UFC 203 plays host to a UFC Heavyweight Title fight on Saturday night but it’s another fight, or rather a fighter, who seems to be garnering all the media and fan attention. Phil Brooks, better known as CM Punk, arguably one of the most iconic professional wrestlers of the modern era, makes his long-awaited debut during the event. While his debut has been heavily criticized due to his lack of MMA training and experience, this isn’t the first time a professional wrestler has attempted the transition to the octagon. We take a look at five examples of others who have done just that, with varying degrees of success.
ALBERTO DEL RIO
We start with a man who is arguably as big a name in the wrestling industry as CM Punk is, but whose MMA career didn’t attract as much publicity. Jose Alberto Rodriguez, better known as Alberto Del Rio in the WWE and El Patron Alberto or Dos Caras Jr. in other wrestling promotions, is a decorated star in professional wrestling and is equally accomplished in other combat sports. Del Rio took up Greco-Roman wrestling early in life. He claimed a spot on the Mexican national team, won his division 3 times at the Central American and Caribbean Games, placed third in the World Junior Championships in 1997, medaled in the Pan American Games and was even on track to represent Mexico in the Olympics in the 2000 Summer Olympics before Mexico decided not to field a wrestling team that year. In 2000, he trained with his father and debuted in the Mexican wrestling promotion Asistencia Asesoria y Administracion (AAA). He would go on to wrestle for multiple Mexican and Japanese promotions, winning multiple championships and honors. During this period he also had fourteen MMA fights using the name Dos Caras Jr. Between 2001 and 2010 Del Rio fought in multiple organizations in Latin America, Japan, and Europe, including a 2 fight stint in Pride. Del Rio finished his MMA career with a 9-5 record, finishing all 9 of his victories with 7 submissions and 2 knockouts. His most notable fight was a first round loss at Pride Bushido 1 in 2003 when he was knocked out in the first round by a head kick from Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic. His MMA career came to an end when he signed with the WWE in 2010. He would go on to have multiple successful runs with them as well as other promotions before his most recent release from the WWE in August.
Bobby Lashley is another individual who used a pro wrestling career with a wrestling background as an entrance into the world of MMA. A three-time NCAA champion wrestler as well as a 3-time medalist in the Armed Forces and Military Championships while he was in the Army, Lashley signed a WWE contract in 2004. Lashley’s run with the WWE would last until early 2008 and he would win the ECW championship twice during his time with the promotion. While competing on the independent wrestling circuit, Lashley made his MMA debut in 2008 as part of the Mixed Fighting Alliance (MFA). He won his debut fight via TKO (cut) in just 41 seconds. He would go on to compete in multiple organizations, including Strikeforce and Titan, with wins over opponents such as Jason Guida, Bob Sapp, and Wes Sims. During this period, Lashley signed with TNA Wrestling where he would win the TNA Legends Championship and state his goal to be the first man to hold championships in MMA and professional wrestling simultaneously. In January 2010, Lashley was released from TNA, stating that he wanted to focus completely on his career in MMA. Lashley would go on to win the Shark Fights Heavyweight Championship in 2011 and the Xtreme Fight Night Heavyweight Championship in 2013. In March of 2014, Lashley returned to TNA and captured the TNA World Heavyweight Championship in June. In July of that year, Lashley signed with Bellator MMA and defeated Josh Burns via rear-naked choke at Bellator 123 in September. Lashley would win his next 3 fights in Bellator, finishing the likes of Karl Etherington, Dan Charles and James Thomson by TKO or submission. Lashley is currently scheduled to face Josh Appelt at Bellator 162 in October. He is also still competing in TNA and currently holds the promotion’s World Heavyweight, X-Division and King of the Mountain titles.
No list of wrestlers turned MMA fighters would be complete without the Gracie Killer himself, Kazushi Sakuraba. An accomplished amateur wrestler in high school and college, Sakuraba would turn to professional wrestling after graduating, turning down a position as a coach at his alma mater. Sakuraba would compete as part of UWFi before moving to Kingdom Pro Wrestling. It was when he was competing for Kingdom Pro Wrestling that he would venture into the world of MMA for the first time when he defeated Dutch kickboxer Rene Rooze via ankle hold in June of 1996. While still competing for Kingdom, Sakuraba would step in as a late replacement for a spot in the UFC’s Ultimate Japan tournament. Despite weight twenty pounds less than the weight class for the tournament, Sakuraba reported himself as being over the weight limit in order to compete. After a controversial stoppage against Marcus Silveira that cost Sakuraba the fight, John McCarthy reversed his decision to a no contest and after Tank Abbot withdrew from the tournament due to injury, Sakuraba and Silveira would fight again in the championship fight of the tournament, with Sakuraba winning by armbar. Sakuraba would eventually move to New Japan Pro Wrestling after Kingdom went under in 1998. While there he would compete in multiple high profile matches and feuds. Sakuraba would then join with Pride where he established himself as an incredibly dangerous fighter and would go on to earn the nickname “The Gracie Hunter” after becoming the first man to defeat Royce Gracie in MMA, as well as defeating Royler, Renzo and Ryan Gracie. His list of opponents reads like a virtual MMA hall of fame, with victories over the likes of Carlos Newton, Vitor Belfort, Kevin Randleman, Ken Shamrock, Royce Gracie, Quinton Jackson and more. He has defeated thirteen different men who have held championships at one point in their careers and was the first Japanese UFC champion. Sakuraba competed in New Japan Wrestling as recently as 2015 and is currently signed with Rizin Fighting Federation where he most recently lost to Shinya Aoki in December of 2015.
Pro Wrestling and MMA fans alike know the name, Brock Lesnar. A two-time NCAA All-American and NCAA National Heavyweight Champion wrestler in college, Lesnar signed with the WWE in 2000. He was immediately made to look like a monster, admittedly not a difficult task, and was given the nickname “The Next Big Thing”. He would go on to capture the WWE Undisputed Championship in 2002, becoming the youngest champion in WWE history as well as the second fastest to win a championship after debuting. He would go on to hold the belt 3 times during his initial run with the company. After leaving the WWE in 2004, Lesnar would sign with New Japan Pro Wrestling and capture the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in his debut, becoming one of the few American’s to ever hold the belt. He would remain with the promotion through 2007 before leaving to pursue an MMA career. In his MMA debut for K-1 league Hero’s, Lesnar defeated Min Soo Kim by submission due to strikes in just over a minute. In 2008 it was announced that Lesnar had signed with the UFC and he made his debut against former champion Frank Mir. Mir would go on to submit Lesnar via kneebar in the first round. Lesnar would go on to defeat Heath Herring by decision, earning himself a shot at Randy Couture for the UFC Heavyweight Championship at UFC 91. Lesnar would capture the title via TKO in the second round and successfully defended it with a second-round TKO of Frank Mir at UFC 100. Lesnar would go on to be diagnosed with diverticulitis before his next fight against Shane Carwin and Carwin would defeat Frank Mir in a fight for the interim title in the meantime. Lesnar would defeat Carwin at UFC 116 by arm triangle to unify the titles before losing to Cain Velasquez at UFC 121. In 2011 Lesnar again battled diverticulitis and reportedly had 12 inches of his colon removed. He would go on to face Alistair Overeem in December of that year, losing by first round TKO and announcing his retirement from MMA. Lesnar would return to the WWE in 2012 on a part-time basis, participating in several high profile feuds, including ending The Undertaker’s vaunted undefeated streak at Wrestlemania, before capturing the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in 2014. Despite still being under contract with the WWE, rumors began circulating about a potential MMA return for Lesnar in 2016. On June 4th it was announced that Lesnar would make his UFC return at UFC 200 in what the WWE called a “one-off opportunity”. Lesnar would defeat Mark Hunt at UFC 200 but it was later revealed that Lesnar had tested positive for a banned substance in a USADA test. Lesnar would go on to defeat Randy Orton at Summerslam for the WWE and continues to compete for the organization. The Nevada State Athletic Commission announced that Lesnar had been temporarily suspended despite Lesnar alluding to the fact that he may not be finished with MMA.
Finally, we take a look at someone whose path into MMA more closely resembles CM Punk’s, rather than the others on this list. Sean O’Haire had no amateur wrestling background or any other such training when he entered the world of professional wrestling. O’Haire debuted in June of 2000 in WCW as a tag team specialist with his partner Mark Jindrak. Impressively acrobatic for a man who was 6’6 and 270 lbs, O’Haire utilized quite a few maneuvers from the “top rope” section of the ring, a spot not normally used by men of his size. With Jindrak as his partner, O’Haire would capture the WCW Tag Team Titles twice and would also hold the titles as a team with Chuck Palumbo. The team of O’Haire and Palumbo would be signed on by the WWE and were featured in the “Alliance” storyline in 2001. He would continue with the company until his release in 2004. O’Haire wrestled in Japan and in other independent promotions until 2006 when he retired in order to pursue kickboxing and MMA. He would debut in K-1 in 2004, but would leave the promotion with a 0-3 record after getting knocked out by Musashi, Gary Goodridge, and Chalid Arrab. He would then make the move to MMA where he won his first two fights, finishing both in the first round. O’Haire’s most memorable fight would take place in 2006 at Pride 32. O’Haire took on Eric “Butterbean” Esch and was soundly defeated in just 29 seconds. He would go on to fight twice more, winning both before retiring in 2007 with a record of 4-2. Unfortunately, O’Haire would struggle with depression and substance abuse, and ultimately committed suicide in September of 2014.
In these 5 examples, we have a variety of levels of success. Del Rio had a respectable MMA record but enjoyed significantly more success in professional wrestling, Lashley and Lesnar are currently juggling both sides, Sakuraba was successful as a wrestler but a legend in MMA and O’Haire couldn’t make the transition stick. While these examples are certainly not necessarily an indication of how Punk’s debut and potential MMA career will turn out, he is not the first professional wrestler to make the transition into MMA and will most likely not be the last.
Jacare Souza vs. Kelvin Gastelum Official for UFC 224
Brazils second UFC event of the new year added another middleweight contest. UFC officials announced, Kelvin Gastelum will face Jacare Souza in Rio de Janeiro at UFC 224.
The inevitable main card booking of Souza comes after headlining UFC on Fox 27. The Brazilian fighter is 3-2 in his last 5. His recent contests only look worrisome in comparison to the entirety of his long career. Prior to his past 5, Souza held an eight fight win streak. In that period of time, he defeated Gegard Mousasi, Derek Brunson (for the first time), and Chris Camozzi twice. Despite the drama words and numbers on screens create, his recent record is nothing to have concern over. A split decision loss to Yoel Romero in 2015, and a 2017 TKO loss to division champion, Robert Whittaker is manageable. Defeating Derek Brunson in the opening round of their main event bout kept him deep in the milky opaque froth that is the middleweight title picture. Clearly his position in that photo lies upon the upcoming match up.
Looking ahead for Jacare Souza, assuming he wins, becomes interesting, just as it devastating for Kelvin Gastelum. Gastelum is 3-1 since returning to middleweight, technically his record sits at 2-1 and 1 No Contest. He tested positive for marijuana in a sample collected the night of his bout against Vitor Belfort by USADA in March of 2017. Originally, the outcome of the bout read the way viewers remembered it; a 1st rd. TKO in favor of Gastelum. On May 7th, 2017, the win was officially overturned and changed to a No Contest. He also received a 90 day suspension, adjusted to the day of the failed test (March 11th).
In the aftermath of the failed test, his scheduled contest against Anderson Silva. He then split his next two contests, losing to Chris Weidman and defeating Michael Bisping emphatically, yet under odd circumstances. A win for Gastelum certainly muddies the waters of middleweight contenders, while adding to a good 185 lb. resume.
UFC 224 takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on May 12th, 2018 at the Jeunesse Arena. A battle betwen Brazilians is set for the date as Lyoto Machida takes on Vitor Belfort. Other featured bouts include; Aleksei Oleynik vs. Junior Albini*, Cezar Ferreira vs. Karl Roberson*, Alberto Mina vs. Ramazan Emeev, and Davi Ramos vs. Nick Hein*.
*Bouts reportedly set for UFC 224
Exclusive: Mike Ekundayo, “He could come with anything, I don’t care”
In a little less than a week, Rise of Champions crowns its inaugural bantamweight champion. The crowning of the first 135 lb. champion marks the young promotions first champion. It makes sense why the promotion owned and operated by UK MMA star, Brad Pickett, and Team Titan head coach, Mickey Papas plan to crown the promotions first champion in the bantamweight division. Pickett competed in the division throughout his tenure with the WEC, and ultimately the entity which absorbed the light weight promotion, the UFC. Even more-so, two young and rising prospects of the division. One undefeated in his professional and amateur career, the other riding a seven consecutive victories, five by submission. The two meet February 17th, Mike Ekundayo puts his career unbeaten streak up against Jonas Magard’s at ROC 5, for the aforementioned, inaugural bantamweight championship.
Speaking to the undefeated Ekundayo before his fight, he believes this opportunity to be inevitable. Born in Hackney, (a borough of London) early in life, Ekundayo was no stranger to cramming his belongings into large cardboard boxes. At the age of 7, he moved from Hackney to Herne Hill, a district located in South London. Two years later he found himself in similar situation, moving from his vaguely new home in Herne Hill to Brixton. A road trip in the car to his new home, took approximately 5 minutes.
It is admittedly, not an easy life. In a harrowing article describing the horrors of gang life in London by the metro.uk, former gang member turned community activist, made the claim, “When you are from Brixton, from Peckham, west London, anywhere in London, you are seeing hardship where a lot of communities can’t reach their full potential”.
In his own words, Ekundayo describes his home as, “not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing”. But that couldn’t matter any less for him. Not only does the London resident consistently work to grow his potential, he gets to see it every day. His coaches Brad Pickett and Mickey Papas hold the knowledge as well as first-hand experience, increasing his limits with every session. “We’re all close”, speaking of his coaches and team. “My head coach is Mickey Papas, he’s very knowable in the game. He’s been around for a very long time. He teaches me a lot, I can learn a lot of stuff from Mickey Papas. Sometimes I just think, how does he know all of this? Where did he get this information from?”
He continued, “While I was coming up through amateur, Brad (Pickett) was still an active fighter, but nowadays he’s taken a coaching approach. So he’s coaching us prospects getting us to where he got to and further… He’s been through it all, gotten to the top, and stayed at the top”.
Further discussing his coach, “For UK MMA, you could definitely call Brad a legend. He’s done a lot in his career, and someone who I rate highly as an MMA fighter is Demetrious Johnson, and of course Brad has got a win over (him). I feel like just being surrounded by someone like Brad, you’re working towards the right things. When he passes information onto you, you respect it that bit more because of far he got in his career. He’s definitely given me the right guidance, I trust his guidance”.
When it comes to the upcoming title fight, confidence poured out from where praise and respect had once been. “I just think it’s my time, to be honest. I really do believe it’s my time for all of this. The work I put in, certain things become inevitable”, he said. “I actually called this after I won my third fight, I called for belts and big shows. I spoke it to existence”. He continued, “It’s my time to finally to get a strap of some sort. All the straps is what we’re going for, all of them. We’re going for every one”.
“Rise of Champions is my show… That’s how I feel when I’m performing on ROC, it’s just my show, it’s my time to shine. Everyone knows who there here to see, there not really there to see the other guys. It’s my time, it’s my show and I’m going to put on a show on February 17th and I’m going to win that belt”.
The infectious nature of his positive attitude was palpable. Although we only spoke through small rectangular devices, I could feel his energy in the room. His attitude shined brightest when talking about what it would mean to be the first ever ROC Bantamweight champion. Ekundayo claimed, “It just means a lot to have my first belt in anything to be honest… Within myself, I call myself a champion, every day. But now, other people would have to call me a champion because I’ve got a belt… And one thing I really want to do is, which sounds a bit weird, I just want to take the belt home to my area, to Brixton.”
“I just want to take it to my area, and just show the people of that area what hard work can achieve… I want to just take it to my people and show them that not for nothing, we are from Brixton, it’s not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing but you can rise above it and you can achieve your goals and that’s what the belt will mean”.
When the conversation shifted to the topic of his opponent, Ekundayo had less encouraging words rolling off his tongue. Jonas Magard, the second half of the ROC 5 main event, holds a record of 7-4. Currently he owns a seven fight win streak after starting his career 1-3. Ekundayo thought, “He did fight quite decent guys in his three loses… but in the seven fight win streak, none of his opponents have been of caliber”.
He elaborated further, “What’s in my thoughts is more me, then it is of him. So, he could come with anything, I don’t care. I’m just focused on how I’m going to be picture perfect. How I’m going to paint a masterpiece, how I’m going to make it a beautifully perfect performance. That’s what my primary focus is on, so what he does to me is irrelevant, I’m just going to focus on how I’m going to be perfect on the night of February 17th”.
UFC 222 Re-Worked with Cris Cyborg vs. Yana Kunitskaya, and Frankie Edgar vs. Brian Ortega
UFC 222 has been saved, and it didn’t take a superhero to lift the burning boulder which was Max Holloway’s injury and withdrawal. All it took was a female named Cyborg and a man with a demeanor so smooth, he could be mistaken for an alter-ego. Cris Cyborg now serves as the UFC 222 main event when she defends her featherweight belt against Yana Kunitskaya. Frankie Edgar bumped down to the co-main event to face Brian Ortega in what is likely a title eliminator. The news of the UFC 222 revival originally stemmed from a report by MMAFighting.com and confirmed later in the evening by the UFC.
— UFC (@ufc) February 8, 2018
Over the course of the week, reports surrounded the Las Vegas card and whether it would survive. Multiple options were reportedly being mulled over; cancelling the card outright, changing the pay-per-view (PPV) to a ‘Fight Night’ with an Edgar vs. Ortega main event, Dillashaw vs. Garbrandt 2 main event, among others. Ultimately, the promotion landed on Cyborg vs. Kunitskaya as the new main event, while also booking Brian Ortega.
This adjustment of the card places their women’s Featherweight champion in the second PPV main event in three months. Cris Cyborg recently put her undisputed Featherweight title on the line against Holly Holm at the year ending card, UFC 219. She successfully defended her belt by unanimous decision, in what was an amazing technical display from the Brazilian. In her octagon career, Cyborg is undefeated in her four appearances with three KO/TKO stoppages.
The second half of the new main event, Yana Kunitskaya, makes her UFC debut against the scariest women on the roster. If the 145 lb. champion was not enough of a challenge, Kunitskaya also makes her first appearance in the division since defeating Cindy Dandois in December of 2010. Of Russia descent, her most recent performances came inside the Invicta FC cage. At the female-only promotion, she posted a record of 1-1, with 1 No Contest. Her loss and no contest, both came at the hands of former UFC Featherweight title challenger, Tonya Evinger.
Turning to the co-main event, both fighters have been relatively inactive but, for good reason. Brian Ortega amazingly forced perennial men’s Featherweight contender, Cub Swanson, to tap in the second round of their ‘Fight Night: Fresno’ contest. Ortega fought twice in 2017, but more-so stayed inactive following his stoppage victory over Swanson. The Californian contender announced his desire to wait in line for the next title shot following the recent victory.
For Frankie Edgar, his last fight took place at UFC 211 when he absolutely demolished young and rising star, Yair Rodriguez. A card which took place last May. While Ortega holds an undefeated record, Edgar is undefeated in his previous 9 fights, excluding people named Jose Aldo.
UFC 222 takes place at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 3rd.
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