Or as he put it: "I got beat up."
And we're not talking just normal bumps and bruises, either. We're talking good old-fashioned butt-whoopings. One right after another, after another, after another.
For the former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, a man who had racked up seven straight wins in just a year and a half of professional competition, this wasn't just a surprise -- it was a travesty. It was a challenge to everything he thought he knew about himself and his abilities. It was unacceptable. And he had his best friend and former Oklahoma State wrestling teammate, Daniel Cormier, to thank for it.
Cormier convinced Lawal to come up to the Bay Area gym after he heard that his old friend wasn't totally satisfied with the training he was getting down in Orange County. Lawal had recently suffered the first loss of his career in a Strikeforce 205-pound title defense against Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante in August of 2010, and now he was looking for a new home after rehabbing a knee injury.
"I was asking him to come up here," said Cormier. "I heard he was looking to move and we talked a lot. I told him it was the best place for him."
After weeks of going back and forth, Lawal finally made the move. But when set foot on the mats after being out of action for a while, he was in for a rough welcome.
"I remember him struggling early on," Cormier said. "His timing was off. He hadn't fought in almost a year. He just wasn't himself."
His first day of sparring, as Lawal remembered it, he went up against his buddy Cormier. He started off getting the worst of it, and things only deteriorated from there as his cardio showed the effects of his injury layoff.
"I was kind of getting beat down," Lawal said. "I'm not going to lie."
The next day of sparring, Lawal got matched up with a tall, lanky surfer kid by the name of Luke Rockhold -- a middleweight who Lawal took one look at before deciding that his fortunes in the gym were about to change.
"I was like, yes! I'm going to smash him!" Lawal said. The way he saw it, Rockhold was a pretty boy who wasn't going to like getting hit in the face. He was, in Lawal's eyes, "a fake Ken doll."
But before they strapped on the gloves, Cormier tried to warn his friend that it might not be as easy a sparring session as he thought.
"I told him, Luke is a guy you have to watch out for. He goes a thousand percent all the time."
Lawal wasn't convinced. This guy? The one who looks like he stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog? He was the one who was going to give a former Strikeforce champ and NCAA All-American a hard time? Please.
"I was like, I can't wait till I spar with Luke," Lawal said. "I'm going to put them thangs on him."
A few rounds later, Lawal found out what Cormier was talking about. Rockhold popped right back up after Lawal took him down. He fired off kicks that seemed to come from odd angles and yet always found an open target. Lawal found himself getting punched, kneed, and kicked in places he thought he'd been defending well.
"I got beat up," Lawal said. "...I got exposed. Because I came from training in Orange County, which was a good camp, some good guys out there, but the whole level of intensity, I felt like I was in Holland or something. I was like, these guys are trying to knock me out."
Cormier had tried to tell him what he was in for, but maybe it was something he had to experience for himself to understand. That's how it was for Cormier when he first joined the team, he said.
"Other guys may train hard and spar hard, but it's different here, where you have so many top guys and they're all there every single day. I think that's probably the biggest thing. There's a core group of guys who are here every day, and they're all mostly top ten in the world. It's a daily grind. You don't go to the gym and not have to deal with Luke Rockhold, [Josh] Koscheck, [Jon] Fitch, Cain [Velasquez] -- they're all there every time you step on the mat. There's no easy days."
Cormier knew his old friend would benefit from those daily battles, but he also had selfish reasons for enlisting him, he admitted.
"I just know that my best years, whether it was wrestling or whatever, Mo was right there close to me. The comfort that I have training with that dude, his ability to talk you up when you're having bad days, just having a friend around helps so much."
Still, it wasn't just himself he was trying to help by bringing Lawal onto the team, Cormier said.
"I knew it would be good for him, but I also knew it would be good for Luke. We didn't have that many smaller guys for him, so Luke had been sparring me and Cain. That's not a good day for any [middleweight]."
With Lawal now on the AKA roster, Rockhold had a sparring partner closer to his size who could help him improve his wrestling, and Lawal had one who would force him to work on his stand-up skills. It was a symbiotic relationship that benefited them both, even if it resulted in the two of them showing up places with matching cuts and bruises when they traveled together to promote their respective fights on Saturday night's Showtime card in Las Vegas.
"I'm going to be real with y'all," Lawal said while sitting next to Rockhold at a recent media Q&A at the MGM Grand. "This man right here is a top three middleweight in the world. You see my eye? I've got a little black eye, that's because of him. He kneed me in the face and punched me."
Rockhold just shrugged and smiled before showing off his own battle wounds courtesy of Lawal and explaining that "iron sharpens iron."
Which is kind of the whole point, as you can tell when you glance around the room at a place like AKA. The mats are crowded with UFC and Strikeforce fighters, former and current champions who make sure that there are no days off inside those walls. And that, Lawal said, is exactly what he needed. That's why unbeaten prospect Lorenz Larkin is in trouble once the cage door closes on Saturday night, he explained.
"He's undefeated. He's a tough, young kid, hungry like me, but I'm starving," Lawal said. "I'm an Ethiopian right now."
That's the good part about taking your beatings in the gym. There, no one's watching. No one's keeping score. There, the pounding is intended to make you better, or at the very least tougher. It's on Saturday night, when the cameras are rolling and the crowd is cheering, that you find out if it worked.
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