James Haskell chats exclusively to Sky Sports about his surprising endeavour into the world of MMA, his life in rugby and the future…
“MMA is an individual sport, and you’re just pushing yourself to be as dangerous as you can be in 15 minutes…anything can happen.” – Tim Kennedy, retired MMA fighter.
“Martial arts is like a mountain. You see the top. And you hike and you climb, and you finally reach the peak, and you realise it was a false summit, and in front of you lies an entire new mountain range.” – Robert Owens, MMA and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructor.
“I hope to God you come ready, because if you don’t I’m going to beat you into a living death.” – Ken Shamrock
Professional sportspeople have attempted to change disciplines before. It’s been done. But very few, if any, have truly succeeded.
Michael Jordan spent a year playing baseball before reverting back to the NBA. Dwain Chambers tried and failed to make it in American football and Rugby League after his tainted GB athletics career. Andrew Flintoff fought once in a boxing career which is widely viewed now as little more than a publicity stunt after his superb cricketing achievements.
There are exceptions. Sir Ian Botham was a footballer with Scunthorpe before transitioning into a first-class cricket career. All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams has competed as a professional boxer with a current record of 7-0. Olympic medal winning cyclist Victoria Pendleton evolved into an amateur jockey. Record-breaking cycling paraolympian Dame Sarah Story began as a swimmer.
But to master two sports at the very highest level is near-on impossible. To master two sports which both take extreme physical toil on an athlete’s body, near unthinkable.
Yet, 77-cap former England rugby international James Haskell sits in a cramped, darkened editing suite on a Thursday morning mulling over his appearance on Sky Sports News having confirmed his intentions to attempt just that: the 34-year-old is embarking on a career in MMA with Bellator.
If rugby is regarded as a sport played by hard men at a level of ferocious intensity and physicality, then MMA is a discipline ingrained with skill and physicality but viewed with much darker undertones.
Images of knees and elbows connecting with unprotected heads, of repeated punches to prone and stricken opponents, of fighters displaying instincts to rush in and attack unconscious counterparts like rabid animals rather than retreat, have seen the sport frequently portrayed negatively.
It’s undeniably brutal. For some, barbaric and enough to evoke revulsion. For others, a remarkable demonstration of courage, talent and willpower.
“If you’ve never been to a Mixed Martial Arts event, I’ve been to a couple and you talk about blood splattering the walls…I mean it literally happens in front of you. It is not for the faint-hearted.” – Rupert Cox, Sky Sports reporter and presenter.
Fighting is a different world – and it’s one in which even the best experience deep unease. Haskell, a beginner in this world of uniquely organised savagery, freely admits to the sense of trepidation which regularly comes over him.
“There is a huge element of fear in this for me,” he says, laced with the sort of straight-talking honesty he has become famed for across social media. “Unless you’ve got a mental defect, there would be an element of fear for anybody entering this.
“There’s an element of testing yourself and steeling yourself to go into battle and deal with that.
“It’s a contact sport and the idea is to knock the other bloke out and get the win. It’s the same in rugby: you have to challenge yourself. But that’s where the comparison ends. A lot of people talk about them being similar sports, but they’re not.
“If you’re tough at rugby, it doesn’t mean you’re any good at fighting and everybody has a plan – to mention a famous quote – until you get banged in the face.
“I’d done some work for Bellator – some commentary and TV – and was contacted through my agent to go for a meeting. I thought they wanted me to do more work, some reporting and punditry, but a guy called David Green who works for Bellator said: ‘No, we want you to fight.’
“I laughed nervously as you would imagine and then said: ‘Right, what does that mean?’ We had a chat about everything and I went away and spoke to my wife, who thought I was an idiot.
“I thought to myself, you only get one chance at life. I’m always up for trying new opportunities, why would I not want to do this and give it the best possible shot I can? Wherever it takes me, it will be interesting.
“The most important thing is the training and doing what my coaches say before I get in the cage, because you see some of these ‘celebrities’ go and fight and it’s like they’ve never taken a punch before, never ever been anywhere near that.
“Shootfighters gym is a different world to that. They prepare their fighters in a proper way, they believe in hard sparring, so by the time that first occasion arises I would have been in a good place.
“I’m obsessed with people who have the skills to fight. Sometimes people think they’re tough but then you meet somebody who is tough and knows what they’re doing and it’s a completely different kettle of fish. Watching people get dismantled is fascinating for me.
“I’m just excited by it. I think I’m going to learn a lot about myself, a lot about what I can take and can’t take, but that’s the whole point of life.
“What’s the point of always sitting in a room and thinking: ‘I could do this, I could do that.’ We’re going to find out for real now.”
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Soooooooo! This is happening @bellator.europe ðŸ‘€ The journey begins and I could not be more excited. @shootfightersofficial is now my new home.
Having confirmed his retirement from rugby was due to chronic ankle and toe issues restricting the intensity and frequency with which he wished to train, there’s almost an element of irony to the fact Haskell has entered into what many believe is the most taxing sport in the world.
The former back-row admits to having been anxious before retirement – harbouring entirely normal and customary concerns over the unknown and what’s next – but has, in fact, proven exceptionally busy.
One minute he’s been DJ-ing alongside Craig David in Ibiza, the next he’s spoken to hundreds of apprentices around the UK. Some days he’s taken part in a golf event alongside David Haye, others he’s fight training or doing another DJ set.
“There are low periods [in retirement] and there were certainly low periods in regards to when I saw rugby or bits and pieces around the game. I would get quite melancholy,” he says.
“I’d be down, and I couldn’t really watch a lot of England games because it reminded me of playing. But I couldn’t reconcile in my head that even though I wanted to be there, I couldn’t have done the job I wanted to do.
“I went into the England camp the other day and it was really nice and cathartic for me. I put a lot of stuff to rest, trained people and thought: ‘You know what, I’m done with this.’
“In terms of my worries around money and earning, bizarrely I’ve never been busier. It’s been really weird and wonderful, and very crazy. It’s wrecked my head a bit.
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Always important to sing along. @ibizarocks Photo credit @elliotyoungphoto
“What I like about agreeing to the fight stuff is that it’s put an anchor down and I’ve got some discipline again, while also giving me the freedom to pursue other things as I’m not peaking physically every week.
“Rugby and fighting are very different disciplines. My requirements in rugby were the ability to run, accelerate, change direction. Footwork was essential and I couldn’t do it anymore with my ankle and toe. I don’t have any of that element in fighting.
“Look, I’m a 34-year-old retired rugby player, there are pitfalls in everything you do, but for me, I’ve always kept myself in good shape and I trust the guys training me to put me in the best possible shape.
“They would never put me in a cage or risk me if I wasn’t ready. It’s a demanding sport and you have to be prepared for that.”
Born in Windsor as the eldest of two boys, Maidenhead proved the setting for Haskell’s childhood with father Jonathan an entrepreneur and mother Susie in the corporate gift business.
Growing up alongside brother Edward, a career in MMA was never something which crossed Haskell’s mind. But then again, despite finishing as the third most capped England back-row of all time behind Lawrence Dallaglio and Joe Worsley, neither was a life in rugby.
“I’ve always joked that I wanted to be a digger driver. I wanted to drive a JCB all day and tarmac roads. And then I wanted to be in the SAS,” Haskell says chuckling.
“But I don’t think I would have got into the SAS and my mum was convinced that I would get shot. With the public school education I’d been given, I don’t think I would have necessarily repaid my parents if I drove a JCB all day, even though it’s a very skilled job. I think they had slightly bigger aspirations.
“Rugby came about by accident. I had a trial for England U16’s because I went to a school which had that type of exposure. I didn’t get in and found it really upsetting and devastating. I decided then and there that I would either give it one more go or sack it off completely.
“A family friend was a personal trainer, I started training with them in something a bit like a Rocky montage and went from a skinny, lanky, unfit bloke to, in the words of other teammates at the time, a bit of a freak at 18.
“I deferred my university entry with the intention of giving it a go for one year, and 18 years later I was still doing it.
“The fighting is another thing where some people are excited, some people have written me off, but it’s a personal journey and I will put the work in. I’ll flog myself into the ground to be able to do it.”
In a career that took him from Wasps to Stade Francais in France, the Ricoh Black Rams in Japan, Highlanders in New Zealand, back to Wasps and then fellow-Premiership club Northampton Saints, Haskell has the medals to point to a stellar two decades in the sport.
As a youngster coming through with Wasps, he earned the holy grail of the club game in the form of a European Cup medal off the bench in 2007, while he celebrated a Premiership title a year later in 2008 – successes he admits now to have taken for granted at the age of just 22 and 23.
With England, Grand Slam Six Nations success came in 2016, as did a memorable 3-0 tour victory in Australia when Haskell was crowned Man of the Series – performances arguably where Haskell was at his best but also suffered the toe injury that would ultimately set in motion the beginning of the end.
“It’s difficult because we went to Australia and did something no-one had done before. In other games I had similar performances but if you have a favourable win, people are looking to be complimentary and if the team is in a good place, people will hype that up.
“I played a game against South Africa once where I put 33 tackles in and I think it was the best defensive display of my life, but certain journalists gave me 5/10 and said I didn’t play well.
“Australia was the perfect storm, where I’d played very well, was on the ball, felt very confident and Eddie Jones had backed me.
“A lot of coaches don’t understand the power of confidence and backing your players. What Jones did with me was not rocket science, he treated me like an adult, like I was valuable and I would have run through walls for him.”
British & Irish Lions recognition followed in 2017, but in a career of many highs, there have been lows too, with his treatment by Wasps after 13 seasons of service, something which particularly rankles.
“Leaving Wasps, after all the time I’d given them, was a definite low point: the club not giving me a contract offer and sacking me off essentially, before I found an amazing new home in Northampton.
“That was an extremely emotional period of time for me for sure because we believe in rugby and sport about loyalty, but it’s kind of a bit of nonsense all that stuff.
“It’s business and they thought they would get a better deal signing people from abroad, didn’t want me and didn’t feel I had that value.
“I regret not being able to get to the World Cup. I feel sad that I didn’t get to finish as I would want to, and I kind of faded out of the Test picture.
“I got my last cap against Ireland in the 2018 Six Nations and actually thought I played quite well that day at seven, but we lost and they won the Grand Slam, and that was my last game for England. I didn’t get to celebrate it.
“There’s moments where I look back and wish I’d celebrated the wins and little things instead of always looking forward. Now I’ve retired, I try to enjoy every single moment and soak it all up and ring it all out.
“That’s what this next step with Bellator is going to be about. A lot of hard work but really enjoying the privileged position I’m in: going for an adventure and testing myself.”
And so, with an experience in MMA’s heavyweight division imminent, the current mindset of Haskell is a fascinating notion.
At 34, does he envisage a career in fighting at this juncture, or is this – with all the dangers that come with it – potentially a form of trial period?
“My priority is that first fight. That’s all I’m thinking of.
“There are so many unknowns with this, and being completely honest, I never thought about MMA previously so now that I’ve decided to do it, it’s a whole journey and for me, that’s part of the attraction.
“It’s opening up a whole new audience, it’s experiencing something, it’s putting myself in the best possible physical shape, it’s mentally testing myself, it’s going to some dark, dark places and seeing what I’m about.
“I’m very eyes open and I’ve got no other agenda than a personal journey for myself.
“Anyone who criticises…I’ll take it and advice from people who’ve been into a cage or a boxing ring. Anyone else is just guessing and thinking they’re Bruce Lee.
“It’s a vastly different test when someone is hitting you in the head and you’re not sure where you are and you’ve got to recover, survive, get out and be strong.