Lawal will look to rebound from his first loss on Saturday in Cincinnati. | Photo: D. Mandel
Lawal returns to action Saturday at Strikeforce “Heavyweight Grand Prix Semifinals” in Cincinnati, as he takes on Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion Roger Gracie following a year-long layoff. The amateur wrestling star had a longstanding anterior-cruciate ligament problem in his knee and, at one point, was set to undergo surgery to replace it. However, his body rejected the cadaver, and Lawal continued on in spite of the injury. Finally, he underwent a successful ACL procedure in 2010 and returned to training in early 2011. While Lawal has not fought since surrendering the Strikeforce light heavyweight championship to Rafael Cavalcante nearly 13 months ago, he did not have to deal with too long a period of inactivity, a fact that hastened his return to top form.
To prepare for Gracie, Lawal has based his training at the American Kickboxing Academyin San Jose, Calif. A number of other AKA fighters, including Strikeforce middleweight contender Luke Rockhold and UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, are also preparing for upcoming bouts. Lawal also trained extensively with Cormier and mixed in trips to Holland and Las Vegas in an effort to fine tune his game.
Added motivation exists for Lawal, as he looks to put the first loss of his MMA career behind him. In the first defense of his Strikeforce light heavyweight title, he engaged in a back-and-forth fight with Cavalcante before falling in the third round via technical knockout. Lawal wishes he could have the fight back, not just in the sense of how it went but in his decision to take it in the first place.
“I should have won that fight,” Lawal says. “He caught me with a knee and hit me on the side of the neck. I was never out but I was dazed, and I probably shouldn’t have taken that fight because I wasn’t healthy. I wanted the money, but I never should have accepted. I was winning the fight and should have won, but I made a few little mistakes and I wasn’t healthy. I didn’t have lateral movement and couldn’t shoot. I didn’t really try to shoot where you change levels and penetrate. A lot of people don’t understand wrestling and don’t know wrestlers for nothing.”
Against Gracie, Lawal will have an entirely different set of challenges in front of him. Gracie has nowhere near the level of Feijao’s striking but wields an elite jiu-jitsu game, perhaps the best in the sport.
Lawal’s wrestling should allow him to dictate where the fight takes place, a distinct stylistic advantage. Plus, it could be an opportunity to showcase his improved striking, which he has worked on extensively with AKA founder Javier Mendez.
“This is the best Mo’s looked in a long time,” Cormier says. “He always had the skill, and he has sharpened up his boxing. He’s worked a lot on kicking, too. His striking is different. It’s still flashy, but it’s more effective. Javi is a great striking coach. He doesn’t teach a lot of spinning back fists or back kicks, but [he teaches] real solid American kickboxing. Javi pays attention to details, and, down the line, [with] the guys who listen to him, you see the technical skill.”
Lawal’s cardio was another potential issue that needed shoring up, though how much of an issue remains an open question. He looked noticeably winded at points when fighting Feijao and, in particular, in his five-round encounter with Gegard Mousasi. However, Lawal took the decision against Mousasi and showed resiliency against Feijao, as well.
Cormier says Lawal has worked on cardio in this camp, but that the subject is mostly one of relaxation. When a fighter is unaccustomed to high-profile bouts, it can cause problems, even for those with the best conditioning. Lawal found himself on center stage very early in his career. For his part, he disputes the suggestion that his cardio is not up to snuff.
“Against Feijao, I wasn’t tired,” Lawal says. “Mousasi -- I was tired, but it was five rounds and my seventh fight. It was a year and a half into my career. More than anything, it was my first five-round fight. Five rounds ain’t easy, dog, especially when you’re used to three, and I’d only been going one or two most fights. People say I’m out of shape, but I want to see them go five rounds early in their career.”
Lawal finds himself in a unique position as he approaches his ninth professional appearance: a high-profile fighter with plenty of time to evolve. His game has shown steady improvement, and, with Strikeforce’s future in question, Lawal figures to eventually have the opportunity to introduce himself to a fresh new audience in the UFC, with no preconceived notions about his true identity.