NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- On the surface, he's all flash. He wears a robe and a crown, movie star sunglasses, and meticulously plans his pre-fight cage entrance and post-fight celebration. But behind the swagger of "King Mo" is Muhammed Lawal
, a thoughtful and bright man with a perpetual underdog mentality and a burning drive to succeed. How else can you explain what he's accomplished in life?
Lawal, after all, didn't start wrestling until he was 16 years old, in the second semester of his sophomore year in high school. Yet two years later, he won a Texas state championship. Then, he earned a college scholarship, became a collegiate All-American and national champion before he moved on to the U.S. national team, became world-ranked, and eventually transitioned into MMA, where he's a perfect 6-0.
In the rough-and-tumble worlds the Strikeforce light-heavyweight No. 1 contender has inhabited, those successes did not come through flash, but grit.
Lawal, who was born in nearby Murfreesboro, Tenn., was mostly raised by a single mother in Plano, Texas. And while he cites his mother as his inspiration, his memories of his father provide some of the fuel for his motivation.
He remembers his father being excited whenever there was a big boxing match on television, and Lawal would often sit and watch alongside him, too young to understand the true significance of the fights, but old enough to appreciate the competitive fire of the combatants. Later, when his father was gone and the family's VCR was broken, Lawal would take the fight tapes to the homes of friends in order to watch them.
He grew up appreciating legends like Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler. But it was the mindset of another ring great that influenced him the most.
"I have the Bernard Hopkins mentality, where the world is against me," he said. "I don't want people to think I'm going to win. I hear things constantly. I know people say, 'Mo ain't good.'"
When Lawal took up wrestling at the age of 16, it was something of a fluke. Though boxing was his favorite sport, he -- like many other boys his age in Texas -- was enamored with football at the time. Coming off a game in which he missed several tackles, Lawal got a piece of advice from his coach.
"He said, 'Hey Mo, you need to work on your tackling, so go wrestle,'" Lawal said.
From the beginning, he felt himself to be a natural at it, and through his work ethic he found success. But he also heard the doubters.
"I started late, so I had people telling me, 'You're not going to go to college,'" he said. "Then it was, 'State champion? You might place.' Then, 'You might be an All-American, but you'll never be national champion.' People always doubt me. They always doubt me. They doubt me now.
"People don't know what we've been through," he continued. "My mom was a single parent. So I was like a father figure to my little brother and sister. I couldn't do all the stuff I wanted. Growing up, we weren't the richest family. My mom, she's a Nigerian immigrant, a single parent. She was a black woman in the south. She had to sacrifice, and I had to sacrifice, too. So the fact I'm here, it's thanks to her."
Lawal hasn't always looked for fights, but he didn't back away from them, either, whether it was with his doubters or a bully in the schoolyard.
"When I grew up, I always wanted to be the toughest and baddest," he said. "I'd fight people all the time. So wrestling was like a legalized fight to me. It was controlling someone and dominating them. So I loved wrestling. I still like wrestling, but I think MMA is more fun."
His rise up the MMA ladder has been swift. At 6-0, he lacks the experience of many fighters in the title picture -- by comparison, his Strikeforce: Nashville
championship opponent Gegard Mousasi
is 28-2-1 -- but Lawal believes he's as prepared as anyone who will step in the cage on Saturday.
Much the same way he studied those boxing tapes as a boy, he spends plenty of time today watching tape on his opponents, picking apart tendencies and possible weaknesses to exploit.
"I've done my work. I know more about him than he does," Lawal said. "I've studied up. He's a smart fighter, very smart and composed. He's a veteran. But the thing is, he's been fighting for so long, I don't think he's going to improve much more. He's been fighting for over six years. His past six or seven fight have been the same. He looked the same. He hasn't added anything new into his game. But with me, I'm only six fights in. What you've seen in my fights is just a little glimpse. I haven't shown everything. I showed what I had to show."
In the early leadup to the fight, it appeared Mousasi was bothered by Lawal's pre-fight chatter (he memorably compared Mousasi's voice to Kermit the Frog), but Mousasi yesterday said it no longer bothers him, and in fact, he realizes Lawal's outspoken style has helped build interest in the fight.
"I think if you know him personally he's a nice guy," Mousasi said. "I just don't know him that good."
While Lawal said he's going to bring a new, chaotic approach to this fight -- which he dubs "Cuban style" -- Mousasi said that he thinks Lawal at his core will always fall back on his wrestling. In other words, he doubts him.
That, of course, will be all Lawal needs to hear. He admits he likes to have fun, but that's not what drives him..
"I just want to win," Lawal said. "I just want to prove people wrong. And when I do prove people wrong, they'll come up with excuses about how I did it."