James Haskell MMA Debut: 5 stars who tried their hand at MMA

Leigh Copson:

James Haskell will finally make his MMA debut on May 16 when Bellator MMA returns to Europe, and ahead of the former rugby star’s first outing inside the cage we have been taking a look back at some other well-known sports stars and personalities who have tried their hand at mixed martial arts over the years.

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Haskell’s love of MMA has been common knowledge for several years now – during his playing career he trained in martial arts and when he hung up his boots in 2016 he began working as a television pundit covering MMA, largely working with the British-based BAMMA promotion.

There were always rumours that Haskell could eventually try his hand at fighting professionally, and in August 2019 that speculation became reality when Bellator MMA confirmed that the 34-year-old had a inked a deal with the promotion and would be entering into the heavyweight division.

Haskell is now poised to make his in-ring debut as part of the company’s next big event in London on May 16, but how will the former England rugby ace fare in his first trip to the cage? Will he have his hand raised or will he become the latest high-profile person to try his hand at professional fighting and get taught a lesson?

Ahead of Haskell’s big night we have been look at other well-known figures who crossed over into MMA, with mixed results…

James Toney

James ‘Lights Out’ Toney (Photo by J.P. Yim/Zuma Press/PA Images).

What would happen if a world champion boxer stepped inside the Octagon with the cream of the crop in MMA? That question was answered in August 2010. Former world heavyweight boxing champion James Toney had run his mouth about what he was going to do to MMA legend Randy Couture when they met at UFC 118, but ‘Lights Out’ was simply writing checks that he could not cash because he was completely embarrassed by Couture.

‘The Natural’, at the ripe old age of 47, quickly took Toney down to the mat before he could land a single punch, and from there he mauled the former boxing champion who was completely out of his depth on the mat. The end came at three minutes and 19 seconds of the very first round, but in reality the fight only lasted that long because Couture allowed it too. “I wanted to give James Toney the total mixed martial arts experience,” Couture quipped afterwards.

Herschel Walker

Herschel Walker talks as US President Donald Trump (Photo by Sipa USA/SIPA USA/PA Images).

Herschel Walker raised plenty of eyebrows when it was announced that he would be making his MMA debut at the age of 47 in 2010. Walker had been a standout American Football player during his younger days, winning the much coveted Heisman Trophy before going on to have a stellar career in the USFL and then the NFL, but would he be able to translate that success over to mixed martial arts when the ink dried on his contract with the Strikeforce promotion?

Walker, who was a black belt in Taekwondo, found himself paired with unknown Greg Nagy for his debut contest and although he bossed the fight in the stand-up, the holes in his ground game were there for all to see as he failed to put away Nagy in the first two rounds. The finish did come in the third though when Walker’s ground and pound was enough to force the referee to step in and wave it off. It had hardly been spectacular, but the ex-American Football star’s performance did earn him a second trip to the cage one year later and he improved to 2-0 with a first-round stoppage of Scott Carson that proved to be the final outing of his MMA career.

“The reason I stopped fighting [is because] I couldn’t get a fight,” Walker told FloCombat in 2017. “I wanted a step up in talent. Most of the time I’m doing this for fun because I love to do it, giving all my money to churches. [But other] guys are doing it for their careers, so it’s kind of hard to fight Herschel Walker when there’s a very good chance you may lose and he’s doing it for fun and they’re doing it for a career.”

CM Punk

CM Punk (Photo by Emma Coles/EMPICS Entertainment).

CM Punk, real name Phil Brooks, first made his name in the world of ‘scripted fighting’ as a professional wrestler, but having grown sick of life as a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) superstar he walked away from the industry in January 2014. But what would Punk do next? After all, he had spent almost all of his adult life in the wacky world of sports entertainment. That question was answered in shocking fashion in December of that year when it was announced live on PPV that the 36-year-old had a signed a multi-fight deal with MMA’s premier promotion, the UFC.

Punk did have a background in Kempo and had been training Brazilian jiu jitsu for years, but would that really be enough of a starting point for a career in MMA? His debut was repeatedly put back over the next couple of years, but Punk finally stepped inside the Octagon in September 2016 and he was taught a harsh lesson by fellow newcomer Mickey Gall. Gall swiftly took the former pro wrestler to the mat, created an opening for a rear-naked choke and when he synched in the move, Punk had no option but to concede defeat.

Punk was largely mocked in the wake of that loss, but he did go on to have one more fight for the UFC in June 2018. He managed to go the distance with Mike Jackson on that night, but he was dominated throughout and had his opponent made an attempt to finish the contest, he may not have left the Octagon as battered and as bloodied as he did.

Dave Bautista

Dave Bautista (Photo by Sipa USA/SIPA USA/PA Images).

Yes, that Dave Bautista of Guardians of the Galaxy and James Bond fame! Bautista first entered the public eye as a professional wrestler for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) back in 2003, but he walked away from the industry in 2010 and would not return until he had brief stints with the company in 2014 and 2019. During his time away from sports entertainment he forged a successful career in the movie world that ultimately landed him the plum role of Drax The Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy and a spot as a James Bond henchman, Mr Hinx, in smash hit SPECTRE.

But did you know he also tried his hand at mixed martial arts and had one professional fight? Bautista had progressed to purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu while training under Cesar Gracie and appeared to be on the brink of signing a deal with the Strikeforce promotion in 2011. That deal collapsed when UFC’s parent company, purchased Strikeforce, but Bautista would not be deterred and he signed on with a minor promotion to headline a PPV card in 2012.

Bautista was scheduled to face unknown Rashid Evans in the main event, but his opponent was changed to veteran journeyman Vince Lucero just days before the fight when it was revealed that Evans had violated his probation and was back in jail. Bautista was able to finish Lucero in the first round, but his performance was far from stellar and he never stepped back inside the cage again. Given how well his Hollywood career has gone, it was definitely a very smart move!

Greg Hardy

Greg Hardy (Photo by USA TODAY Network/SIPA USA/PA Images).

Our final figure is easily the most controversial figure of the lot. Greg Hardy was a defensive star in the NFL for the Carolina Panthers between 2010 and 2014, setting a team record for sacks during the 2013 campaign, but he was found guilty of assaulting an ex-girlfriend in July 2014 and the Panthers opted against re-signing him in the wake of that conviction. The Dallas Cowboys controversially gave him an opportunity to continue his playing career in 2015, but he lasted just one year in Texas and that signalled the end of his football career, aside from brief stints in a couple of minor leagues in 2017 and 2018.

With his football career in tatters, Hardy decided to embark on a career in Mixed Martial Arts and he made a flying start as an amateur, winning his first three fights via strikes. His heavy hands had clearly captured the attention of UFC president Dana White and despite the backlash, Hardy was given the opportunity to appear on the ‘Contender Series’ and earn himself a deal with the world’s most popular MMA promotion. The former football star won both of his fights on the show, in just 57 seconds and 17 seconds respectively, but it was not until he fought on a minor league card that Hardy was given his shot at fighting in the UFC.

He could not have made a worse start to his UFC career as he was disqualified for using an illegal knee, but he rebounded with a couple of stoppage wins and appeared to have made it three-in-a-row against Ben Sosoli in October 2019, only for the commission to overturn the result and declare the fight a no contest after Hardy used an inhaler between rounds. He dropped a decision to Alexander Volkov in his next outing, but that loss did not deter the UFC from keeping Hardy around and at the time of writing he is still under contract to the promotion.