Jake Hager had an idea for his pro-wrestling character Jack Swagger a few years ago. Hager, a former All-American amateur wrestler at the University of Oklahoma, pitched to WWE that he should be booked in a legitimate fight.
“For the longest time there, I felt like I was literally the toughest guy in the locker room,” Hager told Ariel Helwani on a recent edition of The MMA Hour. “Yet, I would go out there and have two-minute matches with guys that couldn’t hold my jock. It even got to the point where I pitched to them, I was like, ‘Look, I got something to prove. You guys are a great platform. Let me prove it. Pick the fighter — I’ll fight anybody. Put them on your show and I’ll fight them.’ They didn’t really want to go down that route.”
WWE dabbled in real fighting — a shoot, in pro-wrestling parlance — in 1998. It was called Brawl for All, a boxing-wrestling hybrid with no grappling or strikes on the ground. It was also a disaster, with fans booing the tournament matches and multiple wrestlers getting injured in the matches. The man who was supposed to win to set up a storyline feud with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was Steve Williams and he was knocked out in the second round after sustaining an injury.
Hager, though, was sure with his decorated wrestling background that he could elevate himself and his character by winning a real fight. But WWE ultimately balked. Now, Hager is out of the promotion and pursuing a crossover career in MMA with Bellator, it was announced Monday.
“Let’s do something different, along those lines,” Hager said of his shoot fight pitch to WWE. “I don’t know if they just didn’t believe in my abilities, but now we’re here to show it. It’s crazy. Stuff like that always happens and it just got pushed to the side and I was like, Alright, well I’m still here. I’m gonna do do it. It’s a great opportunity that I’m gonna take advantage of.”
Hager, 35, said he and his manager Daniel Rubenstein, a fellow Oklahoma graduate, reached out to the UFC, but they felt all along that Bellator would make the most sense.
“We reached out to the UFC, but in our heads the whole time Bellator was the end run,” Hager said. “That’s where we wanted to go. Like I said, they just seem like a company that values its talents and its assets. I think it’s on the rise. You see what Bellator is doing, with the roster that they bring in. Not only at heavyweight, at all weights. It’s really becoming great and tough all the way through. It’s very exciting to be a part of that.”
Hager asked for and was granted his WWE release earlier this year. He has since been performing in pro wrestling on the independent circuit, which he said he will continue to do while fighting for Bellator. Hager said he has been training for eight months in MMA and plans on fighting twice a year, while taking pro-wrestling bookings on most weekends.
Bellator is no stranger to such arrangements. Bobby Lashley, a heavyweight and former WWE star like Hager, competes for the MMA promotion and is also a headlining pro wrestling for the Impact promotion.
“I think it’s cool right now that there’s a huge opportunity here to do both at the same time,” Hager said. “Very fortunate that I have a little bit of a name and a following, so I kind of want to do both. I want to pro wrestle and I want to be a fighter, to help each other. It’s 2017, about to be 2018. Combat sports is the most popular in the world right now.
“It’s a special thing and it’s gonna be difficult. But it sounds like a lot of fun.”
Hager said he signed a three-year, six-fight deal with Bellator and the plan is for him to debut in April or May. Currently, he’s training at the Ybor City Jiu Jitsu Club in Tampa and doing his strength and conditioning with former Ultimate Fighter castmate Josh Rafferty. Hager is 6-foot-5 and weighs north of 270 pounds, so he said he plans on bulking up and cutting down to the 265-pound heavyweight maximum for MMA.
The Perry, Okla., native spent more than 10 years in WWE and had a run with its World Heavyweight Championship belt. For a bit, Hager said he wondered why he wanted to leave. And now he’s feeling more and more like this — MMA — was his purpose.
“For the longest time, it was like, ‘Why did I leave?’” he said. “And I think it’s become very obvious. This is why I left the WWE. I wasn’t allowed to really compete up there, even though I felt like I can take anyone in the locker room. And now it’s such a popular time to be a pro wrestler, to be in combat sports, to be an MMA fighter, where you can really take your opportunity and put it in your own hands, your own hard work. That’s really why I left.
“I think there’s certain types of guys that just need to be punched in the face, want to taste blood. And I think I’m definitely like that. Maybe I got away from that for too long. Always been a fan of MMA. I’ve been wrestling since I was 5 years old. Some form of that always transcends to me.”
Multiple times in the interview Hager stressed that he’ll now be able to make due on his own merits, a possible reference to WWE’s creative team. From the implications, it seems like Hager’s shoot fight idea being turned down was not his only grievance with the world leader in pro wrestling.
“It’s not shade, because it’s the truth,” Hager said. “You can just see how certain people get treated up there. It was crazy. Are you serious? So it was just time to move on. Just excited for the first time in a decade, my hard work, my dedication will directly pay off to my results.”