Aren’t you Rampage Jackson?
That’s the question King Mo Lawal has been getting ever since he began knocking out guys in Sengoku a year and a half ago. He’s being asked that even no win Las Vegas, with Rampage standing there scowling opposite Rashad Evans on the thousands of UFC 114 posters. “Nah, ”he says. He still signs whatever piece of paraphernalia is thrown in his face. He still stands posed for pictures with people who don’t know exactly who he is and most likely don’t really care. He knows the fans think they’re well meaning. In fact, he knows that people—particularly Americans, particularly white Americans—are fairly audacious while being oblivious to the fact that they’re being fairly audacious. He says it’s not like that in Japan, where people are mostly respectful and discerning. Out here, the implication seems to be, all brothers look alike. But dude, come on—him and B.A. Baracus?
Meeting Lawal in the lobby at the MGM Grand, he is ganged up on and flanked by dudes with faux hawks and women in slaps who’ve paid $200 to lay by the pool on Memorial Day weekend. Most are giving him the old “you the man” shtick. He’s been through it before at fight cards far and near. Being the center of attention is just a side effect of his profession. “You win and they love you, you’re the greatest,” he says. “You lose, and you’re overrated, you’ve been exposed.”
Right now Lawal’s winning—right now he’s only won. He just dominated highly regarded Gegard Mousasi in his native Tennessee to strip the “Dream catcher” of the Strike force Light Heavyweight strap. The belt’s up in his room, as a matter of fact. He is a perfect 7-0 in his young career. It’s a wait-and-see 7-0 to some—particularly the opinionated fans of mixed martial arts—but those are the people he’s talking about. One of his peeves is this jump-ship fickleness of hardcore MMA fans.
On the way into a café for this interview, Mo deflects the attention coming his way when he spots Mark Coleman walking in. “Hammer!” he yells out. “Get us a table for four, dawg.” Hammer looks back like his pesky kid brother is coming up to him, but he doesn’t give a damn, and he gets a table for four. He grumbles in his grandfatherly way. “You been drinking, Hammer?” Mo asks. Coleman grumbles. No, he hasn’t. A few beers, but not drinking. One of Mo’s earliest registering memories of MMA was Coleman taking out Dan Severn with a neck crank in 1997. He loves himself some Mark Coleman.
Mo also respects the fact that Hammer was a wrestler who paved the way for wrestlers like him in MMA, but he has a funny way of talking to his idols. If you’ve seen him in interviews, you know this already—Mo’s a context man. He puts things in context. So, if Coleman’s drinking, he wants to drop a little asterisk on this conversation. That’s all.
In fact, if you mention the loose language used by MMA media calling guys world-class anythings, he’ll take you down an analytical path through that fighter’s history and invite you—nay, command you—to point out to him where the fighter warranted the designation “world-class.” If you can’t, he’ll make you feel like a sensationalist, and you get the feeling, to him, there’s nothing worse. Mention Matt Hamill’s wrestling and he gives you the stank eye. “He’s a solid fighter, but he’s not a world-class wrestler. People slung‘world-class’ all over Mousasi,” he says, “and Mousasi wasn’t world-class in anything. Yet if I had lost, it would have been, ‘Mousasi’s the real deal—he’s a world-class kickboxer, a world-class jiu-jitsu guy, who beat a world-class wrestler. Mo sucks.’”
His suspicious air of deeper motivations is why Lawal is mystified about what happened earlier in the day at the weigh-ins, when his boy Rashad Evans—whom he’d been training with as part of newly formed Team Thirsty with Daniel Cormier—was roundly booed when he took the scale.
“I couldn’t believe how much Rashad got booed,” he says with his eyebrows raised up high.
“Quinton’s a superhero, man,” Coleman says.
“Rampage is a house nigga, is what he is,” Mo says. “Ask him a question with a big word in it. He’ll say, ‘Why you be using big words man? You know I can’t understand what you be saying.’ He plays stupid. To be liked by white fans, he thinks he has to play dumb.”
“Me and Quinton have been tight for along time,” Coleman says.
“Why’s he saying this fight is black on black crime,” Mo says. “You don’t hear a Mexican say, ‘There’s going to be some brown on brown crime’ or ‘vato on vato crime’ . . . you don’t hear white folks say, ‘There’s going to be some Aryan Nation on Aryan Nation crime!’ I thought Rampage should apologize for saying that.”
Now Wes Sims has joined the table, and he’s showing everyone a picture on his cellphone of a rather large woman in a thong that he has met since arriving in Sin City. These wrestlers don’t care a bit. Coleman chuckles. The life of a wrestler seems to be yes, why not, of course anything is possible. These guys have eaten beet borscht and sturgeon in Tbilisi while having their heads ground into cold mats. Throw a name out there like Zeke Jones and pretty soon you’re talking Dave Schultz, Joe Warren, the “Crazy Fucking” Brands brothers (Terry and Tom) out there in Colorado Springs, the stark gray airport at Krasnoyarsk, being subjected to pickled carrots with brown sugar and caviar for breakfast, about Bulgarian or Turkish wrestlers who ended their childhood delusions.
Muhammed Lawal has seen the world in a nylon singlet.
“As with Rashad, if you act confident and well-spoken, you are cocky and you’re arrogant,” Mo continues. He starts doing his impression of Rashad’s impression of Fred Sanford’s “This is the big one, Elizabeth, I’m coming to join you” act after knocking out Chuck Liddell. It’s comical. In contrast, he does Liddell’s victory dance, too, the screaming Hun with the arms thrown back.
“Somebody said, in MMA, you see no color,” Mo says. “I was like, okay—you don’t think it’s racist at all? I said, ‘Name me four fighters that got booed after knocking somebody out.’” He pauses to let everyone soak that in a minute. Coleman is having a good time just listening now. “There’s Rampage knocking out Liddell. There’s Anderson Silva and Rashad. And me, when I got booed after knocking out Mike Whitehead. I was booed when fighting Mousasi in Nashville, and I was born out there! Brett Rogers got booed from his home town of Chicago when he fought Fedor.”
Coleman points out that the former PRIDE boss had a funny turn, citing a story about how Phil Baroni—fresh off of three consecutive losses in the UFC—got a gig in the promotion only after Coleman showed him a picture of a shredded New York Badass and pleaded his case for him. “PRIDE signed him the following week,” Coleman says, indicating physique trumped talent in this case. King Mo doesn’t agree or disagree, in fact, he’s not worried about sexual orientation of fans or organizational owners—what he wants to know is how do you define humility. He wants to know what everyone thinks it m
eans. He’s wondering if it’s the opposite of cocky. He’s alluding to a strange paradox, but he doesn’t articulate it.
“To be humble?” I say.
“Yeah, to be humble, but what does humble mean?”
“Being thankful, being grateful,” says Coleman. King Mo nods. It’s easy to see he is grateful for where he is right now, for the things he’s accomplished and for being a world-class freestyle wrestler with ungovernable one-liners and a lot of good charisma. He has a rather wordy tattoo on his forearm that is all about his own freewill and, by extension, the worship of self. It reads: “I am my own religion; therefore, I worship myself. I worship myself; therefore, I am my own God. I am my own God; therefore, I am my own Satan.” He points it out with reverence for what it’s about. Total accountability as an individual. Autonomy. Depending on how you crook your head, this could be philosophical high-mindedness from a guy who went from severe hard knocks to collegiate and U.S. Senior National wrestling champion to a station of self-fulfillment. You do get the idea that King Mo would be horrified by the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and all that.
Looked at another way, his tattoo could be straight up cockiness. Point-blank narcissism. And you know what? This is what’s bothering him. It’s the how and what that people choose to see.
But the shifting sands of a dinner conversation with wrestlers like these has a life of its own. There is, first, a declaration that black people don’t use the words “tool” and “douchebag,” popular epithets in blogospheres. Pretty soon we’re talking about how Royce Alger lost his luggage in Siberia and what a debacle that whole thing was! “Oh man, you had to be there,” says Coleman. “You just had to be there.”
It’s an unimportant detail, but Coleman is a bit of a cautionary tale, too. He was very similarly 6-0 after beating Severn at UFC 12, becoming the first UFC Heavyweight Champion. He wouldn’t win again for more than two and a half years after that. Sometimes it’s not about if your skin is white or black—it’s if your skin is thick enough.
Mo’s skin is thick alright, and it’s scarred by a Phillips screwdriver stab wound on his left thigh that he took in Dallas. That scar stands as just a little testimony into his rough childhood of street fights and survival. Muhammed Lawal was born poor in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, his parents being immigrants from Nigeria. He lived in a trailer duplex in Richmond, Kentucky, where the kitchen oven doubled as the heater. As the oldest sibling, with no father figure around, Lawal not only helped bring up his younger brother (Abdullah) and sister (Aminat), but he was an example that his mother set.
“No, we didn’t have no money growing up,” he says. “My mom [Nike Rosseau] pretty much raised us all. My dad was never around. My mom was always working, and I pretty much did what I wanted. My mom, she raised me to be smart because her greatest fear was for me to be a dumb black man. She’s a single, black, foreign female with kids—she had strikes on her, she wanted to raise her son to be smart.”
Coleman and company have long since gone on their way, and Mo is telling it like it is. After Tennessee and Kentucky, it was on to Texas before his college stints in Oklahoma, where he was a star wrestler at the University of Central Oklahoma (DII) and Oklahoma State University (D-I). He has had guns waved at him, knives. It’s no wonder he says, “I’d like to fight Andrei Arlovski,” with perfect aplomb, or, “Put me in there with Fedor.” He is pretty far past being intimidated, and he compares it to NBA rookies who wanted to guard Michael Jordan when Jordan was a prime time barometer. “You want to measure yourself and see where you’re at,” he says. “Besides, Fedor has a problem fighting smaller, quicker guys.” Mo views the enigmatic Russian as he does any fighter—as a sort of math problem that he thinks he knows how to solve.
Lawal’s father committed suicide when Mo was 20 years old. “There are only a few things I remember from my dad,” he says. “He liked ice cream, he liked Juicy Fruit gum, and just like my mom, he loved boxing. When he committed suicide, I hadn’t seen him for a decade. It was weird because I went to his funeral, and I couldn’t say anything because I didn’t know him that well.”
There is a king-sized chip on Mo’s shoulder. He describes his mindset as “Me against the world,” but says constantly that he is searching for ways to be more positive in how he motivates himself. Besides having a keen sense of his opponents’ timing and the ability to ease from southpaw stance to orthodox in what some people call a sloppy stand-up style that’s “so sloppy I knock people out,” he had to contend with his mother’s own loose hands.
“My mom beat me into being smart,” he says. “I learned to read, write, do multiplication, addition, and subtraction in Head Start. I couldn’t play—I had multiplication problems to do, and if I didn’t do them right, she beat me. She was real strict. As I got older, I started to hate school. I knew athletes somehow get more respect than the smartest person, so I knew if I was going to make it, I was going to make it as an athlete. I have a heart, you know?”
“More than anything,” he continues, “I’m not going to give up, I’ll never give up, you’d have to kill me. I could lose, but if I lose, I’m going to lose trying as hard as I can.”
Turns out a neighborhood bully ends up being the culprit (yet again) for a hero’s gravel in the gut and the spit in the eye.
“We had a dude named Benji who used to come by, who was in the seventh grade when I was in first or second grade,” says Mo. “He’d make us fight each other. If we didn’t fight each other, he’d fight us. I’d get in a lot of fights. I remember one time, the first time I put boxing gloves on, I was in the first grade, and this one dude hit me in the head, and I fell down. It became my goal to be the toughest dude wherever I went. That was more important to me than anything else. I was small growing up, and people tried to pick on me, and I got to the point where I was like, ‘Shit, let’s go.’ My name was solidified to the point where people were like, ‘Don’t fuck with Aminator Abdullah, because Mo is their brother.’ I wasn’t taking no mess.”
As a track and football star in Texas, Lawal’s next great silver lining came in the form of a botched tackle in a postseason game in his sophomore year at Plano East High School.
“I got into wrestling because I missed an open-field tackle in the playoffs, and the coach was like, ‘Hey—the whole defense needs to go in and start wrestling to work on hand control and work on how to use your hips.’ I got in there and started wrestling with socks on. I beat a senior and made varsity as a sophomore, and that’s it.”
The rest is history. He is now a top-10 light heavyweight in the world. He has wrestled at all points of the globe. He has taken first place at the Golden Grand Prix International and become a collegiate freestyle champion. He sent Mark Kerr packing once and for all at M-1 Global: Breakthrough, and derailed Mousasi’s hype train. In 2006, while training at American Top Team, Kami Barzini called him“King.” It stuck. It beat the hell out of the earlier handle that was propose
“A lot of people were like Mo “The Thug,” and I was like, I ain’t a thug. What’s a thug? A thug is somebody in Dickies and house slippers. It ain’t me.”
It really isn’t. When Mo Lawal was at UFC 82 in Columbus, Ohio, hanging around the Dan Henderson/Team Quest camp with his now coach/nutritionist Ryan Parsons, he conveyed this very attitude as he sat in the wings far away from the spotlight. Then living in Colorado Springs with aspirations of winning gold at the 2008 Olympic Trials and considered by many as a forerunner for a medal in Beijing, he told everybody around him that,“You’ll be hearing about me in MMA in the next two years.” At the time, he was left pretty much alone, as Hendo trained for Anderson Silva using tall Frenchmen Cyrille Diabate and Xavier Foupa-Pokamas “Spider” clones. Mo took in every sparring session, just soaking it all in.
“I kind of watched them,” he says. “I saw stuff I liked, and I saw stuff I didn’t like. As for Dan [Henderson], I learned a lot from Dan. Dan’s a great guy. He helped me outwith what to do and what not to do.”
Though Lawal lost to Andy Hrovat in the finals of the Olympic trials, his first MMA fight with Travis Wiuff in Japan as a last minute replacement for Roger Gracie was only seven months distant at that moment. It was a TKO. He has finished five of his first seven fights. He ended up on YouTube arguing with Rampage Jackson, generally speaking his mind. He celebrated downing Mike Whitehead by spraying an energy drink in the cage. People are talking.
“I think a lot of times it’s your personality,” he says. “With me, people are going to love me or hate me. I do what’s fun for me, if people like it or if they don’t, well, I enjoy doing it. It’s not about the money. I just like to go out there and have fun, and if people enjoy it, that’s a bigger bonus.”
No, he’s not Quinton Jackson. If you ask, he’ll tell you he doesn’t wear a chain like Rampage does. He’s King Mo Lawal, a fighter just making his way. Love him, hate him, hype him, whatever.
“I’m an average ass dude,” he says. “I’m not as special as people think I am.”
And just like that, whether it’s what we were searching for or not, we’ve arrived at the definition of humility.