Today marks the 28th installment of Vince K. McMahon’s grandiose vision WrestleMania. Yours truly will indeed be tuned in, like millions of others around the nation. The then-World Wrestling Federation gave birth to the concept in 1985, an endeavor meant to differentiate McMahon’s promotion from the other wrestling federations. It was also meant to become a Super Bowl of professional wrestling — although, it’s more akin to the Bowl Championship Series, since title matches are determined in a writer’s room (hey-o!).
WrestleMania has been known for combining pro wrestling with entertainment and sports since its inception. The first edition featured Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T, for example. WM 2 hosted a WWF/E vs. NFL battle royale. Pete Rose made numerous appearances at the show, and both Lawrence Taylor and Mike Tyson headlined WrestleManias.
Tonight’s marquee attraction again features a former star from the sports world, albeit one whose name was truly made in wrestling. The Rock returns to the WWE tonight in Miami, the same city in which he was a standout on one of the most feared defenses in the nation. Johnson was defensive tackle alongside Warren Sapp at The U in the early 1990s, and a member of the ’91 co-national championship team.
The Rock is one example of the longstanding bond college football has with this brand of entertainment.
Bronko Nagurski is as legendary a figure as there is in college football. Tales of Nagurski’s toughness while suiting up at Minnesota are almost mythical. It’s no wonder the two-way standout’s name now graces the FWAA’s award for the nation’s best defensive player. It’s also fitting that a larger-than-life character such as Nagurski is the first college gridiron star to become a headliner in the squared circle. Below is Nagurski wrestling Gus Sonnenberg in 1938.
Minnesota was later the football home of one of wrestling’s premiere names, Ric Flair. Of course then, he was known as Richard Fliehr and he has since become a known supporter of Steve Spurrier and South Carolina.
About a generation after Nagurski, Jack Adkisson had a noteworthy career as an offensive tackle at SMU. Adkisson gained true notoriety in Texas as Fritz Von Erich, patriarch of the Von Erich family. His sons became heroes of the Dallas-based World Class promotion in the 1980s.
WCCW was later the starting point for Steve Williams. Williams played at North Texas, which WCCW used for his initial gimmick. He was a heel — villain for those unfamiliar with wrestling colloquialisms — who used a helmet to knock out opponents when the referee’s back was turned. A sidenote: there is no direct correlation between ACC officials and pro wrestling, but the uncanny ability each has to botch a match is eerily similar.
You probably know Williams better as Stone Cold Steve Austin. His breakout began in World Championship Wrestling as one half of the Hollywood Blondes tag team. The other half was former Miami University linebacker Brian Pillman.
Austin had to ditch his birth name, because another gridiron great turned wrestler already sported it. Dr. Death Steve Williams was an All-American at Oklahoma before becoming one of the most feared gaijin (foreign wrestlers) in Japan. The most recognized voice in professional wrestling and well-known OU Sooner Jim Ross tweeted the following to me earlier this year:
Williams’s tough guy reputation played out in matches overseas against other heavy hitters like Stan Hansen and Kenta Kobashi. He never quite became a huge name in the United States like The Rock, though he did challenge for the WCW World Championship at the company’s big show of the year, Starrcade in 1992. His opponent: Florida State Seminole All-American and new WWE Hall of Fame inductee, Ron Simmons.
His induction is the second Hall of Fame honor, as Simmons became a member of the College Football Hall in 2008. He was the first defensive player in FSU history to have his number retired, receiving the honor in 1988. Another notable first for Simmons was in ’92, his winning the WCW title marked the first time the company’s premiere championship was held by a black man. Simmons was a trailblazer in the industry, setting the foundation for future stars like Booker T. and The Rock to headline in a medium dominated by whites.
Football and wrestling’s partnership will continue for the foreseeable future. Up-and-coming talent like former Michigan State offensive lineman Kyle Rasmussen are turning to the mat. St. Louis Ram and former Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis is the son of tag team legend Road Warrior Animal; perhaps he has a calling post-NFL career. Know when you tune in on Saturdays this fall, you might be seeing the next big wrestling personality.