James Haskell: ‘When you’re being choked in the MMA cage it’s horrific’ | Donald McRae

The ex-England rugby player is a full-on professional sportsman again but, he tells Donald McRae, his new life in mixed martial arts is a test like no other

I‘m in the dungeon in Wembley five times a week, training with fighters, and there is no let-up ,” James Haskell says as he explains his transition from being an England rugby player who won 77 caps to the far darker and more dangerous world of mixed martial arts. Haskell has also recently become a reality television celebrity, since his appearance in the jungle, but the seriousness of trying to learn how to fight now devours his massive frame. It is just as well because, in the next few days, the name of his first adversary will be announced as Haskell prepares to make his MMA debut on a Bellator promotion.

” There’s no’ oh let’s make it some showbiz thing ‘,” Haskell says, resting his battered arm in a sling after the other long day at the Shootfighters gym where he is working alongside established MMA fighters who are desperate to gain the kind of recognition his past career offers him.” They treat me like every other fighter ,” Haskell says of his coaches and gym-mates.” I’m bottom of the food chain. I ran from being top dog to bottom feeder. It’s an interesting place .”

We’re sitting in the swankier surrounds of a members’ club in Chiswick but current realities of his first fighting as a heavyweight cannot be avoided. The brutality of MMA is also never far from the surface.” It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done ,” the 34 -year-old says.” It’s all the hard bits of rugby and none of the let-off. Every day is intense.

” You have to go through some horrific places in training. You have to suffer some big hits. Suffer some injuries. Suffer some pain. Today I developed twice and it’s an assault on everything. When you’re being choked in the enclosure it’s horrific, because you feel like you’re drowning. Then someone tries to punch your head off. You’re dealing with take-downs. Unlike boxing, the fight just begins when you’re on the ground. How you land is important. How you get back on your feet and stop them choking or pummelling you is important. You’ve got to be thinking constantly.

” As a rugby player I got into the habit of tackling without thinking. But in MMA you’ve got to land the right way. You can’t flop. You’ve got to bounce back to your feet. You’ve got to use your sprawl. All these things are alien to me so I’m working so hard. You go into the gym and you’re already wrecked. You opposed hard again and have to go in the next day and the day after. My life is now dictated by this. I’m doing ice baths up to my neck in freezing water three times a week. I’m doing saunas and cryotherapy. I’m doing massage and physio four times a week. I’m a full-on professional sportsman again .”

Training, however, is not the same as fighting and Haskell admits:” I didn’t sleep before my first sparring session on the second of January. I was very nervous. I’d done lots of rolling, wrestling, jujitsu sparring. I’d done pads and technique. But they put me in the enclosure. It’s all well and good appearing a million dollars on the pads but how are you going to react when someone’s trying to take your head off ?”

James Haskell and campmates in the’ I’m a Celebrity …’ jungle in November 2019. Photograph: ITV/ Shutterstock

What has he learned about himself?” I’ve learned that, bizarrely, I enjoy having a fight. Obviously nobody likes getting hit, but I don’t have a problem with it. In MMA you’ve got to take a few makes to reach the right stance. People think of rugby players as being tough but it’s another thing to stand in front of someone and get kicked, punched, taken down. In rugby you have two contact conferences a week and you play a game on the weekend. In MMA, of the five or six days a few weeks that I’m in, four are at peak intensity. I’m as sore and battered as if I played South Africa. You still have your next hard session the very next day. But when you’re learning a ability, and it comes off, there’s no better feeling.

” I’m a white middle-class public schoolboy so I’m not particularly tough. But it turns out I don’t mind going in the cage. I can dig in. And it’s interesting watching people spar and develop. There’s no anger. It’s all technique and delivered with venom. It’s not detest. But, in a real fight, they wish to do injury .”

Can Haskell suppose clearly after he has been hit hard or is in the midst of one of those “horrific” chokes?” It’s getting better. That’s why you develop so hard every day- so you get used to being uncomfortable. But the choking is different. After a while you feel like you’re drowning. You’ve got to stay comfortable with the horror of it. That’s why the fitness of Khabib[ Nurmagomedov, the UFC lightweight world champion who dominated Conor McGregor] is unbelievable. Bellator’s heavyweight champ, Ryan Bader, and these other blokes are amazing .”

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Haskell, who has followed MMA for years as a fan, is still a novice in a complex and savage athletic. He is also developing alongside younger, unknown fighters who have a voracious will to succeed.” There’s a guy at the gym who came down to London because he wants to make it. He lives in a van in the car park. Some of these guys are starving[ for success ]. I don’t shy away from the fact that, ahead of many of these guys, I’ve got a Bellator contract. But I’m set the hard work in and if somebody wants to have a tear-up with me we’ll have one. I will give it my all because I’m representing Bellator and my gym.

” I’ve been going to Shootfighters for years and when I asked them about me turning pro they backed me to succeed. But they said:’ If you fuck around you could get hurt. You could die. You’re representing a high-end gym, with a 96% success rate, with 12 Bellator fighters. You need to live and breathe this because we don’t mess around .’ The other day I got choked out four times while practising. I felt like I had a something sticking in my throat afterwards .'”

There is a difference between Haskell’s attempt to become an MMA fighter and Andrew Flintoff’s dip into boxing which lasted one embarrassing bout.” I can’t talk about Freddie ,” Haskell says,” but some of these blokes who’ve gone in the ring[ as former sportsmen] look like they’ve never been hit in the face before. I know what that feels like .”

James Haskell and Eddie Jones at an England training session in February 2016. The former Test player says of the Australian:’ He’s the best coach I’ve worked with .’ Photograph: David Rogers/ Getty Images

Does he understand the fear that all fighters experience before they step into a ring or a enclosure?” Yeah. Fear creeps up on you. I guess it’s the fear of the unknown. It’s more like nervousness. My coaches talk about doing some nervy away-day sparring where you go into a strange gym, a hostile environment, to fight. I’ve been in lots of hostile surroundings but it’s always been with a team. As a fighter, you’re alone.

” I’m not scared of fighting. But there is a fear I might get exposed. This is why I decided to do it. You think you’re this tough rugby player. But can you have a proper fight ?.”

Haskell admits that when he retired from rugby last season he cried after telling his Northampton teammates.” When I stood up to leave, and thanked them for everything, I broke down like a baby. I felt melancholic because I wanted to go to the World Cup. But, today, it’s like I’ve never played rugby. I watched England lose against France and said to my wife:’ I don’t know anything about rugby any more .'”

Of course Haskell still understands rugby and he is unequivocal in supporting Eddie Jones– the England coach who did so much to revive his Exam career in 2016.” Eddie and I genuinely clicked. He’s a very warm and compassionate guy- even if he’s very fiery over certain things. He’s the best coach-and-four I’ve worked with and he made me feel welcome, and treated me with respect. Watching him lose against France was difficult. But he strives for perfection, and he loves characters, and wants people to succeed .”

Haskell at the London Shootfighters gym in Alperton. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/ The Guardian

Does he believe Jones will remain England’s head coach until the 2023 Football world cup?” I hope so. All the players love him. After the loss to France, some people said:’ Is he going to apologise to the long-suffering England fans ?’ What long-suffering England fans? They beat the All Blacks to get to the Football world cup final a few months ago. When you’re forceful, and bellow people on their bullshit, so many want to get you. But he’s brilliant. My experience of England coaches before him have been some of the worst surroundings I’ve been involved in. Eddie built it the best environment I’ve ever been involved in. He known to be to win and he tells you how to do it .”

Haskell enjoyed rugby more than reality television.” People forget I played rugby. They run,’ Are you James the celebrity ?’ or they ask,’ Are you from Love Island ?’ But I was close to everyone in the jungle. I was very close to Wrighty[ Ian Wright] and Caitlyn[ Jenner ]. Jacqueline[ Jossa who won the show] was like my little sister .”

Last week Haskell offended many people when, trying to crack a bad joke with her on social media, he indicated Jossa was like she was ” waiting for the sunshine bus “. It was Haskell at his dumbest, making a jibe involving people with special needs, but he says his jungle experience was ” an opportunity to make some friends and learn a little about myself”, adding:” And to behave properly- putting girls first, having ways, being a leader, being honest and open. That’s what I stand for .”

Haskell might be better off sticking to his new career rather than returning to reality TV. Has he got a fight nickname?” No. What could I call myself? The Cuddler? I just go under James Haskell. I’m focusing on the important stuff- like trying not to get knocked out.

” I’m not going to be a trash-talker. I would rather be humble and let my fighting talk right now. I know, in the fight game, it’s the scoundrels who get paid more money. I’m lucky I’m going into this situation in a different way. I suppose a few people thought it was a PR stunt. But it’s for real. I’ve given up my life to do this and I want to give a good account of myself as a professional fighter .”

Bellator European Fight Series events are broadcasted live on Channel 5 throughout 2020. Visit Bellator.com

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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