10 Pro Wrestlers With Martial Arts Backgrounds

0 Posted by - April 11, 2024 - Martial Artist, MMA
Miyu Yamashita, Source: DDTPro.com

Martial arts training can make you better at your job. Some of these benefits are obvious. Practicing martial arts is clearly going to make you a better professional fighter or coach, for example. Others are more abstract, like the discipline and focus that comes with regular training making your mind more alert for day to day tasks in any career. And some influences are a mix of the two. Take a look at the performing arts. A background in martial arts can improve everything from your dancing ability to your acting skills. It can even make you a better professional wrestler. 

If training in real martial arts to improve your fake fighting skills sounds weird, think of it this way: Stunt performers who work in film, TV, and theater will often train in multiple martial arts to help them provide the best simulations of real combat for their craft. And pro wrestling is a form of live action stunt work. Every kick that a wrestler learns how to perform more precisely and every grappling move they learn to apply a little more smoothy helps them to get even better at their craft. 

Here are ten examples of professional wrestlers who have solid backgrounds in martial arts and combat sports, and how it’s influenced their work for the better: 

Shinya Aoki

Former ONE, WAMMA, DREAM, and Shooto champ Shinya Aoki was inspired to take Judo lessons after watching Japanese judoka earn gold medals in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. He soon added Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and mixed martial arts training to his arsenal and became a dominant figure in both BJJ and MMA competitions. When he’s not training for a fight or a competition, the BJJ black belt spends his free time participating in Japanese pro wrestling promotions like DDT Pro Wrestling, where both his slick mat moves and excellent comic timing shine. 

Mike Bailey

“Speedball” Mike Bailey started taking Taekwondo lessons when he was 12 years old, and continued training up to three times a week well into their pro wrestling career. While he probably doesn’t have enough time to train that frequently these days—they’re in demand across North America, the UK, and Japan and might be the hardest working person in all of wrestling at the moment—you can still that TKD technique shine through in his kicks that both look and sound devastating.

Josh Barnett

Barnett is an American MMA fighter and submission wrestler who effortlessly switched between professional MMA and professional wrestling in the US and Japan for most of his career. His background in amateur wrestling and 2nd degree black belt in BJJ have made him almost equally adept at regulated and simulated combat. Barnett is also the figurehead for Bloodsport, a series of shows where his fellow martial arts-influenced pro wrestlers can show off their skills in shoot style wrestling bouts. 

Shayna Baszler

When Muay Thai Khun kru and 3rd degree Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu blackbelt Shayna Bazler wrapped up her MMA career in Invicta and UFC, she turned her focus to pro wrestling. After establishing herself as a talent to watch out for the US independent circuit and Japan’s Stardom promotion, The Queen of Spades signed with the WWE in 2017. Her superb technical strikes, ground game, and undeniable air of coolness have all helped to make her a star there. 

Janai Kai

Kai is also known as “The Kick Demon” and more than lives up to her nickname. Using a combination of Muay Thai, kickboxing, and Taekwondo techniques, Kai delivers some of the cleanest, coolest, and most devastating kicks on the American independent circuit. She can hold her own among some of the best in Japan, too. 

Yukio Sakaguchi

The recently retired MMA fighter turned pro wrestler Yukio Sakaguchi had a keen instinct for understanding what makes martial arts look cool to people outside of that world and applying that coolness in a new setting. With crisp roundhouse kicks, flying knees, and perhaps the slickest Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that’s ever been performed in the squared circle, Sakaguchi developed a style that was thoroughly enjoyable for any viewer, regardless of how little they knew about martial arts. (And even more fun for those of us who knew our stuff.)

Dan Severn

“The Beast” has translated his abilities as a grappler into almost every venue available for people with a good ground game. He was a highly successful freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestler at the high school and college level and narrowly missed qualifying for the US Olympic team. He took up Judo in college in an effort to improve his wrestling skills, and then started competing in Sambo. From there, he became a pioneering star in the early days of the UFC. And he brought all of the above skills to his run as a professional wrestler in promotions like the NWA and WWF. 

Ken Shamrock

Royce Gracie’s early UFC rival and legend in his own right Ken Shamrock seamlessly travelled between pro wrestling and MMA for the majority of his career. The high school wrestler and kickboxer was able to apply his ability to be dominant in competition and look dominant in the simulated version. Shamrock was instrumental in helping US mainstream audiences understand and enjoy shoot style pro wrestling. 

Minoru Suzuki

Japanese MMA and pro wrestling legend Minoru Suzuki stated wrestling in high school before training at the New Japan Pro Wrestling dojo and making his pro wrestling debut in 1988. After a five year run as a pro wrestler in NJPW and UWF, he left to co-found the seminal Japanese MMA promotion Pancrase. In 2003, Suzuki returned to pro wrestling as a freelancer, taking everything he learned in his 50 pro MMA matches and crafting himself into one of the most terrifying and entertaining figures to step into the squared circle. At 55, he’s still taunting and schooling pro wrestlers across the globe. 

Miyu Yamashita

The Pink Striker started training in Kyokushin Karate and MMA as a child, but dreamed of becoming a performer. At 17, she was introduced to the perfect combination of her martial arts backgrounds and her dreams of stardom: professional wrestling. Yamashita thrived in her new environment, using her Karate techniques to craft a hard-hitting and creative style all her own and establishing herself as The Ace of Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling. Now she’s starting to take on the rest of the world.