This Friday, Bellator will hold its first ever show from Dublin, Ireland. Headlining the event will be a heavyweight match between Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal (19-5, 1 NC) and Satoshi Ishii (14-6-1). King Mo entered the sport in 2008 after a long career as an elite wrestler, going on to win the Strikeforce light heavyweight title and last year’s Rizin 220-pound Grand Prix tournament.
Lawal began his wrestling career at the age of 16, and after high school he entered the University of Central Oklahoma, where he won a Division II NCAA national championship in 2002. The next year he transferred to Oklahoma State University, where he was a Division I All American. After completing his collegiate wrestling career, he went on to win a gold medal at the 2007 Pan America Championships, and United States championships in 2005, 2006, and 2008.
It was during these international competitions that Lawal earned the “King Mo” nickname. As he explains it, “It came internationally, when I was wrestling as part of the U.S. team. Because when I went overseas, I was like the king of the crowd. I went to Iran, I went to Turkey, I went to Uzbekistan, Belarus, Russia. Everywhere I went, I got cheered for, because they liked me and my personality. Costa Rica, El Salvador… People just liked me because I was kind of entertaining. King of the Crowd.” That element of entertainment continues today with his flamboyant walkouts to the MMA arena.
After narrowly missing a spot on the 2008 Olympic team, Lawal decided to make the transition to mixed martial arts. His reason for entering MMA? “Money,” he says. “I was broke. I figured I’d try to get easy money. Well, not easy money, but like fast money, legally. And I thought fighting was the way to do it. After six weeks of training, I took my first fight in Japan.”
With just six weeks to prepare for his first mixed martial arts appearance, he underwent sort of a crash course in the sport, adding other skills to his already existing wrestling. King Mo explains his brief training period leading up to his first fight, “I trained for six weeks, so I had to fast track it. I did both striking and jiu jitsu. Primarily jiu jitsu defense and position, and striking. That’s all I did. I did that for six weeks, training with Justin Fortune, Melchor Menor, Danny Perez, and with Dean Lister.”
This first fight took place in Japan’s Sengoku promotion on September 28th, 2008, where he knocked out veteran Travis Wiuff in the first round. In less than a year, he had amassed a 5-0 record in Sengoku and M-1, before signing with Strikeforce in late 2009. There he fought until 2012, along the way defeating Gegard Mousasi to become the Strikeforce light heavyweight champion. Some may see this as a career highlight, but King Mo takes a different approach to evaluating his career. “I don’t think about that,” says Lawal. “The high point is every fight you win. That’s the high point. I remember people asking me ‘Is this the biggest fight of your career?’ Every fight you have is the biggest fight of your career. So, to me, all your wins are the high point.”
In 2013, he joined Bellator, where he has been ever since. Friday’s fight will be his thirteenth for the promotion, including memorable matches with Rampage Jackson, Cheick Kongo, Linton Vassell, and Phil Davis. In November 2013, he fought Emanuel Newton for the interim light heavyweight belt, but lost by decision. Lawal feels he did enough to win that fight, “The one title shot I had, I really won, but it is what it is. Judges are terrible.” Now he seems on track to getting another title shot. “I don’t know. We’ll see,” he says. “My goal is to go out there and be spectacular and beat whoever they put in front of me. As long as you keep on winning, you’ll eventually get the title shot.”
During the time he was starting in Bellator, King Mo was dealing with the aftereffects of a serious staph infection. After his last Strikeforce fight, he underwent an ACL repair surgery and developed the infection. The infection required numerous subsequent surgeries and long-term antibiotic therapy, and at its worst was considered life threatening. The healing process took a long time, but King Mo continued fighting during his recuperation, with five Bellator fights in 2013 and four in 2014. All the while he was functioning at less than 100 percent. “It took me two years to get back from that. It took me a while,” he says. “I’m good now, but man, it messed with my immune system, it messed with my digestive tract, how I’d feel, just everything. But now I’m good.”
“I was like ‘You know what? I could be like Curt Angle: win the Olympic title and then go into pro wrestling.’ But it didn’t work out that way. I could have gone back, but I just wanted to compete still, so I decided to stick with MMA.”
Fans may remember that when he joined Bellator, King Mo at the same time signed with TNA pro wrestling, and for a few years worked with both Bellator in MMA and TNA in pro wrestling. His love of pro wrestling goes way back, and before getting into MMA, he was offered a contract by the WWE. King Mo explains, “Actually, I chose the Olympics over pro wrestling. The WWE offered me a contract back in 2004. I turned it down to keep on wrestling. I was like ‘You know what? I could be like Curt Angle: win the Olympic title and then go into pro wrestling.’ But it didn’t work out that way. I could have gone back, but I just wanted to compete still, so I decided to stick with MMA. I love pro wrestling, mind you. I love TNA, I love Ring of Honor. I watch pro wrestling, especially independent, like PWG and all that stuff, New Japan Pro Wrestling. I watch pro wrestling like crazy. It’s just hard, man. It’s not that easy to do. I went to wrestling school, and it was no joke. It’s hard on your body. Pro wrestling and pro wrestling training is harder than MMA, hands down. There’s a lot more wear and tear on the body.”
During the time he had both Bellator and TNA contracts, he was able to juggle the careers fairly well. “It was not that difficult,” says Lawal. “Because TNA knew my first priority was MMA, so they just took a back seat to MMA. When I was available to do TNA, I did it.” While he remains open to an occasional pro wrestling appearance, these days his concentration is on mixed martial arts.
When Bellator established a relationship with Japan’s new Rizin promotion, King Mo was one of the Bellator fighters to compete in Japan. He took part in last December’s two-day 220 pound Grand Prix tournament, emerging on top of the eight man field to win the tournament. Since Bellator continues its relationship with Rizin, there is a possibility King Mo may fight on another Rizin card. For the moment, there is nothing scheduled, though. “We’ll see. Right now my main goal is Ishii. If they want me to fight for them, they can contact me and Bellator. That hasn’t happened, so right now, I’m just focused on Ishii.”
Friday’s fight pits King Mo against Satoshi Ishii, who won the gold medal in judo at the 2008 Olympic Games. He doesn’t seem concerned with Ishii’s judo credentials, though, “I’m not worried about judo. I can take him down if I want to. I’ve got ground skills too. I worked out with him before, and I took him down. I’m not really worried about it.” Rather than worry about Ishii, Lawal looks to focus on his own strengths. “The thing about fighting is to keep the fight in your strengths and their weaknesses. That’s the main thing you want to do. It’s not about who is the best at what. It’s about who is the smartest at getting the fight to be in their strength and capitalize on that. That’s all it is.”
While primarily known as a light heavyweight, King Mo will fight the larger Ishii at heavyweight. This is nothing new for Lawal, who has fought in both divisions throughout his career. When asked if fighting larger men at heavyweight presents problems since he is much smaller than his completion in that division, King Mo replied, “I’m small for 205, in reality. I just do it the same. The thing is I want to keep the fight in my strengths, and their weaknesses. So when it comes down to it, my thing is I just want to go out there and fight, and not get hurt. Fight and get paid. That’s all it is. That’s the job. For me, it’s all the same. I feel like if you have a good game plan, and you’re smart with your approach, it makes no difference.”
As far as a prediction on how the fight with Ishii will unfold, King Mo doesn’t go into specifics. Since he has lost a few controversial decisions, though, he does allow that he’d much rather win by stoppage than to have the fight go the distance. “I really can’t predict if it’s going to be early or late, but my thing is I want to get the stoppage. First, second, or third round, I’m cool with either round.”
“If you win big money fights, you’ll get a title shot. If you win the belt and you keep winning, then you’ll get big money fights. They both come hand in hand, depending on how you sell yourself and how you market yourself.”
For what may come after the Ishii fight, Lawal is open to just about anything. Two rematches might be on fan’s minds, since King Mo lost to the popular Rampage Jackson in 2014, and to now light heavyweight champ Phil Davis in May of this year, both by decision. On the possibility of a Rampage rematch, he says, “I’ll fight him, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I don’t think he really wants to fight me. If the crowd wants it, I’ll do it. If Bellator wants it, I’ll do it, but really, I’m trying to get to bigger and better things. I’m trying to fight to get to a belt. I don’t think he’s really interested in a belt. But if he wants to fight me, then definitely, I’ll fight him. I really don’t care. I don’t pick and choose who I fight. I let Bellator choose for me.”
As for Phil Davis, or whoever else may hold the belt at the time, Lawal feels confident that he will get another crack at a Bellator title eventually. He’s open to fighting either for the belt or against whoever brings a good payday. “The thing is, as long as you keep winning, both happen. So I don’t really push for either. I just try to keep winning. And both will happen. If you win big money fights, you’ll get a title shot. If you win the belt and you keep winning, then you’ll get big money fights. They both come hand in hand, depending on how you sell yourself and how you market yourself.”
Be sure to check out our quick live interview with Lawal at Bellator 169 media day, taken by @Samurai_Lee :