Chances are if you were to ask someone involved with amateur wrestling what their thoughts were on the professional variety, you wouldn’t get a favorable response. The truth is that in the modern era of “sports entertainment” the fundamentals of the sport seem to have been lost in the shuffle in exchange for generating high television ratings. Largely, those involved with coaching and competition at the amateur level don’t see any connection at all to the televised product marketed under the brand ‘wrestling.’
Still, there are numerous examples of wrestlers who have competed on the amateur wrestling mat and in other sports at the top tier that have transitioned their amateur athletic success into legendary professional ring careers. In fact, there are a number of Olympians who have gone on to championship success in the pros, demonstrating that the two varieties of the sport may not be that far displaced from one another after all.
But wrestling also attracts top athletes from all disciplines – judo, weightlighting, basketball and even figure skating have all seen visible (and sometimes controversial) athletes make the jump to the sport of ‘grunt and groan.’ The following list explores 20 of the most successful, or notable professional wrestlers who hold an Olympic games appearance in their portfolio.
20. Giant Gonzales
Jorge Gonzalez created a stir when he first appeared in World Championship Wrestling under the understated monicker, El Gigante. The 7’7”, 460 pound native of Argentina was a basketball player in his home country, even playing for the national team that competed in the 1988 Olympic games. Following his appearance at the games, he was drafted to the NBA to play for the Atlanta Hawks as a third round draft pick. However, when his NBA career didn’t pan out, Hawks owner Ted Turner approached Gonzalez with another offer – to sign on for Turner’s professional wrestling franchise, WCW. Jorge spent three years in WCW, but is perhaps most notoriously known for the one year that he spent in WWE as Giant Gonzales – clad in a grotesque unitard which made him resemble a prehistoric beast, it’s hard to say if it was the product or the packaging that was responsible for his short lived professional wrestling career.
19. Earl McCready
The pride of Amulet, Saskatchewan, Earl McCready became one of Canada’s most heralded professional wrestlers from the 1930s to the 1950s. McCready wrestled as an amateur from 1925 to 1930 and in that short time frame became one of the most decorated wrestlers ever. A three-time Canadian national heavyweight champion, McCready also held the U.S. Inter-Collegiate championship twice, was a gold medalist in the first ever British Empire games in 1930, and also represented Canada in the 1928 Olympic Games in the Netherlands. His professional career spanned 26 years and included headlining appearances across Canada and most notably New Zealand, where he became one of the most celebrated foreign stars to ever appear in that country. A contemporary of “Whipper” Billy Watson and Stu Hart, McCready’s credentials on the amateur mat brought prestige to the professional arena. McCready has been inducted into multiple sports and wrestling halls of fame in both Canada and the United States.
18. Tonya Harding
Even people who are not followers of figure skating are aware of the name Tonya Harding and the controversy that surrounded her qualification for the Olympic Games in her sport. In a drama which seemed to be ripped out of a wrestling storyline, Harding arranged for the back stage assault of fierce rival Nancy Kerrigan, which hobbled her and put her on the sidelines. On the heels of the controversy, Harding was disgraced as a skater, but immediately the offers started to come in to entice Harding to the realm of wrestling. An all women’s promotion in Japan was prepared to offer top dollar to entice Harding to join their roster, which she declined. Harding did, however, make an appearance on an independent wrestling card which included the late Art Barr in Oregon sometime later, which generated a swell of media attention. She would also later take to the ring as a boxer for a limited schedule of bouts.
17. Harold Sakata
Move over Dwayne Johnson, one of the first professional wrestlers to successfully straddle the career juggle between the ring and Hollywood was Harold Sakata. Sakata, best known professionally as Tosh Togo while he was in the pro mat game won a silver medal for wrestling at the 1948 Olympic games. He moved on to become a jeered ring villain in the 1950s against foes such as Verne Gagne and other American wrestlers of the day who had a similar amateur background but had transitioned to the pro realm. You will find very few references to Harold Sakata that do not include a mention of his role as a James Bond villain “Odd Job” in the film Goldfinger. Interestingly, like many characters in wrestling, while Sakata laid claim to a Japanese heritage, he was an American citizen born in Hawaii cast as a foreign threat in the post-war years.
16. Brad Rheingans
Fans of the American Wrestling Association and the in the American Midwest will be well familiar with the name Brad Rheingans who was a mainstay in that territory for much of his professional career. Brad had competed in the 1976 Olympic Games for wrestling and soon after made the transition to the pros under promoter Verne Gagne. Supporting the commonly held philosophy that promoters in wrestling’s territory days gravitated to talent that mirrored their own achievements, Gagne himself had been a top amateur wrestling with aspirations for the Olympic games, but his early involvement in the pros is rumored to have disqualified him from consideration. Rheingans isn’t the only Olympian-turned professional wrestler who would find a home in the AWA, or a spot on this list. In addition to his own achievements in the ring, including a reign as AWA Tag Team champion with another former Olympian, Rheingans is credited with mentoring a number of wrestlers to be developed in the Gagne camp that went on to great success in the sport.
15. Hiro Hase
One of the biggest stars of New Japan Pro Wrestling and later All Japan Pro Wrestling with a worldwide track record as a professional, Hiroshi Hase first captured the attention of the world while competing as an amateur. Hase represented Japan in the 1984 Olympic Games and had studied to become a teacher before launching his pro wrestling career in 1986. After an early introduction to the sport in Canada under Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling banner, Hase returned home to become one of the biggest stars of his generation. Best known for his tag team work with partners Kensuke Sasaki and Keiji Mutoh, Hase also laid claim to the WCW International Heavyweight title during his lengthy career. While still wrestling, Hiro launched a career in politics and at present serves as the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Not bad for an alumni of a sport often stereo-typed as dominated by monosyllabic brutes, huh?
14. Dale Lewis
Pro wrestling fans who had occasion to see Dale Lewis in action may remember his billing as “The Professor,” complete with scholarly gown and sometimes mortarboard. Certainly, with his abilities on the mat, opponents could expect to receive a wrestling lesson. Lewis was born in Wisconsin and competed in two Olympic Games – 1956 and 1960, respectively. In addition, he also competed in the 1959 Pan-American Games where he won a gold medal on the mat. Transitioning to the pro ranks in the 1960s, Lewis was among one of the most well-travelled wrestlers of the time, making stops in a number of wrestling territories around North America in addition to tours of Japan. As a pro, Lewis was a three-time Tag Team champion in Nebraska under the AWA Midwest banner, a circuit where he also held the organization’s heavyweight title. He found similar success in Florida, where he also won the Heavyweight championship.
13. Naoya Ogawa
Sometimes billed as the “King of Recklessness,” Naoya Ogawa entered professional wrestling to much fanfare in 1997 when in his professional debut he scored an upset victory over reigning New Japan Pro Wrestling champion, Shinya Hashimoto. Ogawa was already a celebrated athlete in Japan, owing to his two appearances in the Olympic Games in 1992 and 1996 in the sport of judo. In addition, to his silver medal win at the 1992 Games, Ogawa won seven medals at the All-Japan Judo championships and tied for a record seven medals at the World judo championships. While his career has been largely rooted in Japan, the 6’4” Ogawa is a one time NWA World Heavyweight champion and has parlayed his wrestling and judo experience into a mixed martial arts career as well. In 2010, Pro Wrestling Illustrated ranked Ogawa as one of the top wrestlers of the magazine’s tenure (1979 – 2010), placing him at #152 among his generation.
12. Chris Taylor
The Michigan-born Chris Taylor made history at age 22 when he competed at the Olympic Games in Munich as the heaviest wrestler to ever have competed in the Games. Standing 6’5” and tipping the scales at a weight in excess of 450 pounds, Taylor competed in the super heavyweight class and came away from the competition with a bronze medal. Upon his return to America, Taylor started training for a pro career, debuting in December 1973 for the American Wrestling Association under Verne Gagne. As a pro, Taylor competed for only four years, though his record included matches (and victories) over the likes of Ric Flair, Ox Baker and the Iron Sheik, among others. Taylor died after suffering cardiovascular complications at age 29. Since his death, Taylor has been inducted into the Lou Thesz/George Tragos Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in Waterloo, Iowa. Taylor’s record as the heaviest wrestler to compete in the Olympics stood for 36 years until it was eclipsed in 2008 by Ricardo Blas, Jr.
Born Mitsuo Yoshida in Korea, professional wrestling best knows him as Riki Choshu, an architect of the sport in the 1980s and 90s. Choshu is one of four wrestlers appearing on this list to compete in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. While he didn’t come away from Germany with a medal for his efforts, Choshu jumped into training for a pro career not long after returning home to the far east. A 25-year ring career followed, including multiple championships under both the New Japan and All Japan Pro Wrestling banners, highlighted by three reigns as IWGP World champion. Perhaps more significantly, Choshu has been credited as an innovator for creating the move which was later popularized in North America by both Sting and Bret Hart. Dubbed Sasori-Gatame, fans on this side of the Pacific know it as the scorpion death lock or sharpshooter. In 2003, Pro Wrestling Illustrated acknowledged Choshu as one of the top 30 wrestlers of their years in publication.
10. Bob Roop
Like many featured on this list, Bob Roop’s entry into the professional ranks came about soon after reaching the apex of his amateur career at the Olympic games. Roop was a formidable foe on the mat while in school as well as in the armed forced long before the opportunity arose to represent the United States at the 1968 Olympic Games. Though Roop failed to leave the games with a medal, he was ousted from the tournament by the eventual gold medal winner. The following year, urged by his friend Larry Heinemi, who was already seeing success as a travelling pro, Roop pursued the monied ranks. Roop competed as a villain for most of his career, initially portrayed as a boastful former Olympian that could school most of his foes on the mat. In the closing years of his career, Roop was a member of Kevin Sullivan’s Army of Darkness stable which included Mark Lewin, Luna Vachon and Kharma. He retired from the sport after 19 years due to a neck injury. Roop is an inductee in the Lou Thesz/George Tragos Professional Wrestling Hall Of Fame, entering the hall in 2006.
9. Jumbo Tsuruta
Tomomi “Jumbo” Tsuruta, enjoyed a 26-year career in professional wrestling and stands as one of the iconic figures in the All Japan Pro Wrestling promotion, scoring numerous tournament and championship wins over his career. Tsuruta’s greatest achievement in North America came with a reign as the AWA World Heavyweight champion. He began wrestling as an amateur while in University and saw success on the mat at a national level in both Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling, which sent him to Munich in 1972 to represent Japan in wrestling. A frequent tag team partner of Giant Baba and Yoshiaki Yatsu, following his retirement he relocated to the United States where he served as a visiting researcher at the University of Portland. Tsuruta’s achievements as a professional far eclipsed his short amateur career and he was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame posthumously in 2015.
8. Iron Sheik
Fans in the modern age of viral video and media sharing have seen a very different side to the Iron Sheik – one that might make it hard to believe that in his younger years, Khosrow Vaziri lived a very disciplined life, one that took him all the way to the Olympics as an athlete and later led to opportunities as a trainer and coach. Vaziri represented his native Iran at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. His credentials served him well when he migrated to the United States and became a coach for the Olympic team, returning to the 1972 games in Munich as an assistant Coach for the U.S. It should come as no surprise that Vaziri’s next stop landed him in Verne Gagne’s professional wrestling camp in Minnesota and a new chapter was launched in the life and career of the man who would become the Iron Sheik. On December 26, 1983, the Sheik unseated Bob Backlund for the WWE World title, losing the championship weeks later to Hulk Hogan, launching the Hulkamania revolution.
7. Masa Saito
Masa Saito, like many on this list, was recognized as a double-tough customer between the ropes and not someone to be trifled with. His long list of successes over his 24-year career can certainly speak to that, both as a champion on many regional circuits as well as laying claim to the AWA World Heavyweight title. Saito represented Japan at the 1964 Olympics, launching his pro career the following year. Saito would earn a dubious distinction alongside another former Olympian, Ken Patera stemming from a post-match incident which landed him in prison for two years. Though there are conflicting reports about the incident, including one from Patera himself who identifies that Saito wasn’t even present at the scene when the fracas occurred at a McDonald’s restaurant. Saito was named “Best Technical Wrestler” by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter in 1984, around the time of his World title reign.
6. Danny Hodge
Chances are, if you were to run into Danny Hodge even today, you would second guess the notion of calling him out. The former Olympic wrestler and Golden Gloves boxer was one Light Heavyweight wrestler who was both respected and feared by foes during his days in action. He was, and is, the real deal. Hodge wrestled in two Olympic Games, placing fifth in 1952 and taking home a silver medal in 1956. For the record keepers, in professional wrestling, Hodge is best remembered as a six-time NWA Junior Heavyweight champion, though he would be subject to many other honors and awards during his career. However, those who had occasion to meet Hodge most marvel at his impressive grip strength. Now in his eighties, Hodge can still perform a feat that has stunned audiences for decades, by crushing an apple with one hand.
5. Mad Dog Vachon
At the peak of his professional career, Mad Dog Vachon could well be considered the stereotype of a professional wrestler. He was missing some teeth, he spit and salivated during television interviews, and his hairy, stocky body resembled a crazed woodland creature. Sure, part of the image portrayed by Maurice Vachon was a far cry from his earliest days on the mat, when the clean cut native of Montreal, Quebec ascended through the ranks and made it to the Olympic games representing Canada in the 1948 Olympic Games. Vachon, a long time mainstay for the American Wrestling Association and Verne Gagne would hold the AWA on five occasions, a record eclipsed only by Gagne himself. Mad Dog is one of the few professional wrestlers in Canada to secure a spot in a mainstream Sports Hall of Fame as many dismiss the athletic legitimacy of professional wrestlers. He was inducted to the Quebec Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.
4. Bad News Brown
Allen Coage was a man of conviction and when he set his mind to something, he sought to be the best at what he did. Such was the case when at age 22, he decided he wanted to pursue the sport of Judo. Within two and a half years, Coage had earned his black belt and that was followed by five Amateur Athletic Union championships in the following years. After securing gold medals in two Pan American Games, he was ready for the Olympics, representing the United States in 1976, where he earned a bronze medal. After his performance at the Olympics, Coage was sought out by Antonio Inoki to train as a professional wrestler and Coage was off to Japan to try his hand at another combat sport. Aside from New Japan Pro Wrestling, Bad News Allen was a headline attraction for Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling promotion and later the WWE.
3. Ken Patera
“You might not know, but I used to be famous,” Ken Patera told a capacity crowd at the 2016 Cauliflower Alley Club reunion. “No, seriously, I did a lot of [stuff]!” While the crowd on hand for his speech was comprised mostly of peers that he had travelled and wrestled with over the years, there can be little dispute about the life and times of ‘The Olympic Strongman’ Ken Patera. Ken competed in his first Olympic games in 1968, competing in shotput but failed to secure a medal. He returned in 1972 in Munich, this time as a weightlifter after taking gold in the competition the year prior in the Pan-American games. Patera created a stir in professional wrestling as well, getting his start in Verne Gagne’s Minneapolis camp, then going on to headline in several wrestling territories including the WWE. The WWE built on Patera’s reputed strength by filming vignettes of Patera driving nails into wood with his bare hands and holding back an advancing van with just the power in his legs. Sadly, Patera’s career never fully recovered from two years of incarceration following a melee with Wisconsin police after the matches one night.
2. Mark Henry
Locked in a heated battle for ratings supremacy with the rival World Championship Wrestling, based in Atlanta, Georgia, the WWE executive had to be thrilled when Mark Henry chose to announce his intentions to enter professional wrestling. Henry, a weightlifter on the American team at the 1996 games which were hosted in Atlanta, held a press conference with the world’s eyes upon him, identifying that he was signing a 10-year deal with the WWE. Though Henry failed to take home a medal, he has enjoyed a relationship with the WWE that has doubled his initial declaration. If we can forget his stint as “Sexual Chocolate” and implied tryst with Mae Young, Mark Henry has enjoyed a career of dominance, billed as the “World’s Strongest Man,” including a run as champion. Mark Henry silenced the initial naysayers that predicted he wouldn’t be able to make the transition from one discipline to the other and is en route to inclusion in the WWE Hall of Fame in the future.
1. Kurt Angle
The WWE can look back at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and two golden acquisitions they made for their company. Not only did they secure the services of weightlifter Mark Henry, but also the gold medal winner for wrestling – Kurt Angle. While professional wrestling has capitalized on the credibility of Olympians to appear in the games, Angle marked the first signing of a gold medal winner for wrestling to ever make the jump. He made an an immediate splash in the WWE where his charisma catapulted him to the top and the list of championships that were wrapped around his waist speak to the impact that he has made in the pros. Awarded by the Cauliflower Alley Club in 2000 as a “Future Legend,” few individuals have ever entered the ring and seen such a meteoric rise as Kurt Angle. His matches with technically gifted grapplers like Chris Benoit, Brock Lesnar, Shawn Michaels and Steve Austin will live on for generations to come.