By Elias Cepeda
After a year marked by a steroid suspension, a life-threatening staph infection, a firing from Zuffa, and then a quick hire by Bellator, Muhammad “King Mo” Lawal finally got back in the ring in January. The former amateur collegiate and international wrestler fought and beat the aggressive (and consonant-heavy) Przemyslaw Mysiala at Bellator 86, ending the match by first-round KO.
Lawal is back in action tonight at Bellator 90, where he and Emanuel Newton will meet in the semi-finals of the promotion’s Season 8 light-heavyweight tournament. We caught up with Mo recently to discuss getting back in the ring and his training for the peculiar tournament structure. Check out our conversation below, and be sure to tune in to the Spike TV broadcast of Bellator 90 at 10 p.m. ET, which will also feature the Season 8 welterweight tournament finals, and the delayed featherweight tournament final between Shahbulat Shamhalaev and Rad Martinez.
CagePotato: What was it like getting back in the cage last month after such a long layoff?
Muhammed Lawal: The weird thing is. It didn’t feel any different. I had [agent] Mike Kogan, my brother Bull who is fighting in Legacy Fighting Championships in April and Jeff Mayweather with me like usual. I had all my friends and family and coaches around me, so it felt normal.
But I also felt relieved and I felt rejuvenated to see blood and sweat on you, to step into the cage. Seeing my opponent on the other side made me realize what I really missed. It’s like when you are dating a girl. When she’s gone you think, ‘damn, I really miss this or that about her.’
I wanted to get a feel for things in the cage when I got in there but the dude [Mysiala] came forward with haymakers and I knew this might happen, so luckily Jeff Mayweahter trained me well. He trained me to slip, slip, catch, block and roll, and that’s what I tried to do. I hit him with a check hook while he was trying to land a big shot.
CP: Your semi-final fight is just four weeks after the last one. Do you have any injuries left over that you’ll have to fight with?
Lawal: I’ve got a scratch on my cauliflower ear, that’s it. So I’ve had to keep that clean to prevent staph infection but other than that I’m fine.
CP: I’m always interested in asking fighters how they try to condition themselves. As a camp winds down, you’ve got to maintain your conditioning but also taper down a bit so as not to tire out your muscles. Being a part of this Bellator tournament, though, it seems you’ve got a much different task than most high-level fighters in other organization. How have you been approaching conditioning for this tournament? Do you take each three-to-four week period as its own camp or are you trying to build on things between fights?
Lawal: I don’t really do training camps. In college I learned how to do periodization training to try and find the right time to peak. We break training and fights into phases, with the idea of peaking for the finals. My first phase, for the first fight in the tournament didn’t have a lot of strength work in it. I did a lot of rounds and technique. Then, for the next phase, this fight, I worked with my strength coach on exploding and recovering. So, I’d do a circuit and then take a thirty-second break so that if I have to explode three times in a fight, for example, I will be able to. For the finals we will be going all-out with a full-out training camp that is power-focused. We’ve been slowly adding things.
CP: Is the Bellator tournament structure similar to what you experienced during your amateur wrestling career, because of all the meets and tournaments you have to do throughout a year?
Lawal: College was similar, yeah. In college you have to peak for two things — conference championships and nationals. You have to be in peak shape but not over-train. In international wrestling, you’ve got U.S. nationals, the trials and then the world tournament. I had great coaching from Kevin Jackson. Josh Smith was my college coach. Even in high school, I had great coaching on how to do this.
CP: You’ve fought all over during your MMA career, already. You’ve fought in Japan, in the states for Strikeforce, and now for Bellator. How was the specific experience fighting for this new organization?
Lawal: It is the same because they are all professional. Things start on time. There is a set schedule. The only thing that is different is the platform.
CP: Speaking of the platform, Bellator is now a part of Viacom and your fights are perhaps on a larger platform than they have been before; it’s certainly Bellator’s largest platform. The ratings have been promising for Bellator on Spike. Are you excited about being a centerpiece to Bellator’s strategy to grow larger and become a major MMA player?
Lawal: My goal is to help bring to it to the forefront. Right now, it won’t be what it will be. But if I can help it get there and the kids now are reaping the benefits of it later, I’ll be happy.
CP: Have you studied Emanuel Newton much? When you look at him, what do you see in an opponent?
Lawal: I’ve studied him. I know him. I like him. He’s a good guy. He’s got an awkward Tae Kwon Do style of kicking and he is able to pace himself real well. He fights. I know it’s going to be a fight in there.