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It's Not Easy Being 'King'

It doesn't matter how many fights you've watched on YouTube. It doesn't matter how many old Pride DVD's you have stacked next to your TV, or how many live events you've been to. You don't know this sport the way "King" Mo Lawal does.

You might think you do, but you're wrong. You have no idea what you're talking about, and, in a way, your ignorance is a central fact of your identity. That's because you're a fan, and fans aren't fighters, as Lawal is fond of repeating.

He knows that you probably don't want to hear that, but he doesn't particularly care.

"[Expletive] the fans," says the undefeated Strikeforce light heavyweight champ. "Most of them are going to love you or hate you regardless, but it doesn't make a difference. Those are the same fans that thought Lyoto Machida was boring, then he wins two fights and he's the best in the world, then he loses to 'Shogun' and he's overrated. The fans don't know."

So much for the collective wisdom of the mob.

The strange part is, once you start talking to Lawal you quickly realize he's right. You don't know this sport the way he does. You don't understand it on the same level. You can watch the same fights, and still not see what he sees. Not even if you've followed the sport for years. Not even if you were covering it as a writer before he made his pro debut. Trust me on this.

His brash public persona might turn some fans off, but Lawal may very well be the most studious fighter in the sport. He can recreate old bouts from memory in infinitesimal detail. He's watched so many hours of video on all of his peers that it's hard to tell where he finds time to do anything else.

Name a fighter, and Lawal will start reeling off details about the guy's footwork, pointing out where the holes are in his defense, and naming the best performances of his career. He knows everybody's record, knows their amateur backgrounds. He knows who can rightfully lay claim to being "world-class" at any one discipline, and it drives him crazy when sportswriters or fans bestow that distinction on someone who hasn't earned it.

"When has Matt Hamill ever wrestled at a world-class level?" he demands. "How can you call a guy world-class if he hasn't competed against world-class competition?"

This guy – the one who's a walking encyclopedia of combat sports – is a long way from the guy you see on TV with the dancing girls and the parasol.

That's because there's a difference between the King and the man. The King is larger than life, but used sparingly. He comes out only on fight night, or whenever the cameras turn on. The rest of the time it's the man who's killing himself in the gym, or breaking down hours upon hours of video, all to ensure that the King acquits himself well once that opening bell rings.

And yet, while the man wins the fights, it's the King who gets all the attention.

"I'm an entertainer," Lawal says. "If you ask the average fan they'll say, 'Oh, there's no place for that kind of stuff in our sport.' Why do you think I get booed so much? Every one of my fights in America, I get booed. I was born outside of Nashville, in Murfreesboro. Then when I went to fight in Nashville I got booed – in my home state!"

For a guy who claims not to care what the fans think, Lawal spends a lot of time thinking about it. Sure, he has some supporters, he says. But that's not what he tends to focus on. When asked how life as the champion is, he shrugs and says, "Just more hate."

Even in a dominating victory to take the Strikeforce belt from Gegard Mousasi, he points out, he got severely criticized as a lay-and-pray fighter by many fans on the internet.

"I just want to tell those people, if I was laying and praying I would have never got upkicked, idiots. In order for me to lay-and-pray, I'd have to be on him just holding him and he'd never be able to upkick me. I was posturing up, trying to land punches. I actually punched myself out the first two rounds because I was so anxious to hit him."

So why does a person who thinks his critics have no idea what they're talking about pay so much attention to them?

Probably because more than anything else, Lawal wants to be remembered as one of the great ones some day. He may talk about being a "moneyweight" fighter, or being a member of Team GDP, but to some extent that's just part of the act.

"I love money, but I'd rather be the best and broke, than not the best and rich," he says.

In the end, he's not in this just to get your money any more than he's in this to be your friend. He doesn't love you, doesn't need you, and doesn't lie about it. In at least that regard, the King and the man have something in common.

"What it comes down to is, can you sleep at night knowing that you're not the best?" he says. "That there's someone out there better than you? I can't live with that."

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