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Former Sooner star Jake Hager loving life fighting in Bellator, talking OU football with Jim Ross at AEW

Jake Hager celebrates his win against J. W. Kiser in their mixed martial arts heavyweight bout at Bellator 214 on Jan. 26, 2019, in Inglewood, Calif. [AP Photo/Chris Carlson]
Jake Hager celebrates his win against J. W. Kiser in their mixed martial arts heavyweight bout at Bellator 214 on Jan. 26, 2019, in Inglewood, Calif. [AP Photo/Chris Carlson]

Jake Hager has been an All-American wrestler at OU.

He's been the All-American American in WWE.

But his role as a mixed-martial arts heavyweight in Bellator is a role that makes him think back to his days in Perry, before high school and college stardom. As he brings a 2-0 record into Thursday's bout against Brandon Calton on the Bellator 250 card, The Oklahoman caught up with Hager before his fight.

Q: You’re now 2-0 in Bellator, how have you just been enjoying MMA so far?

A: It’s really been a blessing, it really has. Honestly, everyone looks at MMA as a big, dangerous sport. But I look at it as really helping me change my life. It’s helped me get back to who I was, that Oklahoma kid that started wrestling when he was five, going to every YMCA tournament in the state with his parents. Something that’s incredible is that I’m still using that same YMCA wrestling as a professional with Bellator. You’ll see me smile every time I get in that cage. It’s such a great opportunity, such a great job, there’s plenty of worse things I could be doing in life.

How well connected are you still to Oklahoma?

My immediate family still lives in Norman, my two sisters and my parents, so I get back there pretty regularly. As much as I can, especially during this pandemic. Of course, once you’re Sooner born and Sooner bred, you’re Sooner dead.

Do you ever talk about OU football with Jim Ross?

Yup, what a blessing it is to get back to work with Jim and work with him at AEW. We definitely talk during the good times. You know, some games we may forget to talk about.

You embrace the villain role in pro wrestling. Obviously not in a malicious way, have you leaned into that at all in your MMA career?

I think with this day and age, if you want to be successful and you really want to go far, you have to be a character. Whether that’s professional wrestling, whether that’s MMA, whether that’s being a professional accountant, you need to have something that people can connect to. Have some charisma. It really helps, especially with MMA. As a professional wrestler, it’s definitely fun for me when a crowd, an MMA crowd, starts booing me. Because I know how to handle it and I can respond accordingly and get them to boo even more. I think that goes back to when I was wrestling in high school at Perry, Oklahoma. And we’d be in the final of a regional tournament, and we’d have 13 of the 14 weight classes be from Perry. We’d be in some small gym and have the entire gym booing us cause we were that good. I think from that moment I really learned how to embrace the boos and let it empower me.

What is your goal with Bellator? What are you looking to prove to fans watching or yourself?

Well for one it’s just a great opportunity for a young professional to cross over. Bellator has been a great company and understanding of my situation as an asset, someone with a name that may be a little less experienced in MMA. They’ve done nothing but work with me and help me grow my brand cause they understand it helps them grow their brand. Whereas with past companies they want to put their thumb on you and suppress you, unless you were the chosen ones. After fourteen years of pro wrestling on TV, and traveling and seeing the world and doing the show business side of things it was awesome for me to get back to wrestling.

You take on Brandon Calton this Thursday, how ready are you to get back in the ring after a year?

We were scheduled for May 9, right at the beginning of the start of this pandemic. So we’ve been trying to get ready since then. It’s been a fun journey, but we had a lot of resources at our fingertips that we were able to use and stay in the right shape. I’m ready to get in there, it’s a very tough time of the year for everybody, so we’re ready to get in there and provide some good entertainment and some good sanctioned violence, as it’s called. I think it will make everyone feel better.

What does it mean to you to be able to represent Oklahoma? The state has a ton of great former and current wrestlers and you rank high on that list.

Honestly, it means the world to me. It’s very humbling to be on that list, but I’m way down on the list of greatest wrestlers to come out of Oklahoma, or just the greatest fighters or athletes. I’m just honored to be a part of it. I want to carry on the tradition and make everyone proud. You know, Oklahoma is a small state, but we’re a really, really good state with lots of good people with good values. I want to embrace those values and be someone that young Oklahomans can look up to.

Derek Parker

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