The mixed martial arts purist in all of us is probably supposed to be a little horrified that Muhammed Lawal reportedly plans to straddle the fence between our sport and professional wrestling.
Given the special kind of ridicule many fight fans reserve for pro wrestling, reaction to Lawal’s new hybrid, multifight deal with Bellator Fighting Championships and TNA Impact Wrestling will no doubt be, eh, mixed. No pun intended.
The obligatory insults about “fake fighting” and the handwringing about how this will look to the mainstream have surely already begun on message boards and in comment sections. The fact that Lawal will enter the world of professional wrestling while his legitimate fighting career still lingers under the cloud of a positive steroid test likely won’t (and shouldn’t) be forgotten, either.
But the truth is, this move may well be a homerun for Lawal, who described it as “a dream come true.”
Considering his impressive amateur credentials, his flair for the flamboyant and his renowned mind for the fight game, you can’t really blame King Mo for looking in the mirror and seeing the complete package. He’s always presented himself as a singular talent; now, he has his chance to prove it in the kind of sink-or-swim environment that will obviously stoke his competitive fires.
If he, Bellator and Impact can pull this off, Lawal’s unconventional new deal will give the former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion unparalleled exposure and, at least in theory, the kind of unique bargaining power he’s always believed he would one day enjoy.
It’s a gamble, yes, but it seems like a calculated one.
For a guy who takes pride in bringing a healthy dose of entertainment value to MMA, it’s sort of a perfect fit. For a fighter who describes himself as a “moneyweight” and an unabashed member of “Team Get Dat Paper,” the financial possibilities are obvious.
If there’s a drawback here, it’s probably not with Lawal, but with his partners.
From an MMA standpoint, it’s not clear what professional challenges Bellator will be able to offer him. The company’s current 205-pound champion is Christian M'Pumbu (yes, I had to look that up), a relatively unknown 34-year-old who isn’t within spitting distance of the light heavyweight top 10 and whose last fight was a nontitle loss to Travis Wiuff. Coincidentally, Wiuff is the guy Lawal defeated in his MMA debut in September 2008, back when the journeyman fighter had just 66 professional contests on his resume.
A quick glance at the 14 other 205-pounders listed on Bellator's website makes it clear this will be a high risk-low reward situation for Lawal. Unless the fight company can go out and sign a number of other top-tier light heavyweight free agents -- from a crop that may not even exist -- every fight in Bellator will be one Lawal should win impressively, and that will make his every appearance there a referendum on his own standing in the sport.
Since he began his MMA career with three consecutive TKO victories in 2008-09, we’ve been waiting for King Mo to become the break out star we believed he could be. So far, though, his fighting life has been punctuated by both highs (i.e. winning the Strikeforce title from Gegard Mousasi in August 2010) and lows (losing it to Rafael Cavalcante in his next fight). From the outside looking in, it doesn’t appear that Bellator will be able to offer up the kind of consistently top-shelf competition necessary for Lawal to boost himself to that next level.
Were I a 31-year-old athlete still very much in the process of proving I was as good as I said I was, that would concern me. Unless, of course, I was just there for the paper.
From a professional wrestling standpoint, the company formerly known as Total Nonstop Action has been trying hard (almost embarrassingly so) to revamp its product in recent months. It has rebranded itself as Impact Wrestling -- or TNA Impact Wrestling, or something, no one is exactly sure -- changed its overall look, made some key additions to the creative team, launched a sister promotion in India and has vacillated awkwardly between trying to establish new talent and trotting out dusty old standbys like Hulk Hogan and Sting.
Somewhere in there, former New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs and one of the dudes from “Jersey Shore” both made guest appearances.
Impact is by no means the complete disaster some wrestling fans make it out to be, but it’s also not the kind of organization I would feel tremendously confident in were I a talented, moderately well-known and self-admittedly green rookie like Lawal.
Unless, of course … right, right, the paper.
Certain fans will gripe, but the truth is we’ve never seen a deal quite like this one, so we have no idea how it will work out. For a guy who seems to enjoy pushing the envelope as much as Lawal does, that’s an exciting (and potentially lucrative) proposition. Hopefully, it all works out for the best.
As both Bellator and TNA are currently constituted though, it would be a disappointment (at least to fans) to see Lawal spend the remainder of his athletic career there.
Perhaps in a perfect world, he’ll help elevate both Bellator and Impact Wrestling to new heights of legitimacy and profitability, while in the process making himself a bigger and bigger star.
Either that or he will use this deal as a launching pad into the UFC or WWE, depending on which path -- and which paper -- he wants to pursue.