Jake Hager will be the first to admit he has a hard time sitting still.
It’s always been that way, from his time as a kid growing up in Perry, Oklahoma, to becoming an All-American for the Sooners, to hoisting championship titles in World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), and now to his soon to be next venture in MMA. It’s also why he was putting himself through a grueling workout just a few days before he was set to appear in Northeast Wrestling’s Wrestling Under the Stars event at Muzzy Field Saturday night.
“If I’m not allowed to compete, I go stir crazy,” said Hager, who is better known by his wrestling stage name Jack Swagger. “Honestly, that’s probably when I get into trouble.”
Like many, Swagger’s introduction to the world of professional wrestling began at a young age. His entry into it, however, wasn’t like most.
Still a football player at Oklahoma - he stopped playing after his sophomore season to concentrate on wrestling, where he won the 2005 NCAA championship and set a single-season record for pins in 2006 with 30 - he met Jerry Brisco, who was a recruiter for WWE. Brisco offered Swagger a piece of advice, “finish your degree and I’ll give you a tryout.”
The rest is history. After making stops through the company’s developmental territories, a string of titles soon followed when he made it to the big stage of professional wrestling. There was the ECW Championship in 2009, the World Heavyweight Championship in 2010 and the WWE United States Championship in 2012. He also won the Money in the Bank ladder match at WrestleMania XXVI the same year he took the world title.
“I held up my end of the bargain and [Jerry] held up his,” said Swagger, referring to that meeting in college. “I went to Deep South Wrestling in  for a tryout. I was there for a week and it all felt like fate. All my life I’ve been told, ‘oh you’re so tall, why not play basketball.’ And it was like, ‘this makes sense, I should be doing professional wrestling on television,’ and that’s kind of how I got into WWE and professional wrestling. At that point, the only ring I had seen was at wrestling shows.”
There was also the crucial development of Swagger’s in-ring persona, one that has been seen as cocky as well as patriotic, which helped grow his following. Swagger describes it as “Jake Hager amplified,” developed by WWE creative and founder Vince McMahon following a meeting between the two when he first joined the company.
“[Vince] really wanted to push the smile because I smiled at him in the meeting and it pissed him off,” Swagger said. “I immediately wiped off the smile and said, ‘I’m sorry.’ And he said, ‘no, no, it’s great.’”
Swagger also worked in some of his own personality into the character and drew on his experiences, something he thought would resonate with fans. The feuds with Christian, MVP, Mysterio and Evan Bourne, among others, helped as well.
“I wanted Jack Swagger to be like the character Kelly Robinson from the movie “I Spy,” [the one played by] Eddie Murphy,” he said.
But even as Swagger reached the top of the sport’s profession - something he is still uncomfortable saying - he’s always maintained a drive to improve or pick up a new technique. It’s something he learned after his first year on the road, which “was a steep learning curve.”
It goes back to his philosophy. He has to keep moving.
“Even to this day, I still have to push myself to keep on learning something in order to keep that drive and stay hungry because it’s a live, breathing thing, professional wrestling,” Swagger said. “It’s constantly evolving and changing and it’s a very current and trendy sport and you have to be able to change with the times.”
It’s also what’s led him to try something completely different with mixed martial arts.
It was in 2013 when Swagger first got the itch to get into MMA after seeing one of his former college teammates, Matt Grice, fight in a UFC bout down in Tampa where the wrestler and his family reside. It soon led to a discussion with another former teammate and current MMA manager, Danny Rubinstein, and by the end of 2017, Swagger had his deal in place with Bellator.
His first fight is schedule for later this year, even though a date has yet to be announced. But along the way, there’s been plenty of new things to learn, although his collegiate wrestling background does help.
“I had been thinking about this for years,” Swagger said. “It was kind of my decision to leave in order to pursue an opportunity outside the WWE and grow my brand and take charge and me the boss. You know, I bet on myself. I bet on myself big. It’s a be careful for what you wish for, but the hard work always speaks for itself. It’s been a good journey so far and I’ve learned a lot and have a lot to learn. I think this could definitely be a road where I’m successful outside the WWE. It was something I wanted to do. It was something I needed to do.”
While at 36, Swagger might not have the most experience in the octagon, his time in the WWE and all of the publicity that came with hit has provided him an advantage others in his position have not - how to deal with the physiological part of the event, how to study an opponent and how to shift his focus solely on the fight.
He also points out how his wife, Catalina, has been instrumental in allowing him to try these different avenues.
“I can’t thank her enough,” Swagger said. “She’s been a rock and been someone I can lean on. I’ve never seen her waver. If I have something in my head, I can bounce it off her. You’d think it be, ‘aw, it’ll be OK.’ But she’s like ‘Alright, what are you going to do? If you don’t like something, change something.’”
Of course, that doesn’t mean Swagger is taking time off wrestling either. He’s still a mainstay on the independent circuit and like most of the big names, he gets to pick and choose what events he goes to. Swagger joined House of Hardcore for its 2017 Australia Tour and joined 5 Star Wresting in February, beating John Morrison for the heavyweight title.
On Saturday, Swagger will be joining names like Mark Henry, Ryback, Jerry “The King” Lawler and Corey Graves, among others at Muzzy Field. Swagger will be defending his Northeast Wrestling Heavyweight title against Wrecking Ball Legursky. And even though these events might now have the same draw as a WWE, that doesn’t mean Swagger enjoys them any less.
“I consider it a blessing that I’m able to work on the independent circuit to be able to train for this [MMA] thing instead of being in the office all day,” Swagger said. “One of the most powerful moments that I didn’t expect from independent wresting has been the intimacy of these shows. When you’re with the bigger companies, you don’t always have the time or the setup to meet the fans or sign autographs for two hours at every show. So it really makes for this great experience.
“And I’m not lying, I always have at least one fan come up to me and tell me how pro wrestling or I was able to help them. It might not sound like much, but it’s pretty cool to see the power of wrestling. It’s a universal language.”
Tickets for the Wrestling Under the Stars are still available and can be purchased at the gate. For more information, go to northeastwrestling.com.
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org