Next week will mark the one-year anniversary of when Spike TV, Bellator and the pro wrestling company, TNA (as in Total Nonstop Action Wrestling) trumpeted the unprecedented signing of former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion "King" Mo Lawal to a dual sports and entertainment contract.
The idea was that Lawal would fight in Bellator, and during his down time he'd do pro wrestling with TNA, since both promotions air Thursday nights on Spike. The idea is that both companies, and the station, would cross-promote him as a "two-sport superstar."
The idea sounded good on paper, but in practice, there were plenty of skeptics, including former Olympic gold medalist turned pro wrestling Hall of Famer Kurt Angle, who felt doing both at the same time, since both are all-encompassing and very different lifestyles, was impossible.
Making matters more difficult, Lawal had to start his new deal sitting on the sidelines. A staph infection coming out of reconstructive knee surgery was so bad Lawal (9-2, 1 no contest) nearly lost his leg. He needed more than a dozen surgeries, which kept him away from even starting pro wrestling for a few months.
After much ballyhoo, his pro wrestling appearances amounted to a decent amount of hype, a guest referee appearance on an October pay-per-view match, and a disappearing act from televised wrestling before Bellator moved to Spike TV.
In MMA, he won his first fight under his new deal in a light heavyweight tournament, only to be on the wrong end of one of the year's most memorable knockouts and most notable upsets, at the ends of Emanuel Newton, on Feb. 21.
The announcement of his return against Seth Petruzelli on June 19 as part of Bellator's light heavyweight tournament came earlier this week. But more quietly, on Wednesday night, with no fanfare, Lawal made his pro wrestling debut. Well, sort of. He secretly did a match in Holland in November that almost nobody was aware of.
"I did a match in Holland for a Christmas charity thing," he said. "It was a five-minute match for kids. I got put over (meaning he won). I was a heel (bad guy), and he was a face (good guy). But in mid-match, they started booing him and cheering me. I didn't know what to do. They were cheering me nonstop. Over there it's called `Show Wrestling' I was wrestling a guy from an independent circuit from Belgium in a little ring at the gym. We told a pretty good story."
On Wednesday night, Lawal did a four-minute match against Austin Bradley, a heel with the notorious VIP Club, at the Danny Davis Arena in Louisville. The Davis Arena is a 500-seat building that houses the gym he trains at, named after Davis, a former wrestler who now runs Ohio Valley Wrestling, the farm team for TNA. They tape their weekly television show every Wednesday night. As if the result matters, Lawal ducked a clothesline and won with an armbar submission.
Technically, it was a dark match, so it won't be airing on the local television show Saturday night with the rest of the matches. But it, like his other matches, will be filmed and sent to the bigwigs at TNA, so they can see how far he's progressed.
He's expecting to do four more matches in Louisville and small towns in the area over the next week, before being evaluated to see how soon he's ready for television.
"They just wanted to see where I'm at," said Lawal after a three-hour practice session on Thursday. "Do I understand chain wrestling. Do I understand the rules? Do I understand the psychology?"
Lawal doesn't want to be on television trying to be a pro wrestler and relying on others to carry him before he's ready, because he's a tough guy in real life with his MMA experience and three national championships in amateur wrestling.
"I want to be ready," he said. "There's no rush in pro wrestling. I want to make sure I'm prepared. I want to be able to put people over (lose or take punishment convincingly to where the opponent looks good). I don't want to be a flop. I want to prove to the fans and the people in wrestling that I'm willing to learn. I'm a student of the game. I don't want to go in there and mess things up."
If you think it's all a joke and not serious, Lawal will set your straight in a heartbeat, emphasizing that pro wrestling is much harder than MMA.
"People don't understand how hard this is," he said. "They say, `It's fake.' It's fake, but any critic, go to a pro wrestling school, and try out for six weeks. After the first day, you'll be so sore you won't believe it.
"I don't understand how people do this for 20 years or 30 years. Those guys are tough. My body's sore right now. Believe me, I'm ready to start MMA training."
Angle liked to tell the story about Lawal's first practice sessions, where his body was all banged up, and heavily bruised from learning to bounce off the ropes.
He asked Angle, "How long before the soreness goes away?"
Angle responded, "It doesn't."
Even now, the one thing Lawal dislikes the most about training and wrestling is bouncing off the ropes.
"OVW had ropes, but now they have steel cables," he said. "They're even stiffer. It hurts. Hitting the ropes hurts a lot. I hate it."
Between recovering from his knee infection and surgeries, and fight training all over the world, Lawal has only had seven weeks in Louisville over the past year. But when he does his fight training in Las Vegas, a few times, in the evening he's trained at a local pro wrestling school with local residents Kenny Layne, who wrestles in TNA as Kenny King, and area independent wrestler Keyshawn Prince.
He felt the debut was a positive.
"Last night was a good sign," he said. "I felt like I was at home in the ring. I felt good in the ring and had no problems."
His goal for the next week is to do steadily longer matches, and hopefully do a match with Jessie Godderz, a bodybuilder who came off the TV show "Big Brother," who started where Lawal now is, and is now a regular on television.
"I think next week they'll test me more."
As far as his other endeavor, Lawal will be leaving Louisville soon for Iowa, to train under U.S. wrestling national team coach Kevin Jackson, himself a former UFC competitor.
"From there I go to Las Vegas for my training camp. Jeff (boxing coach Jeff Mayweather), Ryan Martinez (a Bellator heavyweight), Vinny Magalhaes (a UFC fighter who was a world Jiu Jitsu champion), I'm bringing in Mohammed Abd el-Fatah, a Greco-Roman world champion. I'll train with Roy Nelson, Kevin Newman (a boxer from Jeff Mayweather's camp), Jon Reader (ranked No. 3 in the nation in freestyle wrestling), whoever I can bring in."
While he's concentrating on Petruzelli (14-7), who was eliminated in the first round of Bellator's last light heavyweight tournament, his eyes down the road are set on Newton and avenging his loss.
"He was running from me and I didn't see it (the spinning backfist) coming," said Lawal. "When I fight him again, I'm going to punish him - severely."