“You have to learn how to punch and your body learns how to react. Your natural instinct when people are throwing punches at you is to back up. That just makes it more dangerous for you. You’ll get hurt that way. You’ve got to teach yourself to go forward, move your feet and move your head. I’m not going to lie, that was tough for me to learn. Hopefully I did learn it.”
What is revealing, moreover, is that Hager is hiding nothing, that he is prepared to share the journey and the pain – and the frustration, no doubt – with us.
“There’s been times in the room where we’re just doing boxing or kickboxing and I get pissed off because I’m just getting hit,” he told me. “I want to go to my double leg, but I’m not working on that that day. Luckily when I’m in the cage I will have my double leg and I can use that to go forward. You have to unlearn that. You have to really say I don’t give a fuck, let’s go. That’s why we love MMA and on Saturday we’ll find out.”
So how did Hager grow up wanting to be a fighter, a battler, a man wanting to test himself almost into middle age. “I grew up with two cousins from North Dakota who were junior national champions. They’re a lot older than me and I looked up to them as my older brothers. I had a love for it, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the most athletic guy. I’m lanky and goofy. A long time ago I learned how to shut my mouth, listen to my coaches and put trust in my coaches. I learned how to get better and work on things that I’m not good at – like boxing – and get better at it without getting frustrated to where I won’t do it anymore. I learned to accept whatever happened. MMA is like anything else in life, it’s the little details that make you great at it. Baby steps, but you get better.”