Hardened fight fans would have been forgiven for approaching Jake Hager’s transition from professional wrestling to mixed martial arts with some trepidation. After CM Punk’s highly-publicized yet ultimately fruitless foray into “real fighting” with the UFC, which consisted of two emphatic defeats, there was a lingering sense of pessimism as Bellator went to the well themselves and signed the man known in most parts as Jack Swagger.
Any thoughts that Bellator’s answer to Brock Lesnar was not cut-out for the fight game and was ill-advised in switching career paths were dispelled very quickly this past Saturday night – in two minutes and nine seconds, to be exact – as Hager notched a flawless debut victory over J.W. Kiser. Whilst Hager’s win was vital for his MMA future, reminding his former employer WWE of what they are missing may, in fact, be the motivation that burns brightest within.
The athletic credentials of Jake Hager definitely read like the resume of an MMA fighter: A two-sport athlete in high school. A state wrestling champion. An NCAA All-American. Despite racking up the athletic accomplishments throughout his academic life, after graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelors degree, Hager was set to move to Texas to start a new job in finance. Though Hager may well have had designs on keeping the athletic career alive alongside his new job, and perhaps even pursuing MMA, those plans were soon put on hold as WWE – the omnipotent world leader in professional wrestling – head-hunted Hager.
On the very same day he was due to start his new job, the WWE signed him to a long-term developmental contract. At 24 years of age, Hager seemingly had plenty of time to figure out his options and resurrect his athletic dreams should he desire, but was committed to WWE for the foreseeable future. It only took Hager two years of training to be deemed TV-ready. And so Jack Swagger was born in September 2008.
Rise to Stardom
To this day, Hager is more commonly known by his wrestling moniker and for good reason. After all, a mere four months into his role as a Bonafide TV star, “Swagger” had attained World Champion status and looked to be on the fast-track for legendary status in the world of professional wrestling. He was vying to join the likes of Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and John Cena on the Mount Rushmore of WWE and perform in front of millions of fans worldwide each week.
Any doubts Hager may have had about casting his original career choice to the side were surely a thing of the past. The Perry, OK-native was vindicated in his decision to pursue the glitz and glamour of professional wrestling. As Hager made waves in WWE, a certain Brock Lesnar was making similar waves in the UFC, fresh off of defeating Randy Couture for the heavyweight championship. Though their television personas couldn’t be more different, WWE was clearly looking for a new Brock Lesnar: a legitimate athlete who would brick eye-balls to their waning business in the face of UFC’s first major boom period.
Decline in Popularity
Despite attaining a second World Championship in 2010, it would prove to be Swagger’s last fling as a top-star as he swiftly tumbled down the on-air pecking order. Curiously, he became lost in the shuffle. Non-wrestling fans may not be familiar with the culture of politics and paranoia that plagues the industry, but the end result meant that Swagger was out of favor and systematically reduced in both role and importance. Though Swagger’s on-screen performances continued to be strong, and he remained the organization’s most credible athlete amidst a roster growing more akin to gymnasts than actual fighters, it became clear that WWE did not view him as a valuable asset.
It was not until 2017 that tensions finally gave way. Following tumultuous periods of inactivity or otherwise meaningless roles, Hager finally requested his release from WWE. Despite clearly having no major plans for the Jack Swagger character, WWE initially refused to grant him his release. Perhaps it was petrified at the thought of another Brock Lesnar-like boost to MMA: their direct sports entertainment rivals.
When March 13, 2017 rolled around, however, Jake Hager finally became a free agent for the first time in nearly 11 years. He swiftly thereafter announced that he was pursuing a career in MMA. On the eve of his 35th birthday, it seemed every bit a “now or never” moment, with Hager breaking free of the lucrative-yet-frustrating shackles of professional wrestling and devoting his energies to his dreams of becoming a fighter. But was it too little too late?
Hager Signs with Bellator
On Nov. 13, 2017, Jake Hager officially signed with Bellator MMA and announced his intentions to compete in its then-dormant heavyweight division. Hager’s signing coincided with the announcement of an eight-man tournament to crown a new Bellator heavyweight champion. The former-wrestler resisted the temptation of throwing his name into the hat and instead focused on training for his eventual debut.
After 13 months of training, Hager’s debut was announced: a featured bout which just so happened to be on the same card as the finale for the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix. Serendipitous, perhaps, but to most onlookers, it would be nothing more than a coincidence, with very few seeing Hager as someone worthy of mere discussion alongside such revered names as Fedor Emelianenko and Ryan Bader. Besides, Hager would first need to prove that he can get past the likes of J.W. Kiser. Kiser, whilst a veteran of life at 41 years of age, was similarly inexperienced as a fighter with only a 1-1 record as a professional. He was 11-8 as an amateur.
Hager’s MMA Debut
On Jan. 26 at The Forum, Hager entered the proverbial lion’s den and came out victorious, submitting Kiser with an arm-triangle choke. In truth, the opposing lion within said den was not as ferocious as the ones that surely lie in Hager’s future, but the risk of losing was as scary as any opponent could be. After all, the narrative of a debut loss would almost certainly prove too hard to overcome, at least in the short-term. At 36, Hager would not be afforded the same patience as a young upstart like Aaron Pico.
Perhaps sensing the urgency required to achieve his new career goals, Hager came out of the blocks fast. Fleet-footed and athletic, he quickly secured a take-down and showcased his impressive reach in doing so. Once Hager secured control on the ground, the narrative of the fight became how he would finish his foe. Interchanging brutal ground and pound with submission attempts, Hager eventually settled for the arm-triangle choke and forced his opponent to tap out. A working day for a heavyweight tends to be short at the best of times anyway, but Hager wasted no time securing his win in emphatic style.
The All-American passed his all-important test and proved that he is a legitimate fighter, but what else do we know at this juncture? Though the sample size is obviously small to draw from, in the 129 seconds of combat at Bellator 214, Hager showcased two undeniable qualities that certainly bode well for his future: athleticism and high-level wrestling. To accompany his burgeoning technical qualities, Hager clearly possesses the required temperament to perform in high-pressure situations and in front of a large audience, an invaluable quality honed by performing in front of much larger audiences for the better part of a decade for WWE.
Hager’s striking is very much a question mark and one that leaves me eager to watch his next fight under the Bellator banner. Fans and detractors alike will surely agree that it is his striking that will ultimately determine how far he can go in his MMA career, with only a minimal exchange on display at Bellator 214. En route to defeating Kiser, Hager walked into a clubbing punch yet remained undeterred in his goal to secure the takedown – a positive sign that he at the very least possesses a chin that will serve him when it matters. Whether Hager has the required jab to accompany his sizable 82-inch reach is another important question, but if the answer is “yes,” then it would make for an exciting, potent combination of skills.
In the aftermath of his big splash in Bellator, Hager went on record as to state his goal of becoming the Bellator heavyweight champion, and stated that he feels he could realistically attain his goal in 12-18 months. Whilst acknowledging his short window of opportunity, Hager also remarked that he is in the best physical condition of his athletic life, which bodes well for his longevity.
Whilst more relevant challenges lie in his path first, naturally, the mind wonders what Hager’s ceiling could really be, and how Bellator may look to pair him up if and when he finds himself with a couple more wins in their organization. Hager has stated his desire to fight again within three months and continue his development as a mixed martial artist. Whilst I am certainly not endorsing that Jake Hager be paired up with anyone close to the perennially ferocious Matt Mitrione next time out, even as a fan of Mitrione, I would concede that Hager possesses the wrestling alone to give him problems.
Should Bellator’s Hager-experiment prove successful, and Hager proves himself as a serviceable striker, perhaps Mitrione – a striker with established deficits and a general disinterest in the ground-game – could be viewed as a potential step-up in competition in the not too distant future. If Hager makes it to that level of competition it would certainly be a moral victory in and of itself – just don’t tell the 6’5″, 238-lb. behemoth Hager, who clearly has gold-plated expectations and won’t be settling for a participation trophy.
Hager’s MMA Future
With his birthday in March, Hager will likely be 37 years of age before he makes his second outing as a Bellator MMA fighter. The clock is ticking for Hager. Whether he can reach his potential before his time as an elite athlete elapses is the overriding story that leaves me fascinated. We will never know “what could have been” had Hager pursued MMA out of college, or even left the ungrateful WWE a few years sooner, but if Hager has his way, then the question won’t matter at all.
Whether it’s the wrestling persona shining through I don’t know, but Hager speaks with the utmost certainty and confidence about his abilities and optimism for his future. As a fan of the professional wrestler first who felt his talents were never truly appreciated, it is almost poetic that he now has the opportunity to forge his way based on hard work and talent alone – such is the beauty of mixed martial arts fighting.
Though he may not publicly declare it himself, Hager is an athlete who has had the majority of his best years stolen from him by WWE. Hager now has the power – in more ways than one – to make up for lost time and prove himself as a legitimate heavyweight fighter, and in doing so, prove the WWE wrong.