By Chuck Carroll
Just over a year ago Jack Swagger told WWE executives he wanted out. Frustrations over the way he had been booked had reached a tipping point as contract negotiations stalled. Swagger said the company didn’t value him in the way he felt they should, which was reflected in the disappointing salary he was offered. After a nearly decade-long run in WWE that included runs with the World Heavyweight and ECW titles, it was time to go.
Ten days later the decision was made to officially grant his release. Swagger had made his final “we the people” pledge and was ready to gamble on himself. Sure enough, he came up with triple 7’s.
Today, after shedding his Swagger persona, he’s wrestling on his terms under his own name, Jake Hager. And he’s signed a new contract. Not with WWE, but with Major League Wrestling where he will debut at the MLW: FUSION TV taping on May 3rd in Orlando. He is scheduled to face Jeff Cobb in a match that will pit the former NCAA wrestling All-American against a former Olympic wrestler. Hager won’t be alone though. The MLW creative team is pairing him with long-time wrestling manager Colonel Robert Parker. Hager says he’s not really sure where their partnership will go. It’s up to the fans to decide whether their relationship will blossom similarly to his popular pairing with Zeb Colter in WWE.
While there is a tinge of uncertainty on that front, Hager is crystal clear about his desire to work for MLW. The promotion, which is fronted by former WWE writer Court Bauer, received high marks for its national television debut last week. In a marketplace that has become crowded with a gluten of wrestling shows, MLW has managed to carve out a timeslot on Friday nights where they are unopposed by competing promotions.
Hager is among the well-known names brought in to begin the process of building an audience. The roster includes the likes of fellow former WWE talents MVP and Simon Gotch. It never hurts to have a familiar face when introducing a new product. There’s another man on the roster whose name isn’t as familiar, but once you see him he’ll be etched in your memory permanently. At 6-foot-1 and 470 pounds, Barrington Hughes stands out. As Hager put it, “that’s a whole lot of heavy.” And yes, the man known as “The Caramel Colossus” is on Hager’s MLW hit list.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Hager recently as he was preparing for not only his MLW debut, but also his first MMA bout. While juggling a hectic wrestling schedule, he’s also been training to compete in UFC competitor, Bellator and expects the fight will happen late this year. Outside of the sports realm, he’s also developed the LFR clothing line with his wife, Catalina Hager.
Major League Wrestling Fusion made its big debut last Friday on beIN Sports and your debut is coming at the TV tapings on May 3rd. Court Bauer, who runs the show, was very much in the WWE circles. Were you familiar with him and MLW before coming aboard there?
Of course I was familiar with them, I live in Tampa, and so they started making waves. I think everybody in Florida and the East Coast started noticing. I haven’t met Court personally, I think we just missed each other at the Fed [WWE], but everybody who works with him just speaks very highly of him.
It was announced that you signed a multi-fight deal with MLW, what exactly does that mean? How long are you under contract there?
Right now we have the next five shows lined up, I think. And I guess we’ll just go from there. They’re running about once every month and have an amazing roster. I hope it increases to more than that because there’s just so many guys on there that I want to wrestle.
Your opponent for May 3rd is Jeff Cobb. He’s another former amateur wrestler. Is there any sort of symmetry that comes with working a fellow amateur wrestler, or is it just two completely different styles and so the background really doesn’t matter?
I think the background has a lot to do with how a person moves in the ring and the chemistry he has with his opponent. You do have to have some sort of relationship and some sort of level you can connect on in there to move together and put on a great show. So, absolutely, it makes it easier. I’ll be able to make him look better than most people and he’ll do the same because we use more amateur wrestling type throws in our matches.
MLW has coaxed Tony Schiavone out of retirement. This to me was a big deal. I was a huge fan of WCW growing up. Were you a WCW or a WWF guy at the time?
When the Monday Night Wars came crashing in, I was with NWO and team WCW. That’s where my allegiances were. That’s when I really fell in love with professional wrestling. Of course, such a popular time with the two companies going at it and so much controversy. It was very cool.
MLW hasn’t shied away from investing in putting on a show with high production value. Do you even consider this to be an independent promotion? It seems like they’ve got a pretty decent budget and, obviously, the national TV deal.
Personally, I hate the terms indies or independent promotion when it comes to professional wrestling. I feel like it’s a stigma that’s attached to it that no longer exists. Of course, there are the bad ones, but I think these promotions are just like self-run businesses now. I think a promotion like MLW which has really built a name and a brand and has a TV deal is definitely not an independent promotion. I look at them as a promotion with a television show with great opportunities.[If you look at who’s there], Tony Schiavone is just one, but the roster is incredible here and it’s just going to be so exciting to see the product.
Give me a few guys that you really want to fight there. Who’s on your hit list?
MVP, Low Ki, Matt Riddle, Rey Fenix, Penta, Shane Strickland, Jeff Cobb. Oh man, I could go on and on. I might have to line them all up at once. I’m really impressed with those guys and what I seen they can do and I want to get in there with them because that competition always makes people better and it’s going to force me to really step my game up. And it’s going to be exciting when that happens.
You’re being put with Colonel Robert Parker. What can we expect out of that? Is that going to be a Zeb Colter type of role?
Like any storyline in pro wrestling, and this is what makes pro wrestling cool, is you’ve got to let it develop. We’ll have a starting place and we’ll see where the stands want to take it. We’ll see where it naturally goes. And just play on it, have fun with it and try not to shove it down people’s throats and let it be organic. So, a lot to be seen with that, but it’s very interesting, can be a lot of cool things. Hopefully, at least a lot of fried chicken.
I remember speaking with another wrestler recently and we got on the topic of all of these new promotions coming up. We’re really starting to see a resurgence in the popularity of pro wrestling. It may not quite be the Monday Night Wars, but do you get the impression that the popularity of wrestling is definitely on the incline?
Yeah, absolutely. I think this is a golden age. Not only is it popular, but I feel like pro wrestling has become accepted. It’s become cool. You see the shirt in the t-shirt shops, you know? It’s very hip to be a wrestler right now and it’s not associated with, “oh, you’ve got to hide or you’re going to get made fun of because you like it,” type deal. I think because of that, you’re seeing these promotions do great business and continue to do great business. So, they’re being consistent in putting out a great product and a great show and the fans are realizing that this is a great place to go for entertainment and it just keeps going around and around.
And I think TV networks have to take notice of this. I mean, this is one of the things that I’m exciting about for me crossing over into MMA is because I think people are going to be shocked to see how big of a following I have just because I’m a pro wrestler and I’m not even the most popular in pro wrestler, but I’m going to bring a large pro wrestling following over to the MMA side for it because it’s a great time right now.
You announced late last year that you had signed with Bellator with a goal of fighting at some point this year. How’s training going?
Training’s great, really good. My sparring partners have been great, really been pushing me. I feel like it’s coming along. I feel like I had a good week last week where a lot of light bulbs came on and I’m growing. The hard work’s paying off and the hard training is only making my body feel better. It’s crazy. When I left [WWE] last year I was pretty banged up and not in that good of shape. And this crossing over into a new world has really forced me to focus on my body and I feel 24 again.
Are you still on track to fight this year or are we looking at early 2019?
We’re looking at end of 2018. I got really busy with pro wrestling so we pushed the date back, but at the end of 2018 I’m going to come out and I will make a statement.
Do you have an opponent in mind already or is that still under discussion?
Yeah, it’s under discussion and it’s not my area. That’s where you rely on your coaches and your team. For me, this is my first fight and I’m just focusing on the job I have to do.
I want to ask you about another former pro wrestler who made the jump over to MMA and that’s CM Punk. He’s getting a second chance in UFC. Obviously he’s had a lot more time now to train before hopping back into the octagon. Just from your perspective, what should we expect from that fight?
Well, let’s cut everybody some slack. Everybody has their first fight and has a bad match and, granted, that was a bad showing. So, the good news is it can only get better.
So, maybe he wasn’t training that hard for it or maybe he had an injury, so he couldn’t train that hard for it. Who knows? I expect if he’s taking another fight, he is training and training with the right people. So, I would expect a huge improvement. Nobody likes to get their [butt] kicked — especially on TV. I imagine he has a lot of motivation to go out there and perform better.
It has been just over a year since you left WWE. Do you harbor any ill feelings about your time there?
No. No. I look back at my career and I’m very thankful. Successful people don’t look back and waste energy on what could have been and all the stuff that didn’t happen. It’s just a waste of time and a waste of energy. So, it’s tough, but you just move forward and keep doing what you know how to do and work hard and be a good person. And the rest will take care of itself. If my fans want to see me back in the WWE, you know, never say never, but we got a big agenda ahead of us for 2018 that we’re pretty excited about.
NEWS & NOTES
In a move that critics are calling a hypocritical money grab and a step back for the “Women’s Evolution,” WWE will not have any female talents on Friday’s Greatest Royal Rumble event in Saudi Arabia. Triple H commented on the decision in an interview with UK-based paper The Independent. “I understand that people are questioning it, but you have to understand that every culture is different and just because you don’t agree with a certain aspect of it, it doesn’t mean it’s not a relevant culture,” he said. “You can’t dictate to a country or a religion about how they handle things but, having said that, WWE is at the forefront of a women’s evolution in the world and what you can’t do is affect change anywhere by staying away from it. While, right now, women are not competing in the event, we have had discussions about that and we believe and hope that, in the next few years they will be. That is a significant cultural shift in Saudi Arabia.”
As of late this week, Braun Strowman and Daniel Bryan were favored to win the first-ever 50-man Royal Rumble. Oddsmakers also have Roman Reigns defeating Brock Lesnar to capture the WWE Universal Title. Among other oddsmakers picks: John Cena over Triple H, Undertaker over Rusev, and Seth Rollins to retain the Intercontinental Championship against The Miz, Finn Balor, and Samoa Joe.
WWE has confirmed Rey Mysterio, The Great Khali, Shane McMahon, Randy Orton, Mark Henry, and Kevin Owens have been added to the rumble match.
WWE has announced the show at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah is sold out.
Ring of Honor has announced Bullet Club (Cody, The Young Bucks, Marty Scurll, and Adam Page) will face New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Los Ingobernables de Japon (Naito, Evil, Sanada, Hiromu Takahashi, and Bushi) in the main event at the War of Worlds show on May 13th in Chicago. The event will stream live on the HonorClub platform.