"King" Mo Lawal wasn't having the best year in 2012. Suspended for steroid use after a knockout win over prospect Lorenz Larkin, he lashed out at what he perceived to be unfair treatment at the hands of the Nevada Athletic Commission.
After an epic Twitter brouhaha that saw Lawal refer to Commissioner Pat Lundvall as a "racist b*tch," the UFC and Strikeforce both saw damaged goods. Rather than wait out Mo's suspension, they cut ties.
Spike TV, however, saw something else: an opportunity.
Lawal, they thought, could fit easily into two worlds. Not only could he compete in Bellator Fighting Championship tournaments but he could also bring his unique personality to Dixie Carter's TNA Wrestling, which would be an unprecedented double-duty that hadn't really been attempted since UFC star Dan Severn toured the country as NWA Champion in the mid-1990's.
"That's why we got him. Because we saw those kinds of opportunities," Spike TV Executive VP for Sports Jon Slusser told Bleacher Report. "We have a world class athlete like King Mo who can live in both these worlds and is as dynamic as he is.They're fun sports, they're big characters and whenever there has been some crossover in the past, it's been hugely successful and created some amazing stories and some amazing stars."
To Lawal, a life-long wrestling fan who can go into great detail about the classic wrestling angles of the 1980's and 1990's, it seemed like a dream come true. He appeared tailor made for the pseudo sport. He'd already cultivated his "King Mo" persona, including elaborate ring entrances and controversial interviews, and he is a character that seems well-suited to the world of pro-wrestling where those kinds of gimmicks are common place.
"King Mo is the fighter," Lawal said, explaining the difference between his character and himself. "Mo is the person at home, chilling, watching TV and eating junk food. Ice cream."
After the dark days, when his livelihood was put at risk, his integrity was questioned, and his leg was in shambles after surgery, things were finally looking up.
Then he started his training at Ohio Valley Wrestling.
After two weeks, Lawal was almost ready to call it quits. The pain was a constant presence, and the slightest error when taking a fall meant a long night spent hurting. His ribs and side were rubbed raw from bouncing off the ring ropes and his neck hurt. His feet also hurt. Everything hurt.
"I underestimated how hard the pro wrestling would be," Lawal told Bleacher Report. "There's a lot of technique involved. Learning MMA is more fun. You're punching, you're kicking, you're inflicting damage on someone else. Not yourself. In pro wrestling, you're pretty much learning how to inflict damage on yourself. "
He soldiered through the rough patches and things started to click. In October, he made his TNA debut, rocking his trademark crown and shiny black MMA gloves. His in-ring debut, however, has yet to come, something that has Bellator President Bjorn Rebney a little nervous.
"That is not an easy way to make a living," Rebney told Bleacher Report. "The thing that those guys are doing are things that lead to injury. They're not playing checkers out there. It is hardcore, impact based, back and forth. So you're always worried about him. But I think Mo is prepared as anyone can possibly be, physically and mentally, to do both. But I'm sure I'll still clinch my teeth as I watch Mo flying off the top of the ring and doing double flips and landing on his head."
Rebney can breathe a sigh of relief, though. Not only will Lawal hold off on his wrestling debut until after the Bellator light heavyweight tournament concludes, but he is also cognizant of the risks involved every time he steps into the squared circle.
"I already know, I'm not going to do nothing high flying," Lawal said. "I'm just going to be an MMA fighter who does pro wrestling. I'm not going to do nothing off the top rope. None of those kendo stick matches. Anything that's going to compromise me fighting? I'm not doing."
While he's happy to talk wrestling, Lawal's focus right now is elsewhere. After an absence of more than a year, Lawal will become the first high profile MMA fighter to enter one of Bellator's tournaments on Thursday, facing Przemyslaw Mysiala, an unheralded Polish fighter who is competing for the first time on the world stage.
If you want to fight in the Bellator promotion, there really isn't much choice—its tournament success or bust. That's the path to the championship belt and the money fights. Whether you are a freshly signed prospect or a bona fide star, in Bellator you have to earn your opportunities.
Mo wouldn't want it any other way.
"All true sports have a tournament format. Playoffs," Lawal said. "The Olympics has a tournament format. I think it's the best way to do it."
Not much is known about Mysiala, a submission specialist fighting out of London. But if anyone would know his game, it would be Lawal. Beneath the flashy persona lurks a fighting savant, one of the sport's true experts.
"He's very knowledgeable," Lawal's longtime friend and teammate Daniel Cormier said. "Always passing along information, in terms of fighting, boxing, and wrestling. Everything...(He) breaks down things to a level that you can't even really comprehend. There are things that I don't see that he sees. And then he passes them on and it's like 'Oh, I see.' It makes so much sense. An unbelievable mind when it comes to this sport."
Against Mysiala, he sees opportunities standing. Not coincidentally, Lawal has spent much of his training camp working with boxing trainer Jeff Mayweather. But, unlike other wrestlers who have become enamored with their own growing standup skills, Mo intends to remember where he came from.
"It's like this. In all of my fights, when I needed to take somebody down, that's what I did," Lawal said. "That's not going to change. If the takedown is there, I'm going to get it. If the jab is there, the right hand is open, I'm going to go for it. I'm going to take it.
"I'm not going to get caught up in standing up with a guy just to see if I can stand up with him. I'm going to go and find the easiest way to victory. The guy I'm fighting has submissions and subpar standup. But if I need to, I will take him down and knock him out there."
"King" Mo Lawal makes his Bellator debut on Thursday at 10 PM ET, live on Spike TV.