LONDON – Bellator Head of Europe David Green has admitted the promotion’s signing of former England rugby star James Haskell got the organization the publicity it wanted, but he warned that anybody viewing the signing as simply a publicity stunt is very much mistaken.
Speaking to MMA Junkie following the announcement of Haskell’s signing, Green said: “Obviously there’s a degree of publicity about it. If I was announcing ‘John Haskell’ today, ‘a promising 34-year-old heavyweight,’ would I have a room full of ESPN, BBC and people like that? No. So there’s a degree of publicity, there’s no doubt about that. I’m not embarrassed to say that.”
Haskell played professional rugby union at the highest level for a decade-and-a-half, representing England 77 times and touring as part of the British & Irish Lions squad before calling time on his playing career earlier this spring.
But his retirement from rugby didn’t mean retirement from sports altogether, as he was unveiled as Bellator’s newest heavyweight signing at a press conference event in London last month. And for the man who came up with the plan to offer Haskell the chance to embark on a new career in the cage, the signing represents an exciting new chapter for the promotion in the U.K.
“It was certainly out of the blue for him, (but) I’ve been thinking about it for a while, to be honest,” Green said. “I think part of our job with building the brand and building an audience for MMA in this country is bringing new eyeballs to it. We all know it’s a great sport, those of us who have watched it. It’s an interesting thing to do, is to bring someone in (like this).”
Green explained that signing Haskell, a recognizable name in British sport through his rugby career, would give Bellator the opportunity to draw new fans to the sport as they look to follow Haskell’s career in the cage.
“I was really keen on someone like James because people will be surprised how long he’s trained in MMA,” Green explained. “And to get someone current – it wasn’t about bringing in someone who’s been retired for two or three years. This guy is at peak physical fitness and, you know, everyone loves a heavyweight. So I was adding up the different positives about the whole thing, and I just think it’s a great story. And you can see how dedicated he is.”
Haskell doesn’t have any professional bouts to his name, but he is certainly familiar with MMA. He cross-trained at London Shootfighters – home to fellow Bellator fighters Michael Page, Mike Shipman, Alfie Davis, and Galore Bofando – for many years during his rugby days and has made the gym his MMA home as he begins preparations for his debut, which is likely to take place early in 2020. Green says that experience, coupled with his pedigree as an elite athlete in a different sport, gives him a real chance of success.
“This guy trains for running around a field at top speed for 80 minutes. I mean, the guy is in peak, peak condition,” Green said. “He actually said he’s in better condition than he’s ever been now that he’s not being over-trained for rugby. And he’s probably going to have to almost cut to make the heavyweight division with very little body fat. So from a physical athlete point of view, I think it’s very interesting. Whether he can fight, we’ll see. But I think he’s definitely got the appetite for it.”
Green admitted that, despite Haskell’s undoubted athletic gifts, his first Bellator fight would most likely see him matched with “someone with a similar level of fighting experience to him.”
“I think the weird thing is, with anybody like this – and we’ve had it before – everyone for some reason expects he should be fighting a 10-0 fighter when really he should be fighting another debutant or another guy who’s maybe had one fight. So that’s what it’s going to be.”
Haskell’s path as a Bellator fighter will certainly draw plenty of eyeballs in the U.K., and Green said the former rugby ace’s ability to help sell the sport, and the promotion, to a more mainstream audience makes him an even more valuable asset as Bellator continues to grow its brand on this side of the pond.
“I think it’s hugely valuable. That’s why he really stood out to me,” Green said. “Then you’ve got the added bonus of him training MMA for over 10 years. As you heard (at the press conference), he can talk. He’s almost after-dinner speaker level, isn’t he? He’s got one of the most successful sporting podcasts in the country. He’s just a really good guy, and I think if you’re looking for positive ambassadors and role models for MMA, I think he could be very interesting going forward.”
And, if rumors here in the U.K. are proved true, Haskell could give Bellator an even bigger platform and build even more interest in his MMA debut. The jungle survival reality show “I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here” is one of the most-watched TV shows in the U.K., and Haskell has been linked as a potential contestant.
Green wouldn’t be drawn on whether he was aware of any negotiations but admitted that he’d love to see his new signing taking on the various trials – including close encounters with Australian jungle creatures and a host of eating challenges – that have made the show such a huge hit.
“Well, I don’t know anything about that,” Green said. “I think it’s just tittle-tattle, but he’d be good in that (show), I think. I’d like to watch him in that.”
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Source: USA Today – MMA Junkie
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