Where do Olympic athletes go after spending their entire lives striving for gold? Well if you are a medalist in wrestling you could have a clear path to the pros. Check out ten former Olympic wrestlers who made successful jumps from the mat to the WWE.
Pro wrestling isn’t something that is often taken seriously, yet the performers are some of the best athletes on television. The WWE and numerous other pro wrestling companies have featured serious athletes that made successful transitions from the Olympic wrestling to worked sports entertainment. Here is a quick look at the ten most successful Olympiads to make that jump.
Please keep in mind that this list only includes pro wrestlers who competed in Olympic wrestling competition.
Kurt Angle – Angle is undoubtedly the most successful Olympic wrestler to go pro in the last few couple of decades. The former gold medalist has been a consistent headliner over the last decade for both the WWE and TNA, winning world championships in both promotions. Angle won the gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the 1996 Olympics at 220 pounds. Angle failed in a recent attempt at a comeback with hopes to compete in the 2012 Olympic games.
Verne Gagne – Some could argue that Verne Gagne was the most successful Olympic wrestler to make the jump to pro wrestling. Gagne not only reigned supreme for many years as a world champion, he was one of the most successful pro wrestling promoters for decades with the A.W.A. Gagne was on the 1948 United States Olympic team but did not compete. Gagne went to London to compete in Greco-Roman, but was not allowed to compete since his trials were in freesytle. Gagne never forgot his Olympic past, giving booking preference to former Olympic and amateur wrestling greats in the A.W.A.
Hiro Hase – As an avid pro wrestling tape trader in the 1980s, I was a big Hiro Hase fan. Hase was one of the most exciting pro wrestlers of the late 1980s-early 1990s. Hase placed ninth representing Japan in the 1984 games in Greco-Roman wrestling. Hase’s matches with Jushin Liger and Owen Hart in particular are some of the best of the era. Like several former Olympiads, Hase made the transition from performer to booker. Hase and Kensuki Sasaki were one of the best tag teams in Japan history, with legendary matches against the Steiner brothers and countless others.
Mad Dog Vachon – Maurice Vachon is generally not remembered for his outstanding technical wrestling in the ring, yet he was probably more talented on the mat than many of the more notable technicians. Vachon finished seventh at the 1948 games, although he did win a gold medal at the 1950 British Empire Games. Vachon had a long and memorable career in Canada and the United States, most notably as a headliner with the American Wrestling Association. However, the former AWA champion’s biggest contribution to pro wrestling came in helping develop young Andre Roussimoff into Andre the Giant once Roussimoff came to Canada.
Jumbo Tsuruta – Tsuruta is one of the most famous pro wrestlers in Japan, known for his crisp work and his dramatic matches. Tsuruta competed in the 1976 Munich Olympics only 18 months after entering the sport in college. The “Terror of Yamanashi” was pinned twice and never lived up to the Olympic hype. Tsuruta was a mainstay in All Japan wrestling where he was arguably the best performer in the industry at times. Tsuruta had a brief run in the United States as the American Wrestling Association world heavyweight champion.
Danny Hodge – If you ask pro wrestling fans who watched him wrestle, most will tell you that Danny Hodge was the greatest pro wrestler of all-time. Hodge placed 9th in the 1952 Olympics. Hodge was also a successful amateur boxer winning the 1958 Golden Gloves title at 190. Hodge was a big star in the territory days of pro wrestling and a former NWA world junior heavyweight champion.
Masanori Saito – Known as Mr. Saito to most of us here in America, Saito represented Japan at the 1964 Japan Games and finished seventh in freestyle as a super heavyweight. Pro wrestling fans in their 40s likely remember Saito for his run in the WWWF as a championship partner with Mr. Fuji or his numerous stints with the American Wrestling Association, including a brief run in 1990 as the promotion’s world champion. Saito was more of a headliner in Japan, remembered for a legendary feud with Antonio Inoki which included the first Island Death Match in 1987. Unfortunately Saito’s fame is probably more associated with many as the co-conspirator in the infamous McDonalds incident that landed him and Ken Patera in prison.
Riki Choshu – Choshu is one of the most successful professional wrestling stars of the Japan region. Choshu represented South Korea in 1972 in Greco-Roman competition, although he didn’t place. Choshu is a 3-time IWGP heavyweight and world tag team champion and like Gagne, was a brilliant booker for his era. Choshu’s New Japan vs. UWFI feud inspired Eric Bischoff to create the N.W.O. angle which was one of the biggest in pro wrestling history. Choshu was also known as a legendary trainer and has passed on his legacy to a long lineage of talented international stars.
Dick Hutton – Dick Hutton is a name you probably haven’t heard of unless you are a student of the professional wrestling game. Hutton is a former N.W.A world heavyweight champion, handpicked by the great Lou Thesz to become his successor. Hutton placed 7th in freestyle at heavyweight in 1948. Hutton placed seventh in freestyle wrestling at the 1948 games in London.
Brad Rheingans – Rheingans beat out territorial wrestlers like Bob Roop and Baron Von Rachke to make the ninth spot on the list. Quite frankly Rheingans at nine was not nearly as successful as any of the top nine wrestlers listed. Rheingans finished fourth at the 1976 Montreal Games in Greco-Roman at 220 pounds. While he wrestled briefly in the WWE, the majority of his career spent as a mid-card for the American Wrestling Association. Like a few others mentioned, Rheingans biggest impact on the sport came as a teacher. Rheingans’ biggest success is a guy you may have heard of named Brock Lesnar.