- Mad Dog Vachon, 1948
- Bob Roop, 1968
- Danny Hodge, 1952, 1956
- Bad News Allen, 1976
- Chris Taylor, 1972
- Earl McCready, 1928
- Mark Henry, 1992, 1996
- Kurt Angle, 1996
Besides the wrestlers that we have already written about above, there are still many, many other pro wrestlers who got their starts in the Olympics. Here’s some of them.
|DALE LEWIS, U.S.A.|
Lewis competed in two Olympic games. He was on the 1956 U.S. squad in Greco-Roman that went to Melbourne, Australia. He did not place in the heavyweight division. In 1960, he went to Rome, Italy for the Olympics, and again, did not place as a heavyweight. Back in the U.S., he had won two NCAA titles (1960 and 1961) while wrestling for the University of Oklahoma Sooners. As a pro wrestling, his biggest claim to fame was as AWA World Tag Team champion in 1961 with Pat Kennedy. Lewis wrestled for years in Florida, and held many titles there. He was a four-time tag champion out in the Vancouver territory, with partners Gene Kiniski, Mr. Saito and Seigfried Steinke on two occasions. Lewis died on August 30, 1997. [STORY]
|NAOYA OGAWA, Japan|
The former NWA World Heavyweight champion was a silver medalist in judo for Japan in the heavyweight division at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. He tore this his first four opponents in 7 minutes, 53 seconds. In the final, however, Ogawa was thrown twice in the first minute against David Khakhaleishvili of the Republic of Georgia. Ogawa, who was world judo champion in 1989, also competed in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, but did not place.
Ogawa made his pro debut on April 12, 1997 defeating IWGP Heavyweight Champion Shinya Hashimoto at Tokyo Dome before 60, 500 fans. ‘Knocking out’ Hashimoto, instantly made him a superstar in Japan. Ogawa is one of the hottest property in Japanese wrestling today and his subsequent battles with Hashimoto are legendary, selling out Tokyo Dome several times. His matches have been booked as ‘shoots’. In April 7, 2000, he beat Hashimoto by KO in main event of Tokyo Dome card in a retirement match. Ogawa is also a former 2-time NWA World Heavyweight champion. He defeated Dan Severn on March 14, 1999 in Yokohama, Japan and lost to Gary Steele on September 25, 1999 in Charlotte, NC. He defeated Steele on October 2, 1999 in Thomaston, CT, and vacated the title on July 2, 2000.
These days, he wrestles sporadically for New Japan, usually just on the big shows.
|HIROSHI HASE, Japan|
Hase fought in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles for Japan in Greco-Roman wrestling. He placed ninth.
He is considered one of the best junior heavyweights ever from Japan. Hase actually began his pro career wrestling in Calgary, teaming with Fumihiro Niikura under masks as the Viet Cong Express, feuding with the top stars there, including Owen Hart.
He debuted in Japan in December 1987, defeating Kuniaki Kobayashi for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title in his first match.
From there, Hase became one of the top five workers in the world in the early 1990s. He feuded with the likes of Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger, Owen Hart, El Samurai and all the top junior heavyweights in New Japan. Hase was also IWGP world tag team champion with Kensuke Sasaki and Keiji Mutoh (twice).
Hase also got involved in booking, and was assistant booker to Riki Choshu in New Japan for a while. He also booked the junior heavyweight division where he was known as a selfless booker always putting younger wrestlers over strong.
The former Olympian ‘retired’ in 1997 after winning a seat in Japanese Parliament. He has come out of retirement on occasion since, wrestling a handful of matches each year for All Japan.
|VERNE GAGNE, U.S.A.|
It was a bittersweet trip to the London Olympics for Gagne. He made the U.S. Greco-Roman team, but the powers-that-be in American amateur wrestling pulled the squad. “We came right down to the night before we were supposed to wrestle Greco and they pulled us out. They said, ‘We don’t think you guys know enough about Greco-Roman wrestling.’ This is ’48, right after the War, and we really didn’t, but we sure as heck trained hard and wanted to wrestle. We were in the parade and were in the Olympics,” recalled Gagne, who treasures his Olympic memories, even if he didn’t compete.
“It was a great experience. Wembley Stadium was the big parade. It was the first Olympics after World War II and it was a real focal point for the world at that moment in time and most of the world was there. Russia was not there, and a couple of those other countries behind the Iron Curtain didn’t make it.” [STORY ARCHIVE]
|YOSHIAKI YATSU, Japan|
A 19-year-old Yatsu came to Montreal in 1976 for the Olympic Games, but did not place in the freestyle wrestling event. He also competed in the 1980 Games in Moscow as a superheavyweight.
He turned pro on December 29, 1980 at Madison Square Garden, taking on Jose Estrada. Yatsu split his time between Japan and the U.S. before working full time in All Japan.
Yatsu was part of the mass exodus of talent that left New Japan for All Japan in 1984; a group that included Riki Choshu, Masa Saito, British Bulldogs, Kuniaki Kobayashi, and Super Strong Machine. The movechanged the balance of power in Japan from New Japan to All Japan. While in All Japan, Yatsu became one of the top five stars in the country.
Yatsu and fellow Olympian Jumbo Tsuruta formed a legendary tag team, and won the All Japan Real World Tag titles on five separate occasions. They also beat the Road Warriors in June 1988 to unify the PWF and NWA International tag titles.
The duo feuded with teams like Stan Hansen and Terry Gordy, Hansen and Genichiro Tenryu and Tenryu & Ashura Hara. Also, he and Tsuruta won the All Japan Real World Tag league tourney in ’87 (tag team version of All Japan’s Carnival tournament) beating Bruiser Brody and Jimmy Snuka.
Yatsu left All Japan in 1990 when Tenryu formed the WAR promotion.
|TOMONI TSURUTA, Japan|
Before turning into the best pro wrestler ever from Japan, Tomoni ‘Tommy’ Tsuruta represented Japan at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. He placed seventh in the Greco-Roman competition.
Coming out of the Games, Tsuruta was recruited into pro wrestling like a number one draft pick. He signed with Giant Baba and All Japan in 1972, just ten days after the All Japan promotion was formed.
‘Jumbo’ Tsuruta debuted in Ocotber 1973 in the Funks’ Texas promotion, and eight weeks later was wrestling Dory Jr. for the NWA World title. His pro accomplishments are much too much to go over here. For more on Tsuruta, please see the following stories:
- Jumbo Tsuruta dies of kidney failure
- Friends remember Jumbo Tsuruta
- Jumbo, Baba and The Destroyer
- Jumbo Tsuruta memorial planned
- Editorial: Tsuruta the best ever from Japan
|MASANORI SAITO, aka MR. SAITO, Japan|
Competed as a super heavyweight at the 1964 Tokyo, Japan Games, and finished in seventh place in freestyle.
When Saito turned to pro wrestling following the Games, he eventually became one of the most successful Japanese wrestlers ever to compete in North America.
On this side of the pond, Saito was AWA World heavyweight champ briefly in 1990, beating Larry Zbyszko. He is also a former WWF world tag champ on two occasions with Mr. Fuji and had feuded with Hulk Hogan both in the WWF and New Japan.
However, Saito is maybe best known for serving two years in prison the ’80s after he and fellow Olympian Ken Patera threw a bolder through the window of a McDonalds in Wisconsin.
Across the Pacific, Saito had a famous feud with Antonio Inoki in the mid-80s that did record business. That led to the island death match on Oct 4, 1987. The two wrestlers were dropped on Ganryujima Island and had a match all over the island without any audience that lasted two hours. Inoki won by TKO.
Besides his fights with Inoka, Saito has held the IWGP world tag titles with both Riki Choshu and Shinya Hashimoto. He was also part of the exodus that left New Japan for All Japan in 1984, returning in 1987 where he had the best years of his career feuding with Inoki.
A master of the suplex, Saito used so many variations of the move that one was named after him – the Saito Suplex. [OBITUARY]
|HAROLD SAKATA, aka TOSH TOGO, U.S.A.|
Sakata won the silver medal in weightlifting at the 1948 Games in London in the 182 pound weight class. After the Olympics, he went into pro wrestling as Tosh Togo, and was a star in Hawaii and on the west coast of the U.S. in the ’50s and ’60s. Later, he became ‘Oddjob’ in the James Bond flick Goldfinger.
|JOE SCARPELLO, U.S.A.|
Was on the U.S. Greco-Roman squad in the 1948 London Games that got pulled at the last minute. He was an alternate at 175 pounds. Was a teammate of Verne Gagne, who talked about his experiences in our story about Mad Dog Vachon’s Olympic experiences. Scarpello wasn’t ever a big star in pro wrestling, but did wrestle for more than 20 years.
|KEVIN JACKSON, U.S.A.|
Jackson won freestyle gold as a middleweight (82 kg / 181 lbs.) in the 1992 Barcelona Games, beating Elmadi Zhabrailov of Russia in 6:54 on a count of 1-0, the bout having gone to a sudden-death overtime. Jackson went on to compete successfully in the UFC, including winning the Middleweight Tournament in UFC XIV. The Phoenix, Arizona native is now involved in coaching.
|KEN PATERA, U.S.A.|
Patera dominated the sport of weightlifting going into the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He was the first American to lift over 500 pounds in both the military press and clean and jerk. He won four straight national championships while at Brigham Young University, and four gold medals at the 1971 Pan-American Games in Cali, Colombia before going to Germany. Patera was considered a front-runner at the Games, and like Mark Henry years later, he did not live up to expectations and game home empty-handed.
He turned to pro wrestling after the Games, and trained with Verne Gagne. Patera’s amazing strength and athletic ability fit well with the wrestling of the day, and he quickly became a well-known name. Patera also competed in of the World’s Strongest Man competitions in the 1970s.
Outside the ring, he drew fame for being arrested and imprisoned for throwing a boulder through a McDonald’s window along with Masa Saito in the early ’80s.
Patera now runs his own wrestling promotion and promotes products on his web site.
|BRAD RHEINGANS, U.S.A.|
Finished fourth at 220 pounds in Greco-Roman at the 1976 Montreal Games. He was also on the U.S. team for Moscow in 1980 that boycotted the Games.
Rheingans went on to a respectable pro wrestling career, which centred around his time in Verne Gagne’s AWA promotion. He had a brief stint in the WWF during its ’80s heyday, but his bland, all-American character seemed out of place with the larger-than-life WWF superstars of the day. He was also a respected trainer for wannabe wrestlers. [STORY]
|TAMON HONDA, Japan|
Honda represented Japan for three Olympic Games in freestyle: 1984 in Los Angeles where he placed fifth; 1988 in Seoul, where he didn’t place; 1992 in Barcelona, where again he didn’t place.
He was recruited right out of the Olympics, and debuted in 1993 for All Japan. There, Honda was a perennial mid-carder. He currently wrestles for the Pro Wrestling Noah promotion.
|MANABU NAKINISHI, Japan|
Nakinishi wrestled in the freestyle discipline for Japan at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, where he failed to place. He turned pro right out of the Olympics, debuting in October 1992 for New Japan.
Nakinishi’s biggest accomplishment so far was winning the G1 Climax tournament in 1999, beating Keiji Mutoh in the finals. The win was supposed to elevate him into being the next big drawing card for the promotion, but he’s been a disappointment by most accounts. He lost in the finals of this year’s G1 to Kensuke Sasaki. Nakinishi has also been a successful tag wrestler, holding the IWGP World tag belts with Yuji Nagata last year, losing them this past July. In 1997, he also held the titles with Satoshi Kojima, beating from Riki Choshu and Sasaki.
North American fans would best remember him from 1995-96 when he wrestled as Kurosawa in WCW.
|MITSUO YOSHIDA, aka RIKI CHOSHU South Korea|
At the 1972 Games in Munich, Mitsuo Yoshida didn’t place in the freestyle wrestling competition.
But when he became Riki Choshu in 1973 as a pro wrestler, he became a superstar, known as a phenomenal worker, using a stiff believable style. Simply put, he was the most influential wrestler in Japan in the ’80s and ’90s, one of the greatest in-ring performer ever.
Besides his success in the ring – 3 time IWGP Heavyweight champion, 3 time IWGP World tag with 3 different partners – Choshu was the longtime booker for New Japan, and was known for being a selfless matchmaker, downsizing his own role in the company to let the younger talent gain greater recognition. The New Japan vs UWFI feud of ’95/96 that he booked was the most financially successful feud ever in wrestling history and was the inspiration behind Eric Bischoff starting the N.W.O. in WCW.
In 1983, Choshu turned on his tag partner Tatsumi Fujinami, starting the famous Ishingun vs Seikigun feud. Choshu led the Ishingun group of young up-start talent to feud with the established stars in New Japan. The feud did monster business and changed the face of Japanese wrestling forever. Up until that point, most main events pitted Japanese against American heel. This feud changed that and the Fujinami vs Choshu feud turned things around for New Japan and they became the most successful promotion in the world.
In 1984, he jumped to All Japan and took a slew of stars with him. The Choshu Army vs All Japan feud swung the promotional war back in All Japan’s favour.
Choshu also helped train a lot of New Japan’s top stars including current IWGP Heavyweight champ Sasaki.
|DICK HUTTON, U.S.A.|
Was seventh in freestyle wrestling at the 1948 Games in London as a super heavyweight.
Hutton went on to become NWA World champion, wrestling in many locations as Cowboy Dick Hutton. He beat Lou Thesz for the title in November 1957 in Toronto, and held the title until January 1959, when he lost it to Pat O’Connor. He was a controversial choice as champion at a time when the NWA board would meet to decide on their title holder. Hutton was the choice of champion Lou Thesz. [OBITUARY]
|MARK COLEMAN, U.S.A.|
Was a freestyle wrestler at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, finishing seventh at 220 pounds. He went on to compete in UFC.
|ED DON GEORGE, U.S.A.|
George placed fourth in the 1928 Games in Amsterdam in the freestyle unlimited weight class. He came straight out of the Olympics and won the world title in Dec. 1930 from Gus Sonnenburg. He lost it in April 1931 to Strangler Lewis. George won the belt again in March 1933, beating Henri Deglane (another Olympian) for the title, and losing it over two years later to Danno O’Mahoney.
|JORGE GONZALEZ, aka GIANT GONZALEZ, Argentina|
Gonzalez was a giant on the Argentine basketball team at the 1988 Games in Seoul. He was a legitimate 7-foot-6″, but the team didn’t place. He was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks, but couldn’t handle the speed of the NBA. So he turned to another Ted Turner-owned company, World Championship Wrestling, and flopped miserably. As Giant Gonzalez, he did headline, but his matches stunk, and no one could understand him on interviews. Vince McMahon made an attempt to make something of Gonzalez, but even he couldn’t succeed. [OBITUARY]
|JEFF COBB, USA/GUAM|
Born in Honolulu, HI, Cobb is an American-born wrestler of Guamanian descent, the latter of which he chose to represent in freestyle wrestling at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Cobb placed 21st in the Olympics out of a talent pool of 22 wrestlers. Cobb even had a match-up with future UFC Middleweight standout, Yoel Romero, in a preliminary pool match.
Cobb later made the transition to professional wrestling in 2009, where he eventually found success in Lucha Underground, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Ring of Honor, and New Japan Pro Wrestling. Cobb’s successes include holding the PWG World Championship, Lucha Underground Championship, NEVER Openweight Championship and his long-reign as ROH World Television Champion.
Before he was “Ready, Willing, & Gable” or Shorty G, ugh let’s all try to forget about that mess, Charles Betts was an esteemed amateur wrestler. A Minnesota high school state champion in wrestling in 2004, Betts later found himself in the 2012 London Olympics competing in Greco-Roman wrestling. Betts was victorious in his qualification bout, but was eliminated from competition in the next round.
After his Olympic run, Betts signed with the WWE in late 2013, where he took the ring name Chad Gable in nod to famous Olympian and accomplished amateur wrestler, Dan Gable. Gable went on to team with Jason Jordan as part of American Alpha, where he held the NXT and Smackdown Tag Team Championships. Gable was also a Raw Tag Team Champion alongside Bobby Roode.
|RONDA ROUSEY, USA|
Rousey grew up as a promising young Judo prospect. Her mother, AnnMaria De Mars was the first American to win a gold medal at the World Judo Championships and it was only fitting that Rousey followed in her footsteps. Rousey was the youngest judoka to qualify for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, at the age of 17, however, she lost her match. Rousey returned at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing where she won a bronze medal, becoming the first American to bring home a medal since 1992 when Judo was first introduced as an Olympic sport.
Rousey later found much success and superstardom in Strikeforce and later UFC, where she went on a dominant reign as UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion. Her lengthy reign came to a crashing end when Holly Holm captured the belt from her in emphatic fashion at UFC 193. She came back for a return bout with Amanda Nunes, but was unsuccessful in this match also.
This is where Rousey later found a calling in professional wrestling, where she signed with the WWE in 2018 for an incredible one-year run in the company. Rousey held the Raw Women’s Championship and headlined Wrestlemania 35 alongside Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair in the first women’s main event in Wrestlemania history. As of 2021, Rousey has been absent from WWE television for v two years and her pro wrestling future is up in air.
|MORE OLYMPIANS WITH TIES TO PRO WRESTLING|
- Roy Dunn, U.S.A.: heavyweight, dnp, freestyle
- Axel Cadier (Sweden), 192 pounds, champion, Greco-Roman (Berlin, 1936)
- George Larson / Tom Collins (Canada), swimmer (Los Angeles, 1932)
- Nathan Pendleton, heavyweight, 2nd, freestyle; dnp, Greco-Roman
- Fred Meyer, heavyweight, 3rd, freestyle (Antwerp, 1920)
- Robin Reed, lightweight, champion, freestyle (Paris, 1924)
- Henri Deglane, heavyweight, champion, Greco-Roman (Paris, 1924)
- Johan Richthoff (Sweden), heavyweight, champion, freestyle
- Jack Van Bebber, middleweight, champion, freestyle
- Pete Mehringer, 192 pounds, champion, freestyle
- Johan Richthoff (Sweden), heavyweight, champion, freestyle (Los Angeles, 1932)
- Jim LaRock, freestyle, alternate (Helsinki, 1952)
- Harry Madison (Canada), light heavyweight, freestyle (Los Angeles, 1932)
Many people deserve thanks for their help with the entire Olympic project on SLAM! Wrestling. First, thanks to our interview subjects — Mad Dog Vachon, Bob Roop, Danny Hodge, Bad News Allen, Verne Gagne. The good folks at the Toronto Sun News Research Centre deserve praise for putting up with all of our research. Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer, as always, deserves recognition, and his Olympic issue came at a timely time. John Molinaro helped with much of the Japanese bio information. Scott Teal’s What Ever Happened To? newsletter and egroup also were a big help.