There’s a revolution going on within mixed martial arts and Pro Wrestling right now, an intertwining of codes, and it seems that every heavyweight with a major name is in demand. Frank Mir, who headlines at Bellator 231 tomorrow night at Mohegan Sun Resort, Connecticut, against former adversary Roy Nelson, is one of those on that speeding train.
Notably, Jake Hager, a recent heavyweight convert from WWE to Bellator – but now also a feature of All Elite Wrestling – has been one of a number of heavyweight combat sports fighters to cross codes, along with Tyson Fury from boxing, and also Cain Velasquez and Brock Lesnar. WWE and AEW are currently locked in a new promotional war.
Mir, familiar enough himself with both codes, would welcome a battle in wrestling and MMA with Hager, who revealed to The Telegraph this week that his wife Catalina has been bitten by the fight bug, and may yet become a 115lbs fighter. More on that in a moment.
As Mir told me this week: “I think it’s just another form of martial arts. The most inspirational person in my life, outside of family members, was Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee was an actor, he didn’t really fight. I know there’s rumours of underground fights, but I’ve never seen footage. I was attracted to his martial arts portrayal. Pro wrestling is just another form of martial arts entertainment. If we can draw people into martial arts, then all the better.”
Mir likes the look of the crossover MMA/Pro Wrestling appeal at present. A bona fide fighter, he feels, brings more to Pro Wrestling. “It brings a little more validity to it. You watch the Keanu Reeves movie John Wick, there’s a lot of footage of him on YouTube showing he’s done proper training. When we digest that material from martial arts, we like to see it based on some reality.”
“That entertains people and makes it more interesting. So when you see Cain or Brock Lesnar or Tyson Fury, real fighters who are real fighters doing an entertainment aspect. It brings a level of entertainment and enthusiasm. It’s not the same when it’s just a straight actor. Look at Tom Cruise, besides from being an actor, what is the first thing people talk about? He does his own stunts. He really is crazy. People enjoy that element of realism into their entertainment.”
He would relish a fight with Hager, too, in both codes. “When I first went over to Bellator I thought that would be a good fight. I thought that would be a strategic line-up but obviously Swagger is fighting more. Right now they don’t want to throw him to the wolves, picking his opponents more. But if he can get his feet, then that would be a good match up.”
But within the Bellator heavyweight roster, Mir still has designs on the belt held by Ryan Bader. Does it irk him ? “I made the mistake. He was able to beat Fedor [Emelianenko] and didn’t make the mistake when he knocked him down. I knocked down Fedor and made the mistake of not finishing him.”
“That basically is why I can justify he’s the champ. But on the flip side, I feel if I can turn it around and get a couple of wins under my belt I like the match up with Bader. Even though he’s still a big strong light heavyweight, he can still make 205lbs. I can’t.”
“That even being said, I know striking-wise I move a lot better. Much more athletic and fluid and mobile and quicker. Bader’s strongest suit is still to wrestle and take me down. But not really with me, he’d really have to pick his poison. Every time he takes a shot am I going to take his neck off? Or if he stands up with me there’s a risk of getting knocked out. Bader has power. He’s still a legitimate heavyweight champ. Right now, I don’t really deserve to call him out until I get a couple of wins.”
Nelson – Roy – is on Mir’s mind right now, though. He has beaten him before, eight years ago. But there is deep respect there for the fighter who espouses ‘hobo chic’.
“I just know something a lot of other people don’t, his toughness is actually one of his weapons. He doesn’t expose himself a lot, he keeps that arm up,” Mir told me. “He knows he’s going to take some punishment but in his mind I’ll use energy and he’ll still be standing when I’m tired and he’ll take my head off. That’s always been his strategy. He uses his toughness to break people and once they’re broken he either takes out out or takes you down.”
Bottom line with Mir, is that he has a vibrancy about him, and retirement feels a long way off. “I want to go out and have a good performance. Right now I feel fit because of the new conditioning coach I’ve hired. In the gym right now for one step I’m the fastest guy. There’s nobody who can close distance quicker than I can. And I’m not talking about the other heavyweights, you can grab a bantamweight and say we’ll race for two steps. I’m the fastest guy in the gym, even at 40 years old.”
“I’ve always had a natural explosiveness. With my striking and grappling, my ability to keep up my endurance and explosion, I’m not really as scared to tap into it as much. In the past I held back a little bit back because of the fear of fatigue. But now with the training I’ve done I know how much I have in him. I can explode this many times before fatigue sets in. And if it does set in, usually the other guy will be pretty tired from fending off what I’ve been throwing at him.”
Retirement again. Not even at the back of his mind. “Oh no. I was very disappointed with the outcome of the last fight. But then when I sat down and watched it, my timing was off on the ground because I hadn’t been working on it. There was a few things I needed to fix. My striking was dangerous.”
“Against the cage and on the ground, I wasn’t working that much. I went back and did jui jitsu the old fashioned way. I’m in good shape. Before I could get away with things because of youth, but now I can’t get away with just going to the gym infrequently. Now I’m applying myself to increase my explosiveness and endurance. 40’s not old anymore. I’m getting that out of my head.”
Jake Hager right man at the right time for dual Bellator and AEW careers – while wife Catalina picking up the fight bug
Jake Hager – AKA Jack Swagger – has found his dual characters are now involved in two careers – and he could not be happier. Hager is a heavyweights in both codes of MMA and Pro Wrestling.
“It’s really cool. I like to think I knew this was going to happen. But I never expected it to be as big and as popular as it’s become. For so long there haven’t been any [interesting] heavyweights in boxing. MMA has had its heavyweights. But boxing has had an emptiness. In pro wrestling it’s always been the smaller guys. I’m so excited for it,” Hager told me. “I’m so excited for all the fat kids out there like me who have an opportunity to show big guys are athletes and entertaining too.”
It is fascinating too, that Hager is now at the centre of a bidding war between AEW and WWE.
“In many ways it was a perfect storm of events. In that aspect, no, I didn’t know. But this was the plan, to leave WWE three years ago and go into MMA. To create myself as more of a name brand and essentially go back into pro wrestling on TV as an even bigger star. That was the plan.”
“In that aspect we’re ahead of the curve, more than a lot of the other guys like Cain Velasquez or even Tyson Fury. That’s kind of a big statement. But we’ve been planning this and working towards this for a long time now. It’s fun. It’s really enjoyable and very nice to say ‘hey, we made the right call’.”
“It’s really incredible how mainstream both sports have become and really eclipsed all the stigma associated with it. It’s very refreshing and it’s a new day and age for both sports. Anything is possible because of the popularity and because it’s growing so fast.”
Hager – as ‘Swagger’ would happily face off with Mir. “What an honour for someone like Frank would love to get in the cage with me or have a pro wrestling match.”
Hager is easing into his MMA persona, too, happy to play the ‘bad guy’ with elbows, fists, knees and feet in the cage. “A wise man once told me after that second fight, ‘what’s wrong with being the bad guy?’ I think it’s so cool to have the ability to do both. People want to surprised and on their toes. The fact I can do both blurs the lines and people don’t know what’s real. It’s cool to combat people in that way. It’s such an exciting time.”
But given Hager’s commitments, and the fact he is a father and husband, it must mean divide his time carefully and judiciously. “I think I’ve become a black belt in time management. I don’t have a lot of seconds to spare or waste during the day. That’s better for me. It’s good for me to be busy or else I’ll get myself into trouble. But also, it’s easy to stay this busy when everything is so exciting.”
“But the one thing is, at the level I’m at with pro wrestling, I don’t need a lot of practise anymore. It’s more creative thinking and story telling. We will have some rehearsals. For the most part it’s using your head and figuring out what the best way is to promote it and deliver surprises and make the audience feel something.”
“That’s the biggest difference with mma. You can be Ryan Bader, the heavyweight champion, but you still have to practise everyday because it goes away. The main thing is your shape. You have to be in great shape to get better. It’s tough. It’s not easy going from strength and conditioning to jui jitsu and then do sprints at the end of that. It’s not something most people would chose to do. But it’s something that will bring your a different life style, so it’s very much worth it.”
But has MMA made him a better pro wrestler ? “Absolutely. I know I’ve told you before that pro wrestling makes me a better fighter. I definitely think that not only winning in MMA makes me a better wrestler, but the actual techniques and training makes me a better wrestler.”
“The shape I’m in alone, I can have an hour long pep wrestling match and I wouldn’t be tired. The biggest thing in pro wrestling is perception is reality. So if they perceive you in a way and that’s your story. MMA is telling the story for you. When you get to Wednesday nights on TNT you get to play on those perceptions.”
There is a vibrancy emanating from Hager at present, given the dual trampolines he is bouncing upon in his career. “It’s given me so much leverage. I can do what I want and I want to always bring attention to what I do. I want to grow amateur wrestling and pro wrestling and MMA. I want to release all stigmas. It’s really incredible now after this three-year to try and prove myself, to be vindicated is amazing. It was the right choice. It’s only going to get bigger.”
“Ten years ago you wouldn’t see a professional MMA fighter leave camp to do a TV show and then rejoin camp. The promotions wouldn’t have allowed it. It’s so good to work with companies like Bellator and AW who understand the situation we’re in and how popular we are. Why not copromote and take advantage of it? It’s only going to give me more leverage to put the ball in my court and do what I want. Eventually no matter what job you have, that’s what you want. You want the ball in your court.”
It was fascinating to know how the other wrestlers, such as Chris Jericho, viewed Hager’s new challenges in MMA. “They’ve expressed how impressed they are with me because most of the guys there only know me as ‘Jack Swagger’,” this huge athletic eloquent fighter told The Daily Telegraph.
“They don’t know Jake Hager who’s been doing some form of this competition since he was five years old. I definitely think they’ll be more and more people crossing both ways. Nobody has come up to me personally from AW to ask how to do it. ”
Then major news in the Hager household, as Jake revealed to me: “My beautiful wife is starting to get the bug. How great would it be to have husband and wife on the same Bellator card? So who knows. She would fight at 115lbs.”
“She’s so quick and trust me, I’ve been hit by her. I would be more nervous for her fighting than for one of my fights. I think she feels the same way. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is. It’s cool. I feel we’re gaining more fans in MMA and pro wrestling at the same time.
A clear win-win. And a win is what Hager must get tomorrow night against Anthony Garrett to keep the momentum going.
Nick Newell offers to come from New England to London to fighter Aaron Chalmers
Aaron Chalmers was discussed by Nick Newell, who said he would relish the opportunity to fight British reality television star turned mixed martial artist.
“I’d love to fight in London. I watched Aaron’s fight against Corey Browning before I fought him [and defeated him],” Newell told The Telegraph this week.
“He’s tough. He’s skilled. I’m shooting after this fight somewhere up the rankings. He’s lost to someone I’ve beat. I would definitely fight him. I’m not really familiar with him. I just know he fought a guy who I fought. I’m trying to get paid so that might be a good idea.”
“I’m from New England so I’d like to go to regular England and put on a show. I’ve fought internationally once and that was Canada. I’ve actually never been to Europe.”
Newell is delighted to get on the Bellator main card., having become a fan favourite. “It’s a good gig. I wanted to be on the main card so I asked to be on the main card. The people wanted me on the main card, so now I’m on the main card.”
“I do feel people got behind me. I’ve got a lot of fans and always have a good crowd behind me. Fighting on the main card made sense.”
Fighting in Connecticut is like a home from home. “It’s about an hour from my house. Everyone loves it. No one minds a trip to the casino. Mohegan Sun, it’s a big deal to fight there. Everyone in Connecticut always want to fight there, it’s a staple in Connecticut MMA.”
Expect Newell to look to cross The Pond and call for the fight in Europe if he claims the victory over Manny Muro as part of the double-header on Saturday night at Bellator 232.
“I want to fight in the UK. Whatever victim they want to get me, I’m happy to take.” It was a clear message to Mr Chalmers.