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'King' Mo Lawal Learns to Walk Fine Line Between MMA and Wrestling

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LOS ANGELES -- The difference between sports and sports entertainment, as "King" Mo Lawal sees it, is as subtle as the grip of a handshake.

The outspoken light heavyweight made headlines last month by announcing he was going to do both legitimate athletic competition in mixed martial arts with Bellator and while also partaking in the scripted variety with the Total Nonstop Action wrestling promotion.

After a recent Bellator media luncheon at the Hotel Palomar in L.A.'s Westwood district, the former NCAA Division I wrestling All-American explained the difference between the two sometimes isn't obvious to the naked eye.

Lawal used an example from his first attempt at a pro wrestling career, a World Wrestling Entertainment tryout in 2004, as his setup.

"When I went to my WWE tryout, I went in and said hi to very few people," Lawal said. "I'm a [freestyle] wrestler, so, in wrestling you see everybody as your competition, you don't say hi to nobody, and when you shake hands, you shake hands hard.

"I get to my WWE tryout and I'd shake hands hard and people would get pissed off. They'd say ‘hey look, shooter,' -- that's what they called me, shooter -- ‘when you come in, you address everybody, you talk to everybody. When you shake our hands, don't squeeze our hands, just show that you're not stiff and that you know how to work."

Go all out in competition; look like you're going all out in pro wrestling. It's a fine line Lawal has several months to get down pat. Suspended by the Nevada Athletic Commission due to a failed steroid test after a January 7 Strikeforce bout with Lorenz Larkin, Lawal won't be eligible to compete again in MMA until early next year.

He's not the first fighter to dabble in wrestling while being punished by Nevada -- Mike Tyson worked with the then-World Wrestling Federation during his infamous suspension for biting Evander Holyfield's ear -- but he's the first fighter of note on these shores since Dan Severn in MMA's prehistoric days to attempt to make full-time careers out of both at the same time.

Lawal hopes to begin training in TNA's developmental territory, Louisville-based Ohio Valley Wrestling, this summer, with a goal of performing on Spike TV by the fall. He says he'll be able to pull off participating in two physically demanding workplaces simply by being himself.

"The trend [in pro wrestling] isn't high-flying stuff anymore," Lawal said. "They want it to be more real now. More chain wrestling, telling a good story. You're not going to see me out there doing five-star splashes and backflips. I'm a collegiate wrestler and an MMA fighter. I'm a former Olympic alternate. I know how to grapple. I'm going to stick with what I do, that's MMA style and I'm not going to be crazy with it."

Lawal is not about to curb his famously pointed opinions while he sits out his suspension. Though the former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion was available to Bellator because he was released by Strikeforce's parent company, Zuffa, in the wake of his suspension. But Lawal left no doubt about how he feels about fan's perceptions of fighters inside Zuffa and out.

"A lot of people are groupies," he said. "They don't understand it's not about the organization, it's about the fighters. There's a lot of trash in every organization, and there's the cream of the crop in every organization.

"Just because you're not in the UFC, I hear ‘you'd get killed in the UFC.' By who? Who's going to kill me in the UFC? The same people I've already beaten will be in the UFC once Strikeforce closes. So you mean to tell me that I'd get killed be everyone in the UFC. They're idiots. They don't know anything about the sport. They don't know anything about my background or anyone else's background."

Lawal used a hypothetical fight between himself and UFC champion Jon Jones to illustrate his point.

"Someone said Jon Jones vs. me would be like Jon Jones vs. Ryan Bader," Lawal said, referring to the UFC 126 bout in which Jones picked apart Bader, another former collegiate wrester. "But they don't know I beat Ryan Bader in college. I beat him twice as hard. I wrestled at a higher level than [Jones]. I have a distinct wrestling advantage over Jon Jones.

"People don't know that. They don't know my wrestling background. I've wrestled the best wrestlers in the world. Cael Sanderson, Daniel Cormier, I've wrestled everyone. Dominic Black, I can go on and on down the list. I've held my own. I had my losses but I've beaten a few of those guys, so, they don't do their research. The smart fans are the ones who watch combat sports as a whole. They watch boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, keep up with jiu-jitsu tournaments, and they understand the gold standards of each discipline."

Soon enough the Murfreesboro, Tenn. native will be back to work. In addition to beginning his pro wrestling training soon, Lawal indicated he expects to make his Bellator debut on Spike TV in January. And as he wound down a long weekend in Tinseltown, Lawal allowed himself a look into his future.

"I want to be the first one-man tag team champion," said Lawal. "I want to hold the TNA tag team title and I want the Bellator title simultaneously. That's where I see myself being in a year."

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