Having retired from professional rugby in May after 17 years of brutal, unremitting physical punishment you might expect James Haskell to be ready to give his body a rest.
Not a bit of it. A summer spent DJ-ing in Ibiza and conducting negotiations to appear on ‘I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here’ clearly didn’t satisfy the former England international and a search for the next challenge was on.
So instead of putting his feet up the hulking back row forward has signed with Bellator MMA, one of the leading mixed martial arts organisations in the world, to pit himself – in the cage – against heavyweight fighters.
Make no mistake, Haskell knows what he is getting into. I’ve known the 34-year-old for many years, have worked with him on MMA shows on television, and his interest and knowledge is deep. Haskell has previously used the grappling art jiu jitsu as part of his rugby training, saying it helped in positioning himself to steal the ball as he won 77 caps for England during a 12-year international career. But now it’s time for the real thing.
At 6ft 4ins and 260lbs you might think Haskell has a natural advantage, but when we speak he has just been in a wrestling session where he has been “owned” by a wrestler much smaller than him.
“There are people that can fold you up like a travel mat at the gym,” he says. “But I’m already taking this deadly seriously,” he explained.
This is no experiment, he insists, and should not be bracketed alongside the likes of Freddie Flintoff taking up boxing.
“Oh, God. If I looked like Freddie Flintoff did when he got in that ring, I’d be f**** embarrassed. Those boys are fannying around. It looked like he’d never taken a punch before. That won’t be me. This is a complete career change. I’m in this. I will work hard. I’m not a novelty. The way they train at London Shootfighters [gym], where I train, I will have had 40 or 50 fights before I have my first official fight.”
So how did it come about ? “I got a phone call from my agent after I retired and he said the fight promotion Bellator wanted to do some stuff with me. Brilliant, I thought.
“I used to do an MMA show on BT and I still get people who come up to me saying they loved that show. But my agent laughed and said they wanted to do something else. They suggested transitioning into MMA. I laughed nervously at first. Then I looked at the situation and I got quite excited about it. Excitement and fear. I was done with rugby and this is another physical journey.”
Yet even someone as used to physical pain as Haskell was unsure about agreeing to the switch.
“In rugby, they put players on pedestals as tough guys. Rugby makes those demands but MMA is a completely different discipline and mentality of training. I said I’d only do it if we did it properly. I didn’t want to piss around.
“The first thing I did was speak to the guys at London Shootfighters [gym], who I’ve known for 20 years, and asked them was I insane to consider this? They all said no, if I did it properly.”
And Haskell has been doing it properly. His wife, Chloe Madeley, asked whether he was ready to take it easy after one particularly strenuous wrestling session, but Haskell is not for turning no matter the risks.
“I see a lot of people saying I’m going to get f—— killed,” he admits. “Nobody’s applying normal logic to this. You don’t remember Conor McGregor’s or Mike Tyson’s first fight. It’s a progressive process. I’m going to get in the cage when I’m ready and I feel comfortable. I go and do it and it’s as simple as that. I don’t really care who I fight.”
Haskell has been training for three weeks now. Does he feel like a fighter? “I have been in fights in my life, but am I a natural fighter? I don’t know. I feel like I’m a fighter and aggressive, but everyone’s got a game plan until they’re punched in the face, as Mike Tyson used to say. I’ll find out pretty quickly what my mentality is. There’ll be moments where I’m thinking what the f— am I doing and others where it feels natural.”
But he is realistic about where he is right now. “I’m a 34-year-old ex-rugby player. I walk in and I do what I’m told in the gym. I’m bottom of the rung and that’s what I want. This is selfishly for me. This is a personal test. I want to see what I’m about. I think life is about testing yourself. If I die tomorrow I want to say I gave it all. I want adventure. I’m excited about it. It’s a hell of an adventure.