The tears in the eyes of Jake Hager tell you that when he says he is grateful for his job in AEW, he means it.
Hager is currently performing in the wrestling company spearheaded by Tony Khan, a key component in the Inner Circle faction alongside the likes of the legendary Chris Jericho.
On Wednesday night, the group wages its storyline war with foes The Pinnacle at the grizzly named Blood & Guts event, with Hager right at the heart of the marvellous chaos.
Indeed, during an exclusive interview with The Independent, it’s obvious from the 39-year-old’s disposition that he’s loving life – but that is hardly surprising when he reveals the journey he’s been on since leaving WWE in 2017.
Having wrestled there as Jack Swagger and become a world champion, Hager became disillusioned with “contract negotiations” towards the end of his tenure.
At that time he knew he had to take a leap of faith and break away on his own. He revealed that plans for AEW were already starting to surface, but with their official launch still some two years away the father of two knew he had to find something else.
“As soon as I left the WWE,” he recalls, “The whole point was to get signed with AEW and that was in March 2017.
“They weren’t even an official company then, but it was kind of on the horizon and you could see it was coming.”
He kept his toe in the wrestling waters with a stint on the independent scene – and the lack of security that comes with it – but was also championed by his wife, Catalina Hager, to branch out into MMA.
Hager agrees it was “ballsy” to walk out on a job with WWE without a concrete alternative. It came good – after two fights with Bellator MMA he was signed there, landing his job with All Elite Wrestling months later in 2019.
It may well be that all’s well that ends well, but it wasn’t without a scary moment or two on the way.
He adds: “[Leaving] was ballsy, but I had to supplement a big income to try and maintain the lifestyle that I’d had for ten years. I had kids, school, cars, houses and just like anyone else, I’ve got to pay for it. So, the fear of leaving is very big, and it was very hard.
“It was my wife who said that I could do it and I believed her. There was this time when I lost a bunch of independent bookings and I was putting my daughter down to sleep and I am like ‘what am I going to do?’
“I am tearing up right now because I remember that moment, I’ll always remember that.
“Luckily, we were able to get a second mortgage on our home to pay for the rest of the year and pay for the fight camp that was coming up at the end of 2018.
“It was an incredible two years with a lot of ups and downs, but I have got to say that when you’re down, you have to remember the finish line, because you might be right in front of it.”
In between his Bellator fights, the North Dakota-born athlete was putting out tentative feelers about making the move to AEW, who’d in the interim made ambitious plans to launch a wrestling organisation that would disrupt the monopoly enjoyed by WWE.
It was whilst training for another MMA bout that he again crossed paths with good pal Jericho, whom he’d defeated to win WWE’s World Heavyweight title nine years’ prior. The rest was history.
“In between I wrestled in the UK and with Lucha Underground, just trying to piece things together,” he commented.
“Chris Jericho, during my fight camp, had started training with Dave Bautista at our gym and we kind of just got together organically. I have known Chris forever and he lives about 20 minutes from me.
“With our schedules we hardly ever saw each other so when we did, we started talking about AEW.
“It was July or August in 2019 when I had the first phone call with Tony, and that was directly from Chris.”
It’s clear that if Hager is now able to put his children to bed with far fewer fears about the future, he has plenty of people to thank – not least his wife, who has also appeared in AEW alongside him – for that nudge of encouragement when he needed it most.
He clearly feels at ease, at home, and valued with the Jacksonville-based company: “I had a great career before I got here and I could’ve just stayed doing MMA, but the opportunity to work with Tony Khan, Cody Rhodes, The Young Bucks and Chris Jericho – who is one of the greatest of all time – it was really something you could never pass up.
“All I want AEW to do is grow and grow because I see the leadership with guys like Tony and Chris, they see us like assets and like athletes.
“I’m so blessed and so honoured, and I’ll always say that being at AEW has changed my life.”
AEW’s Blood & Guts event airs on Wednesday, May 5th, available to view in the UK on pay per view via Fite.tv or on 1TV4 at the weekend.
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