Kevin Greene’s NFL legacy is well established. Hall of Famer, three time All-Pro, member of the 100 sack club — but the biggest “what if?” when it comes to his athletic career is completely removed from the football field. Greene entered the world of professional wrestling in the Summer of 1996, and shared the ring with some of the sport’s biggest stars during his intermittent two year career with WCW. Circumstance cut his wrestling dreams short, and we’ll never know what could have happened if he was allowed to continue wrestling.
WCW in the late 90s was firmly embroiled in the “Monday Night Wars” with WWE. The rival companies went head-to-head with their biggest weekly shows, trading ratings back and forth during wrestling’s zenith. Both companies made their products edgier, trying to dominate the teenage and young adult market, and one of WCW’s tactics was to stack their show with celebrities. Dennis Rodman, Karl Malone, Jay Leno — the list went on, and it’s here that Greene first made his appearance.
Most celebrity matches were sloppy messes. Clearly untrained crossover stars, appearing for money, or just the bragging rights of saying they stepped in the ring with the likes of Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair. But something was different about Kevin Greene. He was famous, sure, but he really, really loved the wrestling business. Instead of just showing up to TV tapings and winging it, Greene spent extensive time at the “WCW Power Plant,” the training center for up-and-coming wrestlers. When he stepped in the ring he didn’t just want to be present, he wanted to look like he belonged.
Greene already loved professional wrestling, but he fell in love with the business during 1996 and 1997. Making occasional appearances when the NFL schedule allowed, it wasn’t until the 1997 season that things came to a head. The NFL began putting “no wrestling” clauses into contracts, seeing what was happening with NBA stars and being concerned players could get hurt in the ring. This meant that if Greene was going to try to make the jump he’d need to abandon his football career all together.
The 49ers inked Greene to a six-year deal, with a “no wrestling” clause. Greene told WCW he wouldn’t be able to continue working, until things looked like they were lining up after the 1997 season. It became likely that 49ers would cut Greene, and he discussed leaving the team in the media. Privately discussions were taking place with family, friends, and WCW itself about making a full-time jump to wrestling.
Legendary WCW promoter Eric Bischoff explained on his podcast 83 Weeks what he saw in Kevin Greene.
“Kevin was one of those one-in-a-hundred people, that had he had the ability to train in the ring, and really get a sense of how to perform, and how to tell a story in the ring, how to pace himself, and when to get his heat, when to get his comeback, and listen to the crowd — all those really subtle artistic nuances that differentiate those who do between those who are great. Kevin was one of those one-in-a-hundred people who could have done it.”
Greene’s work was sloppy to be sure, but in line with someone who had very little training. His move set was largely limited to strikes, tackles, and the occasional power move — but WCW did a masterful job as masking his deficiencies. There was a natural charisma to Greene when he stepped in the ring, with the chiseled body of an NFL star, flowing locks like a super hero, and boundless energy reminiscent of The Ultimate Warrior. There was something different to other celebrities when he stepped in the ring. It didn’t feel like a sideshow, it felt like we were witnessing the next star being born.
One of the most important skills for a wrestler to learn isn’t using moves, it’s the art of selling. That’s making moves look like they hurt, and critical to telling a story in the ring. Most celebrities were absolutely terrible at it, either not selling moves at all, or making the whole match look like a farce — but Greene had a natural ability to sell moves. He was well on his way to making a switch to wrestling, potentially becoming a massive star in the process, until fate stepped in the way.
WCW were ready to offer him a contract, but the allure of the NFL was still too much. The Carolina Panthers called, and they were in need of pass rushing help. Carolina offered Greene a two-year deal, with a “no wrestling clause” built in. The linebacker ultimately decided to stay in football and shut down the possibility of being a wrestler, finally ending his run before it began.
Greene went on to record 15 sacks in 1998, which remains tied for the Panthers’ franchise record. Clearly he had plenty left in the tank to keep playing football, but what he left behind will remain a giant question. Had he made the switch, and dedicated himself to wrestling, how big of a star would he become?
We know that Greene idolized Ric Flair, and the two had an incredible relationship behind the scenes. There’s a plausible timeline here were Greene trains further, joins the legendary “Four Horsemen” stable, alongside Flair, and gets the necessary push to take his career to the next level. Consider that at the time two of the biggest stars in wrestling, The Rock and Goldberg, both were linebackers before entering the wrestling business.
Greene would have been older, but had enough in the tank to have an 8-10 year career in the sport without much problem. Instead, we’ll never know what could have been. In the end Kevin Greene succeeded at almost anything he put his mind to. Those who knew him described him as humble, respectful, kind, with the ability to turn on his charisma in an instant — qualities that not only could have made him a star in wrestling, but made him a legend in life. Rest in peace.