"I got to the point where I was like, [expletive] it," Lawal said in a phone interview. "I just felt like, hey, I'm going to quit taking this medicine, and if I die then I die. I'm tired of this stuff."
That was somewhere around the ninth or 10th time he went in to get his infected knee flushed out. That was after he'd lost about 30 pounds. After he'd hobbled around with a pump, pushing syrupy, viscous fluid out of his knee as strangers stared at him as if he was urinating in public. After doctors had sewn up his knee with a nasty staph infection festering inside, just waiting to change his life in ways he'd never even thought to be scared of before.
That was mid-January, right after his TKO win over Lorenz Larkin in Las Vegas. The two months that followed would come very close to breaking the Tennessee-born son of Nigerian immigrants, the former All-American wrestler, the man who used to walk on rose petals on his way to the cage. And while there finally seems to be a break in the clouds now, no one can tell him for sure the storm has completely passed.
It started with what was supposed to be a fairly simple knee surgery. Lawal's manager, Mike Kogan, said the light heavyweight standout had "a pretty messed up knee all around." Two weeks before his fight with Larkin, Lawal found out he had a torn ACL. He also had severe cartilage damage thanks to a lifetime of wrestling, and his meniscus wasn't in such great shape either.
"We figured, [expletive] it," said Kogan. "Just suck it up and finish this fight and then we'll have surgery. We almost pulled out [of the Larkin fight], but he didn't want to."
The week after the fight -- right around the time of his 31st birthday -- Lawal went in for surgery. It went well, the doctors told him, even if they had to "shave his knee down to next to nothing," Kogan said. For the first day or two afterward he tried not to mention to anyone how much pain he was in. Nobody likes a complainer, he figured. By day three even Lawal had to admit that it was probably time to say something.
"It looked like I had two golf balls in my knee," he said. "And it felt hot. You could feel it."
He called Kogan, who came over to take a look at the situation. Right away he knew it was bad.
"It was really, really swollen, and when I touched it, it was hot," Kogan said. "I was like, hey, I'm no doctor, but swollen and hot usually means infection. We've got to get to the doctor. Then it all started from there."
It sounds so naive now, but he thought it would be a simple fix. He thought he'd go back to the hospital, get his knee opened up again, let them clean out the infection and then send him on his way. Annoying, yes, but ultimately no big deal. When he woke up a few hours later he had a peripherally inserted central catheter line in his arm and a nurse was telling him that he'd need to be on antibiotics for the next 30 to 60 days.
"I was like, 'What do you mean? Why? What's going on?'" Lawal said. "They said, 'Well ... we'll explain it to you later.'"
Not what you want to hear when you wake up in the hospital. Too bad the Nevada State Athletic Commission had more bad news. That urine sample he'd submitted at the Jan. 7 fight against Larkin? It was positive for Drostanolone, a steroid he still swears he'd never heard of before the NSAC told him about it.
In multiple interviews over the following weeks, Lawal and Kogan blamed the positive test result on a nutritional supplement -- S-Mass Lean Gainer by Rock Solid -- that Lawal said he had purchased at a California Max Muscle store in April 2010. Of course, the credibility of that explanation has been damaged by overuse in the court of public opinion, and Lawal knew it.
"I tried not to get depressed about that, because I know I'm not a cheater," he said. "I tried not to get too upset about the drug-testing thing, because there's nothing I can do until the hearing with the commission. I've been transparent, and I've been open with everybody. Everybody knows what happened. I put it all out there. You know, some people test positive, and they just go quiet. They don't say anything. I've been out there, vocal, telling people what happened."
Being vocal was relatively easy when it came to the positive test. His health -- all the emotional ups and downs and the trips back and forth to the hospital -- was another matter.
"He wouldn't tell me how bad it was," said Daniel Cormier, Lawal's teammate at the AKA gym in San Jose, and his best friend since their college years on the Oklahoma State wrestling team. "You know how it is. Your buddy isn't going to tell you all that, that he's thinking about just saying forget it and giving up, because then you become just another person telling him to do the right thing for himself. He tried to keep it positive in front of me and the other guys, because that's Mo. He's actually worried that it will distract guys from fights they have coming up. Like that's his big concern."
Cormier knew the situation was bad when he could no longer get a laugh out of his old friend no matter what he tried. When he went to pick up Lawal's antibiotics one day and joked that the price of the delivery would be Lawal's prized headphones -- the ones he's seldom seen without during a fight week? It didn't even get a smile. So he tried again, showing up at the hospital with a tub of cheesy balls to remind his friend of the time they traveled to the World Team Trials together, and Lawal had somehow decided that what he really needed to fuel his performance on the mat was a two-gallon container of artificially colored empty calories. Still, nothing.
"It was sad, hearing from third parties that he was that low, but then not being able to pull it out of him myself," Cormier said. "It was very sad. But Mo's a champion, and at some point I knew he'd turn it around mentally."
To hear Lawal tell it, the turn came right when he was ready to give up. After 14 surgeries, including 11 knee flushes and more changes in his antibiotic routine than he cared to track, he was ready to give up on the pills and let the staph infection take its course. If it meant losing his leg, fine. If it claimed his life, so be it. He just couldn't take any more.
That's when his doctor called to say he'd gotten the latest test results back, and it seemed like they'd finally found a course of treatment that was working. Maybe. Hopefully. Only then did he really start to notice the toll that the illness had taken on his body.
"I had this moment where I was like, man, I can see my hip bone," Lawal said. "I was ripped still. I had an eight-pack. But there's my hip bone. I looked at my leg, and it looked like those zombies from The Walking Dead. That's how it looks right now. I'm getting to where I can kind of strengthen it, doing leg lifts and stuff. But I looked in the mirror and was like, man, look at me. I didn't know it was that bad until then."
The 103-degree fever left him unable to eat or sleep. He'd sweat through his sheets every night and be dehydrated by the morning. He went from worrying about if he'd ever fight again to worrying about if he'd ever be totally healthy again. Somewhere in there, the fighter who's been walking around for the last few years with a gold medallion around his neck and giant chip on his shoulder might have even stumbled upon a little perspective.
"I feel like I looked death in the face, and I survived," Lawal said. "I'm talking death of my career, and death in life. I faced that. It was tough. It really did make me appreciate my life, just my everyday life. I used to think, not that I hated working out, but that I hated feeling tired. Now, I miss feeling tired. I miss getting punched, kicked, kneed, elbowed. I miss all that."
Maybe, if his doctors really do have it figured out this time, Lawal will find himself back in the AKA gym months from now, after a long and arduous rehab, taking the same old beatings from the same old friends. Maybe then he'll be astonished that he could ever have missed this pain and these people so much. Maybe he'll long for a little bed rest in front of the TV, some quiet time to himself.
Maybe. But it seems so far away now, with so many long days still to come.