Most fight fans know that former Strikeforce light heavyweight champ Mo Lawal has been battling a serious staph infection since undergoing knee surgery in January. What they probably don’t know -- and what Lawal kept from many his closest friends in the fight game -- was just how close he came to giving up entirely.
As Lawal told me when I spoke to him for a Sports Illustrated story this week, at one point it all got to be too much even for him. The endless nights of high fevers and no sleep, the battery of antibiotics and knee flushes -- finally he’d had enough, he said.
"I got to the point where I was like, [expletive] it. I just felt like, hey, I'm going to quit taking this medicine, and if I die then I die. I'm tired of this stuff."
He didn’t give up, in part because, just as he was at his breaking point, his doctor called to say that the course of treatment they were on seemed as if it was finally working. But even now, according to his manager, Mike Kogan, he’s still not completely in the clear just yet.
"The concern was, and still is, that the infection keeps coming back," Kogan said. "It happened at least four times. We were starting to see some improvement, things were getting better, then bam, it starts going the other way again. The latest one was just last week. His temperature went up again and his knee started filling up with fluid."
The bright spot, as much as there is one in a situation like this, has been the response from his teammates at AKA. The outpouring of support has been overwhelming, Lawal said, with everyone from close friends to coaches to occasional training partners coming to visit him in the hospital in an effort to lift his spirits.
"It was tough, man. I broke down when my people came and saw me," Lawal said. "I’m emotional, but I try to hold it back. You know, I’m still kind of a newbie to AKA. But they took the time to come and see me and comfort me."
Head coach Javier Mendez even brought him a book on boxing, Lawal said. It drove him slightly crazy, since it was all about an activity that he desperately wanted to get out of bed and do himself, but he appreciated the gesture even though he said he "hate[s] reading."
As Lawal’s long-time friend and former Oklahoma State wrestling teammate Daniel Cormier explained: "You cannot believe how strong the support system is in our gym. We’re not just sitting there training together. We really care about one another, and it was good to see everybody on the team basically going to see him. People he said he’s barely spoken to went and sat with him a little while. Muhammad Lawal, I know him. The people at AKA have a lifelong friend in him now. He won’t forget something like that."
But even though Lawal was touched by the efforts of his teammates, he kept the extent of his suffering and his depression hidden from them. Even Cormier couldn’t get him to talk much about it, though he said he knew it was bad when all his efforts to get a laugh out of his old friend didn’t even elicit a smile.
"He wouldn't tell me how bad it was. You know how it is. Your buddy isn't going to tell you all that, that he's thinking about just saying forget it and giving up, because then you become just another person telling him to do the right thing for himself. He tried to keep it positive in front of me and the other guys, because that's Mo. He's actually worried that it will distract guys from fights they have coming up. Like that's his big concern."
Lawal’s troubles aren’t over yet, however. His battle with the infection is still ongoing, and he’s lost about 30 pounds in the last two months, he said.
On top of that, he has his hearing with the Nevada State Athletic Commission next Tuesday, where Kogan has said they will offer an "answer" to the positive steroid test stemming from his last fight against Lorenz Larkin. Lawal still maintains that the Drostanolone in his urine sample came from an over-the-counter supplement, and he’s had no difficulty being open and upfront about that, he pointed out, even if he’s been less eager to talk about his health struggles.
"I tried not to get depressed about [the positive drug test], because I know I'm not a cheater," he said. "I tried not to get too upset about the drug-testing thing, because there's nothing I can do until the hearing with the commission. I've been transparent, and I've been open with everybody. Everybody knows what happened. I put it all out there. You know, some people test positive, and they just go quiet. They don't say anything. I've been out there, vocal, telling people what happened."
After the battle with staph that, at one point, seemed like it could claim his career or even his leg, the NSAC has been the least of his concerns lately. But now that his health is finally starting to improve, Lawal looks forward to a time when he can finally return to the gym and put the hard lessons he learned in a hospital bed to use in the rest of his life.
"I know what it’s like to be bed-ridden now, and that’s a tough thing to swallow," he said. "Seeing my friends, my family, it makes me appreciate them all so much more. I appreciate my fans more. I used to be focused on my haters too much, but now I feel like, [expletive] them. Why am I giving them all this attention, talking back to them, smashing them, when I could be focusing on the people who are giving me positive energy to do good things? It opened my eyes to a lot of things."