10 actors you didn't know were wrestlers
Believe it or not, The Rock isn’t the only competitor to make a successful transition from the ring to Hollywood.
For many Superstars, the canvas is their bread and butter. But for some, competing in the squared circle is a lesser-known second job, or even a brief hobby, taken up on their way to a career on the silver screen.
WWE.com dug deep into the history books to uncover the forgotten ring careers of ten actors you’ve seen in some classic flicks. From mob movie heavies to Batman and Bond villains, who knew these dudes were once wrestlers?
Who are you most surprised to learn was a wrestler? Vote now!
Discover more about the history of the squared circle on WWE Network, featuring every pay-per-view ever, and other rare footage from wrestling lore.
Before Tom Hardy was hijacking airplanes and blowing up football stadiums as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” the muscle-bound Batman villain was portrayed by former professional wrestler Robert Swenson in 1997’s “Batman & Robin.”
The 6-foot-4, 405-pounder was nicknamed Jeep thanks to his truck-like build. Claiming to have the largest biceps in the world, Swenson had two notable cups of coffee in the ring. The first was competing in Fritz Von Erich’s fabled World Class Championship Wrestling organization during its last years in the late 1980s when he faced off against the legendary Bruiser Brody outdoors at Texas Stadium.
Several years later, Swenson re-emerged in March 1996 in WCW as The Ultimate Solution, the newest member of The Alliance to End Hulkamania. Although stacked with brawlers like Kevin Sullivan and Meng, the faction fell to Hulk Hogan & Randy Savage in a “Doomsday Cage Match” at Uncensored. That same year, the big man appeared in the Adam Sandler vehicle “Bulletproof,” where he was the bodyguard for a crime boss played by James Caan.
In a peculiar twist to the familiar narrative of famous grapplers trying their hand at acting, Tyler Mane started out as an overlooked wrestler, but gained significantly more success as an actor in his post-ring career.
After competing in Japan, Mane arrived in WCW during November 1989 as the towering Nitron, an associate of the tag team of Ron Simmons & Butch Reed known as Doom. The imposing 6-foot-9 bodyguard soon left to compete in Puerto Rico, but returned in 1993 as Big Sky, a new tag team partner for Vinnie Vegas. Although the team took on legendary stars like Ricky Steamboat, Sting and The British Bulldog, they disbanded later that year and Mane hung up the boots for good three years later.
Trying his hand at the silver screen, Mane landed roles in “Joe Dirt,” “The Scorpion King” and other flicks. But Mane really turned heads with his turns as Sabretooth in “X-Men” and as the new Michael Myers in the “Halloween” remake and its subsequent sequel.
Trailblazer Woody Strode was one of the most impressive athletes in the world during the 1930s and ’40s, boasting a shot put of more than 50 feet and a high jump of six feet and four inches — both near the then-world records. In 1939, he played alongside barrier-breakers Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington on UCLA’s football team. He and Washington later signed with the Los Angeles Rams, becoming two of the first African-Americans to play in the NFL.
Before hitting the pro gridiron, Strode hit the mat and wrestled legendary competitors like Gorgeous George and teamed with other African-American greats like Bobo Brazil and Bearcat Wright.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Strode became a bona fide Hollywood star with roles in “The Ten Commandments” and “Spartacus” alongside screen icons Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas, respectively, and also became close with Academy Award–winning director John Ford.
You’ve gotta be pretty tough to earn the respect of Vito Corleone and Lenny “The Bull” Montana was as feared as they come. Before playing the role of imposing assassin and spy Luca Brasi in “The Godfather,” Lenny Passaforo was a bruising wrestler during the 1950s and ’60s.
Early in his career, Montana teamed with noted tough guy Gene Kiniski to win the NWA Texas Tag Team Championship and later tagged up with first-ever WWE World Tag Team Champion Tarzan Tyler. On Oct. 4, 1960, Montana joined forces with Hard Boiled Haggerty to become the second AWA Tag Team Champions, but their reign was short-lived. In March of the following year, Montana suffered a broken leg at the hands of WWE Hall of Famer Verne Gagne. The big Italian was given an offer he couldn’t refuse and ended up on the shelf.
Due to his tremendous size and Italian background, Montana was heavily recruited by Hollywood in the ’70s, resulting in his decision to hang up the boots for good. Montana’s wrestling career slept with the fishes, but Luca Brasi’s life in crime was just about to begin.
Truth be told, in the ring, Tor Johnson was little more than a blatant rip-off. Born at the turn of the century in southern Sweden, Johnson was a bizarre-looking strongman who appeared in more than 30 films throughout his acting career. But as a wrestler, he was The Super Swedish Angel, a Scandinavian version of “The French Angel” Maurice Tillet, an equally macabre competitor.
Johnson barely made a dent in the squared circle, but became a B-movie icon after befriending sci-fi and horror movie director Ed Wood. As a rotund and bald 400-pounder, the big Swede was a hit in movies like “Bride of the Monster” and the infamous dud “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” which an early “Seinfeld” episode even mocked as “the worst movie ever made.”
In Tim Burton’s biopic, “Ed Wood,” WWE Hall of Famer George “The Animal” Steele played the frightening Tor, who in reality was nothing more than a big teddy bear. Perhaps it makes sense then that the once feared Steele became beloved in his post-wrestling days.
A silver medalist for the United States weightlifting team at the 1948 Olympic Games, Toshiyuki Sakata might have adopted the name Harold, but any James Bond fan is more familiar with him as Oddjob.
As synonymous with 007 as a shaken martini, “Goldfinger’s” Oddjob has become one of the most recognizable antagonists in 50 years of Bond lore. Though Sakata was actually a Hawaiian born to Japanese parents, Oddjob was a stoic and seemingly indestructible karate master of Korean descent. Remembered for his deadly hat that was lined with a razor in the rim, the decapitating bowler is one of the most iconic weapons in film history, and sold at auction in 2006 for $36,000.
While Bond was able to avoid peril at the hands of Sakata’s Oddjob, grapplers in the 1950s and ’60s weren’t so lucky. Before the release of “Goldfinger,” Sakata achieved tremendous success in the squared circle as Tosh Togo, winning many titles across the United States and Canada. He did occasionally wrestle after encountering the famed secret agent on screen, and of course, he came to the ring in a bowler hat.
Before Harold Sakata landed the role of Oddjob, it nearly went to a burly Indian-born Englishman named Milton Reid. The mustachioed brute played a litany of bruisers and bodyguards in films like “Swiss Family Robinson” and “The Return of the Pink Panther” during a screen career that spanned across four decades.
When casting for “Goldfinger” got underway, the big Indian lobbied for the role of the hat-throwing henchman, but Bond franchise producers declined. Reid had played a guard that perished in “Dr. No” two years earlier, so the part went to Sakata.
Upset with losing out on the role, Reid challenged Sakata to a wrestling match in England. A ring veteran like his Hawaiian rival, the mighty Englishman had a prolific mat career under the persona of Mighty Chang. The encounter never took place, though, and Reid returned to the 007 series as Sandor in 1977’s “The Spy Who Loved Me.”
Any longtime wrestling fan that gets a kick out of squared circle camp loves the 1989 cult classic “No Holds Barred.” In the absurd professional wrestling caper, Hulk Hogan plays Rip, a ring champ who is forced to battle the monstrous Zeus, played by the actor Tom “Tiny” Lister. Sure, you may be familiar with Zeus’ epic silver screen encounter with Rip, but did you know he also had an actual, albeit brief, wrestling career?
That year, Lister joined WWE as the same Human Wrecking Machine he played in the motion picture. Zeus immediately targeted Hogan to determine who deserved top billing in “No Holds Barred,” with the first big match occurring at SummerSlam where Zeus teamed with fellow Hogan rival “Macho King” Randy Savage to face off against The Immortal One & Brutus Beefcake. Following the baddies’ loss, Zeus later joined forces with The Powers of Pain & “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, but came up short against Hulk, Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Demolition at Survivor Series. Zeus made a few more appearances, but quietly departed WWE while earning the coveted No. 500 spot on 1991’s perennially controversial PWI 500 list.
Lister continued wrestling throughout the ’90s, most notably as Z-Gangsta, a member of The Alliance to End Hulkamania in WCW. (What is it about that group that attracts sometimes-wrestlers?) Zeus eventually put away those giant shoulder pads for good and snagged roles in films like “The Fifth Element,” “Jackie Brown” and “Friday,” where he played neighborhood bully Deebo.
With an imposing six-foot-ten, 350-pound frame, Robert Maillet was built to be a professional wrestler. First competing for independent organizations across The Great White North, Maillet finally made a name for himself in WWE during The Attitude Era. Known as The Interrogator — a member of The Jackyl’s Truth Commission — and later as Kurrgan in the enormously popular Oddities faction, the behemoth was more dangerous than his awkward dancing and tie-dye suggested.
After leaving his career in the squared circle behind, the former Insane Clown Posse companion found unexpected success in several silver screen blockbusters. He first made waves in Hollywood as the bloodthirsty Uber Immortal in Frank Miller’s epic “300,” for which Maillet won Best Fight at the MTV Movie Awards, and followed that up by socking Robert Downey, Jr. in the jaw as Dredger in “Sherlock Holmes.”
Most recently, the Oddity formerly known as Kurrgan nailed the role of Russian Jaeger pilot Aleksis Kaidanovsky in Guillermo del Toro’s adrenaline-pumping “Pacific Rim.” Next up are appearances in “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters,” “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” and a villainous turn as the lead antagonist in the TV pilot for “The Strain.” With a showbiz career on the rise, Kurrgan’s days wrestling alongside an Eric Cartman doll are long since forgotten.
Could you ever imagine Danny Tanner lacing up a pair of wrestling boots? How about Dr. Huxtable or Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor? These sitcom dads never stepped between the ropes, but Webster’s pop George Papadopolis sure did. A first-round NFL draft pick by the Detroit Lions, Alex Karras played 12 seasons as a professional defensive tackle, but in the middle of his football career, Karras turned to wrestling.
Only five years after being drafted by the Lions, Karras was confronted in a Detroit bar by legendary madman Dick the Bruiser. Following a scuffle, a match was held between the two with fans lining up to see the local football hero conquer the invading brawler. Unfortunately, the crowd didn’t get their wish. Despite Karras busting open the villain above his eye in a brutal contest, Dick defeated his rival and sent him back to the gridiron.
Following his football career, Karras established himself as a bona fide thespian with a memorable turn in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” and as a guest star in episodes of “M*A*S*H” and “The Odd Couple.” In 1977, he reached back to his wrestling roots to play the title role in TV movie "Mad Bull," a romance about a tough ring brawler with a soft heart. But in 1983, Karras landed the role of a lifetime as the father of the eponymous Webster. Yes, Mr. Papadopolis was a wrestler.