Preparing to launch his career in mixed martial arts, James Haskell can see the irony in his suspension for punching an opponent during the 2012 Super Rugby season.

The former English rugby star was handed a three-week ban while playing for the Highlanders in 2012 after striking Cheetahs flanker Justin Downey twice as he left a scrum. Now he'll be paid to throw punches for a living, signing on with MMA promotion Bellator to fight in their heavyweight division.

It's not a totally unfamiliar world for Haskell, who has been working on wrestling with the London Shootfighters gym for years to help his rugby. Speaking about the transition to MMA, Haskell said he had planned to add boxing and jiu-jitsu to his training regime, but hadn't considered becoming a professional fighter until the idea was presented to him.

James Haskell played for the Highlanders in 2012. Photo / Photosport
James Haskell played for the Highlanders in 2012. Photo / Photosport

"I want to test myself," Haskell said. "A lot of the time over the last 10 years with Shootfighters I've worked on my wrestling to help with my tackling, my takedowns – single-leg, double-leg, whatever it might be – and I've really enjoyed it. MMA is completely different because you've got to do all those disciplines while someone is trying to elbow, knee and punch you in the face.

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"I'm coming out of one sport which is very attritional, very tough, and going into something that's unknown. Personally there's a large element of fear involved. I think anyone who says they're not scared of this kind of thing is either lying or coming up with a pretense."

Bellator announced Haskell's signing last week, a day after the 34-year-old had spent some time working with the English Rugby team. After retiring from rugby last year, Haskell admitted he had shied away from the sport. But being around the England team, knowing he had an announcement on the horizon, allowed him to return to the arena and simply enjoy the camaraderie.

James Haskell (centre) was no stranger to a scuffle on the rugby field. Photo / Photosport
James Haskell (centre) was no stranger to a scuffle on the rugby field. Photo / Photosport

"I said 'I'm going to announce something that I think you'll wonder 'what's he doing?' then you may laugh, then you might be interested'.

"So I texted one of my mates (after the announcement) asking 'have you stopped laughing yet?' and he said just about."

Having been in training for over a month, Haskell had no plans to rush into the cage. Bellator have indicated he is likely to debut in the first half of 2020.

Like he did in his professional rugby career, the former loose forward was approaching his MMA journey with the same level of dedication he gave to rugby, working on his health as well as his skill set. He said his body feels healthier now training in MMA than it did when he was training for rugby.

James Haskell played more than 70 tests for England. Photo / Photosport
James Haskell played more than 70 tests for England. Photo / Photosport

"Rugby is a very tough sport; you have to pique every weekend…I think we over-train in rugby sometimes, we don't nail the recovery right, we do things sometimes out of fear. Being in control of my own diet, my own body and stuff has been quite different.

"I don't want this to be a case of where I get into the cage and it looks like I've never taken a punch before; it looks like I'm just here for fun. I'm not about that.

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"It's about the journey more so than anything else. It's a personal test; it's about seeing what I've got inside myself and seeing if I can deal with it.

"I'm dedicating my life to this."