Off the Top Rope: Jake Hager on Jericho, Bellator and Rocking a Polo for AEW

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterOctober 23, 2019

Off the Top Rope: Jake Hager on Jericho, Bellator and Rocking a Polo for AEW

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Jake Hager is fighting for a lot of things. For money. For glory. For the chance to prove himself.

    Most of all, he's fighting for your attention.

    The artist formerly known as Jack Swagger in the WWE will enter the cage for Bellator on Friday night against Anthony Garrett. You can also see him Wednesday nights on TNT as a member of AEW's Inner Circle.

    We sat down with Hager days before his fight to discuss all of this and more, including his relationship with Chris Jericho. That, plus the Match of the Week, some thoughts about why Bayley's heel turn hasn't resonated more and a rundown of the last week in wrestling in Off the Top Rope. 

New Inner Circle Member Jake Hager Is Just Getting Started

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    Photo by Lee South for AEW

    It's been nearly two years since I first talked to Hager about his plans to enter the world of mixed martial arts. At the time, it was little more than a dream—unrealized talk from an athlete with unrealized potential. 

    This year, the former University of Oklahoma wrestler has actualized all those dreams, winning his first two fights in spectacular fashion and preparing for a third while also dipping his toe back into wrestling waters with All Elite Wrestling. 

    He sat down to talk to Bleacher Report about his dual career, his role in AEW and what the future might hold for the combat sports world's most prominent dual-sport star.

                        

    Jake Hager: You know nothing, Jon Snow.

    Jonathan Snowden: So I've been told.

              

    Hager: How's it going, my friend?

    Snowden: Doing well. Excited to be talking to you at this point in your career. It seems like you're right where you wanted to be last time we talked. I'm kind of curious about how AEW came to be and how you kept it a secret. I couldn't have kept that a secret for like three-and-a-half minutes.

    Hager: You know what's funny? It still feels surreal to me, so I think that was a big part of it. It just didn't really sink in. 

    It really wasn't a perfect storm of events. When we left, we knew that we were going to use MMA to sign somewhere else in wrestling. We just didn't know where, and then this was like the best possible option, better than anything we could have imagined. A brand-new promotion that's hotter than anything out there right now. And so, it really makes sense.

               

    Snowden: And you wanted to use your MMA fights to kind of propel you into this position?

    Hager: Yeah. And for the first few fights, I would throw out teases about it. But it wasn't really until after the second fight that Chris Jericho started really laying on the schmooze and recruited me. That was this summer. It's kind of hard to say no to that guy.

    But it really, really just fits. It just works. They treat the talent like assets. Bellator treats their talent like assets, like professionals, and it's fun to work with both of them. They're both very excited to work with each other and try to do some co-promotions. It's a special time.

                    

    Snowden: We haven't seen this kind of dual-fight career in some time. Dan Severn has pulled it off. Bobby Lashley did. Do you feel up to the challenge?

    Hager: Ten years ago, you wouldn't see a guy leaving fight camp to go do a TV show and then come back. It really takes a lot of flexibility, but both AEW and Bellator are understanding, and it's fun to work for places like that. And after Jericho laid it out for me on what the plan was, dude, I was all on board.

             

    Snowden: What's your relationship with Chris? I've heard through the rumor mill he initially had pitched Vince McMahon to bring you in as his bodyguard. Of course, you ended up taking the World championship from him in WWE instead. So, you guys go back a ways.

    Hager: Yeah, I've always had a good relationship with Chris. He's one of those guys that he just wants to talk to everybody and like genuinely cares about what's going on in your life. I remember that very first moment when we're in Vince [McMahon]'s office, and Vince told me that I was going to be World Heavyweight Champion. And Chris turned to me and in the most loving and respectful way ever, said, "Don't f--k this up."

    That could sound very intimidating and bad, but I took it as confidence and that he cared about it and about me. From that moment, we've always been able to talk, and I've always been a fanboy of Chris Jericho, reading his books and seeing his journey. When he comes calling, you answer.

                    

    Snowden: I know Jericho came to the MMA gym with Josh Rafferty where he worked on his new finishing move, The Judas Effect. He has kind of a reputation because of the time he allegedly choked out Goldberg backstage. Did you roll with him a little on the mat or anything?

    Hager: He told me that I'm not on his level yet but maybe one day he'll grace me with those special hands that we hear so much about. It's been really cool to see him start training with Josh, and Josh does such a great job of understanding pro wrestling and MMA—and the fine line between the two—and how it's all kind of blurred. He really understands and is a fan of both sports. Having a coach like that is just invaluable.

               

    Snowden: What is it about Rafferty that you think makes him such a comfortable fit? Because before you, I know there was Dave Bautista and then there was Jericho. He's the coach for professional wrestlers looking to train in mixed martial arts.

    Hager: I've known Josh for five or six years. He would be up there at the Advance, and we would hang out. And we were friends just on a personal level, so the fact that we're already that comfortable with each other, and we can be honest with each other, and that we've been in some trenches together, it really helps with the rapport, and really helps with the trust.

    That's such a big thing when you're training for anything, you have to trust your coaches. You have to stop, get out of your head and really just say, "OK, this is what I need to do and just do it." Josh has over 20 years of fight experience. He was fighting before MMA was popular. Fighting in garages and fighting two times a day just for love of it, and his journey has really been so incredible.

    He also was a pro wrestler as well. And so, he's been in the back, he's been in the ring, so he understands what we're trying to do out there. And you don't find that a lot in today's MMA world with coaches who also had pro-wrestled or enjoyed it. He's definitely a rare entity.

                     

    Snowden: I didn't actually know he had been a wrestler. That's interesting.

    Hager: His first match was with Jon Moxley. No kidding, man. Cincinnati's Own.

             

    Snowden: Well, I'll have to check that out. So, I know you would never take fighting lightly, because you know there is the other guy trying to punch you in the face. But, I did find it interesting that you said that you kind of had an idea of using this as like a stepping stone back into wrestling. How did you articulate that plan? How did that come to be?

    Hager: You see the intense popularity of both pro wrestling and MMA, probably [two of] the most popular sports in the world, really giving soccer and American football a run for their money. If you speak pro wrestling or MMA, you almost speak any language.

    It was just a combination of me seeing guys that I wrestled with in college that have been doing it for a couple of years, and me having the confidence in myself that I can transition. My wife's instrumental in it all, because it was very scary for us, at first, to leave the company (WWE) and trying to substitute that amount of income on the independent level. And so, I'm very excited for the opportunity that is in front of us.

                         

    Snowden: Once you get done with this fight, you can enter the wrestling ring. But I wonder: Do you have plans for an MMA future? It's been kind of a slow rollout, which makes sense as you're an older guy (37) and new to the sport. But what are your plans for the future as far as MMA goes? 

    Hager: It's been an incredible year; hope to finish it 3-0. After this fight, I think AEW is going to get a little bit more of my time to really focus on that and keep it hot.

    But at the same time, what makes me so special right now is that I'm doing both, so I have to continue that. I'm going keep training when I'm not on the road, I'm going to keep sparring, even though I don't have a fight booked, because that has been the biggest instrument in my success for this training camp. Over the summer I never stopped sparring, I never stopped training.

    I already came into camp in great shape, which is great, because I'm having the flights and the TVs for AEW in the last month of training camp. I couldn't have done that if I wasn't already in condition. So, I just don't want to take my foot off the gas.

    You're right that it's been a slow rollout in some ways, but it also kind of happened fast. And it can go away just as fast. I don't want to toot my own horn, but I just want to keep grinding because that's really what I'm best at. If I just keep my head down and I keep working hard, that's just what I do. And Josh always says, "No one beats me when I work like that." So, I have to believe him.

            

    Snowden: I remember one time I interviewed Lashley when he was first starting a very similar journey to the one you're on right now. And people were asking him, before his first fight, they were like, "When are you going to fight Fedor Emelianenko?" He was just like, "Are you kidding me? I haven't even had a fight yet."

    But when you have the big name like he did, and like you do now, there's kind of a pressure that goes along with that, because the fighters who have the correspondingly big name are fighters with a lot of experience on a world-class level. Do you feel like there will be pressure on you to compete with the very top talent very soon, or do you think you can continue to work your way up to it?

    Hager: Yeah, I think there will eventually get to a point where pressure like that will come on. I'm not saying I'm not fighting top talent right now. The two guys I have fought have over 50 professional fights between them. So I don't, like, understand where all the pushback is coming from.

    But, yeah. With that name, there might be a slight disconnect when you don't recognize the other name on the card. But that's definitely something that I think everybody who steps in the cage wants to work towards, is fighting that big Fedor fight, fighting Ryan Bader for the heavyweight championship.

    It's definitely something on the horizon and something that we're looking at seriously. But at the same time, we don't want to overlook anybody and just keep doing what we're doing. But, how great would it be that for the All-American American to fight Fedor in Moscow next year?

            

    Snowden: It would be an awesome spectacle. So, at what point in this fight will you secure the arm triangle?

    Hager: Are you laying bets, Jon?

               

    Snowden: After two wins in a row that way, the people want to know. 

    Hager: It's definitely something I'm looking for. I feel like my secret's getting out there, so he's going to be looking for it. So maybe we'll be looking to set it up and then transition into a nice Americana after it or a D'arce because they're both right there, if they defend the arm triangle. But I'm looking to finish this thing right away, as I do with anything. Get in, get out.

          

    Snowden: Let's jump back to wrestling for the final question. You've come out so far, mostly in a Polo shirt. Jericho is out there with this wild spiked jacket. He's wearing all the makeup. I wonder if they could talk you into that. Would you come out in Jericho's look, if they asked you to?

    Hager: Jericho's such a rock star. I don't know if I could pull that off. You see me, the way I dress, and it's not too far away from where I dress when I'm not on television. And so, I think the same thing applies. Your character has to be an extension of yourself, and you got to be comfortable in it. Otherwise, people are going to see right through it. They're going to see that you're acting or that you're playing wrestling.

    I love it. People think I look like a P.E. teacher or the principal. But, I don't think a principal could afford these clothes. It's all about being different. You want to go out there and stand out in whatever way you can. And I think I learned that through my 12-plus years of pro wrestling. I don't need to come out there in a black cutoff shirt and flex my muscles. I can look different and wear Hugo Boss. Maybe I could get a sponsorship from Hugo Boss, so why not do it?

                   

    Jake Hager fights Anthony Garrett on Friday at Bellator 231. He can be seen Wednesday nights on TNT's AEW Dynamite.

Match of the Week: Kenny Omega vs. Rey Fenix (Lucha Libre AAA, Oct. 19)

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    Photo courtesy of Lucha Libre AAA

    Kenny Omega capped an otherworldly week of televised wrestling with one of the best matches of the year at Lucha Libre AAA's Heroes Inmortales show on Saturday.

    Challenging fellow AEW standout Rey Fenix for his Mega Championship, Omega showed a partisan Fenix crowd what all the hype is all about.

    In just his second bout ever in Mexico, Omega was in rare form, combining his hard-hitting Japanese style attack with the broad, over-the-top character work that traditionally goes over well for foreign wrestlers who travel south of the border. 

    These are two of the world's most high-octane wrestlers—and the match reflected that. The competitors alternated offense in a bout that left little time for either the performers or the audience to catch their breath. 

    So many little things made this special, from the crowd's frantic support for the local champion to the blood pouring from Fenix's broken nose during the last quarter of the match. When it was over, the noise-makers and thousands of fans were silenced; their hero, for now, vanquished.

    This was modern wrestling at its finest. It's the second week in a row Omega has taken home this honor. Even more impressive? It was in two matches that looked and felt nothing alike. A lot of wrestlers can follow the same pattern night after night and deliver something that approximates excellence.

    But there is only one Omega. And, right now, he's the best performer on the planet.

    Runner-Up: Street Profits vs. The OC (WWE Raw)

The Illegal Double-Team Hot Take: Bayley Deserves Better Than This from WWE

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    You didn't need to see Bayley's interview with the Miz on Friday's SmackDown to know she's fully gone to the dark side. After all, the hints were there—and they weren't exactly subtle.

    She punctured her inflatable mascots, the beloved Bayley Buddies.

    She cut her hair and dyed it black.

    She started wearing thick eye makeup and a black leather jacket.

    And, most damning of all, she cursed at the audience.

    Yes, the most huggable member of the women's roster is now a heel. There's no questioning that. The problem?

    I don't know why.

    When the industry's most intrepid journalist, The Miz, asked her point-blank for a reason regarding the switch, she could sputter up nothing better than a cliched non-answer. She doesn't, she claimed, owe anyone an explanation.

    She followed that with a half-hearted, stilted diatribe about being unsupported and underappreciated by fans, by the company and by the elusive "they." That's often a compelling story in an industry powered by social media and fans obsessed with industry scuttlebutt.

    The problem is, none of that really checks out.

    She has spent the last year collecting gold, becoming the WWE's first Grand Slam Women's champion in the process. As she complained to Miz about her status in the company, she held her SmackDown Women's title over her shoulder. It's spent most of the last four months in her possession—hardly the sign of a lack of faith.

    Through it all, her connection with the fans remained strong, even after her renewed alliance with the returning Sasha Banks. 

    I am not against Bayley as a heel. It gives her a chance to try new things and stretch her limits as a performer. Being a long-term babyface in contemporary wrestling is incredibly difficult, making this move predictable and, ultimately, inevitable.

    Precisely because the move was so inevitable, it's promotional malpractice for WWE to send Bayley out there to flounder. Fans deserved a storyline we could sink our teeth into, a journey we could take with Bayley.

    She deserved that too. A slow build as she struggled with her competition loyalties to Banks and to the fans could have been an interesting road to walk alongside her.

    Instead, in WWE car-crash style, all we got was whiplash as she changed directions at full speed.

Last Week in Wrestling

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    Didn't have a chance to keep up with all the important wrestling news that went down this week? I'm here to help. 

              

    WWE

    • Gallus defeated Flash Morgan and Mark Andrews to become new NXT UK Tag Team Champions.
    • Nikki Cross won a six-pack match to become the No. 1 contender to Bayley's SmackDown Woman's title. She pinned Mandy Rose in a fast-paced, entertaining match.
    • Roman Reigns beat Intercontinental champion Shinsuke Nakamura by disqualification on SmackDown. After a number of shenanigans, it ended in a show-closing tag team match between Reigns/Daniel Bryan and Nakamura/King Corbin, setting up Bryan as a future contender for the title.
    • Ric Flair announced the final member of his team for Crown Jewel: Drew McIntyre. The teams are now set.
    • Team Hogan: Reigns, Rusev, Ricochet, Chad Gable, Ali
    • Team Flair: Randy Orton, Corbin, Nakamura, Lashley, McIntyre
    • The XFL announced its schedule. Who's ready for some football?

              

    Other

    • Taya Valkyrie defeated Tenille Dashwood to retain the Impact Knockouts title at Impact Bound for Glory.
    • The North defeated Willie Mack and Rich Swann, and Rob Van Dam and Rhino to retain the tag team championships.
    • Ace Austin defeated four opponents to become the new X-Division champion. 
    • Brian Cage defeated Sami Callihan to retain the Impact World Title.
    • New Japan's parent company, Bushiroad, acquired the women's promotion Stardom.
    • New Japan announced the creation of a U.S.-based subsidiary, New Japan Pro-Wrestling of America.

3 Count: A Look Ahead

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    Image courtesy of AEW

    AEW Dynamite (TNT, Wednesday)

    1. Pac vs. Jon Moxley: Last week the two teamed together but couldn't get along well enough to finish the job against Kenny Omega and Adam Page. They'll try to settle the score in Pittsburgh in a momentary distraction from big upcoming pay-per-view matches.

    Pac has made the case that he's being overlooked by the AEW brass and deserves to be considered for title opportunities. That angle will be harder to support if he loses to Moxley. So expect the angry Brit to pull off a big win, likely after all kinds of outside interference and tomfoolery. Winner: Pac

    2. Private Party vs. Lucha Bros: Private Party has arrived. And, while they look very much like the tag team of the future, their time isn't here quite yet. Eliminating the Young Bucks was enough to establish them as a serious team and earn them a place on the card.

    But that will have to do for now.

    The division is stocked with some of the best teams in contemporary wrestling—none better than the Lucha Bros. They've established themselves as the team to beat in this tournament, and I expect them to be crowned the first AEW tag champions. Winner: Lucha Bros

    3. The Dark Order vs. SCU: This is a tough one to call. It's clear that AEW had big plans for the Dark Order. It's also becoming apparent that something about the act isn't quite clicking with the fanbase. 

    Does the promotion give up this early and pull the plug on the Dark Order's push? My instinct tells me AEW isn't ready to throw in the towel just yet. Winner: Dark Order