Athletes Who Started in One Sport and Moved to Mixed Martial Arts
As one of the fastest-growing sports in the world, MMA has become a very popular destination for athletes. Some athletes arrive in the cage because they simply couldn’t cut it in their sports, while others arrive more naturally because of their backgrounds in wrestling or boxing. Whatever the reason, crossing over from one sport to MMA is all the rage.
Here are 15 fighters who started playing one sport before making the switch to MMA.
Phillip Jack Brooks, better known by his wrestling name CM Punk, was a professional wrestler who starred in the WWE before making a, shall we say, ugly transition to mixed martial arts. CM Punk, who has a questionable Pepsi logo tattooed on his bicep (maybe to symbolize when he gets shaken up in the ring how ready he is to explode?), is recognized as having held the sixth-longest reign as WWE Champion in the “sport’s” history.
In 2011, Brooks was voted WWE Superstar of the Year at the 2011 Slammy Awards and was the 2011 and 2012 Wrestler of the Year, as voted on by Pro Wrestling Illustrated. After shining in the WWE, Punk decided to leave the ring for the Octagon…
What happened to CM Punk in the UFC can be put simply: he was punked. Much to the ire of UFC fans who believe one must earn their way to the top, Punk was simply given the golden ticket and was signed to the UFC in 2014 on a multi-fight contract. In 2016, Punk made his UFC debut against up-and-coming fighter Mickey Gall. From the outset, Punk’s UFC career looked ugly, as Gall came out swinging.
About three minutes into his professional MMA debut, Punk was submitted via rear naked choke. In 2018, at UFC 225, Punk had his second UFC fight, which went about as poorly as expected. He lost to Mike Jackson via unanimous decision. UFC President Dana White announced Punk never fight in the UFC again
The 1982 Heisman Winner, Herschel Walker was the feared Georgia Bulldog who ran through and around every defender in sight for three seasons. Wanting to go pro after his junior year, and NFL rules prohibiting him to do so, Walker signed with the USFL, dominating there for three seasons. Once the league folded, Walker made his long-anticipated NFL debut with the Dallas Cowboys.
In the NFL, Walker was a two-time Pro Bowler and played from 1986-1997. In 1992, Walker made history when he successfully made the U.S. Olympic team as a bobsledder for the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. That was Walker’s first major athletic event outside of football, the other being MMA.
Whatever Herschel Walker’s secret to staying young, fit, and athletic, we want it. The man does not appear to be aging. He appears to be getting stronger since his football career, and has openly stated he is. In 2010, Walker made his professional MMA debut with Strikeforce, defeating Greg Nagy via TKO.
In 2011, Walker made his second appearance under Strikeforce against Scott Carson, defeating him via TKO in the first round. Walker, a fifth-degree black belt in Tae kwon do, hasn’t had a professional bout since, but the 6-foot-1, 220-pound beast isn’t anywhere near hanging up the gloves forever.
A Pro Bowl defensive end, Greg Hardy’s NFL career was marred by controversy thanks to a domestic violence incident that resulted in a four-game suspension and severely tarnished reputation. In 2013, Hardy recorded a career-high 15 sacks, which still stands as a Carolina Panthers record. Yet after that breakout season, it would be Hardy himself who would be getting sacked.
The domestic violence incident led to his dismissal from the Panthers. Hardy then signed with the Cowboys but was released after one season. With no NFL team interested in the disgruntled end, Hardy put down his helmet and picked up some MMA gloves.
In 2016, Hardy began his amateur MMA career and made his debut in 2017, knocking out Joe Hawkins early into the match. That would be the first of three-consecutive knockouts for Hardy, who proved to be one of the fiercest competitors in the amateur circuit. In 2018, Dana White signed Hardy to the UFC’s Contender Series where he fought and defeated former NFL defensive end Austen Lane with another knockout.
Following his victory over Lane, Hardy’s third professional win, Hardy made his UFC debut at UFC Fight Night: Cejudo vs. Dillashaw, where he lost via disqualification. Despite the loss, Hardy had an impressive showing and is slated to continue fighting in the UFC.
Notorious juicer Jose Canseco was the epitome of baseball in the ’90s. A steroid-infused slugger with tight pants, big biceps, and a large personality, Canseco was a member of the Oakland As’ “bash brothers” with Mark Maguire before he bounced around Major League Baseball. Canseco was the 1986 Rookie of the Year, the 1988 MVP, and a six-time All-Star.
In addition, he won two World Series, one with Oakland and one with the Yankees. What was most impressive about Canseco was how big everything was for him, including his head that was made famous after this timeless blooper. Since retiring from baseball, Canseco has done just about everything to stay relevant, including MMA.
It would be a major stretch to say Jose Canseco’s MMA/boxing career has amounted to anything of substance. Canseco claims to be a black belt, but in all likelihood, the only black belt he owns is the one he bought. In 2008, Canseco boxed in a highly-publicized match in Atlantic City against Vai Sikahema, a two-time Pro-Bowl kick returner.
Sikahema, seven inches shorter than Canseco, knocked him out in the first round. One year later, Canseco took on radio personality Danny Bonaduce in a match that ultimately ended in a draw. Canseco made his MMA debut in 2009 against a 7-foot-2 kickboxer. Canseco, not surprisingly, lost.
Anytime you’re a college wrestler, making the transition to MMA is that much easier. You have the takedowns, the training, and the fundamentals needed for a good ground game. Jake Hager was initially recruited by the University of Oklahoma to wrestle and play defensive line, and after his freshman year, Hager dropped football to focus on wrestling full-time.
That moved worked out great for the future WWE star; as a senior, Hager placed seventh in the NCAA Championships and was named an All-American. He also set the OU record for most pins in a single season with 30. Following collegiate wrestling, Hager transitioned to the WWE before taking on MMA.
Hager had a stellar WWE career but craved unscripted action. After years of pre-determined table slams and choreographed rolls, tackles, and aerial stunts, Hager decided to give MMA a shot. In 2017, Hager announced that he had signed with the UFC’s biggest competitor, Bellator MMA. A heavyweight, Hager made his debut against J.W. Kiser at Bellator 214, winning the bought via submission at 2:09 in the first round.
Hager’s next fight will come at Bellator 221 against T.J. Jones. Something about fighting against guys with two letters for their first names…After the fight, Hager told the media, “I want to make this my main focus. I’d like to fight again very soon. I know I got a lot of work to do.”
Similar to wrestling, making the transition to MMA from boxing is much easier than, say, coming to the sport from football. Boxers know half of the standup game, needing only to learn kicks. Before MMA, Holly Holm was a feared and ferocious boxer. Twice named Ring Magazine’s female Fighter of the Year, Holm controlled her division with ease.
In 2008, she became the undisputed welterweight champion. In her illustrious career, Holm only lost two fights, won 33, and had three draws. Of her 33 wins, nine came by way of knockout. With a heavy set of hands, Holm decided to give MMA a try in 2011.
In 2011, Holm made her MMA debut, and three years later, Holm had fought her way to the UFC. In 2015, Holm shocked the combat sports world with one of the sports greatest upsets at UFC 193. Squaring up against Ronda Rousey, the feared champion who looked unstoppable, Holm used superior striking and was able to prevent Rousey from taking her down.
In the second round of the bout, Holm landed a high kick to Rousey’s head, knocking her out and forcing her to spend the night in the hospital. After that improbable victory, Holm went on a slight losing streak but has since rebounded and is one of the female division’s top fighters.
A defensive tackle for four years at Purdue University, Matt Mitrione started 35 consecutive games for the Boilermakers. Mitrione was one of the team’s more reliable defensive players, but a broken foot during winter conditioning of his senior year derailed his draft plans. In the 2002 NFL Draft, Mitrione went undrafted, but his NFL career wasn’t over just yet.
After signing with the New York Giants, Mitrione again suffered another foot injury which put him on the disabled list for over a year. In total, Mitrione’s NFL career lasted nine games and consisted of four tackles. After it became clear football was no longer in the cards, Mitrione began the arduous transition to MMA.
Mitrione’s MMA career officially launched when he appeared on the tenth season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” UFC’s show where contestants compete to earn an official roster spot in the UFC. Although Mitrione didn’t win “The Ultimate Fighter,” he proved to enough people that he was worthy of a UFC contract.
Mitrione made his official UFC debut back in 2009 and has since had a relatively solid MMA career, going 20-6-1. In 2016, Mitrione left the UFC for Bellator following a controversial loss to Travis Browne. While in the UFC, Mitrione won the UFC’s Performance of the Night on two occasions but has yet to win a championship belt.
Nicknamed the “Dark Emperor,” James Toney is one of the most durable boxers in history. Toney, who never got knocked out in his professional career, held multiple world championships in three weight classes throughout his career. In 1991 and 2003, Toney was voted Fighter of the Year by The Ring magazine and the Boxing Writers Association of America.
In 2017, at the age of 48, Toney had his last professional boxing match, beating Mike Sheppard by stoppage in the sixth round. Toney won the WBF heavyweight title. At UFC 108, Toney was spotted chatting with UFC President Dana White, which led many to believe Toney was going to sign with the UFC, which he ended up doing to disastrous results.
Toney, a big, defensive boxer, made his UFC debut at UFC 118 in 2010. The debut was supposed to be an exciting showcase of Toney’s newfound MMA skills, but from the get-go, he was doomed. The first problem was Toney was matched up against UFC Hall of Famer and former champion Randy Couture; not necessarily the kind of guy you want to fight in your debut.
The second problem? See problem No.1. Well, that fight ended in the way the vast majority of people thought it would: with Toney being taken down and eventually submitted early in the fight. After that one fight, Toney was released from his UFC contract and hasn’t had an MMA fight since.
Former USC standout receiver Johnnie Morton made his name in the NFL while playing for the Detroit Lions. Drafted in the first round in 1994, Morton played eight seasons in Detroit. Although he never made a Pro Bowl, he eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving four times and, to this day, ranks high on Detroit’s all-time receiving list.
He’s third in yards and touchdowns and was a vital part of the Lions offense for many seasons. After his time in Detroit, Morton went to Kansas City and then San Fransico for one year. Morton, wanting to shake things up a bit, left his football career for a short-lived MMA stint that did not go as planned…
In 2007, Johnnie Morton put on his MMA gloves and stared down Bernard Ackah in his debut fight at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. Morton had signed with the K-1/Elite XC Dynamite USA card and was ready for war. His opponent was also ready, and much more experienced.
Just 38 seconds into the first round, Morton was knocked to the ground by Ackah. His day was over and he had to leave the stadium on a stretcher. Things only got worse for him when he refused to take a post-fight drug test and was subsequently suspended by the California State Athletic Commission.
A jack of all trades, Brock Lesnar is a physical specimen that is about as intimidating as they come. Prior to attending the University of Minnesota, Lesnar wrestled at Bismark State College. After dominating the JUCO ranks, he transferred to Division I Minnesota where he continued to pin people at an alarming rate. In his two years at Minnesota, Lesnar was a two-time All-America, the 2000 NCAA Heavyweight Champion, and the 1999 National Runner-Up, losing to future NFL offensive lineman Stephen Neal.
Following his collegiate career, Lesnar took on professional wrestling where he made a name for himself. In 2004, Lesnar took a break from wrestling to pursue a football career and was signed to the Minnesota Vikings, playing in preseason games before being cut. In 2007, Lesnar made the transition to MMA, stunning the combat sports world…
In 2007, the angry behemoth that is Brock Lesnar decided to try his luck in MMA, a sport where he could unleash all of his pent-up aggression without a script. After a one-fight deal with K-1, Lesnar made his UFC debut at UFC 81, where he lost by submission. That defeat was only a minor setback, and Lesnar shortly rose through the UFC ranks.
Lesnar, shortly following his debut, went onto to pummel his opponents en route to a UFC Heavyweight title. What Lesnar was not able to do was avoid controversy, and he found it in multiple ways including testing positive for steroids. Despite the controversies, Lesnar was one of the UFC’s biggest attractions and money makers.
Coming out of the University of North Carolina, Marcus Jones was considered a top NFL prospect. Having set the UNC sack record, Jones was a force to be reckoned with, and Tampa Bay scooped him up with the 22nd pick in the 1996 draft. Jones lasted six seasons in the NFL, recording 24 sacks in 85 games played.
His most productive season came in 2000 when he recorded 13 sacks, the only time he topped double digits in a single season. After a knee injury ended his NFL career, Jones took up combat sports, a perfect place to utilize the quick hands he developed shedding blocks in football.
In 2009, Jones got his first big MMA break when he signed on to participated in the UFC’s “The Ultimate Fighter” television show that pits rising MMA stars against one another to determine who should get a UFC contract. Initially, Jones struggled with cardio problems and a nagging knee injury, but once he got going, he proved his worth.
However, after suffering back-to-back knockouts, one in the season finale of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Jones decided to hang up his gloves. Jones finished his professional MMA career with a record of 4-2. Jones has largely stayed out of the spotlight since retiring from fighting and has no rumored comebacks.
Ray “Merciless” Mercer was, for a time, the heavyweight king of the world. Mercer got his start in boxing at the relatively late age of 23 while serving in the United States Army. The two most lethal guns Mercer ever used were attached to his torso, and his skills soon become noticed on a national level.
In 1988, Mercer boxed for Team USA at the 1988 Summer Olympics where he captured the gold medal in the heavyweight division. Shortly after, Mercer turned pro and led a successful career, winning the WBO heavyweight title from 1991 through 1992. After his boxing career concluded, Mercer decided to continue fighting, albeit in a totally different way.
After boxing, Mercer tried dipping his toes in kickboxing, but while he was dipping his toes, his opponents were dipping their entire foot on his face. Mercer, who grew up and trained only in boxing, could not defend against the kicks. In his two K-1 bouts, Mercer lost both times, once via unanimous decision and once via knockout.
With K-1 clearly not a solid route for Mercer, the former champ opted to try his luck in the cage and began training MMA. After losing his debut to Kimbo Slice, Mercer made headlines by knocking out former UFC Heavyweight Champion Tim Sylvia nine seconds into the fight.
After a few years playing football and lacrosse for Whittier College, Brendan Schaub transferred to his hometown school, the University of Colorado, where he walked onto the football team. There, Schaub starred as a special teams standout and offensive Swiss army knife, rotating between fullback and tight end. Following his senior year, Schaub declared for the NFL Draft but went undrafted.
His football journey continued briefly when he signed with the Bills to their practice squad before being released prior to the start of the regular season. Schaub, whose father is a black belt, always was around sparring and combat sports and opted to officially retire from football and make a career in fighting.
With football out of the question, Schaub knew exactly what he wanted to do and be. Schaub, who, prior to the UFC, held a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, took up boxing. In 2007, Schaub won the Colorado Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship. That massive victory paired with the brown belt meant he was an ideal candidate for the UFC’s “The Ultimate Fighter.” Schaub appeared on the show in season 10 and made it to the season’s finale, ultimately losing to Roy Nelson.
Despite the loss, Schaub had a good showing and was offered a UFC contract. In the UFC, Schaub has a 10-5 record and has one “knockout of the night,” given to him after his victory over Mirko Cro Cop. Since retiring from the sport in 2015, Schaub has worked in comedy and produces a popular MMA podcast titled “Below the Belt with Brendan Schaub.”
One of the few football players to make it to the NFL out of Murray State, Austen Lane was a menacing defensive end in college and had the trajectory to be a productive NFL player. Taken in the fifth round by Jacksonville, Lane started nine games as a rookie but was released following the season.
Lane then struggled to stick with a team despite a strong rookie season. In 2015, Lane officially retired from football with three sacks and 66 tackles. With his NFL career in the rearview mirror, Lane began training in mixed martial arts, hoping to embark on a successful career that would culminate with some UFC fights.
In 2015, Austen Lane stepped on the canvas, making his amateur fighting debut. Lane won his first fight and went on a torrid winning streak, going 5-0 in amateur fights before turning pro. Just like his amateur career, Lane started off fast and strong, going 4-0 fighting in smaller leagues while hoping to garner the attention from the UFC.
Eventually, Lane was given his shot. In June 2018, Lane fought former NFL defensive end Greg Hardy at the Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, with the winner likely to receive a UFC contract. Unfortunately for Lane, he was knocked out in the first round.
In the somewhat forgettable 2010 National Championship Game (the completion of the 2009 season), Eryk Anders made the biggest play of the game and of his career. Anders, pictured rushing Texas freshman quarterback Garrett Gilbert, made crucial strip-sack late in the fourth quarter, ending Texas’ chance at a comeback bid and National Championship. Anders finished the game with a team-high seven tackles and the aforementioned forced fumble.
More importantly, he was a champion. Although Anders came from an elite pedigree (Alabama) and dominated on the biggest stage, few NFL teams showed interest in him. Following short stints in the Arena Football League and the Canadian Football League, Anders began training MMA.
After a strong amateur career, Anders made his Bellator debut in 2016. One year later, Anders fought his way to the UFC. He then brought his UFC record to three wins and one loss in his first four fights. Since that strong start, Anders has slowed down a bit, losing three consecutive fights.
Although Anders has been on a fairly long losing streak, the former Alabama Crimson Tide starter has yet to throw in the towel. If, however, he doesn’t pull off some convincing wins soon, his fighting career may be over sooner than later. Injuries will soon take their toll, or the UFC may simply lose interest in him.