LOS ANGELES -- One by one, Muhammed Lawal went through most of the major sports, asking reporters and videographers to name the biggest star in each. Football. Basketball. Track and field. Swimming. Tennis.
When the time came to ask about the biggest star ever in MMA, "King Mo" had the journalists stumped.
"Dana!" Lawal said finally at a Bellator: Dynamite media day Tuesday in Hollywood. "Dana White. Biggest star. Hands down. Here's the problem with MMA."
Lawal maintains that mixed martial arts remains more entertainment than sport. And one of his key criteria is that a non-athlete is MMA's most well-known person.
"Dana White is a smart guy," Mo said. "He branded himself. But in order for MMA to be a true sport ... the biggest star has to be an actual fighter. Straight up.
"MMA is entertainment. People don't get that. 'Oh, it's a sport.' When fans are like, 'This is a black eye for our sport.' No, it's entertainment, playa. You got the game wrong. This is entertainment. We're here to entertain. It's entertainment. It ain't really a true sport just yet. If it's gonna be a true sport, they gotta do a lot more to make it a true sport."
Lawal (15-4) will participate in the Bellator: Dynamite four-man, one-night tournament Sept. 19 in San Jose with three other light heavyweights. It'll be an athletic competition, for sure. But "King Mo" believes that if you think MMA is sheer sport, you've got it twisted. Just winning, he said, is not enough.
"If the [football] game is 3-0, what do y'all say?" Lawal said. "Defense wins games. Basketball in a low-scoring game, man that's great defense. The Spurs, great team. Ravens, great team. Defensive team. It doesn't have to be a blowout, if it's a high-scoring game, oh we're entertained. That's crazy. But the defense of these teams suck. That's what y'all say. MMA, if I'm 30-0 and I got 29 decisions, what are people gonna say about me? That I'm boring. 'Oh, Mo just lays and prays. Mo did this. Boo!' And guess what's gonna happen? If they start booing me because I fight a certain way, this is what's gonna happen: I might get cut if I lose and I won't headline nothing. In true sports, all that matters is the result."
"King Mo" certainly has a point. MMA is based on television ratings and pay-per-view buys. The fighters with the most engaging personalities and most exciting styles inside the cage are the ones who get all the breaks -- and make the most money.
Rousey and Conor McGregor are two of the top financial draws in the game right now and, though they have backed it up by winning, have gotten that way through their charisma and willingness to talk trash. Brock Lesnar is the biggest PPV draw ever based almost solely on his look, personality and aura. Kimbo Slice is well past a prime in which he was never really that good in the first place and drew a Bellator ratings record number in June against a 51-year-old Ken Shamrock.
Lawal, 34, believes part of why MMA is not viewed in the same way is that people are not as familiar with it on a first-hand basis. Fans cannot appreciate the nuances of it or how difficult it is, he said, which is why they want every fight to be a knock-down, drag-out war.
"Football, basketball, baseball," Lawal said. "Those sports that I named, people grew up playing those sports, so they're more educated in it. They actually participated, so they know it's not easy to catch a pass with someone in your face. They know it's not easy kicking field goals. MMA, all of a sudden people think it's easy. 'Oh, you should go out there and finish your opponent.' You think it's easy to finish your opponent? If it's so easy, then why aren't you fighting?"
Lawal has been called a boring fighter when he relies on his superior wrestling ability. Fans booed him during his unanimous decision win over Cheick Kongo in January. That's the kind of thing "King Mo" means when he says MMA is not a true sport. Los Angeles Lakers fans don't boo if their team is winning even if it's a lackluster game.
"MMA people have a short memory," Lawal said. "All they want to see is blood and guts and things like that. They don't care about technique. You actually care about the technique and tactics when you start to do it and participate yourself."
Lawal blames the sport's hierarchy for fostering the wrong view of fighting and projecting their own views onto fans.
"They drink some beers," Lawal said of MMA fans. "They talk about MMA or UFC or Bellator or World Series Fighting and they talk like they can do it themselves. That's because some people in the higher-ups in the sport do the same thing. They talk like they can fight, but in actuality they've never even fought before. They haven't stepped foot in the cage or a boxing ring. Or anything. They might have trained a little bit, but they never fought before. So, how you gonna tell me what to do when you never fought before? And that's what the fans do."
While that sounded like it could be a thinly veiled shot at White, the UFC's outspoken leader, "King Mo" isn't hating on him being MMA's biggest star. He wishes things would be different, but doesn't really spend too much time being bothered by it, either.
"It don't affect me," Lawal said. "It's good for him. It don't affect me at all, because I'm in Bellator. I'm just doing my thing. I don't care about the spotlight. I just care to win my fights, get paid, kick it with my family, kick it with my friends. And when Bellator needs a fight and [someone to] put on a good show or win fights, they hit me up. I'm in shape, I do it. To me, MMA is my job."
And not a true sport.