Despite a withering global economy, the sport of mixed martial arts continues to grow, spreading faster than crabs through a party school frat house. Lured by the scent of fame and fortune, not to mention the sentiment that it’s far more enjoyable to punch someone in the face rather than punch a clock, new competitors are joining the professional MMA ranks seemingly on a daily basis. Granted, only a small percentage of the pay-forplay pugilists will ever earn household name notoriety — and the truly big money that goes along with it — but that hasn’t stopped scores of men (and women) from climbing into the cage and/or the ring to earn a paycheck.
Among this ever-widening talent pool (or talent-less pool, depending on the fi ghter) are a slew of former professional athletes — famous retired ballers who either truly miss the cheers and jeers associated with their previous sport or are simply still craving hard-core mano-y-mano competition. However, as many of the fledgling fighters are discovering the hard way, just because you are an elite athlete and are still in peak physical form (in your eyes) it does not mean you will survive — let alone excel — in the realm of mixed martial arts. That said, some have indeed found success and are taking the necessary steps to improve their fight game and climb the MMA ladder, training with the same passion and zeal that brought them success at the sport that made them famous. Others have clearly bit off much more than they could chew and have become accustomed to staring up at the referee (or the doctor), trying to recall the license plate of the human truck that just ran over them. But hey, win or lose, you can’t blame a guy (or a gal) for trying, for just climbing into the cage deserves some measure of respect. What happens after that, well, that’s another kettle of fish.
Some of the ex-pro athletes trying to make the gargantuan leap to professional mixed martial arts include:
Standing 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighing 240 pounds, José Canseco is clearly a physical specimen — even if steroids (by his own admission) have played an enormous role in his musculature development. However, as any seasoned cage fighter can tell you, looking like a badass and actually performing like a badass are two very different things. Long before Canseco — who claims to hold black belts in numerous martial arts disciplines (including Kung Fu and Muay Thai) — ever considered climbing into the cage, he first tried the ring — a celebrity boxing match against pro-athlete alum, former NFL running back/kick-return man Vai Sikahema. The 5-foot, 9-inch Sikahema destroyed Canseco, knocking him out at 1:37 of Round 1. Eight months later, Canseco gave boxing another go, faring slightly better; he fought child star/comedian/radio personality Danny Bonaduce (70 pounds lighter and nearly a foot shorter) to a three-round majority draw.
Canseco’s inauspicious MMA debut occurred at DREAM’s ridiculous “Super Hulk Tournament” in Yokohama, Japan. His opponent, Hong Man Choi, a 7-foot, 2-inch, 330-pound Korean kickboxer, had previously battled two MMA legends — Fedor Emelianenko and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic — losing both contests. So how did the former “Bash Brother” fare? Roughly a minute into the fight, Canseco was already winded. Realizing his opponent was out of gas, Choi jumped on Canseco and began raining down blows, forcing a tap-out at 1:16 of the first round.
Although a throng of MMA purists still believe the ex-NFL hopeful and ex-WWE superstar should have had to put in considerably more cage time before getting a shot at Randy Couture and the UFC Heavyweight title, the simple fact remains: Big match-ups means big money. Couture vs. Lesnar at UFC 91 was about as big as they get and ended up being a pay-per-view monster. To his credit, Brock Lesnar brought his A-game. The jury is still out on whether or not Lesnar can continue to wreak havoc in the top MMA organization in the land, although his next bout — at UFC 100 on July 11 — against a re-energized Frank Mir, the only man to beat him, should answer a lot of questions. Still, given his size, strength, athleticism, and improving MMA skills, Lesnar could be a fixture in the UFC Heavyweight championship picture for years to come.
Some stones are better left unturned. “One and done” pretty much sums up ex-NFL wide receiver Johnnie Morton’s MMA experience. In his MMA debut at K-1 Dynamite in June of 2007, Bernard “The Tragic Comedian” Ackah, himself a relative newcomer to the sport of MMA, knocked Morton out in just 38 seconds. Despite coming out aggressively and looking as if the switch from professional footballer to professional fighter would bode well for Morton, a Muay Thai knee strike and some solid punches gave the story a much different ending. But even worse than Morton’s quick dispatch was what occurred after he had been taken from the ring in a neck brace. Morton failed the post-fight drug test, testing positive for anabolic steroids, and was suspended indefinitely from any further MMA competition by the California State Athletic Commission. Adding insult to injury, his $100,000 purse (essentially an appearance fee) was withheld.
Shaq’s affinity for the law enforcement profession is well known by the entire sporting community. But what many people aren’t aware of is that the 7-foot, 1-inch, 320-pound four-time NBA champion and future Hall-of-Famer has been training in mixed martial arts for nearly a decade. Working exclusively with Jonathan Burke at Gracie Orlando, Shaq Diesel has been training in boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Muay Thai. Sources say the big fella is no joke on the mat, and rumors abound that as soon as he puts his high-tops on a shelf permanently, he’ll be in the cage, competing against a bigname UFC-caliber fighter.
The Chicago Bears’ 69th pick (third round) of the 1997 NFL Draft, Sapp played in only one regular-season game before turning his attention to professional pugilism. His first fight, if you can call it that, was a “Toughman” event against another former Bear — William “The Refrigerator” Perry. Sapp won. Next came a multi-year stint in professional wrestling for organizations like NWA, WWE (then WWF), and NJPW. A fan favorite in Japan courtesy of his size and aggression — 6 feet 4 inches, 320 pounds; in one Japanese article he was referred to as “one of America’s greatest exports, on par with King Kong” — Sapp was recruited by PRIDE and his MMA career began. In 9 years, Sapp has amassed an impressive 10-4-1 MMA record, with all victories occurring via knockout or submission in the first round. Sapp also boasts a 10-7 professional kickboxing record, including two notable victories over four-time K-1 World Champion Ernesto “Mr. Perfect” Hoost. His last fight was a loss to fellow behemoth Bobby Lashley on June 27.
Once linked to a new MMA reality show with the previously mentioned Jose Canseco, Walker, a former running back with 15 years of professional football experience — three of which came in the now-defunct USFL — chose the boardroom over the cage and appeared on season 2 of The Celebrity Apprentice, lasting until episode 8. Once the television show went bye-bye, there has been no mention of Walker’s further interest in dishing out — or taking — beatings in the ring or the cage.
Considering the number of hopefuls who attempt to make a career in professional sports, success stories are rare. However, in the case of ex-NFL wide receiver Michael Westbrook, who spent seven seasons with the
Washington Redskins and one with the Cincinnati Bengals, amassing 285 receptions for 4,374 yards with 26 touchdowns, it appears lightning may strike twice. A black belt in Tae Kwon Do and an ever-improving brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu — he won the 2008 IBJJF World Championship — after hanging up his cleats for good, Westbrook turned his attention to mixed martial arts. After two professional MMA bouts, winning one, losing one, Westbrook was cast as one of the fighters on MTV’s new reality show, Bully Beatdown, hosted by Jason “Mayhem” Miller.