For one night, Bam Bam Bigelow went from being a shark inside the squared circle to chum in an MMA cage.
The WWE star's trek into the world of MMA lasted just minutes, and he spent the majority of it looking up at the arena ceiling with blood in his eye. His lone fight was an unsettling spectacle, a laughable mismatch.
It was the odd footnote sandwiched between the two halves of his career.
Bigelow's Nov. 17, 1996, beatdown from Kimo Leopoldo happened before his renowned ECW run, before his WCW stint and before his untimely death at just 45 years old. At that time, he was at a high point as a pro wrestler.
The bald, rotund powerhouse with flames tattooed on his skull had competed in WrestleMania XI's main event opposite Lawrence Taylor the year prior.
He was known for making it to the finals of the 1993 King of the Ring against Bret Hart and putting on a strong match in a losing effort. He had battled Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker.
Wrestling fans marveled at his agility. For a 300-pounder, he was surprisingly quick and pulled off moves like the moonsault that a man his size had no business being able to do.
But for all his physical gifts, he had no chance to succeed against Leopoldo. Bigelow hadn't studied any particular fighting style and had no amateur wrestling background. He was a pro wrestler—a damn good one—but no MMA fighter.
The only thing close to a shoot in the ring he had experienced was a mid-match scuffle with Andre the Giant in the '80s. Apparently, Andre took umbrage at the young man's attitude and so decided to beat some respect into him.
As noted by Denny Burkholder of CBS Sports, Jim Duggan said that Andre was heavy-handed with Bigelow that night. Bigelow had no desire to engage in a real fight with the mammoth. Duggan recalled that Bigelow "rolled out of the ring, walked back to the dressing room, got his bag and left the arena."
Still, Bigelow decided to accept an offer to fight for U-Japan. He and Leopoldo's battle served as the main event on that card in Tokyo.
But why would he go that route? He didn't have nearly as much to gain as he had to lose. And he was clearly an amateur locked inside a cage with a pro.
Discussing Bigelow's motivations, Lead MMA Writer for Bleacher Report Jeremy Botter said, "It was a money grab, plain and simple, and it was evident during the fight."
It's understandable why U-Japan would want Bigelow aboard, even minus any experience. The fledgling promotion needed star power, and Bigelow provided that. Not only had he been a prominent wrestler for WWE, but he had worked in Japan as well.
As Crusher Bam Bam Bigelow, he took on Japanese legends Genichiro Tenryu and Tatsumi Fujinami for the WAR (Wrestling and Romance) promotion. Earlier in his career, he wrestled for New Japan Pro Wrestling, tangling with major names such as Antonio Inoki and Big Van Vader.
Leopoldo, while not nearly as well-known as Bigelow, had built a strong resume as a fighter. His only two losses at that point had come against top-tier fighters in Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock.
Taking on a novice, regardless of his name in the wrestling world, was a significant step down.
MMA writer Steven Rondina said, "Leopoldo went from submitting Japanese MMA legend Kazushi Sakuraba to fighting somebody with minimal serious combat sports experience and no interest in the sport outside of his ability to get low-six-figure checks."
That fight lasted less time than the fighters' entrances did.
Bigelow walked to the cage in a WAR T-shirt. Dark opera welcomed Leopoldo and his posse. The fitter, trimmer fighter already had a cut under his left eye. Despite both men being covered in tattoos, the two opponents couldn't be more different.
That was immediately evident after the bell rang.
Leopoldo devoured Bigelow. He lunged at him, hooking his left leg to bring the big man down. Pulling himself by the cage, the experienced fighter positioned himself atop the rookie. And he stayed there for the duration of the fight-cum-assault on the mat.
Bigelow desperately squeezed his arms around his foe's neck and shoulder but offered minimal resistance.
Soon, left hands hammered down on his face. Leopoldo switched to the right hand, issuing measured, clubbing blows. Bigelow had no defense. No technique. No hope.
As blood started to pour into his eye, he found himself on his knees with Leopoldo snaking his arms around his throat. The soon-to-be victor choked him out.
The whole thing lasted a total of two minutes and 15 seconds.
The fight is hard to watch. It's a disturbing display—a hunter tying a deer to a tree and then firing on it again and again.
U-Japan's main event was a light sparring session for Leopoldo but a nightmare for Bigelow.
No one was surprised. As Botter put it, this was "a popular pro wrestler with zero fighting experience going against a fighter who, while not very good, still had more far more experience in actual fights."
Rondina said that is "what you get when you combine a cage, a guy who knows how to fight, a guy that doesn't have any interest in fighting and a referee that is only 'theoretically' opposed to seeing somebody get killed."
Bigelow was not CM Punk chasing a dream, going through months of training and starting at square one—a freshman entering the college of hurt. He was not Brock Lesnar either, looking to move on to the next great competition and proving ground.
Bigelow saw dollar signs through the links in the cage, but the money didn't come easy.
After the fight, footage showed the wrestler sporting a deep cut over his right eye and bruises on his face. He told the cameraman, "Can we do this without the cameras, please?"
One can't blame him for wanting to close the door on the world at that moment. He was in the midst of the aftermath of what was either an embarrassing end to an athletic outing or the end result of a self-inflicted loss.
Bigelow claimed in a 1998 interview that he had been asked to take a dive, according to TheSmartMarks.com. His reported take for going full pro wrestling and jobbing out was $100,000.
MMA writers aren't sure what to make of the claim. Would a man with no MMA training really need to be asked to lose to a far stronger fighter? Botter said of the situation, "He might've been told to go in and take a little bit of damage, to make the fight look good, and then lose."
The possibility of pro wrestling's predetermined nature sneaking its way into his MMA debut adds a strange layer onto an already strange story.
Once his wounds healed, Bigelow was soon competing in front of rabid ECW crowds. He never again fought outside of a pro wrestling context.
He was back to throwing men out of the ring and leaping from the top rope. He was an animal in the proper ecosystem once again.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.