show for a no-disqualification match at WrestleMania 24. Held right before the main event World Heavyweight Championship match between Edge and The Undertaker, the Mayweather/Big Show spectacle played out more like a cartoon than a wrestling match and mostly consisted of the boxer trying to escape the reach of the giant grappler and depended upon his entourage to distract his opponent and secure a victory.
Two-time Super Bowl champ and Pro Football Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor has the distinct honor of being the only professional athlete on this list to secure a victory in the main event at a WrestleMania. Two years after his career on the gridiron came to a close, Taylor found himself in the middle of a feud with the late Bam Bam Bigelow following an interaction ringside at the 1995 Royal Rumble. Gearing up for their main event singles match at WrestleMania 11, the two opponents, and the show overall, received a great deal of mainstream press considering that one of the biggest stars of the NFL of the 1980s and early 90s was in the final bout at the "Grandaddy of the All."
Boxer Mike Tyson's appearance as the guest enforcer at WrestleMania 14 in 1998 not only helped cement the legacy of WWF's Attitude Era, it also helped usher in Stone Cold Steve Austin's reign as WWF Champion and the biggest star in the world of professional wrestling. Leading up to the match between Austin and then champion Shawn Michaels, Tyson appeared to be in Michaels' corner and was constantly getting into arguments and physical confrontations with the Texas Rattlesnake. That partnership didn't last as Tyson turned on the Heartbreak Kid and revealed an Austin 3:16 shirt before helping Austin secure a victory, creating one of the most iconic moments in wrestling.
It is mostly forgotten now, but boxing legend Muhammad Ali once entered a wrestling ring against the great Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki for an unscripted exhibition match in 1976. The bout, which was held in Tokyo, was the subject of controversy at the time due to the odd set of rules Ali's camp forced Inoki to agree upon for the match to take place. In the one-on-one contest, Inoki was barred from performing any wrestling moves, so he laid flat on the ground and kicked Ali throughout the match that ended in a draw. Due to the number of kicks received during the fight, two blood clots formed in Ali's legs, which according to The Los Angeles Times, almost resulted in an amputation due to an infection.
The Muhammad Ali/Antonio Inoki fight might have been seen as a farce at the time, and almost ended badly for the former world champion boxer, but its legacy is still felt today in the world of Mixed Martial Arts, especially in Japan. A 2013 article in SB Nation's Bloody Elbow credits the match with inspiring the founders of MMA promotions like Pancrase and Pride to usher in a new era of shoot fighting. See, everything always comes back to professional wrestling.
Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop yelling at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.
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