In 1928, Boston wrestling promoter Paul Bowser discovered a new star named Gus Sonnenberg. Well, “discovered” might be the wrong word here. Because unlike, say, Danno O’Mahoney, whom Bowser created out of whole cloth and turned into a world champion, Sonnenberg was already an established athlete. He had played on a monster football team at Marquette High School in Michigan that outscored opponents 211-to-7 in 1915, and started for a couple years at Dartmouth before embarking on a nomadic pro career. Sonnenberg finally landed with the NFL’s Providence Steam Roller, where he threw the ball, carried the ball, kicked extra points, and won a championship in 1928, all while playing without a helmet. It was a coup for Bowser — Sonnenberg was a natural star, and he brought legitimacy and a built-in fan base with him.
Those twin ideals — legitimacy and mainstream fans — have motivated wrestling promoters to bring in “real” athletes ever since, be it Muhammad Ali getting shin-kicked by Antonio Inoki, or “Big Cat” Ernie Ladd terrorizing the nation as the premier villain of the ’70s, or William “the Refrigerator” Perry entering the battle royal at WrestleMania 2. Lawrence Taylor versus Bam Bam Bigelow at WrestleMania 11 may have set the bar for hype (and in-ring futility). Steve “Mongo” McMichael’s run in WCW was mediocre at best, but at least he committed to pro wrestling, which is more than you can say about WCW’s other crossover acts, like Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone. The WWF’s real-sports fascination was more inclined toward prizefighters. It added Mike Tyson to the Steve Austin–DX feud, matched Big Show against Akebono in 2005 and then against Floyd Mayweather Jr. in ’08, and pushed UFC standout Ken Shamrock as a major player in the Attitude Era. The latter-most was by far the best pro wrestler because he committed to the role.
There have been innumerable lesser sports stars who became ring icons — everybody from “Cowboy” Bill Watts to Kevin Nash, but that was mostly before the time when reconstructive knee surgery could save athletes’ careers. Over the past two decades, since it’s become more common for NBA and NFL players to complete full recoveries after major injuries, pro wrestling has seen its talent pool dwindle. (The other major hit, of course, has been the UFC. It wasn’t long ago that WWE really was the only feasible “pro” option for standout wrestlers, but now they have a major sport in which they can compete.)
As far as “real” athletes go, WWE could sure use some help. So in the spirit of Thursday’s NBA draft, let’s find some. Take all the athletes competing in sports today and line them up. Hell, why stop there? Widen the field to all sports personalities who could make a difference backstage or at the announcers’ table, too. Who do you think WWE should take? I asked the whole Grantland staff for input, and then I ranked them and added some of my own suggestions. Want to get in on this action? Email your submissions to email@example.com and we’ll publish a reader’s list next week.
The WWE Draft Lottery
1. Rob Gronkowski
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Everybody I asked about this list immediately suggested Gronk, and although part of me suspects these folks were working from a cartoon concept of pro wrestling, I don’t think they’re wrong. Gronkowski is a physical freak and hugely charismatic — even within the confines of the laced-up Patriots culture. That means he’ll probably thrive even under the harsh dictates of WWE management. To top it off, Gronk is already best buds with WWE developmental talent Mojo Rawley. This guy was born to be a pro wrestler. If Gronk doesn’t have a WWE match in his life, I’ll be surprised. Sometimes the obvious pick really is the best pick.
2. J.J. Watt (submitted by Shea Serrano)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Shea: He would seem to be the most obvious pick. He’s big, agile, intimidating, beautiful. All of that. The way I see it, it’d go one of two ways. He could just upload his current persona (the all-American hero with the unimpeachable work ethic and background — his dad is a goddamn firefighter named John Watt, my dude) to the WWE database and roll out like that. He’d wear a wrestling Speedo made from an American flag that a war veteran gave him after Watt rescued him during the big floods Houston had a few weeks ago. He’d never hit anyone with a chair or body-slam any of the WWE Divas. His finishing move would be called something like the Wisconsin Sledgehammer and it’d be a thing where he jumped off the top rope with his hands clasped together and bonked his opponents in the forehead.
OR, he could go the total opposite direction and, oh no, it turns out that J.J. Watt is the meanest, most vile wrestling villain ever. He’d dye his hair black. He’d be rumored to be an advocate of segregation and say things like, “I just want my America back,” whenever he got the chance. He’d always hide a pair of brass knuckles in one of the turnbuckle covers and the referee would always seem to miss when he’d slip them on, despite the crowd’s calls for him to notice. Whenever Watt would knock someone out with them, he’d mock-spit on the body and then roll them out of the ring and onto the floor, and when a reporter would ask why he did it, he’d say, “Because nobody deserves to be in the ring with me. Nobody.” And then he’d bump into the reporter on purpose as he walked away.
Oh, man. Either one of those guys I’m all in for.
The Masked Man: In my scientific polling of everyone I ran into at a bar last weekend, Watt was the consensus no. 2, just behind Gronk, and the people who picked Gronk might have been making fun of him and the entire idea of wrestling in the first place. Which is to say that I think Watt is the top “serious” draft pick. Shea outlines Watt’s whole WWE career for us right there — a year or three as the straight-laced all-American, and then a heel turn that shakes the very foundation of the wrestling world. And best of all, WWE fans can adapt “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s insufferable “What?!” chant into a pro-Watt movement.
3. Ronda Rousey
She made a surprise appearance at WrestleMania 31, backing up the Rock and hip-tossing Triple H. It was just a little taste, but it was proof that she could be a transcendent star for the WWE Women’s Division. With WWE’s increasing emphasis on its Divas as real athletes, Rousey would fit right in. WWE has managed to book Brock Lesnar as a monster while making him conceivably beatable. If they can manage the same with Rousey, the company might have the female star it’s been searching for since … well, forever.
4. Blake Griffin
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images
Blake’s easy to hate, I know. Little-known fact: the WWE Guide to the NBA I did a couple years back was inspired by a conversation about Blake being the John Cena of the NBA. (Blake was demoted to Dolph Ziggler after LeBron James got the Cena nod.) But suffice it to say that Blake is a polarizing character. And in the world of pro wrestling, that’s a very good thing. WWE would be able to hide his deficiencies even more effectively than a Chris Paul–run offense, and they’ll be able to accentuate his positives. Just imagine if “charisma in commercials” were factored into PER. Blake would be the greatest advanced-metrics player of all time.
5. Cristiano Ronaldo (submitted by Brian Phillips)
Lars Baron/Getty Images
Brian: My dude CR7 is not a heel; he is the glowing plutonium core at the center of all heelness. Nobody thinks he’s a bad guy. He works hard. He seems pretty nice. And this matters not one bit, because his entire existence radiates the kind of mincing, swaggering ego-malice that’s most at home lording it over the top turnbuckle while being jeered by 20,000 fans. Watch him play soccer for five minutes and you get this deeply. He’s one of the few people on earth who would make more sense, not less, choking someone out with a feather boa. The championship strap would be maybe his third-gaudiest belt buckle. That he’s a physical freak with incredible strength and agility is almost beside the point. He’s a human rhinestone. Turn him loose on wrestling and he will shave a Z-shaped swath of devastation from here to the nearest sea. (And when he gets there, he will flex on the beach in a Speedo.) Anoint yourself with hair product and pop your collar in prayer. A god of this world is ready to be born.
6. Bryce Harper (submitted by Andrew Sharp)
Sharp: You want a heel? His name is Bryce, for Christ’s sake. He was born for this. In his first few years in the league, he managed to turn most of baseball against him just by being himself. He’s got the body — look at these forearms — and the reckless disregard for his own safety that makes wrestling an ideal fit. He’s got good looks and great sound bites. He’s so obnoxious that you will eventually love him for all of it. An entire generation of teenagers could grow out their very own Mohawk-mullet.
The Masked Man: Better yet, WWE could be selling Mohawk-mullet wigs by the thousands. Harper is my sentimental favorite in this contest, just because I was worried that fans who are mesmerized by his production wouldn’t realize the degree to which he’s already playing a heel. Of course, Washington fans love him, as they should, because his heel shtick is bordering on early HBK levels of churlish awesomeness. (The hair’s not really all that different, either.) Just imagine if Harper had the freedom to refer to himself as the youngest All-Star of all time in interviews. He could sell out the Joe Turner’s Arena every Friday, no problem.
7. Joakim Noah
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
There’s not a more natural villain in sports. Just look at that mug. No, no wait: Look at this one. He’s got the height, the unique look, and the multi-ethnic flair that WWE loves, plus personality for miles. He’s one of the few people in the world who can honestly say, “My whole life I’ve been booed,” and mean it. And he’s earned it.
8. Ndamukong Suh
Tom Pennington/Getty Images
9. Yasiel Puig (submitted by Jonah Keri)
John Locher/AP Photo
Jonah: The second-closest I’ve ever come to dying was at Coors Field.
I was standing by the visitors’ clubhouse door, waiting to be let in. Chatting with a fellow writer, I didn’t notice that I was standing directly in front of the door, such that if someone opened it suddenly, I could get hurt. Sure enough, the door flew open, violently. I leaped out of the way a fraction of a second before it crashed into the wall. Only a person who lives his life with the volume constantly dialed up to 11, someone who constantly drowns out all others’ clubhouse music, who yells to teammates across the room, who fires throws from the outfield with no regard for cutoff men, and who celebrates every home run like it was a walk-off in Game 7 of the World Series could’ve pushed that door open with such force.
I can only imagine what Yasiel Puig would do with a steel chair.
The Masked Man: Couldn’t agree more. And he’s already got his theme-song game on lock.
10. Kimbo Slice (submitted by Brian Campbell)
Josh Hedges/Getty Images
Brian: Despite his 7-0 record, Kimbo’s not much of a boxer. And despite knocking out 51-year-old UFC Hall of Famer Ken Shamrock in Friday’s Bellator event, Kimbo isn’t much of an MMA practitioner, either. But along with being a street-fighting legend and Internet sensation, Kimbo Slice is no stranger to drawing eyeballs. Back in 2008, 6.51 million viewers tuned in to CBS to watch him in a cage fight. The 41-year-old Slice may no longer possess the air of invincibility he had when he was YouTube’s KO king, but he still oozes pure heel potential that can be fully realized only in pro wrestling. From his iconic beard to his pioneering chest hair designs, Slice clearly understands how to cultivate a character. In fact, as a real-life tough guy who has worked as a bodyguard in the adult film industry and beaten up countless schlubs in South Florida backyards, it’s fair to question whether Slice is actually playing a character at all. And that authenticity should only make him more valuable in the world of WWE.
The Masked Man: Of all the insane choices on this list, this one makes me the most queasy. It’s probably the It’s Still Real to Me, Dammit coursing through my veins, but I want accomplished cage fighters bringing their craft to the squared circle, not this overhyped tomato can. But, as much as it pains me to say this, Brian is exactly right. Kimbo has more charisma in his mustachioed snarl than Chael Sonnen could affect in a full hour of race-baiting. And Kimbo may be old, but he became a serviceable MMA fighter in a relatively short time, so his transition to WWE could actually work.
11. Richard Sherman
Tony Overman/Getty Images
He already has the split-screen trash-talk skills down pat, and he cut possibly the best postgame heel promo in NFL history. And unlike a lot of the athletes on this list, he’s a natural high-flier — just imagine him pulling out the Swanton Bomb (hell, just rename it the Seahawk Bomb) and then screaming at his opponent. Few wrestlers have had the mouth to go with the size and physical skills that Sherman possesses.
12. Wladimir Klitschko (submitted by Rafe Bartholomew)
John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images
Rafe: The Eastern Bloc baddie has never been a hard role for WWE to fill. It already has Rusev, and before him it had Nikolai Volkoff and however many others of that ilk. So does the company really need Klitschko to provide an upgrade on a slot it already has filled?
Ummmm … YES. Just because you have Pete Myers giving you serviceable minutes at shooting guard, does that mean you don’t take Michael Jordan back when he decides to un-retire? You always upgrade, and physically, there may be no more imposing Eastern European on the market than Wlad. Plus, his long reign as boxing’s heavyweight champion and his marriage to Hayden Panettiere allow for some splendid Reality Era story lines: It’s because of him that there have been no great American heavyweights! That foreign beast is even taking our women! And if WWE could lure Vitali Klitschko into the ring for the confrontation the brothers swore they’d never have in boxing, they might have a PPV headliner that could give Mayweather-Pacquiao a run for its money.
The Masked Man: You’ll never hear me comparing Rusev to Pete Myers, and this is coming from a guy who said the new neighborhood laundromat was the Pete Myers of replacement laundromats. Rusev is just too good. That said, Klitschko is too big an asset not to bring into wrestling. The biggest (literally!) angle that Rafe is missing is the Undertaker-versus-Underfaker bit: Have Wladimir run roughshod over the competition, then have him take some time off, only to be brought back under the tutelage of Paul Heyman — but it’s not Wladimir, it’s Vitali! Then, once Wlad returns, he’s a babyface and the WrestleMania main event is set.
13. Prince Fielder
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
I’ll be honest, with a lot of these guys I’m left wondering but what will he look like in briefs? Thankfully, with Prince I don’t have to wonder. The sheer fact that he was comfortable taking those pictures means he’s halfway to being a wrestling star. The fact that he’s simultaneously scary and hilarious is all bonus.
14. Johnny Manziel (submitted by Holly Anderson)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
Holly: He has trademarked nearly every imaginable variation of the nickname; why not let Johnny Manziel bloom into Johnny Rasslin? Join a sport where a personality is an asset, kid. Also, you probably wouldn’t have to live in Cleveland anymore. Whether that would be an improvement to your quality of life is between you and your god. Just throwing that out there.
The Masked Man: Johnny Football was sitting in the front row at Raw just last week, where champ Seth Rollins called him “Johnny Idiotface,” and where he posed for a picture with Cleveland native the Miz, who renamed himself Mikey Wrestling for the occasion. (Let’s be honest, Mikey Wrestling is a million times better than the Miz.) Pro wrestling is the land of second chances, and a guy with Manziel’s punchable face could go far. Hell, if I were Johnny Football, I’d skip the redemption campaign and trade Browns minicamp for the WWE Performance Center right now. One thing, though — Vince is gonna want you to un-retire the money sign.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
“Beast Mode” could step right into a feud with the “Beast Incarnate” Brock Lesnar — or with Brie Bella, who snatched Lynch’s catchphrase and turned it into “Brie Mode.” As long as premier running backs are getting underpaid in the NFL, guys with the physical tools and personality of Lynch might as well just come over to the promised land of WWE. In lieu of further argument, I’m just gonna leave this here:
Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images
He’s an athletic freak, a total nutcase, and potentially the biggest egomaniac in the NBA. Sign him up yesterday.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
WWE needs to snap this guy up before Vince McMahon decides to start calling Samoa Joe the Kung Fu Panda.
Jim Davis/Boston Globe/Getty Images
I know the Lakers are in hot pursuit of Boogie, but Vince McMahon would be crazy if he didn’t get in on the bidding. Cousins is a gigantic cartoon character — just Google “Boogie Cousins funny” and click on “Images” — every single picture looks like “Mean” Gene Okerlund should be standing next to him with a microphone, eyebrows raised in mock surprise. And Boogie understands social media, which will make all the tut-tutting middle-managers at WWE very happy.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Sometimes you need a heel like Ric Flair — a guilty-pleasure villain who everybody secretly loves even when they’re booing him. And sometimes you need a guy like Randy Orton, who everybody just likes to boo. A-Rod could be the Ric Flair of Randy Ortons.
The Pouncey Twins
Jerry Jarrett would book these two into an epic tag team in half a second. Just sayin’.
Jason Miller/Getty Images
I’m editorially obligated to have him on this list, but I honestly don’t think he’d be a good wrestler. On one hand, after seeing the way he controlled the NBA Finals (in a losing effort), I guess LeBron can do whatever he sets his mind to. On the other hand, you can’t run an iso in the wrestling ring, and LeBron could end up being the Bruiser Brody of WWE.
Joc Pederson (submitted by Mallory Rubin)
Mallory: Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson’s personality is too big for center field. He needs to be surrounded by ropes and roars, not mountains. But don’t listen to me. Listen to Joc, whose Instagram is a treasure trove of proof for why he belongs in the squared circle:
That hair needs to be on full display in prime time, not hidden under a batting helmet and only occasionally visible to Time Warner subscribers.
That belly needs to be on full display in prime time, not hidden under a pajama-esque jersey and only occasionally visible on social media feeds after a big fishing haul.
That expression needs to be on full display in prime time, not hidden in the shadows of the dugout and only occasionally visible after a diving catch or HBP.
America needs pure, unfiltered Joc. Just look at his handle! YungJoc is a perfect wrestling name. He’s already done half the work for us.
The Masked Man: Seth Rollins has done an admirable job of being the WWE’s answer to Justin Bieber in recent months. He’s young, entitled, and smarmy as hell. But Rollins will probably turn face before long, and I can’t imagine a more appropriate replacement than YungJoc. He could reinvent the position.
The Memphis Grizzlies (submitted by Andrew Sharp)
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images
Sharp: Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Tony Allen, even owner Robert Pera — these guys already carry themselves like pro wrestlers, so this would just make it official. Also, bringing Pera in as their unbearable billionaire ringleader would make it even more fun, and Pera would probably be down for this. He could wear the shooting sleeve, and it could all end with a phenomenal heel turn when Z-Bo and Gasol attack him.
The Masked Man: I love big wrestling factions, so I’m all in on this. But one condition: Grizzlies stats guru John Hollinger has to dress like the Grand Wizard.
Draymond Green (submitted by Chris Ryan)
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
Chris: First of all, the name. Something that paid tribute to his Michigan roots would be good. I’d love to call him Dr. Detroit, but he’s from Saginaw, so maybe something like the Saginaw Hacksaw? The biggest draw with Green would be his interviews. With a little training, he could reach Ric Flair status:
The Masked Man: You say Ric Flair, I say drunk Daniel Bryan. But I like it. Maybe the most remarkable thing about the 2014-15 Warriors is that aside from Draymond, their stars could never hack it in WWE — they’re too vanilla or too self-serious or too, you know, basketball-ish. It’s old hat now to say that Green’s elevation into the starting lineup this season turned Golden State into a championship-caliber team, but maybe it wasn’t just his defense. Maybe it was because they needed a legit heel in the rotation if they were going to get past all the other villains in the NBA.
Nick Laham/Getty Images
He doesn’t have the look or the mainstream recognition of Kimbo Slice, but if there’s one former UFC champion who I could imagine making a major impact in WWE, it’s Velasquez. He’s big, he’s got a name so good it sounds like Vince McMahon made it up on a good day, and his backstory is heartwarming. Velasquez is basically the Mexican American Dusty Rhodes. Let’s just hope MMA shorts don’t come in polka dots.
The Upper-Management Division
Mike Keenan (submitted by Katie Baker)
B Bennett/Getty Images
Katie: I am biased because I profiled him last year, but his career arc seems WWE-esque: success followed by heel turns. He won a Cup with the Rangers but was pretty universally despised AND left the team before he’d even had his day with the Cup. He bopped around many, many other NHL teams, alienating star players at each stop. He was finally pretty much banished to Siberia, literally: He now coaches in the Soviet steel capital of Russia. They won the KHL championship (Gagarin Cup) last season!
Daryl Morey (submitted by Rafe Bartholomew)
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images
Rafe: WWE has always been enthusiastic about incorporating trends from the sports world at large, so it’s high time they jump onboard the analytics bandwagon. And who better to usher in this new era of pro wrestling efficiency than Dork Elvis himself, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey. He could join the Authority and gin up fake stats to expose veteran WWE superstars like John Cena as wrestling dinosaurs. He could charm a cabal of like-minded wrestling bloggers into championing his every move. He could explain to wrestlers that they are assets first and people second when it comes to the business. Get ready to install SportVU cameras around the squared circle at Raw, because the analytics revolution is coming.
Hawk Harrelson (submitted by Ben Lindbergh)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Ben: The widely despised White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson isn’t a bad broadcaster. He’s just miscast in a sport where hyperbole, ad hominem attacks, apoplectic outbursts, and unabashed promotion of the product aren’t appreciated. Watch this reel and try to tell me Hawk doesn’t have the persona to succeed in sports entertainment. He could get over on a WWE broadcast without missing a beat.
Hawk has the nickname, the accent, the catchphrases, the feuds, the Jim Ross–esque involvement in other aspects of the biz, and the heel background to hold his own alongside JBL or Jerry Lawler. Put him on a baseball telecast, and he’s a homer only a White Sox fan could tolerate for an extended time. Seat him at an announcers’ table and he’d make magic. It’s time to get Hawk out of the baseball booth. The man was born to be ringside.
The Masked Man: This is brilliant. He could be the heel Jim Ross. WWE should hire him tomorrow — just don’t tell him that wrestling is fake. I want the full Hawk experience. By the way, other announcers who could make the transition seamlessly: Marv Albert, Mauro Ranallo, Bill Walton, and many, many more.
Brian Burke (submitted by Sean McIndoe)
Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Sean: You want an NHL personality who’s ready for the WWE? Easy call. It’s the league’s answer to Paul Heyman: longtime GM (and current Flames president) Brian Burke.
To start with, Burke is the best talker in the NHL. That’s a low bar, I’ll grant you, but it’s just the beginning. Burke has everything you’d want from a WWE heel manager. Ridiculous hair? Check. Memorable fashion trademark? Check. Fantastic reaction shots? Check. An overused catchphrase? Check, check, check. A signature insult for his enemies? Check. OK, maybe “rats” isn’t quite up there with “humanoids” and “pencil-neck geeks,” but it’s not bad.
On top of all that, the man loves to be booed. He owns the sports world’s best “I know you hate what I’m saying right now and I want to be clear that I couldn’t give two craps about that” face. Everyone gets a rub from being a Brian Burke Guy; he even makes guys like Phil Kessel and Sean Monahan seem interesting.
Oh, and did I mention he has already invented his own gimmick match for settling blood feuds? Imagine him in the middle of a WWE ring holding a microphone, tie undone and hair flying, cutting a go-home promo against the rats while a rented barn dangles over the ring. You’d be throwing money at your TV screen.
Louis van Gaal (submitted by Ryan O’Hanlon)
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Ryan: Here’s a game: Vince McMahon or Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal?
- He’s described himself as such: “I am who I am: confident, arrogant, dominant, honest, hard-working, and innovative.”
- In a locker room filled with grown men, he once dropped his trousers and brandished his penis to prove a point.
- When introduced to a 14-year-old who was hopeful of a future career as an athlete, he looked the boy in the eyes, pushed him to the ground, and said, “You’re too weak.”
Here is the answer key: Louis van Gaal is the answer to everything.
Correction: This article was update to correct a line that said Lawrence Taylor appeared at WresleMania 9. In fact, it was WrestleMania 11.