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Jake Hager balancing tight rope as he fights for Bellator and devotes more time to AEW

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Jake Hager loves a good challenge.

After leaving World Wrestling Entertainment in 2017, the former Oklahoma wrestler decided to turn his attention toward MMA, where he almost immediately signed with Bellator. While he’d been devoted to pro-wrestling for quite some time, Hager felt like the window to test himself in combat sports was probably closing. It was now or never to pursue another athletic interest.

Thus far, Hager’s experiment has paid off. So far, he’s earned 2-0 record with both wins coming by way of first-round submission. His third fight is scheduled for Friday night at Bellator 231 in Connecticut.

In the midst of fight preparation, Hager inked a deal to join the ranks at All-Elite Wrestling (AEW)—a new upstart pro-wrestling promotion with a weekly show on TNT. He’s made appearances at every televised AEW show the past few weeks while in the middle of his training camp to prepare for his fight against Anthony Garrett this weekend.

It hasn’t been easy, but Hager wouldn’t have it any other way.

“If it’s not big enough to scare you, then it’s not big enough,” he told MMA Fighting. “I definitely chose this because it was big enough to scare me, to feel the pressure of having to win [my fight] after debuting in AEW. Not only do you need to have a successful debut on AEW, but now you have to go out and get the ‘W’ (and) win a professional MMA fight on top of it.

“There is a lot of pressure, but I have great people around me and I have been in these situations so many times before that I’m used to it. I feel like I perform better when I’m under pressure, and I really have to focus and I have to put my best self forward.”

According to Hager, he was first approached about joining the AEW roster earlier this year, long before he had his next Bellator fight scheduled.

It was always his intention to return to a major pro-wrestling promotion even while he was fighting, so it was really just a matter of time before it happened.

“When I first left WWE back in 2017, this was always the plan,” Hager explained. “This was always the goal to crossover into MMA and not only find a new way to make a living, but also to use that to capitalize on my history and my background and make me a more noticeable professional wrestler. So far we’ve done that.

“It really started this summer, where I was always throwing out teasers during the fights because I knew AEW was coming. It didn’t get really serious until this summer when Chris Jericho called me and kind of laid out a game plan. As soon as he said that, I was on board.”

Hager worked with Bellator every step of the way to ensure that his fight promoters weren’t at odds with his pro-wrestling promoters as he prepared to juggle two careers at the same time.

The good news was Hager received positive responses from both companies, which just made his job that much easier.

“It was all positive,” he said. “[Bellator] were very excited. Very excited for me and my family, and then very excited for the opportunity to work with TNT and work with AEW, and the possibility to cross promote.

“You look at other organizations and it gives me a headache, it makes me sick to my stomach imagining myself being back in there and having to deal with that environment when it wasn’t made easy. You can help your asset become a bigger star. It’s kind of shocking that more and more companies haven’t done this, or they’re fighting it, but Bellator understands how to value their assets.”

With Bellator and AEW behind him, Hager is excited for the future. But the real work falls back on his shoulders as he figures out a balance between fighting and wrestling as he moves forward.

Hager admits after his fight on Friday, he’ll probably turn the bulk of his attention toward AEW for the immediate future. But that doesn’t mean he’s giving up his MMA career. He’s just going to have to figure out how to make both work simultaneously.

Hager is more than confident he’ll find a way.

“It will play a lot by ear and see how the situation unfolds,” he said. “After this fight, I’m going to devote a majority of the time to AEW and to wrestling, because we are brand new. We have had a few great weeks of episodic television, and we’re very hot and want to continue on and continue to strike while the iron is hot.

“We’re going to be on our toes for the next year and continually try to make training better, make TV better, and do them both. As long as AEW and Bellator are excited to work with me on that, we’re going to keep doing it.”

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