When former U. Oklahoma wrestler Jake Hager goes to work, he still has to every now and then sit back to take a breath.
Hager wrestles for World Wrestling Entertainment as one of their superstars, and his character, “Jack Swagger,” is one of the top villains on the WWE’s television show Smackdown! that comes on every Friday night on the SyFy Network.
“It’s so crazy because I grew up watching the same guys I’m in the locker room with now,” Hager said. “I grew up idolizing Rey Mysterio, Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Big Show; I mean these guys were on my TV every Monday night.”
Hager initially came to OU as a defensive tackle from high school wrestling powerhouse Perry. Hager appeared to be doing well, but hadn’t attained the level of success to which he was accustomed.
The former Oklahoma high school wrestling state champion turned his attention back to the mat and decided his best chances for national success would come in collegiate wrestling.
It was a rough transition for a young man, who was suddenly competing for one of the toughest college wrestling programs in the country.
“We wrestle one of the most competitive schedules in the country,” said OU wrestling coach Jack Spates. “He was coming in against beasts. He did have a transition because he didn’t start until later in college — very difficult for a guy to do that — by the end he was for real. He was tough.”
As a heavyweight in 2006, Hager was named an All-American after an impressive seventh-place finish in the NCAA championships and also defeated the eventual heavyweight national champion, Dustin Fox from Northwestern.
It was during this time he was introduced to WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross through former OU defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek, Hager’s close friend and college roommate.
Before WWE made the call, though, Hager was trying to find a job during his final semester on campus, but nothing caught his eye.
“I must have went through job interviews for six or seventh months, you know starting in January and that was just a nerve-wracking process,” Hager said. “I really wasn’t finding any opportunities out there. I found some jobs, but not what I thought were opportunities.”
After a nearly six-month process, Hager had finally come to terms with a firm in Dallas.
That’s when he got the phone call from Ross.
“I talked to JR and I talked to another guy, Jerry Briscoe, and they kind of set me down and told me about the opportunity I had in front of me with the WWE,” Hager said. “They sent me out to Atlanta for a one-week tryout at one of their developmental camps.
“I liked it, they liked me, so we signed a three-year developmental contract and I moved out to Atlanta by July of ’06.”
During his 2 1/2 year stay at multiple WWE affiliates, Hager worked on making the transition from amateur wrestler to professional wrestling.
He also worked on creating the character Hager portrays today in Swagger.
Hager started living his dream, playing the larger-than-life character Jack Swagger, “The All-American American”.
“That’s the thing, you know, when you’re coming up with a character for the WWE, they want it to be you but amplified. I think Jack Swagger and Jake Hager are very similar.”
Most describe the 6’6, 260-pound former All-American wrestler as the laid back, easygoing sort, but when the entrance music hits and the lights go up, it’s that amplified version of Hager that goes through the curtain. From that point forward it’s all Jack Swagger, the All-American American, the braggadocios villain of the WWE.
Swagger will add on a couple more Americans to his “All-American American” nickname when he is really trying to get the fans riled up, a far departure from the young wrestler that used to walk the campus at OU on his way to a bachelor’s degree in business finance in 2006.
“Jacob Hager is a great kid,” Spates said. “It’s so comical because when you see him on TV, he’s, and I don’t know if he would be characterized as a villain, but he certainly seems pretty villainous and he’s got that stare down — that evil stare. I have to laugh because Jacob Hager is the nicest, sweetest, most wonderful guy you could meet, but he plays a good part.”
It’s Hager’s amateur wrestling skills that have helped catapult him to the top of the heap in the WWE, and Hager is a part of special lineage that has passed through the hallowed wrestling rooms and moved on to the pro ranks.
Names like Danny Hodge, who went undefeated at his time at OU (1955-1957) while amassing a record of 46-0 with 36 pins. Hodge also won the 177-pound NCAA title and pinned all of his NCAA finalist opponents.
Hodge may be arguably the greatest amateur wrestler of all time, according to Ross, and is the only amateur wrestler to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated.
There was also two-sport athlete “Dr. Death” Steve Williams. Williams was an All-American during his time as a football player at OU and also made the finals of the NCAA tournament in wrestling before be beaten by future Olympian Bruce Baumgartner.
Hager has known Hodge most of his life while living in their shared hometown of Perry, and Williams helped train Hager as a pro during his time Ohio Valley Wrestling.
Another former Sooner great, Ed “Wahoo” McDaniel, comes to mind that had a solid career in professional wrestling. McDaniel played football under legendary coach Bud Wilkinson in 1956 and played in the NFL before stepping inside the squared circle.
Ross, who also was Executive Vice President for the WWE and has been involved in pro wrestling since 1974, acknowledges the legacy Hager has to follow.
“He has huge shoes to fill because he’s been preceded by so many Oklahomans that have been stars in pro wrestling,” Ross said.
However, Hager already has taken a major step towards being remembered among the elite in Oklahoma’s history, and the journey started in Oklahoma City during the March 1 edition of WWE’s Monday Night Raw telecast.
Jack Swagger took on Santino Marella in a qualifying match for a spot in a match called “Money-in-the-Bank.” Swagger squashed Marella in less than 30 seconds in front of his hometown crowd.
Swagger went to the WWE’s premiere pay-per-view event, WrestleMania, and won the MITB match in front of over 72,000 people on March 28 in Glendale, Ariz.
Winning the match guaranteed Swagger a shot at WWE’s world titles at his discretion. Any time, any place, and Swagger could even take advantage of an injured champion.
Less than two days after Swagger went to a television taping of Smackdown! and cashed in the guaranteed contract, he successfully captured the WWE World Heavyweight Championship by defeating Chris Jericho.
For Hager, it was a great night for more than one reason.
“Man, what a feeling. Like when I came back through the curtain and everybody was on their feet cheering,” Hager said. “It happened to be in Las Vegas, so it was the perfect city. After I won it actually, I took my then-girlfriend out at the time and I proposed to her. So I had a world championship in one hand and a ring in another. Luckily, she said yes.”
The win came as a big shock to many, including his mentor Ross, as Hager is still considered green in the world of pro wrestling.
“I was proud of him,” Ross said. “Because it’s a sign of confidence that the company has in an athlete that they feel he is talented and responsible enough to be put in that position. So I was obviously proud for him and happy with him.
“I was surprised and pleasantly so.”
Jack Swagger was now carrying the title and wrestling as the main event night in and night out in front of sold-out arenas across the country.
There was nothing sweeter for Hager as the titlist. He eventually dropped the title to one of his heroes, Rey Mysterio, in a fatal four-way match.
“It was a life-long dream to accomplish that,” Hager said. “Oh man, that three or four months I held the title was going by really fast, but it was very surreal and I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Now, as a former world champion, it’s up to Swagger the character and Jake Hager the man to build a legacy.
“You know what? Now is a real interesting time for me,” he said. “I have been the world heavyweight champion, but I’m still considered very new.
“You want to leave your mark on this business. Anybody who does this business does it because they love it. I have been wrestling since I was 5 years old, I played football and wrestled at Oklahoma, you do that and it’s a lot of hard work because you love it.
“Obviously, I can’t be a wrestler for the rest of my life. Your body won’t take it, so for the next 10 years I would like to passionately put everything I have into these performances and give it to the WWE universe and to the local that fans I have at OU and around the state of Oklahoma.
“Luckily, Jake Hager went to the great the University of Oklahoma, so he has class. He knows how to win because the Sooners win and they do it with class.”
First though for Hager is a trip home to OKC Friday night for a live television production of Smackdown! on the Syfy Network from the Ford Center.
Ross, who is sponsoring the live Smackdown!, hopes students and fans alike turn out to welcome Hager home.
“I know that on that Friday night before the OU-Texas game is a big night for him,” Ross said. “Cause I hope that for those who don’t trek to Dallas, that they will make the effort to go to the Ford Center to see him perform.
“This is like a home game for Swagger, and the WWE won’t be back the rest of this year at least.”
The WWE also is offering student tickets for the JRsBarBQ.com presents SmackDown! at the Ford Center for a discounted rate of $10 dollars with a student ID.
Villain or not though, Hager wants to hear the cheers when he comes home Friday.
“Well, hopefully since I am a world champion now, Norman and OU can really welcome home back one of their native sons,” Hager said.