From Flanker To Fighter: James Haskell Talks To TheSportsman About Swapping Rugby Union For MMA

After a lengthy rugby career and a spell DJing, James Haskell is now moving to the cage...
12:19, 02 Sep 2019

Former England rugby star James Haskell announced last week that he'll be swapping his scrum cap for MMA gloves, signing with mixed martial arts promotion Bellator, a move Haskell admits is taking him out of his comfort zone. 

"I think personally there’s a large element of fear involved," Haskell told TheSportsman.

"I think that anyone that says they’re not scared of this kind of thing is either lying or coming up with pretence. I think for me I want to test myself."

Few could have predicted the 34-year-old's next test would be entering the Octagon as a heavyweight mixed martial artist, following his retirement from rugby in May. A surprise twist even for Haskell, who spent early August DJ-ing at Craig David’s Ibiza Pool Party.

But scratch beneath the surface and you'll find an ex-athlete searching for structure after calling time on his decorated 17-year rugby union career, the sport that has anchored his life since he was eight-years-old. 

Haskell's venture into professional combat began on Northampton Saints RFC's treatment table last year, a place he became familiar with during his single season with the Premiership outfit. Persistent injuries and the sobering omission from Eddie Jones's World Cup plans forced the flanker to consider his future. 

“I wanted to be going to the World Cup, I wanted to be playing, but I can’t do that."

It's very hard retiring, they don’t prepare you for that. It doesn’t matter how successful you’ve been, you’re going from one sport to another - you’ve lost your identity.

“I’ve had a good summer DJ-ing, I’ve been working all over the place. I’ve been training, obviously on my own, but whenever it came to rugby, I got a bit melancholy and a bit down.”

“I wanted to find something that grounded me and then the opportunity came at the right time.”

Step forward Bellator, growing competitors to Dana White's UFC. Haskell had a spell commentating on a handful of British MMA shows, so when the call arrived, he assumed he'd be back behind the mic - not joining their roster. 

"Oh brilliant, I’m finishing rugby and I’m interested in MMA, maybe he’s going to offer me some more work, and then they dropped the bombshell that they wanted me to fight.

"Once I stopped nervously laughing it kind of peaked my interest. I went back to my wife, she didn’t find it as funny, she obviously looked at me like I was a bit mad."

Haskell says he'll put as much dedication into MMA as he did with rugby
Haskell says he'll put as much dedication into MMA as he did with rugby

Subscribers to Haskell's social media channels or his excellent House of Rugby podcast will know he revels in the spotlight. He's charming, articulate and has developed a reputation as a TV personality, appearing on shows like A League of Their Own and Loose Women. The former British and Irish Lion even joked: 

“I’m excited as I have never been an individual sportsman, I’ve always had a team press conference and now everybody is here to listen to me.”

Despite Haskell’s media-friendly persona, the 34-year-old is adamant his crossover to the cage is a serious project, repeatedly shaking off any suggestion of a PR stunt. 

I think some people think it's like that scene out of Rocky III where he’s wearing gold gloves and he’s training, and it’s all showbiz and he gets absolutely filled in by Clubber Lang.

"That's not what I’m about. I’ll dedicate my life to this I want to make sure I'm in the best possible shape. Whatever happens at the end of it I’m going to put as much dedication into this as I did at rugby."

Haskell joins a select club of athletes who have switched sporting disciplines. Michael Jordan did it, swapping the NBA for baseball. His former Wasps RFC colleague Christian Wade is currently lighting up the NFL, scoring a sensational 65-yard touchdown last month. But one transition he won't be drawing inspiration from is Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff's boxing debut back in 2012.

“He’s obviously a hero at cricket, an unbelievable player, but I don’t want to look anything like he did in a boxing ring because it looked like he’d never taken a punch before and this is something that’s very serious for me, it’s a very different approach.” 

The former England international, who was capped 77 times for his country, gave no timeline on when he expected to make his Bellator debut, insisting there’s a lot of considered work to be done.

"Every day is a school day but rest assured that my conditioning and my training is hard and intense. They haven’t stuck me in a cage and let people beat the crap out of me for an hour because that’s no good to anyone."

Haskell has had spells commentating on a handful of British MMA shows
Haskell has had spells commentating on a handful of British MMA shows
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