Since the coining of the term “mixed martial arts” in 1993, the sport has become one of the most popular in the world. As public interest has spiked, more and more professional athletes seem to be flocking to the sport. Whether looking to continue competing after retiring from their original sport or simply pursuing a new passion, here’s a look at some of the athletes who have given MMA a shot.
What Is MMA?
Before delving into the various athletes who have tried MMA, it’s worth taking a look at what the sport actually entails. Mixed martial arts is defined as a full-contact combat sport that allows grappling, striking and fighting techniques from various other sports, including wrestling, kickboxing and karate. Though general physical fitness is important, MMA involves its own intensive training, often involving a combination of jiu-jitsu, muay thai, judo and other mixed disciplines.
Athletes Who Tried MMA Have Gotten Mixed Results
The world of mixed martial arts has drawn athletes of all kinds over the years, including former NFL stars, longtime wrestlers and even several past NBA players. Though it may seem like an easy transition to move from one competitive sport to another, it’s not as simple as it looks. While some have been able to successfully make the leap, others who have tried their luck at MMA have gotten not-so-great results — including the first name on our list.
Brock Lesnar has enjoyed a long career as a professional wrestler, signing with the WWE back in 2000. Throughout his years in wrestling, he’s taken several hiatuses to explore other sports. In 2004, he was named a defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings, although he was cut prior to the start of the season. In 2006, he also pursued a career in MMA and eventually signed with the UFC in 2008. He continued to compete in matches on and off in the ensuing years, although his most recent victory in a 2016 bout was overturned after he tested positive for a banned substance. He has since retired from MMA, although he continues to wrestle.
Another former NFL star to join the world of MMA is Matt Mitrione, who previously played for the New York Giants and the Minnesota Vikings. He made his professional MMA debut in 2010, defeating Marcus Jones via knockout. Since then, he’s built a record of 13 wins, 6 losses and 1 no contest. He signed with Bellator MMA in 2016 and continues to compete for the organization.
Herschel Walker is best known as a former football star, having played at the University of Georgia before joining the NFL as a member of the Dallas Cowboys. However, he has participated in a variety of sports besides football, including bobsledding, track and field and, yes, MMA. After first expressing his interest in martial arts in 2007, Walker went on to sign with the heavyweight division of MMA promotion company Strikeforce in 2009. His MMA career didn’t last long though. He has only competed in two professional matches, although he won both of them.
James Toney competed as a professional boxer from 1988 to 2017, winning multiple world championships in three different weight classes along the way. After attending a UFC match in 2010, Toney signed a multi-fight deal with the organization, although it didn’t last very long. After losing his debut fight against UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture in 2010, Toney was released from his contract.
To say Holly Holm knows how to hold her own in a fight would be the understatement of the century. The athlete has now successfully competed as a professional boxer (winning multiple welterweight titles and a record of 33-2-4), a professional kickboxer (14-1-7) and an MMA champ (12-4). Holm’s most notable win in MMA occurred in 2015 when she defeated Ronda Rousey and captured the bantamweight title, causing one of the big upsets in the sport’s history.
Jake Hager (also known by WWE fans as Jake Swagger) also recently made the jump to MMA. The athlete was an All-American wrestler in college and turned pro in 2006. During his time with WWE, he won both the World Heavyweight Champion and the ECW Championship. Despite his success, he left WWE in 2017 in order to pursue a professional MMA career. Hager signed a contract with Bellator MMA later that same year and had his first pro fight in January 2019, where he won in the first round against J.W. Kiser.
CM Punk, whose real name is Phillip Brooks, is best known for his time in the WWE. During his years of professional wrestling, Punk became the sixth-longest reigning WWE Champion of all time. After retiring from wrestling in 2014, he signed with the UFC to pursue an MMA career. Unfortunately, his early bouts haven’t exactly been a victory. In his first professional fight in 2016, he was defeated via submission, and he lost his second match in 2018 via unanimous decision.
Bob Sapp began his athletic career as a football player, playing for the Chicago Bears and the Minnesota Vikings. After a steroid scandal derailed his NFL career, he began wrestling, competing mostly in Japan from 2002 to 2008 and, again, in 2012. He has also competed as a kickboxer and a mixed martial arts fighter, with a record of 12-19 and 12-20-1, respectively. Still a well-known figure in Japan, he currently stars in various MMA promotions in the U.S., Japan and Europe.
Greg Hardy is one of several former NFL players to turn to MMA as a second career. The former defensive end played for the Carolina Panthers from 2010 to 2014 and later joined the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent. After a year marred by scandal and legal troubles, the Cowboys decided not to re-sign Hardy, leading him to a new sport. He announced his decision to pursue MMA in 2016 and had several amateur bouts before turning pro in 2018. His pro record so far is 4-1 in his favor, with all of his wins happening via knockout in the first round.
Eric Esch, known by his nickname “Butterbean” also made the leap from boxing to MMA. Following a successful stint in the Toughman Contest, Esch kicked off his professional boxing career in 1994, going on to win the WAA heavyweight championship. He made his MMA debut in 2003 and went on to compete in 28 total matches, building a record of 17 wins, 10 losses and a single draw.
After becoming an All-American college football star at the University of Southern California, Johnnie Morton joined the NFL as a member of the Detroit Lions. He also played for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2002 to 2004 and the San Francisco 49ers in 2005. In 2007, he ventured into the world of MMA — for only one bout. He lost to opponent Bernard Ackah after a knockout punch and never entered the ring again.
Prior to his death in 2014, O’Haire was best known for his professional wrestling career, which kicked off in the early 2000s and ended with his retirement in 2006. Soon after, O’Haire gave both kickboxing and martial arts a try. He participated in six total professional matches, with four wins and two losses. His last match, which he won, took place in December 2007.
Football fans know Marcus Jones (below, left) as a first-round pick in the 1996 NFL Draft and a former team member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But he also enjoyed a brief MMA career. After his retirement in the NFL, he trained in martial arts and became a cast member of SpikeTV’s “The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights.” He competed in six professional matches total, with a record of 4-2, before retiring in 2009.
Former defensive end Austen Lane joined the NFL as a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He stayed with them for two seasons before going on to sign with the Kansas City Chiefs, Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears. After retiring in 2015, he began training in martial arts. After kicking off his amateur career in 2015, he made his professional debut two years later and has competed in five matches, racking up four wins and one loss.
You know Jose Canseco from his long career as a baseball player for the Oakland A’s and the New York Yankees. During his years in MLB, Canseco became a six-time All-Star and won a World Series with each team. But his baseball career came to a screeching halt after a steroid scandal landed him in legal trouble and ruined his reputation.
Following the incident, Canseco attempted a career in MMA, although that also didn’t go as planned In 2009, he faced off against Korean opponent Choi Hong-man at the Dream 9 in Japan and lost by submission just a minute and 17 seconds into the match. That remains his one and only MMA match.
Eryk Anders currently competes in the middleweight division for the UFC, but that’s not his first foray into athletics. In college, he played as a linebacker for the Alabama Crimson Tide and went on to sign a free-agent contract with the Cleveland Browns. He also had brief stints in the Canadian football League and the Arena Football League before entering the world of MMA. Since 2015, he has competed in 16 matches, scoring 12 wins and four losses.
Ray Mercer made his name as a boxer, winning a heavyweight gold medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics and later winning the WBO heavyweight title as a professional. He went on to experiment with several other fighting-based sports, including kickboxing and MMA. As a mixed martial artist, he memorably scored a first-round knockout win over former two-time UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia in 2009.
Heather Hardy is best known for her professional boxing career, in which she holds a record of 22 wins, one no contest and no losses. But in 2017, she also began competing in MMA matches. Her most recent bout occurred in June 2019, at Bellator 222, which she lost to opponent Taylor Turner.
Brendan Schaub’s athletic career began in football, playing first for Whittier College and then for the University of Colorado. Though he wasn’t drafted in the 2006 NFL, he did later sign on to be part of the Buffalo Bills’ practice squad. After retiring from the sport in 2007, he began training in martial arts. He signed with the UFC in 2009 and competed on season 10 of the “The Ultimate Fighter.” He currently holds a record of 10-5.
Over his lengthy athletic career, Akebono Tarō (below, right) has competed as a sumo wrestler, a professional wrestler, a kickboxer and a mixed martial artist. After reaching the highest rank in sumo in 1993, he began competing in wrestling and has since won multiple heavyweight championships. He also briefly experimented with MMA from 2004 to 2006, although he lost all four matches he competed in.
Paulo César da Silva, known in the ring as Giant Silva, was originally a player for the Brazilian national basketball team. In 1997, he pivoted to wrestling, signing with the World Wrestling Federation. He earned his nickname shortly after his debut and competed in multiple matches before again shifting his attention — this time to MMA. From 2003 to 2006, he competed in eight total matches, although he only won two.
An All-American football player in college, Michael Westbrook went on to play professionally for the Washington Redskins and the Cincinnati Bengals. After retiring from the NFL in 2002, he didn’t quit athletics altogether. He began training heavily in martial arts, although he only competed in three professional matches, the last one taking place in 2009.
As a former strongman competitor, Mariusz Pudzianowski won a record-breaking five World’s Strongest Man titles. After 10 years of competing, he signed a contract with a Polish mixed martial arts organization to take part in several fights. He made his debut as a mixed martial arts fighter in 2009 and has since participated in 20 matches, with 12 wins, seven losses and one bout ending in no contest.