When Bellator MMA makes its first start of 2019 this Saturday at the Forum in Los Angeles, much of the attention will be either than the Heavyweight Grand Prix Final between MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko and Bellator light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader or the latest bout of MMA’s best prospect, Aaron Pico. But two very interesting entrees into the Bellator world will come along this Saturday in the form of a former WWE Superstar and a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ace.
The more talked about debut is that of Jake Hager, better known to pro wrestling fans as Jack Swagger, who won the World Heavyweight title in 2010 and best known for his “We The People” gimmick the WWE introduced during the heart of the Tea Party movement in 2013. Swagger had decent runs as both a heel and a babyface in the company, but despite 6’5, 265 pounds with a legitimate athletic background, he never reached the heights that some expected for him in the company.
When Hager signed with Bellator a year ago, many fans were quick to compare him to former WWE Champion CM Punk, who made two high-profile starts for the UFC and lost both in rather embarrassing fashion. The difference is that Hager has a legitimate, top flight amateur wrestling background on which he can draw, a background that eclipses that many of many fighters currently in the sport.
From 2003-2006 Hager wrestled at the University of Oklahoma, also playing football as a freshman. In his senior year, Hager set a school record for most pins in a season with 30, and was named an All-American. If not for then-WWE Talent Relations Head Jim Ross being die-hard OU fan and recruiting him for the WWE, Hager may have turned to fighting years ago. Yet even though he is 36 years old, Hager is still a ridiculous athlete and has been out of WWE for several years, so many of his leftover injuries should be healed. With that legit wrestling background, Hager could realistically make waves in the Bellator heavyweight division.
Bellator is also not taking chances with Hager, matching him for his debut with JW Kiser, a 40-year-old fighter from Kansas, who was knocked out in twenty-four seconds in his MMA debut last May. Mickey Gall he is not. Bellator is gonna move Hager at the right pace and try to get the most out of their investment in him. Wrestling fans will be tuning to see Hager beat some dude down, and they should get their wish this Saturday-and Bellator’s main card.
Debuting surprisingly low on the card will be controversial jiu-jitsu ace AJ Agazarm, who will be making his pro MMA debut after nearly a decade of competing on the highest levels of submission only circuit. He is just the latest grappling ace to come into the MMA world over the last few years, and by joining Bellator, he will be in the same promotion as some of his old grappling foes, including Benson Henderson and Dilan Danis.
What makes Agazram unique among the grappling aces is that he also wrestled for two years at the Ohio States University. While he wasn’t star there, he probably had better wrestling sessions in practice there than most wrestlers will ever have. While still wrestling he also had some amateur MMA bouts, which is what led him into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, also while he was still at Ohio State.
He won the IBJJF World Championship as a blue belt in 2007, which was the beginning an extensive career as an elite jiu-jitsu competitor at both the brown and belt levels. Competing for the flagship Gracie Barra team in California, he peaked in 2013 and 2014 when he won three of the top four competitions within a year-the Brazilian nationals, the European Championships, and the World Championship as No-Gi competitor.
He has had some high-profile losses since then, to the likes of Danis, Henderson, and Garry Tonon, but he has still been successful on the mat, including coming in second at No Gi Pan Ams last year. So many were surprised when he announced on Ariel Helwani’s show just two months ago that he had signed with Bellator. But really, the move was inevitable.
Here’s the thing about Agazarm, he loves to trash talk. His bout with Henderson in Polaris in England last year became very heated due to Agazarm’s words. He even poked the bear that is Joe Rogan, Eddie Bravo, and the elite 10th Planet team last year, saying that “they don’t know shit about jiu-jitsu.” He isn’t afraid to be controversial, which has won him a lot of enemies in still often very traditional world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. But he should fit in very well in the world of MMA.
Another thing to interest MMA fans, in addition to training at Freddie Roach’s famous Wild Card gym, Agazarm has been training with the uber popular Diaz Brothers (homeboy actually lives with Nick in Los Angeles) for his MMA. With that camp, he has a chance to pick up a lot of striking and MMA skills quicker than others, but he still has a lot to make up with his hands and feet. The major criticism for Agazarm at this point is that in interviews, he has been dismissive of striking as to how hard it is. It’s going to take him years to be effective on his feet, but his grappling is so good that for a while, that should not matter.
It certainly won’t matter this Saturday, as he fighting a fighter named Jesse Roberts out of Louisiana who also making his pro debut. The fight will be taking place at some kind of catchweight, probably a 160 pounds but Agazram has been surprisingly cryptic about what weight class he will compete in.
These are just two more interesting debuts for a company that keeps giving unique athletes to platform to come into MMA and develop properly from their pro debuts. Bellator isn’t ahead of the UFC in a lot of areas, but this one is sure it. Hager and Agazarm on this card certainly makes Saturday in The Forum a lot more interesting.