"King" Mo Lawal and his frequent training partner, Luke Rockhold, find themselves in a unique position, and it's not because both are headlining Saturday night.
They are among the top remaining stars in Strikeforce, which is airing its first show with a revised television format. The prelims will begin at 8 p.m. on Sho Extreme. The top matches, headlined by Rockhold defending the middleweight title against former UFC headliner Keith Jardine, and Lawal's light heavyweight battle against undefeated Muay Thai specialist Lorenz Larkin (12-0), air at 10 p.m. on Showtime as part of a free preview weekend. The majority of cable subscribers nationwide will be able to see the matches even if they aren't regular Showtime subscribers.
Lawal and Rockhold both feel ready to establish themselves as among the best in the world in their respective weight classes. But being in Strikeforce, they find themselves in a situation where their upward rankings mobility has a ceiling. Right now it appears that based on the new agreement between Strikeforce and Showtime, Strikeforce fighters will remain exclusive to the brand and network.
Lawal (8-1), a former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, may be in the Zuffa organization. But no matter how successful he is in Strikeforce, he won't be able to face the world's top light heavyweights – Rampage Jackson, Shogun Rua or current king Jon Jones – unless the current political structure changes.
A few months back, when Dan Henderson left for UFC and vacated the light heavyweight title, Lawal was frustrated and said the title wouldn't mean much for him to win unless he was able to beat Henderson. Now, in a position of being one win away from a bout for the vacant title, he jokes his way around that statement.
"I think I'm gonna have to pull a Chael Sonnen here and say I never said that," he said. "Who are you gonna believe, me or your lyin' eyes?"
After suffering his first career loss, dropping the Strikeforce belt to Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante on Aug. 21, 2010, Lawal made some changes.
"I was injured, it happens," said Lawal. "I really couldn't shoot at the time. I tried to fight him the best way I could. He got me. It happened. It won't happen next time."
First he had to repair the torn ACL that prevented him from implementing the strongest aspect of his game, his wrestling. That kept him out of action for 13 months. During that period, he left his base in Orange County, Calif., for San Jose, joining the American Kickboxing Academy team in April.
"It's hard to explain unless you're there," he said. "Better training. Better game planning. We work hard. We wrestle, do jiu jitsu, kickboxing, everything. It's more structured. More consistent. That's why I made the move. At AKA, you know what you're doing every day. In other gyms, you don't know who will show up and train.
"In other places, if I hit some guy, they say, 'Calm down.' At AKA, every day is a fight."
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While not downplaying Larkin, a crowd-pleasing fighter who comes in with a wide variety of kicks and has good power in his hands, Lawal says the fights he has in camp are exactly the same as those in the cage. And he's in with guys of a higher caliber than Larkin.
"I think sparring with Luke is tougher than fights," he said. "I know it is. That's why I know I'm prepared. I feel like I've already fought [Larkin]. Every time I'm sparring with Luke, I feel like I'm fighting this fight. I've already fought a tougher version of him. I think Luke is a stronger, tougher opponent."
Lawal was an instant star in MMA on the overseas scene. He went right from coming extremely close to making the U.S. Olympic wrestling team in 2008 to being an MMA headliner in Japan.
It was almost a fluke. He had been wrestling at 185 pounds, decided to try MMA and was training in Oregon when there was an opening for a heavyweight in a bout for the Sengoku promotion against veteran Travis Wiuff. He'd had only a few months of training in the sport. Wiuff came in with 65 fights.
Lawal knew the Japanese loved showmanship, and pro wrestling was his thing growing up. He came to the ring with dancing girls, wore a crown, billed himself as King Mo and came out rapping, leading the crowd to cheer, by saying, "When I say King, you say Mo," and have them chant his name. Of course, all of that would have been meaningless if he didn't deliver, but after a knockout in 2:11, the combination of style and substance got him featured right away in the country's major sports dailies. The name came from growing up in Tennessee and watching area wrestling legend Jerry "The King" Lawler.
From childhood, Lawal had mapped out a plan that included being a world champion in amateur wrestling, MMA and pro wrestling.
That's still his career path. He considered pro wrestling after the Olympics, but a discussion with a pro wrestler who wished he had gone into fighting first convinced him to go that route. Pro wrestling would be there later.
"Definitely, I'm going into pro wrestling after I'm done with this," said Lawal, who turns 31 next week.
His amateur wrestling days included winning three freestyle national championships. He never quite got his world title, winning a gold medal in the 2007 Pan American Games, and had a second-place finish that year in the World Cup. He lost in the championship match of the 2008 Olympic trials by criteria after he and Andy Hrovat battled to a draw in the third match of a best-of-three series.
His return from reconstructive knee surgery was a success, knocking out one of the greatest competition grapplers in history, Roger Gracie, in the first round Sept. 10.
He didn't show it in that fight, but he believes with Strikeforce going to the same rules as UFC, he's going to be a lot more effective on the ground with elbows legal.
"Without elbows, you have to posture up to do damage," he said. "Now I can create great damage without posturing up to create distance."
Next on the agenda is someone almost completely opposite in Larkin (12-0), a flashy kickboxer who has a crowd-pleasing, aggressive style.
"I think he's talented, athletic, very tricky and unorthodox," said Lawal. "I'm impressed with his style, angles, footwork, elusiveness and creativeness."
But he said not to expect your typical wrestler vs. striker battle. Lawal has knockout power, with six in nine career fights, but feels the constant sparring with top competition has elevated his technique where he can go toe-to-toe with a talented striker.
"We're going to test it and see what happens, but I'm real confident," he said.
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