When Jake Hager gets into the Bellator cage on Friday night, he’s facing a different kind of pressure.
Hager, the man formerly known as Jack Swagger, has two careers going right now, and losing right now would be very bad for both.
Jack Swagger, his previous moniker and the name he’s still best known as, was known as “The All-American American” for years in World Wrestling Entertainment. He had a catch phrase, “We the people,” which he would shout out with the fans. When he came out for his first Bellator fights, there was a “We the people” chant from the crowd.
”The All-American American” name came because he placed in the 2006 NCAA wrestling championships as a heavyweight from the University of Oklahoma, thus earning All-American status.
His pro-wrestling days aren’t over. In fact, he’s hoping that the consistent level of stardom as a pro wrestler that eluded him in WWE can be achieved with his new employer, All Elite Wrestling. And unlike most who have crossed over from MMA to pro wrestling, or in the other direction, Hager is performing on two television platforms concurrently. And the two are tied together.
On Oct. 9, one week after Hager’s appearance on the AEW debut show, he was in the ring backing up Chris Jericho, one of AEW’s flagship performers. Hager is Jericho’s backup muscle, the guy who interferes to make sure Jericho stays world champion. As Jericho was talking, the fans in Boston loudly chanted, “We the people,” Jericho paused, and in a classic impromptu and unplanned moment, went off. He said that “We the People” is dead, it was a bad idea from bad creative, and declared that his real name was Jake Hager and he’s an undefeated MMA fighter. He pushed that Hager was the baddest man in pro wrestling. Hager quickly realized with his new gimmick, losing right now would not be a good thing.
The entire crowd was stunned at Jericho’s off-the-cuff remarks and it was something of a magic moment for Hager, who was standing there.
”Oh man, I get goose bumps just thinking about it,” he said. “I think this is the perfect example on why you don’t need everything scripted out in wrestling. If you are talking and the fans react in a certain way, and you can’t react back, it falls flat. Chris, like no other, has the uncanny ability to know what to say and the timing. No one else can do what he did. That’s the single biggest advantage AEW has (in trying to compete with WWE) is Chris Jericho, because of moments like that.”
The crowd went crazy, as in the competition of a wrestling war, the AEW fan base is largely anti-WWE, which gave him the previous gimmick.
”I left that company two-and-a-half years ago,” he said. “They didn’t want me. They didn’t value me. Now we’re here. For me, everything is fair game. It’s nothing personal. It’s all business. If you thought that was a special moment, get ready. It was just the beginning.”
But now he has to live up to the moniker of being an MMA superstar, which isn’t easy for a fighter with just two fights under his belt. Even with his football and amateur wrestling pedigree before pro wrestling, his size and 81-inch reach, he’s also a few months from his 38th birthday.
It’s an ominous number, because of the eight heavyweight All-Americans in that 2006 tournament, four went into MMA. And the other three are gone. Cole Konrad, who won the tournament, was a heavyweight champion in Bellator, and has long since retired. Steve Mocco, who placed second and was a former NCAA champion and Olympian, did not have a great career as a fighter and has also retired into coaching. The other All-American from that year was Cain Velasquez, who placed fourth, and has just retired from fighting to go in the opposite direction, starting pro wrestling on national TV at 37.
”Yeah, absolutely,” he said about how this new wrestling persona has made his fight Friday even bigger for him in both the worlds he’s competing in. “This is a very big chunk I’ve bit off and it’s big enough to scare me. I wanted to prove to everybody who Jake Hager is. Now that the (AEW) debut has gone well, yeah, there’s more pressure on me not only to win, but to make a statement. This is where I rely on my background. This is where having been to the NCAA Division I championships and wrestling (in WWE) before 80,000 people helps out. It’s scary. I’ve got a lot on my plate, but I can handle it. Dealing with pressure is a good thing. It’ll make you work harder and make you focus even more.”
Hager (2-0) faces Anthony Garrett, an unknown heavyweight with a 3-1 record who, unlike his first two opponents, can match Hager’s size. Garrett is 6-foot-5, like Hager (who was billed at 6-foot-7 as a pro wrestler), and cuts to make 265 pounds. Hager has been fighting at 238 to 240 pounds.
”I’ve seen a couple of his fights on YouTube,” said Hager. “We’re really big into film study. We also watch ourselves and see a lot of things. He’s all of 6-foot-5. This will be my biggest test coming. As a heavyweight, you always want to rely on your size. It takes the least amount of energy to lay on someone. I’m going to have to use technique, footwork, head motion and close the distance and get him into the position I want. From what I can see, he wants to get you up against the cage and get the takedown.”
Hager suffered no significant injuries in his first two fights, so he’s never had to take real time off training after fighting.
”Honestly, this has been a one year long training camp for this fight. I’m not going to get tired. I can go 35 minutes.”
”I’m looking to give him no windows, I need to not make any mistakes and give him the opportunity to beat me. That’s using the striking with the wrestling. I don’t want him on top of me at all. If he tries to wrestle with me, I’m all for it, but I’ll be quick to get out of there if he’s trying to throw his weight around.”
Hager debuted as a surprise at the end of AEW’s debut television show on Oct. 2, as part of the lead heel group in the promotion called The Inner Circle, with Jericho as the mouthpiece and star. It’s something of the role that Arn Anderson played in the old Four Horseman group, with Jericho as its Ric Flair.
Hager agreed to terms with AEW owner Tony Khan over the summer, but both sides kept it a secret until his run-in. With Khan wanting Hager as the big surprise debut at the end of the first show, Hager had to do a unique training camp for Friday’s fight.
”This is where I wanted to be, but be careful what you wish for,” he said. “The balancing act is little tough. I knew about AEW all summer. I was preparing for this fight early. When Oct. 2 came around, my training camp was mostly done and then I had three weeks to go. I feel ready and prepared for the fight. After this, I’m going to continue to wrestle and that’ll be a juggling act. I’ll take Wednesdays and Thursdays off (AEW tapes television every Wednesday). I’ll train every day from Friday to Tuesday, and fly out Tuesday night. That’s what I’m planning on, doing both right now. It’s a great thing, but it’s a lot.”
Hager did say he’s got the blessing of Khan, who is an MMA fan, if he were to need time off in the future. For this fight, the agreement was he’d do television every week except for fight week, but wouldn’t do his first actual match until after the fight. While he’s already been in some short brawls around the ring, he said the last thing he wanted to do was risk an injury at this time.
”Bellator’s been great, allowing me to do certain things with AEW,” he said. said. “They’re very excited about it. I’m waiting until after the fight because I don’t want to blow an ankle or something silly that can be hindering in the fight. I want to make the first match in AEW mean something.”
”It’s going to be a work in progress. We’re definitely going to have to see what’s in store for AEW and what we’re doing. From the very first phone call with Tony Khan, he said, `Please win and if you need time off, let me know.’ From a boss, it was awesome. I’m going to take him up. We might need a whole fight camp for two months and be off TV, and we might be there every Wednesday and work through it. This fight will be a good gauge for next year.”
But Hager is all smiles when he talks about his other new job, where he said people will eventually see, because of the schedule, a better product than the competition has.
”There were points in my WWE career where I was very excited to show up and excited about what I was doing and actually excited about being there and there were times when all the love was gone,” he said. “They do that on purpose. Right now, I feel I’m in a different place. All the bitterness I had from WWE, it doesn’t matter anymore. We’re onto the next one. To bring that with me would be silly. There’s so much excitement here, so much to be excited about. It’s really fun. The best thing that will keep that excitement going and you’ll see it translate on the screen is working one day a week. We’re showing up for TV. One day is so much better than doing five days a week grinding, driving rental cards, getting no sleep. We’ll all be more healthy and you’ll see that wellness translate into our product.”