Make It Reign

Toughness comes naturally to Muhammed “Mo” Lawal, or King Mo, as the fighting world has come to know him. It never occurred to him to be anything but tough, so when he shredded his ACL during a Sengoku fight against Ryo Nakamura, he didn’t consider it much of a feat to keep going and win the fight. When he came back to the United States, Lawal faced a bigger task – rehabilitating his leg while continuing the momentum his career has enjoyed from his first pro fight. The real question became: Would he be tough enough to make it through that?

Lawal knew something was wrong. A week before his fight with Ryo Nakamura, he felt some pain in his left knee. He dismissed it, assuming that it was a nagging injury from his many years of putting his body through torture in training wrestling and mixed martial arts. He moved forward with the fight.

In the course of winning the bout, he felt something go wrong with his left leg.

“I was trying to end the fight, and I took a shot that wasn’t good. That’s when I hurt it. That’s why I had a decision,” Lawal said. “I hated that.”

He won, but by decision. Considering how spectacularly his earlier fights had ended – three straight technical knockouts, two in the first round – the decision win was hardly enough for Lawal. His focus turned to figuring out what was wrong with his knee.

With his ACL shredded from the fight, Lawal, who rarely stops moving and cutting angles when in a bout, needed a new one. Without hesitation, he had a new ACL – taken from a cadaver – implanted into his left leg. This sort of surgery generally takes 3 to 6 months to rehabilitate, a lifetime in the career of a fighter who is trying to sustain a meteoric rise. However, Lawal had planned to fight by August. It seemed near impossible, but there are few things Lawal enjoys more than surprising those who say he can’t do something.

This is hardly the first time Lawal had to find the strength within himself to come back from tough odds. From his childhood on, he has faced detractors and doubters.

Lawal was born in Murfreesboro, Tenn. As the son of a single, working mother, he learned how to take care of himself early in life.

“My mom was working and going to school. I grew up really fast. From first grade, I had a key to the house. I used to wake up on my own, get ready, catch the bus, come back home.”

His father, who committed suicide when Lawal was 21, didn’t play much of a part in his life. All that independence at such a young age can lead to trouble for a youngster, and it did with Lawal.

“I used to get in trouble a lot when I was young. I had a temper problem. I used to like to fight a lot. I was hardheaded. I used to get free lunch, so I would go and try to strong-arm people for their money. I would be smiling, but I’d just punk them out of their money.”

But a bad performance in a football game in high school led Lawal to an outlet for his temper. After his team at Plano East High School in Texas lost to a rival school, Lawal and the rest of the defensive backs were ordered to the wrestling room to learn how to tackle properly. He was 16 and did not know anything about wrestling, but he took to the sport. His first year, he qualified for the Texas state championships; and in his second season, he took second in the state.

Looking back, it seems obvious that Lawal had unlimited potential in the sport, but college coaches did not see it that way. He again faced long odds, trying to convince a college to take a shot on him. Despite a strong performance at the Freestyle Nationals, no Division I school wanted to take a chance on Lawal. Finally, Central Oklahoma, a Division II school, signed the eager athlete.

After taking his last high school final, he jumped in a car with his cousin and headed to Norman, Okla, spending the summer training before heading to Central Oklahoma to start school. Lawal truly became a wrestler that summer, working every day with some of the best wrestlers in the country at the University of Oklahoma. Division I All-Americans Byron Tucker, Leonce Crump, and Orville Palmer smashed the inexperienced Lawal, but as the end of summer neared, the tide changed. Lawal began to take them down.

He continued to surprise people when he arrived at Central Oklahoma, becoming a three-time All-American, and winning the national championship once before heading to Oklahoma State University and its vaunted wrestling program to finish his college career. There, he was an All-American and part of a dominant team that won a national championship, but the collegiate accolades weren’t important to Lawal. He had one goal in mind, and that was to win Olympic gold.

“I didn’t know much about college wrestling, so my goal was to be Olympic champion. If you’re going to do something, why not try for the highest goal there is? That’s Olympic and World champion. I was in Dallas for the Olympic Trials in 2000, and I said I was going to be there in 2004. People said, ‘Whatever.’ I went there and took third. In 2008, I took second.”

Following the path of plenty of grappling Olympians before him, Lawal moved to Colorado Springs after graduation from OSU to train full time at the Olympic Training Center. He began to compete at the world level, and though he picked up plenty of fans overseas, he was not loved and respected in the United States. He often danced and howled on the mat, something that was not in the norm of the often-stodgy wrestling establishment. His detractors flocked to Internet message boards, calling Lawal a showboat, cocky, and a thug.

As he continued his march toward the 2008 Olympics, mixed martial arts pulled at Lawal. He was miserable in Colorado Springs, unhappy with some of his coaches and the town where he didn’t fit in. He knew that fighting was in his future, but it had to wait until after he made the Olympic team, went to Beijing, and won gold.

Coming into the 2008 Olympic Team Trials, Lawal was the odds-on favorite to win the freestyle team’s spot at 84 kg (184 pounds) He had the most international experience, but his opponent, Andy Hrovat, had been a thorn in Lawal’s side.

The finals at the trials are a best of three, and Lawal and Hrovat were down to their final match. Hrovat was awarded the decisive takedown, though it is a takedown that will be disputed by wrestling fans for years to come. On the strength of that questionable takedown, Hrovat was an Olympian. Lawal’s Olympic dream was over. A year later, he is still bitter about how it all ended.

“Everybody knows I should have won it. USA Wrestling cheated me. The referee made a bad call, but it’s whatever. Things happen.”

But that bitterness is exactly what fuels Lawal as a fighter. Daniel Cormier, an Olympian freestyle wrestler and Lawal’s teammate at Oklahoma State, thinks that this loss will stick with Lawal and spur him to be a great fighter.

“I think what motivates Mo is losing the Olympic Trials. The feeling that he had after that third match with Andy is something that he doesn’t want to experience anymore,” Cormier said.

Lawal entered the mixed martial arts world with a bang. Sengoku called him at the last minute to fight in a Heavyweight match against Travis Wiuff, a bigger and more experienced opponent. Lawal jumped at the opportunity, and King Mo was born.

He entered Sengoku with a flourish, first by adopting the King Mo persona and walking into the ring wearing a crown, accompanied by a harem of princesses. Once in the ring, he knocked out Wiuff. Subsequent appearances in Sengoku ended similarly, with TKOs over Fabio Silva and Yukia Naito. His popularity in the United States and Japan grew, and it was clear that King Mo was going to be a star. That all came to a screeching halt when Lawal’s knee buckled on a shot during the fight with Nakamura.

But Lawal looked at that knee injury as just another bump in the road, another chance to prove people wrong. Doctors may say one thing, but Lawal was focused on fighting in August, so that is what he did. In late July, he made quick work of Mark Kerr in an event promoted by M-1 Global.

Lawal’s friends and family aren’t surprised to see that. The stubborn little kid who used to steal bikes has grown up and turned that stubbornness into determination, and with that, nothing will stop him.

“He’s only going to get better,” Cormier said. “He’s athletic, he’s quick, he’s so strong, he works hard. One thing that you can never take away from Muhammed Lawal is his willingness to put in whatever work gets thrown at him.”

It has been three weeks since his surgery, and Lawal is quite happily back at the gym. He is in Florida, training at American Top Team. He isn’t running or training yet, but he is working with Stefane Dias, ATT’s strength and conditioning coach. Lawal hears that he is recovering more quickly than expected. In fact, Dias says that he thinks Lawal could fight in a month.

Lawal isn’t taking any chances, though. When he comes back, he wants to be on point.

Six weeks after surgery, Lawal is becoming antsy. He can finally start hitting and kicking pads, but still can do no live sparring. He can take wrestling shots, but still can’t grapple full out. It’s not hard to see why the rehabilitation process is getting to him. He just watched Lyoto Machida knock out his friend, Rashad Evans, to win the UFC championship. Lawal walks around at about 215 pounds and still hasn’t settled on a weight class. Having fought at light-Heavyweight, he wonders if he could be the one to solve the puzzle of Machida. Sitting around and waiting on his knee does not suit Lawal when there are fights to be fought.

His college teammate and current UFC fighter, Mark Munoz, isn’t surprised to see Lawal progress so quickly in the MMA world.

“He’s always been very explosive and athletic. On top of that, he’s got a lot of heart and work ethic. When you put those things together, he’s bound to have success down the road, whether it be wrestling, fighting, anything he does. When he was wrestling, he would learn and ask questions about different techniques, and now that he’s a fighter, when he trains, he always looks to improve his technique. He developed very quickly as a wrestler, and now he’s developed rapidly as a fighter.”

Lawal has made it clear that he is ready to take on anyone. Now, he just needs his knee to heal so that he can back up his words with actions, Lawal is fired up.

“I’m about to go Nick Diaz somebody!”

Just days after Diaz dismantled Scott Smith at Strikeforce on June 6, Lawal is winding down his rehab. He finds himself close to 100 percent, but his arsenal is not yet complete. He still can’t spring off his left leg, making one of his favorite moves – a Superman punch – quite difficult. Has that lack of spring affected the blast double takedown that he has become known for?

“No. I can always do a double leg,” Lawal said with a laugh. “I’m King Mo.”

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