Jake Hager, better known as former WWE World Heavyweight Champion Jack Swagger, spoke with WrestlingInc.com owner Raj Giri recently about signing with Bellator MMA. Hager made his debut in the WWE in 2008, right around the time MMA saw an increase in popularity, but he said he had his heart set on joining the professional wrestling business.

“I was set on going the pro-wrestling route. I had friends going out of college and guys I competed against and went into MMA and became successful,” he said. “Guys like Ben Askren, Cain Velasquez, Daniel Cormier, and you saw what they did and what their careers turned out. There was a boom in popularity, but I pretty much in my mind that I was going into the pro-wrestling side of it.”

Hager was a fan of MMA for a long time. He said it took him a while to learn all the rules, but he always found it entertaining and would routinely watch the big events.

“I was definitely a fan of it. I didn’t become too knowledgeable as far as the rules,” Hager said. “There was such a steep learning curve; you don’t always know what you are watching but I would watch the pay-per-views, gather around and have the big parties and watch the pay-per-views. Kind of like the wrestling pay-per-views to see how fans can really take something and make it so popular.”

Since leaving the WWE in March, Hager has hinted at pursuing a career in MMA. He said he had been thinking about leaving the company for a while, but it took him a couple years to truly be ready to make his departure.

“I guess it’s been in my head for a couple of years now. Sad but you go up there and talk about being unhappy about certain things, it is hard to find a way to change it, but I think when Dutch [Mantell] went over to Mex-America that was kind of the end for me,” he said. “Things got a little more serious for me as far as coming up with an exit plan. It still took another year after that before I was ready.”

Hager also commented on CM Punk’s signing with the UFC. He said his interactions with Punk indicated to him that he would eventually pursue an MMA career, but he was surprised when he actually made the jump to the UFC.

“He’s a very smart guy. You can’t deny him that. I saw it as an exit business move,” Hager said. “It seems like he was passionate about it, but it looked more like a business move where he was going to make a lot of money so, as one of the boys in the back I couldn’t be mad about someone doing that. Was I a little bit shocked? Yeah, maybe, but at the same time I have known him for a while and kind of expected it a little bit.”

Bellator recently announced a heavyweight tournament for next year featuring some big-name fighters. The eight-man tournament will include Quinton “Rampage” Jackson (37-12), Roy Nelson (23-14), Chael Sonnen (30-15-1), Frank Mir (18-11), “King Mo” Lawal (21-6, 1 NC), Fedor Emelianenko (36-5, 1 NC), Matt Mitrione (12-5) and Bellator light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader (24-5). Hager said he couldn’t pick a winner because he respects all the fighters competing in the tournament.

“There are a lot of people in there so it is very hard to say,” he said. “Matt Mitrione has impressed me a lot. He is a big hard hitter. It is very interesting to see guys like Chael Sonnen and Ryan Bader locking up some size, but they will be faster and be able to move more. Then you have the ‘Bearded One’ himself, Big Country. Every match in that tournament is must-see it looks like.”

Hager, who will be competing as a heavyweight in Bellator, said he would love a fight against Frank Mir at some point in the future. He even said he would be ready for a fight against Brock Lesnar if the opportunity ever presented itself.

“Yeah, not too far down the road. I respect Mir. I think he has a great story with what he has done to get there and the comeback, and the wins he has have been very impressive,” he said. “With Brock Lesnar, I don’t think there is a guy on the planet that wouldn’t want to fight Brock Lesnar so soon enough I will be able to throw my hat in the ring, so I will be ready.”

Peter Bahi contributed to this article.