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Jake Hager, college champ and the Jack Swagger of WWE fame, is making the switch to cage fighting

WWE wrestler turned cage fighter Jake Hager takes a break after sparring for 10 rounds at the Ybor City Jiu-Jitsu Club. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Dec. 24, 2018

TAMPA — Collegiate wrestling fans may remember Jake Hager as a former heavyweight All-American at the University of Oklahoma who set a school record in 2006 with 30 pins in a single season.

Professional wrestling fans know him as champion Jack Swagger, a World Wrestling Entertainment performer from 2008-2017.

Now, the 36-year-old Oklahoma native — a resident of Tampa for 12 years — is turning his attention to competition that is both professional and legitimate.

The 6-foot-7 Hager will make his mixed martial arts, cage-fighting debut 9 p.m. Jan. 26 as a heavyweight competing in a bout promoted by Bellator, second only to UFC in the MMA world.

Hager will take on John Kisner, who has a record of 1-1-0, at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif. The event will be televised live on the Paramount Network and features a heavyweight title bout between veteran Ryan Bader and legend Fedor Emelianenko.

Hager brings familiarity with the spotlight to mixed martial arts.

"I have a lot of experience with the lights on bright — a lot of people watching and performing on live television," he said.

A married father of two, Hager is juggling a hectic schedule while preparing for his new career — training weekdays at Ybor City Jiu-Jitsu Club under the tutelage of former UFC and Bellator fighter Josh Rafferty while still wrestling weekends for smaller promoters to make ends meet.

Wrestling moves like those from his college days are part of mixed martial arts, and Hager picked them up again "like riding a bike," he said.

"But this isn't only amateur wrestling," he said. "It's mixed martial arts. There are many disciplines I need to be good at." They include jiu-jitsu, kickboxing and boxing.

"But I'm ready," he said.

Hager is taking on a big challenge, said Christopher Rothstein of Tampa, a ring announcer for mixed martial arts promoters including Pensacola-based Island Fights.

"Hager is a legitimate wrestler, with great accolades and should be taken seriously," Rothstein said.

But Bellator is "a world-class major league, plus Hager is jumping into the sport late." At some point, he may have to "battle fighters who have been training for years."

Earlier in the year, before Hager's fight was announced, Bellator president Scott Coker told the Tampa Bay Times he had no immediate plans to throw Hager into the cage with a top-ranked opponent. He would start with someone else near the beginning of his mixed martial arts career.

After that, Coker said, "it is up to him. We're giving him a platform. The only thing we provide is an opportunity."

Mixed martial arts has other fighters who competed in college wrestling then the WWE.

Brock Lesnar won the NCAA heavyweight title in 2000, became WWE champion, left wrestling, then won the UFC heavyweight title. He is back with the WWE but will fight for the UFC heavyweight title again next year.

Bobby Lashley was a three-time heavyweight champion from 1996-1998 with the small-college National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics before joining WWE and then leaving to accumulate a 15-2 record in mixed martial arts, including five fights with Bellator. Lashley is now back with the WWE.

But Lesnar started out with a bout for a lesser-known mixed-martial arts promoter and Lashley fought in four small organizations before joining now-defunct promoter Strikeforce with its televised fights.

Hager is jumping right into the big-time.

He's heard the naysayers insist that Bellator signed him for his celebrity as well as his athleticism, and he's okay with that.

"One of the best pieces of advice I ever got in professional wrestling was use the exposure from cable's number one rated television show to transition and move on to what you want to go into next."

But Bellator president Coker said Hager was signed because he has legitimate credentials, especially from his college days.

"When you have a fighter that has the wrestling background that he has, it is something we want to explore," Coker said. "But there is nothing like entering that cage for the first time and them locking the door behind you and its just you and that other person and it is time to fight."

By early 2017, the itch to fight legitimately was too much for Hager to ignore. WWE's travel schedule allowed no time for him to train as mixed martial arts fighter so he asked to be released.

He has no regrets.

"I didn't realize how much I missed the competition until I started training again. It has reignited a lot of passion in me. I'm loving it."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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