The life of a fighter is not a glamorous one. It requires year-round dedication and sacrifice with little job security. Each day there is the threat of injury, which could prevent a fighter from putting food on the table.

Just overcoming the constant struggle of a combat career is a victory in itself. To do it with a positive outlook takes a special type of person, one that does not submit to the negative aura that can emanate from the sport’s often overly critical fan base and media.

Thirty-three-year-old Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal has been a lightning rod for the aforementioned criticisms throughout his mixed martial arts career. The former Strikeforce champion and Bellator tournament winner has always spoken his mind, whether it was popular or not.

“Everyone wants to be a fighter these days. Like, it’s cool to be a fighter,” Lawal told The MMA Corner. “It’s a job; it pays. But what’s cool to be is teachers, doctors. Fighting is, like, whatever. People treat me like I’m saving the fucking world. To me, I’m just an entertainer. I’m not saving lives. I’m not a role model.”

 


 

Lawal’s path to mixed martial arts has been an arduous one. Born to Nigerian parents in Tennessee, he also spent time in Kentucky, Texas and Oklahoma on his way to becoming a world-class amateur wrestler. After winning a NCAA Division II national title at the University of Central Oklahoma, he moved on to Oklahoma State and earned All-American honors en route to a third-place finish in the 197-pound weight class.

Lawal (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Lawal (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

His goals of wrestling glory carried him to three U.S. Senior Freestyle National Championships, but his Olympic aspirations fell short in 2008. As such, Lawal turned to MMA. He signed with Japan’s Sengoku promotion, where he quickly made a name for himself.

By late 2009, Lawal had signed with California-based Strikeforce. In just his second fight with the promotion, he captured the Strikeforce light heavyweight title with a dominant performance against Gegard Mousasi. Despite fighting in his own backyard in Nashville, Tenn., Lawal quickly realized the fickle nature of the sport.

“They were booing me,” he recalled. “It was ridiculous. I was born right outside Nashville in Murfreesboro, but they booed me when I was fighting a guy from a different country.

“I could prove the haters wrong every day and they’ll wait until the one day where I fuck up and they’ll be there saying, ‘Hey, told you so.’ There’s too many bandwagon jumpers. As soon as you lose, they’re saying you ain’t shit or you’re overrated.

“Really, the only fans I need are my family and my close friends. Having fans is cool, but I prefer the true fans that you can call friends.”

 


 

Although Lawal may not put much stock in the sport’s followers, he does realize that his time in the cage has a limited shelf life. While most fighters complain about a hard day of training or a bad night of sparring, Lawal nearly died for the sport.

His title reign in Strikeforce did not last long. After capturing the belt, he was defeated in his next outing against Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante. Following the fight, Lawal had surgery to repair the ACL and PCL in his left knee. Little did he know that the nine-month hiatus would be a walk in the park compared to what the future would hold for him.

Lawal returned from surgery and knocked out grappling ace Roger Gracie and battered striking stalwart Lorenz Larkin in consecutive bouts in the Strikeforce cage. After the Larkin fight, Lawal tested positive for the anabolic steroid Drostanolone and was suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. To this day, Lawal maintains his innocence. He appealed and his suspension was reduced, but his battle was just beginning.

First, there was a messy divorce from the now Zuffa-owned Strikeforce as a result of the eventual no-contest with Larkin. Then came one of the toughest stretches of the fighter’s life.

Lawal again underwent ACL replacement surgery in the early part of 2012. However, he developed a staph infection so severe that he was forced to undergo irrigation surgery every two days to treat it, and eventually the replacement ligament was removed altogether. Lawal did his best to keep the severity of his situation from the public eye. Finally, in May, once the staph subsided, Lawal’s knee was repaired once again.

As he recovered from the last of his double-digit surgeries, Lawal signed with Bellator MMA. And, just eight months after ACL surgery, he made his promotional debut. In the 16 months since, Lawal has compiled a 4-2 record with the promotion, but many critics have questioned whether the multitude of surgeries have taken their toll on his body.

“It’s true, a little bit,” admitted Lawal. “I came back a little too soon, so my body wasn’t all the way adjusted yet. But now, it’s been almost two years and I feel like I’m good now.”

Even with the surgeries in his rear-view mirror, the experience has been a lesson for the fighter.

“I’m not worried about my knee,” he declared. “I’ve had five staph infections and each time, it has gotten worse. [Now] I worry about getting scraped or cut—that’s where the staph infection comes from.”

 


 

The health issues Lawal has experienced are shining examples of the risks involved with the sport. Fighters can’t compete forever, and often times they are forced out of competition due to things beyond their control.

Lawal’s time in the sport is far from done, however. Now he understands just how important it is to make the most of things while he can. While he was able to fulfill a childhood dream and dabble in professional wrestling under the Total Nonstop Action (TNA) banner after signing with Bellator, he’s realized the importance of not only taking care of his body, but also of holding a dedicated fight camp.

Lawal (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Lawal (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Early in his career, Lawal just went with the flow, soaking in as many techniques as possible.

“To be truthful, I didn’t bounce around from gym to gym like people think,” explained the fighter. “More than anything, I used to train with Ryan Parsons because he was my coach and manager, and we’d go to different gyms because that’s what everyone in California did at the time. In between fights, I’d go up to Grudge or American Top Team, just to learn things.”

Although the visits to Denver and South Florida were beneficial to the evolution of his skill set, Lawal’s training regimen was a far cry from what other elite fighters were experiencing.

“My first time doing an official camp was at American Kickboxing Academy,” described the Tennessee native. “AKA is a great place, but I’m not going to lie, it’s a little too expensive for me. Training was great and the coaches are good, but I didn’t like it out there.”

As a result of the cost and the poor fit in the northern California area, Lawal tried a different approach. He spent time at Mike’s Gym in Holland before settling in Las Vegas. He continued to focus on his striking game under the tutelage of legendary boxing guru Jeff Mayweather. Lawal’s knockout total continued to rise as he trained in Vegas, but he was still struggling to find the consistency that was so familiar to him in the wrestling room.

“Vegas was good, but everyone went to a boxing gym, then a kickboxing gym, then grappling over here,” recalled Lawal with a hint of frustration.

The constant bouncing around just to get his normal training was less than an ideal situation for the light heavyweight. In fact, Lawal believes that the lack of a dedicated camp contributed to him falling short in his quest for Bellator gold against current champion Emanuel Newton in November 2013.

“It wasn’t my best performance,” acknowledged Lawal of his decision loss. “I didn’t have a great camp. Everything was out of order for my training, even though I trained hard. There was no cohesiveness. I was just searching for training partners out in Vegas. It was hard.”

After expressing his dissatisfaction to his new manager, Mike Kogan, Lawal was able to find a new home to hone his skills.

“Mike told me he was close with [Ricardo] Liborio at American Top Team,” said Lawal. “I already knew Steve Mocco, Nathan Coy and ‘Pitbull’ [Thiago Alves].

“I came out here and everything clicked. Everything’s all in the same gym. It’s a good situation. Plenty of coaches.”

 


 

With a solid camp behind him, Lawal’s tumultuous last few years have largely come full circle.

Prior to his Bellator days, the 33-year-old was sponsored by clothing company MMA Elite, which also sponsored Pride and UFC veteran Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. From their first meeting, the pair’s over-the-top personas mixed like oil and water.

Now, as they prepare to square off in the main event of Bellator 120 on May 17 in Southaven, Miss. (just outside Jackson’s hometown of Memphis), their violate relationship has been in the spotlight.

“I don’t hate anybody; I hate no man,” proclaimed Lawal. “The thing is, we didn’t really click. Maybe he felt like I was trying to take his spot. I’m kind of mouthy, too, and talk trash. He talked trash and I talked trash back, and he wasn’t used to that. I think that bugged him.

“I don’t really care much for him. We were never boys. When we were at MMA Elite, they said, ‘You guys can’t be popping off like that. You have to get along. We can’t have separate autograph signings because you two don’t get along.’

“As soon as the sponsorship was up, we were still cordial, but we didn’t really talk. I never call Rampage and say, ‘Hey, how you doing?’”

The candidness of Lawal toward his relationship with Jackson speaks volumes about the match-up. Given the propensity of each fighter to speak their mind in the public forum, Lawal’s straightforward explanation and lack of manufactured hatred hints heavily at a level of mutual respect between him and the former UFC titleholder.

But when the cage door shuts, Lawal will be squaring off with an opponent that has as many knockouts—16—on his resume as Lawal has fights. Jackson’s record is littered with a who’s who of the 205-pound elite over the last 15 years. Yet, despite all of the accolades dotting Rampage’s record, Lawal remains confident.

“My goal is to go out there and fight his ass,” quipped the season-10 tournament finalist. “Anytime you deal with an opponent with a ton of power, it’s dangerous. I’m not really concerned with it. That’s all he has.

“I can box with him if I want. It’s MMA, I’m going to mix it up.”

 


 

Adding to the stakes surrounding the fight with Jackson is the fact the fight is on pay-per-view—for the first time in Bellator history.

Certainly, it would be a pristine opportunity for Lawal to up his trash-talking game to help the promotion generate buys for the event, but he has set his sights on the task at hand.

“My job is to go out there and fight,” he reiterated. “I promote the fight with me and Rampage because I’m in it, but the pay-per-view is on them. I’m not Viacom or Spike TV. I hope they’re doing everything right.”

Lawal’s outlook toward the card might easily be misinterpreted, but ultimately, he’s right. It’s up to the promotion to stir interest in the event. His only true purpose is to go out and execute his game plan.

But it’s not just the fight with Jackson that fuels Lawal’s less-than-optimistic outlook on the event. Even as a fighter training hard every day, he realizes that the general public can only take so much combat sports. In a month featuring GLORY kickboxing, a Floyd Mayweather boxing pay-per-view and four UFC events, the Bellator card is facing stiff competition for buys.

“I think MMA overall is oversaturated,” he declared. “People used to get excited, but now there’s shows every week. You can pick and choose. It’s become a fad.”

Lawal (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Lawal (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Always honest with his perspective, Lawal isn’t expecting this fight to change the minds of fans around the world. Even with the likes of Jackson, former UFC champion Tito Ortiz and an interim championship clash between former lightweight champion Michael Chandler and Will Brooks, Lawal expects ignorant fans to remain just as oblivious to Bellator as they have been in the past.

“I wish this was the card to change things, but I don’t think it is,” Lawal stated without skirting the subject. “So many of them are stuck in their ways. There’s nothing you can do to make them think there are options out there. Some of these fans call MMA ‘UFC.’”

The lack of faith Lawal holds in the masses is tempered by his assurance in his own abilities. Having been through hell and back over the course of the last six years, the fight with Jackson is just a stepping stone towards his ultimate goal.

“I want to get revenge against Newton. I want to win fights and get that belt. Having something shiny is nice to have and makes you feel good,” he said with a laugh.

Although Lawal firmly believes he’ll have Bellator gold wrapped around his waist in the near future, he knows he’ll always have his doubters. All he hopes is that he can entertain both haters and fans alike on May 17.

“As much as I want people to buy the pay-per-view, if you’re a hater, I suggest you don’t buy the card. You’re probably going to be mad, because I’m going to win the fight,” he boldly predicted.

“But if you’re a fan, buy it and you’ll be happy.”

No matter the outcome on the 17th, don’t expect Lawal to change his tune. After all, he’s only here to entertain. And if you’re the betting type, it’s a safe wager that he’ll continue to do his job with or without your support.

Mo would like to thank American Top Team, his sponsors: Reebok, Fuel Foods FL, Nutrition Zone, Lana’s Egg Whites and Glamour Shots, as well as everyone that’s out there doing something positive. Follow Lawal on Twitter: @KingMoFH

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