Muhammed Lawal is known for his flashy entrances. But after Friday night he’s ready to see the spotlight shine elsewhere.
Originally, it wasn’t Lawal’s plan to tack one more bout onto his resume, which includes wins over Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Cheick Kongo, and Gegard Mousasi. He’d actually announced his retirement earlier this year, shortly after a TKO loss to Jiri Prochazka at RIZIN 15. But Lawal couldn’t let his MMA story end on a bitter note, especially since he hadn’t won a fight since defeating Jackson in a rematch in March 2017.
Lawal called up Bellator boss Scott Coker, the man who introduced “King Mo” to an American audience back when the two were part of the Strikeforce organization, and the Bellator bos found him a fight.
“I wanted to end on a win,” Lawal told MMA Fighting. “My body’s feeling good, (and) I took a little break. Literally, I just started full training like three to four weeks ago. But before that, I ain’t done nothing.
“I just started trying to pick my diet up some, and I cut back the amount of sodium. Even though I don’t use much salt, I like to drink soda, so that was messing my metabolism up, speeding it up too fast. I just started eating cleaner, felt good, felt better.”
Lawal isn’t overlooking Kapel in the slightest. Asked for a quick breakdown on his opponent, Lawal rattles off what reads like an official scouting report: “He’s a kickboxer. Has a ground game, he’s from Minnesota. He’s a Monte Cox fighter. Trains out of Denver with Neil Magny and them. Tough, in shape, pretty solid jiu-jitsu, fights off his back, armbars and triangles, if he takes your back he can rear-naked choke you. Solid jab, good leg kicks, solid body kick.”
Lawal adds: “I’ve watched a few of his fights. I know enough about him.”
Considering some of the luminaries “King Mo” has faced, it’s understandable if a Bellator newcomer like Kapel might be viewed as a step down from Lawal’s previous competition. But part of the reason Lawal is comfortable calling this fight his swan song is that he’s ready to make room for the next generation of fighters.
People may not have heard of Kapel, but Lawal remembers a time when people hadn’t heard of “King Mo” neither.
“Everybody needs their time to shine,” Lawal said. “He doesn’t have a name, but did I have a name before I fought Travis Wiuff? Did I have a name before I fought anybody? Gegard Mousasi, let’s be real, Gegard Mousasi had to fight me.
“Who did I really beat before I fought Gegard, before I fought Mike Whitehead and Mark Kerr and Travis Wiuff? I had some wins, but I wasn’t really proven, I only had, like, five or six fights.”
A standout collegiate wrestler, Lawal was thrown right into the fire for his pro debut, matched up with Wiuff at a Sengoku show in Tokyo. The date was Sept. 28, 2008, and while Lawal was fighting for the first time, Wiuff already had 65 pro bouts under his belt.
The experience gap proved to be a non-factor when Lawal finished Wiuff with strikes in the first round. He won his first seven fights, including a unanimous decision over Mousasi that earned Lawal the Strikeforce light heavyweight title. His next fight saw him lose the title to Rafael Cavalcante. Nevertheless, he continued to find himself in high-profile fights, and he competed in tournaments for Bellator and RIZIN, winning the RIZIN Heavyweight World Grand Prix in 2015.
There are a few dream opponents that got away. Lawal lists Fedor Emelianenko and fellow wrestling standouts Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman, and Kevin Jackson, who are part a lineage with which he identifies. He believes he would have fit right in with them not just in the cage, but in the training room.
Lawal doesn’t completely shut the door on fighting again. But returning as a regular competitor appears to be out of the question. If he were to accept another booking, he said, it would have to be a fresh, one-off opportunity. He plans to prioritize coaching other fighters for the foreseeable future, and he isn’t even planning to take time off after his last fight.
“Vacation? I take a vacation back at American Top Team,” Lawal said. “That’s my vacation.”
There is no special entrance planned for Friday night, and Lawal hardly sounds sentimental when discussing a retirement bout. Asked if he plans to savor the last 15 minutes of his fighting career, Lawal almost laughs at the question.
“All the guys who tell you, ‘I savor the battle,’ they’re f*cking lying,” Lawal said. “Those motherf*ckers are lying to you. What’s to savor? You’re out there fighting someone that wants to hurt you. Yeah, it’s fun, but what’s there to savor? Who have you ever seen leave the cage like, ‘Oh man, I’m going to go back in there right now and fight. Let me go another round?’ Nobody’s saying that and if they are, they’re lying.
“I like fighting, because I get paid for it. I want to get paid, and I want to be in and out. If I wanted to get cut or go into a battle, hell, if Bellator gave me somebody that had, like, two T-rex arms and two broken legs and a broken neck, I would have fought that dude and whipped his ass. I’m being real, you know what I’m saying? A fight’s a fight.”