It is rare that Zuffa makes a personnel error. UFC president Dana White -- a part-owner of Zufffa -- is fond of noting that he has ultimately signed every fighter he’s ever wanted, with the lone exception of Fedor Emelianenko.
But now there is a second exception, “King Mo” Muhammed Lawal.
The former Strikeforce light-heavyweight champion became the first high-profile free agent to sign with Bellator since Roger Huerta did so in 2010, but the signing came under very different circumstances.
Huerta joined the upstart promotion after months of discord with the UFC. By that point, the two had basically agreed to part ways. Lawal though, was a sudden free agent.
Competing under the Zuffa banner as recently as January, he won a fight against Lorenz Larkin by TKO, but that’s when his troubles began. Lawal tested positive for the anabolic steroid Drostanolone and despite producing a supplement that he said was responsible for the result, he was ultimately suspended for nine months by the Nevada state athletic commission. Within hours of the hearing, Lawal insulted one of the commissioners and was cut by Zuffa. He later apologized.
In the past, athletes suddenly fired by Zuffa have been re-hired in short order. Among the names who’ve experienced that include Jon Fitch, who at the time was the No. 2 welterweight in the world, Alistair Overeem, who was then the Strikeforce heavyweight champion, and Miguel Torres, then a top-five bantamweight.
By most accounts, Lawal was expected to be one of those fighters who was brought back into the fold. In fact, just a few weeks ago, White praised him for his handling of the situation in the aftermath of the original chaos. But in his first public comments since signing the deal, Lawal on Thursday said he wasn’t about to sit around and see what developed after receiving a firm offer from elsewhere.
“Let’s put it like this: the door’s closed,” he said. “I’m not going to wait for nobody.”
Sources with knowledge of the situation said that despite cutting Lawal, Zuffa still retained matching rights to any deal. Those rights were effectively rendered worthless given the scope of Lawal’s contract, which not only includes fighting under the Bellator banner, but also wrestling professionally for TNA Impact wrestling. Both companies are owned by media giant Viacom.
Under the terms of the deal, Lawal will start with Impact Wrestling this summer, and then fight for Bellator when the promotion shifts from MTV2 to Spike in January 2013.
“I don’t think that there’s another MMA fighter there out there who will get this kind of exposure,” said Spike TV president Kevin Kay. “I’m sure of it, actually.”
In reaction to the deal, though, there has been immediate caution.
For one, many wonder how Lawal can learn the craft of professional wrestling while simultaneously training to fight for real. In addition, given that he’s 31 years old and coming off a major knee surgery, there have to be concerns about his body holding up.
Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney and TNA Entertainment president Dixie Carter said that they have had ongoing discussions for about a year regarding an athlete capable of pulling off the feat.
Carter said that in effect, she would limit what Lawal does to keep him fresh, saying she was “worried that he’s going to want too much.” But, she said, she didn’t any overwhelming concerns regarding his health.
“I don’t know if there’s another athlete out there, and if there are, there’s not but a handful, that I think could potentially even pull this off,” she said. “He’s a rare case.”
Rebney seemed equally confident he could do it, summoning the name of a popular two-sport star of the 1980s in comparison.
“First there was Bo [Jackson], now there’s Mo,” he said.
The significance of the signing goes past the addition of Lawal. Just over a week ago, the UFC signed away from Bellator its middleweight champion Hector Lombard. With former lightweight champ Eddie Alvarez nearing free agency, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that he would move over to the UFC as well. But with the Lawal deal, Viacom has shown a willingness to get creative in an attempt to corral talent. Long term, that’s a declaration that the competition between the UFC and Bellator is about to heat up.
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