For 'King Mo' Lawal, shadow of life-threatening staph infection still looms

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It's almost an afterthought now, but it was just a few years ago when Muhammed Lawal thought this whole ride was over. In early-2012, following a routine ACL repair, doctors laced up the former Strikeforce champ's knee as a severe staph infection quietly rotted under the surface.

It spread, and over the course of a brutal recovery period -- one which included over 14 surgeries, an untold number of failed treatments, and more than a few sleepless nights -- Lawal's leg wasn't the only near-casualty of the infection.

"It almost killed me," Lawal recalls. "I don't explain it to people. I downplayed the whole thing. They didn't know how bad it was. People would text me, and I was in the hospital texting them back like nothing happened. I battled back from it. It messed my body up. My body is still getting healthy from that."

Nearly two years later, the man they call "King Mo" has reacquainted himself with the spotlight as one of leading names the under the Bellator umbrella. Still, that kind of physical trauma, the kind that sapped his weight, laid waste to his natural gifts and held him on the shelf for nearly a year, isn't something so easily forgotten.

Even after five post-surgery fights, Lawal admits, his body isn't yet back to full strength. But, "I'm almost there," he says. "I feel it now when I'm training with American Top Team doing strength training. I feel it, I feel my body coming back. It's a good feeling.

"I think it's a matter of time, because I've still got a few things screwed up with my blood and my red blood count was pretty bad, so now they're filling me back up. I've got to take vitamin C, iron. I'm almost there, man. I'm almost back to where I need to be."

In May 2012, Viacom inked Lawal to a then-landmark deal which promised to see the fighter ply his trade not just for Bellator, but also for Spike's TNA Impact Wrestling. The results, thus far, have been mixed.

Following the signing, Lawal made a few brief appearances on TNA, then moved down to developmental league OVW to learn the craft. Though splitting time between mixed martial arts and professional wrestling proved to be challenging.

Now, while Lawal says he "wouldn't mind the chance to continue pursuing" pro wrestling if given the opportunity, it's been five months since he was last at OVW, and he's uncertain regarding his status in TNA moving forward.

As for his tour of duty inside the Bellator cage, of Lawal's five fights, three have been commanding knockout wins, yet the other two were largely lackluster affairs against Emanuel Newton -- the first of which cost Lawal a shot at a tournament final, and the second of which cost Lawal the Bellator interim light heavyweight strap.

"I don't know, I don't rate it," Lawal says of his Bellator tenure. "I could've done better. I wanted the belt. But the thing is, my fight with Emanuel Newton wasn't my best fight or my best performance, but I felt like I did enough to win.

"He got me the first [fight]. I thought I got him the second time. He knows it. He knows he didn't (win). Look at his face when they're reading the damn decision. Dude looked like he won the lottery or something like that. He was surprised. Even his corner, his corner was saying, ‘hey, it's 2-2. You have to win this fifth round.' S--t, he didn't win the fifth round. I won that b--ch.

"I felt like I pressed the action, I felt like I had a good shot, controlled the action, takedowns. I feel like I won in every category besides kicks landed, and the kicks he landed on me were like tiny push kicks. They did no damage to me. He didn't have an advantage, but the thing is people want to see what they want to see."

Lawal, who's always come off as a polarizing figure for many fight fans, may be brash in his discourse, but he's also more self-aware than most. He knows that while the first Newton loss opened up the floodgates for many of his detractors, the second performance -- a five-round decision rather than a flash KO -- gave the horde enough ammunition to fill up a Cabela's.

"People want me to lose," Lawal acknowledges. "Man, growing up, people told me that I wouldn't be nothing. So now I'm trying to bust my ass, I'm coming around to be something. F--k being humble. Humble is just what people want... they just want you to be humble because they don't want to hear that you're confident.

"You have to market yourself to a person so they'll be compelled to watch you. If I was like, ‘hey, how are you guys doing? My name's Mo' -- people wouldn't give a damn. But look at the amount of haters (I have). I'm King Mo, I'm going to be the next champion. People say either ‘I like him' or ‘I can't stand that cocky motherf--ker.' Realize, I understand."

For now, Lawal is focusing his energy into round three of his pursuit for the elusive Bellator light heavyweight title. He's scheduled to compete in season 10's upcoming four-man light heavyweight tournament, alongside fellow former Zuffa beltholder Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.

The two veterans, who together make up 50-percent of Bellator's top-four biggest draws, are locked on opposite sides of the tourney bracket, with Jackson set to face former champ Christian M'Pumbu this Friday at Bellator 110, and Lawal set to square off against one-time tournament finalist Mikhail Zayats on the same card.

If all goes well, Jackson and Lawal could potentially meet in the tourney finals -- a meeting which stands as one of the biggest fights currently available to Bellator matchmakers.

Lawal, though, scoffs at the idea that the promotion has stacked its deck in his and Jackson's favor in order to coerce a desired result.

"People are seriously so f--king dumb," Lawal says. "That's all I'm saying is they're so f--king stupid. If they're setting it for me and Rampage to meet in the finals, then they wouldn't have put Rampage with Christian M'Pumbu, a former champion, and they don't put me with Mikhail Zayats, who's a solid fighter. They'll put us with two bums to guarantee we make it to the finals. So everybody that thinks that can kiss my ass because this s--t is getting old.

"How the f--k do you expect Rampage to get past Christian M'Pumbu easy?," Lawal continues. "He can throw down moves. M'Pumbu is tall, southpaw, and he can strike. He's got good knees, kicks, and a decent ground game, and he's fast. And Mikhail Zayats is solid. He's got good submissions. He can crack, good cardio, slick, quick and crafty. So if they wanted us to make it to the finals, they could've been like, ‘hey, f--k that, Mo, you're fighting this bum. Rampage, you're fighting this bum. And then y'all are going to fight.'"

At its core, Lawal's point is reasonable enough. The light heavyweight division is notoriously shallow, even in the UFC. So it stands to reason that cobbling together four top-ranked 205-pounders would be a challenging endeavor for a promotion inherently working from behind the market share eight-ball.

Plus it can't be forgotten that the underdog aspect of Bellator's tournament format has derailed big-ticket match-ups more than a few times in the past. Lawal, himself, fell victim to one of the most memorable instances when Newton landed his infamous spinning back fist at Bellator 90.

But this time, in this tournament, Lawal swears, things are going to be different.

"I going to win it," he says without missing a beat. "Straight up, I'm going to win it, I'm going to get that belt, and then I'm going to do something that no one is expecting me to do. I'm not going to say it, but when I get this belt, everyone is going to see what I'm going to do. It'll be good, too."

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