DUBLIN — When England's national rugby team treads onto the turf at the International Stadium Yokohama in Japan to compete against South Africa in the Rugby World Cup final on Saturday, one of its most reliable players of the last decade, James Haskell, will be watching with interest back in England.
The former Wasps and Stade Français flanker, known for his work in the scrum — which is where the strongest and most powerful athletes battle for territory — has been training jiu jitsu for years.
Haskell retired from rugby last year, after 77 appearances with the England national team. By 2019, he signed a multi-fight deal to compete for the MMA firm Bellator, having previously worked as an analyst for English fight promotions like BAMMA and CFFC.
The man responsible for bringing him into the world of competitive mixed martial arts, Bellator's head of Europe David Green, told Business Insider that the 34-year-old will make his debut early next year.
It is not a publicity stunt, Green said, even though he first had to explain to the Seoul-born American promoter and Bellator CEO Scott Coker what rugby actually was, before they could get the deal over the line.
Regardless, Coker trusted Green's talent identification skills and would have been curious about the business impact. Haskell has a significant rugby fanbase and 182,000 followers on Twitter who could follow his journey in combative sports. Green and Coker want those with passing curiosity in Haskell's fights to become fans of Bellator.
Then there is Haskell's athleticism, obvious power, and significant size (he is 6-foot-4 and 260-pounds). It is little wonder why Green's interest had been piqued.
"I love MMA and I love the sport," Green told Business Insider at a recent Bellator event. "Part of my job in this Bellator expansion is getting as many eyeballs on MMA from sports fans who maybe don't know the sport.
"We're bringing a high-level athlete into MMA who is interested in doing it properly. This isn't a publicity stunt," Green said. "This is a multi-fight deal.
"If you speak to James, you'll understand he's highly motivated and he's parking a few years of his life away to do this. He's young enough, I've identified that. He's been playing top-level Premiership rugby, so it's not like we dug some has-been out. And, crucially, he's been training MMA for a good number of years.
"This is someone who is formidable, used to being a professional athlete, and I think, hopefully … I'm not mistaken … people will be curious what he can do in MMA."
Green said Haskell will fight in 2020
Haskell's ability in the scrum and strength in rugby means he is naturally powerful. "I've spoken to Shootfighters [the fight club Haskell has been training at] and I've watched him," Green said. "You don't want to be hit by him."
Green even said that Haskell is so big and strong that he may even struggle to make the upper heavyweight limit that exists in Bellator MMA (265-pounds).
"He's never had a fight one on one," Green said. "Maybe some scuffles on the pitch, but he's not afraid about getting physical. It will be new to him. Fascinating, I think."
Haskell is a ready-made athlete with experience of the big stage who has trained jiu jitsu and boxing, but there are still question marks.
"In rugby it's about tight, concentrated movement so he needs to loosen up a bit in MMA," Green said. "In strengths, it's raw athleticism right now. How he will hone that into ground game and stand-up game, I'm not sure at the moment. But he's taking it seriously and is down at Shootfighters all the time."
Though Green always felt it was a good idea adding Haskell to the Bellator MMA roster, he had to pitch it to the company boss Coker. "At first I had to explain what rugby was," Green laughed. "But Scott is incredibly supportive for any ideas like that.
"I think anyone in America is not really familiar with rugby or the personalites. So I gave him [Coker] background on James," Green said. "James is a fascinating character, good fun, and talks well. It just made a lot of sense. Everybody wanted to do it."
Bellator returns to Europe for the November 23 event at the SSE Arena in Wembley, London, but Green told Business Insider this card would be too soon for Haskell. They do not want to rush the fighter, but introduce him slowly to their shows.
"In 2020, 100 percent," Green said. "We're talking to his coaches and want to give him as good a chance as anyone would get. But it will be sooner rather than later, that's for sure."
So, while Haskell will likely be watching his old teammates in Saturday's Rugby World Cup final, perhaps, within six months, it will be those England players in Tokyo who will be watching Haskell. Not in rugby, but within the confines of a Bellator MMA cage.