There's a great experiment beginning over at Spike TV right now involving a fighter named Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal. For the first time ever, a mixed martial arts promotion and a pro-wrestling outfit will attempt to "share" a talent, as they each feature Lawal on their respective weekly shows on the cable network throughout 2013.
Lawal (8-1), Strikeforce's former 205-pound champion with an extensive background in amateur wrestling, makes his Bellator MMA debut Thursday on Spike against Przemyslaw Mysiala (16-7) in the first round of the promotion's eight-man, light heavyweight tournament (10:00 p.m. ET). And after the tournament's conclusion before April (if Lawal advances that far), the 32-year-old fighter will resume full-time training to make his in-ring debut on TNA's Impact Wrestling, its flagship show on Spike, some time this year.
It's a human timeshare, if you will -- and nobody knows exactly how it will pan out because it's never been done before.
For the most part, MMA and pro-wrestling have had a history of co-existing apart from one another. In the 1990s, MMA's architects did their best to separate themselves from pro wrestling for fear that the new sport would also be confused as pre-determined entertainment. Iconic referee "Big" John McCarthy turned down a lucrative offer to officiate in the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) for that very reason, while hardcore fans felt betrayed when early heroes like Ken Shamrock, Dan Severn and David "Tank" Abbott "abandoned" the then-struggling sport for the better paydays that pro wrestling offered.
In the 2000s, as the UFC gained in prominence and popularity, the two entities became indirect competitors in the pay-per-view realm, as the similarities between the two became more apparent. Today, the business structures of both are built around the pay-per-view and television platforms, and it's believed a portion of their audiences overlap one another. TNA, Bellator and Spike will test the growth potential of that crossover audience with Lawal, a devout, lifelong pro-wrestling fan who has already achieved championship status in MMA.
Lawal was the instrumental key in bringing this idea to fruition and its genesis can be tracked back to Dixie Carter, the president of TNA Wrestling.
"[Spike TV president] Kevin [Kay] and I had talked about it and had been looking for that right person before Bellator even entered the picture," said TNA's Carter, whose organization began working with the network in 2005 after the WWE exited Spike for the USA Network.
In the last five years, there had been a handful of pro-wrestlers to cross over entirely into MMA competition. Arguably the most successful among them was Brock Lesnar, a former WWE champion with top collegiate wrestling credentials, who won the UFC heavyweight championship in 2008 in only his forth professional fight. (When Lesnar flirted with returning to the WWE during his UFC tenure in 2010, Dana White was said to have nixed it, citing the fighter's exclusive contract) On the strength of the pro wrestling audience that followed his success (and failures) in MMA, Lesnar became one of the UFC's biggest pay-per-view draws until his retirement in 2011. Lesnar returned to the WWE in 2012.
Bobby Lashley, another WWE veteran who migrated to TNA in 2009, announced his intentions shortly after to fight concurrently in Strikeforce. However, after his January 2010 debut in Strikeforce, he left TNA to pursue MMA full-time.
"[Bobby's] what made me realize I needed an MMA fighter first," said Carter. "Bobby's had a very good professional wrestling career and we'd talked about doing both at the same time, but when it didn't happen, it struck me that I was going about it the wrong way. I needed a legit fighter who wanted to wrestle."
Enter Lawal, a 2003 Div. 1 All-American wrestler for Oklahoma State University and runner-up at the 2008 Olympic trials, who'd launched his fighting career abroad in September 2008 on Japan's MMA circuit. Lawal was recruited by Strikeforce over a year later and became the promotion's light heavyweight champion in April 2010.
Aside from his fighting ability, "King Mo" quickly distinguished himself as one of Strikeforce's biggest stars with his elaborate fight entrances -- which usually included an entourage of beautiful, fawning women -- and his regally entitled attitude toward the other competitors. There was no way that UFC owners Zuffa LLC, who purchased Strikeforce in March 2011 along with Lawal's contract, would have let such a standout crowd favorite go. Yet in early 2012, Lawal tested positive for anabolic steroids following a fight in Las Vegas and then made derogatory comments on Twitter about a female board member of the Nevada State Athletic Commission after his hearing that March. Zuffa announced Lawal's release that same day.
Lawal, who's still adamant to this day that he unknowingly ingested steroids through an over-the-counter supplement, now faced some choices. Behind closed doors, the fighter said he met with UFC president Dana White in Las Vegas and was told he'd be re-signed after he quietly served out his nine-month suspension. Lawal said the meeting was amicable, though something didn't sit right with him.
"I didn't know Dana White and he didn't know me, but every time he'd talked about me [prior to the meeting] he said something negative about me," said Lawal. "I had to go with what was best for me. Waiting around didn't seem like the best thing for me. That was it."
Carter and TNA came knocking with their offer at just the right time. With Spike's Kay and Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, the three entities put together a multi-year package deal where Lawal could continue his fighting career and simultaneously embark on his childhood dream. They jointly announced the co-signing of Lawal in May 2012, much to the MMA industry's surprise.
For Lawal, born to Nigerian parents in Tennessee and raised in Louisville, Ky., there's not an ounce of regret in shirking the UFC's overtures for the road never traveled before. This was a kid who fondly remembers curling up next to his equally fanatical mother to watch wrestling on the weekends. This is a teenager who staged wild staircase matches with his friends inside their high school.
"My friend Tony stole weightlifting belts from the lifting room and bedazzled them into championship belts," recalls Lawal. "We had tag teams and would ambush each other in the bathrooms."
Carter said Lawal's enduring "childlike" love for pro wrestling will be one of his greatest assets in the TNA community.
"Mo has a tremendous amount of [pro wrestling] knowledge and respect, which I think is important for the boys [Lawal's pro wrestling peers] and to the fans on some level," Carter said. "That excitement will fuel that passion with what he needs to physically pull this off."
The mechanics of Lawal's dual deal are still being hammered out and although he's been a lifetime athlete, there will be a larger learning curve on the pro wrestling side of it. Last October, he reported to Ohio Valley Wrestling, known as "the Harvard of professional wrestling schools," for one month's training. During his second day, Lawal was asked to jump over the ring's ropes and pratfall off one hand to the canvas.
"I told them I'd go last," laughed Lawal, who was still rehabilitating his knee from a staph infection and ACL surgery at the time. "When it got to me I said, 'No thank you.' There were seven people in front of me and they all got hurt."
While in TNA's keep, Lawal traveled with the crew, observed at local shows and made three appearances himself to begin integrating his character into the promotion's landscape. (Lawal's waiting for his in-ring debut before he brings his mother to a live show). Lawal's over-the-top personality, mixed with just the right balance of cockiness and confidence, said Carter, went over well.
"The [overlapping] fans loved it off the bat obviously and [saw] the potential of it, and for the pure wrestling fans, when Mo gets the chance to prove himself, he'll show that he has every bit of charisma as our top stars," she said.
Lawal left OVW in November for Amsterdam, where he trained at Mike's Gym, a famous facility known for its cultivation of serious strikers. From there, Lawal landed back in Las Vegas, where he's trained for the last two months with boxing instructor Jeff Mayweather and UFC heavyweight Roy Nelson, also a close friend, among others.
Rather than return to the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., where he'd previously trained, Lawal said he selected Las Vegas for the opportunity to continue practicing pro wrestling matches with TNA wrestler Kenny King and his visiting OVW teacher, Frank Miller. Lawal plans to accept an invitation to train with Chavo Guerrero Jr., nephew to the late great Eddie Guerrero, in Orange County, Calif., next.
Scheduling Lawal's time between Bellator and TNA isn't seen as the biggest challenge at the moment (Carter said she has a handshake agreement with Rebney to assist one another in Lawal's dual development and promotion). The bigger concern is Lawal's body and its ability to keep up such a grinding regimen in two equally demanding endeavors.
Lawal spent the early part of 2012 battling a serious staph infection, which had resulted from anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) replacement surgery. The infection progressed so aggressively that Lawal underwent additional surgeries every two days for a month to irrigate the wound. The graft placed in Lawal's knee was eventually removed entirely. Lawal underwent successful ACL surgery again that May, and believes the injury is finally behind him, but the reminder is always there. The body has its limitations, something Lawal, Carter and Rebney all seem acutely cognizant of as they wade forward in this mutual venture.
"I didn't know you'd wake up not being able to move your neck," said Lawal of his initial time with TNA. "I didn't know how hard that canvas was going to be. I really didn't know about all the technique that goes into it to make sure you and your partner don't hurt each other in a match, but I can do this and I want to do this."
If Lawal could have it his way, he'd make his in-ring debut with TNA as soon as his pending Bellator obligations are completed in late March/early April.
"There's no way to put a timetable on it," said Carter of Lawal's in-ring debut. "The reports I'm hearing from his trainers are that he has exceptional athletic ability and he's really doing well. I'm hopeful this will make the timetable shorter."
There are a lot of invested parties anticipating Lawal's TNA debut, including Spike. Since its 2005 debut, Impact Wrestling's peak viewership has been 2.2 million on the men's specialty channel. Last week, Impact averaged 1.6 million viewers as a lead-in to Bellator's live debut on the network, which averaged 938,000 viewers. Spike is willing to venture that a crossover star like Lawal might help Bellator retain more of that lead-in audience and the commotion of it all could draw a few new eyes for both in the process.
It's a new day for pro wrestling and MMA, and with new players comes thinking outside the box. Synergy, not separation, is now the name of the game.
"I've never felt -- even years ago had an opportunity like this came around with three people who understand marketing, advertising and promotion -- I wouldn't have thought that [pro wrestling and MMA] needed to be distanced and kept away from each other," said Bellator's Rebney. "I think our fans are very smart and can recognize the difference between the two entertainment platforms."
And while the industry leaders in the UFC and WWE have never voluntarily intermingled and probably never will, the No. 2's of these once-separate worlds are more than happy to give it a go.
"I think it's best for both sports," said Carter. "I think it's great for Bellator and hopefully it will attract other top fighters from other places who realize this is a great place to be. I think it will help grow our exposure beyond the circle of wrestling, which I think is very important for the both of us."
However, the biggest winner in all of this has to be Lawal, whose decision to courageously swim against the current has allowed him to fulfill his lifelong dream, which could pave a new route in which select fighters make their livings in the future.
"There are other fighters out there who are watching to see how this goes, guys who also want to wrestle and would be good at it," said Lawal. "I'm just the first and I hope I'm not the last."
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