Commentary

NFL players interested in MMA

Former NFL players are becoming intrigued by the prospect of fighting in the MMA and UFC.

Updated: September 1, 2007, 8:03 PM ET
By Ben Houser | Special to ESPN.com

Mixed martial arts has taken over the imaginations and competitive spirits of current and former NFL players. A handful of former NFL players have found new careers in the sport, including Bob Sapp, Michael Westbrook, Jarrod Bunch, Alonzo Spellman, Johnnie Morton and Bobby Jones.

Sapp, an ex-NFL offensive lineman in the late '90s, washed out of the league after being given a four-game suspension for violating the NFL drug policy, and suffering multiple injuries. His first national exposure to fighting was in a celebrity Toughman competition in 2000 when he knocked out William "the Refrigerator" Perry. Afterward, Sapp ventured into mixed martial arts and made his overseas debut in April 2002.

Nicknamed the "Beast," Sapp doesn't claim to be a pugilist specialist in the fighting game, but he believes it doesn't matter because of his imposing size at 400 pounds.

Bob Sapp
AP PhotoBob Sapp has become a huge celebrity due to MMA.

"I'm not throwing crisp, clean, clear, directional punches," Sapp said. "Don't expect to see that, expect to see a big, wild, huge, heavy, haymaker punch. The question is, can you stop it?"

Randy Couture, the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champion, said Sapp would "squash me like a bug!"

Couture trained Sapp before his first MMA fight and said one of the reasons Sapp has been so successful is that he took the sport seriously from the beginning.

Sapp's success has resulted in him becoming a mega-celebrity in Japan, where he has competed in K-1's kickboxing as well as mixed martial arts. He says he endorses nearly 400 products in the Far East, and his fame has landed him in several Hollywood movies such as the remake of "The Longest Yard."

He said he has earned $7 million in the past five years fighting for K-1. He will become a free agent in September, and has several lucrative offers ranging from $500,000 a fight to a five-year, $20 million deal on the table from the WWE.

Sapp has never fought in the UFC, the most successful mixed martial arts league in the United States, because he weighs more than the UFC's 265-pound heavyweight limit. UFC co-owner and president Dana White doesn't have a super heavyweight division because there isn't enough talent to support its own weight class.

White has strong opinions on former NFL players who are able to make a weight class in the UFC.

"These NFL players think they are going to come in and fight against real mixed martial artists? It's going to be ugly," White said. "I got two words for you: Johnnie Morton."

Morton's inauspicious MMA debut took place on June 2, in his hometown of Los Angeles. Reportedly, he trained for just a few months before taking a fight against established MMA fighter Bernard Ackah.

According to Couture, this was Morton's biggest mistake.

"Having only trained two months, that is silly to put a guy who has only been training that long with a guy who has MMA experience," Couture said.

It only took 38 seconds for Morton's fight to end as he was momentarily knocked unconscious and had to leave the ring on a stretcher. After the fight he refused to take a drug test and his prefight drug test was positive for elevated levels of testosterone. As a result, Morton's $100,000 purse was withheld and he was fined $7,500 and suspended from the sport for one year.

Johnnie Morton
Sherdog.comJohnnie Morton hasn't fought since being knocked out in 38 seconds.
The lasting affects of Morton's fight directly affected the status of Jones. The former New York Giants offensive lineman was a former high school wrestling champion. In addition to playing football for Joe Paterno, Jones also wrestled as a senior at Penn State. After being cut by the Giants, Jones decided NFL life wasn't for him and didn't pursue any other tryouts or camps. He became a teacher at the high school he once attended, Wadsworth High School, but wanted to return to the field. He played briefly in the Arena Football League and then developed a new passion.

"Somebody introduced me to submission wrestling, grappling, and I got into that and I loved it, and did very well there," he said. "I wanted to do something more and I watched MMA on TV all the time, UFC and Pride, and I fell in love with it."

Jones received the go-ahead from his wife to step into the cage on Aug. 24 for Fight Fest after a meeting with Ohio matchmaker Mike Camp and Fight Fest creator Corey Fischer.

He was going to be allowed to fight as a professional immediately in his first MMA fight, but the Ohio State Athletic commission wouldn't allow him. It is normal protocol in Ohio that a fighter must have five amateur fights before being allowed to turn pro, but there are exceptions made based on an individual's credentials. Despite Jones' athletic résumé, he still wasn't allowed to be considered a pro in his first bout because of Morton's performance in June.

Jones didn't disappoint his hometown fans in Canton, Ohio. His fight lasted a mere 34 seconds before he slammed his opponent, then punched him multiple times in the face until the referee stopped the bout.

Jones' future in mixed martial arts is still up in the air as he needs the approval of his wife to continue fighting.

One former player who could have a future in the UFC is Westbrook.

Two years ago, Westbrook fought in a King of the Cage event against former New York Giants running back Jarrod Bunch because Westbrook said he wanted to prove to himself that he could fight. He won his debut in the first round by choking out Bunch. Westbrook has not fought since that fight, but he still competes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and says he's compiled a 68-0 record in jiu-jitsu submission wrestling.

"I came into the thing with a lack of respect and got the thing handed to me on a daily basis, but it was off camera," said Westbrook.

While a former NFL player has yet to fight in the UFC, it could happen soon with the influx of NFL players interested in the MMA. White says if Westbrook could pass the medical testing, and if the athletic commissions accept him, he would put Westbrook in a UFC event. White went on to say that he gives Jones a 30 percent chance of making the UFC.

But White summed up his thoughts on former NFL players fighting in the UFC with this advice to those who want to enter the Octagon.

"Football is dangerous enough without coming in here, and if you are retired, give me a call," he said. "I will give you some great seats at the next UFC fight."

Ben Houser is a feature producer for "Outside the Lines."

Ben Houser is a Senior Producer for ESPN's E:60.

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