Jake Hager can still remember the roar of the crowd, more than 80,000 strong, when he challenged Alberto Del Rio for the WWE championship at WrestleMania 29. As Jack Swagger, he had polarized the WWE audience with his strong anti-immigration views, employing the catchphrase "we the people" and eventually ending up in a brief online feud with political commentator Glenn Beck.
It was the most exciting time of his professional wrestling career, a time when all the pieces he'd carefully put together to form a fully realized character were paying off. It was, it seemed, the start of something special.
Unfortunately for Hager, that was back in 2013 and, in the world of wrestling, four years might as well be an eon. He'd spent most of his time since in seemingly pointless feuds or, worse in his mind, aimlessly drifting on WWE's B-programming, present but not taking part.
"Toward the end, getting segments cut and having nothing really planned, it really starts to weigh on you," Hager told Bleacher Report recently. "You put your body into it, you put your heart into it and you want to have an impact on the end product. And it's frustrating when you don't.
"You want to be in the main events. To be successful in WWE, you have to love what you do. You have to want to steal the show every time you go out. It's also an opportunity to create a better life for your family. And when you're up there doing what you feel is a better and better job over the years and you still don't get the opportunity to earn more money and a better place on the card, it gets very frustrating."
It was time for something new. But what? While trading wins back and forth on the deep undercard (Jack Swagger compiled a record of 63-62 in 2016, according to the Internet Wrestling Database), Hager found himself returning again and again to a fantasy he'd harbored for years. As a college wrestler at the University of Oklahoma, he'd competed against the likes of Cain Velasquez and Cole Konrad. Heck, he'd even beaten Velasquez, a future UFC champion, in a grueling overtime preseason match.
"It was quite the endurance test," he remembers more than a decade later. "Cain is known for his gas tank, for not getting tired. But I was too stubborn to quit. Luckily, I caught a takedown on him at the end."
Why couldn't I, Hager wondered, have just as much success in the cage as my contemporaries? He'd been competitive against men who went on to championship glory in both Bellator and UFC and was even an NCAA All-American in his senior year back in 2006. His fiercest rival, Steve Mocco, had represented America in the Olympics. Why couldn't he, even years removed from athletics, compete with just about anyone out there?
He pitched the idea to WWE, asking the company to allow Jack Swagger to strut his stuff in real competition, returning victorious the next Monday on Raw. It wasn't really using him anyway, he reasoned. Why not take a chance and see what happened?
WWE wasn't interested in such a scheme, especially after fellow WWE star Brock Lesnar was released for a UFC fight in 2016 only to fail a subsequent drug test. The company wasn't interested, it seemed to him, in anything Hager pitched its way.
But the MMA dream refused to die. Much like fellow amateur standouts-turned-WWE stars such as Lesnar, Bobby Lashley and even Kurt Angle, it was hard for Hager to accept a career solely competing in staged fighting. In March 2017, he and WWE agreed to terms for his release. His MMA training, with former Ultimate Fighter cast member Josh Rafferty, began almost immediately. So did negotiations for his first MMA fight.
"When I heard he was seriously interested in competing in MMA and when you look at what he did at the collegiate level, I was very interested in having him on our roster," Bellator President Scott Coker said in a statement to the press. "I think Jake will expose new fans to Bellator from his previous run with WWE, and he will be given every opportunity to prove that he's the real deal inside the cage."
Though Hager and manager Daniel Rubenstein had preliminary discussions with UFC, Bellator was the perfect, obvious fit. It's an organization capable of both maximizing his pre-existing celebrity and finding him the right fights to thrive over a multiyear, six-bout deal, which starts in 2018.
"Bellator is usually good about building talent slowly," FloSlam managing editor Brent Brookhouse said. "He has that strong wrestling base, which is still arguably the absolute best base to enter MMA with. If he can defend himself on the feet enough to close distance, put guys on their backs and knows how to keep himself out of bad positions on the ground, he can probably ground-and-pound his way through a lot of the chaff at the lower end of the roster.
"He's huge. This is a guy who is 6'5" and will likely have to cut weight to make the heavyweight limit. He'll probably pick up a few wins over lower-tier opposition in his first 12-18 months in the cage. From there, it's on him to learn and grow as a fighter."
Last year, Hager's former WWE colleague CM Punk made his UFC debut in a bout that ended disastrously for the former wrestling icon. Complete with a hefty price tag and even larger name, Punk was given no chance to test the waters gently. Thrown in the deep end, on pay-per-view, Punk suffered an embarrassing loss at UFC 203 that was as high-profile as they come.
Did Punk poison the well for the next wrestling star who'll attempt to cross over? MMA Fighting deputy managing editor Marc Raimondi doesn't think so.
"Wrestling fans won't have to pay $60 to watch Hager scrap, so I'd suspect his initial offering will do fairly well on cable," Raimondi said. "Unlike the UFC, Bellator is in a position where it can slowly build up prospects—even 35-year-old ones. A gigantic, all-American heavyweight who can talk, with a built-in fan following, will be given every chance to succeed in Bellator. They will not be sending him to the wolves."
Hager is no CM Punk, something that's both a blessing and bane for Bellator. Punk, Hager readily points out, was a much bigger star than he ever was. Punk also had no athletic pedigree of any kind outside of pro wrestling. It quickly showed in a one-sided bout with Mickey Gall, where he was immediately taken to the mat and decimated. He failed to land even a single blow, per FightMetric.
"I'm more Lesnar than Punk," Hager said, careful not to criticize either man. "Punk was much more popular than I ever was. But I've been wrestling since I was five years old and [at] a very high level.
"The success that amateur wrestlers have had crossing into MMA—people from my era like Cain, Ryan Bader, Johny Hendricks and Ben Askren—gives me confidence, sure. A lot of great fighters were amateur wrestlers first and you can study them on film to see how they adapted the techniques. That's a lot of help. But I have to keep it in perspective and remember that my last competitive match was more than 10 years ago."
The building blocks, however, are clearly there, both for initial and long-term success.
Hager isn't willing to proclaim himself a future world champion. Not yet. But his body feels good after months of training with Rafferty at the Ybor City Jiu-Jitsu Club in Tampa, Florida. He's looking forward to testing himself again, in a venue where his own talents, and not a writers' room or booker, will decide how far he can go.
"The level of difficulty in most areas of MMA is very high," Hager said. "It's a high learning curve. The footwork in boxing alone takes years to master. I will rely heavily on my amateur wrestling to get out of bad situations and take me from defense to offense. I'll try to dictate the fight on my terms.
"People want to see fighters who can put on a little show and then back it up. Hopefully I can do both of those things. I look at my amateur wrestling career and then my time in the pros as being great training to become a professional fighter in this day and age. This isn't the normal path. I went about it in a different way, but hopefully the end result is the same."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.