Pro Wrestling World Champions & Professional Football (Not In NFL)

Football World Champions
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On Thursday, IMPACT Wrestling released an article on their website about current IMPACT World Heavyweight Champion Moose being one of only a handful of NFL football players who have progressed to a pro wrestling career that saw them win an officially sanctioned World Heavyweight Championship. The criteria were that they had to officially play at least one game in the NFL regular season (or playoffs) – so many other prospective names, who may have been on a team but either released during pre-season or spent their brief career on Injured Reserve would be ineligible.

“There are so many former NFL players who had notable pro wrestling careers, including Brian Pillman, Steve McMichael, Monte Brown (sic), Leo Nomellini, Wahoo McDaniel, and Russ Francis, among others – but none of them became World Champion,” IMPACT EVP Scott D’Amore said in the article. “Moose is among an exclusive list of only six former NFL players, including a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to have become a pro wrestling World Champion.” While it’s true that only six NFL players have captured a World Championship (well, technically five NFL players and one former AFL player before they merged with the NFL), there have been many others who played professional football in either the U.S. or Canada who also became World Champions in their secondary careers. You can read more of the five other NFL players (Bronko Nagurski, Gus Sonnenberg, Dick The Bruiser, Ernie Ladd, and Goldberg) that Moose has joined at IMPACT’s website, but here’s a look at the other pro footballers who also achieved World Champion status in the squared circle (plus a few World Champions who thankfully got cut very early to get them into wrestling quicker).

Other Professional Football

Gene Kiniski

Edmonton’s Gene Kiniski was a pro footballer in his native Canada, competing for the Edmonton Eskimos (now Edmonton Elks) of the Canadian Football League (CFL) in 1949, then again from 1952 to 1953 (he spent 1950 through 1952 playing college football in the U.S. with the University of Arizona), During his time in the CFL, he was trained as a pro wrestler by former Eskimo Stu Hart in Calgary. When his CFL career ended in 1952 after injuries, he headed to Arizona to become a full-time professional wrestler. He won his first World title in 1961 with Verne Gagne‘s American Wrestling Association (AWA), but his reign was only 28-days before losing it back to Gagne. But in 1966, he won the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship, defeating the legendary Lou Thesz, and holding the title for 1,131 days (losing it in 1969 to Dory Funk, Jr).

Wilbur Snyder

After playing college ball at Utah, Wilbur Snyder also ended up in the CFL, where he was actually teammates with Gene Kiniski with the Edmonton Eskimos, and played two seasons as a tackle in 1952 and 1953. He took up pro wrestling on the side in the off-season in 1953, and soon chose the mat over the gridiron, retiring from football after the 1953 season. While he’s more famous for helping co-found the World Wrestling Association (WWA) in Indianapolis with Dick The Bruiser in the 1960s, Snyder won the World Heavyweight Championship in 1958. While it was won in the NWA territories, it was a short-lived World Championship that was recognized by several NWA territories from 1957 to 1963, lead by the Omaha, Nebraska territory. In 1963, it was unified with the AWA World Heavyweight Championship, when Gagne defeated Omaha champion Fritz Von Erich.

Fritz Von Erich

Speaking of Fritz Von Erich, the Texas native was another Edmonton Eskimo and teammate of both Kiniski and Snyder. Fritz played college football for Southern Methodist University and attended pre-season for the NFL’s Dallas Texas in 1952 (he was cut before the start of the season). He jumped to the CFL in 1953 with the Eskimos, and while there he also met Stu Hart. Hart convinced Von Erich to turn to pro wrestling instead – even giving him his Fritz Von Erich name. After early years with Stampede Wrestling, Von Erich became a major heel in the U.S. wrestling circuit in the 1950s through 1970s, winning the Omaha World title twice (in 1962 and 1963), as well as the AWA World Championship in 1963 (he had a series of title vs title matches as Omaha World Champ versus AWA World Champion Verne Gagne before they were unified later that year). Fritz would go on to be the patriarch for one of wrestling’s most beloved, and cursed, families in pro wrestling.

Dusty Rhodes

Before he was “The American Dream”, the Son of a Plumber was chasing an American dream of playing on the gridiron. Dusty Rhodes played college football with Texas A&M and in the early 1960s, attended training camp with the AFL’s Boston Patriots. He was cut before the season started, but he joined the Continental Football League (COFL) – a professional league that ran between 1965 and 1969 – playing several years with the Hartford Charter Oaks as a linebacker. When the Hartford franchise folded in 1967, Dusty took his wares to the wrestling ring full time, becoming a 3x NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion and one of the pro wrestling’s most important icons.

“Superstar” Billy Graham

Before he was a pro wrestler, “Superstar” Billy Graham signed with the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL in 1968 but was traded to the Montreal Alouettes to start the season. He only played five games, but during his brief stay in Calgary, he also met Stu Hart. Hart trained Graham to be a pro wrestler in 1969, and after his failed CFL run, he switched to wrestling instead. He would go on to become one of WWE’s biggest stars in the 1970s, winning the then-WWWF World Championship in 1977, ending Bruno Sammartino‘s second reign at the top.

Ron Simmons

Ron Simmons was a standout with Florida State before getting drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the 6th round of the 1981 NFL Draft. He was cut before the season started, however, and instead headed to the CFL to play a season with the Ottawa Rough Riders. He returned to pro football in the U.S. with the United States Football League (USFL) for its entire existence (1983-1985) with the Tampa Bay Bandits (where he was a teammate of Lex Luger). He became a pro wrestler in 1986 after the USFL folded, and in 1992 he became the first African-American World Champion of the modern era with a nationally televised company when he defeated Vader to become the WCW World Heavyweight Champion.

Lex Luger

About Lex Luger. Luger was an interstate college football rival of Simmons prior, competing for the Miami Hurricanes, before heading to the CFL to play for the Montreal Alouettes from 1979 to 1981, where he competed in the 1979 Grey Cup Final against eventual winner Edmonton Eskimos. He returned south in 1982, signed as a free agent by the Green Bay Packers, but a groin injury kept him on injured reserve the entire season and he was released soon after. In 1984, he joined the USFL, first with the Tampa Bay Bandits (where he teamed with Simmons), then Memphis Showboats and Jacksonville Bulls. He retired in 1985 to become a pro wrestler, where he became a major star in the NWA, WWF, and WCW, where he became a 2x WCW World Heavyweight Champion.

John “Bradshaw” Layfield (JBL)

Before he was the “Wrestling God”, JBL was the football…er, not God. He played college football with Abilene Christian University in Texas before signing with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1990. He was released during pre-season and jumped to the San Antonio Riders, a new team in the upstart new pro league, World League of American Football (WLAF). Layfield lasted only a year before deciding on pro wrestling, and in 1998, the WLAF became NFL Europe. As Bradshaw, he became a tough brawler alongside Ron Simmons in APA, before becoming the despicable Texas tycoon JBL – who would win the WWE Championship in 2004.

Roman Reigns

Before he joined the family business, Roman Reigns was a rising football star, first with Georgia Tech in college, then signing with the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL in 2007. During pre-season, he was diagnosed with leukemia and was released (for health reasons). The Jacksonville Jaguars signed him soon after, but he was released soon after before the season started. The following year, he headed to the CFL, playing a season with the Edmonton Eskimos. He finally joined pro wrestling in 2010 and has become one of WWE’s biggest stars of the past decade, where he’s a 3x WWE Champion and 2x (and reigning) WWE Universal Champion.

Almost, But Never Played

A few notable wrestling World Champions came very close to choosing the gridiron game over the squared circle, but fate would have other plans. In 1947, the Chicago Bears drafted Verne Gagne, but when given an ultimatum by Chicago of pro wrestling or wrestling, Gagne chose pro wrestling and became a 10x AWA World Champion.

Stan Hansen tried out for the Detroit Wheels of the very short-lived World Football League (WFL) in 1974 but was cut during pre-season. He was far better in the wrestling ring, where he was an AWA World Champion and 4x Triple Crown winner in All-Japan Pro Wrestling.

Vader was a standout offensive lineman with the University of Colorado and became a 3rd round draft pick of the Los Angeles Rams in 1978, but a leg injury in pre-season put him on injured reserve for the season. He retired the following year from football, becoming a wrestler instead, and building a trophy case that featured three reigns as IWGP Heavyweight Champion in New Japan Pro Wrestling, two Triple Crowns in AJPW, and three reigns as WCW World Heavyweight Champion in the U.S.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was another Miami Hurricane who headed north to continue his career but was cut during pre-season by the Calgary Stampeders in 1995. He would take up the family business and become a pro wrestler but left the squared circle in the mid-2000s a multi-time World Champion in WWE. I wonder what ever happened to him?

Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world. As well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world. You can catch IMPACT Wrestling on Thursday nights on AXS TV and Twitch.TV as well as all the time on IMPACT Plus.