Mo Lawal faces Ryan Bader in the fourth quarter-final of the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix here at the SAP Center Saturday night – and the venue known as ‘the Shark Tank’ will be humming to the noise of a blistering battle. The most well-matched pairing in the first stage of the tournament sees the pair neck and neck in the odds, and few can split the two protagonists. Lawal lost the phoney war on Wednesday, in a sandwich making competition, against his rival, but insisted that when it comes to deliver, Bader “will be eating a knuckle sandwich” when the bell sounds to announce fight time in the main event. Lawal as fascinating a character as his fighting style. spoke to Telegraph Sport exclusively about the heavyweight tournament so far, his fight with Bader, and how race can be an issue in MMA …
So Mo, what have you made of the first three rounds of the tournament so far?
“Big guys zero, smalls guys three.”
Talk me through them? Sonnen vs Rampage?
“I saw a big slow man get beat and get outworked by a guy who is smaller with better skills.”
Mitrione bigger than Roy?
“I think Roy’s heavier, but really what it came down to it was it needed an extra round. It was even after three rounds. I thought it was a draw.”
Fedor vs Frank Mir?
“It was a typical Fedor fight, crazy pace. You can’t fight Fedor at that crazy pace. But if you fight Fedor at a controlled pace, you can beat him. But fighting him in a fire fight? Man, Fedor lives for the fire fight.”
Would you beat Fedor then?
“Yeah. I would just beat him with boxing, good old boxing.”
“It could be me and Fedor, or it could be me and Chael depending on what game plan Chael has. To beat Fedor you have a game plan. I helped Werdum when he fought Fedor years ago, I picked Werdum [to win]. Werdum trained for Fedor, I said “Werdum, Fedor is going to expect jiu-jitsu, when you pull guardl go for the arm triangle.” We trained for that, that scenario over and over again.”
So, on to the main event on Saturday. You face Ryan Bader, it’s hard for so many analysts to pick a winner?
“I’m going to tell you what’s going to happen. Bader’s going to be bigger than me and is going to try to use the extra weight. Get me against the cage, wrestle me. He doesn’t want to stand with me or box with me. With his weak jab? With his right hook? Let me guess, he’s going to switch to southpaw and throw a body kick with a straight left? Is that it? He’s a two-beat fighter. Pop pop, pop pop. Watch his fights! He’s a two-part fighter, no rhythm. Tick-tock, tick-tock, he never changes the rhythm.”
So you will beat him 30-27?
“Yeah, if he wants to get crazy and try and wrestle me, he’s going to get stopped.”
You have said Bader is too comfortable, a happy family man, so you reckon he’s not hungry?
“I don’t blame him, man. Bader’s a hell of an athlete, he’s been wrestling his whole life. And now all the hard work has paid off. He’s got a great woman, a great family, they have money, riding private jets, living the life. Nice family, beautiful kids. Does that sound like he wants to fight? What does Marvin Hagler say? Marvin Hagler says “It’s hard to wake up at 5am to go for a run when you’re sleeping on silk sheets.” That’s what it is man, he ain’t got that hunger anymore. Guess what, I got a secret weapon on my side too, in my corner. He’s half gypsy, I can’t release the name. He’s a mastermind of fighting (it is actually British coach Darren Ward).”
How do you beat the Mitrione in the semi-final ?
“Let me ask you this. I’m not going to break down nothing. The Roy Nelson fight, was anyone impressed? Matt is a great athlete but he came in over confident. Over confident, that’s he’s biggest thing. He thinks he’s won already. Roy’s a dangerous fighter, but let’s be real that fight should have gone an extra round. Mitrione got away with it. Yeah, the near-side judge gave it 10-8. The two far-side judges gave it 10-9.”
Are you nailed down for the final?
“The difference between me and Matt Mitrione is he ain’t that dog. I’m that dog. I come to fight, it doesn’t matter who it is. I don’t care. Size doesn’t matter to me. He thinks “Oh I’m big, Mo’s small”, size don’t matter. He’ll fight me on his back foot with me walking him down. I would walk Matt Mitrione down with no respect. I’ve sparred and boxed better guys than him. Luis Ortiz would take his lunch money. I spar with him on the regular. I’ve fought big Trevor Browne, an undefeated heavyweight. Bryant Jennings, I helped him prepare for his last fight, I was in his camp. I sparred with him well over 25 minutes, twice a week. I don’t care who it is. I’ve sparred them all. I’m a fighter, it’s my job, I love my job, I love to train – this is a lifestyle for me.”
Pick a final opponent … who do you want?
“You know what, human nature is to pick the easiest way. Everyone says the toughest person, but they don’t actually want that. Whoever it is wins, wins. Chael’s head’s in the right place with his game plan. He knows what he has to do to win. Fedor fights off of instinct. To beat instinct, you’ve got to make an instinctual fighter think. Once you make them think, they’ll lose.”
If you’re to face Fedor, he’d be an easier opponent?
“It depends because Fedor’s dangerous. He can trick you. He tricks people into getting into fire fights. When Fedor hurt Mir, he got up and clinched him because he wanted to slow it down. Fedor immediately went into an uchi mata. From there, hell ensued. Remember the cartoon Heathcliff when he used to fight them alley cats? It was like a ball of smoke, hands and fists and then suddenly Fedor on top. That’s how Fedor fights you. It’s a Heathcliff alley cat fight.”
You have strong views on how fighters are being projected in MMA. You have always spoken out – often controversially. Why is that that ?
“I keep it real. They say in my interviews I’m ‘so brash’. But I’m not brash. They ask me a question and I could answer it PC, or answer it real. If I answer it real I might look bad but at least I’m being honest. The other people are afraid to do it because they don’t want to be seen to be brash or arrogant. To me it’s just being real. If Jon Jones had been real from the get-go he wouldn’t have this backlash he has now. He was too calculated. But he didn’t calculate it well enough because eventually it all came tumbling down. That’s what hurt him. He tried to be something he isn’t. Some people get who we are, some don’t. I’ve found that now people are understanding me, nine or ten years into my career. At first it was ‘I don’t like him, he’s cocky, he’s arrogant’. But I’m like, you never talked to me. When I meet people on an individual basis, they’re like man you’re cool, I thought you’d be a racist asshole. How’s that? You’ve never talked to me. I’m not racist at all.
Is projection a dangerous thing ?
“Look. I had this tattoo on my shoulder while I was wrestling. I was ‘King Mo’ when I was wrestling. My boys said I was the king of the crowd so I should go by the name ‘King Mo’. I said yeah, that’s what’s up. A king ain’t just about royalty, it’s how you treat yourself. And others. I went to Japan and they were like ‘Mo: do you break dance? Do you rap? I said, no. Drug deal? I said no, I’m King Mo. They were trying to get me to do something stereotypical. I’m not doing that. They wanted me to play a character. It’s like 80s pro wrestling. They want guys who are either loved or hated. I said King Mo sounds better. A guy who is fun-loving, outgoing, and likes to fight.”
What was growing up like for you ?
“I grew up in Richmond, Kentucky. My mum was a foreigner. She came from Nigeria. She’s a muslim. We lived in the hood. We went from there to a trailer park. We lived all over. We were broke. I didn’t start doing sports until high school. You know, it was tough. I just know shit and I learned a lot about playing dumb (as a form of protection). People think I’m an idiot but I let them believe that. I ended up going to College at Oklahoma State.”
So you say that African-American fighters have to struggle more ?
“Everyone’s hard work will get you there but my momma told me that as I’m black I will need to work harder than the average person to get where I want to get to. Hard work can get you somewhere but we can do hard work and still be stuck. We’ve got to work harder and smarter than them. We’ve got to be extraordinary just to be looked at as ordinary. There’s no such thing as racism, only the human race. That’s what they’ll say. They’ll try and discredit it. Khabib (Nurmagomedov). Look at him. You telling me you got to win 11 straight fights before you get a title shot? Yoel Romero is another one.”
Would you encourage others to ‘speak out’ ? Will it make fighters’ following stronger and sport more transparent ? Is fight sports about drawing in certain markets ?
“Hector Camacho had a great following and it was mostly hispanic. That’s why you see in combat sports – them going after certain markets – European or hispanic. Manny Pacquiao has the Asian market. When he fights in Vegas, you’ll see Koreans, Thais, they all come out to support him. Roy Jones was never a PPV star. Shane Mosley was never one, Vernon Forrest was never one. Only Floyd Mayweather. Floyd and heavyweights. Outside that… Bernard Hopkins couldn’t, James Toney couldn’t. They tried but couldn’t do it. Floyd became a PPV star because he was hated so much.”
“Look – Muhammad Ali spoke out but he was looked at and hated. The most he was loved was when he started losing his voice. The moment he lost his voice he started slowly winning people over – right towards the end of his career. Now everybody loves him. Before he died everybody was like ‘Ali! Ali!’.
But at the same time the people who were chanting Ali now weren’t chanting Ali back then. It’s crazy how a lot of athletes who are icons now are even more iconic once they lose their ability to speak or do what they once did.
Is there a difference with the way race is viewed/treated in boxing and MMA, in your view ?
“Boxing is a poverty sport. I can rent out a storage unit and get a carpet and four cinder blocks and a pole and tie ribbon around all four of them and say that’s my ring. I can get a heavy bag and I can get a rope and do the slip rope stuff. I can purchase a double end bag. Hey, that’s a boxing gym. We open two hours of the day in a storage centre. You guys need gloves? I’ll find some cheap gloves. If anyone leaves their gloves behind next time I’ll give you those gloves. Headgear? Not a problem. Mouth piece? Not a problem. Shoes? Just wear tennis shoes. MMA you need shin guards, gloves, MMA gloves, gi if you grapple, head gear, mouth piece and somebody to teach you jiu jitsu which ain’t cheap and somebody to teach you kickboxing which ain’t cheap and somebody to teach you wrestling which ain’t cheap. But in boxing it’s one art. One person can teach you the footwork, jabs, slip, all that. One person can teach you that. MMA is different.”
What did wrestling prepare you for ?
“Wrestling was all about hard work and dedication and being hard nosed and aggressive. That’s the main thing you learn. Embracing the grind. That was a white boy thing. Growing up we look at Rocky. Apollo Creed was the finesse guy, quick and athletic. Rocky was the hard worker. He ran eight miles. He drank the egg yolk. He was in the meat locker room punching the meat. He put in hours whereas Apollo Creed was just natural. They said chocolate melts. You put pressure on them, black people fade and melt.”
Have you experienced racism ?
“I’ve been places in America where I approach people and they hold their purse or say, hey, what do you want? Sometimes if I go certain places I check that my pants aren’t sagging and that I’m walking slow and calm and talking very properly so I don’t seem gangster in their eyes. I say, hi my name is Mo, nice to meet you. There have been times I’ve walked into a store and checked things out and they’ll go hey come here, and they accuse me of stealing something and contact security. They’ll have me lift my shirt up and pat me down. That’s happened a few times.”
What would you like to see change ? Do you think MMA has the power to change society ?
“They should try have fighters go into certain areas and teach MMA, go to the inner city and teach MMA. If we do that the people will be exposed to it. They can meet a black dude from the north or a white dude from Portland, Oregon. They can be like, hey, these guys aren’t much different. They grew up in a single parent home and have been through the grind before. We all have our own type of grind. I’ve met some white boys from Kentucky and Tennessee and they’re look down upon as hillbilies by middle class people. The best thing for them to do is have rec centres and have seminars in 25 rural towns or cities. Do some type of exchange. That’s the best way to create exposure. When you do that we have a new generation of MMA fighters who have been exposed to other types of people and realised we’re all the same. We can all do arm bars and triangles. If we get touched on the chin we all go to sleep. If we get put in a rear naked choke we can all pass out or tap out. We’re going to train together and train smart and we’re going to learn and grow this sport. Because right now MMA is a middle class rich man’s sport. In order to learn and become a fighter if you’re poor you have to have some type of trade or come Brazil or Russia. You have to be good at some type of grappling or striking form to be able to train at an MMA gym for free. They call it trade. But if we can start grass roots in certain poor areas we can build it up so that everybody has a chance. In won’t ever be equal because not everybody has the money, but as far as knowledge goes we can spread it to people who don’t have it.”
What do you urge fighters to do ?
“All fighters should speak out on what they see and experience. At the same time, speak out and be real about it. Don’t sugar coat or lie about anything. There are a lot of people who think they see one thing but it’s not what they see. They have to be educated on what they speak on. It’s combat sports, period, not just MMA. Colour and racism has been involved in combat sports since the beginning of time pretty much. Nationality, race, double standards. Stereotyping. It’s all been part of combat sports. If you’re black, it’s only negative. We’re just good athletes, we’re not smart. We’re brash, flamboyant. It’s never positive. You never hear someone say Tyron Woodley’s a smart fighter. It’s explosive, fast, savage. It’s never anything to do with skills. You might hear that about Floyd but it’s followed by he’s boring, though. Vastly Lomachenko is doing the same thing Floyd’s doing but he’s the best thing since sliced bread. Master boxer, he’s like Willie Pep. Floyd is so boring. It’s double standards.”
Do you think it is ignored ?
“Ears need to be willing to listen. The minute you bring up race they say you’re race baiting or playing the race card. The race card says you are not successful because someone of a different gender or race has held you back and not allowed you to be successful. I don’t think the world is racist. I think racism exists. Some people have never experienced racism. They have never seeing people being mistreated because of race. It’s not that those people don’t believe it, they are just ignorant to the fact because he’s never seen it. To force people to have an uncomfortable conversation about it and force them to bring it up. It is uncomfortable and weird to talk about, but it can’t be swept under the rug. Also, individuals who have not experienced it can’t be so closed minded to think it doesn’t exist.”
Would you like to see things change in the community from the MMA world ?
“They don’t do a job promoting MMA in the black community. They just want PPV buys. It’s up to us to go back and start up those gyms. It’s our job. I went to memphis and talked to coaches at Memphis BJJ. It’s on the outskirts but it’s in Memphis where people can get there. I said I’ll teach some seminars there. Whoever shows up, I’ll spar and everything. I was there for a week. I’m going to Detroit, Holland Park which is probably the worst part. You’ve got to give back.”
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