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Something fun I’ve wanted to do for a while was to make a list of the best football players to become pro wrestlers. What I mean by that is that this is not a list of the best wrestlers who used to be football players, but rather a list of the best football players who went on to be pro wrestlers. So the list will be judging the wrestlers on their football talent, as exhibited mostly by their success at the professional level.
Since both football and pro wrestling value physical strength, agility and coordination, it is no surprise to see a lot of the same athletes crossover between the two activities. For almost a century, pro wrestling has been a career option for former college players, and a boatload of the greatest wrestlers in history, including The Rock, Steve Austin, Ric Flair, Stan Hansen, John Cena and countless others were football players before turning to wrestling.
On this list, I am trying to include football players who had actual careers in wrestling, because tons of famous football players have dabbled in the industry before. This won’t include Lawrence Taylor, Kevin Greene, Rob Gronkowski, or other celebrities that have had odd matches here and there. I am looking at players who went on to have actual careers in pro wrestling.
That obviously makes things a little more difficult; wrestling is littered with former football players who had a cup of coffee in the NFL, but not a ton of true stars. Especially in modern times, if a player was truly successful in the NFL they would have made enough money that risking their body in pro wrestling after their career was over wouldn’t have made any sense. However, especially if you go further back in history, during a time when wrestling was actually more lucrative than pro football, there are some real players who got into pro wrestling. Lawrence Taylor may not have made the list, but there are several NFL Hall of Fame players who seriously went into wrestling.
10. Dick the Bruiser
Dick the Bruiser, known for his violent theatrics in the AWA and later as the owner of his own rouge wrestling company, the IWA, first was a lineman for the Green Bay Packers in the 1950s. Just before Vince Lombardi turned the Packers into a juggernaut, Dick the Bruiser manned the trenches for four seasons, playing in every game. His career came to an end when he suffered a serious larynx injury; but he would turn that into a strength as it gave him a unique and effective tool for cutting some of the best promos of his era.
9. Monty Brown
Monty Brown never quite had the career people envisioned for him in pro wrestling; he was solid in TNA during its early days and is best known for popularizing “The Pounce” his signature move that if done correctly, is one of the most visually appealing moves in wrestling and has been adopted by countless other wrestlers. A failed run in WWE as Marcus Cor Von pretty much derailed his career; but before all of that, Brown was a legitimate linebacker in the NFL, playing for three seasons with the Buffalo Bills and an additional season with the New England Patriots before an ankle injury ended his career on the gridiron. He finished his career with 106 tackles, which may not sound like much, but very few pro wrestlers can claim more NFL tackles (Bill Goldberg, for example, only had 11).
8. Ron Simmons
I’m making an exception here, since I only wanted to really include players who played at the highest level of football, but even though Simmons never played a down in the NFL, he was a truly outstanding college football player. A two-time consensus All-American, Simmons was one of the greatest players in the history of Florida State under legendary head coach Bobby Bowden. An undersized nose tackle, Simmons never caught on in the NFL, but did go on to have a long and successful career in pro wrestling, and is fondly remembered by fans today.
7. Gus Sonnenberg
Sonnenberg is relatively unknown today, but is one of the most influential pro wrestlers in history. In the 1920s, during the primitive days of professional football, Sonnenberg was a star for the Providence Steam Roller, the half back who led them to the 1928 NFL Championship. Using his popularity in the New England area as a draw, Boston promoter Paul Bowser brought in Sonnenberg as a special attraction and he was an instant success. During a time when the industry was dominated by legitimate shooters, Sonnenberg thrilled crowds with his charisma and popularized the “flying shoulder tackle” which became one of the first true signature moves in pro wrestling history. Sonnenberg was a complete novice, and while his true working ability was resented by traditionalists, the box office disagreed; according to research done by Matt Farmer, Sonnenberg was the biggest draw in all of wrestling in 1929, beating out true legends like Jim Londos and Ed “Strangler” Lewis. Sonnenberg would remain a top draw for a number of years while also playing football, and his style showed that a genuine attraction could outdraw traditional, mat-based grappling if pushed correctly.
6. Wahoo McDaniel
Wahoo McDaniel, one of the true icons of Carolina wrestling, was first a star in the AFL during the 1960s, playing 9 seasons for four different teams as a playmaking linebacker. It was with the New York Jets, when he stitched “Wahoo” above his jersey in place of his last name, where he was best known. Whenever he made a tackle the PA announcer would ask the crowd “Who made the tackle?” and the crowd would yell back “Wahoo!”. Following the end of his football career in 1969, McDaniel got into wrestling full-time and was money as a charismatic babyface, famous for bleeding, his elaborate head-dresses and his memorable feuds with Greg Valentine and Ric Flair.
5. Ernie Ladd
Was Ernie Ladd a better football player, or a better wrestler? Some of the names on this list are more well-known as wrestlers, others more from being football players, but it is hard to draw a distinction with Ladd. As a football player, the 6’9″ Ladd was the tallest player in pro football at the time and was a 3x All-Pro for the San Diego Chargers in the AFL. As a wrestler, Ladd was a charismatic heel, one of the most popular wrestlers of the 1970s and had memorable feuds with Bruno Sammartino and Andre the Giant. Ladd would end up being inducted in the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame, and is in numerous wrestling Hall of Fames as well. A real superstar in both fields.
4. Steve “Mongo” McMichael
Mongo’s wrestling career may have been so bad, it ended up spurring a successful social media account dedicated to his countless miscues in the ring (@ThatsOurMongo) but Mongo was a really good football player. Known for his success as an All-Pro on the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears, Mongo has 95 career sacks from the defensive tackle position and has a borderline Hall of Fame case as an NFL player. As a wrestler, he certainly wasn’t Ernie Ladd, but he did have a legitimate four year career in wrestling, so he has to make this list.
3. Alex Karras
One of the greatest players in the history of the Detroit Lions, Karras got into pro wrestling full-time in 1963 when he was serving a year-long suspension for gambling. An intimidating defensive tackle, Karras was a 3x All-Pro and his suspension cost him a year of his prime. Karras was a notable attraction as a wrestler in the Detroit area, but after his football career winded down he ended up going into acting and writing, carving out a third successful career for himself in entertainment. His gambling suspension long cost him a chance at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he was finally inducted in 2020.
2. Leo Nomellini
Long before Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, the star man for the San Francisco 49ers was Leo Nomellini. As was customary during the 1950s for elite players, Nomellini played both offensive and defensive tackle for the Niners, remarkably making All-Pro at both positions during his career. A 10x Pro Bowl selection, Nomellini is one of the greatest lineman in NFL history and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969. His wrestling career wasn’t that bad either, he was a major attraction in the off-season wrestling for Roy Shire in San Francisco, and even had a legit claim to the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in 1955 when it was believed he beat Lou Thesz for the title, only for the finish to end up in controversy, with both men later claiming to hold the title (Thesz won the rematch).
1. Bronko Nagurski
The platonic ideal of a fullback during the heyday of smash-mouth football, Bronko Nagurski is arguably the most famous pro football player of the first half of the 20th Century. The star of George Halas’ Chicago Bears dynasty, Nagurski was a fullback and linebacker for the Bears in the 1930s and was a 6x All-Pro. At 6’2″ and 230lbs, he outweighed most lineman and it was almost impossible for one man to bring him down. Nagurksi was a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963, and the Sporting News ranked him as the 35th best player of the 20th Century in 1999.
Nagurski of course, was also an incredibly successful wrestler. No doubt due to his fame as a football player, Nagurski wrestled during the offseason and even quit football at one point because he was making so much more money wrestling. According to research done by Matt Farmer, Nagurski was the third biggest draw in wrestling in 1938 and second in 1940. In 1939, Nagurski beat Lou Thesz for the National Wrestling Association World Championship, the defacto world title of his day, and he was complemented by Thesz, who was normally very tight-lipped about his competition, particularly when it came to someone coming from the land of pro football. Nagurski wrestled on and off until 1960.
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