Jake Hager, formerly known as WWE Superstar Jack Swagger, will enter the Bellator cage on Saturday for his mixed martial arts debut. But don’t expect this to go down like his former rostermate CM Punk’s UFC debut. Hager is a legitimate athlete.
Hager moved into professional wrestling after a successful collegiate career on the mat. He was a 2006 All-American at the University of Oklahoma who transitioned into the entertainment field. But those skills don’t evaporate.
If there is any comparison to Punk, it’s that both he and Hager made their announcements long before stepping into the cage. They each took the task seriously. But that’s where the comparisons should end because the inherent talent discrepancy lets everyone know that Hager is not just another entertainer coming to make a quick buck in the sport. He is an athlete. He is a fighter.
Hager is a 6’5”, 250-pound All-American stud. And Bellator is setting him up to succeed.
Are they throwing him to the wolves with a top-tier prospect? No, they are accurately testing the waters with 41-year-old J.W. Kiser who is 0-1 in his professional career. It should be a favorable introduction into the sport, and a showcase for how Hager has developed in his year of training.
At the Bellator 214 open workouts, Hager was able to show off some of his developing boxing skills. The display should have been enough to allow fans to be bullish on his prospects in Bellator. His stand-up was not top-tier or even above average for the sport, but his movement and athleticism was evident. Being a pure athlete will take you far in MMA’s heavyweight ranks, and when coupled with his high-level wrestling background, Hager's growth becomes something to watch.
While not an instant title threat, a good performance from Hager will make his presence in the division intriguing for 2019. Heavyweight MMA is volatile and the Bellator division is thin. There are opportunities waiting for an exciting heavyweight figure.
Hager told ESPN.com’s Tim Fiorvanti, "Over a year-and-a-half, [from] April of 2017 [to] October of '17 when we made the announcement to January 2019, it's been incredible. It's been a true body transformation. I competed at very high levels in college, [but] I'm in the best shape of my life because of it."
He is jacked ahead of his Bellator debut.
The pieces of the puzzle are now on the table. Everyone, especially Bellator’s brass, is now waiting to see if he can put them together. If he can, Bellator will have scored a new heavyweight worth promoting and not simply a name with past cache in an adjacent industry. Where the UFC failed with CM Punk, Bellator looks to succeed with Jake Hager.
Hager is not CM Punk. He is not Dave Bautista. He is also not Brock Lesnar. He is no past entertainer making the transition into MMA. He is his own. How far he can take it will be up to him. Saturday is the litmus test to see how high of a ceiling he may have, and Bellator is setting him up to look like a star.