Muhammed Lawal has accomplished much as a combat sports athlete. He was a three-time NCAA All-American wrestler at the University of Central Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, nearly made the 2008 United States Olympic team, captured the Strikeforce light heavyweight crown upon transitioning to mixed martial arts and won the 2015 Rizin Fighting Federation heavyweight grand prix.
Bellator MMA gold, however, has thus far eluded him.
Lawal arrived in Bellator some four years ago and has seemingly been on the cusp of a championship ever since. The Murfreesboro, Tennessee, native has not yet made it over the hump, undercut by everything from a shocking upset to questionable judging decisions. Lawal has grown to expect the unexpected. The 35-year-old was on a seven-fight winning streak in advance of his Bellator 154 battle with Phil Davis on May 14. He lost a unanimous decision in a fight many observers felt he won -- five of the six media members sampled by MMADecisions.com scored it for Lawal -- and looked on as Davis went on to defeat Liam McGeary for Bellator’s light heavyweight championship. “King Mo” believes the opportunity should have been his.
“Man, I won that fight [against Davis],” Lawal told Sherdog.com. “Come on, man. Everybody knows I won that fight. Even he knows I won that fight. Those judges? What the [expletive] do they see? Boxers have told me that I won that fight; people who were filming the fight thought I won it; and his own corner told me afterward that they thought they lost it.”
The result still eats at Lawal, as does his May 2014 decision defeat to Quinton Jackson. Not surprisingly, he voiced his concern over a perceived lack of competence across the judging ranks.
“I think the judges got worse,” said Lawal, a three-time United States champion in freestyle wrestling. “When I fought Quinton, I thought I won. When I fought Cheick Kongo, it was a split decision -- a split decision. What were they watching? These judges are too old, and they’re getting worse. Something has to be done.”
The always-outspoken American Top Team rep outlined the changes he felt were necessary.
“We need younger judges,” Lawal said. “They should be forced to attend seminars to know and see what works and what’s effective, and they should score why a certain fighter won that round as soon as they turn in their scorecards. They need to explain exactly why they scored a round for a certain fighter, and they need to do it as they turn in their scores after each round. We gotta hold them accountable.”
His disdain for judges notwithstanding, Lawal will return to a familiar role as headliner when he meets 2008 Olympic gold medalist Satoshi Ishii in the Bellator 169 main event on Friday at the 3Arena in Dublin. Ishii has lost two fights in a row and four of his past six, so the Japanese judoka figures to enter the cage in Ireland with a certain amount of desperation in tow.
“He’s tough, solid,” Lawal said. “He has good judo. He throws in some punches and kicks here and there, too, and he’s a southpaw, [so he] circles the wrong way. His throws are good, and he likes to get on top. His top game is solid, and he’s got some very strong grips. He’s good in the grappling areas, like the Greco-Roman clinch and from being on top with the kimura. He always comes to win, and he’s only lost to top guys, some of the best there is. He stood up with [Mirko] ‘Cro Cop’ [Filipovic], with Fedor [Emelianenko], with Pedro Rizzo, so he’s not scared to stand in there and trade.”
As he approaches his 36th birthday, Lawal has begun making plans for life after MMA.
“I’ll probably [fight] for another year or two; that’s about it,” he said. “I will stick around the [fights] for a long time, because I’ve been doing this forever. I don’t know if I’ll stick around in MMA, though, but I wouldn’t mind being a second or a judge in boxing, maybe a referee. We need new blood in there to help make things right, and it helps that I know what I’m doing and what to look for, unlike these other guys. I don’t think they know what they’re looking for.
“I think I’ll go with boxing after I’m done fighting,” Lawal added. “MMA? I don’t know, but I don’t think I want to be around MMA anymore. I mean, it’s cool, but it’s an Internet sport. It’s so different, and it’s run by the Internet. It’s like the media or the other people who run the media are biased toward certain organizations. In boxing, it’s about the belts and the fighters, but in MMA, it’s about the organization and not the fighters. I just don’t like the way it is. I like the old-school ways about boxing.”