Muhammed Lawal has used his wrestling to take out numerous opponents. | Photo: Keith Mills/Sherdog.com
Cross-divisional matchups are all the rage in mixed martial arts right now, from the bizarre five-round battle between Anderson Silva and Nick Diaz to Benson Henderson’s against-the-odds win over Brandon Thatch to the recently announced matchup between lighter-weight kingpins Frankie Edgar and Urijah Faber.
Not only do such pairings generate fan interest, but depending on the result, they can do wonders for a fighter’s career. Take Henderson, for example. After looking almost-comically undersized at weigh-ins in comparison to Thatch, the toothpick-wielding former lightweight champion rallied from a couple tough rounds to earn a thrilling submission triumph in the fourth stanza of their bout at UFC Fight Night in Broomfield, Colo.
Suddenly “Smooth” went from a fighter perhaps best known for stealing controversial five-round verdicts to a man with options. For a few moments, Henderson was even a candidate to face current welterweight No. 1 contender Rory MacDonald. UFC boss Dana White quickly squashed that notion, but the benefit was clear: By stepping out of his comfort zone, Henderson might very well have changed the trajectory of his career.
Muhammed Lawal will be in a similar situation at Bellator 134 “British Invasion” on Feb. 27, when he moves from light heavyweight to heavyweight to take on Cheick Kongo in a featured main card bout at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.
Bellator MMA ventured into the creative matchmaking realm itself last May, when former middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko moved up to 205 pounds to square off against ex-UFC titlist Tito Ortiz. The night didn’t end well for Shlemenko, as the smaller Russian was promptly taken down and submitted by the former “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” in the opening frame.
The risk-and-reward factor of such a move is great, but “King Mo” doesn’t particularly care how his foray into the land of the giants is viewed.
“It’s really my thing is to just do what’s good for me and have fun. You can’t satisfy everybody,” Lawal told Sherdog.com. “People always have doubts and try to doubt what you do, so I just do it for myself. I don’t worry about what people’s expectations are. I have my own.”
One of Lawal’s unwavering expectations revolves around his ability to outwrestle Kongo, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighed 238 pounds ahead of his most recent Bellator appearance. Lawal, who estimates that he will weigh in the neighborhood of 215 pounds come fight night, was a decorated collegiate wrestler, winning a Division II national title and capturing All-American honors at Oklahoma State University. Lawal is confident that with his background, size won’t matter.
“I have a clear-cut advantage at heavyweight wrestling over anybody I fight pretty much besides a few guys,” he said.
Fighting larger men is nothing new to Lawal, who early in his pro career earned triumphs over the likes of Travis Wiuff, Mark Kerr and Mike Whitehead at heavyweight. The American Top Team representative remembers having a distinct speed advantage against those opponents. To prepare for Kongo, “King Mo” has been sparring and wrestling with larger teammates such as Antonio Silva and Steve Mocco.
“I think I do pretty good,” he said. “They’re beasts. I take my lumps, but I feel like I can hold my own pretty well.”
Buoyed by those training sessions as well as past success at heavyweight, Lawal believes that Kongo, a former Bellator title challenger, is a good matchup for him -- no matter where the fight may go.
“I feel confident standing with Kongo. I’ve watched him, and I feel confident anywhere with Kongo,” Lawal said. “That’s why I didn’t back away from the fight because I feel confident I’m going to beat him.”
Whether Lawal stays at heavyweight or goes back down to 205 pounds all depends on the opportunities that are presented to him in the future.
“My goal is just to get fights and fight where I can get a title shot...Really now my goal is to have fun, get the belt and get paid.”