The king is dead. Long live the king.
A month and a half ago, "King" Mo Lawal's mixed martial arts career was not quite dead in the water, but it was sinking fast with nowhere to dock. After testing positive for a steroid following a Strikeforce bout in January, he was called before the Nevada State Athletic Commission, and at a March 27 hearing the sanctioning body fined Lawal and suspended him for nine months.
And that wasn't the worst of it. Lawal came away from the hearing feeling disrespected by the tone of one commissioner's questioning, which he believed was racist, and he reacted by lashing out at her on Twitter with some offensive language. Bad move. In less time than it took him to type those words and hit send, he was unceremoniously released from his contract by Zuffa, parent company of both Strikeforce and the UFC.
So what was he supposed to do for work?
Well, on Monday, Lawal got a new job. Actually, he got two of them.
The former Strikeforce champion held a conference call with reporters to unveil "a dream come true": He will resume his MMA career with the Bellator Fighting Championships and also will join the pro wrestling outfit Total Nonstop Wrestling. The deal apparently was brokered by Kevin Kay, president of Spike, the Viacom outlet that televises TNA Wrestling and will be the TV home of Bellator starting in January.
Conveniently, January also is when Lawal's suspension ends. So his resuscitated MMA career will be on hold until then, allowing Spike to make a big splash with its Bellator debut. Mo will begin rasslin', however, as soon as he is fully healed from a knee injury and staph infection, although he'll polish his act in regional off-Broadway events for a while before taking it to the big show.
"I get to knock people out in the cage," said Lawal, "and hit people with chairs in the ring."
Lawal is by no means the first mixed martial artist to cross over. But his deal has the potential to blur the line between real and fake fighting like nothing we've seen. Brock Lesnar joined the UFC after a starring role with WWE, but once he became part of the Dana White Fight Club he had nothing to do with the Vince McMahon Dance Troupe ... until he retired from MMA a few months ago and rejoined the circus. Josh Barnett, who next weekend will fight for the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix championship, has long participated in pro wrestling shows -- but way over in Japan, never to be seen by a U.S. audience.
With Lawal, on the other hand, sometime in the near future a viewer could turn on Spike, see "King" Mo walking through the crowd on his way to work, and not know whether he's headed to the Bellator cage or the TNA ring.
Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney is not troubled by that in the least. "First there was Bo," he said. "Now there's Mo."
Sounds poetic, but a Bo Jackson analogy doesn't quite fit. Bo's dual pursuits were football and baseball, both of which are real sports with real competition. Pro wrestling, while admittedly necessitating athleticism and risking injury, is choreographed pretend fighting, which is something you'd think Rebney would not wish to be confused with his product. But Bjorn doesn't think MMA followers will have any trouble sorting out which Mo Lawal they're watching. "He's going to be participating at an elite, world-class level in two different arenas," he said, "and I have a lot of trust in our fan base."
This is a deal that you'd never find in the UFC. But when you're striving to be a player in an industry dominated by Dana and Co., you make some compromises in an effort to get creative. And Bellator has chosen the right guy to run with. While the wrestling show gets a natural entertainer -- "King" Mo walks out for his fights wearing a crown and regal robe, accompanied by an entourage of women -- the MMA organization is getting a former champion whose best still might be to come.
At 8-1 with a no-contest (his January victory over previously unbeaten Lorenz Larkin having been overturned following the failed drug test), Lawal would seem destined for the top of the Bellator heap. True to form for the fight promotion, however, Lawal will have to win next year's light heavyweight tournament to earn a shot at champion Christian M'Pumbu.
That just adds to the dramatic buildup, however, with TV cameras there to chronicle it every step of the way. As Spike's Kay says, "I don't know that there's another MMA fighter out there that's going to get this kind of exposure."