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Technique Talk: Mo Lawal on MMA’s homogenization, judging impact and future

Mo Lawal at a Bellator open workout
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

As the new year is upon us, it’s natural both to take a look back at the year that was as well as the year ahead. In thinking about that task, MMA Fighting asked former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, current Bellator light heavyweight and heavyweight contender as well as Rizin FF competitor Muhammed Lawal.

Lawal helps us take a look at the current state of the sport from what changes are afoot in terms of improvement as well as areas of lagging need. In addition, ‘King Mo’ centers on the argument about how a discussion of technical development can’t be had without observing how the poor state of judging affects fighter performance.

Is MMA fighting becoming homogenized? What’s the next type of development? Is MMA officiating hindering the ability of fighters to create, adapt and explore technique? Lawal helps break it all down.

Full audio and partial transcript below:

We always wondered if the future of MMA was getting better, but is the future actually just everyone becoming the same?

You know what? That's what happens. Everybody's going to become the same because the future of MMA — you'll see boys, girls, whatever — start with an MMA base. Instead of people coming from a world-class wrestling background or world-class taekwondo or world-class judo, you're going to see more people come from a pure MMA. They're going to be average at every position. Maybe a little stronger in some others, but they're going to be average in every position.

The reason why you see everybody trying to fight the same is partly because in bigger organizations, you have a Fight of the Night bonus. People can go out there and win with smarts and with a good game plan, but a lot of people go out there to win a knockout bonus or performance bonus in other organizations. The chances of you seeing something technical might go out the window because they're focused a winning a $50,000 bonus or $10,000 bonus or something like that.

So, partly the homogenization is natural, but you also think that are economic influences at play.

Three things. There's homogenization from the MMA base. Two, you'll see less and less people come from a world-class background. When you do see them, it's rare. You saw Ronda [Rousey], Daniel Cormier, you saw me, you saw Yoel Romero, MVP [Michael 'Venom' Page], Satoshi Ishii. You'll see guys pop in, but they're coming in on the tail end of their career. Now you're seeing guys like [Henry] Cejudo come in in his twenties. By the time people come in established in their craft, they'll be a little bit older, but they'll be able to come in and do something different that people aren't used to seeing.

As far as the economic thing, there are guys who probably have great takedowns, good hands, probably good kickboxing, but they want to entertain because now MMA is becoming entertainment. It's not really about going out there and winning because if that was the case, Ben Askren would be the man. Askren is a world-class wrestler that people think is boring. I think he's great because he's undefeated. I watch him fight because I can learn from him, but people don't want to see that. People want to see guys go out there swinging for the fences with no defense. People want to see all offense, no defense. That's what sells.

Let's talk about some of the specifics. We'll start with wrestling, your base. Like games, generally, there are fewer and fewer types of takedowns in play these days. Guys who can do a lot of different types have an advantage, like Khabib Nurmagomedov, but that appears to be the trend. I'm not saying those takedowns are ineffective, but you're not seeing variety. Do you agree with that characterization?

The thing is, there aren't too many takedowns out there. You have your throws, your single legs, double leg, high crotch, inside trips, just a few takedowns. When punches come and everybody's training takedown defense and takedowns, now it comes down to being basic.

It's going to be harder because everyone trains wrestling now. Back in the day you saw nice stuff because no one knew what it was. No one knew the defense to the stuff.

I remember years ago you saw inside trips. Now you see less and less because people train it. If you train something, a lot of times you learn the counter to it

How would you explain someone like Nurmagomedov? He can show variety because he learned it at such a young age?

He comes from a world-class background as well, sambo. His dad was a great wrestler. Khabib comes from Dagestan. I've been to Dagestan many times. It's a fight area. Kickboxing, boxing, jiu-jitsu, grappling or sambo, wrestling, freestyle and Greco. Khabib, he's well versed and he has a good single leg, good double leg and his upper body over-under clinch that's head and shoulders way above everybody else in that weight class. Yeah, you'll see throws from him, you'll see double legs.

If you think about it, you're not seeing a wide variety. You're seeing different setups to get to that position.

If we're agreeing there's some kind of homogenization, won't there be some kind of market correction down the road? Or is that too hard to do?

It's not too hard to do. You want to become a better boxer? Take your ass to a boxing gym. You want to be a better kickboxer? Go to Holland or Thailand. You want to be a better wrestler? Go to the nearest training center: Oklahoma State [University], Central Oklahoma. Go to a college and train there. Go to Dagestan, if you can. Go to Ukraine. Go to Cuba, wrestle the Cubans. If you can go to Iran, go to Iran.

There are a lot of places you can go, but you have to get with the right people and do specialized training. Want to be a better grappler? Put a gi on. You want to get better at no gi? Go train with Tom DeBlass. Go with [John] Danaher Death Squad. You want to be good with the gi? Go with [Ricardo] Liborio or go train with [Fabricio] Werdum or Romulo Barral, Keenan Cornelius, Dean Lister.

If you want to get better in a certain area, you have to go and jump headfirst into that area.

Let's talk about the wall or the cage as a wall. We've seen Anthony Pettis run up it or fighters press each other into it, but are we presently evolving it? Have we reached the limit of innovation with use of the wall?

It's not really about creativity. It's about being smart and effective. Think about this. Showtime did that kick. How many times can he realistically land that kick? People aren't stupid. "If I'm circling the cage, I have to circle with my hands up."

People aren't stupid. People are watching film, which makes things harder, but at the same time makes things more basic, and they're making adjustments.

Do you feel like film watching is something that happens more now than it used to?

Yes and no. You've got guys that watch film. I watch film, but I watch more tendencies. I watch film with a lot of people, but first and foremost, I go over tendencies. I'll ask friends to send me videos of my opponent hitting a jab, send me video of him throwing a cross, send me videos of him getting taken down, send me clips of him shooting, send me clips of him kicking. Sometimes when I'm watching fights, I'm watching everything: the opponent, my opponent, so it's too much. I try to break it down into little clips.

Rhadi Ferguson told me that. He's like, 'Mo, I watch every fight in ten to twenty second increments.’ You can know certain tendencies when you break it down that way. If you watch it all, you tend to forget certain things.

I've been thinking a lot about pre-fight strategy. It's more widely used now, but a lot of it is often really conventional strategy. So, yes, the strategy is getting better, but it's getting narrower, too.

Everybody's strategy, for the most part, is keep the fight in your strengths and their weaknesses. That's the basic strategy for every fighter, then test their conditioning or a few minor things there.

For instance, say I was going to fight Demian Maia. Maia's going to be like, 'Mo's going to wrestle me, but I've got jiu-jitsu. The best way Mo can beat me is through striking.' Would I be smart to go in there and take Maia down?

No, but wouldn't that just be a bad strategy?

My thing is keep the fight in the strengths. Flick the jab, keep him guessing, keep him off balance. I can't ask Maia to bang with me like he can't ask me to grapple with him. It's all about keeping fight in your strengths. When you have seen Dominick Cruz be like, 'F--k that, I'm going to walk this person down behind the high guard.’

Never. The motion helps him.

When was the last time you saw a game plan that was a) successful and b) shocked or surprised you?

Never. I never thought that would make sense. I watch fights all the time. For instance, let's use Robbie Lawler vs. Johny Hendricks. Both great fighters. The first time they fought, I was like, 'Go to the body. Go to the jab, follow his jab with a straight left.' Stuff like that. Go to his body as much as possible because, in later rounds, that will help you. It's a basic game plan.

If you watch that fight, Robbie was digging in his body for the first three rounds. Everything was to the body. When Johny threw a jab, he followed it with a straight left, right hook or body kick. The main thing about game plans are, exploit their weaknesses and keep them in your strengths. That's always the game plan.

Say I'm fighting you and you throw a left hook, right hook, left hook, right hook. That's your combo. I'm going to be like, 'I'm a circle to my right so it blocks his left hook and his right hook will never land. I'm going to pick one side and make him a one-armed fighter.' It's basic tactics. Basic tactics and techniques.

If you understand the fight game, you come up with a game plan off of...without even knowing your opponent, you can come up with general game plans.

The only way it gets different is if your opponent has a gimmick move. If he has a gimmick move, then you have to make some adjustments. Say he has a good guillotine. He has a guillotine, so double leg/high crotch? No, but I'll shoot head inside single legs and maybe knee picks to keep myself from being guillotined.

In other words, your argument is that creativity isn't really necessary to succeed at the elite level? in fact, simplicity is probably better.

Simplicity because creativity comes off of setups. Like you watch Canelo box, Canelo has creative combos because he wants numbers. So, he'll throw jab-left hook. Jab-left hook. Jab, fake the left hook, then throw a hook to the body and do it twice. The next time he'll go jab, fake the left hook to the head, come to the body, then go back to the head and follow with the right hand. He understands what you're trying to do. He's setting you up.

Let's talk about coaching a little bit. How different is the kind and level of coaching that's available to the average professional fighter from when you started?

It's different, but it depends on where you're at. If you're a fighter that has no team, then your coaching won't be as specialized. For instance, say I'm in California. You'll see guys that train in one gym, they'll do standup here, they'll wrestle there, they'll do jiu-jitsu here. They'll have one coach and that one coach has to put it all together, but there's no communication with the other coaches.

Whereas if you're at a team — Jackson's, AKA, ATT, TriStar — all the coaches have an idea of what's going on. Jav [Javier Mendez] will get me to throw a right hook, then into a takedown. Leandro [Vieira], from this takedown will say let's work this position. Same thing with ATT. I can work my combos with my boy Gary or Jeff [Mayweather] or whoever I bring in town, then I'll get out there and work position with [Steve] Mocco or Kenny Barzini. When there's a takedown, I'll talk to Shoeface or Rodolfo Vieira or coach Parrumpa.

I have people to bounce ideas off of, but they're all on the same page. If you're with a team, all of your coaching is on the same page whereas if you're bouncing from place to place to place, you better hope your coaches have good communication because a lot of times the coaches ain't on the same page.

Then let's throw in strength training. If you're doing strength training, then your strength coach has no idea what you've done before. They just imagine, whereas at ATT, AKA, Jackson's or other gyms with strength coaches, the coaches know: ‘Hey coach, he wrestled hard today and he did a bunch of mitts, so be careful,' or, 'Coach, he hurt his shoulder today, so be careful about these lifts.'

MMA cornermen are still younger than those in boxing, but I feel like in MMA, the cornermen are starting to age. Five or six years ago, you'd see a lot of fighters cornered by guys their age. I don't think you see as much of that anymore.

No, you don't because back then, a lot of guys would just come with their friends or fans who just wanted to be on TV. Now, those young guys you saw in the corners got a little older with stress and experience.

In boxing, you'll see Dewey Cooper. They're young for boxing. In boxing and kickboxing — even jiu-jitsu — you have to put your time. In MMA, sometimes you can sell a person's dream and it could be their coach.

But it feels like to me we have our first class of graduated fighters turned coaches. Would you agree with that?

I don't know if it's the first class.

Ok, the first class would be like Andre Pederneiras or Marco Ruas.

Yeah, it'd be second, third generation now.

In terms of financials, is coaching more expensive that it used to be as a service?

Hmm, probably a little more expensive. It just depends where you're at. If you're in California, if you're in a place where you have to go gym to gym, yeah, it can be a little more expensive. Whereas if you're at one gym, no, it's probably better because you get more specialized training in one area and you're paying one person for one thing.

Think about this. If you're at Kings, they have a guy come in to teach wrestling, you got your standup, you got your sparring, you got your jiu-jitsu all in one area. So, you just pay that one fee. But in some places or some people, if they have one coach or other coaches at other gyms, they'll go to this boxing coach and pay him the fee; kickboxing, pay the kickboxing fee; jiu-jitsu, maybe do a trade with him; strength training, pay him a fee.

We have seen a growth in the model of coaching where elite fighters create a camp around themselves when it's financially reasonable to do so. Is that a model we'll see more of?

It depends. It's not about more income. It's not about the money, it's about reliability. Here's the thing. If you're on your own and you call me and you're like, 'Mo, I need you to come in.' What makes you think I'm going to say yes? 'Mo, man, can I fly you out for training?' I could be like 'Nah, I'm good.' Whereas if you have a gym, you have bodies already. And with your coaches you can be like, 'Coach, I don't got the right look, can you find me someone that I need?'

For instance, with me, I have coaches I'll bring into ATT. I bring my boxing coaches in. I bring boxers to ATT. For the most part, everything I need is at ATT, but I might need specialized training, so I bring in somebody else. That person will help me, and help everybody else, to a certain extent.

Let's talk about things that are improving. To what extent are camps getting better about managing the damage a fighter takes?

I can't say it's the camp. It's the person.

So is individual fighter management getting better?

It's up to the fighter. For instance, me and Junior dos Santos went to The Heavyweight Factory in Hollywood. We sparred with boxers, Trevor Bryan. I talked to my coach, coach Clark. He was like, 'Alright, Mo, you're fighting Ishii, but at the same time, the guy's not southpaw, but you need the work. A month out, pure southpaw, but right now, throw your combos, stick to your jab, feint, work on the inside. That's all I want you to do. Nothing big, just work on the inside, don't be in midrange. Be all the way chest to chest or be all the way outside using your jab and feints.'

So, regardless of what the other guy did, I was sticking to that game plan. Even if he had come out there kicking, I was sticking to the same game plan because I handicapped myself. I'm not out there trying to fight. I'm out there trying to improve.

Some guys go out there to spar just to win the sparring. There are times where I spar and I'm like, 'You know what? Let me put my 18 or 20 ounce gloves on. My goal is to throw 30 jabs a round. Try to land a few counters and try to go to the body and get two takedowns.' That's my goal. Right there. Nothing different. I won't stray from that goal. I could go out there and say I'm going to knock this dude out. For what? How am i improving? Winning sparring don't help me. I want to apply my game plan for my sparring that I'm going to use in my fight.

To what extent are other fighters starting to make these kinds of realizations?

It depends on the camp. I know I do it. I tell my guys what I do. I'm like, 'Look, man. I'm just trying to work with you.' I don't try to win sparring. Say I got taken down 30 times. Say I got leg kicked a few times and hit hard. As long as I did what I had to do with my jab and was solid on my defense and did my goals, then I won. Realistically, my opponent is not going to be the same as the guy I'm sparring. For the my part, the guys I spar are better than my opponent.

As you've watched fighters and fights, what have been the biggest areas of technical improvement?

All around everything's improved. Now, it's like this. It's not the fighters, really. It's not the fighters who are slacking. For the most part, it's the judges. Because now, the people are fighting just to score points because they don't want to get f--ked over by the judges.

You don't fundamentally believe that footwork is better, guys are better, combos are better?

All around, everything is better: footwork, diversity, guys are more well rounded. All around, everything is better. Nothing's gotten weaker. Cardio's gotten better, game plans have gotten better, teams have gotten better. Everything. Everything's gotten better because people are learning.

So, then what is your argument about the judges?

Think about this. Say I'm a good striker and I got great body shots. I'm like [Fabio] Maldonado ripping body shots, but as a judge, judges don't really score body shots. So, I'm like, 'F--k. I got f--ked over. Last time, I was landing these body shots, but they didn't score them for me, so you know what? I'm just going to go one-twos. More one-twos.' Just to win because the judges will see that. Judges score blocked kicks. If you kick my arm, guess what? It's kinda scored.

You believe the lack of proper judging hasn't necessarily hurt proper development because fighters might develop these abilities, but it's hurting what we see?

Yes. Yes. The judges go in trends, too. I remember back in the day, takedowns were scored more. Then after that, takedowns weren't scored. Now, kicks, for some reason, are scored like if you throw a head kick and I block it, it still kinda scored. Submission attempts still get no burn. People fight to please the judges. 'Ok, kick, kick, kick, jab, one-two. Ok, they saw the one-two land. I threw body kicks, even though they blocked them, I threw enough of them.'

Back in the day, if you just came forward throwing punches, they'd give you the fight. If you was aggressive and threw punches, the judges gave you the fight. Now it's changed a little bit. You can be aggressive, but now if you throw punches and a lot of kicks, you might have a chance to win the fight even if they're blocked.

In terms of looking ahead and where things are headed, what will MMA look like in five years?

I don't think it'll look too much different. I think you'll see guys more experienced, maybe younger. In order for it to change, some of the rules have to change and the judging. If the judges can see more, if the judges have better eyes and understand what's going on? Imagine I hit you with 18 leg kicks, but they're all with my foot, slapping. Is that effective? No. Say I hit you with 18 leg kicks with my shin, which one would you rather be, the guy getting the foot or the shin?

A lot of judges aren't seeing that. For instance, say I lock in a triangle choke, but my head's out, my head's not really in the triangle. They're scoring that where you can give him position, but at the same time, something else will take precedence over that attempt.

You'll see guys go for it more because they're getting credit for what they're doing whereas now guys are doing s--t because 'I just threw 30 punches and he threw 15, but I won because I was aggressive and came forward throwing punches'.

In terms of age, what do you think the average age of professional fighters might be like going forward?

I think you'll see more guys start in their early 20s.

How many guys at ATT are teenagers training?

Not many. Only a few. My worry about that is you won't see anybody stand out. If I train MMA, I'll be average at everything. I might be a little bit above average in my boxing and a little bit above average in my jiu-jitsu, but wrestling and everything else?

Look at Georges St-Pierre. He went and trained with Cleo Ncube. He trained with those guys. He went trained with those guys, David Silverman. He went to those areas and trained with the Canadian wrestling team. In order to become close to having world-class skills in techniques, you won't need world-class competition, but you might understand world-class techniques and tactics. To gain that, you have to go train with someone that's proficient in that area.

Whatever progress is made, will it be major or incremental?

It'll be incremental. You'll see better athletes because you'll see kids training to be more athletic at a younger age, but I think you'll see careers ending shorter. Careers won't last as long. I think you'll see guys doing some techniques, but at the same time, the guys that do specialized techniques will be the guys that are training with a wrestling coach that's world-class or judo with a judo team, or going to Holland or Thailand to do kickboxing, or going to Vegas or south Florida or New York or Detroit to box.

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