'King Mo' Lawal doubles up on opportunities to fight, entertain

Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 9:23pm
By Matt Erickson

With his nickname, it was perhaps inevitable that Muhammed Lawal eventually shifted his fighting career path.

"King Mo" sounds custom-made for the world of professional wrestling, which has had its fair share of "kings," from Jerry Lawler and Harley Race to King Kong Bundy.

With walkouts that were befitting of pro wrestling, Lawal, who was born in Murfreesboro, maintained his moniker in mixed martial arts cages — not the squared circle. Until now, that is. 

The former light heavyweight champion for MMA promotion Strikeforce on Thursday signed a deal that will make him a professional wrestler for Nashville-headquartered TNA Impact Wrestling, fulfilling what he says is a longtime dream.

But in a unique twist, Lawal also will keep his legitimate MMA career after signing simultaneously with Bellator Fighting Championships.

Both organizations have broadcast relationships with the Spike TV cable network, which came on board in something of an unprecedented push to put a whole bunch of eggs in one fighter's basket — or in this case, Lawal's crown. The plan is to cross-promote the 31-year-old between both the Impact and Bellator brands, made even more synergistic once Bellator transitions from its MTV2 deal to Spike in 2013. (Both MTV2 and Spike are owned by Viacom Inc., which owns a majority stake in the Chicago-based Bellator.)

"This is a dream come true for me," Lawal said on a Thursday call with the media. "I'm pretty much speechless. I came to the realization that I can knock people out in the cage and hit people with chairs in the ring. Both ways, I'm winning. The future's looking bright right now."

That's good news for Lawal, who has plenty of legitimate amateur wrestling cred as an All-America selection at Oklahoma State and a Division II national champ at Central Oklahoma before that.

But his 2012 has been a rocky road leading up to his new landmark deal, to say the least.

In January, Lawal upped his MMA record to 9-1 with a second-round knockout win over Lorenz Larkin in a Strikeforce event in Las Vegas. But after the fight, Lawal tested positive for Drostanolone, a banned steroid.  With a suspension forthcoming, Lawal sat on the sidelines waiting for his hearing with the Nevada State Athletic Commission — and picked up a staph infection following knee surgery. The constant hospital trips trying to beat the infection, which he said ate away at his leg until he could see his hip bone, had him nearly ready to just give up not only on the sport, but on life, he told one website.

After beating the infection, he appeared in front of the NSAC, which suspended him for nine months, fined him $39,000 — 30 percent of his show money for the win over Larkin, plus his $15,000 win bonus — and overturned his victory to a no contest.

But it was what happened at the hearing and immediately thereafter that sent Lawal's career into an odd tailspin and ultimately led to Thursday's career transformation.

At the hearing, commission member Pat Lundvall asked Lawal if he read and understood English, what she claimed was a standard line of questioning to make sure the fighter knew what he was signing in the disclosure statements the NSAC requires pre-fight for what medications and supplements he was taking.

Lawal took offense, then took to his Twitter account and called Lundvall a "racist b***h." That didn't sit well with Dana White, president of Zuffa, the parent company of Strikeforce and the UFC. Lawal was given his release from the promotion.

Lawal called Lundvall to offer an apology after the fact, and White said he'd be open to bringing Lawal back — most likely after his suspension was lifted in September.

But when the opportunity to work for both Impact and Bellator came along, Lawal was all about jumping at the opportunity — first to admit that it's not as much about brand loyalty for him as it is the almighty dollar.

"Let's put it like this: The door's closed [with Strikeforce or the UFC]," Lawal said. "If someone comes to me with something that makes sense and is a good deal, I'm going to take the best deal. Right now, Bellator and Impact Wrestling is the best deal I could possibly get — and I'm glad I chose it."

Bellator, TNA and Spike are glad he chose it, too, though it may take some sorting out in the early going to see just which one of those three entities is most glad he came on board.

Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney can't use Lawal until his NSAC suspension is up. So until then, he'll have to watch his new poster boy doing "works" with the likes of Hulk Hogan, Kurt Angle and Sting.

"It's a first-of-its kind opportunity and it took the right kind of person to put this together," Rebney said. "[It takes] someone who had the wherewithal and history to play in both realms at the same time. As a fan, taking my CEO hat off, I can't wait to see this all unfold."

TNA will get first crack at Lawal's talents after, president Dixie Carter said, he gets some pro wrestling training with TNA's developmental branch, Ohio Valley Wrestling, in Louisville.

"When Mo became available, to have somebody with the unbelievable wrestling credentials he has — and his personality is off the charts … I'm looking at him now and he's got a big ol' smile on his face. He's excited," Carter said.

And the TNA boss said she has no qualms about having to eventually share Lawal with Bellator.

"With Mo, I'm not worried that I won't get enough — I'm worried that he'll want too much," Carter said.

Lawal said he's open to as much work as his two bosses want him to. He said he plans on entering Bellator's next light heavyweight tournament, where he could win three fights and get a shot at the current champion. And in between, he'll be glad to go off the top rope if he has to.

"I'll enter the tournament and win the tournament and get that belt," Lawal said. "As far as the wrestling while fighting, whatever Dixie and Bjorn want to do, I'll do. I'm a workhorse."

MMA fighters have dabbled in pro wrestling before, of course. Most famously, former WWE star Brock Lesnar became the UFC heavyweight champion. And several other notable fighters, including Strikeforce heavyweight standout Josh Barnett, make occasional trips to Japan to pick up pro wrestling paychecks. But Lawal doing both at the same time, and under the same Viacom umbrella, is groundbreaking.

But will it be confusing for casual fans who might not make the distinction between Lawal's eventual pro wrestling persona on Spike TV and his legitimate fighting persona in Bellator? Rebney doesn't think so.

"We've found a guy in Mo who is able to transcend both of those different environments simultaneously – he's able to play in both of them," Rebney said. "I think it's going to work beautifully. I think the fans can differentiate and understand that one is one, and one is the other, and there is one guy in King Mo bouncing from one to the other. They become promoted and marketed with the amazing power of the Spike network behind them, but you can do two different things.

"When Bo Jackson played baseball, he never tackled anybody. Nobody ever said, 'Why aren't you tackling anyone?' Because they're two different arenas. I've got a lot of trust in our fan base."