Tampa Bay has hosted the grandest sporting event of them all — the Super Bowl — on four occasions, with the fifth coming up next February.
This year, the city’s Raymond James Stadium had also been set to host the Super Bowl of sports entertainment — Wrestlemania. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual mega event has had to change course.
However, the show will go on and it will have a major NFL influence, as recently retired Patriots great Rob Gronkowski will host the event — which will air across two nights on Saturday and Sunday — while former Falcons and Rams defensive end Bill Goldberg defends his WWE Universal championship.
All the usual histrionics and ballyhoo, piledrivers and body slams have been pre-taped for the first time in the signature event’s history, but many WWE superstars, such as Becky Lynch, John Cena and The Undertaker, are primed for in-ring action.
As there is seemingly every Wrestlemania, the card also has NFL ties aplenty, which should come as little surprise as the gridiron and grappling have a long lineage.
Reigning WWE champion Brock Lesnar, who will defend his title against Drew McIntyre, had a memorable run in Minnesota Vikings training camp. Former titlist and company poster boy Roman Reigns was an All-ACC defensive lineman at Georgia Tech who played with Calvin Johnson and was signed by the Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars. Having dipped his toes into NFL waters with the Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinals, Baron Corbin will be on the card and Gronkowski’s close friend Mojo Rawley is likely to also be around — years after serving brief stints with the Green Bay Packers and Cardinals.
From the days of Chicago Bears great and Canton enshrinee Bronko Nagurski winning NFL championships and pro wrestling world titles to now, the rough and tumble worlds of 100 yards of Americana and the squared circle have often overlapped.
That will be as prevalent as ever with Gronkowski having already appeared on WWE Smackdown leading into this weekend’s festivities and certain to play a notable role along with Goldberg facing the massive Braun Strowman.
There’s certain to be some memorable mania moments ahead involving former NFL players, but here’s a look back at some that already slammed to the forefront.
Please note: This includes only combatants who played in NFL regular-season games, so the likes of the aforementioned Reigns and Lesnar or past stars such as Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, John Bradshaw Layfield or Vader don’t make the cut as they didn’t make NFL roster cuts.
April 2, 1995 – Hartford Civic Center
Lawrence Taylor vs. Bam Bam Bigelow
As he had done season after season with the New York Giants, Lawrence Taylor made an impact when he headlined the then-World Wrestling Federation’s seminal event.
He squared off with Bam Bam Bigelow, a super heavyweight known for his agility as he would cartwheel in the ring and come off the top rope with unbelievable agility for a man his size. Recognizable for his tattoo-covered bald head, Bigelow was the heel to Taylor’s babyface. Marvelously built up, the match drew mainstream attention in the lead-up, which was hugely needed for the company as it looked to emerge from one of its toughest times financially and needed to get creative with the main event as longtime stars Hulk Hogan, Randy “Macho Man” Savage and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper had moved on.
Enter Taylor — along with a parade of NFL defensive greats to back him.
Taylor had played his last down in the 1993 season, having savaged quarterbacks to the tune of 132.5 sacks across 13 campaigns with a pair of Super Bowl titles and eight All-Pro selections.
Taylor’s All-Pro team consisted of Ken Norton, Chris Spielman, Rickey Jackson, Carl Banks, Steve “Mongo” McMichael and Reggie White to combat Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase’s stable of baddies — King Kong Bundy, Tatanka, Nikolai Volkoff, Kama and Irwin R. Schyster — backing Bam Bam Bigelow.
For a guy wrestling his first match and doing so on such a huge stage, Taylor was terrific even though he laid in stiff shots and was clearly gassed early on. But Bigelow was an underrated and exceptional worker able to take Taylor’s strong strikes and lead the outside linebacker to a captivating contest.
The finish came as Taylor made a furious comeback, mounted the second rope, came off with a flying forearm and then, exhausted, covered Bigelow for the triumph.
Taylor’s wrestling days were done, though McMichael found a second career and became a pro wrestler for a bit and was even a part of the storied Four Horsemen stable.
April 7, 1986 – Rosemont Horizon
20-man battle royal
Three cities played host to Wrestlemania 2 — New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — with the Windy City’s main event coming in the form of a 20-man battle royal that featured a handful of current and former NFL players, including the Bears‘ William “The Refrigerator” Perry and Jimbo Covert.
As the Bears crossed over into the mainstream fan base, Perry, just a rookie defensive tackle and sometimes short-yardage back, had become a star, drawing endorsements and the notoriety of the casual fan. Thus, the Fridge appearing at Wrestlemania drew plenty of press, as did other players such as Atlanta Falcons guard Bill Fralic, San Francisco 49ers tight end Russ Francis (whose father Ed was a pro wrestler and promoter), former Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl champ Ernie Holmes, a defensive lineman, and former Dallas Cowboys defensive end Harvey Martin, the Super Bowl XII co-MVP.
In a skirmish that involved storied grapplers like Bruno Sammartino, Pedro Morales, the Hart Foundation and others, none of the gridiron greats were able to get the win. Instead that went to the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” Andre the Giant.
April 2, 2017 – Camping World Stadium
Bill Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar
Goldberg had become a mainstream star during his run as an unstoppable badass in World Championship Wrestling.
That came after a brief stay in the NFL, one in which he was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the 11th round of the 1990 draft — yep, the 11th round. The defensive lineman went on to play parts of three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons and then became the answer to a trivia question as the first player cut by the Carolina Panthers.
While the NFL didn’t work out, WCW did, as he was pushed as an undefeated, one-man tour de force. Once WCW went down and was bought up by the WWE, Goldberg eventually followed, but many saw his run as underwhelming as he wasn’t pushed in the same fashion.
He came back in 2016, though, and despite turning 50 that year, his reemergence was a success as he speared and jackhammered foes, starting with Lesnar, and captured the WWE Universal Championship. His dominance came to a close when Lesnar prevailed at Wrestlemania 33. The match was less than five minutes, but it was all hard-hitting and the crowd came away far more satisfied than when the two had met on the same stage more than a decade earlier.
And now Goldberg’s back once more.
April 2, 2017 – Camping World Stadium
Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal
Since Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, the future Pro Football Hall of Famer has been linked to a move into professional wrestling. And now he has, though the full plan has yet to come to the forefront. It was his appearance at Wrestlemania 33 in Orlando, Florida, that was the beginning of all the rumors.
While Gronkowski was not an actual participant in the match, his involvement was the highlight and garnered the mainstream notoriety the WWE desired.
Real-life pal Mojo Rawley won the battle royal, but only after some assistance from Gronk.
Bad guy Jinder Mahal was putting the boots to Rawley on the outside right in front of Gronkowski, who just happened to be in the front row. Mahal then had the audacity to take Gronk’s tasty beverage and throw it at his chest. After a real security guard not in on the script tried to stop Gronkowski from getting involved, the Patriots force of nature climbed in the ring, dropped into a three-point stance and ran through Mahal. Not long after, Rawley, who was a defensive lineman seeing time on Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals preseason rosters, grabbed the win and then celebrated with Gronk in bro-ific fashion via chest bump and Gronkowski delivering a congratulatory chop.
It certainly doesn’t appear that it will be the only Gronkowski celebration at a Wrestlemania.
March 14, 2004 – Madison Square Garden
Bill Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar
To reiterate, these are the most memorable Wrestlemania matches featuring NFL players.
This was an underwhelming affair as the New York crowd was dismayed at the knowledge that Goldberg, who played 14 games across three seasons with the Falcons, and Lesnar, who was an NCAA champion in wrestling a year after losing to future Patriot Stephen Neal, were each wrestling their last matches with the company.
Goldberg went over, defeating Lesnar, who flipped the bird to Vince McMahon, took a stunner from “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and departed.
Goldberg also took a beatdown from Austin to the delight of the crowd.
Thereafter, the former Falcon wouldn’t see another Wrestlemania for 13 years. As for Lesnar, despite having never played beyond high school football, he gave the NFL a try. The freak athlete that he was — and still is — was signed by the Vikings in the preseason and made it to the final cut. He declined an offer to play for the Vikings‘ NFL Europe affiliate and hung up the pads. He then tried out mixed martial arts and that worked out pretty well.
There are sure to be more NFL players who will author memorable mania moments, as thus far, they’ve tackled and slammed their way into storied storylines and manic matches through the years.