A Friendship Born on the Mats and Forged in the Poverty of the Past

CINCINNATI -- Now that they're over, it's easy for Daniel Cormier and Mo Lawal to laugh about their lean years in the world of amateur wrestling. When they were walking around broke most of the time, however, it wasn't quite so funny.

"Wrestling -- even wrestling at the highest level -- we weren't getting paid nothing," Lawal said at Thursday's Strikeforce press conference.

In fact, Cormier added, they were making so little on their USA Wrestling stipend that once they both went to the bank and cashed their paychecks all in dollar bills, just to make it seem like more. And now?

"Let's just say we can't cash our checks from this weekend all in ones," Cormier grinned.

Cormier and Lawal go back a long way, to when both were college wrestlers in Oklahoma and neither thought he'd ever make much of a living at it. Back then, Cormier was almost like a big brother and mentor to Lawal.

As Cormier remembers it: "[Lawal] wanted to learn so much that he was just hanging on you. He was like, teach me this, teach me that. Then he just got so much better. He was at Central Oklahoma. He had no connection to Oklahoma State. But he would come up in the summer to wrestling camps. He was like a sponge. It was like, well, Mo's here. Guess we got to wrestle with him. Then he got so good we wanted him around."

But when it came to making the move into MMA, it was Lawal who led the way, spurred on by another mentor who had learned all he cared to about getting by on what little money is available for amateur wrestlers in the United States.

"Matt Lindland told me, 'Look, you're wasting your time wrestling,'" Lawal said. "I was like, what do you mean? He told me, 'You're going to be broke.'"

Once Lindland started telling him what he made from fighting, as well as from seminars and sponsorships, Lawal knew it was time to make the leap. As a wrestler, he said, he was lucky to make $25,000 in a good year.

"At one point I was making $500 a month and I thought I was balling," Lawal said.

When he took up MMA, that all changed. Soon Cormier couldn't help but notice.

"It's hard to miss his chain. It's hard to miss him buying a Cadillac with ostrich skin seats. He has ostrich seats, 'King Mo' in the headrest. I was like, I have to get some of this."

Making the switch from wrestling to MMA required some obvious adjustments, like getting used to being punched in the face, but it wasn't as if neither of them knew what that was like before putting on the four-ounce gloves. As Cormier explained, when they went to wrestle in Russia they'd frequently end up in fist fights on the mat.

"We had plenty of fights," Cormier said. "We fought Russians. You can find mine on YouTube. Mo was fighting the guy right before."

But once they got into MMA, their wrestling base allowed them to dictate where the fight took place, which is helpful when your stand-up skills haven't yet caught up with your ground game.

Now Cormier's on the verge of taking on Antonio Silva in the Strikeforce heavyweight Grand Prix and Lawal, a former Strikeforce champion, is getting set to take on Roger Gracie in his first fight since losing his title.

They've both come a long way, but neither has forgotten where he came from. They never get the chance. Not with the other around as a constant reminder.

"I've known Mo for a long time," Cormier said. "I'm not talking about 'King' Mo. I'm talking about Muhammad Lawal with the afro. I'm talking about ashy Muhammad Lawal."

"I wasn't ashy," Lawal interrupted.

Cormier shot him a look.

"Okay, the one thing he wasn't was ashy, but he did have the afro."

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