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Missed Fists: A look at recent WWE wrestlers who have fought in MMA

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Former WWE superstar “Batsita” at a press conference in New York City from March 2007
Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Welcome to the latest edition of Missed Fists where Jed Meshew and Alexander K. Lee shine a light on fights from across the globe that may have been overlooked in these hectic times where it seems like there’s an MMA show every other day.

In the wake of WrestleMania 34, we’re doing something different this week and looking at some recent WWE Superstars who have dabbled in MMA and hypothesize how they might have fared if they’d skewed more towards combat sports than sports entertainment.

There have been countless pro wrestlers who have spent time in both worlds, including current WWE performers Ronda Rousey, Brock Lesnar, and Shayna Baszler, and past standouts like undefeated Bellator heavyweight Bobby Lashley, and, um, CM Punk, so we’re digging deeper to point out a few lesser known hybrid warriors.

Shinsuke Nakamura

AL: First up, I present to you one of the WrestleMania’s showcased performers, Shinsuke Nakamura. The Kyoto native established himself as a huge star overseas in the New Japan Pro Wrestling Promotion before making the jump to the WWE, but he dabbled in MMA in the early 2000s. Back then the company was run by the legendary Antonio Inoki and it was common for pro wrestlers to test their mettle and prove they could succeed in a real fight.

Here he is at a K-1 event in May 2004, fighting Alexey Ignashov, a man who would go on to compete in over 100 kickboxing matches and pick up wins over the likes of Peter Aerts, Badr Hari, and Semmy Schilt.

JM: This whole thing is gonna be more up your alley because I’m not a big pro wrestling guy. That being said, I did watch WrestleMania and Nakamura was easily the best thing about that whole show.

I would back him to be a force in MMA purely off charisma even if he couldn’t fight a lick. The fact that he has some actual experience is just a bonus. With that level of skill surely we could book him with some favorable matchmaking to make a run at the welterweight title, right?

AL: That could be a tall order (no pun intended) given that he stands about 6-foot-2, so maybe middleweight would be more appropriate? Regardless, as you’ll find with most of these future pro wrestlers, they all lean heavily on getting the fight to the ground as soon as possible and going to work from there.

And speaking of favorable matchmaking, what did you think of the submission finish here? Did it seem… “suspect”, for lack of a better word?

JM: Yeaaaaah. That entire K-1 ROMANEX card was super weird. I’m willing to believe Ignashov was just exhausted and tapped to the paper cutter, but I’m also willing to believe that was a work. Moving on, who have you got next for me? Got any diamonds in the rough I can take a gander at?

Gzim Selmani (“Rezar”)

AL: Recommended by our own Marc Raimondi, it’s one half of the Authors of Pain, the fearsome “Rezar”! Real name Gzim Selmani, this large fellow is currently working his way through NXT, the WWE’s developmental system.

However, I get the impression that if his progress in the company was dictated by his real-life fighting skills, he’d rocket to the top pretty fast. Just 23 years old, Selmani has actually fought for BAMMA and Bellator, and he holds a win over journeyman heavyweight Oli Thompson.

JM: Now this was more what I was envisioning when we set about doing this. Look, he’s obviously incredibly raw but you can see he has some serious physical traits and a mean streak in him, both excellent indicators of MMA success. Plus, he’s a heavyweight so he could clearly stick around a major organization by virtue of the low level nature of that division.

Other than Brock Lesnar, is this the UFC’s actual baddest man in the locker room?

AL: Hard to argue against that. Selmani is 6-foot-4 and looks like he had to cut down to the 265-pound limit. Were it not for the WWE picking him up, it’s easy to imagine him racking up wins over in Europe before getting scooped up by the UFC. There’s still time.

Dave Bautista (“Batista”)

AL: Changing gears, we have “Batista” (aka Dave Bautista), one of the WWE’s marquee names of the last decade and currently a key member of the blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy film franchise.

We had to squeeze him into “Missed Fists” criteria because while he’s certainly well known, his lone MMA appearance fell through the cracks. At a Classic Entertainment and Sports MMA show in October 2012, billed as “Brass Body” (a nickname tied in to RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists, which he was starring in at the time), the then 42-year-old Bautista made his cagefighting debut against Vince Lucero.

JM: Maybe this is prejudicial of me but Bautista had way too much difficulty with that guy for me to think he could be anything other than a bad heavyweight who gets by on name recognition. Seriously, how are The Avengers going to stop Thanos if one of their big guns is a dude who got pushed around in the clinch by a sub-.500 fighter?

AL: If Lucero is revealed as the big bad behind it all when Infinity War drops, I wouldn’t be against it.

Suffice to say, this is a case where Bautista had an MMA bug that he wanted to scratch, scratched it vigorously if ineffectively, and then moved on to bigger and brighter things. Now that he’s collecting Marvel checks, it’s safe to say he won’t be following in the footsteps of late bloomer Randy Couture.

Chas Betts (“Chad Gable”)
Daria Berenato (“Sonya Deville”)
Oliver Claffey (“Jack Gallagher”)

AL: Let’s close out on a trio of up-and-coming WWE stars with some legitimate combat sports credentials.

First up is tag team specialist “Chad Gable”, known as Chas Betts during his days as a standout amateur wrestler. Betts represented the U.S. in Greco-Roman wrestling in 2012 and you can see him showing off the suplexes he would later bring to the squared circle in his opening round match with Micronesia’s Keitani Graham at the London Olympics.

Do we see a contender at 170 pounds?

JM: Okay this guy actually can compete in high level MMA. An Olympic wrestling pedigree is just about the best thing you can bring with you to indicate sustained success in MMA. Plus he’s obviously extremely athletic which usually portends good things. Good for him in picking a more lucrative career path, but now I’m sad we could’ve had another standout wrestler in our ranks.

AL: Now 32, it looks like Betts’s future is set, but you definitely get the sense that he would have been a perfect signing for Bellator four or five years ago. Alas, only in our imaginations will we see him bodylocking Michael Page and throwing him over his head.

Another intriguing fighter-turned-wrestler on the WWE roster is “Sonya Deville” (aka Daria Berenato). Berenato is actually working an MMA gimmick and her background has been pushed heavily since she debuted on the WWE’s reality show Tough Enough. She’s only fought amateur, and her last outing saw her drop a close decision in an entertaining fight with Jasmine Pouncy.

JM: While that fight may have been fun, it also cooled me on any MMA potential she might have. Pouncy was flailing around with her strikes and still landing a good deal of them. Berenato would have a lot of ground to cover to make up for her deficiencies.

Besides, if we learned anything this weekend it’s that being an awkward boxer makes you automatically trash at fighting even if you are boxing the ears off of the striker you’re facing.

AL: Like Selmani, Berenato is not even close to her athletic prime, so if the 24-year-old ever feels the urge to dedicate herself to upping her all-around game and going pro, that door is still open.

Last, but certainly not least, we have one of my favorite performers, “Gentleman” Jack Gallagher. Born Oliver Claffey, this dapper Mancunian has a distinct look that made him an instant hit in the WWE and I think that would easily carry over to MMA. He fancies himself an old school grappler and you can see him putting that to practical use in this amateur bout from 2015 (billed as “Jack Claffey).

JM: Brad Pickett already had an accomplished MMA career, AK.

AL: Okay, but have seen these moves?

You’re more well-versed in grappling than I am, tell me, on a scale from 9-10, with 9 being super effective and 10 being ridiculously super effective, just how effective would this hold be in an actual MMA fight?

JM: Honestly, it’s probably already been pulled off in like, Xplode Fight Series or something.

But seriously, John Danaher better watch out: There’s a new leg lock king in town.

If you know of a recent fight or event that you think may have been overlooked or a promotion that could use some attention, please let us know on Twitter @JedKMeshew and @AlexanderKLee using the hashtag #MissedFists.

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