Muhammed Lawal is the man who would be king.
Yes, he's already royalty in the kingdom of nicknames. And sure, the mixed martial artist called "King Mo" did once wear a crown -- briefly -- in the Strikeforce light heavyweight division. Perhaps Bellator MMA and the promotion's deep-pocketed new TV partner, Spike, thought that would be enough to earn Lawal a seat on their throne when they sunk a pile of cash into signing him last year.
Lawal did make coronation seem like just a matter of time in his debut in January, knocking out someone named Przemyslaw Mysala in a quarterfinal of Bellator's Season 8 light heavyweight tournament. But a month later, facing prohibitive underdog Emanuel Newton in the semis, it all came crashing down. That is, Lawal came crashing down. A spinning back fist in the first round gave Newton a stunning one-punch knockout.
Back to the drawing board?
"Not at all," said Lawal, who gets another chance to look regal on Wednesday night when he fights in a semifinal of the promotion's four-man Summer Series tournament in Thackerville, Okla. (8 p.m. ET, Spike). "I just got caught."
Really? That's it?
"Here's the thing: In sports, upsets happen," Lawal elaborated. "I got caught, OK? Back to the drawing board? Not really. Everybody's saying, 'So what did you learn? What are you going to change?' I'm not going to change my whole training staff. I'm not going to overreact. If I got dominated, and the dude was beating me up, I was getting pummeled, then yeah, it's back to the drawing board. But it wasn't like that."
So nothing much changes, then?
"Small things, " he said. "Just clean a few things up."
Here's a suggestion for one small thing that might make a big difference, courtesy of Spike president Kevin Kay, the man who filled Lawal's pockets with cash and was expecting a bigger payoff. He was cageside for Lawal vs. Newton, and at the same time that "King Mo" was crashing to the canvas -- caught off guard with his hands held too low in front of him -- Kay was leaping from his seat with an "Oh my God!" In that moment, the TV exec saw his investment crashing like a Wall Street security. But upon reflection, Kay told SI.com a couple of months ago that he hasn't lost faith that Lawal will draw viewers to Bellator. "When he fights again in the summer, people will tune in to see what he's going to do differently," Kay said. "Is he going to actually hold his hands up next time? That'd be good."
That'd be good particularly against Wednesday night's opponent, Seth Petruzelli, who's been known to catch a highly touted foe. Though he had two stints in the UFC and was a member of the Season 2 cast of the promotion's reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, Petruzelli is best known for an EliteXC bout back in 2008. Inserted into the main event as a late replacement on fight day, he was expected to be a punching bag for Kimbo Slice, who'd made a name for himself via Internet videos of bare-knuckle backyard brawls and was tearing up the MMA scene with lower-level -- but high-profile -- televised fights. Well, Petruzelli (14-7) knocked out Kimbo in 14 seconds.
"King Mo" (9-2, 1 NC) has watched that fight a few times. He's seen Petruzelli's short, accurate karate strikes. He's taken note of how Petruzelli's standup felled Kimbo before the fearsome slugger had landed a single blow. "Good for him," said Lawal. "But I'm not Kimbo."
No, he's Mo. He's a former NCAA Division II wrestler who three times was the senior US champion, who won gold at the 2007 Pan American Games and that same year took silver at the World Cup. Once he went into MMA, though, he began to mix it up. Lawal knocked out five of his first six opponents before earning a unanimous decision over Gegard Mousasi to win the Strikeforce belt in 2010. His reign lasted just four months, though, as Rafael "Feijão" Cavalcante knocked him out.
Lawal bounced back with a first-round KO of undefeated Roger Gracie, who couldn't get Mo on the mat to put his virtuosic jiu-jitsu at play. Then Lawal took down another unbeaten, Lorenz Larkin. He was on a roll ... until drug test results from the Larkin fight revealed that Mo had tested positive for the anabolic steroid Drostanolone. The fight result was changed to a no contest, and Lawal was suspended. He and his team, American Kickboxing Academy, insisted that an over-the-counter supplement was the culprit for the failed test, and Mo went before the Nevada Athletic Commission to explain himself. It was a contentious hearing, and afterward he took to Twitter and made offensive remarks about one of the commissioners. That earned Lawal his release from Strikeforce.
Soon, Bellator came calling. And now the fight promotion finally has Lawal where it wants him: in the spotlight. His fight with Petruzelli is the main event of Wednesday night's Bellator 96 event, which serves as the TV lead-in to the debut of Spike's new MMA reality show Fight Master. The co-main event is the other tournament semifinal, in which 37-year-old Renato "Babalu" Sobral (37-10) faces Jacob Noe (11-2, 1 NC). It's not the most luminous pair of matchups -- all four semifinalists are coming off losses -- but there'll be fan interest to at least see what Lawal does. As in, will he hold up his hands this time?
"I'm not going to change," said Mo. "Look, I've lost before. I lost in wrestling, and it didn't stop me from going out next time and going for takedowns. As far as my approach, I ain't going to change a thing. I'm going to be myself, man."