A whole new crop of athletes who have earned glory on the wrestling mat may soon find fame and fortune in the pro wrestling ring.
Two former wrestlers – Chas Betts and Clayton Jack – have already signed deals with WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment)… while at least two others – Tony Nelson and Mike McClure – have been named in published reports as considering careers in the squared circle.
Jack, a four-time NCAA qualifier and 2010 Pac-10 heavyweight champ at Oregon State, signed a three-year developmental deal with WWE in early 2013. Betts, who wrestled for the U.S. at 85 kilos/185 pounds in Greco-Roman competition at the 2012 London Olympics, inked a deal with WWE last November.
Nelson and McClure – who completed their college mat careers by earning All-American honors as heavyweights at the 2014 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships last month in Oklahoma City – are now considering pro careers, according to published reports. McClure, who wrestled for Michigan State, placed fifth at the 2014 NCAAs, while Nelson was a two-time NCAA champ, three-time finalist, and four-time All-American for the University of Minnesota.
Betts, Jack, McClure and Nelson are hardly breaking new ground. There’s a long tradition of former Olympic and college wrestlers opting for pro wrestling careers, going at least as far back as the 1920s, with Nat Pendleton (1920 Olympian and Columbia University mat champ), Earl McCready (1928 Olympian and three-time NCAA heavyweight champ for Oklahoma State), and Ed Don George (1928 Olympian, University of Michigan wrestler) all climbing into the ring after college. That career option for the big men of college wrestling has continued unabated into more recent times, with former NCAA heavyweight champs Kurt Angle (two-time champ at Edinboro, 1996 Olympic gold medalist) and Brock Lesnar (2000 champ for Minnesota), along with University of Oklahoma All-American Jake Hager (now Jack Swagger in the WWE) making headlines as pro wrestlers.
That said, the pro ring isn’t the only option for upper-weight wrestlers who’ve had success in folkstyle, freestyle or Greco-Roman competition, and want to continue to be in the spotlight… and not just in pursuing an Olympic dream, or becoming a wrestling coach. The NFL beckons for many big men, with Stephen Neal -- two-time NCAA heavyweight champ for Cal State Bakersfield who was a 1999 World champion – and Curley Culp, 1967 NCAA champ for Arizona State, among the most accomplished athletes to make a successful grappler-to-gridiron transition, with Neal earning three Super Bowl rings for the New England Patriots, and Culp being welcomed into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer.
In more recent times, college big men now have the option of competing in mixed martial arts, including Daniel Cormier (two-time Olympian and NCAA finalist for Oklahoma State), Steve Mocco (2008 Olympian and two-time heavyweight titlewinner), Mark Ellis (2009 NCAA heavyweight champ for University of Missouri), Chris Honeycutt (2012 NCAA 197-pound finalist for Edinboro), and Mo Lawal (Oklahoma State All-American), to name a few.
Meet the men who may find success in the squared circle… by taking a look at College Wrestling Examiner’s photo-feature focusing on potential WWE stars Chas Betts, Clayton Jack, Mike McClure, and Tony Nelson.
Amateur wrestling resume highlights: A 2004 Minnesota high school state champ, Charles “Chas” Betts, 28, participated in the U.S. Olympic Training program at Northern Michigan University. Betts earned a spot on the U.S. Greco-Roman team, competing at 85 kilos/185 pounds at the 2012 London Olympics, but did not advance to the quarterfinals. Other accomplishments in Greco included 2012 Dave Schultz Memorial International champ, 2012 U.S. Open titlewinner, and USA Wrestling’s Greco-Roman Wrestler of the Year for 2012.
WWE status (as of April 27): Signed a developmental deal with WWE in November 2013. He’s training at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, working in their developmental territory NXT Wrestling under the ring name Chad Gable (perhaps an homage to the legendary Iowa State wrestler, 1972 Olympic gold medalist, and long-time University of Iowa coach).
Fun fact: In announcing his WWE deal, Betts said he’s dreamed of a pro wrestling career since he was 11 or 12 years old. “I am extremely lucky to have a wife and family that has supported me in every dream I've chosen to chase, however unlikely it may be,” Betts posted on his Facebook page. “Never underestimate the power of a good support system, people!”
Amateur wrestling resume highlights: Born in Reno, Nev., Jack wrestled at Vacaville High School in California, where he won the CIF heavyweight state title as a senior in 2007, and was named Sacramento Bee Male Athlete of the Year that year. During his four-year career at Oregon State, Jack compiled a 121-37 overall record, with two Pac-10 championships. He was a four-time NCAA qualifier, earning All-American honors at the 2012 NCAAs. Jack concluded his collegiate career by being named Oregon State’s Male Athlete of the Year in 2012.
WWE status (as of April 27): Signed with the WWE in early 2013 after being discovered by Gerald Brisco, a former Oklahoma State wrestler who is now with the WWE, on a scouting trip to Oregon State. According to the OSU Beavers sports website, Jack attended a tryout in Tampa and was offered the deal but instead chose to complete his education (earning a degree as a Human Development and Family Science major) and collegiate mat career first before accepting the WWE offer.
Fun fact 1: Describing himself as an avid WWF/WWE fan (specifically mentioning Triple H, Sean Michaels, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and the Rock Dwayne Johnson), Clayton Jack told the OSU Beavers sports website, “I wouldn’t mind playing the heel, which is the bad guy. When you first start out you are always kind of the heel and then you work your way into being a face, which is a good guy. As much as I want to say it’s based on my personality, it’s also based on how well I can act.”
Fun fact 2: According to his official Oregon State wrestling bio, Clayton Jack stands 6’5”.
About the photo: On the left, Clayton Jack as Oregon State heavyweight; on the right, Jack in WWE.
Amateur wrestling resume highlights: Originally from Holland – Michigan, that is – McClure wrestled at West Ottawa High School where he became a state champ. He then headed east to East Lansing to become a Michigan State Spartan, where he was a two-time NCAA qualifier in 2013 and 2014. McClure earned All-American honors at the 2014 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships by placing fifth in the 285 pound (heavyweight) weight class… making him the Spartans' first All American since Franklin Gomez in 2010, and the program’s first heavyweight AA in more than two decades. McClure completed his MSU career with a 104-31 overall record. One of his most significant wins: handing freshman sensation Adam Coon of cross-state rival Michigan his first college loss.
WWE status (as of April 27): No deal revealed yet, but the possibility of McClure as a pro wrestler has been the subject of more than one article before and after the 2014 NCAAs. “They started looking at me last year,” McClure told the amateur wrestling website MichiganGrappler.com. “I think it was the Reno Tournament last year when I hit a back flip off a single leg (against Oregon State heavyweight Chad Hanke) and got the takedown. That was something I practiced in high school with my brothers. It won me a match last year, so it was pretty sweet… I’ve been a big fan. I followed the WWE all my childhood. And now I find myself watching it. I think I have all the athletic ability that it takes to do it. I'm excited about the opportunity.”
Fun fact 1: McClure was a math major at Michigan State.
Fun fact 2: In addition to his athleticism and ability to do a theatrical move such as the back-flip-into-a-takedown, a couple other aspects of McClure may have captured the imagination of the WWE. McClure’s muscular physique has been featured in officially-produced posters promoting Michigan State wrestling… while his hairstyle has been the subject of homemade “Fear the Mullet” signs at Spartan dual meets. So he’s apparently accustomed to being in the spotlight.
About the photo: On the left, Mike McClure as a Michigan State Spartan; on the right, McClure shows off his ready-for-WWE physique.
Amateur wrestling resume highlights: A two-time Minnesota state champ at Cambridge-Isanti High (at 197 pounds, then at heavyweight) who was the nation’s top recruit at 215, Anthony Nelson headed south to the Twin Cities to continue his wrestling career at the University of Minnesota, where he compiled a 121-15 overall record. Nelson was a four-time NCAA All-American, three-time finalist, and two-time NCAA champ, winning back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013. He also won three Big Ten conference crowns.
WWE status (as of April 27): No deal revealed yet, but the possibility of Nelson in the squared circle has generated some buzz at some pro wrestling websites… not to mention a mention in a recent sports column in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. As one website pointed out, WWE recruiter Gerald Brisco (seen that name before?) was an Oklahoma State teammate of Minnesota head coach J Robinson… and there’s a long tradition of Golden Gopher big men becoming stars in the pro ring. Brisco said that Nelson could be the star of the WWE’s WrestleMania event in four years… but reportedly had imposed an April 23 deadline for Nelson to make a decision.
Fun fact 1: Perhaps it’s something in the water – or the coaching: the University of Minnesota has produced more than its fair share of pro wrestlers, going back to the 1940s Leonard “Butch” Levy (the school’s first NCAA heavyweight champ) and Verne Gagne, who was the face of Midwest pro wrestling organization AWA (American Wrestling Association) for decades. Other Golden Gophers who have been golden in the ring: Leo Nomellini, Shelton Benjamin and Brock Lesnar, 2000 NCAA heavyweight champ. Then again, Minnesota has turned out more NCAA heavyweight champs than any other school, other than Oklahoma State.
Fun fact 2: Tony Nelson may not have the uber-muscled look of Lesnar or Benjamin, but his lean-muscled physique was apparently more than OK with the folks at ESPN. During its telecast of the 2014 NCAA finals, Nelson was the only wrestler to be shown shirtless in identifier slides shown prior to each title bout; the previous year, the Minnesota big man was one of a number of finalists (along with Cornell’s Kyle Dake, to name one) who were shown bare-chested in fight shorts, not in a singlet or warm-ups as his opponents (or most other finalists).
Fun fact 3: Tony Nelson shares a name with a character from the iconic 1960s TV series “I Dream of Jeannie” starring Barbara Eden as Jeannie, and Larry Hagman as astronaut Tony Nelson.
About the photo: On the left, Tony Nelson flexes after winning one of his NCAA titles; on the right, a possible preview of WWE coming attractions as Nelson shows off his lean-muscle physique.