JAKE HAGER insists his Jack Swagger persona is “dead and buried” as he aims to continue his three-year journey to the top of MMA and pro wrestling.
The 37-year-old is looking to make it 3-0 inside the cage when he battles Anthony Garrett at Bellator 231 this Friday at the Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, United States.
But the star’s preparation for his latest fight has been anything but low-key due to his return to the squared-circle as part of the wrestling industry shaking AEW.
Hager debuted on the company’s inaugural episode of Dynamite on October 2 and is now aligned with the legendary Chris Jericho, Santana and Ortiz, and Sammy Guevara as part of The Inner Circle faction.
However, if Garrett or anyone else thinks the former WWE World Champion is taking his eye off the ball then they are in for a nasty surprise – in fact it’s all part of a long-term plan that involved the heavyweight risking it all in order to succeed.
Speaking exclusively to Sun Sport, Hager said: “It’s funny because I’m a pro wrestler and everybody wants to think I’m playing games but I’m not really.
“There are thousands of fighters who wish they had my pro wrestling background and my exposure in order to help out their MMA career. So if you think we are just playing games then just watch.
“It’s been a real busy month for me but we’ve been planning this for three years. I eventually signed with AEW over the summer, and I really wanted to capitalise on that exposure by having a great fight with Bellator straight after.
“It may seem surprising to the outside world, but we’ve been preparing for this ever since my second fight.
“The whole plan since I left WWE was to go into pro fighting and successfully cross-over and make more of a name for myself as I knew that could only help the pro wrestling side of my career.
“So this is really what I’ve been planning for three years, and there have been lots of ups and downs on this journey, but it’s so exciting to be sat here 2-0 and after debuting in AEW with the opportunity to go 3-0 on a worldwide platform.
“It’s kind of like ‘Wow, am I really doing this?’ It was kind of like a perfect storm of Cody Rhodes leaving, the Young Bucks and Being The Elite really transforming and growing into this huge thing.
“It’s an exciting time but we knew this was going to happen three years ago when we left the company and we just had to plan and work towards it so we were ready for when the moment came.”
The undefeated 6ft 5in grappler continued: “The only real thing my return with AEW has affected is the days that I train. We’ve had to re-arrange my rest days and the days were I’ve been working hard, but I’m lucky I’ve got a great team and coaches that understand both pro wrestling and MMA and what a big deal this is.
“They’ve been instrumental in helping me make the transition and being able to stop camp for two days in order to go to the television show and then come back and get right back into fight camp. It’s very cool and I feel very blessed to have this opportunity.”
If there is one thing abundantly clear throughout the whole interview with Hager is that he is proud of his wrestling past and excited for his future in the business – even if he was willing to risk it all for a shot at his dream.
And he acknowledges his exploits in WWE have put a huge target on his back with many doubters wanting to see him fail.
“Absolutely, that’s the whole allure,” he said. “If I go into that cage and I don’t perform, what does that say about me as a pro wrestler? It definitely hurts my image, and in wrestling, perception is reality, so it is a big gamble for me to do this.
“But if it’s not big enough to scare you and there’s no risk, there’s no reward. I think the way we do it and invested in ourselves it’s going to be a very cool moment – but at the same time there is no-one going into that cage with more on the line than me.”
Hager joined WWE in 2006 but made the brave decision to leave the guaranteed wage on offer in 2017 to chase a dream that only really began when he watched one of his old college friends from cage side.
He explained: “It started back in 2013. My current MMA manager was a team-mate of mine at the University of Oklahoma, and another team-mate of mine was fighting in Tampa where I lived.
“We went to the fight and got the buzz then and said ‘Man, wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this?’
“It took a while to really make the transition and the move from the company, because of the fear over loss of income when I’ve got to provide.
“But it was back then I first got the bug and then the moment I knew I was going to go into pro fighting was when I was in contract negotiations with WWE and they just came back with an offer so disrespectful, I just thought ‘Screw it, we’re gone’.
“Of course there were doubts and a lot of people just want to focus on the finish and get the W. For me, the journey is more important. And it’s been so incredible for me and my family.
“From recovering from being on the road over 250 days a year for a decade, in a pretty nasty environment at times, this has just been so refreshing.
“It’s like a breath of fresh air and I’m home five days a week, taking my kids to and picking them up from school, setting my own schedule of when I go to work and who I choose to work with, that’s everything to me.
“It’s hard to complain. If you’re not happy about having those situations then it relies on your hard work to change it and there is no-one stopping you. And the ball is definitely in my court.”
Suddenly, after announcing in December 2017 he had signed a contract with Bellator, just over a year later he found himself about to walk out to the cage for the first time.
And he made an impressive start as he defeated J.W. Kiser via submission at 2:09 of the first round.
He said: “At that point I was pretty confident. But along the journey there were times when I looked at my coaches, Josh and Rob, and I had to be brutally honest with myself and realise I had a long way to go before thinking about getting in the cage.
“It could be a very scary thing, so I’m blessed to have these coaches that understand what I’m trying to do and get better at the things I need to. It’s not just me out there – it’s been a whole team effort with Josh, Rob, Joey, my wife… we’re all fighting in there.
“When you have that around you then you have a lot of confidence, especially walking to the cage.”
So how did that first win as an MMA fighter rank with winning the WWE World Championship in 2010?
“It does compare because they were both huge moments in my life and something I will always take with me and remember,” Hager said.
“I think the only difference is… you can see after that first win the pure raw emotion of years and years of hard work to get to that point.
“It was a feeling of complete vindication of leaving a job where you are making hundreds of thousands of dollars to take a risk and do something as brutal as professional MMA. And to get that first win was a great feeling because of all the aspects that went into it.
“I could have very easily gone out there, got beat and ended up losing two job. I put it up there with winning the World Heavyweight Championship but I really compare it more with winning my first state high school championship because that was my first big moment and it was just raw emotion.
“Luckily I don’t have to worry about it but who knows how a loss would have affected my career,” he continued. “I think they are doing a great job of re-branding Jake Hager and making me the person I should have always been.
“A lot of that has to do with how they are portraying me, but I think a lot of it is because we went into that cage twice and we came out with two victories. Both of those aspects are key in this.”
Most people will recognise Hager from his days as the “All-American American” character from his spell in WWE.
But he insists his heart-thumping “We The People” character is over for good – especially after Jericho’s classic on-air shot at the “bad creative” who came up with the idea.
Hager said: “It’s dead and buried! Thank you Chris. If no-one else in the world thanks you, I will.
“It was a great moment in pro wrestling. It happened live, and it was one of those things. As fans we love surprises, and that was a surprise to me as well because I didn’t know he was going to say it.
“It’s funny, but when you’re in the ring, it is hard to sometimes understand what someone is saying on the mic.
“So I didn’t hear exactly what he said until I watched it back but I knew exactly what the context of it was by the way the audience reacted. Moments like that are very hard to replicate because it’s real.”
Speaking of Y2J, the inaugural AEW World Champion has wasted no time in bigging up Hager since they joined forces, hailing him as “the most feared man in MMA”.
Hager said: “He is the best asset that AEW has. He is our biggest weapon when we go to compete and really show who we are.
“And if he said that then it must be true, now I’ve just got to go and live up to it and I don’t think there’s going to be any problem with that.
“Chris knows me, how I train and prepare and that I leave no doubt.”
One way to prove Jericho right would be for Hager to win championship gold.
Brock Lesnar, Ronda Rousey and more recently Cain Velasquez have all enjoyed success inside the wrestling ring as well as the cage.
However, no-one has ever held duel titles in MMA and wrestling at the same time – something Hager would love to achieve.
He said: “That would be incredible and I was just talking about that with my coach the other day. He was telling how eight years ago you would never have a professional fighter leave camp to go and do a TV show for a couple of days and then start fight camp back up.
“It’s an incredible time right now. We definitely saw this coming three years ago and we wanted to be ahead of the curve but that really hadn’t crossed my mind until you said it about being AEW champion and Bellator Heavyweight Champion.
“That would be incredible and what a goal.”
But what about his British fans? Can we expect to see Hager either in MMA or wrestling action on these shores soon?
“Absolutely,” he says. “I loved watching the Bellator London and Dublin shows, they are all very exciting with a different style of audience.
“So I don’t see why we can’t come across the pond and give all of those UK fans a taste of Jake Hager and MMA.”
You can watch Bellator 231 live on Sky Sports this Friday night. The broadcast begins at 2am.