Former New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski will be hosting a very unique WrestleMania this year, as the biggest event in sports entertainment will play out over two nights on April 4 and 5 at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando without fans.
Gronk isn’t the first pro athlete to make a mark inside the squared circle, though. Far from it.
In honour of the three-time Super Bowl champion’s upcoming WrestleMania appearance, we’re counting down the top-five pro athletes who’ve made an impact in the world of professional wrestling.
5) Lawrence Taylor
We start with what might be the most infamous appearance by a pro athlete in WWE. Lawrence Taylor is an Pro Football Hall of Famer, a two-time Super Bowl champion, a 10-time Pro Bowl selection, and generally known as one of the greatest linebackers to ever play the game.
Perhaps, though, LT’s biggest and most noteworthy accolade is that he headlined the showcase of the immortals, WrestleMania. Taylor announced his retirement from football in 1994, and a year later was tabbed to take on Bam Bam Bigelow in the main event of WrestleMania 11.
It was an extremely curious decision for WWE management to put the match on last, and directly after the WWE Championship match between Shawn Michaels and Diesel. This would be like taking Gronk right now and putting him on last alongside a well-known wrestler like Roman Reigns.
Taylor’s bout certainly won’t be remembered as technical masterpiece, but it will be remembered as one of the strangest main events in WrestleMania history.
4) Dennis Rodman
WWE wasn’t exclusive in trying to lure eyeballs using celebrity. World Championship Wrestling, WWE’s chief competitor in the 1990s, was also playing the game and playing it well. WCW used Shaquille O’Neal to help hype a Hulk Hogan-Ric Flair match in ’94, and then brought in another basketball star in 1997.
Dennis Rodman first appeared on WCW television in ‘97, alongside his friend Hollywood Hulk Hogan. Rodman would compete in his first match at Bash at the Beach in July of that year, losing in a tag match alongside Hogan to Lex Luger and The Giant. Rodman would continue to make appearances on WCW into 1998, where he would once again compete at Bash at the Beach. This time, though, he would be taking on a fellow NBAer.
Rodman and the Chicago Bulls were coming off a third straight NBA championship, and a second straight Finals victory over a Utah Jazz team that included Rodman’s eventual opponent at Bash at the Beach ’98. It was Rodman and Hogan taking on Diamond Dallas Page and Karl Malone.
The match was a spectacle, to be sure, but not much else. Wrestling fans were growing weary of Rodman’s appearances by that point, and the effect of the match wasn’t lasting on the audience. However, Rodman will always be remembered as a big part of the WWE versus WCW battle of the 1990’s.
3) Pete Rose
The MLB’s hit king has been hit with quite a few tombstone piledrivers over the years.
Pete Rose’s overall impact on the WWE product won’t necessarily be remembered as profound and long term. No, the WWE Hall of Famer will be remembered for repeatedly getting into altercations with Kane… and getting planted on his head as a result.
Rose first appeared at WrestleMania 14 in 1998 as a special-guest ring announcer ahead of the much-anticipated Undertaker vs. Kane match. Rose received mostly favourable applause from the Boston crowd when first introduced, however the positive reaction didn’t last long. Rose took to the microphone and delivered a fantastic heel promo cutting down the Red Sox, saying things like: “I left tickets for Bill Buckner but he couldn’t bend over to pick them up.”
For his efforts, Rose was given a tombstone piledriver by Kane.
Rose went on to appear at WrestleMania 15 and 16, as well. Each time Pete was met with a similar fate to the first… and that was a beating at the hands of Kane.
2) Muhammed Ali
The literal greatest of all-time.
Muhammed Ali isn’t just the greatest boxer of all-time, but quite possibly the greatest athlete of all-time. Ali was known for athletic excellence, of course, but also his larger-than-life personality. Ali attributed his exuberance, both in and outside of the ring, to professional wrestlers such as Gorgeous George.
Ali’s involvement in WWE carries quite a bit of importance as Vince McMahon tabbed Ali to be a part of WrestleMania 1 in 1985, working as a special guest referee in the main event featuring Hulk Hogan and Mr. T taking on Rowdy Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff. Ali was one of several celebrities included in WrestleMania, but perhaps the most notable. Thanks to the celebrity appearances WrestleMania was a success, thus helping propel WWE into the golden age of wrestling.
That wasn’t Ali’s only involvement in wrestling, though. In 1976, Ali jumped in the ring to confront Gorilla Monsoon, resulting in a quick physical altercation. Later that year, Ali took on Antonio Inoki in a special MMA-style bout in Japan. Ali also made appearances for World Championship Wrestling in the early 1990s.
1) Mike Tyson
Mike Tyson is No. 1 on the list for a gluttony of reasons, but mainly due to the fact it was his celebrity that helped WWE gain the momentum necessary to overtake WCW in the Monday Night Wars.
Tyson appeared on WWE television in early 1998 as not just one of the hottest athletes at the time, but one of the hottest celebrities in the world. “Iron Mike,” recognized as one of the greatest boxers of all-time, made headlines in 1997 when he bit the ear of Evander Holyfield in a match, which subsequently earned him a suspension in the boxing world. During his suspension, Tyson made his way to the world of professional wrestling, inking a multi-million-dollar deal with WWE and Vince McMahon.
Tyson’s first appearance in a WWE ring will forever live as a marquee timestamp in the history of WWE. Tyson got into a shoving match with Stone Cold Steve Austin, which helped stoke the fire of the Austin-McMahon rivalry, while also giving wrestling fans the incredible video of McMahon screaming at Austin, “You ruined it! You ruined it, damnit!”
In the lead-up to ‘Mania, Tyson spent some time in the D-Generation X stable alongside then-champion Shawn Michaels, opposite of Austin. However, Tyson ended up turning on Michaels in the main event of WrestleMania, counting the pin in favour of Stone Cold, and raising Austin’s hand in victory.
The importance of Tyson’s involvement in the main event storyline of WrestleMania can’t be overstated. He grabbed headlines, and he grabbed them at the right time, pointing eyeballs towards the hottest character in wrestling, Stone Cold Steve Austin. It was Stone Cold who would then launch WWE into a different galaxy, thus helping create the sports entertainment giant we know today.