Keep On Ruckin’
From launching yourself through the air at your opponent to tacit bending of the rules and drinking your own urine, rugby and mixed martial arts have much in common. So when England superstar James Haskell makes his Bellator debut next year, will he maul all before him? We spoke to Haskell about his training at the esteemed London Shootfighters gym – his relationship with his sparring partners, how his submission game’s coming along, and how much his rugby background will impact on success.
Unlike any other cage fighters, freshly recruited or otherwise, James Haskell is all over mainstream celebrity glossy Hello! magazine this weekend. The story is that he and wife Chloe Madeley, daughter of daytime TV royalty Richard and Judy, will be listing their home on Airbnb during the forthcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan. Rugger superfans – and Haskell was a staple of the England team for fifteen years – can enjoy games from The Hask’s own sofa, surrounded by the spoils of his colourful international career. Alongside ‘smoking’ and ‘pets' in the list of forbidden activities: ‘tackling indoors’. In light of recent developments – Haskell announcing a fight contract with Bellator MMA – the couple would be advised to add ‘takedowns, Showtime Kick attempts, and any form of live sparring.’
“I think life’s for living,” a characteristically ebullient Haskell, 34, tells Battles Combat sports Journal of his decision, “I don’t know what the average rugby fan thinks and, frankly, I don’t care. I have naysayers, but if I listened to them I’d never leave the house. Life is a journey, and if I were to die tomorrow then I’ve had a go at everything, and everyone else can just mind their own business. Personally, there’s an element of fear, and anyone who says otherwise is putting on a pretence. But old team mates, and my family, have been very supportive. I reckon we can at least get Richard down to a Bellator fight. Chloe cries at everything anyway, we wouldn’t want the camera to pan to her during that.”
Written down this might sound surly. But in the real, Haskell can hardly be accused of bolshiness. He is highly amusing on the mic, spontaneously witty and self-depreciating, which, in an interview context at least, is welcome in a sport where most participants are more eloquent with their fists than their repartee.
Moreover he seems to maintain, as MMA coaches say, ‘the correct mental attitude’.
“I’m not going in there to raise my profile. I came to work with an amazing organisation so I could be a fighter. I’m not playing at it,” he says, “I’m working with the best people. Seeking out the right coaches, treating it like a vocation. There’s only so many times you can dine out on England stories. The gas man doesn’t take old strips for payment.”
Haskell is a decorated England rugby forward; a flanker who is no stranger to the sharp end of the back row game. He’s won three Six Nations titles, a Grand Slam in 2016, The Heineken Cup with Wasps in 2007, and toured with the British and Irish Lions in 2016 when, even in the twilight of his first team years, he put on a career-defining performance. Swashbuckling moments included appearing naked in a calendar with only a ball to protect his modesty while at famously pink-shirted French team Stade Francais, scoring two tries against Wales in the opening match of the 2010 Six Nations, and an impressive clutch of yellow cards. In fact, this article says he is the most ‘sin binned’ England player of all time.
Since retiring only in May 2019 he’s successfully podcasted, presented, attended the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s wedding, and… DJed in Ibiza and at Soho Farmhouse. What will his entrance theme be? “I don’t think I can use house music, or at least I’ll have to find some really vibe tune. Dark techno isn’t going to cut it.”
The offer to join Bellator’s roster actually came as a surprise.
“When Dave [Green, Bellator Europe prez] talked to me about it, I’d done some TV presenting stuff and hoped he’d offer me more work. Then he dropped that bombshell that he wanted me to fight. When I stopped nervously laughing, I realised he’d piqued my interest. I went home and spoke about it to my wife. She didn’t find it quite as funny. She thought I was mad. I picked up the phone to London Shootfighters, who I’ve known since I was 21, and asked what they thought of giving it a go. Unanimously they came back with support, which was a very important factor in my decision. They’re one of the toughest and most successful MMA gyms in the UK. They knew my career and my limitations.”
Haskell has trained casually at London Shoot Fighters (LSF) gym, home of Michael ‘Venom’ Page, Alfie Davis, Jimmy Manuwa and many more, since the age of 21. He was introduced to it by his long-term physiotherapist Kevin Lidlow, who also works with fighters.
“I’ve worked with him from the ages of 17 to 34. He said how he thought wrestling would really help me. He’s treated a lot of guys from there. I practiced takedowns with Paul [Ivens, LSF coach]. I started getting a real insight into jiu-jitsu and began training with Roger Gracie.”
What’s his best submission?
“The one where I get tapped out and fall asleep? I’ve got a nice little kimura, maybe a guillotine… it’s early days.” He has dined out on the story of his first Shootfighters training session, when “a 40kg guy, as opposed to my 120kg, folded me up like a travel mat. Not only did I leave the cage with my tail between my legs, but I’m aware that it doesn’t really matter how big you are. There are plenty of guys who can fill me in, and plenty of big units too. So it’s back to school.”
Battles fantasises about Haskell being a Brock Lesnar-esque explosive heavyweight, dripping with natural athleticism.
“I like the way you said ‘athleticism’ with inverted commas,” he says, “right now I’m working with Paul and Alex [Demetriades, LSF founder], these guys are the lynchpins of LSF, more on stand up right now and will be progressing to the ground. It’s a gym where they believe in heavy sparring and doing that kind of work. I went to a wedding the other day and someone asked, ‘How’s retirement treating you?’ And I couldn’t actually rotate my neck.”
While the rest of the UK MMA media – which these days means The Daily Mirror and ITV – is, perhaps understandably, keen to find out what Haskell’s celeb entourage think of his foray into simulated fights to the death, Battles just wants to nerd out on training.
“I’m in there three times a week at the moment, for two hours at a time,” he reports, “the training’s intense, but clever. Coming from rugby, there’s going to be an element of wrestling ability and that physicality; but there are going to be a lot of holes in what I do. Equally there’s no point working on a spinning back kick, or an axe kick” – as favoured by new team mate Alfie Davis – “because that’s not what I’m about. My coaches dictate my style and how I do it. Which is actually quite nice.”
He’s slimmed down from his international level rugby forward frame. “I went into summer thinking I’d retired. I thought I’d lose some weight for ‘tops off’. Chloe did all my calories for that and I went down from 120kg to 112.5. I burn about 500 calories in weights and conditioning sessions, but from shadow boxing and pad work I burn 800 in the same hour. In a two-hour session including wrestling as well, it’s 1400.”
Like Sergeant First Class William James in The Hurt Locker and so many others in mixed martial arts too, Haskell it seems enjoys a perverse comfort zone in the front lines. In an especially evocative anecdote that will be familiar to any readers facing mid-life challenges, he says that when he retired from rugby, “I bought my first commercial gym membership, which was a bit of a shock to the system. I went in, saw people training, and thought ‘I’ve got to get out of here and find a proper gym.’ I was missing that element of excitement, which you need come January and February when it’s cold and pissing down. My wife’s a bit upset; she thought we’d have more time together, more walks, things like that. But it hasn’t worked out that way. It’s a test, a journey. I’ve missed structure and discipline and now I know where I need to be and I’m going to back to professional dedication.”
There’s a lot he can bring from a top-flight rugby career. “There are elements I’ll take across: the professionalism, the expectations my coaches have of me, what’s supposed to be delivered and what it takes to be successful. I’ll start working my sports psychology. I’ll start striving to be in the best possible shape. All these elements will kick back in. They’re in reserve anyway… I’ve only been off the diet for three months.”
Shootfighters, one of Europe’s most venerable and demanding MMA gyms, is of course a far cry from an Equinox or Third Space. “MVP can do things that make me want to hug my mum. I’m at the bottom of the ladder,” he admits, possibly somewhat coyly given his heritage, “and I have thought that I’m going to a gym where guys who work very hard, and are very disciplined, will look at me and think, ‘How has he got this? What is he about?’ So rather than the bigger picture what I am thinking about is the guys at Shootfighters, being respectful, and earning my spurs. People haven’t treated me any differently, because I haven’t fought yet. You don’t get medals for participation. But if I front up in training, that’s what people and my team mates at LSF respect. People who are dedicated, humble and get on with it. So I just come in and go ‘yes coach, no coach’ and try not to cry again.”
Bellator Europe President Dave Green says, “The obvious location for his first fight is England, and we’re looking at the early part of next year.” While some of the more trenchant voices in MMA have pointed out how fascinating it would be for the exceptional rugby player to be tested, Green has noted that it would actually be sensible for Haskell to be matched against an opponent of similar experience.
For his own part, Haskell says “I’m honestly just thinking about my next training session. Do I think I’m a fighter? I didn’t before… perhaps I do now. Do I think I’m the toughest bloke in the world? No. And I wish people would stop offering me out. Ex rugby players, weirdos on social media… well, I’m going to fight in the cage.”
Mixed martial arts is not for everyone. But it might suit James Haskell.
Listen to James’ House of Rugby podcast via iTunes and YouTube. Follow him on Instagram via @jameshask.