In many ways, you can say Jake Hager was almost a born wrestler, since he competed in the sport since the age of five.
But after a dozen years away from competition — many of those years spent performing as a professional wrestler — he’s trying to reclaim the instincts he developed from childhood, but adapt them to a new world of mixed martial arts.
At nearly 37 years old, the Bellator heavyweight makes his MMA debut on a big stage on Saturday night at Bellator 214. He’s third from the top on the card, fighting underneath a legend like Fedor Emelianenko and a prospective future legend in Aaron Pico on the Jan. 26 show at The Forum in Los Angeles, which airs live on Paramount.
You may not recognize the name Jake Hager, but he comes in with more name recognition than all but a few first-time fighters you’ll ever see, primarily from his many years as Jack Swagger with World Wrestling Entertainment, and more recently as Jack Strong, the current champion of the Sci-Fi based wrestling group known as Lucha Underground.
But to dismiss him an actor like C.M. Punk would be a mistake. Punk never participated in sports growing up, and while he was a huge success as a pro wrestler, his success was mostly because of his talking ability and mind that allowed him to construct dramatic matches. Neither of those traits helped him inside the cage.
Hager’s similarities are more like Brock Lesnar and Bobby Lashley’s, national collegiate wrestling champions and freak athletes who crossed over into MMA at older ages. But even so, Hager is starting older than either of them.
Hager was practically born on a wrestling mat, just by the virtue of being from Perry, Okla. Perry is a town of barely 5,000 people that is known for one thing: Wrestling. It produced two Olympic medalists. The first, Jack Van Bebber, won a gold medal at the 1932 Olympics. Even more well known in wrestling circles is the other, Danny Hodge, a 1956 silver medalist. Hodge is on every shortlist with Yojiro Uetake and Cael Sanderson as to who is the greatest U.S. college wrestler of all-time. He’s so much of a legend that the Hesiman trophy of college wrestling is called the Hodge trophy, and high-school wrestling’s is the Junior Hodge trophy. Hodge also became a world renown pro wrestler in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Perry High has won 56 high-school state wrestling championships. At one time, the school was considered the most successful high school at any specific sport in the country. Hager, who grew up two blocks away from Hodge, has known the wrestling legend as a neighbor for as long as he remembers, has trained with his grandsons, and was on a few of those Perry High championship teams. He had some of the best coaching you could get from middle school onward. He was recruited by the University of Oklahoma to be both a defensive tackle and a heavyweight wrestler. In his senior year at Oklahoma, he even set the school record for most pins, 30, in a season by a heavyweight.
Many of his college contemporaries are known MMA stars. Some of the names who competed at the same time in the same NCAA tournaments were Chad Mendes, Ben Askren, Johny Hendricks, Gregor Gillespie, C.B. Dollaway, Cain Velasquez, Stipe Miocic, Chris Weidman, Jake Rosholt, Phil Davis, Patrick Cummins, “King Mo” Lawal, and former Bellator champion Cole Konrad. Ryan Bader, who Hager knew from college, faces Emelianenko in the main event of Bellator 214 in the finals of the tournament for the promotion’s vacant heavyweight title.
At nearly 6-foot-6, lanky, actually being almost skinny at the max of 265 pounds, and with long arms, he’s got the height and reach that none of the other college wrestling stars of his era who went into MMA had.
But every conversation regarding Hager as a fighter begins and ends with his date of birth, and the fact that since college, he’s been working as a professional wrestler and hasn’t competed in a traditional competitive sport. Those are two big questions, but Hager doesn’t want to hear about the obvious what ifs, like where he would be today if he started at the same time as his college contemporaries.
”I think I’m better off this way,” Hager said. “I’m entering into MMA, a very tough sport, a very physical sport, but I’m entering it with a name that is allowing me to debut on the same night as the Grand Prix finals at The Forum in Los Angeles. I didn’t have to start my career fighting for years in smaller promotions. I think this is the better route. In the fighting world, you need the character to sell tickets. The fans need to relate to you. For me, having this background, I know how to deal with super bright lights and big stages. I’ve been able to start out making good money, and let’s be honest, we’re all looking for a way to make money quicker. If my body wasn’t responding so well, maybe I’d say I should have started right out of college, but it has. My body is responding great. I haven’t had any injuries, knock on wood. I don’t feel 36 and hopefully I won’t look it.”
Because of his background, once Hager made a name in pro wrestling, there was always the question about doing MMA. He’d entertained the idea, but kept renewing his WWE deal until finally deciding to leave the company nearly two years ago. While he continued to wrestle with Lucha Underground and independent groups around the world, several months later he signed with Bellator. More than a year later, he’s got his first fight.
There has been little talk about his opponent, J.W. Kiser, and for good reason. This matchup is more to demonstrate what skills Hager has as a fighter.
Kiser, 41, is 1-1 as a professional after going 11-8 as an amateur.
”I’ve watched video on him,” Hager said.
”We’re focused on my game, what I do well, and inflicting my will upon him and learning how to do so.”
Hager said that his style is going to be built around the wrestling that he knows and undertands. While his body type may be beneficial to striking, he’s only done that for two years as compared to wrestling skills that are second nature. They are such second nature that the biggest surprise Hager had in learning the sport is having to adjust those natural wrestling tendencies because of mistakes in early training that jiu-jitsu experts have been able to take advantage of.
But he looks at people like Askren, Josh Koscheck, Henry Cejudo, and Matt Hughes as his models of sort, people who were able to reach MMA stardom while never veering far from their wrestling base.
He’s been hitting two-a-day practices since September for the fight.
”We’ve mixed everything (wrestling, grappling and striking) because conditioning-wise that’s the hardest part, to lift your hands and throw people consistently,” he said. “Being in that position gets tiring. We’ve done everything. In MMA, I’m doing what wrestlers have done, taking people down, controlling them and not letting them back up, like Cejudo, like Bader did to Mitrione. I think I’m going to model a lot of my game after that. I’ve been striking for two years, but it takes a lifetime to master that. I feel I’m good at it, but I have a long way still to go. But it’s a fight and you have to be flexible on what works and what isn’t working on the day of the fight.”
Hager is also looking back at his college football experience at a major program, and thinking back at how getting ready for a fight compares to getting ready for a football game or a wrestling match.
”I played defensive line in college. That helps because I’m used to being around big bodies and using my leverage,” he said. “I’m not always in the gym the strongest guy, but you use your body weight correctly, you can compete with anyone. The biggest thing is how to prepare, how to train. I’ve had world-class coaches around me. When I was in middle school, we had the head Olympic team coach teaching me because I was dating his daughter. I had Division I strength and conditioning coaches.
”Oklahoma football is a business,” Hager continued. “You learn how to handle yourself in a business, as a brand, and as part of a team. A lot of things you can take from that apply to bring over here.
”Playing football and wrestling, I would get nervous, I’d have a lot of anxiety at that point, because I was afraid I’d blow up out there, afraid to get tired and not being able to perform at the highest level. And then with WWE, I think the live television aspect of the performance is what drives the nerves. You have to be so on point, on time, and on the specifics of what they want in the match. It’s a lot to work with. Surprisingly, MMA so far has given me the least nerves. I’ve not nervous at all. I see this as a huge opportunity.
”It’s 2019, you can get so much video now and you can see guys like Ben Askren, who is around the same age as me, who can use their wrestling to dominate,” Hager added. “When I first started, it was frustrating. Jiu-jitsu was the most frustrating, more than boxing or kickboxing. I thought it was going to be similar to wrestling. It is and it isn’t. There’s a time to wrestle and a time to use jiu-jitsu. It’s very tricky. I can double-leg you, take you down and a good guy can end it right after I got the takedown if I make a mistake. I had to put a lot of work into it. I’m excited because I feel like my body and natural instincts are now reacting the right way.”
Hager is also excited to finish up and watch the last two matches on the show.
”I’m so looking forward to that fight,” he said about Emelianenko vs. Bader. “Ryan went through the tournament. He had an impressive win over Mo, a dominant win over Matt Mitrione, who a lot of people picked to win the Grand Prix. He’s really turned a lot of heads. He might be the favorite to win the fight even though he’s giving up a couple of pounds to ‘The Last Emperor.’ I think it’s going to be great. Something about a tournament makes everything seem bigger, more meaningful. I think the MMA world was buzzing because of the heavyweight Grand Prix. I think you’ll see more (tournaments) because of the success of this one. This card is amazing.
”And I love Aaron Pico,” Hager continued. “I was at The Forum in January (2018) where he did that left hook to the body right in front of me. I thought, ‘That’s what you’re getting into.’ It’s exciting and scary at the same time.”
Hager made it clear that he’s looking at competing in both MMA and pro wrestling for the next several years. He wants to fight regularly in 2019, but said Bellator has also been accommodating to him regarding his pro wrestling schedule.
Hager sees pro wrestling heating up, with the recent announcement of All Elite Wrestling (AEW), a new promotion backed by billionaires Shad and Tony Khan. He’s invited several of AEW’s biggest stars — The Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes and Kenny Omega — to see his fight, and the Young Bucks are planning on attending.
”If you look, you have to wonder why did it take so long for somebody to take advantage of this momentum (of non-WWE pro wrestling) and be able to compete with WWE,” he said. “I don’t have the answer for it. Cody and the Young Bucks and Kenny have done something unprecedented, reaching new heights of popularity in helping pro wrestling cross over to the mainstream. I love it. It’s changing the landscape. This is so good for pro wrestlers, for all the boys in the back, it’s just amazing for them. It gives us leverage and it gives them competition. Competition makes you better. You have to step it up with these guys breathing down your back.
”My favorite era was the Monday Night Wars (1995-2001, the period pro wrestling was at its hottest period since probably the early 1950s) and I hope and pray we bring that back at a whole new level. I feel a whole new era of pro wrestling can come out of this. The Internet provides smaller promotions with the ability to stream to get the amazing talent that nobody knows about and get them noticed. It’s really cool what those guys are doing. What those guys are doing is going to be incredible.”