Lawal meets Bader in a quarterfinal matchup of Bellator’s heavyweight grand prix on May 12 at the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif. Though Bader will be making his heavyweight debut, the former UFC contender is currently one of the odds-on favorites to win the entire tournament, which is set to crown the next Bellator heavyweight champion. Given his success in the Bellator cage and 9-1 record over his last 10 fights, Bader is also a heavy favorite to dispatch Lawal at Bellator 199. But “King Mo” isn’t worried about the numbers.
As a fellow lifelong wrestler, and someone who may not be as threatened by Bader’s power wrestling attack as most, Lawal’s perspective on Bader’s skill set is nothing if not blunt.
“I see a guy who fights with no rhythm,” Lawal told MMA Fighting. “Tick tock, tick tock, one two, one two. A big, strong bully. He’s not smooth, man. He has no rhythm. It’s like this, if we go to the club, I’d pull the females, he ain’t pulling nothing because he’s got no rhythm. If they play a song, could he dance? No. He’s rhythmless. He goes to the club, he probably does the Macarena or something like that. Or, what’s that Night at the Roxbury move when they shake their head side to side? Night at the Roxbury, that’s his rhythm. One, two. One, two. One, two. Side to side. One, two. He ain’t got rhythm. Come on, man.”
Lawal, 37, is no stranger to fighting bigger, more powerful men. The former Strikeforce champion has competed at heavyweight or openweight for a majority of his recent career, and has racked up an overall career record of 9-1 contending amongst the giants. Even at light heavyweight, Lawal was often the smaller man, rarely cutting more than five or 10 pounds to make the 205-pound limit.
Bader, on the other hand, has always been a massive light heavyweight who uses that size to his advantage to enforce his will.
So when “King Mo” hears Bader talk pre-fight about Lawal being a fighter who hasn’t evolved or added much to his game, Lawal can’t help but laugh, especially considering his record of knockouts and willingness to experiment across weight divisions at his own risk.
“It ain’t about the size of the person,” Lawal said. “It’s about the size of the heart and the size of the fight in the heart. So you can be big, but one thing I learned growing up is them big guys that grew up big, they were cowards. I remember my cousin told me that, ‘Mo, if you fight someone bigger, pop them in the mouth because they ain’t used to fighting and it’ll freeze ‘em.’ So when you see a big boy — like, Shaquille O’Neal can’t fight because who’s going to fight Shaquille O’Neal in seventh grade when he’s like 6-foot-5? Nobody. But when you get older, people will test you. I was small, but I was always small, so I had to fight for my life. I’m pretty sure Bader didn’t grow up fighting.
“He can say all he wants, but bro, it’s like this: He’s a bully. The moment anyone steps to him, he gets kind of scared. Think about when he fought Ilir (Latifi), right? He beat Ilir, but he fought Ilir scared. He fought Ilir scared because Ilir put his hands on him in the first round. And he got the knockout, but it’s not like he really meant to do that. He got lucky Ilir went to take him down. It’s not like he went and timed it. He got lucky, man. Come on, he didn’t know. He didn’t even know. He just closed his eyes and threw a kick.”
Either way, size won’t be the only thing Lawal is forced to overcome at Bellator 199.
The Tennessee native has been sidelined since March 2017 with a “bone-on-bone” hip injury that Lawal says dates back to 2011 but gradually worsened to the point where he actually considered retirement. Lawal said he fended off the pain for years with stem cells treatments and cortisone shots, but ultimately his quality of life degraded past the point of no return last year. He ended up undergoing a surgery in May 2017 called Birmingham Hip Resurfacing, a procedure designed to rebuild hips in younger individuals as an alternative to a total hip replacement.
Lawal said the results were instantaneous.
And though he was forced to battle back from several flare-ups since his surgery — including a swelling complication this past January — “King Mo” now feels like a completely different man than the fighter who struggled through his day-to-day at this time last year.
“Put it like this, I couldn’t put my shoe on,” Lawal said. “I couldn’t take my shoe off. I couldn’t put pants on that good. I couldn’t even walk up the stairs. I couldn’t walk down the stairs that good. I was limping for years. It hurt to get in the car, it hurt to get out of the car. It was bad, man. I thought my career was going to be done. That’s what I felt like. I thought I was going to retire. I didn’t say nothing to nobody, I just finally got that [surgery] done and I felt a difference immediately.
“I was stupid, man. I was stupid for taking all those fights. Like, if you watch those fights closely, after the bell rung, you can see me limping back to the corner.”
Lawal now hopes to use his clean bill of health to continue the trend that has emerged in the opening round of Bellator’s heavyweight grand prix. Thus far, in all three quarterfinal matchups, the smaller man has defeated the bigger man. Lawal plans to make it 4-for-4, and he isn’t shocked by what he’s seen from fellow tourney competitors Chael Sonnen, Fedor Emelianenko, and Matt Mitrione in besting heavier opponents.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Lawal said. “Look, I think I’m 9-1 or 10-1 at heavyweight. What’s the surprise? Fedor’s not a big, true heavyweight. Fedor, when he was in his prime, wasn’t a true heavyweight. Fedor was like 220 pounds, man. Look at boxing, Mike Tyson wasn’t a true heavyweight. Neither was Ali. They were small heavyweights. Now you have superheavyweights, but Deontay Wilder ain’t no true heavyweight. Deontay Wilder is 215 pounds tops. Everything thinks size is something. There’s a song by Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys called ‘Size Ain’t Sh*t.’ Go listen to that song.
“You see Royce Gracie complaining about size? No. You see Sakuraba complain about size? No. Wanderlei (Silva)? No. Real fighters don’t complain about size. B*tch fighters are worried about size and try to put size on. Did Dan Henderson worry about putting on size when he fought Fedor? No. When Dan Henderson fought (Antonio Rodrigo) Nogueira, was he talking about size? No. All real fighters don’t care about no size. We go out there and just fight.”
A win over Bader would propel Lawal into a semifinal matchup against Mitrione. It also would make Lawal somewhat of an unofficial Bellator light heavyweight champion, considering Bader’s current standing in the 205-pound division Lawal has long called home.
So how does Lawal plan to beat the odds and conquer the champ?
“I’m gonna dog him out, man. I’m gonna dog him out,” Lawal said. “You’ll see what that is when we step in the cage, man, because what’s a wrestler going to do? He’s the bigger man. I’m going to bring the fight to him.”