Former WWE superstar Jake Hager laughs in the faces of people who think former pro wrestlers can’t fight MMA

Jake Hager laughs in the faces of people who think former WWE guys can't fight MMA.

Hager, once known as Jack Swagger, left the WWE in 2016 to join Bellator MMA the following year. He signed a multi-year deal with the mixed martial arts firm, made his debut in 2019, and already has two dominant first round submission wins under his belt.

On Friday, at the Bellator 231 event in Uncasville, Connecticut, the self-described "corn-fed" fighter competes for the third time.

The 6-foot-7, 275-pound, 37-year-old will be expected to beat his opponent, Anthony Garrett. Speaking to Business Insider this week, Hager also expects to win, and even believes his background in professional wrestling will be a huge asset on fight night.

Hager's arrival has been met with resistance, though, perhaps because of the high-profile failure of CM Punk — a WWE guy who tried to compete in UFC but lost twice.

Hager finds the backlash amusing. "It doesn't piss me off at all, I think it's laughable because if I didn't have that decade at the WWE doing sports entertainment, I wouldn't be here in this position with Bellator," he told Business Insider.

Hager as Jack Swagger, working with WWE superstar John Cena.

Photo by Chris Ryan/Corbis via Getty Images

"People know my name and because of that I have more leverage as a professional fighter. And as a professional fighter, as a professional wrestler, that is something we are all battling for. We want to make our brand a name brand and a household name. And that essentially gives us more leverage and helps us provide for our families.

"So when people say silly things like that [like WWE guys cannot fight MMA] it really is in one ear and out the other because they wish they had my background and my exposure.

"And, honestly, that's why I didn't shy away from it," Hager said. "In my first fight I acknowledged it. I'm a professional wrestler, this is who I am, who you know me as. But guess what, I've also been wrestling since I was 5 years old — real wrestling — amateur wrestling, Olympic wrestling.

"I grew up in one of the most prolific high school wrestling programs in the country and MMA fighters are more successful when they have that amateur wrestling background."

Hager's high school team was like the New England Patriots of wrestling

Hager's background at the Perry High school in Oklahoma is impressive. The MMA and wrestling reporter Dave Meltzer at MMA Fighting described Hager as a "freak athlete" and someone "practically born on the mat," earlier this year.. It is perhaps no surprise he ended up at a school that was small, but dominant.

So dominant was Hager's high school, it was like the New England Patriots or Real Madrid of wrestling. And, just like the Pats and Los Blancos, they became hated, jeered, and booed because they were serial, unapologetic, winners.

"We were! We really were," Hager said, agreeing with the Patriots comparison. "We're a small school but hold the most state championships [56] of all schools in America. I graduated with 97 people but there's high schools that have thousands and thousands in their graduating classes, so just a little perspective on how competitive we were."

Hager and his wrestling squad had such a reputation and were so hated, that it still makes him smile to this day. "Out of the 14 weights we would put 13 in the finals," he said. "When you're in an amateur wrestling match and they're booing … it still puts a smile on my face."

Hager still hears the boos. After his last victory, an arm-triangle choke over T.J Jones in May, the crowd turned on him because he appeared to hold onto the submission even after Jones tapped. Hager clapped back at the fans when he got on the mic to cut his post-fight promo, challenging fans to boo all they want.

"It's all good business," he said. "It was real emotion coming out there, coming from the fans. It's kind of like us colliding. They don't have a microphone so I could say it louder, which always wins.

"The best time to cut a promo is after a fight. You have all that adrenaline, all that machismo coming out. Everybody wants to think I was just playing, turning heel or whatever, it was just real emotion. And they really needed to shut up."

Hager's extraordinary self-belief is rooted in being a winner

Hager and Anthony Garrett.

Bellator MMA

The MMA Fighting reporter Meltzer said Hager in MMA is similar to Brock Lesnar, the former WWE superstar who competed in UFC and won the heavyweight championship.

Hager even has an amateur wrestling victory over Cain Velasquez, another accomplished UFC champion who, incidentally, crossed over to professional wrestling and features on WWE's upcoming Saudi Arabia show, Crown Jewel, competing against Lesnar in a singles match for the WWE Championship.

"Cain and I wrestled two times, we split 1-1," Hager said. "The first time we wrestled it went into six or seven overtimes. It was like a 23 minute amateur wrestling match. Just, like, longer than you can imagine any amateur wrestling match.

"A normal amateur match is seven minutes," he said. "And this one went 23. Everybody knows the gas tank Cain has, and I ended up taking him down in overtime, so he got tired with me, and I'll definitely hold that as a badge of honor because his gas tank is so impressive. You see what he does in the cage, never quits, has that look on his face, non-stop. It was a great battle.

"It was definitely one of the things I keep my eye on, see these guys go in there and do very well in the cage. At first I wondered, 'Oh, he had a boxing background growing up,' or, 'Oh, he did jiu jitsu,' but a lot of the times I saw guys make the transition [from wrestling].

"Ryan Bader is a great example of that. He was the 197-pounder in Arizona state when Cain was there. You see how he fought in UFC, signed in Bellator, almost like a different fighter. He's so comfortable he's knocking out legends. It's exciting to see what amateur wrestlers can do.

"The main thing that made me want to get into it was the opportunity. I knew I could compete. I'd watch heavyweight athletes and knew I was as good an athlete as these guys. I could compete with these guys. And, oh man, with my amateur wrestling background, what a huge opportunity would that be to crossover and capitalize on."

Against Garrett on Friday's Bellator 231 show, Hager said it's "corn-fed guys looking to collide," adding: "He's going to want to try to get me up against the cage, bull me around a little bit, and we've been training for that specifically."

After Friday, he wants another fight in 2019, more fights in 2020, and is targetting the Bellator heavyweight championship — a title Bader currently holds.

"It's an incredible time right now," Hager said. "My team have been planning this since I left the WWE three years ago and really the ball is in our corner. We can do what we want. We're undefeated. The sky is limit.

"I think anybody who steps in the cage has this innate quality where they want to be the best, go after the championship, and have their hand held. So of course I've got my eye on that. From the beginning, make no mistakes, I'm a prizefighter and doing this for the money. Money first. And then championships."

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