At an age when most fighters are planning their second career, Jake Hager is just beginning his.
The former All-American wrestler at Oklahoma, who eschewed a job in finance to sign a contract with the WWE and went on to become its heavyweight champion under the name Jack Swagger, is a rookie heavyweight with Bellator.
On Friday at Bellator 231 (6:45 p.m. ET, DAZN), Hager will make his third appearance of the year when he meets Anthony Garrett in a three-round heavyweight bout at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut.
Hager isn’t exactly done with wrestling, and has signed with the new All Elite Wrestling (AEW) promotion, but MMA is not an afterthought, either. He said he got into MMA when his ex-Oklahoma teammate, Matt Grice, began to fight.
But Hager, who is 37 and 2-0 in MMA with a pair of arm triangle finishes to his credit, knew that if he wanted to give it a shot, he couldn’t wait much longer.
“I definitely know that I have a window and that I won’t be able to train like this forever,” he said. “Luckily, I feel like I was a late bloomer as far as my body developing. I really didn’t start developing until I was like 18, 19, 20 years old. And now, I do feel like I’m in my prime and honestly, my body feels better now than it did when I was 24 coming out of college.
“Before I signed with WWE, I thought my athletic career was done. I was going into the finance industry and I just thought I couldn’t compete any more. But the mind is a really powerful thing and you can unlock your potential if you choose to ignore what your mind is telling you.”
Given that he’s about to embark on a dual career, wrestling and fighting, Hager is going to be busier than ever. It’s a difficult challenge, but it could pay dividends in terms of helping make him a commodity in the MMA world.
He’s already got name recognition from his time in the WWE, and now with AEW he’ll be on TV screens on a regular basis. Bellator president Scott Coker gave him permission to continue as a pro wrestler because he understands that the attention Hager gets as a wrestler will only make him more valuable as a fighter.
Hager is taking the opposite approach of former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, who recently announced his retirement as a fighter to sign with the WWE and become a full-time wrestler. Velasquez wrestled in college, turned to MMA and after his career ran its course, derailed in large part by a series of injuries, he turned to wrestling.
Hager wrestled in college and then went straight into pro wrestling. While it’s an extraordinarily taxing lifestyle, with weeks on end on the road and a physical assault on one’s body, Hager believes his path is best for him.
Competing in front of huge crowds around the world also has helped him confidence-wise as he transitions to MMA.
“[My experience as a wrestler] helps me on so many levels as a fighter,” Hager said. “I really think the path I took is the better path. Yes, pro wrestling is damaging on your body. It hurts. But there wasn’t 12 years of head trauma just to make a name for yourself. I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in right now without pro wrestling. Without that career and without going out there and making a name for myself, this wouldn’t have been possible, and I think it absolutely makes an MMA career easier.
“It gives you more leverage. It gives you more exposure. As a professional fighter, those are two big things everyone is looking for.”
Though he will continue as a wrestler, MMA is no lark. He vowed to be the best-conditioned heavyweight ever in MMA, and said he wants to prove his ability against elite opposition.
He’s faced soft competition in his first two outings and didn’t have to do much more than show up to get the victory.
Winning those kinds of squash matches isn’t what he has in mind for his career. But he also is trying to develop his total game. So the goal is to win while getting better each time out.
“It’s interesting, but everyone keeps asking me what I want to showcase in this fight,” Hager said. “I’ll be honest: I want the ‘W.’ I don’t have the bravado to say, ‘I want to showcase my stand-up. I want to stand and bang.’ Look, I’ll go where the fight takes me. He’s a big, heavy guy who is bigger than I am and is probably stronger than I am.
“I’m not expecting to go out and muscle him and ignore technique. It’s going to be my toughest test in the cage. The one thing that will stand out is my shape. I plan on being the best-conditioned heavyweight ever. I want that to ring out. When you get in the cage with me, you’d better be ready to go 35 minutes, not just 15. That’s the one thing I know that I’ll bring.”
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