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Jake Hager set to return at Bellator 221, and this time Jack Swagger isn’t with him

Courtesy of Bellator

Before Jake Hager made his MMA debut back in January, he was upholding his commitments as Jack Swagger, the pro wrestler. He was training four days a week with his coach, Josh Rafferty, and then fulfilling obligations on the indie circuit, sometimes traveling to far-off places. Even with a ridiculous schedule — and the added scrutiny of transitioning into the world of literal fights — Hager made the most of his opportunity.

He tapped out J.W. Kiser in the first round at Bellator 214 in Inglewood. Nervous? Hell no. It was unpredictable. It was gratifying. It was everything he’d hoped it would be.

“Honestly, it was fun,” Hager told MMA Fighting. “It was a lot of fun, and I felt like that because my coaches had done such a good job preparing me for it. Of course I was nervous, because nobody wants to get knocked out on television, but walking down the aisle, going through the whole fight week, doing everything, the weigh-ins, and then getting in that cage? It was a lot of fun. Honestly, it felt like, man, I was meant to do this.”

Hager isn’t sharing time with Swagger as he gets set for his second fight. For now, Swagger is in the past. He’s just Jake Hager. In his next fight — which takes place Saturday night in Rosemont, Illinois against T.J. Jones — Hager is simply looking to keep the freight train moving on the right direction.

Given that he’s a 37-year-old MMA newbie, time is obviously a factor. But even with seemingly long odds, Hager doesn’t look at fighting as a twilight pursuit, and he’s not a thrill-seeker looking to cross something off his bucket list. As a former Division 1 All-American wrestler at the University of Oklahoma, he views his transition to fighting more like getting back to his roots.

“Really, I feel like this is such a great opportunity for me and my family,” he says. “I really believe the sky is the limit. I don’t think it’s going to be too far out before I fight a champion like Ryan Bader. You kind of have to play it by ear and see how your body’s responding, but I was a late bloomer. I didn’t hit puberty until I was 18 years old. So I feel like my body is still growing, in a sense. Not like I’m getting taller, but my body is still maturing coming into its prime, even at 37 years old.

“So it almost worked out really well that I needed to wait until this moment to get it. Even back at Oklahoma I’ve never been in shape like this. I’ve never been this strong, never been this quick, never been this agile. It’s pretty cool to have a little bit of a different story.”

Hager, who for the last decade has performed as Swagger with the WWE and other wrestling organizations, is a natural showman. He is used to boom mics following him around and cameras recording his every move. The pressure of stepping into a cage and trading punches with another man isn’t nearly as daunting when you’ve come from where he’s been.

But Bader? Heavyweight title? Is that really the goal?

“That’s just the way I am,” he says. “Anything I do I have to at least try to be the best at it. Otherwise I won’t be satisfied. I like to set my goals high and work towards something. That way it’s not easy, and when I accomplish it it feels that much better. Of course I’m here to make a living for my family and provide a great education for my kids. But for me, absolutely, I 100 percent want to be the Bellator heavyweight champion.”

Hager’s wrestling scaffolding does give him a leg up on other crossover stars who’ve tried their hands at prize fighting. Much like former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, Hager had a very good career as an amateur wrestler at the college level. As a pure athlete, he also played defensive tackle for the Oklahoma Sooners football team.

He was groomed from an early age to deal with double legs and pressure, and to make both of those threats dance to his own tune. If he was bothered at all by the foreign nature of a cage fight in January, he didn’t show it. He was poised and calm in there, as if he’d been there plenty of times before.

“One thing that Josh Rafferty told me from the beginning was that I didn’t need a lot of amateur fights with this, because I have thousands upon thousands of amateur wrestling matches,” he says. “He said that I can rely on that, on being out there all by myself on an island with another person trying to enforce our wills on each other. It was very similar. I related a lot of it to that. Warming up, to preparing for a Division I wrestling match, or preparing for a D-I football game.

“The television side of it was like second nature. I’ve been on television the last 12 years. It was very similar to doing a Monday Night Raw walking out there and doing a big PPV. In most of my wrestling matches I was hitting for real anyway.”

Here he laughs, as if his fellow wrestlers would back him up on that. Asked what he knows about Jones, a 1-1 fighter who carries the ominous nickname of “Tombstone,” Hager says he’s a sight to behold.

“We’ve studied him,” he says. “He’s a boxer, he’s got good jabs, he has a strong right hand. He’s all of 265, so it’s definitely an upgrade of an opponent. We’re going to come out and test him. We’re going to see if he can get in shape and see what he can do. I know he’s going to come out there really wanting to make a name for himself and try to give me a hard time.”

Why not? Hager is the famous Jack Swagger, or at least he was Jack Swagger. For a little while Hager tried to get the IP rights to become Swagger in Bellator, too, but realized it was an uphill battle with the WWE. And besides, after his first fight — which he won via an arm-triangle choke — he decided it was time to be Hager again anyway. Hager is a burgeoning MMA prospect, who has a wrestling base and knows his submissions.

What about his hands? A 6-foot-7 colossus, he says he has those, too — but he wants to be judicious in how he showcases them.

“Of course I want to show of my hands, but I really look back at the Ryan Bader-Matt Mitrione fight of the grand prix last year,” he says. “I thought that the fight that Bader had with him was just so smart. He just did not allow himself to be in a position where he could get hurt, or could get hit. I think that’s so smart. I think you’re going to see a lot more amateur wrestlers in MMA move towards that style of fighting. There’s an old thing, ‘oh he’s a black belt in jiu-jitsu, oh he’s golden gloves boxer,’ but can he wrestle?

“So yes, that’s my goal. I’m going to get him up against the cage, I’m going to take him down, and once I get on the ground he’s not getting back up.”

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