James Haskell happy to be fuelled by fear as he starts new chapter in the brutal world of Bellator MMA

James Haskell is to become a mixed martial arts fighter, and what could possibly go wrong. “I’m loving it, but I haven’t been elbowed to the head yet. Ask me if I love it after that.”

It’s a sentence that despite coming with the usual smile, laugh and confidence that was on display throughout his 16-year professional rugby union career, it also has a sense of reality and nervousness about it.
The former England international has been unveiled as Bellator’s newest and most high-profile acquisition yet, with Haskell hanging up the boots and pulling on the gloves to begin a new chapter in his career – “a journey” that he describes as a new life where exciting challenges await to test himself like he hasn’t been tested before.
These ‘challenges’ once stood in front of Andrew Flintoff and Rio Ferdinand, two previous high-profile athletes who launched very different attempts to crossover from their proven disciplines and try their hand at combat sport – on these occasions in the squared-circle. A chubby Flintoff – not even close to the streamlined version that greets television audiences today – called it a day after an underwhelming 1-0 boxing career, while Ferdinand’s ill-thought bookmakers’-backed campaign never got off the ground, with the British Boxing Board of Control rightly denying him a licence.
If anything is apparent from the first week of Haskell’s journey, it is that it will be a very different story. “I spoke to the guys at London Shootfighters gym. I’ve known them since I was 21 and they don’t mess around,” Haskell tells The Independent. “They’ve got five or six fighters in Bellator at the moment and they’ve had a lot of fighters in the other mob that we don’t talk about.” [spoiler: Haskell means the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Bellator’s rival promotion]
“They’re pretty experienced and unbelievable characters themselves. I called them up and said ‘Lads, listen. You’ve seen me train, they want me to do this, what do you think?’ and if they’d have said ‘You’re f****** insane, don’t do it ...’ but they didn’t. They said ‘Yeah, we’ll make this happen, we’ll do this, we’ll help you, you can do it. We’ll build a structure to look after you, look after your existing injuries, train you’. If they hadn’t said that at Shootfighters I wouldn’t have done it. But they agreed and we’re seven or eight sessions in.”
Haskell certainly has the frame for Bellator’s heavyweight division, which will allow him to bulk up from his cut-down 112.7kg body weight in post-rugby life to its 119kg limit. He also has the support in place, with London Shootfighters behind British welterweight Michael ‘Venom Page’ who until May this year was yet to taste defeat in an eye-catching 15-fight career to-date.
But there is also a genuine determination that exudes out of Haskell through his words, which should help dismiss any backlash that comes with his move into a sport that isn’t exactly well-received by every rugby supporter that is already familiar with the 77-cap England veteran.
“I haven’t noticed anything,” Haskell adds. “I can’t really comment on Flintoff and Ferdinand on what they did, obviously it didn’t go that well but I think people backlash about everything.
© Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited The former rugby player started training at London Shootfighters gym at 21 years old (Bellator MMA/Lee Hamilton-Cooper) “You’ve got to be prepared if you put yourself out there to take the heat. I’m not really interested in what a lot of people think, I was going to do this regardless whether people liked it or not. I do most of the things I’m going to do regardless, I don’t look at stuff on social media, I just post and if people don’t like it I’ll f****** post it anyway, it doesn’t matter.
“I think the most important thing is that there’s a level of authenticity so that’s why I wanted to go with Shootfighters. People keep contacting me and saying ‘would you come down to my ju jitsu gym and do this judo thing’, and I said about Rocky Balboa because this isn’t a showcase thing where I’m turning out every time thinking ‘how would he know?’ I’m down here with these blokes who are dictating and doing everything. If I go into that cage and I look like Freddie, where I look like I’ve never been punched in the face before, then that’s not Freddie’s fault. You’ve got to blame the coach, blame the trainer, because he’s underprepared. Even if I get filled in, I will be as best prepared as I possibly can because I’ll take it deadly seriously and that’s all that matters to me.”
Confidence has been a big part of Haskell’s career, whether it be in his early breakthrough days with Wasps, the lofty heights achieved with England or what gave him the conviction to move to France, Japan and New Zealand to increase his club experience like few players before him.
Perhaps because of this it’s easy to slip into a false sense of security that Haskell was never afraid of rugby union, and that what he had to put his body through every single week was something done without second-thought. So when he says there will be fear within him whenever he makes his MMA debut in early 2020, it comes as a surprise to all but him.
“Personally I think there’s a large element of fear involved, I think anyone that says otherwise is lying or coming up with pretence,” he explains. “There was fear in rugby, always. I think it’s a big demand to throw your head at someone’s knees and tackle them and fight them, fight on a Tuesday and then get stuck in. It wasn’t fear by the end of it because I was confident but it’s enough to make you steer yourself and run head-first into a contact sport.
“For me I think there will be that element of testing myself and seeing what the story is. I’ve never walked around thinking I was a particularly hard bloke, I never thought I was … well I know I wasn’t. In terms of skillset and practicing I hadn’t had a lot of fight training, I’d only had bits and pieces but it will be a massive test and I’m quite excited to do it.
“There are lot of mad ex-rugby players keep offering me out for a fight who obviously haven’t got enough hobbies or something worth doing, but I think for me this is exciting and I’m excited to get going.”
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And what of the important stuff? “I haven’t thought about a ring name actually and I haven’t thought of a ring song. I don’t know what I would put, normally something funny like James ‘The Average Shag’ Haskell, something tongue-in-cheek like that. I don’t know where you get your nickname from. I think it’s interesting because in this game everyone always talks themselves up and trash-talk their opponents. I don’t come from that, I don’t really know what you do, so I’m just going to get on with it and let my fighting do the talking.”
If Haskell is going to struggle with that, he may want to practice the familiar weigh-in staredown. “That is going to be tricky and I have thought about that as well, whether I’d laugh or not. I think I’ll just be friendly, you just don’t need to walk around telling everyone you’re a fake tough guy. If you’re about to fight someone and you haven’t got it, f****** staring someone down will not prove anything. I know there’s intimidation and you talk about Chris Eubank when he was boxing, he famously got talked out of it [against Steve Collins] because they said he’d been working with a hypnotist and he couldn’t take it and feel any pain, and Eubank fell apart. So there’s elements of that but if I laugh when a bloke stares me down, I’ll see what the story is.”