Many moons ago, pro wrestling was thought of as a real sport. Then, in the 1980s, Vince McMahon Jr. propelled Hulk Hogan and the WWE's colorful, kid-friendly product into the American mainstream, calling his product—and, considering the WWE's influence, pro wrestling as a whole—“sports entertainment,” essentially lifting the veil on the business. Calling wrestling "sports entertainment" served multiple purposes: McMahon could publicly acknowledge the scripted aspects of his business to shut up dissenters without explicitly having to say “fake” or “predetermined,” brand his product with some distinct marketing that still accurately described the program, and most importantly, stop frequently forking over costly state athletic commission since wrestling was still considered potentially legitimate.
Still, that doesn't mean there isn't an immense and intense amount of athleticism and fortitude required of wrestlers to ply their trade, especially as out-of-shape guys receive very few roster opportunities. After all, pulling off a decent match demands serious cardio, strength, and timing, so that “sports” part still has its place.
Because of that, in addition to legit athletes' general interest in interacting with wrestling, there's long been a strangely symbiotic relationship between the real and predetermined worlds. The Miami Heat recently posed with WWE Championship belts, Ric Flair has given pep talks to the San Francisco 49ers, Ronda Rousey has practiced pro wrestling when not focusing on MMA, and ex-Edmonton Oilers goalie Jason LaBarbera once had an airbrushed image of CM Punk adorning his mask. Likewise, wrestling's history includes several names who have come from sports (“Macho Man” Randy Savage played as an outfielder for the farm teams of the Reds, White Sox and Cardinals), gone into sports (prior to his WWE and UFC stints, Brock Lesnar tried out for the Minnesota Vikings), or incorporated sports elements or references into the show (the Spirit Squad once included a member named Kenny Dykstra, and an off-color Kobe Bryant rape-case joke on Raw cost WWE manager Abraham Washington his job). Hell, when Richard Sherman's pre-Super Bowl interview went viral because writers repeatedly compared it to a classic pro wrestling promo.
Bringing legit athletes into the wrestling ring adds credibility and star power to the entertainment. For athletes, this shift means an opportunity to flex their muscles as personalities or entertainers, and try something unusual and new. A few athletes have even taken stabs at wrestling careers; curiously, this has happened much more often after wrestling's legitimacy was debunked.
With the 18th anniversary of Lawrence Taylor's pro wrestling debut at WrestleMania XI in 1995 just behind us and the 30th edition of WrestleMania, the event that has frequently brought pro athletes to wrestling, unfolding this Sunday, here's our complete history of pro athletes crossing over. Since this is a hefty list, as a general rule, we're excluding anyone who gained more fame in the wrestling business than in their sports days (so you won't see Olympic-level weightlifter Mark Henry or Miami Hurricanes defensive tackle Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson here), as well as most boxers and MMA fighters who appeared in wrestling since there's a good dozen or two of those alone.
Did we somehow skip anyone? Call us out in the comments.