Former WWE World Heavyweight Champion Jack Swagger succinctly describes the unique combination of art, technical skill and raw athletic ability required to reach the heights of professional wrestling.
“It’s almost like Broadway with body slams,” said the Perry native, who will return to Oklahoma City for the Dec. 2 broadcast of WWE SmackDown at Chesapeake Energy Arena. “The impact is definitely not fake.”
His name was Jake Hager when he began wrestling at age 5. A high school wrestling dynasty, Perry has won 35 state team championships and 14 dual state championships. Hager grew up two blocks from Danny Hodge, one of the most accomplished amateur wrestlers of all time who later turned pro.
Tall and lanky at 6 feet 6 inches, Hager was the Class 2A state runner-up at 215 pounds as a sophomore in 1999, though he barely tipped the scales at 200 pounds.
“The basketball coach would always come in and try to recruit him from me,” said Perry Public Schools Superintendent Scott Chenoweth, who was Hager’s high school wrestling coach. “He was a very hard worker. By his junior year, he just went through a complete physical transformation. He really blossomed into an incredible athlete.”
Hager dominated as an upperclassman, winning state at 215 pounds as a junior and at heavyweight as a senior.
Hager received a football scholarship from the University of Oklahoma and played defensive tackle behind future NFL players Tommie Harris and Dusty Dvoracek. During his sophomore year, Hager joined the Sooner wrestling team full-time. In 2006, as a 280-pound senior heavyweight, he earned All-American honors after finishing seventh at the NCAA championships in Oklahoma City.
While at OU, Hager was introduced to WWE legends Jim Ross and Jerry Briscoe, who invited him to give professional wrestling a try once he graduated. Armed with a finance degree, Hager went on numerous job interviews and almost took a position in Dallas before landing a tryout and then signing a three-year WWE developmental contract.
After stops in Atlanta and Louisville, Kentucky, Hager, who was still wrestling under his real name, spent 18 months in Tampa, Florida, at WWE’s new main developmental training center, Florida Championship Wrestling, where he won the very first FCW heavyweight championship. After more than two years studying under mentors like The American Dream Dusty Rhodes and Dr. Tom Pritchard, Hager debuted on WWE’s Extreme Championship Wrestling brand under the ring name Jack Swagger in 2008.
“It was very tiresome at times, a lot of small shows in front of 50 to 100 people. You just had to kind of see the finish line,” Swagger said.
Swagger won the ECW Championship in 2009, his first WWE title, before being traded to the WWE Raw brand in 2009. By then, he was known as the All-American American Jack Swagger. In professional wrestling, “faces” are the heroes and “heels” are the villains. Swagger played a villain, and he rose in the WWE ranks.
In 2010, Swagger defeated Chris Jericho on SmackDown in Las Vegas to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. During the match, Swagger hit Jericho with his finishing move, the gutwrench powerbomb, and Jericho’s boots went flying into the audience, unscripted.
“We always joke about it,” Swagger said, laughing. “Every time we go back to Vegas, was always walk through the stands, looking for his shoes.”
Swagger’s character became politically charged in 2013 after he teamed up with manager Zeb Colter to form The Real Americans, xenophobic and nationalistic characters who sought to rid the WWE of all illegal immigrants. They feuded with Mexican-born wrestler Alberto Del Rio. For the PG-branded WWE, it was a controversial angle that earned mainstream scorn when political commentator Glenn Beck criticized Swagger and Colter for mocking the Tea Party movement. Beck later rejected an invitation to appear on WWE Raw, and Swagger got the last laugh.
“It was a very big issue in America at the time, and it really still is,” he said.
Swagger turned from heel to face this year when he began feuding with Rusev, a Russian character whose manager criticizes the United States and dedicates victories to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Swagger’s catchphrase, “We the People,” went from borderline racial slur to patriotic mantra.
“That angle we did with Rusev was one of those storylines that comes along once in a career,” Swagger said, referring to the night he turned from bad to good. “I still get goose bumps the way that crowd reacted.”
Swagger has now been televised on WWE for six years and is one of the older guys in the locker room. He said the WWE roster today is very young and he wants to pass on some of the old-school wrestling knowledge he learned from the likes of The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels and John Cena.
“I’m ambitious, and I just want to transcend a generation. I want, decades from now, people to look back and talk about Jack Swagger’s matches or the impact he had on sports entertainment.”
6:45 p.m. Tuesday
Chesapeake Energy Arena
100 W. Reno Ave.
Print headline: All-American, Pro wrestler and state native Jack Swagger returns to Oklahoma City on Tuesday for WWE SmackDown.